Friday, June 29, 2018

faith, sin, Moses' Insight

The Lord Jesus repeatedly warns us against doubt and fear. The command to love might be expanded to say "faithful, trusting, courageous love." Defining terms is always the key. Love and faith are especially important terms to define correctly.

The Morning Office readings assigned for this date is Numbers 20. We read that Miriam dies, she is the feminine member of the human trinity (with her brothers Moses and Aaron)  which leads Israel in the desert. Recall, she played a key role in saving Moses' life as a baby. We then read that there is no water. Water is a rich symbol in the Bible, both for evil (chaos) and good (refreshment, cleansing). In the NT Jesus refers to living water flowing out of the Believer. On the literal level, to have no water is to die of thirst. In a spiritual reading the death of Miriam and lack of water can be seen as the loss of the feminine/spiritual. The reaction of Israel, in either case, is open rebellion. The Blue Letter Bible says that the Hebrew riyb literally means to grab by the hair in a conflict. It means to strive or contend with, hence to doubt; or to contend with in a legal dispute. The congregation of Israel gathers "over/against" (the connotation is to be above) Moses and Aaron and "contends'' with them about the issue. However, ten verses later the text says that Israel was contending with the Lord. God and the leaders of His congregation are closely aligned, a high ecclesiology indeed.

We have heard this before, Israel quickly loses faith, bemoans her fate and appeals to the good old days of slavery. Israel, when confronted with hunger and thirst, is prone to lose hope. Spiritually, this is akin to what Jesus exhorts His disciples not to do. "Keep faith. Be brave. Do not let the threats you face turn you from God."

The word for "contend" first occurs three times in Genesis 26:20-22, where Jacob digs wells and the neighbors contend with him for the land. First parallel, note the presence of water/well. The next occurrence of the word, in Genesis 31:36, Jacob contends with Laban for pursuing him when he is innocent. Note Moses and Aaron are also innocent in this quarrel about water.

God, in His mercy, chooses to hear Israel's complaint and faithfully responds. He commands Moses to strike the rock with Aaron's rod. Yesterday we read that many rejected Moses' and Aaron's leadership role. Some claimed that they were worthy to be priests of God. God's response was to have Israel gather twelve staffs, each with the name of a tribe on it. God said that He would make clear who was His priest, and the next day Levi/Aaron's staff was budding flowers and almonds. Now that same staff is to be used to hit the rock and cause water to flow.

Moses strikes the rock. Twice. God tells him that for doubting he will not enter into the Land of Promise...

While here and in Deuteronomy 32 ("you shall die there on the mountain...because both of you broke faith with me among the Israelites at he water of Meribath-kadesh in he wilderness of Zin") the reason is the same, breaking faith/doubting earlier in Deuteronomy Moses seems to give a different spin on things.  He tells the people (Dtn 1:26) "you rebelled against the Lord...(1:32) you have no trust. (1:35 God said not one of the evil generation would see the land except Joshua and Caleb) Moses then concludes "even with me the Lord was angry on your account, saying, "You shall not enter there." Moses said he prayed to enter the land (Dtn 3:26) "But the Lord was angry with me on your account and would not heed me. The Lord said, "Enough from you! Never speak to me of this matter again...for you shall not cross over this Jordan." Then for a third time he blames them, "The Lord was angry with me because of you..." (Dtn 4:21)

This second component adds another layer to the story. While the Scriptures tell us much, we must be careful not to think they tell us all. Three times Moses says that it is Israel's fault. Can this be a peek into a more complex explanation for Moses' punishment? Or is it the product of another tradition (like the multiple explanations given for why Moses got other chiefs to help him judge Israel)? Our assumptions about the Bible will limit our options for understanding this mystery.

The idea that a leader is held to a higher standard and is responsible for the people s/he serves/leads is found elsewhere, i.e., James 3:1 (not many should become teachers... for you will be judged with greater strictness.") Ezekiel was told that he would be held responsible if he failed to warn the people (Ez 3:18, 33:6) which is similar to Moses' role. The modern view, with its focus on individuality, does not easily understand the ancient concepts of corporate guilt, or the leader suffering for the sins of the people (does that last phrase ring a bell? Jesus who dies to save Israel, and by extension the world, from its sin!) The Modern world is consumed with facts, individualism, rationality and other good, but also limiting approaches to reality. We do well to enter the text to hear more ancient views and interpretations.

Moses hits the rock twice and cannot enter the promised land; it seems harsh. Perhaps there lurks a spiritual warning. To enter the promised land (symbol of Kingdom of God) requires faith. The rod of the true priest (Aaron here is a type of Christ) is the wood (type of cross) which strikes the rock (a type of the hardened hearts of sinful humanity) and releases the life giving waters (Holy Spirit--God's own life)--hence, I discern an insight into theosis, because a rock//human heart cannot generate water//Holy Spirit so it must come as a miraculous gift. God encompasses the rock and makes it a stream, God fills the human heart and makes it a divine dwelling place.

The message is clear: doubt and unbelief is the problem, a barrier to entering the kingdom. It matters not if you are a foot away from the door or ten miles, in both cases you are outside the house. Like a football player who is tackled on the one foot line, or a the baseball player whose hit was an inch from being fair, we are all in a situation where our sin (failure to hit the target), which is best understood as a failure to be united in mind and heart with God, are a barrier to communion with God.

Do not misread my reflection, I am not denying that Moses is with God. What I am saying is that this story in this text teaches us that failure to obey is a function of unbelief and has consequences. Was Moses worried, confused, afraid? We do not know. Why did he double tap the rock? what motivated him? Again, I think we do not know. Perhaps we would do better to ask, why do I waver? Why do I disobey? Why am I afraid or doubtful?

We are on the journey to union with God. The fullness of His healing love in a saving communion. Let us not waver or doubt. Let us do as He commands. And when we fail, let us accept our fate in faithful, loving obedience. Even if, at times, it is also the fault of others...

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