Have you ever stared at the stars and thought, “Wow! There must be something greater out there than just us”? Maybe a piece of music draws you to the divine, or a beautiful sunset, a beautiful woman, or a dashing guy. Deep down we long for intimacy and yet we can’t have it with whomever we want whenever we want (except in our imagination!). Imagine I like a lady called Sarah. I cannot get to know Sarah until she invites me to join her for supper, or if she accepts my invitation to lunch. If I never spend time with her I am living in my own fantasy world, deluded.
My fear is that our current generation has done something similar with God. Friendship with God is attainable, just as Adam and Eve dwelt with God, but we must register that sin has destroyed our relationship with him. If we go back to the Sinai peninsula the day the people of Israel made their first steps away from Mount Sinai we can begin to grasp what relationship with God really looks like.
Imagine a presidential visit. I always think of John F. Kennedy and his cavalcade in Dallas on that fateful day. When I was in Israel last year we saw Benjamin Netanyahu’s cavalcade. Huge cars surrounding the Prime Minister’s car. Protected. You knew someone important was in the central car. The dark windows, the speed of the cars, the way other cars moved out of the way, it meant only one thing. The Prime Minister was on the move. Or maybe you have seen the Queen being driven from Buckingham palace to the Houses of Parliament. A royal procession. The golden coaches, the well-groomed horses, the military presence. It can only mean one thing the Queen and her entourage are on the move. But imagine thousands of tanks flanking both sides of the Queen, left and right, imagine armoured vehicles with guns at the ready both front and back. That would be quite a sight. Even terrifying. Maybe you remember the parades of the Soviets or the Chinese. Somewhat unsettling.
When the nation of Israel approached the Promised Land, anyone who saw the tabernacle, flanked by hundreds of thousands of people to the left and to the right, and with hundreds of thousand both in front and behind, it could only mean one thing, the King and his people were on the move. That King was God himself. A terrifying thought! We can only imagine their deep fear and sinking hearts of those who saw it. The tabernacle in the wilderness was God’s presence on earth identified most clearly by a pillar of fire that rose above it. The approach of the royal cavalcade that we know as the tabernacle was a terrifying thing, but it was no empty royal palace. Just as the British flag signals the Queen is home, the fiery cloud ascending from the tabernacle showed that God was at home, that the LORD their God was with his people Israel, and the shout of a King was among them:
“The LORD their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them. God brings them out of Egypt and is for them like the horns of the wild ox.” Bamidbar/Numbers 23:21-22
They were on their way to claim the promised Land. The vast numbers that comprised the 12 tribes included 600,000 fighting men. God was ready for war. The nations within Canaan were now quaking in their boots – at least they should have been. Remember the ten plagues that brought Egypt to its knees? Today people speak of knowing God and the ease of access they have to him, but this kind of thinking has nothing to do with the God of the Bible.
In chapters 1-10 of the book of Bamidbar/Numbers the people of Israel are preparing to walk with their God. We could recount how the Levitical priests keep guard over the Mishkan and how the cherubim on the lid of the ark of covenant reminded us of how we were barred from the Garden of Eden lest we return and live forever as God’s enemies, or how the golden menorah mimicked the tree of life, but soon we would grasp that man was about to start walking again with a God not seen since the Garden of Eden, even if it was with a high security detail to ensure none of the Israelites came near and died:
“And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the people of Israel, to do the service for the people of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement for the people of Israel, that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary.” Bamidbar/Numbers 8:19
Now if we were to jump ahead to chapter 26 we might wonder why a new census is being taken and notice some obvious differences in the sizes of certain tribes, but let’s not dwell on that. Onwards and upwards, the Land awaits! In this week’s parasha, chapters 25-30 are about the promised Land, the right of inheritance and the role of sacrifices in the daily life of the people. God has promised to get His people into the promised Land and He is sticking to his word:
“Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” Bereshit/Genesis 15:13-16
So we might be curious about the content of chapters 11-25. With the tabernacle in place as Israel makes her first steps away from Sinai, what happened? Well, the Israelites began to complain and started weeping. These are the wilderness years, the forty years of great disharmony between God and his people: the great exposé of Israel’s rebellion against God. There were many plagues that God brought down on Israel, the failure of the spies, the rebellion against Aaron, Moshe and the Lord, Korach’s rebellion, the snakes and Pinchas’ (Phinehas’) spear. The conclusion is a rap sheet of Israel’s sin longer than your arm.
So if we learn one thing from this week’s parasha, as we consider the section divisions, chapters 1-10, 11-25, 26-36 we see that God is committed to getting his people into the land despite their sin. God has made promises and He will be faithful, despite our unfaithfulness. We can go as far as to say, Israel is the foil that helps us see how generous God is, how righteous He is, how faithful He is and the land a picture of God’s security and his power to fulfil his word.
However, this is actually no less than the message of the entire Bible and begs the question: How will God get sinners (you and me) into his perfect heaven? How is that possible? For surely God is holy and His hatred of sin is unbounded. The answer is that it is the work of the Messiah Yeshua: he gets us into eternal relationship with the Father despite our sin, because he removes our sin from us, receiving the punishment we deserve. Jesus, the eternal son of God, takes our sins from us and bears them himself receiving the due penalty. An exchange takes place – Jesus gives us his righteousness, his perfection, and removes the weight of sin from us. This, is of course Jewish theology as prophesied by the great Jewish prophet Yeshayahu/Isaiah:
“Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” Yeshayahu/Isaiah 53:11
As I close, we remembered that the Levites job was to keep the twelve tribes out of danger, away from the tabernacle. The Levites acted as God’s holy watchmen. The Levites kept the people of Israel out. Why? To protect them from the holiness of God. Come too close and you will die. God’s holiness and sinful man is akin to putting tissue paper into the flame, or flying too close to the sun. Today if you want to have a relationship with God you can, as you come to Jesus and believe he bore your sin on the tree dying in your place receiving the punishment your deserved. If you do that you can indeed come to the Father, now and into eternity.
How fitting to end with Jesus’ words in his farewell discourse:
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’” Yochanan/John 14:6-7
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