The mystery of a laborious text

Jul 2010    


“A biblical text like Numbers 7 reminds us that we approach God and His truth on His terms, not ours. It tells us that often it is the constant search for novelty and that which is sensational that numbs our souls to the things of God. Strangely and mysteriously, it is a repetitive text like Numbers 7 that removes that spiritual numbness.”

IF YOU ARE ONE OF THOSE who have a daily Bible reading plan that covers every chapter from Genesis to Revelation, you may encounter some chapters that are a real challenge. Take for instance Numbers 7.

Most of this chapter is taken up with a record of offerings. is was in the context of the dedication of the tabernacle, the focal point of Israel’s worship of the living God. Each of Israel’s tribes brought offerings for the occasion. Much of Numbers 7 deals with the offerings brought by the tribes in relation to the altar and its sacrifices. Each day, one day for one tribe, offerings were presented. An inventory of the offerings brought by each tribe is presented in the text.

What the reader would notice early in the chapter is that there are 12 identical passages in the chapter – for each tribe brought the same gifts. The list of things offered, their number or weight were all exactly identical. So why does Scripture have such a long and strangely repetitive text when at the end of the chapter we have a helpful summary of all the offerings? Why not just have the summary with a notation to say that each tribe brought exactly similar offerings, and do away with most of Numbers 7?

We wonder how many Bible readers actually plough through every verse in Numbers 7. Have you ever done that? If so, what have you learned from what appears to be such a long and laborious text. What is the point of having it in the Bible? What is God’s intention?

Some scholars have suggested that the text is based on temple archives; hence its redundant and laborious repetition. But Gordon Wenham argues that while this may be true, it does not quite explain why the author chose this prolonged itemisation while elsewhere he was not so long-winded. ere must be a theological message behind the wordiness – it is that every tribe had an equal stake in the worship of God and that each was equally committed to its responsibility.

This may very well be the case, and it helps the reader to plod through the text for the theological meaning. However, try using Numbers 7 as the Scripture text for the public reading of the Bible in one of your worship services. What would be the result? How would the listeners respond? Would they find it tedious and boring or wonder at the appropriateness of the choice of text? When the Jewish exiles who returned from Babylon had completed rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem under Nehemiah’s leadership, they gathered to worship God. Ezra the priest read aloud from the Book of the Law (the first five books in the Bible) for six hours, with wonderful results (Nehemiah 8). For a whole month, Ezra read out the Book of the Law every day (Neh. 8:18) and the people “gave attention to the words of the Law” (Neh. 8:13). We can be quite certain that Ezra read Numbers 7 on one of those days. It is interesting that the people paid close attention and that the Scripture texts had a big impact on them.

Try reading aloud Numbers 7 and see how your experience is like. Perhaps you will get bored after a while, or you may give in and skip or quickly scan entire sections in the chapter. is would probably be a common experience, and would not be a great surprise, for today we are brought up and trained to be efficient in our communication. In a day when we communicate in short, crisp and abbreviated messages, when we demand executive summaries before deciding whether it is worth reading long and exhaustive reports, a passage like Numbers 7 would be a literary chore for many.

INTERESTINGLY AND PARADOXICALLY, it is precisely for these reasons that Numbers 7 may be a special gift from God. It is just what distracted, fragmented and driven people need to slow down. e text comes to bring a rhythm in life we have lost. It marches to a different tune; it flows in a gentle cadence. Its regularity and rhythm has a hypnotic effect, not so much to put us to sleep with boredom, but to bring a regular rhythm into our lives, to quieten our souls, to still our feverish thoughts. Reading such a text will awaken our inner frustrations and hurriedness, our drivenness and anxieties, our impatience and self-importance. Like a quiet physician, the text reveals what is wrong with us and offers us a different perspective to life.

It is when the text stills and quietens our soul (Ps. 131:2) that we are ready to hear the God behind the text. We discover the God who often speaks in that which is quietly regular and rhythmic, the God in the little things of life, in what is often dismissed as boring or of little consequence, displaced by that which is fleetingly exciting or that the significance and importance of which is only a transient illusion.

A biblical text like Numbers 7 reminds us that we approach God and His truth on His terms, not ours. It tells us that often it is the constant search for novelty and that which is sensational that numbs our souls to the things of God. is may sound strange to the modern ear but it is true. Strangely and mysteriously, it is a repetitive text like Numbers 7 that removes that spiritual numbness. e same thing happens in our time-tested liturgies used in the worship of the church over the long and winding centuries. It explains why some younger evangelicals are returning to ancient liturgies or why tired and harassed people are beginning to find new relief in old relatively lengthy liturgies.

Texts and liturgies can mysteriously act as the hands of the loving Father welcoming us into His presence. We arrive tired and exhausted by our feverish ways, demanding more information and methods, more efficiency and success. rough His strange texts and liturgies, the Father repeatedly strokes our heads with undying love till the fever in our minds and hearts subsides. en, like He did with Moses (Num. 7:89), He speaks to us face to face.


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