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
Numbers, exciting numbers
I must get in a post about cricket. England have just whitewashed India, the number one test nation in the world, drubbing them 4-0 and gaining the number one spot themselves in the process.
This will get you. Here are the series averages. To be honest, if it wasn't a work day, I would spend a good few hours going over these numbers. For example, did you know that KP scored an average of over 100 (106.60 to be precise) but his balls/100 rate was commendably low (good patience etc). And Broady picked up 25 at an average of 13.84 with an RPO of 2.24?
[Well, I don't understand the baseball averages either (though in fact they were devised by the same Englishman who invented the cricket scorecard).]
Numbers can be desperately boring….unless you're interested in them in which case they are delightfully, marvellously exciting and relevant. Believe it or not, US friends, we Brits can spend a whole evening talking about these things and still have room for more.
I'm studying the book of Numbers at the moment and many people who have read it will say that that the first few chapters are desperate, desperate, desperate. All those stats! All that counting! Count me out!
But no! Understand the context and the setting and then you can get excited about the numbers. Understand that only 70 people went up into Egypt (Exodus 1.5). Understand that the promise making God told Abraham about numerous descendants. Understand that this was still a rebellious people who should be wiped out.
Seen rightly, numbers are glorious.
Numbers, exciting numbers. Which means you can preach them too.
Applying Romans 14/15
Here's a very practical illustration of the application of Romans 14/15 in our church setting. It's all to do with Halal meat.
We live (and our church is situated) in a Muslim majority area – one of the few in the UK. So when we put on events at church that include food we need to think about what Muslim's eat. We know from 1 Corinthians that:
"…an idol is nothing in the world and that there is no God but one."
And therefore we can eat Halal meat without any problem at all. So, why don't we make sure that all the meat we eat at church events is Halal? Answer – not everyone feels this way in the church.
"But not everyone knows this."
"Be careful that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak."
These verses are all from 1 Corinthians 8 of course. But now Romans 14/15 kicks in which ensures that those who are strong in the faith (and presumably, technically, in the right) do not despise those who are weak. These are disputable matters. However, nor do we prohibit all Halal meat as that would hinder our outreach to the Muslim people around us. So we ask each side to exercise Romans 14/15 priniciples. In one sense, it does not matter who is the weak and who is the strong and even if the weak consider themselves the strong as well as the strong considering themselves the strong. Each thinks of the other before themselves.
Practically, in this case, it means we provide both Halal and non-Halal meat at our meals even though this is more tiresome. Unity is thus preserved.
Simplicity in Preaching
I have been reading a wonderful forthcoming book by Derek Prime about Charles Simeon, and loved this, from Simeon, about simplicity in preaching: “The distinguishing mark of the religion of Christ is its simplicity, and its suitableness to the condition of all men, whether rich or poor, wise or unlearned. It is not to our credit when people listen to us and remark how clever we are; whereas it is greatly so when they say, ‘Now I understand.’” I hope I can learn to preach clearly and simply – not simplistically or with banal waffle, but clearly so that my hearers understand.
Sinclair’s Decalogue of Preaching
The new edition of Themelios is out and preachers ought to read Sinclair Ferguson's article on what he wishes he'd been taught about preaching. I don't think I'm spoiling by giving the headlines, but you really need to read the full article here.
- Know Your Bible Better
- Be a Man of Prayer
- Don’t Lose Sight of Christ
- Be Deeply Trinitarian
- Use Your Imagination
- Speak Much of Sin and Grace
- Use “the Plain Style”
- Find Your Own Voice
- Learn How to Transition
- Love Your People
Making of the KJV app
The excellent Bodleian Library have created a really good app for the iPhone and Android based around their making of the KJV exhibition. It's not free (sadly) but still worth a look.
Why your church needs pew Bibles
Guest post from Ian Metcalfe, Director of Publishing at Hodder Faith
As Publishing Director for the UK's largest Bibles publisher I do have to declare a vested interest in this matter(!) – but nonetheless I hope I will be forgiven for taking this opportunity to argue the case that churches should resist the temptation to rely on modern technology instead of ensuring there are good stocks of Bibles in the pew.
The modern penchant for big screens and video projectors is all well and good, and it may seem to offer a one-size-fits-all solution. After all, you could use a different Bible translation every week, skip around at will between passages in the course of a sermon, and at no point will anyone in the pew have to do anything more than lift their eyes to the screen to see what (metaphorical) page they're on. And that page will be exactly the one the preacher wants them on.
But that is, in fact, more or less the sum of the problem. The big challenge in any church is to get people to go beyond mere listening to the wisdom of others and become truly engaged with the challenge of wrestling with the truth for themselves, not just during the 10, 20, 30 or 40 minute sermon (delete as appropriate) but out into the week that follows. And the pew Bible, mundane and outdated as it may seem, is perhaps the most powerful single tool at our disposal to drive that kind of engagement.
With the words on a screen, the chances are the Bible passage will disappear soon after the reading is finished, making way for a key sermon point or a powerful image. Such things are all well and good in themselves – but unless the congregation have a photographic memory, the removal of the Bible passage leaves them hanging off the words coming out of the speaker's mouth at each successive moment (including whatever Bible snippets they may choose to repeat), rather than the word of God itself.
Let's assume, though, that the passage does remain onscreen. Even so, it is stripped of context, so the folk in the pew end up at the mercy of the speaker's ability to frame it adequately. With a pew Bible there is endless opportunity to explore and to assess for themselves the environs in which a particular passage appears, and the style and intent that might go with that. (Sure, they may use that opportunity to dive off at a complete tangent. But I guess that could be God's leading too, assuming the guy up the front doesn't have a monopoly on inspiration. And better a biblical meander than mere daydreaming.)
Even if you want to read from a different translation to make a particular point, there's more to be gained than lost in having people compare with the version in the pew as listeners have the chance to weigh up the different strengths of one translation against another.
I can't help thinking it's a bit like the satnav/road atlas argument – one that road atlases definitely seem to be losing. But the humorous stories of how satnav leads lorries (sometimes literally) up the garden path disguise the fundamental difference between these two tools that are, after all, both designed to help you get where you're going. Using a road atlas, you work out a route and build up a picture of how the land lies which will stand you in good stead even when things take an unexpected turn. With satnav, by contrast, you blindly follow directions and if it all goes wrong you have even less of a clue than someone just driving by their wits, because they at least know how they got to where they are now. When satnav works, it is ultra accurate; when it fails, people get seriously lost.
So with the Bible, we must surely desire that people get to know the territory, and are equipped to make their own explorations, even more than that they slavishly follow the particular points made in any one sermon, however valuable those points may be. Otherwise we'll be creating poor followers of the local Apollos or Paul rather than mature disciples of Jesus.
And that's why your church needs its pew Bibles.