The Bible in a Year – 28 February (Shrove Tuesday / mardi gras)

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

28 February. Deuteronomy chapter 4

We are about to enter the season of Lent, which traditionally starts with thinking about the temptations faced by those who serve God, as Jesus faced temptation in his 40-day desert retreat.  In this chapter Moses warns his people of the temptations they will face in Canaan.


He lays much stress on the fact that unlike the so-called gods of other nations, the one true God is not visible, at least not in human or animal form although they had experienced God’s presence as cloud and fire and a voice.  This true God is also always present, very close when we call on him, and the laws that he gave were not arbitrary but for “wisdom and discernment”, so Moses warns the people not to ignore the teaching or to forget their experience of the divine presence.


People still face the same temptations now when thinking about faith, though they may take different forms: idolatry (which nowadays might take the form of astrology, the false belief that the planets represent spirits that influence our lives); discounting the reality of God because we can’t see him (although many people testify to encountering God in one way or another); being led astray from devotion to God by the wealth and fertility of the land around us ( we call this consumerism); and treating religious teaching as irrelevant, when in fact there is much wisdom in it if we take it seriously.


May you have a holy Lent.


The Bible in a Year – 27 February

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27 February. Deuteronomy chapters 1-3

This is a short post because much of these chapters (indeed, much of Deuteronomy) covers old ground.  It represents a recapitulation of both the history of the Exodus period, and the teachings that Moses received at Horeb, before moving on to Moses’ farewell speech.  This was necessary because a whole generation had passed, and only two of the men who had left Egypt with Moses (Joshua and Caleb) would take the new generation across the Jordan into a new land. So the new generation had to be reminded of what had gone before, in order to inspire them to continue in the same faith and not assimilate themselves to a new host culture.


The church today finds itself in an increasingly post-religious world where fewer people attend church (very few, if the older generations are left out of the count).  Our task therefore is to inspire those few younger people who are with us to take a distinctive faith forward in their generation, as well as seeking new converts by appropriate means. They need to understand the whole history of the Jewish-Christian tradition in order to see their own challenges in context, just as Moses’ hearers had to understand the sacrificial effort (in every sense) that had gone into getting them to where they were.


The Bible in a Year – 24-26 February

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February 24-26. Numbers 31-36

I have grouped together this weekend’s readings, being the last six chapters of this book. Each tackles a different aspect of the run-up to the crossing of the Jordan.


They start with gruesome reading, the near-destruction in chapter 31 of the Midianites. Only unmarried girls and women are allowed to live (and even then, only to become ‘brides’ for the invading soldiers, and all the animals and precious metals taken as spoils of war.  Nothing could be further from a ‘modern’ understanding of religion, and yet it invites comparison to the way that Daesh is still carrying on its jihad in nearby Syria today.  The belief that God would not only select one nation as special (which is the foundational principle of the Old Testament), but order them to destroy all rival civilisations they encounter, still persists and must be resisted.   Yet this was only the beginning of the long campaign of Israelite terror in Canaan that we will return to in the Book of Judges.


The story then moves on to the intended division of land after further conquests have been achieved.  Two and a half of the twelve tribes, being pastoralists, will settle in the (destroyed but to be re-built) Midianite towns but only after their men have done their share of fighting. The remainder will settle in the more fertile land west of the Jordan – the promised ‘land of milk and honey’.   It’s a reminder that where we live influences what we do, though often in less obvious ways than this.


Chapter 33 recaps the story of the Exodus wanderings with a full list of the places they camped, most of which were not mentioned earlier, presumably because nothing special happened there.  But that’s the story of most of our lives – in between the moments of glory and shame, the places that we remember for better or worse, are the many days and years when life went by much as normal.  But they are all part of our life’s story, and a full account of the life of a person or group should not overlook them.


Then comes a detailed description of boundaries.  This I familiar language to me. Part of my work involves dealing with Church of England parish boundaries, many of which in rural areas are untouched since medieval times.  This leaves us wondering at the reasons for many quirks – one parish boundary I spotted up in the hills above Teesdale goes up and down the mountainside three times like a castle battlement, yet there are now no buildings or even walls that correspond to this line.  One can only presume it represented the land holdings of different ancestral families.  On the other hand, reading the descriptions of boundaries of new urban parishes created in Victorian times is like this Bible passage – “from the junction of High Street and Market Street, in a south-westerly directions for about 450 yards to a point on Station Road thirty yards west of the police station” (I made that one up, but that’s the kind of thing).  And boundaries do still matter, though less so in the church than in past times, except when it comes to weddings.


Chapter 35 includes provision for cities of refuges for murderers who could stay there safe from revenge attacks until they could receive a fair trial – although the penalty for both murder and manslaughter if witnesses could be found to prove it, was death. And finally there is provision for the descendants of Noah and her sisters (as mentioned a few days ago, these being the only women who inherited land in their own name).  Thus ends this collection of stories and laws from desert times.






The Bible in a Year – 23 February

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23 February. Numbers chapters 28-30

Taking this further detailed account of the requirements for worship (chapters 28-29), if we omit  all the details of animal, grain and wine sacrifices (as no longer being part of Jewish or Christian worship) then we are left with the principle of the church leaders and servants offering prayer to God every morning and evening, plus twice on the Sabbath, and “holy convocations” (larger gatherings of people) on festivals through the year.


The pattern continues with Catholic and Anglican clergy being expected to say the ‘daily office’ of morning and evening prayer, whether in church or alone, and holding public services on Sundays, while putting extra effort into special occasions.  Those special occasions should stand out either as joyful (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost) or more reflective and penitential (Holy Week, and Advent).


Chapter 30 is a totally different theme, and again reflects the patriarchal culture: a single adult woman or widow was expected to honour her word as much as a man, but an unmarried woman still under her father’s authority, or a married woman, was only bound by her own word if her father/husband did not contradict it.  The reason given was to ‘protect’ such women from making foolish vows, but to us it seems like unnecessary control.  However there is still value in married people – husbands as well as wives – checking out their plans with their spouse before making any commitments, to ensure harmony in the marriage.


The Bible in a Year – 22 February

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22 February. Numbers 26-27

The first of these chapters is the Old Testament as those who have not really read it might imagine it all to be – a detailed list of tribes and clans and descendants. But this is the military census of the people (or rather, the fighting men) before they cross the Jordan to start conquering its existing inhabitants.  With God’s blessing pronounced by Balaam, these 601,730 men (and their families, and the non-combatant Levites – at least 2 million in total) were camping on one side of the river getting ready to fight, as the armies of William of Normandy, or of Napoleon or of Hitler, had threatened England across the Channel down the centuries (with varying degrees of success).   The Canaanites cannot have been unaware of them coming. History, they say, is written by winners, so it’s sometimes good to take the view of the losers – one man’ “share of the promised land” is someone else’s long-standing family home raided by foreign invaders (with the inevitable rape and pillaging).  In our own time, remember those who suffer a similar fate at the hands of religiously-inspired armies in Nigeria, Syria and elsewhere.


One verse stands out – Zelophehad was the only tribal elder listed who had no sons, but five daughters (including one called Noah – now there’s a trick quiz question, was Noah in the Bible a man or a woman?). They appear again in the following chapter where they challenge the patriarchal culture that would have denied them an inheritance, and God tells Moses to let them (and others in the same position in future) have their family share of the promised land.  Maybe not full equality, as sons will still take precedence, but then we still see sexism at work even in our own supposedly equal society.



The Bible in a Year – 21 February

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21 February. Numbers chapters 23-25

These chapters cover two stories which show a marked contrast in attitudes to people of other faiths or nationalities.  Let’s take the second one first.


The people of God – the Israelites – have throughout their wanderings been promised the land of Canaan (which they have not yet reached, but getting near). On the way they have been opposed by several other tribes, so especially the Moabites, so it is understandable that they don’t exactly get on well with them.  Except that (as is the way of the world) some Israelite men find that the attraction of individual Moabite women is more pressing than their leaders’ condemnation of the whole Moabite tribe.  This is a tension found in every age and society – as a whole one tribal or national or religious group finds another unacceptable, but when it comes to friendship and especially sexual attraction, individual ‘others’ are found to be more than acceptable.   Add to that the concerns about women attracting men to their own faith (it is true that women tend to be more devout in their religion than men, and more easily share their faith with others) and the result is that Moses issues what we might call a ‘fatwa’ against such mixed marriages (just substitute ‘Muslim’ for ‘Israelite’ and ‘Christian’ for ‘Moabite’ to get the idea).  One of the priests is praised for his zeal in carrying out the fatwa by murdering both partners in such a mixed liaison.


Now to the first of the two stories.  Here it is Israel presented as the ‘other’ in the eyes of Balak the Moabite king – for once in the Bible we see God’s people in the view of their enemies. He has summoned Balaam (him of the talking donkey) to curse Israel as if he can just decide that is a good thing to do.  But Balaam is a true prophet, and with spiritual insight recognises Israel as the chosen people of the true God.  Balak, obviously, is furious – words of blessing (or curse) would have been taken to represent reality and a prediction of the outcome of any impending battle. His judgmentalism, racism even, is being challenged. Sadly the impulse to curse someone on the basis of their religion has not gone away – read one of today’s news headlines about a British Muslim.


It is obvious which of these people, as Jesus put it, loved his neighbour as himself.  But the question I am pondering is, would Moses have been so judgmental against the Moabites if he had known that their king was at the same time being given a prophecy that blessed the Israelites?  If we really knew how “others” saw “us” at our best, we might be pleasantly surprised.

The Bible in a Year – 20 February

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20 February, Numbers 21-22

There are two miracles presented here, one in each of these chapters.  In the first, people who were bitten by venomous snakes could be healed by looking at a bronze serpent on a pole.  Apparently this imagery was known throughout the ancient near east, and the Canaanites had serpent idols of similar form.  So why does God invite Moses to make what could so easily be taken as an idol, in order to bring genuine healing?  Jesus famously made a comparison between “the serpent lifted up in the wilderness” and his own crucifixion, by which he became the saviour of the world.  Perhaps the point is that the healing miracle would be dependent on the sufferer’s faith in God, rather than in the image itself, just as salvation through Jesus is always to be through faith and not “magic”.


The other miracle is Balaam’s ass (donkey), which sees the angel that was invisible to its rider, and turned aside three times, being beaten for what Balaam presumed was stubbornness. The donkey then speaks to its rider who does not seem at all astonished by this, and the angel (who had come to warn Balaam not to curse God’s chosen people) is then revealed.  What are we to make of all this?  It is true that some animals can detect things that humans cannot – there are many stories of dogs or cats apparently seeing ghosts, for example. Some Christians would add that animals can actually have faith in God – after all, Jesus did speak of the “birds of the air” who do not worry because they know that God will feed them. But a talking donkey?  That really is a miracle!



The Bible in a Year – 19 February

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19 February. Numbers chapters 18-20

The implications of the attempted rebellion against God and his appointed leaders in yesterday’s reading went further than the immediate death of many of the people.  “From now on the Israelites shall no longer approach the tent of meeting, or else they will incur guilt and die” (18:22) represents a permanent exclusion of the ordinary people from the very place – the tent of meeting – in which they were supposed to meet with God.  From now on only the priests and Levites could enter it.  In the later days of the stone Temple this was replicated as a series of courtyards for gentiles, women, lay men and priests before getting to the most holy place that only the high priest could enter.


What a change is represented by Christian worship: although the layout of large churches and cathedrals still bears echoes of this (narthex, nave, chancel and sanctuary) nowhere is actually “out of bounds” to ordinary people, and all are welcome to enter and seek God.  That is why the charging of fixed admission fees by some of the more popular cathedrals is controversial: many people think they should only request donations and not charge for what should be an opportunity to encounter holiness.


Chapter 19 includes a further purification ceremony:the sacrifice of a red heifer whose ashes when mixed with water would be used to purify people from ritual uncleanness. The nearest we see to that is Christian practice is probably the Ash Wednesday ritual when palm crosses from Holy Week the previous year are burned and their ashes mixed with oil and used to make a mark on the foreheads of those who come to make their Lenten confession.


In chapter 20 another miracle occurs when God provides water from the rock in a dry place.  Moses and Aaron make the mistake of failing to credit God for the miracle, so that it looks as if they themselves can make magic. As a result they are condemned to die before reaching the promised land.  It is always important to distinguish between natural talent and God-given gifts, though not always easy to do so.

The Bible in a Year – 18 February

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18 February. Numbers 16-17

The “Korah rebellion” is one of those shocking tales found in the Old Testament when God, despite the pleadings of a holy man (Moses in this instance) kills large numbers of people – just as most of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were killed despite Abraham’s bargaining with God.  The rebel leaders, along with their wives and children who presumably were innocent in the matter, are swallowed up by the earth, and 14,700 people are then killed by an unidentified plague before Aaron’s prayers stopped it spreading (for comparison, about 11,000 innocent Africans died in the 2015 Ebola plague).


But what was their sin? At one level it was an attempted political coup – Moses’ argument “is it not enough that you have been selected” (as servants in the tabernacle) was met with the ironic reply “is it not enough that you have brought us out into the desert and failed to bring us to the promised land?” (paraphrased).  And political coups either succeed, or if they fail then inevitably the leaders of the uprising are killed.


But this being the Bible, there is also a theological point.  God had appointed the descendants of Aaron to be priests – the highest calling – and the tribe of Levi to serve in the tabernacle. But a Levite and three members of a separate tribe (Reuben) headed this rebellion, which Moses interpreted as their desire to be counted as equal to the priests.  The severe punishments which followed were supposed to be appropriate to this sin. The miraculous budding of Aaron’s staff in the following chapter is then seen as confirmation that his descendants alone counted as true priests.


Nowadays we have other ways of selecting church leaders than tribal allegiance, and of course different Christian groups will have their different ways of doing this.  But the mainstream denominations (Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican) retain the concept of the ‘orders’ of Bishops, Priests, Deacons, and licensed lay workers, each of whom are allowed to perform certain functions which lower orders may not, and for a lay person to perform the sacraments as if they were a priest is still considered a breach of church discipline.  If for example I were to baptise a child, or perform a marriage service, or hear confession using  the words of a priest, I would be answerable to the Bishop.  But I do hope the ground would not swallow me up!



The Bible in a Year – 17 February

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17 February. Numbers chapter 15.

Among the repeated detailed arrangements for sacrifices and offerings, two principles stand out. One is that an offering may be made for forgiveness for an unintentional sin, but deliberate sin is a different matter. Acting  ‘high handedly’ (NRSV) / ‘presumptuously’ (KJV) / ‘defiantly’ (NIV) in violation of a known command cannot be forgiven.  At best such a sinner was to be ‘cut off’ (shunned by society) or at worst, stoned to death. The distinction still matters: Jesus said that all sins can be forgiven (by his death, rather than animal sacrifices) except ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit’, which is usually taken to mean this sort of deliberate and defiant turning against God. Even in personal relationships we find that it is far harder to forgive someone who deliberately sets out to defy us or make life difficult for us, than someone who has accidentally caused us harm.



The other point is that the offerings for atonement were available not only to the tribes of Israel but to foreigners (servants, presumably) living among them. Even at this early stage of the religion there was no sense that God’s laws, or his mercy, are restricted to one group. Israel was favoured by having these things revealed to them, but not for their exclusive benefit.