Abide: Numbers 11-14; 20-24
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Elder Neal A. Maxwell once preached, “Faith also includes trust in God’s timing, for He has said, “All things must come to pass in their time.” (D&C 64:32.) Ironically, some who acknowledge God are tried by His timing, globally and personally!” We certainly see that in the Book of Numbers. The Israelites were thirsty but had no water. God directed Moses to provide for them. Aaron helped to lead Israel to the Promised Land, but his priestly vestments were taken from him and he died before Israel entered their destination. God sent fiery serpents but he also sent the brazen serpent to deliver His chosen people. We’ll discuss these events, and much more, in this episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”
Elder Neal A. Maxwell once preached, “Faith also includes trust in God’s timing. For he has said, ‘All things must come to pass in their time.’ Ironically, some who acknowledge God are tried by his timing globally and personally. We certainly see that in the Book of Numbers. The Israelites were thirsty but had no water so God directed Moses to provide for them. Aaron helped lead Israel to the promised land but his priestly vestments were taken from him and he died before Israel entered their destination. God sent fiery serpents but he also provided the brazen serpent to deliver his chosen people. We will discuss these events, God’s timing, and much more in this episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communications Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Institute and each week we will be discussing the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas. Today, we are once again joined by McKay Bowman, one of our research assistants here at the Maxwell Institute. McKay is a pre-business freshman from Layton, Utah. After McKay graduates he hopes to attend law school.
Joseph Stuart: Thank you McKay for joining us today.
McKay Bowman: Yeah, thanks Joseph. Thanks for having me, I’m excited to be here.
Joseph Stuart: We are even more excited! Kristian, what’s going on in this selection of Numbers, specifically chapters 11 through 14 and 20 through 24?
Kristian Heal: Here with the tabernacle constructed and the Lord’s presence established, the camp for Israel is once again prepared to move. Their goal was set long before when God promised a land to their ancestor, Abraham. That promise has carried us as readers from Jacob’s removal to Egypt with his family at the end of Genesis through the Exodus and to this point. We know the ending. So the importance in the stories is Numbers is not just the fulfillment of the promise, but the process of the fulfillment. As we read, we are focused on what God is doing to bring about the fulfillment of his covenant promises. Israel is now a great nation as the census numbers in the opening chapters in this book confirm, but they are a great nation in exile and it is not just a physical exile, Israel was also a nation living in exile from their God. The story of numbers comes into focus when we read it as a physical journey to the promised land, the spiritual journey into the presence of God. In both cases the route is circuitous. Just when it seems that they have arrived, something happens that knocks them off course. So the other thing that we are asking as we read this book is. What is Israel doing to return from physical and spiritual exile? Numbers 1-10 describes Israel’s preparation to leave Sinai. They are embarking on a holy war so the language in preparations are part marshal and part cultic. The armies are numbered, offerings are made, the sanctuary prepared and the priests dedicated. The beautiful language of the priestly blessing given in Numbers 6:22-27 and guiding the camp of the cloud over the tabernacle is also described in this section. These activities take 19 days and then Israel departs. The remainder of the book describes the journeyings of Israel until they reach the border of the promised land. Chapters 11 through 20 recount Israel cycling through the pattern of rebellion, punishment, and intercession. The most significant rebellion was the people’s refusal to cross into the promised land from the wilderness of Parang in Numbers 13 through 14 which almost led to God destroying Israel entirely, but instead, thanks to Moses’s intercession they were sentenced instead to a further 40 years of wandering until the entire generation had perished. These chapters of movement and rebellion are punctuated by further laws and instructions. Further rebellions in chapter 21 involve the famous story of looking at a bronze serpent as a cure to the bites caused by poisonous snakes sent among Israel. Chapters 22-24 tell the curious story of the foreign sea of Balam. Part of the difficulty of the book of numbers is the interweaving of narrative and ritual, war and worship. This captures well the twin concerns of Israel at the borders of the promised land. The book ends with a summary of Israel’s journey in the wilderness, instructions for dividing the land between the tribes and the cities that are to be set aside for the Levites and for the establishment of cities of refuge. By the end of the book, Miriam and Aaron have died and Moses’s successor has been appointed. The fulfillment of Israel’s promises and expectations is in sight, but they are not yet there.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks so much for that, Krisitan. Now McKay, could you tell us more about the waters of Marabah or when water is struck forth from the rock?
McKay Bowman: Of course. At this point in the story, the Israelites were murmuring, they were complaining against Moses and Aaron asking them the often repeated, why did you take us out of Egypt? And they were thirsty and that was the big concern at the time, of course. Moses and Aaron go, they pray to the Lord, and he tells them to take a rod and to go speak to a stone to pull out water for the Israelites. I’m going to read just two verses from this story that I think are extremely interesting. So this is Numbers 20 verses 10 through 12. It says, Moses asks the congregation, “Listen, you rebels that we bring water for you out of this rock. Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water came out abundantly and the congregation and their livestock drank.” But the Lord said, to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israeliltes, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” The occurrences of the story are relatively straightforward, but there’s enough ambiguity in the details that a lot of us, at least I thought myself personally, asking what exactly was what Moses and Aaron did wrong because the water came out of the rock. It seemed like the problem was solved and there’s a lot of possibilities and I don’t plan to arrive to a conclusive answer as to what that error was but some possibilities. One of the possibilities in the commentaries that I read was simply, just the way Moses addressed the people. This is supported by a scripture in Psalms 106 that says that rash words came from Moses’s lips. It kind of emphasizes the important teaching of speaking with kindness. Another possibility of what this error may have been was the fact that Moses didn’t obey God’s instructions with exactness. In verse 8, Moses is instructed by God to assemble the congregation and then to command or speak to the rock. However, in the story we read that when Moses gathers the congregation instead he speaks to them and then strikes the rock twice. Gordon J. Whenem has an explanation as to why this might be problematic. He says the following, he says, “Though this brought forth water, it was not produced in the divinely intended way.” Kind of like Kristian mentioned at the beginning, the promise was fulfilled but the process in which it’s fulfilled also matters. Because of this it was counted as rebelling against God’s commands and unbelief, whereas Chrisitan theologians following Paul’s supposed distinction often contrast faith with obedience. This dichotomy is unknown to the Old Testament. Faith is the correct response to God’s word whether it is a word of promise or a word of command. These answers though, at least on a personal level for me, didn’t provide a ton of satisfaction because it felt really — like I was examining Moses’s behavior too much especially because there’s a parallel story, another story of the waters of Meriba in Exodus 17 where God did command Moses to strike a rock. And so I felt like maybe this examination of his behavior wasn’t giving me the answer I was looking for.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah. Sometimes we look to blame a person rather than to look at maybe the bigger picture. So what explanation is compelling to you?
McKay Bowman: The explanation that gave me the most satisfaction that I felt resonated most with me, came from looking at the Lord’s response or what the Lord said to Moses and Aaron after he had drawn the water out of the stone and just to repeat, the Lord said “because you did not trust in me to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites.” And that’s what caught my attention which was “to show my holiness”. It seems like God in this scenario, was less concerned about the specific behavior or action that was incorrect and more about the outcome which was that his holiness wasn’t shown to the israelites. So what does this mean? To show God’s holiness or to sanctify him? Walter Riggens says it means to show God as being holy other from us, yet ready and willing to commit himself to us or to praise him for being God not man and let him be seen as God. What was probably problematic about the behavior of Moses, whatever that may have been, is that it made him opaque. What do I mean by that? It means that Moses and Aaron being church leaders had been called to show forth God’s holiness to represent his power through their actions and yet remain transparent to his leadership and that God was the true leader. This is extremely difficult. I feel extremely sympathetic to all the leaders and the weight that this aspect of their calling carries. As I thought about that it made me think about my calling and our calling as Chrisitians, all of us, to let our light shine forth before men. They see our good works but glorify our God who is in heaven. So I think that’s what this narrative did for me in Numbers. It wasn’t to take away from the high calling of Moses or Aaron, but to elevate all of us and realize the task we have at hand to be instruments in the Lord’s hands, help others see who’s really at work.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah. I think you’re right to know the weight of the mantle that the prophets bear and to remember that at the end of the day water flowed abundantly.
McKay Bowman: Exactly. I think that’s my favorite part about the story is at the end of the day, the congregation drank. That’s amazing. God works forth his miracles no matter what. The mistakes of our leaders won’t ever prevent us from receiving the blessings we need from our God.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that McKay. Now something that happens in Numbers is that Aaron who we have seen many times before as Moses’s spokesman ultimately dies and is not permitted to enter into the promised land. So what sort of detail do we have to reconstruct how or why that might have happened?
Kristian Heal: So there’s not a lot there in Numbers chapter 20. We’ve got a few verses at the end of this chapter that begins with this episode that McKay told us about so well and right at the end of this, seemingly connected to something that Aaron did wrong in that episode as well. Aaron is told that he will not enter the promised land and instead, Moses is to take him and his son Eleazar to the top of Mount Hor, remove his priestly vestments, place them upon his son Eleazar and there Aaron shall be gathered unto the dead. So Moses does this and when he returns, the whole community that Aaron had breathed his last. It tells us in Numbers 20:29, “And all the House of Israel bewailed Aaron for thirty days.” This is a really poignant scene, but it seems that it could be so much more said about it. This is precisely those moments that Early Syriac Christians step in and imagine Biblical tales so wonderfully. So this scene is reimagined in a wonderful Syriac narrative poem on the death of Aaron. And here are some of the details that we would like to hear about, some of the things missing from the Biblical narrative are reimagined by the author. The author, for example, imagines the moment when Aaron stripped of his priestly robes, stands awaiting death. This is what the text says, “And while both brothers were standing on the top of the mountain, Aaron was stripped like Adam among the trees and Eleazar was clothed in the priesthood of the house of God and Moses stood and held back his tender feelings lest he should’ve wept. And who is it who has a heart of stone who would not weep when he looked and saw Aaron strip to draw near to death? Who could have seen him stripped and stand without the priesthood and not bring forth streams of tears from his eyes?” Throughout the poem, the Lord repeatedly prompts the reluctant Moses to move along with the task that has been given him. And in the next lines for example, we hear an example of this prompting, “The Lord signaled to the son of Abram saying, ‘Why are you standing about Moses? Approach and bid farewell to your brother and let him go to his mansion, for an angel is now standing and watching you for the moment you release him and unless you bid him farewell, the angel cannot lead him away.’” This gives us an interesting into the way for these Syriac Christians that the moment of death is imagined, with an angel awaiting to take the soul to its heavenly mansion. And that moment of release, that signal standing, that signal waiting to be given.
Joseph Stuart: And also about the weight that death has. Even though Moses recognizes that it is Aaron’s appointed time to die, it doesn’t mean that he’s completely sterile to the situation that he’s going about it like some sort of obedient robot. He has feelings for Aaron. He’s been through a lot with Aaron and he’s sad to see him go.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, exactly. We can imagine this scene in this poem is paralleled a little bit with Abraham and Isaac. Both of them have one or the other taking them up to the mountain to die. In this case, Aaron does die but no one wants that job. Dealing with the post-mortem funeral arrangements is a sad and solemn endeavor but no one wants to be the person who is bringing about the moment of death and this is the pathos and the tension that’s brought in and that brings us, as we read it, almost to tears. At this moment in the story when the Lord tells Moses to carry on and do what he’s been asked to do, Moses converses with God and gives reasons he’s used to being out of petition the Lord to answer back and speak up and while that conversation is going on, the author imagines Eleazar approaching Aaron and asking for one last father’s blessing, which Aaron gives it says with tears in size. The blessing is beautiful and moving with prophecies and praise and encouragement. It begins with these words, “May the God for whom I have stood in purity and holiness, may he bless your youth my son and grant you tender mercies in the presence of the people. May this son who is ready to become a child and to save the ages with his grace, grant you a way of life that leads to godliness. May the mighty one who by means of his divine will, everything came into existence grant you a mind that God is pleased with.” It carries on in this vein, this blessing. It is full of beautiful repetitions of prayers of a father particularly for a son assuming his office and a father who understands the weight of this particular calling. After the blessing, Moses approaches Aaron and bids his brother farewell and kisses him. At this point, the poet evocatively imagines the moment in which the soul leaves the body. It says, “As soon as Moses had kissed Aaron as he had been commanded his soul departed swiftly from his body. The Lord commanded the soul and she left her companion and the Lord commanded the little bird that it took flight out of its nest. The Lord commanded the dove and it left flying and changed its location. But the body remained upon the dust which is its companion.” So we have this moment of separation with the soul likened to a bird or to a dove flying up to its heavenly mansion while the body returns to the dust from which it’s formed. In the Numbers account the House of Israel bewailed the death of Aaron when they returned from the mountain, but in this poetic reimagining of the story the burial of Aaron is imagined attended not just by Moses and Eleazar but by the Lord and the heavenly hosts. This is how the poem goes, “Aaron was dead and they stood to perform their duties according to the law. And the Lord came with them to accompany Aaron the priest. And while they were standing, companies of watchers came suddenly from heaven and started singing songs of the spirit. They had opened their mouth to lift in praise for an earthly creature. Wondrous voices with their spiritual hallelujahs, the praises of angels were mingled with that of the earthly men and the wondrous voices made a joyful noise there for the Levite. And when the ministrations of heavenly beings came to an end, a new priest only just made, prayed and completed the service. That Levite was accompanied with great honor and the Lord, Moses, and the young man together with the spiritual beings, buried him.” I find this to be a beautiful and evocative reimagining of the death of Aaron. Even though God stopped Aaron from entering the promised land, it’s obvious from this poem that God still loved him and his burial is accompanied by earthly and heavenly rejoicing for his lifetime of service as well as the mourning of Israel for his loss. He was after all, as we remember on several occasions, is the priest who held back death from the camp and saved them many times. I love the way that the poet so movingly imagines this moment when we all know that the veil is thin, especially as the heavenly hosts burst through that veil with their wondrous voices.
Joseph Stuart: Another well known story from Numbers, that of the brazen serpent. And what exactly is going on in this situation, Kristian?
Kristian Heal: So near the end of Israel’s journey to the promised land, we’re in Numbers chapters 21. They are once again beginning to complain against the Lord and against Moses. As a result of this, the Lord sent fiery serpents among them. This is Numbers 21:6. Faced with physical death, the people went to Moses, confessed their sin and intreat him to pray to the Lord to take the serpents away. However, the serpents were not taken away as requested, instead in what may be seen as an expression of deep irony perhaps but was in reality a sacred symbol, Moses was instructed to raise up a brass serpent as a means of healing those bitten. This Moses did and the scripture says, “And it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived and the children of Israel set forward.” And that’s where the story ends in the Biblical account.
Joseph Stuart: Fortunately, there’s more detail in the Book of Mormon of the symbology and meaning of the brazen serpent. What do Book of Mormon prophets have to say about this?
Kristian Heal: It’s really interesting to me that this story is taken up, perhaps not surprising, but interesting that it’s taken up and again as we saw in the Syriac tradition the story grows in its retelling and grows in ways which are really significant and are perhaps as we think of the story as Latter-day Saints are the most significant parts of the story. So it appears in 1st Nephi 17 and in Alma 33. So Nephi discusses the brazen serpent in a sermon in which he is rebuking his older brothers for opposing him and building the ship that the Lord had commanded. He recounts the story of Israel’s exodus and he explicitly identifies his brothers with these stubborn Israelites who were straightened in the wilderness by the fiery serpents. “Because of their iniquity,” Nephi says, Nephi then continues, “…and after they, the Israelites were bitten he, the Lord, prepared a way that they might be healed. And the labor which they had to perform was to look.” And so this is there in the Numbers account that they were bitten when they beheld the serpent, they were healed. Nephi takes that subtle action of the Israelites and turns it into a work, what they had to do to receive this blessing was to perform some labor. And the labor was simply to look. So from the Numbers account, the way— especially the way that it ends and the children of Israel set forward. In the Numbers account, we can reasonably assume that once the children of Israel were provided with a means to be healed from the bites of the fiery serpents they would have all looked and been saved and then they moved on. But it’s clear from Nephi’s account that this is not how he understood it. “And because of the simpleness of the way,” Nephi says, or the easiness of it, “…there were many who perished.” So surprisingly, the means of salvation was placed in their midst. In Nephi’s reading of this story, there were still many who did not look because it seemed too simple.
Joseph Stuart: This recalls items in our own day as well where sometimes I think that we would much rather cross the plains of a handcart rather than cross the street to perform our ministering or to extend our Heavenly Father’s love to his children. There is something about wanting sacrifice to be impressive, for everyone to notice that can lead us down to not doing the things that we’re asked to do.
McKay Bowman: Joseph, your comments about sacrifice make me think of a scripture. I think it’s in 1st Samuel, where it says, “it is better to obey than to sacrifice” and what you said maybe is what’s happening here as well. This desire to have something that was visible, more noticeable by others rather than to just simply obey.
Joseph Stuart: Nephi isn’t the only prophet who speaks about the brazen serpent in the Book of Mormon. What goes on in the Book of Alma?
Kristian Heal: So Alma takes up this story in his sermon to the downtrodden Zoramites in Alma 32 and 33. And he seems to be drawing from Nephi’s record. But again, our understanding the nuance of interpretation develops in Alma’s retelling of the story. Alma warns the Zoramites that many of the children of Israel who similarly had salvation laid out before them, nevertheless perished. We’re still on the same ground here as Nephi. He explains, “But there were many who were so hardened that they would not look.” So we have this, this is not just the easiness of the way but the hardness of hearts that’s the obstacle here. “There were many who were so hardened that they would not look, therefore they perished. Now the reason they would not look is because they did not believe it would heal them.” So now, we’ve moved to another level of interpretation, the beginning we see in the Numbers account they were raised up when they looked, they were healed. In Nephi, they didn’t look because of the easiness of the way. Now, we have this additional layer that they did not look because they didn’t believe it would heal them, not just because it was easy. They just didn’t believe that it would work. So hoping that the Zoramites will find the story applicable to their lives, Alma asks them, “Oh my brethren, if ye can be healed by merely casting about your eyes that ye might be healed, would you not behold quickly or would you rather harden your hearts in unbelief and be slothful that ye would not cast about your eyes and that ye would perish?” So now we have these things brought together, this hardness of hearts, the hardness of heart is connected with the unbelief and this slothfulness of not being willing to look becomes this vital sort of reinterpretation, a reapplication of this story to a new setting.
Joseph Stuart: So, that’s interesting that Nephi is being built upon by Alma. How else does Alma connect types of Christ in his ministry to the Zoramites and to others?
Kristian Heal: Alma draws on another symbol here which is connected and I think in that connection we can see an additional layer of interpretation. That we have this brazen serpent which is really to heal and we have to remember that one of the main roles of Christ is the Christ who heals as Terryl and Fiona Givens so eloquently taught us, but he also points to the Liahona as a type of that which leads and leads us into safety according to faith. So this is later in Alma 36 to 37. Alma’s teaching this to his son Helaman and he tells Helaman and warns him not to be slothful because of the easiness of the way. So Alma’s words seem to indicate that he saw the Liahona as a complimentary type for the brazen serpent. So for example, the only instances in the Book of Mormon of the words slothful appear in Alma’s sermons about the brazen serpent and the Liahona. The phrase “easiness of the way” is also used only in connection with the story of the Liahona and the story of the brazen serpent. A fact that provides another link between Nephi’s record and Alma’s instruction to his son. So we return back to this idea of the “easiness of the way” and slothfulness and hard heartedness. It develops into this really wonderful and complex interpretation and reapplication of this story in a new setting. So what the Book of Mormon does, and it actually does this far more often than we would imagine, is that it draws in other scripture and in drawing it in, reinterprets it, gives it a new edge, a new understanding, a new application. And this is not only insightful in its own right, the Book of Mormon doesn’t just teach us something new about scripture, it teaches us something new about reading scripture. And that as we read scripture, we can see new things, understandings, and new applications in our own reading of it.
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s a great place for us to end today. Have a blessed week y’all.
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The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)