Putting the Name on Them
Almost every Sunday I end the worship service with the same words.
Numbers 6:24–26 (NIV)
24 “ ‘ “The Lord bless you and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” ’
I do this like my father did it, and his father before him. What does it mean?
“No Longer Axiomatic”
Over the last year or so I’ve been on and off wrestling with a very large and difficult book. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wanted to answer one of the most puzzling questions about our times. Why is it that 1500 years ago almost everyone believed in God in a very basic way, but today it is not so simple. He says it this way.
… the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives.
Charles Taylor. A Secular Age (p. 3). Kindle Edition.
Axiomatic means “self-evident” or “unquestionable”.
Last week we looked at the practice of implicitly bargaining with God. As we saw in the opening illustration even in 1978 the character of Wendell Lawson in “The End” unself-consciously connected the medical news of his imminent death with a response towards God. By 2013 another Hollywood comedy “This is the End” would treat the end of the world but in this case God was not so much the figure you expect at the end of the hall but an intruder. Even in the middle of the 20th century most people would expect to see God at their death, today it would come as a great surprise to many. In 1978 most might question God’s judgment on their lives. In 2013 most might image they could demand an explanation by God to justify his own existence. It all just simply comes as a surprise.
Given this change for a minister to stand up in front of a church, raise his hands and make this pronouncement upon the people seems anachronistic, superstitious and just plain odd.
A Scientific Approach
I suppose an open minded person might suggest that all this blessing pronouncing could in fact be measured to see if it really does amount to anything. Carefully track the lives of those who receive this blessing and compare it to those who don’t and see if the blessed group are really… blessed.
How would we, however, measure this blessing? Do people who are blessed win the lottery more? Do their children stay out of trouble? Do they live longer or have better marriages?
You’d have to of course separate out the variables. You’d need people who are hearing the same sermons, singing the same songs, sharing important socio-economic variables to distinguished of the blessing of the “blessed” group really outperforms the groups that just get God and religion and everything else BUT the blessing. Could we discern whether or not “the blessing” works?
Counting the Blessing
The blessing comes early on in the book of Numbers. Most of us who are accustomed to hearing the blessing completely out of context. Few of us have much knowledge about the book of Numbers.
Numbers of course follows Leviticus and in some ways picks up the story of Exodus after all of the covenant law and promises were laid down in Leviticus. Numbers begins with the numbering of the people. The numbers the book opens up with are very large, about 600 thousand men of soldiering age, plus women and children and old folks. They get numbered by tribe, etc. The point is that this number is supposed to be compared to the 70 men (plus women and children) who sheltered the lean years in Egypt only to multiply and become slaves. One point of the numbering is to demonstrate the blessing of God that is noted at the beginning of the book of Exodus. Israel has been exceedingly, alarmingly (to Pharaoh) fruitful and has multiplied. Blessing proven by numbers!
If Israel got schooled by God in holiness in Exodus and Leviticus in Numbers she is ready to march. Israel is numbered like an army, arranged like and army, and drilled to be ready to march whenever the glory cloud of God that lives over the tabernacle moves to a new spot. Israel is arrayed like an army ready to march into her new land, take it by force with God’s help (or God take it with their help) and make progress in God’s program to undue human rebellion.
The declaration of this blessing comes at an important time in the story. All is ready. The verse that follows the blessing given states quite clearly what the blessing is for.
27 “So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
Israel will be the LORD’s flag, his emblem, his people, the manifestation of his kingdom rule on display for the world to see. The blessing has been counted, the law has been given, God’s dwelling among them (the Tabernacle) is in place, they’re ready to roll.
We are positioned to undertake the definitive study of the power of God’s blessing.
Those of you who know your Bible trivia might know something of what’s coming. The children of Israel have only been in the desert a couple of years. Didn’t they spend 40 in the wilderness?
When I was a boy in Sunday School I learned some of the stories from the book of Numbers but a grim fact about the numbers wasn’t made clear to me and is seldom made clear by many Bible story tellers. Those being Numbered in the beginning of the story are being numbered for death.
Without giving too much away (spoiler alert! on a most widely published book in human history) after Israel is numbered, drilled, lawed and ordered, tabernacled and readied to march the wheels will once again come off the program. Ten of the twelves spies will get cold feet and not believe the God who beat Pharaoh can deliver on moving out the minor league nations that currently occupied “the promised land”. God will again threaten to disinherit them. Moses again will intervene and Israel will be spared. God will declare, however, that none of the 600k that were ready to rumble will inherit the land. It will be their sons and daughters whose fate the faithless feared for.
Israel would wander, not march, wander in the wilderness for 40 years, biding time until they all died of one thing or another.
The Genocide No One Complains About
It’s a regular thing today to hear people complain about God’s command to take the land at the expense of the Canaanites. We never hear about God’s decision to let the children of Israel who witnessed the Exodus die in the wilderness.
The Canaanite genocide never happened. I don’t just mean the lack of archaeological evidence for a massive invasion, but even the Biblical account. Joshua would move the people in but the point of the book of Judges is that Israel never followed through to her own misery. According to the text, however, God did make good on his promise to let the 600,000 die in the wilderness and let a new generation enter the land. We’re just not offended at this command because most of them we can assumed died of “natural causes”. This doesn’t offend us. We should ponder this, however. Shouldn’t the natural, universal, everyday genocide of the age of decay offend us and move us to anger? Why not? This genocide didn’t of course just happen in the desert, it continues around all of us every day and we harbor little offense towards it.
What’s amazing about the rebellion of the 10 spies who didn’t believe enough to proceed with God’s plan is that they had no plan of their own. What would they do? Go back to Egypt? What they actually opted for was the wilderness and that is exactly what God gives them. Perhaps the reason we aren’t offended at this divine genocide is that this was a self-genocide, a destination of the people’s own choosing. What finally really offends us about God? It is that he can resist us, deny us, will not finally move aside to allow us to be God in his stead.
Numbers 14:29–34 (NET)
29 Your dead bodies will fall in this wilderness—all those of you who were numbered, according to your full number, from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against me. 30 You will by no means enter into the land where I swore to settle you. The only exceptions are Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. 31 But I will bring in your little ones, whom you said would become victims of war, and they will enjoy the land that you have despised. 32 But as for you, your dead bodies will fall in this wilderness, 33 and your children will wander in the wilderness forty years and suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your dead bodies lie finished in the wilderness. 34 According to the number of the days you have investigated this land, forty days—one day for a year—you will suffer for your iniquities, forty years, and you will know what it means to thwart me.
This sermon isn’t about the whole story of Numbers. We will hopefully unfold that story bit by bit later on, it is about the blessing, the blessing that we have so much doubt in. The strangeness of the blessing should now be seen.
God tells Aaron to stand up, raise up his hands and pronounce this audacious blessing on the people. At this point in the story Aaron and probably everyone imagines that this will be a simple, straight forward thing. This powerful God who totally dominated Egypt is ready to rumble, kicking ass and naming names. This blessing will be a powerful thing that will guarantee “blessing” itself.
How would they understand blessing? Simple. It’s articulated numerous times. Victory over your enemies. Abundance and prosperity in fertility. Security for your families. Good health for all. It isn’t much different from what we’re looking at.
We know, however, that they will in fact receive the opposite of this. The people who first saw Aaron stand up and pronounce these words would die in the desert, eating manna, complaining about the food and the water, living out their little lives only to die in the desert never seeing the promised land. How are they blessed again?
Someone might rightly protest that the blessings were available to the people but they disqualified themselves by their continued rebellion and poor choices. This is undoubtedly true. Joshua and Caleb WILL be allowed a longer life, blessing and good fortune to enter the land while everyone else dies. The message is “blessing is for those who deserve it.”
This is a nice thought, of course, but bear in mind that before this blessing was given the waters of “deserving” have been plenty murky indeed.
- God was blessing Israel in Egypt even when Israel didn’t remember God or even his name.
- Israel, and especially Aaron had already been plenty rebellious previously in the Golden Calf incident and other murmurings.
As we’ve seen before you can’t really simply dismiss the question of morality but neither can or should you simply reduce everything to it.
Announcing the Blessing
Blessing is fundamentally the favor of God, a promise that God is on your side, he has your back and that he will bring good to you. The blessing itself here is a masterpiece of simplicity and power.
- The blessing is three lines, the first with three words, the second five and the third seven.
- Of the 15 words in the blessing 3 of them are the LORD’s name.
For a people who had an affinity for mathematical beauty this must have been breathtaking.
Here is the progression of the 6 ideas:
- Blessing (what’s being given)
- keeping (protection, preservation, security, deliverance from evil)
- make his face to shine upon you (the face of God that Moses can’t see shines, radiates, projects, enlightens you and your path)
- be gracious to you (grace, mercy, favor from God to you)
- he lift up his face towards you (again with the face of God, a second time, and the lifting of his face is significant, powerful and intentional)
- and give you peace/shalom (full well-being, the way things ought to be)
The first idea and the last are the most global. The LORD BLESS you, and give you his PEACE (shalom). Shalom for the Hebrews was as large a word for well-being or “the way it ought to be” as there is. This is a blessing that brings us all the way home.
The third and the fifth idea involve the face of God. God’s face is the most intimate part of him. Moses himself couldn’t see God’s face and live. Here the blessing has the name of God three times and two references to the face of God.
The center of the blessing, like the beginning and the end is the favor, grace and mercy of God towards his people.
God himself is the actor of this. It is not that God is available to do this if people take advantage of it, it is God’s mission towards his people, given to his people.
The language of this is what grammarians call “the jussive” Andy Crouch in his book on God and Power talks about the jussive as it is grammar of creation.
The first chapter of Genesis is full of the goodness and good results of creative power. Genesis begins not with violence but with breath and word. The Creator God does not need to wrest being out of chaos; instead, God calmly speaks the simple words “Let there be.” These words, in what grammarians call the “jussive” form, are not direct imperatives. They are simultaneously more powerful and less controlling than that.
Crouch, Andy (2013-09-09). Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (p. 32). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
This voice is blessing is the creator’s voice, the voice that leaves room for us. It is a power that will work below and beneath finally bringing all things to where he wants them to be. This is the same God that will not snuff out the smoldering wick or break the broken reed.
Our Linear Imagination of Blessing
So Israel now stands, 600,000 lined up, bright and shiny ready to go.
- They’ve got their soldiers counted.
- They’ve their marching drills perfected.
- They’ve got God’s own rules given to them in words. They know what to do to be blessed
- They’ve got a shiny new tabernacle with God’s glory cloud clearly installed
- They remember the 10 plagues, water from the rock, the Red Sea crossing, etc.
- Now they’ve got the blessing, nothing can stop them now
Except themselves. And it will. We are the flaw in God’s plan, every time.
The same people that stood before Aaron and received these words for the first time will also receive word that they will all die in the desert, unknown and forgotten. Does that mean the blessing doesn’t “work”?
Israel’s Story is Humanity’s Story
People have all kinds of doubts about the Bible.
- Too many miracles.
- God picks favorites, most of whom didn’t deserve it
- God gets too angry and kills too many people
The point of truthyness most gripping to me about the Bible is its realism about humanity. Israel’s story is our story, is my story. This is what I do with grace, favor, advantage and fortune. God blesses me and I mess it up, predictably, reliably, with incredible persistence.
God gives Israel everything to demonstrate that we are without excuse. For all the doubts we have about God one thing is certain, we are the authors of our own misery and disaster.
Another thing is sure, we have trouble seeing this fact about ourselves. We can easily see it in others but we practice individual exemption delusion. We persist in insisting that others failure are their own fault by my failures belong to God and sorry wretches I share home and planet with. Everyone else is to blame but me.
Israel is God’s chosen people but we seldom observe what they seemed to have been chosen for. It seems clear to me they were chosen to suffer.
Misery: Believing in Blessing But Experiencing Suffering
And here we come to the heart of the story of Israel. Israel is the people of the promise from Abraham forward. Israel receives the blessing of God. This enormous, powerful blessing and by a God unlike the other gods. This God is eventually claimed to eclipse all other gods but his people seem to experience anything but blessing.
- They will WANDER in the desert 40 years until a generation dies off
- Their moment of triumph with Joshua will be followed by utter catastrophe of Judges
- Their brief triumph in David and Solomon will be squandered in hundreds of years of civil war which will end in absorption in the greater empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece and then Rome
- Some will put their hope in Jesus only to see him crucified by the Romans
- Their grief is turned to joy at the resurrection but then Jesus, instead of using his power to deliver Israel from Rome ascends and leaves his Holy Spirit. His followers will preach all over the world but mostly die violent deaths
So is this a blessing you really want?
Deliverance: Believing in this Jussive Blessing
I began by expressing the doubts common to our culture. The idea that some guy standing up in front of a group of people making claims and promises based on the words of this ancient Hebrew God actually meaning something or changing anything in this world seems preposterous. If we were to do a scientific experiment having an incredibly open mind about any possible real world power to this blessing we’d have to look at the story of the Jews and we would probably given the track record imagine that of all people this people has bad luck if they have any at all. If this is what “chosen” means then you might suggest that God choose someone else!
It is in this jussive mood, however, that we see Jesus. Jesus is blessed but he embraces our curse. Jesus’ strange blessing, chosen to die, becomes for Christians our freedom and liberation. Jesus’ story is the completion of Israel’s story. It is in Jesus’ crucifixion that the power of the jussive blessing of God is revealed.
God will bless. We will fail. God will come around, beneath, through suffering and trial and failure only to find a way to bless still more.
Iluvatar and Melkor
JRR Tolkien who authored the Lord of the Rings created a world in which that great story is housed. Many of his writings would never find commercial success but his family published them anyway.
In his book The Silmarillion Tolkien tells a tale that I think best illustrates how this jussive blessing works through history. It is told in the image of a song. In this passage Iluvatar is the creator God figure and Melkor the devil, or the source of evil. Iluvatar is making music and Melkor continues to try to create competing music that will destroy the glory and rob Iluvatar of the joy of his creation and the joy of his creation. The Ainur are heavenly creatures something like angels.
Then Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty. But the discord of Melkor rose in uproar and contended with it, and again there was a war of sound more violent than before, until many of the Ainur were dismayed and sang no longer, and Melkor had the mastery.
Then again Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance.
The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.
In the midst of this strife, whereat the halls of Ilúvatar shook and a tremor ran out into the silences yet unmoved, Ilúvatar arose a third time, and his face was terrible to behold. Then he raised up both his hands, and in one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar, the Music ceased.
Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’
Tolkien, J. R. R. (2009-05-05). The Silmarillion (pp. 5-6). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
God blesses. We rebel. God puts us in the place our rebellion demanded of him and yet through it all the blessing persists and will not be thwarted.
The Blessing of Belief
I began by citing Charles Taylor and noting the difficulties of belief today. Believing in God, his goodness and his power is not automatic, it is in fact difficult for many of us. We may see this as a difficulty but we also see in this text that trust, which is the practical application of belief was difficult even for those who saw the mighty acts of God in the plagues, the Red Sea, the water from the rock, the voice of God on Sinai, the glory cloud of God over the Tabernacle.
You might say “well if I had all of that I’d surely believe”. I’d suggest that is another example of our ability to delude ourselves. Israel’s story is our own.
What you do have today is in some way the same that Aaron gave Israel. I will, as I do most weeks, speak those words over you. I will place the name of God upon you. I will invite you to believe in this story that begins with God’s asserted blessing and culminates in shalom for God’s creation. You will rebel. You will fail it. You will suffer, but will you believe. Will you believe that like the warring songs of Iluvatar and Melkor no matter how many monotonous, drowning out tunes Melkor throws into the mix that Iluvatar will always be able to work the song for glory and beauty? You will have to believe above and beyond what you can see or control. Do you believe that the mission of God for reclamation of glory cannot be stopped?
If you believe these things then happy are you, though you suffer, though sometimes you even stupidly rebel by refusing to trust in the work and power of God. If you believe in these things then what is natural is to join in the song of joy and do what that song does. It will be to believe in the blessing and to bless others with it. It will be to boldly proclaim in this doubtful, self-important world that its master is not far off but is in fact very near and will bring all violent monotonous songs back towards himself so that the story of the world moves from blessing to shalom via the intimate face of God.