The Bible in a Year – 19 February

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

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.