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creating a people

November 24th, 2003 by isaac · No Comments

Sin is that which leads us away from communion with God. It is the disorder that lurks at the edge of God’s divinely created order. The challenge of chaos always exists at the edge of God’s order. God created out of nothing and the nothingness desires to consume God’s creation. In the beginning God created heaven and earth out of nothing. In the beginning God creates order in the midst of the chaos, light in darkness, life in a world of death. God’s chosen people, the Israel of God, is such a creation. God creates his people out of the nothingness of self-destruction, and forms them into a people who witness to the hope of God for the world.

The story of God’s formation of Israel and their journey to the Promised Land in Numbers points us back to God’s formation of the inhabitable world in Genesis’ first creation account (Gen. 1:1-2:3). The Maker of heaven and earth spoke Israel into existence at Mount Sinai just as he had spoken the world into existence in the first chapter of the Torah. The theology of Numbers is a theology of creation—the creation of the people of God who will rest with God (Gen. 2:3) in a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Num. 13:27). As we shall see, Israel’s Sabbath rest is constantly threatened by the temptation to choose life in the chaos instead of life in obedience to the order of the Lord

In the first verse of Numbers we find Israel in the midst of chaos, the wilderness, ready to receive the Lord’s words of institution. It is a wild place where disorder rules. The wilderness cannot produce order by its own power. In fact, the wilderness does not desire order. Order is disorder’s enemy. It is here, in this anarchic chaos, a “formless” and “shapeless” land, that God speaks his order (Gen. 1:2). In the middle of the darkness of the wilderness there is Sinai, the place where God creates his people through his law (Ex. 19). God says, “Let there be Israel.” And there was Israel.

Just as God created the world through spoken word (Gen. 1:3), God speaks Israel into existence in an extended monologue to Moses. In those first ten chapters (Num. 1:1-10:10) the Lord commands a unique way of life that sets God’s people apart from the other nations who live according to chaos. After the people of Israel are identified (1:5-46), the Lord teaches them what it means to live as the Lord’s people. Being Israel means living according to a way of life ordained by the Lord. His people do not live according to the way of the wilderness.

At the center of Israel’s existence is the dwelling place of God, the Tent of Meeting. The Lord instructs his people to set up camp “around the Tent of Meeting” whenever they rest from their travels (2:2). This Tent stands not only as a constant reminder of the instruction at Sinai (1:1), but also as the glorious presence of the Lord (8:9-10). When God’s people look to the Tent at the center of the camp, they know they are uniquely endowed with the presence of the Creator, Maker of heaven and earth and Israel.

This blessing comes with responsibility. God sets apart the Levites, under Aaron’s authority, to make the Tent acceptable for the Lord to rest his glory (3:5ff). They must care for the Tent of Meeting exactly as God commands them. Once the Tent is ordered according to the word of the Lord can the people invite God to come and dwell in their midst. Only after the display of the abundant sacrifice (7:1-88) does the Lord come to speak his life-sustaining word to Moses (7:89). The practice of offering generous sacrifice to the Lord is a “pleasant smell” (28:2,13,24,27; 29:2,6,8,13,36). The aroma is hospitality to God, the invitation to come and enjoy Israel’s divinely ordered bar-b-q with a people who long for the presence of their Creator.

But Israel is constantly faced with the temptation to leave the domain of the Tent. They venture outside the camp, outside the divinely ordered way of life. On their journey through the wilderness, Israel grumbles and complains about life in God’s order (11:1, 12:2, 16:3, 17:6, 20:1-5, 21:5). The story in chapter 11 vividly displays Israel’s desire to live in the chaos instead of God’s order. They reject the Lord’s meal (manna) for the sustenance they had in the land of Egypt. This complaint reveals Israel’s rejection of the Lord for the gods of the land of Egypt. By leaving the camp to collect the “quails from the sea,” they chose to leave a place sustained by the presence of the Lord for food found in the wilderness; they chose life according to the chaos instead of a way of life ordered by YHWH (11:31-35). This is why the Lord’s “anger flared at the people.” They were “longing” to return to a way of life outside of God’s order (11:33-34).

Despite Israel’s constant rejection of God, the Lord does not abandon his people. Whenever Israel chooses life outside the camp, the Lord punishes them but does not destroy them. When they reject what the Lord has provided, Canaan (13:2), the Lord does not abandon them. He gives them over to their longing for the wilderness—they “whore” themselves to the gods of chaos/wilderness (14:33)—but God does not abandon their children (14:31). Israel will receive the Promised Land not because the people deserve it but because the Lord is faithful. In his grace, the Lord offers a sign to remember what happens when they choose to live outside the divinely ordered life of Israel, a “fringe on the corners of their clothes” (14:38). This fringe is a constant reminder of the death and destruction when Israel chooses to cross over the edge of God’s way of life into the chaos of the wilderness. When the fire of the Lord’s wrath consumes the edge of the camp, it is in hope that his people will remember the destruction that lies outside of the will of God (11:1).

The threat of the wilderness always stands at the edge of the Lord’s order. The people of God will always be tempted to choose a way of life outside the divinely intended plan for his people. The memory of life in Egypt can either tempt Israel to return to foreign dominion or serve as reminder of the Lord’s power in freeing a people from slavery, creating a people in the midst of the wilderness, speaking light into darkness. If the people of God center their lives according to the commands of God, then he will bring them safely to the Promised Land—the land flowing with milk and honey. If God’s people trust the Creator, they will enter the Sabbath rest of the Lord (meditate on Heb. 4:1-11).

The people of God today hold onto Jesus Christ as the revelation of God’s “order” for its life in the world. Jesus Christ reveals true humanity to us so that we may live the life that is truly life. Obedience to the way of life revealed to us in Christ is hospitality to the God who wants to rest his presence on his people. By living as the faithful people of God, the church extends hospitality to the God who wants his glory to dwell with us. If we do not live according to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ we turn our back towards the Life and face the abyss of chaos—death in the wilderness. As the people of God we must serve in God’s kingdom as priests (Rev. 1:6). We shine as the light of God in the darkened world; we proclaim the hope of a new way of life in the midst of a world living in the kingdom of death and despair. As we join ourselves to Christ (the Tent of Meeting), Christ will bind us together through the Spirit, and we will stand as witness to the world of a new way of life—the only true life. All other options are self-destruction, self-anhilation, suicide. To live outside God’s order is not really to live at all. That existence is really non-existence, death. As Julian Hartt writes, “In the Christian faith the revelation of God in Jesus Christ stands forth as the disclosure of the shape, the form, of the real world” (italics mine). There is only one real world, all others are illusions of the Deceiver.

This is our choice today: Life or Death:

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. (Deut. 30:19-20).

Tags: theology