Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What's Missing?

Reading: Numbers 15  
I suppose there are not many devotionals written on Numbers 15—even fewer on the verses I have in mind. However, as my bible reading plan had me reading Numbers 14-17, I couldn't help but notice something missing in chapter 15. “Missing,” I say only in the sense that it seems obvious to me that it ought to have been there.
In this chapter, there are instructions about what to do if the whole community or an individual is led astray1 into sin, and how an offering can be made for atonement (Numbers 15:22-29). There are instructions for those who blaspheme the Lord in open pride (Numbers 15:30-31) and how they are to be removed from the community. Then there is this odd little story about a man found gathering wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36). He is brought before the community and held in custody until they decided what to do with him.
35Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” 36So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:35-36)
Now I am not sure as to whether gathering wood on the Sabbath constitutes a sin in which one is led astray and deceived, or whether it constitutes blasphemy against the Lord in a self-exalting manner, but I lean toward the former. Regardless, though, it still seems that something is missing.
It may well be that the reason this story is here is only to teach us about the holiness of God that we might fear Him and keep His commandments. And it may be that the observation that I am about to make is unintended by the Author of the Bible. However, I offer this observation and will let you decide. My observation is that something is blatantly missing in this story; that Numbers 15:36 ought to have been able to report something else. Something else that didn't happen but should have.
This chapter is sandwiched between two chapters in which the Lord also spoke and told Moses that someone was to die. In those chapters, the Lord told Moses the whole community was to die—this same community that is doing that stoning here in Numbers 15:36. (See Numbers 14:11-12; 16:21.)
In each of the cases in Numbers 14 and 16, although the Lord told Moses the community was to die, they didn't. Why? Because Moses interceded on their behalf (Numbers 14:13-20; 16:22-23). Now in the latter case, some still died, but only those who had acted in self-exalting pride while the community was spared. And yet the community still complained against the Lord and the Lord once again declared He would destroy them instantly, and once again Moses and Aaron interceded and made atonement for the people (Numbers 16:41-50). So the account in chapter 15 is followed by two accounts in a row of the community being condemned to die and spared through intercession. (See also Numbers 21:7.)
What do I think is missing in Numbers 15? Let's compare. In Numbers 15 we have sin just as we find in Numbers 14 and 16. In Numbers 15 we have the Lord announcing the judgment of death just as in Numbers 14 and 16. But, in Numbers 15 we don't read, “But the community fell on its face before God and cried out for the Lord to spare the man.” This is the same community who was sentenced to die and was spared through the intercession of Moses in chapter 14. They don't seem to understand what Moses understood when he interceded on their behalf.
Now may the Lord's strength be displayed, just as you have declared: 18'The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.' 19In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now. (Numbers 14:17-19)
They don't understand the nature of God's love. The same people who here receive mercy fail to call on God for the same mercy on behalf of others. I wonder how many of the Israelites, as they were picking up stones and stoning the man thought to themselves, “Wow, I hope I never get caught doing what I've been doing.” Where was the intercessor to say, “Let the one without sin be the first to cast the stone.”
Moses was a great intercessor. We have an even greater intercessor—Jesus Christ. Moses turned away God's wrath. Jesus absorbed God's wrath on our behalf. Yet how many of us are found in the prayer meetings, or before the throne of God in private interceding on behalf of those who are condemned to die all around us? I don't say that to condemn, but rather to spur us on to cry out to God on behalf of the lost. The Lord is abounding in love and forgiveness. Would that we would call on Him and experience His pardon in the lives of the lost around us.
As I read the account of the man brought before the community in Numbers 15:32-36, I can't help but think of some who have inquired, “Does this church practice church discipline?” (Meaning, do we practice Matthew 18 and, if need be, remove people from the church when they are unrepentant.) Although my answer is, “Yes,” I sometimes wonder if they are asking because they want to make sure we are laboring to restore people, or if they are just a little too anxious to see people called to account for their sin. Maybe it is in their tone, or their follow up questions that make me wonder.
If we were present in the wilderness in Numbers 15, would we have picked up stones, or fell on our face before God in intercession? Is that the point of Numbers 15? I can't say that it is, but I can't say that it isn't. I can only offer the observation. I am not certain something is missing in Numbers 15, but maybe the bigger question for us is whether there is something missing in our own lives. Are we interceding for the dying world around us? Are we interceding for the struggling brother or sister in our church? Am I? Are you? (See Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:2.)
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

1“Unintentionally” is the translation of a word that means to be led astray and has in its etymology the idea of having been deceived. This is contrasted with the person who sins “with a high hand” or sins exalting himself above God. The difference seems to be not in whether one intended to sin or not, but whether one was knowingly exalting himself over God, or deceived and led astray by the enemy.