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Numbers Need Context Too

Numbers Need Context Too

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” — Mark Twain

But I can paraphrase what supporters of gun rights say: Numbers don’t lie. People lie.

People use numbers to lie.

Sometimes it’s unconscious. I can say, “Most people believe X.” But that word “most” is imprecise, and sounds like I may not have studied the subject enough. So “Nine out of ten people believe X” sounds like I’ve studied the people and counted them.

I want to just post a few notes and recommend a couple of books.

  1. Many (notice that I haven’t counted them) misrepresentations involving statistics result from not noticing the margin of error when sampling is involved. Words like “surge” or “plummet” are used about polls in newspapers when the changes are within that margin of error. The context here is in understanding the precise nature of the numbers themselves. There’s a difference between “there are five books on my table” and “the average American will have five books on their bedside table.”
  2. Ask how the numbers were generated. If it was a survey, what was the question? In professional surveys, you can trace the numbers back to the survey. Reliable, ethical researchers show their work. For example, if you ask a number of people how many would kill their own mother for a million dollars, you don’t know how many actually would. You know how many say they would. The context here is the underlying basis for the numbers. It’s the difference between “I would guess that about 5 in 10 people do x”, or “I asked them”, or “I had a hidden camera on them and watched them.” All three methods generate numbers, but the meaning is different.
  3. Numbers don’t generate predictions on their own. They represent a state of affairs defined by the way they are collected and presented. The context of a numeric prediction can be complex. The prediction is only as valuable as the theory that generates it from the numbers, even if it is represented in numbers.
  4. Probability is a complex field. I enjoy reading about it. Numbers used to express probability are often difficult to follow and seem unintuitive. For those of us who are not mathematicians, a key point to notice is whether the person involved could actually have the necessary information. If you cannot model in detail an entire process, you don’t know the probability. Let me illustrate from Star Trek–the original series. Spock and Kirk are on Organia, and are unaware of the nature of the Organians. Kirk asks spock to rate their chances, and he gives a number including decimals. This number is irrelevant, because Spock doesn’t actually know what he would need to know.
  5. In number comparisons, the context of all numbers compared is important, as is their relationship. The data in a comparison is not so much in the numbers themselves but in the theory or theories used to connect them.

In my opinion, most (note how I say this) news articles and popular presentations that involved numbers misrepresent their meaning in some way. In most (note again!) that error is not that relevant to the readers. But in many unfortunate cases it is. If you count headlines, the misrepresentation is worse.

So when reading numbers, look for the source, check the context, understand the theory. The numbers may be correct, but the theory and presentation may make them deceptive.

Herewith a couple of books that are quite readable on this subject.

How to Lie with Statistics. This is an older book, but provides the basics in a readable format.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics. I found this more politically slanted, but the principles expressed are quite good, in my opinion. The bias I noted was in the examples. Note that I did not statistically check my impression of bias!

Statistics: A Spectator Sport. I haven’t read this book, but it’s on my reading list. The description notes that it uses examples largely from education. I suspect that could be valuable as it may be less controversial than using primarily political or media examples.

Note on the End of Numbers

Note on the End of Numbers

Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (CBC)I’m about to move from the section on Numbers in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary and from there go on to reading Deuteronomy. I’m reading this in parallel with a reading of the Hebrew text.

I’ll first note that I find this commentary very helpful, and I believe it would be helpful to a person preparing lessons or sermons on these books (Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), which are not that easy to work with. The authors of all three sections provide good theological reflections on the passages, which I find helpful despite the fact that they are somewhat more conservative than my own theology.

One of the keys for Christians reading the Pentateuch is being open to the questions and looking for the answers. It is much less important to have a set of “good” answers at hand when you finish. It’s OK to admit that the culture reflected is very different from modern culture, and is hard for us to apply. As I have noted before, and recently read in Luke Timothy Johnson’s NTL commentary on Hebrews, modern Christians don’t really understand the idea of sacrifice, amongst other things, and so see the entire tabernacle/sanctuary service/cult as a foreign land.

Numbers 35 illustrates some difficulties. Here we have the concept of the avenger who will kill the person who has killed (even accidentally) a relative. So the cities of refuge are provided. There the killer can find refuge provided the killing was inadvertent. (Just how “inadvertence” is defined is up for some discussion.) In this passage we find the rule requiring at least two witnesses for a capital charge.

So we have a mitigation of vengeance killing, yet even if the person is found innocent of capital murder, he will be restricted to the city of refuge. Having been found not guilty, he still suffers exile. But modern readers may miss what many commentators see as the reason he remains until the death of the high priest. The death of the high priest is seen as atoning. I find the argument for this latter point less compelling than some, but nonetheless a serious possibility, and one which might well impact our understanding of Jesus as both high priest and sacrifice in Hebrews.

Which leads backward, in a sense, to the idea that the land itself is polluted by murder and that atonement must be made in order to remove this pollution. The atonement for intentional, premeditated murder can only be made by the death of the murder, and no ransom can be accepted. There is no indication in the text of what happens in case of doubt, when two witnesses cannot be produced. There would be no atonement. Clearly, people are not expected to atone for a sin they cannot determine existed.

We have here a tension between what we would see as Christian principles and a society based on vengeance. There is mitigation, and yet there is considerable accommodation as well. I think it is a good example of how God works with people. It’s easy for us to say that God should make things absolutely right (as we see it) in an instant. But it is not that easy to change a culture and a society.

Yet if you look at Judaism today, you see an amazing edifice built on just this kind of material, and Christianity grew out of this same soil with some interesting outside influence!

A Note on Translations and Commentaries

A Note on Translations and Commentaries

CBC based on the NLT
Are we veiling the commentary with the translation used?

As I’ve been reading a commentary based on the New Living Translation (NLT), it has been interesting to note how the commentators differ from the readings of the translation on which the commentary is ostensibly based.

For example, as I finished reading the section on Numbers today (pp. 217-443), written by Dale A. Brueggemann, I noted two important translation notes.

  1. 35:12, in which the NLT refers to “relatives” rather than to the singular “goel” or avenger/redeemer, a translation that the commentator says “… may be misleading” (p. 426n). Certainly potentially misleading and may cause one to miss connecting thoughts built on this concept.
  2. 35:20, in which two points are noted. First, the NLT adds “a dangerous object” which is not in the Hebrew source, and also omits “while lying in wait,” which is in the Hebrew. The latter omission the commentator calls “this telling qualification” (p. 427n).

It’s not surprising that a commentator will work for the source text, of course, but it’s interesting to note. You’ll find this sort of disagreement in almost any commentary where the author is required to use a particular translation. Sometimes one could almost say “with the ___ version included” rather than saying it’s a commentary on that version.

With a dynamic equivalence translation, however, the odds are greater that there will be a certain tension between commentator and English text. This is not really surprising. Is it problematic? For many, this disagreement is an argument in favor of more formal equivalence translations.

It seems to me, however, that a formal equivalence translation, besides allowing for misunderstanding, such as when it verbally translates some idioms, also simply leaves greater room for one to imagine the translation agrees with one’s own approach, even when it’s simply a bit ambiguous.

It’s valuable for lay persons who read scripture to become aware of the fact that there are differences in the way translations are done. That’s why I frequently recommend reading from more than one translation. For example, a good counterpoint to the NLT might be the New Revised Standard Version (which also provides from more theological diversity in the translation committee) or the English Standard Version (with an evangelical team similar to that of the NLT).

Numbers 33 and Matthew 1:1-17

Numbers 33 and Matthew 1:1-17

Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (CBC)Regarding Numbers 33 and the 42 stations on the route to the promised land, footnote #1 on page 420, (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Numbers), notes that “[p]atristic commentators compared these 42 stations to the 42 (3 x 14) generations in Jesus’ genealogy, but that doesn’t shed any light on ch 33 …”

It is quite true that this comparison sheds no light on chapter 33, but I doubt that there was any intention by the author of Matthew to shed light on Numbers. More likely, if he was making a connection, he was intending to have Numbers 33 shed light on his genealogy. Clearly he went out of his way to get 42 generations and divide them into three groups of 14. It’s very easy to make too much of numerology.

Despite that, I am more and more convinced that New Testament authors quite frequently intended to draw more of the Old Testament narrative into their writing than just what was quoted. One reason for this is that I have noted how the lack of knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament in modern audiences makes discussing certain passages more difficult. The corollary to this is that a greater knowledge would make discussion easier. New Testament writers could count on greater knowledge among their readers than we can today.

What might Matthew be drawing into the text here? I have argued that Matthew 2:15, when it quotes from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” is drawing the broader story there into his narrative. At first glance, one might accuse Matthew of taking something that is clearly not Messianic and making a prophecy out of it. Hosea 11 continues with telling us that the more YHWH called his people, the more they went away. My initial reaction to this, and the reaction of many, is that Matthew is grabbing a single clause out of context, and making a prediction of something that isn’t actually a prediction. But I’d suggest instead that Matthew is presenting Jesus as Israel doing it right. When God called Israel at various times, they went away, as Hosea is saying. Jesus, on the other hand, when called out of Egypt or when called to the cross, continues to come.

My suspicion is that the use of 42, besides being the numerologically comfortable grouping of three pairs of sevens (and there are so many ways a set of numbers can be presented!), is intended to point us back to the travels of the Israelites in coming to the promised land. I am in no way suggesting that these 42 stops were in some way predictive, nor am I suggesting that Matthew 1:1-17 gives some sort of new or special meaning to Numbers 33. Rather, I’m suggesting that Matthew uses 42 generations as an allusion to Numbers 33 and to Israel coming out of Egypt and to the promised land.

Ham in My Hash Browns

Ham in My Hash Browns

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Ham in my hash browns!

Nearly 20 years ago a waitress at a well-known breakfast chain messed up my order for hash browns by adding diced ham.

If you don’t find anything odd about that sentence, you are, perhaps, a candidate for counseling. But I digress.

I had wanted jalapeños, onions, mushrooms, and cheese. I got all of those. Plus ham.

As a vegetarian, I don’t eat ham. The waitress was very nice and got me a new order with what I wanted, but for years (yes, years) thereafter, I was known to remind the staff at that particular chain that I did not want any meat in my hash browns. None at all.

I was reminded of this last night when I asked Jody if she had done a certain thing, something that we had both forgotten a couple of months ago, but that I didn’t want forgotten again. She said she supposed she’d have to wear forgetting this one monthly task once for some time, considering how long it took me to forget about the ham in my hash browns. Well, I obviously haven’t actually forgotten it. I have quit mentioning it. One step at a time, you know!

I was reminded of it again this morning as I read Numbers 32. The story takes place after the Israelites have defeated a variety of enemies on the east bank of the Jordan River, and are preparing to cross into the promised land. The leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad really like the territory that has been conquered as it is good for their flocks, so they come to Moses and Eleazar and ask for this land rather than a share of the land across the Jordan. Moses is angry with them and reminds them of something that had happened nearly 40 years before. He calls them a brood of sinners. It’s really not a very pleasant conversation.

They reply that they will certainly help their fellow-Israelites conquer the land, but that they like this land just fine. Eventually with that agreement, Moses agrees to grant them the land (somehow the half tribe of Manasseh gets in the mix toward the end), and we get an explanation of what cities they built and what territory each took.

In reading about this, I note that commentators try to decide whether the final decision was a positive one or not. Was it a good idea to let these two and a half tribes settle east of the Jordan? I don’t know of any way to determine the answer. I suspect that there would have been problems either way. But when interpreting stories one thing to remember is that some things in a story, even in a fictional one, happen because they happen. I think it is a mistake to always try to find a moral in a story, even a Bible story. Some things just happened that way, and there is not great moral in it.

Despite the fact that I’m unable to decide one way or another on the value of having some of the Israelites settle to the east of the river, I do see some potential questions, and perhaps resulting lessons in the story. One might be that there is no reference in this chapter to seeking the will of the Lord. It’s entirely a human decision. Given the frequency with which Moses consults with the Lord before taking action, is it possible that the writer here is trying to make a point?

But one of the values in stories is that they can connect to different aspects of our lives, and today Moses’s response connected for me. Here come these poor tribal elders, much younger than Moses, one of the few survivors from those who left Egypt as adults, and they are coming to one who is now a revered leader. I suspect there was a bit of fear and trembling going on. They ask what seems to be a simple question: Could we have this territory?

Now consider. The territory has been conquered. It’s going to go to someone. All the tribes are going to get some land. It might be a good idea to occupy the territory, in fact. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with their request. It’s perfectly reasonable. They don’t even say they won’t help with the conquest of the promised land. They just haven’t mentioned it.

The CBC commentary I’m reading right now calls the solution involving them joining the other tribes in the conquest while leaving their wives and children in fortified settlements a compromise. But I see no delay and discussion. It looks to me as though they already had that ready, but hadn’t managed to roll it out.

Moses reacts. Forty years ago other Israelites did this, and it’s right at the top of his mind. He remembers those people and those lessons, and he’s not about to let anyone forget the lesson.

About 40 years before some other people had sinned. In fact, their actions were only similar in a superficial way, but Moses had learned the lesson well. Perhaps too well. Someone could put ham in his hash browns once, but never again! He calls them a brood of sinners while reminding them of past failings.

It may seem that I’m being a bit disrespectful in my treatment of Moses, a man who spoke to God face-to-face. But if there’s anything we learn from the broader story of scripture it’s that every human being has weaknesses. Scripture is not afraid to take note of those weaknesses. Now Moses becomes a special case. I was working through Hebrews 3:1-6 this morning as well, and the argument that Jesus is greater than Moses. That argument must be made because of the great respect we grant Moses as Christians.

The thing is that having learned his lesson, he applied it where it didn’t really apply. The continuing discussion makes it clear that these elders are not opposed to conquering Canaan, nor do they want to shirk their responsibilities. They’re simply proposing a plan for making good use of this land.

Moses, to his credit, calms down, considers the situation, and they all agree to a plan. It’s a reasonable ending to a story.

But for me, it’s a reminder that sometimes we do need to forget the faults and failings of others. Our own as well! And we don’t need to fit everyone into the narrative of past failures. The failure Moses remembers was real and it was important. It was a failure that did not need to be repeated. But Moses misapplied it to these elders.

Brood of sinners? No, just looking for a good place to care for their flocks.


Numbers 30-31, Biblical Cultural Shock, and the Process of Hermeneutics

Numbers 30-31, Biblical Cultural Shock, and the Process of Hermeneutics

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Since I wrote recently about biblical culture shock, and have also commented from time to time on our impatience with the process in politics, it was interesting for me to come to Numbers 30 and 31 in my evening reading.

Numbers 30 is a sort of kinder, gentler sort of culture shock. It’s about vows in general, and more particularly about women and vows. When can “a woman’s man” abrogate her vow. If you read this passage negatively, there’s a certain sense that a woman needs to be protected from rash vows by a sensible man, whether by her father or her husband.

Underlying that is a much more robust view of the sacredness of the vow in the first place. Promises are somewhat weaker in our modern society, so we really have two levels of culture (at least) in this passage to get past. The first is the idea that a rash vow to do something stupid would actually be binding. I think our modern view would be that if it’s rash and stupid, don’t do it, and God will forgive you. If it’s a verbal agreement with someone else, we still might wiggle out. Even if it’s in writing, we’ll probably try. But those “outs” are not permitted by the text.

It’s important to note a category of cultural issue here. We have to adjust to the question in order to understand the answer. No, this isn’t presented in question and answer format, but much of Torah is answering various questions about how a group of people will come to be a society and live together. How do we work things out? There are other passages in scripture where this problem occurs. Take 1 Corinthians 14:40 as an example. I’ve heard this quoted so many times, often to state that we must rigorously follow the order of service contained in the bulletin. But the question Paul is answering here is not “can there be deviations from the church bulletin?” Rather, he’s talking about a large group coming together in which most people feel they have something to express in the gathering. (What about church bulletins? Use your common sense. I’d suggest saving trees by not printing them.)

So once we’ve gotten past that, we have the next issue which is the subjection of the women to men in what is clearly a serious spiritual issue. There is an assumption underlying this passage that the responsible spiritual decision maker in the home is a man, whether the father or the husband. It is on his action that the result is based.

I’m an egalitarian, and so, I suspect, are many of my readers. I don’t want to debate that right now. Whether you are egalitarian or complementarian, consider your reaction to the passage in connection with your existing beliefs about the roles of men and women. I’m reading this passage through with the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, with the Numbers portion written by Dale A. Brueggeman. Here’s a quote regarding vows in the New Testament:

As in this text, wives were expected to be subject to their husbands (Eph 5:22-24; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet 3:1-7), although mutual consent had become a strong consideration (1 Cor 7:4). … (397)

So we’re going to find some variety among Christians today in how they might relate to the relationship between men and women reflected in this passage, as well as to the general idea of a vow.

The attitude toward vows becomes a critical element of Alden Thompson’s exposition of what he calls “the worst story in the Old Testament” in chapter 6 (pp. 99-123) of his book Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. The passage covered is Judges 19-21. There the nation of Israel has sworn a rash vow that they will not give any of their daughters to the Benjaminites as wives. When they find that they have reduced the tribe of Benjamin to a small number of men (no women at all!) they want to find a way out. Now the modern idea would be to get together and repeal the previous vote, but the sacredness of the vow/oath is such that this isn’t an option for them. Instead, they find alternative ways to provide wives. (You’ll have to read the passage.)

I would suggest that, contrary to Alden’s chapter title (as much as I like it), the next chapter in Numbers may be the worst story in the Old Testament. Numbers 31 is pretty dismal. Those who might call Christianity or Judaism violent religions might well cite a passage like this one.

And herein lies the question of interpretation. We find it easy to bypass or ignore a passage like Numbers 31. You’ll find very few Christians who believe that the behavior of the Israelites, even though it is presented as divine command, is something we would apply today. We’ll have various reasons for doing so, and in looking at how we apply this passage, we can discover a great deal about how we interpret scripture.

Think about how you do it. Then compare how you respond to Number 31 with how you responded to Numbers 30. Are the two approaches the same? Or do you have a sort of ad hoc explanation which comes out with a result you “know” is right, but which cannot be applied universally?

I’d suggest that we need to consider our method of biblical interpretation carefully and ask whether the same method works everywhere.

I wrote something about Numbers 31 for the spring issue of Sharing the Practice. You can find that article online, Preaching an Unpreachable Passage.

The Priestly Trajectory in Scripture

The Priestly Trajectory in Scripture

Many people regard the idea of trajectories in scripture as largely a method of avoiding “what the Bible clearly teaches.” I believe that there are clear trajectories in the teaching of scripture, and that in those cases one must be careful that one applies the correct principle to modern times.

One such trajectory deals with priesthood and access to the sacred. I was taught that the tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem were symbols of God’s presence. And in a sense they were. But they were also filled with symbolism of humanity’s separation from God. Notice how you progress from “outside the camp” to “the camp” to the place where the Levites were encamped closer to the tabernacle itself, then to the courtyard, then the outer room (often called just “the holy place”) and finally to the inner room (“the most holy place”) where we find the Ark of the Covenant and there, between the cherubim, we have the symbol of God’s presence. It’s not filled with an idol, as it might have been in other near eastern temples. God cannot be represented. But there is a sense of separation.

I was reminded of this yesterday when my reading took me to Numbers 18 and 19. If you read both, I think you’ll see the sense of separation. Even the Levites were not permitted to approach certain sacred objects. Those were reserved for the priests alone. In Numbers 19, with the ritual of the red heifer, you have references to “outside the camp.”

Now this is not a New Testament vs. Old Testament trajectory. Exodus 19:6 makes the goal clear: a priestly kingdom. 1 Peter 2:9 makes the application to Christians: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,[c] in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (NRSV, from Bible Gateway).

So why all the separation between? The answer lies in Exodus 20, I think. It is there that the people respond to God’s voice.

18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid[d] and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (NRSV, again via Bible Gateway).

Now our tendency as Christians is to see this as a failing of Israel, corrected in the church. But I think it is a mistake to read it that way. One of my principles of application (not necessarily of exegesis) is to point the text at yourself first. Whether we admit it or not, we behave this way every day. Let the pastor pray, study, listen to God, and proclaim. Let us sit passively on Sunday morning and hear what God has told the pastor. I visited a United Church of Christ recently. They have a motto, “God is still speaking.” It’s a good one, I think. But the real question is this: Are we still listening? All of us?

Our tendency is to say in good southern style, “God is still speaking. Isn’t that special?” The point being that we want to distance ourselves from anything that gets us too close to the edge, too likely to make people question our sanity. We want God to say comfortable things. It’s easier to only hear comfortable things if you let the pastor do all the listening, and get them properly filtered and shaped into a good sermon.

This week’s Lectionary Psalm is Psalm 99:

YHWH reigns
let peoples shudder
he sits on the cherubim
let the earth be displaced. (Translation from Seeing the Psalter, p. 312)

We don’t admit the fear of hearing from God. We like the idea that God might still speak. What we don’t want is for God to displace the earth. We don’t want him to say anything that would make us shudder. We live in Exodus 20, standing at a distance, appointing our pastors and church staff members as “Moses.”

We’re supposed to be living in John 4, worshiping in spirit and truth, or in 2 Corinthians 6:16, as the “temple of the living God.”

I learned about this in studying Leviticus using Jacob Milgrom’s 2200 page, 3 volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series. He maintains (summarizing from a sweep of many passages in his book) that the call to distinguish sacred from profane was part of training, a teaching function of the ritual system, and that the call to be holy (Leviticus 19:2) points to the sacred overcoming the profane. More, not less, comes to belong to the sacred sphere. I really should write a post on this subject in particular at some point and bring some material from that commentary to bear, but that will take more time. Condensing 2200 pages, none of them wasted in my view, is not easy!

But what I saw in Numbers 18 & 19 was that separation them, the one that comes after Exodus 20. It’s not God pulling back from humanity, but rather God accommodating our fear, our unwillingness to get too close to the sacred. To paraphrase another expression, not everyone who says they’re happy to hear from God actually is.

And I do think there is a role for pastors and for priests in the modern church and world, though that role is primarily in terms of outreach. The church should be carrying out a priestly role to the world, mediating the sacred to those around, being Jesus in living, physical, present form. That is the priesthood of all believers, individually and collectively. We do not require a priest to get to God. Prayers by the pastor are not better than prayers by individual members. We should all at various times be receivers and conveyors or God’s Word.

I want to note, in addition, that I’m not speaking solely of those who believe that people in the congregation receive prophetic words. I’m speaking of those who hear God speak through scripture as well as those who hear in their minds, see visions, or catch God’s voice coming through the natural world.

A royal priesthood. Do we really want it? Can we stand it? Will we give up our individual superiority (and inferiority!) so it can happen?

PS: As I was writing this, notice came in of a post by Bob Cornwall, author of Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, dealing with ordination (book extract). Note his conclusion:

Although our churches may use a variety of structural forms, it’s important to recognize that the church isn’t a democracy, ruled by majority vote. It’s also not a clerical autocracy where elite groups of clergy hold sway. In a gift based ecclesiology, there’s the assumption the Spirit rules, and we are tasked with discerning where the Spirit is leading. This is true no matter what structure we happen to be a part of.

“Discerning where the Spirit is leading” is not easy!

One Law for Yourselves and for the Alien (Numbers 15:16) – An Exercise in Application

One Law for Yourselves and for the Alien (Numbers 15:16) – An Exercise in Application

The Pentateuch is one key source for Christian debates about the treatment of aliens (especially illegal aliens) here in the United States. There are a number of commands that might apply, and they are interpreted differently, or perhaps seen as applicable or inapplicable, by the different sides in fairly predictable ways.

For example, Leviticus 19:34 – “Like a citizen shall the Ger who is living (cognate of Ger) among you be to you, and you shall love/befriend him as yourself, for you were Gerim (pl) in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (My literal translation). On the one hand it seems rather clear. The Israelites were instructed not to mistreat the non-citizens living among them. They were to treat them well. Milgrom notes that “…‘ãhab is related to its semantic cognates in the diplomatic vocabulary of ancient Near Eastern treaties which denote fidelity and loyalty pledged by a vassal to his suzerain as well as the reciprocal obligations of support owed by the suzerain to the vassal.” Thus the treatment of the foreigner was in a sense guaranteed as part of the covenant, as Israel’s obligation to God. This didn’t refer to an emotional response, but to lawful and principled treatment. (I commend to you all of Milgrom’s comments on the word “ger” in his Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2000, 1416-1420.)

So the first approach might be to simply transfer the command to the present. The Israelites were commanded to do this. God must think it’s a good idea. We should do the same thing. We would, of course, have to deal with details such as what today would constitute a ger, or resident alien, and the differences in borders and how they were handled then as opposed to now.

Of course, we are not Israel, we were not guided out of Egypt where we were once slaves, though we use those experiences as metaphors for elements in our spiritual lives. So this is also very clearly a command given to Israel. It may be applicable to us in principle, but it is not directed at us as gentiles. Thus one approach to application would be to say that it doesn’t apply to us at all.

Another approach is to deal with the niggling detail of defining what a ger would be in our society. Perhaps such a person is only a legal alien who has established residency. In that case, the text would have nothing to do with any illegal aliens at all.

I like to test people by asking them to apply Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 19:33-34. Very few people apply both equally. Generally they apply one but explain around the other. It’s an interesting test of your hermeneutics (the way you interpret scripture). Look at these two texts and ask if either or both of them apply to people in the church today. Why or why not?

The text that I was reading this morning, however, was Numbers 15:16 – “There will be one torah and one mishpat for you and for the ger who is living among you” (again my literal translation). Milgrom (op. cit.) identifies torah here as religious law and mishpat as civil law. The principle is again very clear, in my view. This puts in to practice the “love” that is commanded in Leviticus 19:34. By applying the principles and particular commands of the covenant to the foreigners living among them, the Israelites were obeying that command.

In practice, it turned out that foreigners weren’t subject to precisely the same religious laws. It was quite possible to adjust provide specific exceptions that derived from the fact that they were not Israelites and therefore lacked some of the obligations of Israelites. Note that the gerim were given relief from some laws. No extra requirements were imposed on them.

Again, quite clearly this command is not giving to us as modern Christians living in America. I would, however, suggest that it expresses a principle and gives us an idea of God’s intention. It’s an application itself of the principles contained in the golden rule: Do to others as you would have them do to you.

There are a number of things this leaves unanswered, but I think that this same question would apply in our Christian answer to each of these questions. Who should be able to come through our borders and settle and work here? Does it mandate open borders? I don’t think it answers that question and the nature of borders in the time of Israel was much different from what it is now. What about children born in our country of people living here illegally? Again, it isn’t explicit, because it doesn’t speak to a time when such a thing could occur. The person who was in Israel living and working was a ger, and the law would apply to him. For a certain number of generations, his children would be gerim, and the law would apply to them. We now have a legal situation in which someone can be a legal resident alien or, on the other hand, be an alien and residing but not legal.

I can see a number of ways to apply the law there, but at a minimum, I think it would mandate that we treat not just fairly but generously those whose situation is not of their own making, as in the children of illegal aliens.

What I do not think is that this passage mandates an immigration policy. Israel’s law provides us with principles and those principles are reiterated in other contexts by Jesus. (Jesus didn’t experience an immigration situation. The resident aliens of his day were generally in charge!) These principles are primarily applicable to each of us in the way we personally treat others, but I think they would also be applicable in the way we act in society as well.

Numbers 13: Biography of a Rumor

Numbers 13: Biography of a Rumor

Yesterday I was recommending the chapters in Numbers, starting around 11, as “thinking fodder” regarding the way God works with people. But there’s some really good stuff there about how people deal with people as well.

Even though many won’t remember that it comes from Numbers 13, the most famous line from the chapter is some version of “we even saw giants there” (v. 28, NLT). It’s good to think of how we overcome the giants in our lives. I note that the Israelites were just fine until nearly the end. Some commentators object to the sending of the spies, citing Deuteronomy 1:20-23, but according to this passage, that was at God’s command. They looked, they evaluated, then they returned to the people in command.

Those who have worked in military intelligence will know that the guys who collect the information don’t make the decisions about what is to be done. Your job is to find things out. You report to competent authorities who then make the decisions as to what action to take.

The Israelite spies were asked to discover precisely the sort of things they reported. What they weren’t asked to do was determine whether an invasion was possible. They got ahead of the game. Now I know these guys weren’t professional spies. They were, themselves, leaders. But they didn’t separate themselves from the emotions of the moment and think the situation through.

But the interesting thing here is to read the actual report of the spies in verses 27-29 and then compare it to the rumor that is spread in verses 32-33. Have you ever observed something similar? A small financial problem mentioned in the finance committee, if leaked, can become an imminent closure of the church by Sunday. The results of that can be much like those in Numbers 14.

I’m skipping over the idea of divine aid in this case. The Israelites were defeated by their rumor before they’d even considered a strategy.

Finally, I’d just note that this is one of the things I find most interesting in Torah (or the Pentateuch). It reflects human ideas and attitudes in a very raw form. Often we allow the miracles, the environment, and the very different cultural background to overtake the simple human drama that is taking place.

Impartation: In Which I Say I Was Wrong

Impartation: In Which I Say I Was Wrong

For those who are not familiar with it, impartation, at least in charismatic circles refers to passing on a gift, or even on occasion a calling or anointing when one person or persons lays hands on another. I’m not going to try to summarize the various views on this. First, I’m not fully acquainted with them. Second, that’s not my purpose.

Bottom line is that the whole concept of things passed on via laying on of hands with prayer or blessing is something that I have not liked very much from the first time I heard of it. It sounded too much like people treating the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts as a personal possession, sort of like that pair of socks one received for Christmas and then passed on, hopefully before it got holes in it. On a more serious note the conflict is really between an idea of complete divine sovereignty over the gifts and the idea of human involvement.

What I have believed and taught up until now has tended to focus on divine sovereignty. God decides who to give the gifts to, and if anything human action is required at all it is simply a recognition of what God has already done. Similarly I would maintain that God does healing with or without any particular action on our part, and thus would not recognize a continuing gift of healing as such. We take action; God heals; the two don’t relate a great deal.

Two things have combined to change my view. The first was our Sunday School study using Bruce Epperly’s book Healing Marks. I cannot point to just one place, but with support from the healing stories of Jesus, Bruce emphasizes the way in which God works with and through people. It may seem to “protect” God to emphasize how little control we have, but it doesn’t reflect the way in which scripture speaks of God’s activity in the world.

I’m not going to go through all of the arguments here. They involve multiple chapters in the book. I think both the ideas involved with healing and of impartation share a common element, in that in both we have God’s gifts, and in both we have a danger both of losing the divine and the human elements.

I think my way of expressing this over the last few years has tended to lose the human element.

This coalesced in reading Numbers a couple of days ago. An amazing amount of my thinking has developed while reading the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. In this case I was reading the story in Numbers 11 in which Moses complains to God, and God tells Moses to bring 70 elders from the tribes. Numbers 11:35 reports that God took some of the spirit that was on Moses and gave it to the 70. (We later find out that two more receive the spirit, which brings up some interesting thoughts.)

There are even some commentators who believe this “taking” of the spirit from Moses was some kind of punishment for his complaining, but I think this is contradicted by the rather vigorous way in which the complaints of Miriam and Aaron are dealt with in chapter 12. There’s some important material there I will incorporate in my comments on Hebrews later. There the special position of Moses as one who spoke with God face to face is strongly re-emphasized.

Now this story is in no sense a proof-text for my change of view. In fact, one could read this story either way. I read it in the context of what I learned of Leviticus when studying Jacob Milgrom’s three volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series. God moves the people of Israel in the ceremonies he commands from the idea of some sort of magic or human manipulation of God to an understanding that God acts. It is not the ceremony that makes God act. For example, one offers a sacrifice, but God forgives.

What this story did for me was outline the ideas that are in conflict. It is the spirit that is on Moses (the human) that is taken and imparted to the 70 who are gathered. We are not told of any ritual or ceremony, but there may well have been. Then at the same time God touches two people who aren’t actually there. (I commend to your attention Numbers 11-14, with particular emphasis on how divine and human action combine. It’s interesting reading!)

God is always working, but he in scripture he is continually presented as working in and with human beings. It is possible that when you touch someone and pray for their healing, a healing “power” will go out of you and help the person for whom you are praying. It’s the “out of you” with which I have been uncomfortable. I think I’ll have to learn to live with it!