Blotting Out Amalek

A couple of weeks ago, I commented on this passage from Exodus 17, about how Israel did the fighting and Joshua did the leading and Moses did the inspiring and Aaron and Her held up Moses’ hands so Israel could emerge victorious in the battle with Amalek.

Well, I meant to comment on this earlier, but work and moving and general crapulence got in the way (and another major project I am working on, which I will keep to myself), and I was never able to follow up.

But the few verses that followed in Exodus fascinated me:

14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” 15 And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The Lord Is My Banner, 16 saying, “A hand upon the throne of the Lord! The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” Exodus 17:14–16 (ESV)

There is a giant dose of irony here from God. “Write this down in a book and recite it — I will blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” Except that, in commanding Moses to write it down, Amalek is remembered. For generations to come.

Indeed, if Amalek is to be blotted out (a similar teaching is found in Deuteronomy 25:17–19, commanding Israel to both blot out the memory of Amalek and not forget), it never really happens. Saul is rejected as king because of his failure to exact a properly merciless vengeance upon Amalek (1 Samuel 15). David finally seems to make an end of them, at least he conquers and subdues Amalek (2 Samuel 8:11–12). David enslaves them, rather than exterminates them.

Again, there is an irony here. God commands Israel to destroy Amalek so thoroughly nothing will remain of them. No one will remember them. Except that the command itself, written down several times in scripture, is itself a record of Amalek, a memory of a people God demanded be so eradicated that nothing would be left.

We remember Amalek. Whenever we read this portion of scripture. This blotting out … it has not happened. It cannot happen, and if Jesus is correct about the word of the torah not passing away (until heaven and earth pass away), the memory of Amalek will persist. It will NEVER be blotted out.

I just think it curious. It is an example of so much of the tension of scripture — a command to do something in which the very act of speaking and commanding on God’s part undoes the very thing God commands. We remember Amalek. We cannot forget.

Nothing is blotted out.


God’s Work, Our Hands

Jennifer and I have been attending a Catholic church of late, and while they mostly follow the Revised Common Lectionary, there are some differences. The RCL’s reading for last Sunday, 16 October, was the Genesis 32 struggle between Jacob and the mysterious stranger, which seemed to work well with the Gospel reading about the persistent widow and the unjust judge in Luke 18.

However, the Catholics read this from Exodus instead:

8 Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. 9 So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 10 So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12 But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. 13 And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword. (Exodus 17:8–13 ESV)

As I was reading this passage, I realized I will have more to say about Amalek later, but what struck me on Sunday when this was read in church was just how many hands were needed here to do the work.

We don’t have an explicit statement here, as we do elsewhere, that God is fighting for Israel. This is Israel merely fighting in defense. This is a miracle, but not like at the Red Sea, or Jericho, or during the long battle with Benjamin. Israel fights, and Moses watches.

And he watches. And as long as his hands are raised, Israel prevails. Which is tiring, because battles in the ancient world, especially once soldiers closed with each other and melee was joined, were long, bloody, and disorganized knife fights. Knowing Moses is tired, his assistants provide him a place to sit, and hold up his hands.

No one man is responsible for this victory. Joshua leads the army, Moses inspires that army, and when he grows weary, Aaron and Hur help him. So the victory is won. And Amalek is defeated, at least for today.

Many hands make light the work.

We all have some kind of role to play in the kingdom of God. A few are called to lead the armies, more are called to wield the sword, some are called to inspire from the sidelines, and others … others are called to move rocks so that leaders may rest and hold up their arms so the inspiration can continue. I’m certain there are others, unnamed, unremembered, whose work makes possible the work we are called to do. That too is God-inspired, Spirit-filled, faithful work, the love of God working itself out in the world.

Nothing done faithfully in and for the kingdom, even if it’s only moving furniture, even if its holding someone up, is wasted. All of it is important.

All of it.

Conquering Canaan With Joshua

Okay, so I’m giving myself an ambitious goal — a daily devotional reading through Joshua (and hopefully Judges, my favorite book). I have no idea what will come of this, but I’m going to give it a shot and see what happens.

Joshua was the successor to Moses as the leader of Israel, and we first meet him in Exodus 17 as Moses commands him to “choose for us men, and go out and fight Amalek.” In Numbers 11:28, Joshua is described as “the assistant of Moses from his youth” (a passage echoed in Exodus 33). Joshua was also one of the spies sent to scout Canaan in Numbers 13, one of the few who remained loyal to Moses when Israel rebelled in the following chapter. He’s a military leader, a fighter, and he is loyal to Moses and to God. His very name, Yehoshua ַיְהוֹשֻׁע means “he who saves” (from the verb ישׁע, “to be delivered or saved from external evils or troubles”), and it is the name later rendered into Greek as Ιησους, or Jesus.

The one who saves.

Martin Luther described Joshua this way:

Joshua, however, denotes Christ, because of his name and because of what he does. Although he was a servant of Moses, yet after his master’s death he leads the people and parcels out the inheritance of the Lord. Thus Christ, who was first made under the Law (Gal. 4:4), served it for us; then, when it was ended, He established another ministry, that of the Gospel, by which we are led through Him into the spiritual kingdom of a conscience joyful and seven in God, where we reign forever. (The Lutheran Study Bible, p.338)

God has told Moses he will not live to set foot in Israel’s patrimony (“For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.” Deuteronomy 32:52), the land of promise. He is too old. He “broke faith” with God. Besides, to take the land of is a different task, and one requiring a different kind of leadership, a different kind of faithfulness, than mere wilderness wandering. Moses is not the man to lead Israel across the Jordan and into battle.

But Joshua is.

7 Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. 8 It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:7–8 ESV)

But it is not triumph that Joshua is leading Israel to, even as God prepares the way to take possession of the land.

16 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. 17 Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? ’ 18 And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.” (Deuteronomy 31:16–18 ESV)

God is leading Israel into his promise, and yet predicts that his people will “despise me and break my covenant.” He commands the writing of a song that predicts the future to come, of comfort and idolatry and disaster to come — war and conquest in which the Lord God of Israel exacts a terrible vengeance upon his very own people for deserting the covenant God made with them when he delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt. In fact, Moses tells Israel when he has finished with this dire prediction:

46 … ”Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. 47 For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 32:45–47 ESV)

What a terrible task Joshua is given, to lead the people of God in the taking of the promise of God, knowing that the words spoken by God and by Moses during his commissioning are words of impending failure and forthcoming doom.

Talk about a terrible setup. It’s a little like life. “Congrats on being born, you’re going to do some awesome stuff, some really shitty things will happen to you, oh, and by the way, you die. Whether you do well or not.”

And yet, before he died, Moses laid hands upon Joshua, and his young successor “was full of the spirit of wisdom.” Even knowing how it would turn out, Joshua possessed the courage and the strength to lead. Not because he was promised victory — though victories will come, and the land will be taken — but because he was faithful.

Because Joshua trusted God.

Yet Forty Days!

This is an expanded blog entry from a Facebook post.

My job comes to an end in 40 days. Forty days. Forty blessed days. The length of time God took to flood the earth. The number of days Moses was up the mountain and the Israelites were left to fend for their frightened and idolatrous selves. The number of days Israel’s spies wandered the land of Canaan — the land of promise — seeking to see what kind of land it was the Lord their God was giving to them. The number of days Israel was stymied by the Philistines before David felled their champion Goliath.

For forty days, Elijah fled from Jezebel on the strength of food and drink the Lord gave him. For forty days, Ezekiel was commanded to lie on his right side and “bear the punishment of the house of Judah.”

Forty days. The number of days between Jonah’s warning to Ninevah and that great city’s impending doom. The amount of time Jesus was in the wilderness, hungry and thirsty and alone with the devil and the angels and the animals. The number of days the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples after his crucifixion, speaking to them about the kingdom of God.

Forty days. And then I’m done.

LENT God of wrath? Or God of love?

13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness. ’ 17 And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation. ’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”

20 Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.” (Numbers 14:13–20 ESV)

God is love. John writes this in his first letter, in his beautiful circular prose that makes me feel he’s losing his breath and possibly losing his balance, so giddy is he from the excitement over having encountered God the way he has.

Christians have believed this for a long, long time. And there’s no reason to doubt it. Because scripture says so. God is love.

And yet, there seems to be a disconnect, between the God of love and forgiveness, the God of redemption and surrender we meet in Christ, and the God who walks through the garden in the cool of the day, who expels the man and the woman from the garden, who drowns the earth in its sinfulness, who reigns terror and death upon Sodom and Gomorrah, who terrorizes Egypt with darkness, sickness, and death, and then who commands Israel to dispossess an entire people and take the land of Canaan from those who are already there.

The Old Testament shows us a God of wrath, a God who if simply looked at wrong inflicts sickness and death upon God’s people. A God who rides out to war to fight for Israel, defeating its enemies and brining them victory.

Doesn’t seem like Christ to me. Doesn’t seem like the cross. Not this God. Marcion must have been right — they cannot possibly be the same God.

But what Moses does here, in this passage that follows almost right on the heels of yesterday’s, is very similar to what Jesus does in chapter eight of John’s Gospel when he stands with and forgives the woman accused of adultery. He intercedes between the accused and her accusers, shaming those who judge, making a public case for and obtaining mercy.

Unlike Jesus, who deals with the religious leaders of his age, Moses got face-to-face with God here, because God has grown extremely exasperated with the Israelites, who all want to go back to Egypt, rejecting the saving work of God who not long ago yanked them out of Egypt. “I will strike them down and abandon them,” God says, “and start over and make a great nation from you, Moses.”

This is where Moses gets clever and shames The Lord. “What will people think when they see that you’ve blotted out and destroyed the people you only recently saved? What good is a God who would do that?” And besides, Moses adds, show the world that you are indeed a merciful God, a God who forgives.

And God … forgives. He is convinced, he is shamed into forgiveness because Moses talked him down from doing something rash and stupid. But it is still forgiveness.

Israel lives to see another day.

If you read the Bible carefully, something becomes readily apparent. Over time, as God reaches through the mess of the world to meet his people, God is changed. God demands less, expects less, and gives more. God holds less and less against faithless, wayward Israel, and promises to do more and more. God figures out what we simply are not capable of doing. God gives more of himself, inserts more of himself, promises more of himself, takes on more of the burdens of his people. Until God becomes one of his very own people. And assumes all of our sins and all of our burdens.

The creator is changed by his encounter with the creation, and with us, the creatures he fashioned from us breathed a bit of his spirit, his wind, his breath, into. Changed … for the better. Until he becomes a thing of mud himself.

But make no mistake, that incarnate God who proclaims forgiveness, who heals and casts out demons and feeds masses, who breaks bread and goes to his death on a cross, is the same God who breathed the universe into existence and had to be shamed into forgiving Israel because, well, what would people think of such a God? The God who seemed so wholly other that we could not even gaze upon him, not even behold his glory, now comes to us as a man, finite and fragile, bleeding and broken.

God is love. But not a sentimental love, the kind that cannot bear sorrow or suffering, that evaporates at the first sign of faithlessness. God’s love is a hard, unflinching love that finds us right where we are in a violent, brutal, cruel world. And does not let go.

Because God, who was changed in his encounter with us, knows that we can and will be changed. Utterly and completely. In our encounter with him.

LENT I Want to Go Back to Egypt

1 Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. 2 And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” 4 And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:1–4 ESV)

I want to go back to Egypt.

I want to go back to my life as a reporter 15 years ago. I want to go back to the time before September 11, 2001, before Jesus spoke to me underneath the burning towers of the World Trade Center in New York. I want to leave this wilderness, I don’t want to inherit Canaan — which is already full of people bigger and stronger than me — and I want to go back to making bricks for Pharaoh, filling my stomach occasionally with good things, and resting sometimes on cool evenings in the Egyptian dusk, talking with friends and getting a little joy out of life.

I want to go back to Egypt.

I wish I could. I wish I could leave all of this behind. Put the clock back. Live and work and die in the land of comfortable servitude.

But I cannot. There is no unhearing Jesus. There is no way to take back that groan I uttered from the depth of my soul in the few years before 9/11. No way to uncry for help. No way to undo God’s listening, God’s remembering, God’s knowing. There is no way to undo the plagues, undrown Pharaoh and his army, ungraduate seminary, become an uncandidate for ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (oh, but wouldn’t that make a few people happy, to have never heard my name!), even unencounter the ELCA in the first place so no one there would be troubled with my presence and vexed by my story.

I cannot go backwards to Egypt. There is no backwards to go. There is only forward. My hands can make nothing of value right now, neither bricks nor idols. They are only good to gather the gifts of God scattered daily for my sustenance. To pack up and move from place to place as the pillars of cloud and fire demand it.

Canaan lies in front of me, full of people — frightening people who tower over me. I am scared. They are many, and I am few.

I want to go back to Egypt.

I want to go home. There is no home behind me, though. There is nothing behind me but a godless sorrow, a life without meaning, a place I had to flee just two steps ahead of death and destruction.

There is a home that beckons, but it lies in front of me.

And there is God, leading me on. Commanding me to take it.

Some Thoughts on Vengeance

I went to bed last night thinking about vengeance, and what role — if any — thought and desires for vengeance can or should have in our individual and communal lives as Christians. (It turns out I preached on this once — a sermon that was not well received.)

I was thinking about vengeance because of a situation that arose with one of the young people I minister to online, Bethany, the subject of my “sermon” a few weeks ago. Bethany now has a home, and parents who are working to adopt her, and this is all very, very good. She was being visited by a friend she met online — I’ll call her Zoë. Zoë lives far away from Bethany, in another time zone, and came a long way to visit Bethany and her family.

Zoë is 16, and she’s also in foster care — we’ve become acquainted online, and while I don’t have very many details about her life, Zoë told me that she hopes never to meet her biological parents.

This week, Zoë got a phone call from her foster mother — “Don’t come home.” And if this wasn’t a enough, a friend texted her soon after — “Why is there a ‘For Sale’ sign in front of your house?” That friend jimmied open Zoë’s bedroom window to find the place empty and abandoned. Zoë is a wreck right now, in a near catatonic stupor after having spent hours on the phone to the police, her case worker, and the judge overseeing her foster care in the state she is from. Trying to find out what is going on.

Trying to find a home.

I thought, in dealing with Bethany and the young woman my wife and I wish we could adopt, Molly, that I’d seen the worst kinds of abuse, mistreatment, and utter neglect that people could dish out to foster kids. (Molly is a truly amazing young woman, and she has some astounding gifts of empathy and compassion for the ministry I hope we can do soon, ministry Bethany has told me she’d like to be a part of too.) But this abandonment … honestly, if there were people fit for a millstone to be hung around their necks and tossed into the deepest sea, if there were people who had plague and darkness and Babylonians coming, it is these people who simply absconded and left Zoë to her own devices.

Last night, I prayed with Bethany. For courage and strength for Zoë, that she knows she is loved, and wanted, and is not alone.

But I also prayed for vengeance. “I will wait patiently upon your vengeance, Lord, but please avenge Zoë.” And this, I think, is a perfectly acceptable thing to pray for.

We don’t like vengeance as Christians. At least good, liberal Christians don’t. Instead, we like justice. We like universal ethics, an impartial right and wrong, and vengeance, well, vengeance is too tribal, too messy, and too partisan for our tastes. We are people of the categorical imperative, of the bureaucratic state of rules and procedures, of reasoned and reasonable objectivity. And vengeance, well, that’s for lesser people. Passionate, intemperate, uncivilized people.

Granted, scripture talks a lot about justice — far more than it speaks of vengeance. (Though not quite in the way we do.) But as I have gotten older, the appeal of universal ethics — a solid, concrete, objective right and wrong that applies equally to all in every time and every place — has really dimmed for me. Partly it’s a sense that when the universal proclamation — “Thou shalt not kidnap and rape teenage girls,” for example — meets the reality of power, position, and privilege, as well as the limited nature of state resources and competence, and mixed thoroughly with our pre-existing and very human assumptions about what constitutes guilt, blame, and proper behavior, it becomes clear that some teenage girls can be kidnapped and raped without much consequence. They do not matter.

(In fact, I’m pretty well convinced there are parts of the country where this kidnapping and raping of young women is a competitive sport.)

Instead, what has replaced this universal ethic for me is something akin to the morality expressed by Andrew Vachss in his series of Burke novels, where the main characters created a tightly knit “family of choice”: Threaten or hurt someone we love, and you will pay. You will pay in such a way that all will know there is very high cost associated with hurting us. 

I’m not convinced this is the ethic of scripture — while it fits some of Old Testament story, it doesn’t quite fit with “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44) preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. But scripture does have something to say about vengeance — something interesting, and something closer to Vachss’ notion than to the universal ethics that is actual historical teaching of the church.

If there is a governing passage of scripture for this, it is in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome:

19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19–21 ESV)

Here, Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 32, the long song of Moses laying out Israel’s coming history, its calling by God and its falling into idolatry and complacency. The passage Paul is quoting (Deut 32:35) very likely refers to God’s judgement against God’s own people Israel — what awaits Israel after it abandons its God for the idols of its neighbors. The sentiment of vengeance percolates through the rest of the song. God says He will take “vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me,” which though a generic warning to all who might oppose the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it likely still applies to the judgement and violence faithless Israel will face. The song ends with “He repays those who hate him, and cleanses his people’s land,” and it must not be forgotten that Deuteronomy 28 makes a very specific curse about the removal of Israel from the land of promise should it fail to follow the covenant (Deut 28:63). It is very likely that at the end of the Song of Moses, the land is being cleansed of God’s very own people.

So, as we think of God’s vengeance, we need to consider — it may very well be against us.

But Paul is also counseling something else. He does not say, “do not desire vengeance,” but rather, “do not avenge yourselves.” It is okay to want vengeance, to have that feeling, but not to actually have vengeance itself. The psalms bear witness to this, especially one of my favorite bits of scripture, Psalm 137 (which has also given me the name of my ministry), where Israel laments its exile along the banks of the Euphrates River, and yearns to be avenged against those who have conquered, plundered, and enslaved them:


8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
(Psalms 137:8-9 ESV)

“Blessed shall he be,” not “blessed are we.” Israel wants to be avenged, and hopes that vengeance comes, but isn’t looking to actually do the work itself. This is both utter powerlessness and tremendous trust, to put faith in God that we who have been wronged will have that wrong avenged. Not by our own hands, but by the hands of God, who will act through others. In effect, when it comes to vengeance, the people of God are supposed to be free riders.

This is hard for me, because no one who has wronged me — not school bullies, fifth grade teachers, or Lutheran bishops — have ever appeared to pay a price for wronging me. There was never a cost to wronging me. Granted, I doubt they believe they ever did. (But then, Babylon wasn’t convinced it had wronged Israel, or been God’s judgment upon Israel, either.) So I don’t know if there’s really any vengeance. I know I should trust God. I’m just not sure I do.

Finally, there is the small matter of how God actually accomplishes vengeance. I think you could make a case that Jesus meeting Saul on the road to Damascus and effectively telling him, “now you belong to me,” is a form of vengeance. Taking an enemy and making him a brother becomes a specifically Christian form of vengeance, one that requires we who were enemies — who wronged and were wronged — now live as sisters and brothers, united in baptism to the same Lord.

So, we approach the subject with humility. In love. We know we have been wronged, and we ache for retribution. Knowing that a lot of vengeance in the story of scripture is either God getting “even” with His people, or simply ends very badly (such as Absalom avenging the rape of his sister).

In the meantime, know that we can pray for the vengeance of God. We can wait upon the vengeance of the Lord. I can hope for millstones to be hung around the necks of those who abandoned Zoë, even ask God to bless those who do violence to them. But I also know there are any number of ways God’s vengeance can play out. Including reconciliation, redemption, and forgiveness. And I accept that possibility.

But I still pray hard for millstones. And the deep blue sea.

Enough to Eat and Then Some…

I’m currently working on a sermon for this coming Sunday (yes! I’m preaching!), and the Revised Common Lectionary has, as it’s Old Testament reading, portions of Numbers 11:4–29. The reading itself largely focuses on the appointing of the seventy elders of Israel to help Moses administer justice and govern Israel. The Spirit of the Lord comes to rest on the tent where the elders are gathered, and the seventy approved elders prophesy.

But two Israelites — Eldad and Medad — who are not on the list, and not in the tent, suddenly find themselves prophesying too. Joshua complains — “My lord, make them stop!” And Moses shows some magnanimity. After all, he knows God better than everyone in this story. “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone in Israel could prophesy.” So, Eldad and Medad join the club. Even though they haven’t been “approved.”

Interesting, that.

In the midst of this reading, and left out of the RCL text (because the focus of these readings is on the Spirit of God going farther and wider than we expect or even want), are the details of Israel’s grumbling. This all begins with Israel thing and complain that the food in the wilderness — manna from heaven collected every morning save on the sabbath — lack variety. It isn’t as tasty as what they had in Egypt.

Because if it isn’t one thing, it is another with God’s people.

It’s at this point both God and Moses both get angry — God with Israel and Moses with God. “What did I do to deserve being saddled with this people? Can I do this alone?” Moses asks.

And God plots a plot to satisfy the “strong cravings” (Num 11:4) of some of the “rabble” of Israel. And the passages hints at more than just a little anger and even vengeance in God’s plan:

18 And say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat, for you have wept in the hearing of the Lord, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. 19 You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20 but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”’” 21 But Moses said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month! ’ 22 Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?” 23 And the Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not. (Numbers 11:18–23 ESV)

One of my theories about the Book of Numbers — where God is at God’s absolute worst, always angry, never particularly happy with Israel, and always visiting some kind of plague or disaster in a fit of pique upon Israel — is that God and Israel are busy working out their relationship here. (This theory is not explicit in scripture itself, but it is how I read the torah.)

God has done this marvelous thing, yanking Israel out of Egypt after hearing their suffering and remembering his promises, and discovers rather late that Israel isn’t particularly grateful or even all that happy about its liberation. They whine. They complain. They make an idol from their golden jewelry and madly dance around while Moses is busy up on the mountain receiving the teaching, thinking he may never come back again. After that, Israel’s God is really, really, really angry at Israel. He even has to be talked out of annihilating Israel and starting over again with the descendants of Moses (Exodus 32) when Moses tells him that he will look bad in front of the Egyptians and everybody.

But God is not happy. And Numbers is a reflection of that deep unhappiness. Breathe wrong in the presence of God, and BAM! You are smoted deader than a drowned Egyptian Pharaoh.

In effect, God has to learn how to be God. Not the God of all creation, which he has been since the beginning and can do without much thought, but the God of a very specific people — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God has to learn who we are, and how to deal with us. God has to learn how to have a relationship with us, what it means to be in a relationship with us. (Some call this “process theology,” but I think it’s just a very faithful reading of the Bible.) And slowly, God begins to realize that the people he has called are not really capable of very much, certainly not the kind of faithfulness he’d like to see from his rescued and redeemed people.

From Sinai to Calvary, God slowly surrenders to this people he has called. He surrenders his assumptions, he surrenders his expectations, and he even completely surrenders his power to this ungrateful, misguided, and idolatrous people. In this, God’s wrath is slowly transformed into a self-giving love that willingly lives and dies with us, convicting us of our sin far more forcefully than any angry judgment ever could.

This is what is means to be Israel, to have struggled with God and prevailed. Not because we’re stronger than God, but because God has utterly surrendered to us, thrown the contest in our favor.

Getting back to the reading, the encounter between Moses and God in Numbers 11 brings to mind, at least for me, the feeding miracles of the Gospels.

There are some significant similarities. If we look at the feeding miracles in Mark 6:30–44 and 8:1–10 (because this is the year of Mark for the RCL), we see both are prompted by the need of the people who have gathered and followed Jesus and his disciples into desolate places, much like Israel wandering in the wilderness. In Mark 6, the disciples want the crowd sent away so they can forage, or buy food, for themselves, something similar to Israel’s complaining about the lack of good food, the food they had back in Egypt, on their wanderings.

In all three instances, the disciples — like Moses — wonder at the logistics of feeding so many people in such a desolate place. “Where will we find the money?” they ask in Mark 6. And because they didn’t get it the first time, they ask again in Mark 8, “How can we do this in a desolate place without bread?” Moses asked God if flocks and herds would be slaughtered, or all the fish of the sea be caught to feed God’s miserable people in the wilderness.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.” (Numbers 11:23 ESV)

And just as in the Gospels, it comes to pass — quail are brought on the wind, so many quail that Israel has piles and piles of meat to eat. They have a feast, and God follows it all up … with a “very great plague.” (Num 11:33)

It’s an abundance that God gives Israel, quail meat running out of Israel’s nose, more meat than even whining Israel knows what to do with. But it’s a wrathful, angry, wasteful abundance, an abundance given in spite, to show the people who God is.

And that’s the difference with the Gospel feedings. Yes, there is a similar overflowing abundance. In Mark 6, the disciples show Jesus five loaves and bread and two fish, and twelve whole baskets of leftovers remain after feeding five thousand men. (Mark 6:43–44) In Mark 8, seven baskets of broken pieces are collected. (Mark 8:8)

But most importantly, the people are fed out of a sense of compassion (Mark 6:34 and 8:2), and not spite or anger. They don’t complain about being hungry and thirsty, not the way Israel did in the wilderness, at least we don’t have them complaining in scripture. This is not about God and the people so much as it is about Jesus and the disciples. “See what you can do when you trust me and have me in your midst?” In both Mark 6 and Mark 8, Jesus asks his disciples, “How many loaves do you have?” Unlike Moses, who wondered where sheep and fish might come from — because there was none on hand — the disciples have a little bit of bread (and fish, in Mark 6), which Jesus blesses, breaks, and then gives to his disciples to then give to the people.

“And they all ate and were satisfied,” (Mark 6:42 and Mark 8:8) something Israel is not as God piles meat before them and then sickens them. Neither God nor Israel is much satisfied with quail coming out their noses.

But God and Israel are satisfied with bread and fish.

I think this is how God has finally learned to deal with us. To have us take a little of what we have, to bless it knowing that Jesus is still in our midst (always in our midst), and then pass it around. All are fed. And satisfied. This is the miracle. Not meat magically appearing from nowhere, falling upon us like rain, filling us and then some until we are sick of it and can eat no more.