'Here's why the Book of Numbers should matter to Americans'
A biblical scholar's response to my interrogation of Moses
vol. 4 issue 19
About a month ago, I appealed to evangelical Christian Americans to think a bit on why they trust the sources the trust. I was inspired to do so after a summer spent listening to a Baptist preacher, whom I personally enjoyed interacting with, but whose message perplexed me.
It perplexed me because I can’t see how it is possible to resolve the demands of the Old Testament and the Constitution without subverting one to the other…unless we consider that America is a state of being, less than it is a promised land, and that the key is to meet one another within the Holy American Spirit, a theme I apparently have been building up to over the past couple of years with other things I have thought out loud. Here’s what I wrote in my appeal:
The dream is a lie, but the American spirit is not, and it is what is sacred. It’s everywhere. It doesn’t judge us. And rather than sneak up on us and do its bidding, it fills us only when we actually do dream of it and invite it into us, as I alluded to in that piece I wrote last year.
That post, and a few subsequent ones, really got a lot of attention. I am still waiting for folks to leave their comments in the comments section, but the posts themselves have certainly been food for thought, given the statistics on how often they’ve been read and passed around.
That’s great. Thank you so much for your attention. I don’t take it for granted. Of course, the flip side is that while the comments section remains fairly empty, no one is attacking me or saying inflammatory things, either.
I also noted in that piece that while I am not a Biblical ignoramus, I am by no means a Biblical scholar. So, I promised to call one in. And I have, and below is what he has to say in response to my critique of Book of Numbers. My own take-away from this when I read it was, Hmm.
There is more to this than I would have been willing to give credit to….
But I will share that with you all next week. First, just let our guest share with you his thoughts on why Moses matters to us as Americans.
Please welcome to docu-mental, Julian Reid, MDiv.
I’ll dip out for now…
Dear Whitney and Fellow docu-mental readers,
Thank you for inviting me into this conversation on the Book of Numbers, Christian faith, and Americanism.
I understand and am thankful for your concerns about abuse, mistrust, and excesses of power, both in Biblical antiquity and now. As a cisgender man, I want to preface my responses as such. To defend Moses or the Bible with any integrity requires recognizing my positional authority in the context of religion. Prophetic voices like yours remind us to hold ourselves accountable for how we lead and how we follow. So, thank you.
Old Testament God’s wins and losses
Be that as it may, I think that God's activity and lack thereof in the Old Testament points to both how God empowered and resisted God’s own people, Moses included. God's positioning stands as an important corrective to humans who are tempted to either egregious self-inflation (such as cult leaders of today, as you note), or self-deflation (women or other marginalized groups).
While the God of the Old Testament can seem capricious, I think the record is rich enough to show that people were experiencing God as a defender of them too. God's intervention in the lives of the people of Israel was both on their behalf and in resistance to them.
And even though God does flex masculine muscle many a time – as you rightly note in this Numbers story – the God of Israel also loses, which is what we see in many Old Testament stories, where God's people lose battles. This is, of course, followed up by God incarnate losing life in the New Testament – as shown in the crucifixion of Jesus.
It is notable that in the Mediterranean world of the times chronicled in the Hebrew Bible, Israel was unique in detailing so precisely the nature of their failures. Until then, people typically did not admit their defeats, fearing to do so was a sign of their deity's weakness. Israel flips their losses, making it less about defeat than to say that God is disciplining them, but the risk remained of their God looking impotent.
All this to say, that I think Christianity’s message can be about "I told you so." Certainly, it can be that, and a particular reading of the Old Testament points in that direction; that view of God as tyrant is operative in Christianity, both historically and today. (A God of muscle and charisma can map easily onto pastors who present their message with a kind of “muscle and charisma”.)
I am leery of this collapsed vision of God and try to hold that tendency at bay. We all need accountability, and none of us have it all figured out. I would argue Moses understands this too. He understands that his leadership is not singular: given Moses’ speech impediment, his brother Aaron would serve as his mouthpiece, thus providing us with a constant reminder that Moses relied on the grace of God.
Nor is Moses above reproach: God disciplines Moses for his mismanagement of his leadership tasks by barring him from entering the Promised Land.
Necessity of discipline
Discipline is a big part of the Old Testament, and also the New Testament. That makes sense to me, simply because we are all in need of discipline. Now, how we are disciplined, that's where it gets thorny, and I am slower to speak on that front. I don't have all the answers here, but here I'm thinking of how helpful the concept of discipline was for my enslaved ancestors who became Christians, because they understood that God would discipline their White slave-masters, the ones who held to the "fact" of America.
God as disciplinarian is important because it is a sign of hope for those who are powerless in society, as would've been the case for the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and their descendants who wrote a lot of the Old Testament while serving as vassals to Neo-Assyrians (8th century BCE) and Neo-Babylonians (7th century BCE), and then as exiles in Neo-Babylon (6th century BCE). They saw themselves as being taken over by political rivals because of Israel’s disobedience, particularly the disobedience of their leaders.
In this way, the complex relationship of their identity as God’s people was connected to the messiness and vulnerability of their sociopolitical status as exiles and losers of warfare. Having strict laws – including the kind referenced in the Book of Numbers - was a way to maintain religious identity amongst a sea of other peoples who threatened the vitality of Israel constantly.
As such, I would argue that understanding God as disciplinarian is important for liberating purposes. Those who were down and out read their experiences of loss through the lens of God disciplining them. The Lord who disciplined them was also The Lord who could save them from Neo-Assyria and Neo-Babylon, just like the Lord had in Egypt during the Exodus. So, we must understand these strict Israelite religious laws from this context. It is never a simple 1:1 analogy to the US.
Now, even though this reading of God as disciplinarian is a key image of God, it is not the only. In addition to sometimes being the "I told you so" deity, God also is "I invite you so," "I welcome you so," and "I see you so."
We see this alternate vision in another desert story, the sojourn of Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar, a non-Israelite servant, is the first person in Scripture to name God, whom she calls "the one who sees" — El-Roi — because God took care of her in the desert. God saw her and provided for her. Now, one can argue that God didn't do enough because God didn't liberate her immediately from her oppressors, Sarah and Abraham, but God did ultimately still take care of her (Gen 21).
God of grace
This is the good news of Jesus, and it's one to which the church bears (mixed) witness. It’s mixed because often the church lives out a witness of gracelessness, where we insist that we must earn or protect our salvation by being the winners, or “right”. This is in contrast to the witness of grace that positions the church as humble recipients of God’s good gifts that we then extend to the world through acts of service, humility, and kindness as we tell the world about Jesus who saves by losing his life and being restored to it through resurrection.
To this end, I try to pray before my Notes of Rest retreats for God to resist and empower me as I help communities receive God’s rest for them: Resist my resistance of your grace, God, and empower me to live as one saved by it. Living in the grace of God emboldens me to place this request before the God who says, "I told you so," but more boldly also says, "Yet still, I welcome you." This is the beautiful story of the harrowing book of Isaiah.
Much of the first book - chapters 1 through 39 - is “I told you so,” because Israel is acting out and ultimately being given over to their political enemies for their disobedience. But God persists as a God of hope and grace who calls them back afterwards in Isaiah chapters 40 through 55.
To be sure, this record of God as gracious disciplinarian is not simple, and there is much that is androcentric about the authorship. But I'm thankful for the many scholars who have wrestled with the faith because they see this God of grace still present behind, within, and over the text. To this end, Womanist Midrash and Women's Bible Commentary may be of interest to you. I turn to the commentary often for guidance. I hope
The Old Testament in America
As this pertains to America, I am slow to make comparisons to Biblical Israel, because God's relationship with Israel is profoundly different to God’s relationship with America. Even though the founding fathers were variously Christian and/or theistic, this was never a nation that had a covenant with God like ancient Israel had. This country has tried to massage Biblical ideals into the zeitgeist of the society, but that's always been a thin application. My hope still, though, is that the Holy Spirit that was graciously poured out on all flesh through the coming of Jesus be present amidst us all and that we have eyes to see and ears to hear what the Spirit is saying.
So, is our country “Christian”? No, it never was. But do Christians have a responsibility to love and serve the nation where we are by living a life that humbly seeks the welfare of the nation?
Yes. In an age of rising theocracy, this distinction is essential.
Let me know what you think about this. I welcome this chance for dialogue and hope you will take the time to add your comments to this by using the “comment” icon at the top of this post. Thank you for engaging as you have.
Peace to you,