Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Geddit?
What should a preacher make of a passage such as Numbers 7.12-83 which contains a long list of offerings brought at the consecration of the Tabernacle? Each tribe is represented in an identical formula and with identical offerings. Is such repetition really necessary? Again and again and again and again (unite, Status Quo fans…)
Some Bible translators think not. The Good News Bible, The Contemporary English Version (these two are very similar) and the Living Bible all redact the text and give us summary statements instead – you can click here to see how the GNB does it.
It’s tempting to go with them. Modern people like us have little time for repetition of this nature. But no.
The author wanted the cumulative effect that results from a reading of the account of the twelve individual offerings (Timothy Ashley, NICOT, Numbers)
The text wants to give equal recognition to each of the tribes. Every tribe is equidistant from the tabernacle in the center of the camp. Every tribe contributes exactly the same offering to the tabernacle. No tribe has any claim to the divine center of power than any other. This affirmation of tribal equality is a powerful claim. (Dennis Olson, Interpretation, Numbers)
[The author] wants you to understand that there was an overwhelming outpouring of love on the part of each and every one of the tribes of Israel that cannot be captured in a few words or phrases. Only a full rendition of the details will give an adequate sense of what is transpiring here (Iain Duguid, Preach the Word, Numbers)
That raises several questions:
Should I preach this passage in a series on Numbers? I contend that the answer to that is YES. After all, it is here for a reason and who are you, like the GNB editors, to redact it out?
If I preach it, what should we read in church? It would be very tempting to read one section and then say “and that was repeated another 11 times.” Of course, reading the whole thing would take an age, and yet….. I think I would make time for reading it (with some explanation or possibly some congregational involvement).
Illustrations and Paul’s wife
The world tilting gospel
I've just finished reading Dan Phillips' latest book, The world tilting gospel. Dan is part of the Pyromaniacs blog team (always thoughtfully provocative). The book is essentially an introduction to what it means to be a Christian in the world based on the fact that the early church, without buildings, organisation, the internet and even (get this) social media, turned the world upside down. Now, Phillips argues, things are reversed. It is the world which is turning the church upside down.
This is a clearly written book. Its first half is really devoted to explaining why the gospel is needed and what it is. Clear, careful and helpful for any new Christian, or, indeed, as a reminder of what has sometimes been neglected or even forgotten. But as a Christian of many years, I found the second half to be particularly useful. It is essentially an extended study on what it means to grow in holiness (positively expressed) or to put to death the flesh (negatively expressed).
[I particularly enjoyed four very helpful pages on understanding Romans 7, so much clearer than the technical stuff lots of commentaries tie themselves in knots with.]
Scripture won't let me pretend that the flesh is my 'note from God' excusing me from the work of growing in holiness, and of seeking the Spirit's enabling to keep Christ's commands. But if I pretend it isn't real, and put myself in tempting situations that I know will exacerbate my particular fleshly weaknesses, I'm foolishly putting myself at hazard and asking for some serious humiliation. So I battle. (p249)
There is also, as you might expect from someone who comes from the MacArthur stable, some very clear and helpful teaching on the work the Holy Spirit does in the believer.
Show me a person obsessed with the Holy Spirit and his gifts…and I will show you a person not filled with the Holy Spirit.
Show me a person focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ – never tiring of learning about him, thinking about him, boasting of him, speaking about and for and to him, thrilled and entranced with his perfections and beauty, finding ways to serve and exalt him, tirelessly exploring ways to spend and be spent for him, growing in character to be more and more like him – and I will show you a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit. (p273)
I found this book a great help in my own personal battle of putting to death the deeds of the flesh and I think you may too.
Why context matters…
If PT made rock, it would almost certainly contain the word CONTEXT.
You can't think about context enough if you want to handle the text faithfully. Here's a very brief example:
The priestly blessing of Numbers 6.22-27 asks for the Lord to bless and "be gracious."
OK. But what's the context? The context is LAW. Do this, do that. Don't do this. Don't do that. In fact, as one commentator puts it, the blessing ends the whole law section which began in another book – Leviticus 1 – Numbers 6.
So the context of a prayer for God's GRACE is LAW. See how the context shapes the text? Despite the setting, grace is still needed (a fact that the narrative of Numbers that is about to begin will bear out clearly). God's blessing cannot be earned by keeping the LAW. Hence, the prayer for GRACE.
Autumn Ministers Conference 2011
Now you're back from holiday and nice and relaxed, why not think about joining us at the Autumn Ministers Conference at Hothorpe Hall. The dates are Monday 7 – Thursday 11 November starting at Monday tea-time and running through to Thursday lunchtime. This year we're got Carl Trueman coming to teach on the important subject of how we preach the Trinity in the Old Testament and we've coaxed Dick out of conference retirement to give his expositions for expositors. Dick is still remarkably sharp and these will be, as always, a great treat, help and encouragement for preachers. We've also got Charles and Tricia Marnham to help us think through issues to do with parenthood (not just for parents!) and our preaching workshops. It promises to be an exciting time together. Even if you haven't been for some time, why not plan to join us? And if you've never been, you would also be very welcome. Why not think about coming with a ministry friend as a way of developing local relationships? Perhaps there is someone serving close to where you live and he would benefit from your fellowship and the break away? We look forward to seeing you. Book online here.
Preacher, don’t forget the little words
We don't normally post on a Sunday, not being a work day, but I've just finished preaching 1 Thess 2.12-13 in a Hindi language service and I've been vivdly reminded of the importance of what we used to call conjunctives but the educationalists now insist we call connectives – the little joining words. There are lots of them in Greek which sadly are not always translated (though the new NIV has restored many). Take these particular two verses. Paul is not praying two prayers, one for love and one for holiness. These are not mutually exclusive characteristics. In fact, they are mutually dependent. Love AND holiness. You cannot, I suggest, have one without the other. A sermon of two points (as mine was) might be in danger of giving this impression. And so the preacher must think hard about the connectives and how to present them in his message if we are going to be faithful to God's word.
Three titles – all helpful
In modern Bibles the book of Numbers is called Numbers because it's about….numbers. There are two massive census counts that bookmark the book and, as I argued yesterday, structure the book. So Numbers is a good title, and helpful when it comes to seeing what the book is about. But Numbers is much more than a counting exercise and the two Jewish titles shed further light on the themes running through the book:
- The most common Jewish title is taken from the words that appear in the first verse, "In the wilderness." This is a good title. Not only does it physically describe the setting of the book, but it can be taken as a metaphor for the spiritual wanderings of the people of God. In fact, it is a title that is picked up by John Bunyan in the very first words of Pilgrim's Progress, "As I walked through the wilderness of this world….." This title picks up on the exemplorary role that Numbers plays according to 1 Corinthians 10. The bodies of the first generation were "scattered over the wilderness" (v5) and "these things occured as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did" (v6).
- However, there is another useful Jewish title. It comes from the first few words of the book, as Jewish book titles often do. It is called "And the Lord spoke." This important phrase appears in Numbers 98 times despite the persisent rebellion of the people. And so, with our biblical theological hats on we can see the God of grace continuing to speak to and provide for his people at the height of their rebellion. Not that his patience is inexhaustible (as Numbers soberly shows), but that God continues to reach out with grace right to the end.
Three good titles.
How is Numbers structured and, frankly, who cares?
One of the things we teach students on the Cornhill Training Course is to think carefully through how books of the Bible are put together. They are not just a random collection of thoughts pasted together – this is the prophetic word, written down as "men were carried along by the Holy Spirit." And if preachers are going to be faithful servants of this word, some time thinking how a book is constructed is invaluable.
Of course, it would be easy to simply turn up the next section in the NIV each Monday morning and say "right, that is my passage for next time around." But surely it behoves the preacher to give some thought to how things are put together. How else can he be sure he is being faithful to the original meaning. [BTW, interestingly, some headings have been changed in the new NIV. I was preaching from the of Hebrews 11 this last Sunday and I noticed that the first few verses of chapter 12 have been, rightly I think, added into the previous section.]
Take the book of Numbers. Historically, commentators have tended to take the view that this book is structured geographically. It therefore falls into three major sections – 1. Sinai (chapters 1-12), 2. Kadesh Barnea (chapters 13-19), 3. Moab (chapters 20-36). There is even some warrant for thinking this because at the end of the book God gives a geographical assessment of the wilderness wanderings.
However, if you take this approach, the geographical markers (which are not strong, by the way and sometimes missing) don't allow you to penetrate the overall thrust of the book. Based on this approach, Numbers is little more than a travel journal, of course with lots of interesting stuff on the way, but a travel journal nonetheless. Each section has good and bad and there is no discernible pattern.
However, Dennis Olson (in his Interpretation commentary) suggests a different approach. He argues (convincingly) that Numbers is actually a tale of two generations.
The first generation starts well (Numbers 1-10), then slides downwards (11-20) before coming to an inevitable end (21-25). Don't be like them (which of course is the way Numbers is applied in 1 Corinthians 10 and Hebrews 4). The second generation (Numbers 26-36) is all good, especially the great example of Zelophehad's daughters.
Thus it becomes a tale of two generations – one generation which dies, another which is born.
So who cares? Preachers should care, because this kind of thinking helps planning and preaching and, esepcially, application.
We've just started planning the 30th EMA to be held at the Barbican in 2013. We've done an interesting exercise to map out all the timetables from the last 30 years and this wordle is the result of the speakers/frequency. Not surprisingly, Dick has spoken the most. Nevertheless, it makes for fascinating reading.
When is a cat not a cat?
When it's a dog, of course.
Sometimes, things are not always what they appear. For example, take the infamous "trial by ordeal" in Numbers 5.11-31. On a first reading it seems somewhat barbaric, a bit like one of those medieval witch hunts (you know, ducked under the water, drown: you're innocent; survive: you're guilty and are hanged). And there were plenty of such ordeals around in the ancient world. Contemporary records tell of hands being immersed into boiling water etc.
And, at first reading, it's easy to get hot under the collar about such a passage.
But a cat is not a cat if it is a dog.
And this is quite different from the trials by ordeal which saw you dead whether innocent or guilty. There are a number of differences (see below), but fundamentally what sets it apart is this – the whole process is SAFE. If the suspected woman is innocent she will suffer no harm. Only the guilty woman will suffer.
These are the sorts of passages where CAREFUL reading is required. For the record, these are some of the other things that set Number 5 apart from a "trial by ordeal":
- it is not meaningless magic, but performed in the Lord's presence and at his command/direction
- the water has a special significance as it is holy
- the process is strictly controlled – this is not, quite literally, a witch hunt
- it removes the vulnerable woman from the potential injustice of a male-dominated society
- it prevents punishment of a woman on the basis of suspicion alone