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Faithful During Consequence
Fall Quarter: Responding to God’s Grace
Sunday school lesson for the week of September 29, 2019
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: Numbers 14:10b-20
Key Verse: Numbers 14:19
In abundance with your great love, forgive the sin of the people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.
Understanding the relationship between consequence and grace, and the importance of intercessory prayer.
Israel remains encamped at Sinai after leaving the desert. They were poised to enter the Promised Land until doubt and mistrust made such a task too difficult. Israel would enter Canaan through faith in God’s promise, trusting in God’s care. They could not subdue or settle the new land in a spirit of fear with grumbling and complaining.
Historical and theological reflection introducing the narrative:
When interpreting a text, it is important to realize God reveals the divine nature and will to us at a particular time in history, using the language and symbols of that time, speaking to us in a manner we can understand.
For example, we read nothing of physics or higher mathematics, for the people could not comprehend it. The stepping stones of science and math were not yet developed. The same is true for moral development. Israel would grow morally and righteously according to what they could understand at a particular time and pass to the next generation. In gaining an understanding of a biblical narrative we need to understand this moral development. It is helpful to think of rearing children into adulthood. If we place two items on a coffee table, both of equal value, a toddler will usually pick one up. We will sternly say “No!” The child will most likely pick it up again. This will continue until the consequence frightens them, whether it is a sterner “No!” or a light tap on the hand. Yet, the child will then most likely pick up the second item. Why? The toddler cannot yet develop internal principle. They do not realize that if we are not to pick up the first, it also means we are not to pick up the second. This is the stage of “Law.” Israel, after the fall, is much like moral toddlers. They respond to consequence, thus they initially receive the Mosaic Law. The divine intent is to lead them into a life of internal principle, into a moral of the heart. Eventually our children enter school. Here they learn to live the values of the law in a social setting. Relationships begin to become very important. This “social phase” for Israel occurs when they enter and begin to settle Canaan. They must learn how the Mosaic Law relates to not only the life of their tribe, but also their life as lived among all the tribes in Canaan. Eventually, our children enter the difficult moral stage of adolescence. At this point they have begun to internalize the principles of law, and should know what is right and wrong. If we have to tell a teen every right and wrong they will face when they leave the house we are in trouble. However, a teen struggles with internal principles as they encounter a difficult world filled with decisions. We often chastise them with the words, “You should have known better!” For Israel, this is the “prophetic stage.” The prophets are proclaiming to Israel that they should know better after receiving the law. Their life together and in the world should reflect the beautiful internal principle of love. All law was to teach one how to love God and live in God’s love with one another. They were to learn to internalize Deut. 6:4 “Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” Jeremiah 31:31-33 proclaimed the coming of this internalization. Jesus ushers us into that moral adulthood Jeremiah envisioned. He said, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” He has come to fulfill Deut. 6:4 and to empower us to do the same, adding the beautiful addition “and thy neighbor as thyself.” (Mat. 22:36-40) This is the ultimate moral state. This is moral adulthood. We no longer need 612 laws to teach us how to live, nor should we have to learn only by consequence. We live by an internal principle that the law had been pointing to all along. We need to always ask, “Where is our text located in the moral development of God’s people?” Numbers records a time when Israel is just begging to move out of the toddler stage and into the social stage of living in justice, love, faith and live with the world. Therefore, actions and consequences of those actions remain very important. As a matter of fact, they are still learning their moral life from consequence. They still need to hear the stern “No!” to receive a firm tap on the hand, and to experience the consequences of their actions. They still learn to trust through fear of those consequences. However, we find God’s loving nature at work in always tenderly affirming, gently guiding, and respectively reminding Israel they are loved. Our text occurs as Israel is going to have to experience the consequences of their recent doubt and mistrust of God. They are going to have to learn to fear God and to take God’s word and promises seriously. However, we also will hear the love of God reaching and teaching the people through Moses’s intercession and the Lord once again expressing love and mercy.
What is the intimate connection between Jer. 31:31-33 and Deut. 6:4? How is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22:36-40 related to Deut. 6:4 and Jer. 31:31-33? Where does Israel in Numbers 14 morally stand in relation to the ultimate internal morality of loving God and others with all one’s heart? Are there moral stances you take today that you would not have understood years ago? How did you come to the realization you now possess?
Theological, historical and experiential reflection upon Numbers 14:10a-20:
“How long will these people treat me with contempt?” Contempt is a strong word. The formal definition of contempt is: “A disregard for something that should be taken into account.” The stronger meaning is: “The feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration.” It is accurate to assume that Israel’s lack of faith reveals a disregard for God, and that which is sacred. God and his promises should be taken into consideration, but they are ignored and even questioned. “Yes, we know you promised to lead us into Canaan and to empower us to settle it, but we don’t believe you are going to do it!” is probably close to capturing the community sentiment. Their fear and mistrust are not presented as reasonable; their doubt reflects the very opposite. The text reads Israel doubted God “in spite of all the signs God performed among them.” Here we can hear the divine parent scolding the morally preadolescent people: “You should know better!” The people have far more reason to believe than to mistrust. Thus, indeed they are treating God with contempt. How do we arrive at this point of contempt after all we’ve witnessed? Remember, in prior lessons we learned that fear imagines its own scenarios. It can see defeat, suffering, and death before they actually occur, even when God promises they will not occur. Once a scenario is imagined or created we are prone to interpret events as supporting that scenario. As a young beginner in Little League baseball I was placed in right field. I didn’t want the ball hit my way for I had not yet learned to field high fly balls. I began to imagine my dropping the ball and grew even more afraid. I then watched the batter stand in the box and practice a swing that I believed made it possible for him to hit the ball my way. The entire scenario was concocted through my fear. The batter dribbled a slow roller to the pitcher. My fear had imagined and created a scenario that never occurred. Fear begins to see what it needs to see to reinforce its existence. Israel is so immersed in their fear and their certainty of suffering they even envision God abandoning them.
Can you recall a time when fear distorted your perception of God’s love and mercy? Can you recall a time when fear led us to assume God would act in a particular manner just for our benefit?
It is difficult to understand these severe acts of judgement from where we stand in history. However, we must remember Israel is only a nation of moral toddlers. They understand and respond to fear more than kindness. At this point in Israel’s moral development it is fear that gains their attention. The people quickly forget the kindness of God, but readily hear God’s warning of judgement. It is not God’s desire that they respond in this manner, but it is the Lord’s desire to lead his people into a deeper understanding of true righteousness. Few, if any, of us enjoyed having to use any form of consequence when teaching our young children. However, that warning was necessary for their development into good, moral, upstanding people. We can hear a note of grace resounding from within the proclamation of judgement. God promises that though many will succumb to the plague, a remnant will be saved. God says, “But I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they.” God remains faithful to his covenant though a large number of covenant people turn against the Lord. A flicker of hope always exists. Our hope now, as then, is in the goodness, mercy, and love of God.
Why is it difficult for us to believe God can work and does work through judgment and consequences? How do you personally understand the tension that exists between grace and judgement?
Like Abraham, Moses cared deeply for God’s people. His intercession on behalf of the nation reveals a great devotion unto the Lord and a great personal commitment to the people he leads. We must not forget that Moses is under no obligation to intercede or even care about wayward Israel. Why risk further angering God for a people who seem to care very little about pleasing the Lord? Moses must be aware that God’s love is absolutely real. It is a love to which he can appeal when all seems hopeless. Not only is he confident in God’s love, he is equally assured that God keeps his promises. Furthermore, Moses understands the “divine rationale” for the Exodus, the giving of the Law, and the expressions of care God has demonstrated over Moses’ lifetime. Why would God deliver them in such a miraculous manner, care for them with such tenderness, and refuse to abandon them when they were unfaithful unless God has an incredible purpose for doing so? As we examine Moses’ personal reasons for interceding for Israel we understand that Moses identifies
with the people. He is one of them!
It is his family who faces impending suffering and loss. As any person who loves his family, he prays for them.
Many have prayed for me over the years during my physical suffering and struggle. Every prayer is precious and meaningful. Still, there are those who deeply identify with our pain and in some almost mystical manner we sense it. Moses prays as one who is intimately connected to the family of God. We hear Moses’ reasoning in his attempt to change God’s mind. Egypt was and remained a powerful nation. How stunned they must have been to have an unarmed nation of slaves escape their grasp, and then lose so many soldiers and chariots in the sea! They must certainly fear the God of the Israelites! But, what will they think if Israel now dies in Sinai? Where is their God when the plague comes? He must have abandoned them! As Israel moved into the “social stage” of their moral development it was important to possess great standing among the nations. It was a violent age of wars and empires. The greatest gods belonged to the mightiest nations. In the eyes of Egypt and surrounding enemies the God of Israel was mighty. However, if Israel succumbs to the plague their God will be perceived as weak. Moses prays, “If you put these people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, ‘The Lord was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.” It will not just be God’s power that will be called into question, the world will question his mercy and love for his people as well.
Can you share a time when someone interceded for you in a most meaningful manner? What was the difference between someone offering a prayer for you and someone interceding for you? Is there a difference? How often do we intercede for others, especially those with whom we share no interaction or relationship? How often do we pray for the church and not just our church? What are the obstacles we face in becoming a person who intercedes regularly for others? Was Moses truly concerned about God’s reputation of providentially caring for Israel in the world, or was he simply using this issue to bolster his argument for sparing Israel from judgement?
Moses was aware that God judged, and God showed mercy. In his intercession he initially prayed for God to withhold judgement lest the nations doubt his care for Israel and his power. Now, Moses appeals to an attribute of God that was uncommon among the gods of the near eastern world. He appeals to God’s love and mercy. Moses isn’t simply reaching into the dark in hopes that God might be merciful. God has revealed the divine attributes of love and mercy consistently in Israel’s life. These are the attributes which tower above all others. Paul, who was very acquainted with Old Testament history, understood the superiority of God’s love when he recorded his masterpiece on love in I Cor. 13. God’s love is the “more excellent way.” In the age in which Moses lived, the revelation of such love was a theological ray of sunshine breaking through the dark clouds of angry judgment. The affirmation that God is slow to anger is important to remember. The warning of judgement is not a loss of temper, or sporadic act
on God’s part. Israel has consistently rebelled, ignored, and neglected God’s mercy and goodness. The ensuing judgement is the consequence of a pattern of behavior. Still, the text reveals that God’s love does not always excuse us from the consequences of our behavior. As cited above in the discussion of moral development, Israel learns from consequences. Consequences gain Israel’s attention and remind them to flee from such behaviors in the future. Removing the consequences on every occasion does not reveal the depth of God’s love. Love sometimes has to be tough, and on occasion it hurts. As a parent I never enjoyed assigning punishment for rebellious behavior. Yet, because I loved I had to punish. My children needed to learn the moral lesson the consequences of their actions would teach. God will have mercy and the Lord’s love is always at work, and at times it is at work in the consequences. Some struggle with the assertion that consequences of sin can be experienced for generations. The same is true, however, for mercy.
I am trained in family systems therapy, which understands generational patterns of behavior. Dysfunction in a family will usually affect at least one child. That child can marry someone that compliments the dysfunctional behavior and thus one of their children might bear the consequence. This pattern can continue until there is an intervention that breaks the cycle. Israel’s children are being reared in a rebellious community. They hear the rebellious language and witness the rebellious acts. It is impossible for them to remain unaffected. Unless someone responds to God’s love with righteous behavior the pattern will continue. A righteous pattern will continue for generations as well. When we read the book of Judges and the Kings we find the repetitive phrase that the leader of Israel “did evil in the sight of the Lord,” or “lived righteously before the Lord.” These books record the generational consequence that emerges from either a sinful or righteous community.
How do the actions of a church affect the coming generations? How can interventions of God’s righteousness and divine purposes be experienced in churches seeking new direction? Can you identify the patterns of behavior in your life, your church, or family? How can constructive wholesome behavior be upheld and passed to the next generation? How can we affect change when the behavior and attitudes are destructive?
“The Lord replied, ‘I have forgiven as you asked.’”
Moses shares six short words, but how powerful they are! God chooses to answer Moses prayer and once again forgive Israel for its mistrust and rebellion. God’s goodness continues to reach forward, making way for a life of hope and promise. As stated above, the consequences remain. Only Joshua and Caleb will enter Canaan. The remainder of the people will perish before that great day when the Jordon is crossed. Their hope and joy must rest in the knowledge that their children and grandchildren will experience the promise of God.
How easy is it for our current culture to find joy in knowing our present actions will benefit the coming generations instead of us? Can we accept the role of creating a new day through God’s grace that will allow the generations to come to experience the wonder of the Kingdom of God?
As a covenant people we are also an interceding people. As those in touch with God’s presence in the world we can recognize that which takes life and that which gives it. We are the community that realizes the interconnectedness of all people. This intimate relationship we enjoy with each other is at the core of a prayer life that intercedes for others. On some occasions our prayer requests that we learn from the consequences. On other occasions we seek God’s guidance in allowing the Holy Spirit to use us to create a new path of righteousness and love in the world. We leave the decision as to whether we should experience the consequences of rebellious behavior or escape them to God. God will act on behalf of all for the good of all.
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me. (St. Patrick’s prayer)
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.