Our assignment for the next several weeks is the book of Numbers.
It is called Numbers because the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint called it “Arithmoi” after the lists recorded in the first few chapters. The Latin Vulgate translation picked up on the Greek title and named the book Numeri from which the English translations derived the title of Numbers for the book.
The Hebrew Bible’s title for the book is the one I would have kept. It is “Bemidbar” which translates “in the desert” and is really more descriptive of the content of the book than simply a book of numbers. It would be like calling the Gospel of Matthew “Genealogy” because it begins with a list of the predecessors of Jesus. It’s far more than that. And the book of Numbers is far more than numbers.
It is the account of the history of the people of Israel from the end of the three months it took them to reach Sinai and then their two year stay at Sinai where they received the Ten Commandments to where they camped 38 years later on the verge of entering the Promised Land. It is far more than numbers. It is a history of the wandering of Israel learning in fits and starts to be obedient to God. It might as well be our history and we all know our lives are far more than numbers.
Yes, there are numbers but it is not just listing the numbers of the people with no further purpose as you might think if you called it the Book of Arithmetic. It is the beginning of the transition of the people from a collection of slaves who have lost their identity after 400 years to a people with a unique purpose. It is not just a counting of the people but an organizing of the people. It is the assignments of the people to their responsibilities. They were not organized around preferences of options but around work and responsibility.
They have been settled below the mountain of Siniai for two years after leaving Egypt. Now, God comes to Moses and tells him he is to not only count the people but to focus especially on the men who are old enough to serve in an army. This is new. This is what they have been kept from doing for the last 400 years. Pharoah kept them as slaves and his greatest fear was that they would do exactly this – they would continue to grow and someday if there is a war they would join Egypts’s enemies, fight against Pharoah and leave the country. They could not have organized themselves but they could be recruited to fight and likely be the first to die in another army. This is different. This is God forming the ragtag slaves into an army.
You may remember the history of Baron von Steuben who turned the Revolutionary Army into a near professional force.
The baron found soldiers without uniforms, rusted muskets without bayonets, companies with men missing and unaccounted for. Short enlistments meant constant turnover and little order. Regiment sizes varied wildly. Different officers used different military drill manuals, leading to chaos when their units tried to work together. If the army had to fight on short notice, von Steuben warned Washington, he might find himself commanding one-third of the men he thought he had. The army had to get into better shape before fighting resumed in the spring.
So, von Steuben put the entire army through Prussian-style drills, starting with a model company of 100 men. He taught them how to reload their muskets quickly after firing, charge with a bayonet and march in compact columns instead of miles-long lines. Meanwhile, he wrote detailed lists of officers’ duties, giving them more responsibility than in English systems.
At the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, the Revolution’s last major battle in the northern states, American troops showed a new discipline. They stood their ground during ferocious fire and bayonet attacks and forced the British to retreat. “Monmouth vindicated Steuben as an organizer,” wrote Lockhart. The Continental Army’s new strength as a fighting force, combined with the arrival of the French fleet off the coast of New York in July 1778, turned the tide of the war.
So God, through Moses, organized Israel into an army operating not just as families and tribes but as a military force. They were not merely traveling from Egypt to Canaan. They were going to meet powerful and well-trained opposition.
But, at the center of the organization is Tent of Meeting. Israel is not just a military force. It is a military force with religion and religious worship at the heart. While we may have feelings of patriotism and love of country or the sense of doing our duty in joining the military in a crisis, there is nothing that compares with the organizing of a people as a military force around a single religious belief. Everything was about religion and obedience to God. Nothing was left out. Nothing was secular and separated from religion. All of life was organized around the notion of being not only 12 tribes but a whole people dedicated to the carrying out of a mission. So, at the center of the whole enterprise was not a White House or Buckingham Palace or even the Kremlin but a Tent of Meeting where God dwelled with them. They were not fighting for a philosophy or ideology like liberty and freedom but for a personal God.
And sometimes we tend to think of the Tent as a tent like we have today. It might be a camping tent or a circus tent but it was far more than that. It took thousands of men full-time to take care of it and what it contained. It was the responsibility of one tribe – the Levites – to serve as the caretakers of the Tent of Meeting.
The Kohathites were the movers of the Tent but they could not see or touch any of the holy things until they had been fully wrapped. There were 2,750 of them assigned to that.
The Gershonites were those who carried the curtains of the Tent. There were 2,630 of them assigned to that.
The Merarites were those who carried the frames, posts, pegs and ropes of the Tent. There were 3,200 of them assigned to that.
In total, not counting the priests, there were 8,580 men assigned to the care of the Tent. All the other men twenty years old or older were assigned to the military.
It’s not dissimilar to today when the Israeli Defense Service Law requires all men (with some exemptions) when they turn 18 to serve for 32 months and all women when they turn 18 to serve 24 months.
And that takes us to the passage for this morning.
After two years camped at Sinai, the people have been commanded to be on the move. I doubt they knew then that they would be on the move for the next 38 years.
On the day the tabernacle, the tent of the covenant law, was set up, the cloud covered it. From evening till morning the cloud above the tabernacle looked like fire. 16 That is how it continued to be; the cloud covered it, and at night it looked like fire. 17 Whenever the cloud lifted from above the tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. 18 At the Lord’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. 19 When the cloud remained over the tabernacle a long time, the Israelites obeyed the Lord’s order and did not set out. 20 Sometimes the cloud was over the tabernacle only a few days; at the Lord’s command they would encamp, and then at his command they would set out. 21 Sometimes the cloud stayed only from evening till morning, and when it lifted in the morning, they set out. Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out. 22 Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. 23 At the Lord’s command they encamped, and at the Lord’s command they set out. They obeyed the Lord’s order, in accordance with his command through Moses.
Whenever the cloud lifted from above the tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. Sometimes the cloud was over the tabernacle for a month or even a year. Sometimes only a few days. Sometimes the cloud was over the tent for less than a full day and then the people would move on.
If you think of the Tent as something small and fairly portable it’s not much to take it down, carry it and then put it down again. Most people could do that. But, this was a totally different endeavor. Remember, it takes over 8,500 men to move the Tent. It’s one thing to stay a year in one place but what must it be like to stay only a few days or even less than one day and then have to do the whole process again.
We have something similar today with the logistics required for rock concerts.
It is not unusual for concert tours to have crews of over 100 people. The core staff includes riggers, carpenters, caterers, security, technicians, electricians and drivers. All the support staff and their equipment has to be moved, while making accommodations and food arrangements. On Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball tour — a team of over a 100 people took care of logistics. Paul McCartney has a support staff of 130 people while on tour, including his own team of vegetarian caterers!
U2’s 360 degree Tour employed 120 trucks to move the stage, the screen, the lights, the 250 speakers and more from venue to venue.
Beyoncé’s Formation tour of Europe, needed 7 Boeing 747 cargo planes and 70 trucks, to transport all the stage equipment across countries. Each tour stop requires four days of set up
Another 25 trucks transport production equipment, including the video operation, which is housed under the stage. Overall, about 300 people –150 local workers and 150 who travel with the tour – help with the production.
Think about something that requires a crew of more than 8,500 to tear down, transport, and set up. No wonder the people were soon grumbling about the working conditions.
Not only the working conditions but the uncertainty of where they were going. The main point here is clearly the importance of building the virtue of obedience in the face of uncertainty. They never knew how long they would stay. They could never really settle in before the next move.
Andrew MacLaren wrote: So never, from moment to moment, did they know when the moving cloud might settle, or the resting cloud might soar. Therefore, absolute uncertainty as to the next stage was visibly represented before them by that hovering guide which determined everything, and concerning whose next movement they knew absolutely nothing. In like manner, the same absolute uncertainty which was intended to keep the Israelites (though it failed often to do so) in the attitude of constant dependence, is the condition in which we all have to live, though we mask it from ourselves. That we do not know what lies before us is a commonplace. The same long tracts of monotonous continuance in the same place and doing the same duties befall us that befell these men. Years pass, and the pillar spreads itself out, a defence above the unmoving sanctuary. And then, all in a flash, when we are least thinking of change, it gathers itself together, is a pillar again, shoots upwards, and moves forwards; and it is for us to go after it. And so our lives are shuttlecocked between uniform sameness which may become mechanical monotony, and agitation by change which may make us lose our hold of fixed principles and calm faith, unless we recognise that the continuance and the change are alike the will of the guiding God, whose will is signified by the stationary or moving pillar.
So, just when we want to take the wheels off the mobile home God is saying, “Up and away. We’ve been here long enough.”
And our response is much the same. For some, they focus on their assignment as roadies and like true roadies they are likely never comfortable being in one place for two long. The thrill is in the tearing down, moving, and setting up one more time.
For others, it is a challenge because they have the desire to settle down somewhere; find a church, a school, a favorite restaurant, make friends, and put down roots. They might complain but they pick up and move because they made a commitment to the journey.
For some, it is a constant grumble and opportunity to complain. “I’ve had enough moving. I want to be in charge now.”
Of course, it is not just physical moves, it is? We all settle into certain ways of thinking, believing, a favorite bias that becomes the best version of truth, and when God disturbs the waters or points out the rigidity of our certainties then we become unsettled and insecure. We want things defined, sure, and without the tension of change. And, of course, there are some eternals but life is full of uncertainties, complexities, and sudden twists that none of us can predict. That is when we have to fall back on the fact that we are conscripts with assignments and, as Paul says, our lives are not our own. We are in the service of a King and when he says move on – whether from a place, an idea, a treasured tradition, or even a fundamental belief – we are to obey.
“At the Lord’s command they encamped, and at the Lord’s command they set out. They obeyed the Lord’s order, in accordance with his command through Moses.”
May it be so for us.