We concluded a series of evening sermons on the book of Exodus in March of 2006. Exodus, as you remember, ends with Israel at Mount Sinai. The last section of Exodus contains a mass of liturgical regulation, particularly the instructions for the building of the tabernacle and the manufacture of its furniture that were delivered to Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai. The book of Leviticus continues with liturgical regulations regarding the offering of sacrifices, the keeping of feasts, and much else, all of which also was given to Moses while Israel remained at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Leviticus is simply a continuation of the latter part of Exodus, the law-giving, and belongs with it. Remember, the division of the Pentateuch into five separate books is artificial, made necessary in largest part by the amount of text that could be fit on a single scroll. In that sense it is a mistake to see the five books as separate volumes, written as such and perhaps at separate times. We think of books in that way but it would be a mistake to think of the books of the Pentateuch in that way. The Pentateuch as we have it is a continuous narrative. It could have been divided in any number of different ways. In this particular case the narrative of Israel in the wilderness – following the publication of the laws revealed to Israel at Mt. Sinai – that narrative is picked up from Exodus in Numbers which is concerned with the forty years the tribes of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness. Numbers narrates the somewhat haphazard movement of the people of God from Mt. Sinai to the plains of Moab. The book ends with Israel on the east bank of the Jordan River poised to enter the Promised Land.
In the Pentateuch itself, care is taken to bind all this material together. As Genesis ends, you remember, the seventy descendants of Jacob are living in Egypt. A point is made of telling us that there were seventy in all (46:27). Exodus begins with mention of the seventy descendants of Jacob who formed the original Israelite settlement in Egypt and then picks up the story from there. In a similar way, not only does the narrative of Numbers pick up where the narrative portion of Exodus leaves off – before the regulations begin – but the last verse of Leviticus – “These are the commands the Lord gave Moses on Mt. Sinai for the Israelites” – is mirrored by the last verse of Numbers (36:13): “These are the commands…the Lord gave through Moses to the Israelites on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.” In this way, in a day before large books with separate divisions and page numbers, such as we have with our printed Bibles, the various separate books were linked together and were seen to provide a continuous narrative. Imagine a pile of scrolls and the need to put them into some order. The biblical writers took steps to make sure you would know in what order they were to be read.
The opening verse of Numbers places it in its proper position in the narrative history of the Pentateuch.
“The Lord spoke to Moses in the Tent of Meeting in the Desert of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt.”
These connections or links are important because as we begin Numbers we are thrown back into the story in medias res. If you hadn’t already read Exodus you wouldn’t know who these people were or why they were where they were: a people en route who are presently in the wilderness. Where did they come from? Where are they going? There isn’t really a separate beginning to Numbers and there really isn’t much of an end to it either. Indeed, Numbers seems to peter out with the account of Zelophehad’s daughters requesting a share in their father’s inheritance. Hardly a resounding conclusion! We’ll see in a moment that there is an important point to that ending, but, for the moment, the point is that Numbers is obviously and intentionally part of a larger narrative; part, indeed, of a larger book, the book we call the Pentateuch or the Law of Moses.
Taken by itself, Numbers begins and ends in the wilderness. The Hebrew title for the book, taken from its fifth word, is “In the Wilderness.” The English title, Numbers, is a translation of the Latin title for the book (Numeri) which was taken from the Greek title given to the book by the LXX translators 200 years before Christ and the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek which was the Old Testament of almost all Gentile Christians in those early years after Pentecost. Arithmoi (Numbers) is the Greek title, you can see arithmetic or numbers in that word and no doubt it was called that because of the census information found in chapters 1-4 and then again in chapter 26. The Hebrew title is better as a summary of the contents of the book. For yourself, call the book “In the Wilderness.” I should mention that the original Hebrew title of the book, as with other books of the Pentateuch, was simply the first word of the book. “And he said.” In Hebrew the first word of the book is “And he said,” that is one word in Hebrew. This is a book of revelation and that word in Hebrew, “and he said,” is also a major marker of the books interior divisions, as you will see in 4:1; 5:1; 6:1 “And he said, and he said, and he said.” A key thought of the book is that God has spoken and made his will known to his people. His presence with them is mediated as it is to us today in large part through his Word. We know of God’s presence with us first and foremost because of the promises of his Word and because he meets us when we are reading and hearing that Word.
The book of Numbers is, in fact, the story of two generations of Israelites, the first the generation that came out of Egypt at the exodus, the second the descendants of that first generation. As Numbers begins, that first generation only a little more than a year removed from Egypt, is being prepared to march from Sinai to the Promised Land. The tribes are counted, their arrangement on the march and in camp is determined, the unclean are expelled from the community, the altar and the Levites are dedicated, and a second Passover is celebrated. Everything is got ready for the next step on the way to the Promised Land. [G. Wenham, Numbers (TOTC), 13] All of this in the first ten chapters. Twenty days later the nation set out and in short order came to Kadesh on the border of the Promised Land. Spies were sent out to reconnoiter and their report so discouraged the people that there was a serious proposal made to return to Egypt. Yahweh, infuriated by the people’s ingratitude and unbelief, at least this is the way the narrative reads, was only finally persuaded not to annihilate the people by the intercession of Moses. Instead those people who were brought out of Egypt on eagles’ wings were condemned never to see the Promised Land, to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until they had all died off. Their fortunes are described through chapter 25. In fact, the remainder of that generation doomed to die in the wilderness was finally extinguished by a plague at Baal Peor (25:9, 18-29). [Cf. J. Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary, xiii]
A second census follows immediately upon the plague and it is made clear that we have come to a new beginning. This is the census of the second generation, the Israelites who will take possession of the Promised Land. Indeed, at the end of this second census we read:
“Among these there was not one of those enrolled by Moses and Aaron the priest when they recorded the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord had said of them, ‘They shall die in the wilderness.’ Not one of them survived, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.” [26:64-65]
The final eleven chapters of Numbers are taken up with preparations for the conquest of the Promised Land. Interestingly, following upon the census itself, the final section begins and ends with the question of the inheritance of Zelophehad’s daughters. We have learned to call such a literary device an inclusio, a device by which the author indicates the theme of a work or a particular section of a work. This section of Numbers begins and ends with the same thing, the question of whether these daughters in a family with no sons, will have an inheritance in the Promised Land. These women, in other words, unlike their parents, were deeply concerned that they and their heirs would have an inheritance in Canaan even though at the time they made their request not one inch of the Promised Land was yet in Israelite hands. They are, in this, exemplars of that faith in Yahweh and his promises that the previous generation, the generation of these daughters parents had conspicuously lacked. So you have these two groups of Israelites – one is lacking faith and the other with faith and Numbers tells their story one after another.
In 1 Corinthians 10:6 the Apostle Paul, referring to the history that is recorded in the book of Numbers, says to his largely Gentile congregation: “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.” He goes on then to refer to three separate incidents of Israelite unbelief recorded in Numbers and then he says again, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us…” He then urges his hearers, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” The story of Numbers, in other words, is a cautionary tale of the life of the people of God in the world and of how a good beginning can be squandered by the end. It also teaches us what is required finally to reach the Promised Land. Listen to this excellent summary of the book understood in this way.
“The story of the book of Numbers is written to a people whose lives are lived between the accomplishing of their redemption and its consummation, between the exodus and the Promised Land. The Lord has done what he promised Abraham in bringing his descendants out of their bondage – but he has not yet brought them into the Promised Land. They live in between the times, and their present experience is not one of the fullness of salvation but rather of the wilderness along the way.” [Iain Duguid, Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness (PTW), 19]
Sound familiar? That is our position, precisely! We are between Egypt and the Promised Land. Wehave been redeemed but we are not yet in heaven. We are on pilgrimage and find ourselves in the wilderness of this world. “In this world you will have tribulation,” Jesus promised his disciples, and being “In the wilderness” is just a more colorful way of saying that we live with tribulation. But then the Lord Jesus promised his followers that he would be with them always, even to the end of the age, and that reality, the reality of God’s presence with his people, his faithfulness to them in the midst of their pilgrimage that also is the story of Israel in the wilderness. The importance of God’s presence with us on our pilgrimage through the wilderness is, for example, expressed in the early chapters of Numbers by the tribes being arranged in camp around the Tent of Meeting, the symbol and the instrument of Yahweh’s presence with Israel.
That failure that led the exodus generation to her spiritual catastrophe was a failure of faith. She lost sight of the Promised Land and any hope of reaching it. She could see and feel the wilderness and began to think she would have been better off had she remained in bondage in Egypt. She hadn’t the faith to grasp the reality of what had been promised to her and so she stopped seeking it. The next generation, on the other hand, had faith in God’s promise and prepared herself for what was to come in the confidence that the Lord would be as good as his Word. In other words Numbers is for us. It is about our life, about our calling, about our temptations, just as Paul said it was, and the book is a clear summons, both negatively and positively, to live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.
Now, before we take up the book itself, we have to face squarely the problem that modern Christian readers encounter when taking up Numbers. The problem is not simply that Numbers is an ancient book. Other ancient books are easier for us to understand and appreciate. Genesis is easier for us to read and appreciate than Numbers. Our problem is that we, as modern Western people, have a built-in and deeply seated prejudice against much of the material we find in this book I mean much of the material that obviously is intended to be the revelation of God for the life of his people. We don’t find it interesting because we don’t find it important to us. We don’t find it relevant because we don’t think the issues raised are relevant to our modern lives. To put it bluntly, while we can appreciate the lesson of the spies and their bad report, or the irony of the Balaam episode, or Moses’ exclusion from the Promised Land because of his sin, we think we have moved far beyond the ritual legislation and all of the attention paid in some of these chapters to the organization of the life of people of Israel that we find in Numbers. Indeed, modern Bible readers generally think that Numbers contains some of the most boring chapters in the Bible. Take chapter 7 as a case in point with its tiresome and repetitive account of what each tribe brought for an offering at the dedication of the tabernacle. Each tribe brought exactly the same thing, a list of things, and in each case the list is repeated over and over again twelve times and then a summary paragraph in which we are reminded that a result we had twelve of these, and twelve of these, and twelve of these, couldn’t he have just had a single sentence saying, “So, he had twelve times everything.” We don’t need this, we think. Now, be honest, isn’t that the way you have read that chapter. It’s the way I have read that chapter. What in the world does this have to do with my life? I read that chapter because if I am going to be honest before the Lord and say I have read through the Bible in a year I have to read that chapter. But, I have often found it arcane, boring, and obviously unimportant.
You may be aware that for a century and a half OT biblical scholarship certainly in a large segment of the Christian church has been dominated by a particular theory of the development of Israelite religion. The Pentateuch, written in fact much later than the Bible itself indicates, is supposed to be composed primarily of four separate sources: 1) J, the Yahwist document, dating from the 10th century B.C. identified by its preference for Yahweh as the name for God; 2) E, the Elohist document, dating from the 9th century, and favoring Elohim as the name for God; 3) P, the priestly document, dating from the sixth century; and 4) D, that is Deuteronomy, dating from the 7th century B.C., the time of King Josiah who, it is supposed, didn’t find an old book, but a new one! So the Pentateuch is a patchwork of these four sources: JEDP which an editor has put together into a single narrative. There is a lot of the P or priestly document in Numbers! The priestly document is the source that contains the Levitical laws and regulations, including those that are found in the book of Numbers. As a source it was dated late by these scholars in largest part almost entirely for philosophical reasons. J and E, so it was thought and is still thought today by liberal scholarship, represent a religious viewpoint that is free, spontaneous, and largely unordered. Think of it as liberal Protestantism or, think of it as a document of the 60s if that helps you! In J and E everyone is free to make up his own mind or to do his own thing; there is concern for rigid doctrines, laws, and customs. Everything is coming as it were out of a free spirit. The priestly source, on the other hand, represents a religious viewpoint that is organized, regulated, and ordered by ritual. Think of it as medieval Catholicism, fundamentalist evangelicalism, or the stifling conformity of the 1950s that gave way to the liberty of the 1960s! P is dull, lifeless, and limiting. P does not let the spirit soar! In the view of liberal scholarship, freedom and spontaneity are good; ritual, law, and regulation are bad. It is not an accident that the higher criticism of the OT and the theory that the Pentateuch is an amalgam of J, E, P, and D arose during the period of philosophical and aesthetic Romanticism. Religion, in their theory, moves from good to bad, from primitive spontaneity and freedom to stifling ritualism.
But not only is there precious little proof, real proof, of this evolutionary understanding of Israelite religion, not only does the OT itself give us completely different view of things – for example, in the OT the regulations and rituals were given early to Israel as the explicit provision of God for her life as his people – but all through the Bible we are taught that law and ritual are vital to a truly faithful life and a truly fruitful church. Laws and rituals are as limiting and stifling in the Bible as wings are limiting and stifling to a bird! Nevertheless, no matter that we protest this whole theory of the literary origin of the Pentateuch, nowadays among American evangelicals, the same prejudice against ritual and organization can be seen almost everywhere we look. [Ian Hamilton made a very perceptive comment at the 30th anniversary celebration the other evening. Remember he said that the great divide between Christian believers in our time may not prove to be between different theological outlooks – for example, Calvinists and Arminians or Cessationists and Charismatics – but between believers who understand the role of historic Christian worship and are committed to that worship and believers who do not and are not.]
For many, if not most American evangelicals the sacraments are virtually an incidental feature of their religious life. Most flagship evangelical churches in the United States today which are typically the mega-churches almost never or never have the sacraments in their Sunday services. Amazing! Rituals seem to them far removed from the free expression of the soul and they have been taught to believe that such expression is all that matters. That that is what is the authentic Christian experience. Churches are independent of one another, the Christians in them related to the church only in voluntary ways, and a hue and cry goes up whenever an attempt is made to enforce some kind of order upon the life of God’s people; the sort of order that is imposed by God himself on the people of Israel in the book of Numbers. You probably have experience yourself of how such ritual acts as kneeling to pray or dressing ministers in robes or having the Lord’s Supper more frequently have proved controversial and divisive in evangelical churches of your acquaintance. The new American evangelical church service – twenty to thirty minutes of singing, an offering, and a sermon – is intentionally a service, at least so it is thought, shorn of ritual. The congregation does almost nothing. There is little to no sense of an order of acts relating the visible to the invisible world. The congregation sings (though in some of the churches I have attended recently I couldn’t tell that the congregation was singing; I couldn’t hear the voice of the congregation over the amplified voice of the singer or singers in front). The congregation may sing but it does not act. There is certainly very little resembling the worship of the book of Numbers in American churches today.
And this is supposed to be a virtue. American evangelicals in particular have a great deal of difficulty distinguishing ritual from ritualism. Ritualism is an unhealthy confidence in rituals in themselves, in the acts of worship themselves, as if these acts had some intrinsic power, apart from the worshipper’s faith or the blessing of God. But however sternly the Bible condemns ritualism, it is full of ritual from beginning to end. It commands it. It celebrates its importance, and has no fear of an ordered, even strictly ordered life for the people of God.
What we find in Numbers – the ritually ordered life of God’s people and the importance of a rightly ordered worship – we find in the New Testament as well and nowhere more emphatically than in Revelation and its picture of the ideal worship of God’s people as that worship goes on in heaven. That worship as it is described for us in the first half of the book of Revelation is clearly some picture of how early Christian congregations were worshipping the Lord on their Lord’s Day and John is drawing from his own experience of the worshipping community in his day, but it is also clearly understood by John to be a heavenly pattern that the earthly church is imitating, following, copying. Remember how we are told that the sanctuary Moses built was built as a copy of the sanctuary in heaven (Heb. 8:5) and that the rites of the ancient tabernacle and temple were “copies of heavenly things” (9:23)? I debated whether to read this to you it is a rather long reading, but give your best effort at capturing the point that is being made in this description of worship as John gives it to us, heavenly worship, in the opening chapters of Revelation.
“At the beginning of the book of Revelation, St. John tells us that he ‘was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day’ (1:10). [Interpreters of Revelation] commonly hold that the visionary’s ensuing account of life and events in the heavenly Jerusalem reflect in some ways the worship practices in the churches of his time… By divine inspiration St. John’s experience of contemporary Christian liturgy was heightened into the vision of worship in the city of God.
The historical function of the early Church finds its fulfillment in worship. John, the liturgist among the apostles, indicates the place that the worship of the Church has in universal history. The Church on the mainland of Asia assembles for worship on the Lord’s Day, while John is…on the island of Patmos. But then all earthly limitations are removed and the heavenly temple itself is opened to the inward eye, as once it was opened to Isaiah. John saw ‘the tent of witness,’ the ‘ark of the covenant,’ the ‘altar,’ the ‘seven lamps,’ the ‘censer of sacrifice,’ whose smoke filled the whole temple. Men and beasts alike prostrate themselves before God and the Lamb and adore. Angels and martyrs play on their eternal harps. The lonely figure on Patmos is both witness of and sharer in the worship of heaven itself. The heavenly trumpets sound. The Trisagion [the “Holy, Holy, Holy”] is sung. The praises sung by the creatures, the stars and the worlds surge around the Creature like some fugue of Bach’s [sic] that knows no end. The heavenly choir sings the Agnus Dei. The drama of salvation rolls onward like Palestrina’s Marcellus Mass. The 144,000 voices sing a new song in words no human ear can learn. The angel proclaims an eternal gospel in unearthly glory like the final chorus of Handel’s Messiah. The final Church comes together for the ‘great Eucharist,’ a Church of priests who are to serve God throughout eternity. That is the liturgy of universal history that the seer of Patmos knew and shared in. But the brotherhood is also gathered around him, invisible, here and now a Church of priests. It receives the heavenly epistle and shares in the heavenly worship with its solemn ‘yea’ and ‘amen’ and ‘Maranatha,’ ‘even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.’ So the apocalyptic liturgist understands the doxology of the persecuted church in the framework of a liturgy that embraces all worlds and times.” [Geoffrey Wainwright, “The Church as a Worshipping Community,” Pro Ecclesia (1994) 57 and Ethelbert Stauffer, New Testament Theology, 202, cited in J. Meyers, The Lord’s Service, 132-133]
In other words, the ritual of the Christian church, the acts that believers perform in their worship in the presence of God, from ancient times to the modern day, in those acts our faith has been expressed and our understanding of our lives, their meaning, their future given shape and invested with power. John tells the entire story of the history of the world by describing Christians at worship! Their rituals reveal and express not only their most fundamental convictions but also the most fundamental of all realities: the connection between God and man; heaven and earth; the meaning and the nature of the progress of history; its coming consummation; the glory of God. So it was in the days of the book of Numbers. This explains the place and the importance of ritual acts and rules of organization we find given so solemnly in the book Numbers and other books of the Pentateuch. These rituals, that organization, create, nourish, sustain and direct the life of the community of God’s people in that way that enables their worship, not only to please God, but in fact to be an instrument of binding the community together as the people of God directing them in the service of God and indeed directing history to its appointed end.
One scholar puts it this way:
“Rituals reveal values at their deepest level…men express in ritual what moves them most, and since the form of expression is conventionalized and obligatory, it is the values of the group that are revealed. I see in the study of rituals the key to an understanding of the essential constitution of human societies.” [M. Wilson in Wenham, 26]
Well the essential society of the human race is the Christian church and its ritual is its essential constitution. The importance of ritual and organization was not lost on Moses’ contemporaries, but it is much harder for modern Americans to appreciate. We are a culture that has moved so far in the other direction – from the communal to the individual, and from a ritual-shaped life to one now virtually devoid of rituals (at least intentional rituals) – that we now face the very real threat of actual depersonalization. We have so exalted the individual and his freedom to live in whatever way he chooses, even alas in the Christian church, we have so romanticized freedom that not only have we lost a sense of community in Western culture, we are now in very great danger of completely losing any sense of personhood as well. As God made man to be a person in relationship, a personhood in community, to lose the community – and community is shaped and sustained by ritual – is finally to lose the personhood as well. We now are thinking and speaking more and more of human beings as simply exalted machines or as simply higher animals and the result is that more and more we are treating other human beings as machines and as animals. But animals and machines cannot create true community and they cannot form a community that actually will bless and save the world. Accordingly, the acid of individualism has eaten away at our communities, at marriage, at family, at national cohesion – I don’t know the extent to which you realize this but it is an extraordinary thing that we are talking about the United States of America nowadays as red and blue states – we are coming apart as a people. Our sense of a shared life and a shared community is disappearing in our time and before our eyes. And, alas, and even more important it is eating away at the church, where, again, everyone does what is right in his own eyes. I’m not sure if many of us in this congregation know how individualism and subjectivity rules in American Christianity in our time. Little holds us together, little gives us a sense of our life as the life of a single community to which we are bound, in which we serve the Lord, whose community is the instrument of God’s work in human history, whose acts together are the ultimate acts of Christ’s presence – of Christ’s body – in the world.
Now, it needs to be observed that human beings, being what they are, cannot escape ritual. Man’s communal nature, his craving to embody his internal states, leads to a life of ritual. It cannot be helped. And so, even in anti-ritual cultures like our own, rituals proliferate. What we have done is simply to replace divinely ordered rituals that reflect eternal reality for our own: rituals that express, wittingly or unwittingly, the diminished and debased values of our post-enlightenment world. People would never sit through an hour and a half church service, regulated and created and formed of rituals, but they will gladly sit through a three hour football game and do the wave at the appropriate time. Our community has been transformed from a community of faith to one of entertainment; our rituals have redirected our attention from heaven to earth, from God to the self.
The modern evangelical thinks extemporary prayer is more spiritual than the written prayers of the liturgy but what is the result? We end up with prayers that are empty of any reverence for God, are overly familiar which is to say they are anti-elitist even when speaking of God. They are the expressions of our subjectivist and individualist culture evenwhen speaking to God. I am sure the ordinary Christian who prays this way does not understand this or appreciate it but it is obviously true. And the prayers are often little more than a list of almost selfish expressions of desire for this or that. Our way of praying brings God down to our level whether or not this is our intention. It shows you how fabulously important rituals are for the maintenance and preservation of a right understanding of unseen things. It is our modern way of prayer, a ritual that expresses the modern Zeitgeist or spirit of the age. “Lord we just want to…” And this has become the church’s prayer! “Lord, we just want to love you, or to ask you…” That prayer, brothers and sisters, will not conquer the world. It does not trade in the power and reality of heaven and the glory of God! Or the robe is taken from the minister – too formal, stuffy, elitist, too P and not enough J and E – but a new uniform is put in its place – either $1000 suits and $100 ties, or a Hawaiian shirt and sandals – but is this the organization of the people of God that will confront the powers of darkness and the present world system? Is this the form of God’s people and community that will carry human history forward to its consummation? School children are freed from uniforms but immediately adopt the official uniform of their peers, but a uniform that expresses now a very different set of values, one that doesn’t threaten the world at all and conveys nothing important about our convictions as the people of God or even the calling of a young student. House churches spring up that dispense with liturgy and ministers but very soon have created their own idiosyncratic worship and forms of leadership because without them they would soon wither away. But their forms are not the Bible’s forms and they lack the authority and the power that comes from a form being a copy of what is in heaven.
The question is not whether we will have ritual and organization but whether it will be the ritual and organization that God has taught us in his Word, the ritual and organization that will shape us into his “divisions,” the military term used so often in the Pentateuch to describe the people of God on the march through the wilderness of this world and doing battle with their enemies as circumstances require. In the army one is taught to salute higher ranks on every occasion. It is done all through the day, day after day. The point is that the ritual shapes the soldiers view of himself, his life, and his relationships. Those realities become so much a part of him that when they are tested in battle, they continue to rule his life. Rituals and principles of organization convey values at a deep level. Outsiders are always more conscious of them than insiders but at a deep level they convey, they reinforce, and they direct the moral, spiritual convictions of a people.
What Numbers will do for us is to put our individualistic lives back in the life of the church, make us realize that our lives are bound up with the body of Christ, that they take their great importance from the role we play as part of that body. It will cause us to realize again that the church’s corporate acts, especially those acts by which she expresses her relationship to God and to the unseen world, are the great acts of human life and history in this world, because they and they alone actually explain what is happening in this world and because they become the means by which the Lord moves history along its course to the end.
The church gathering on the Lord’s Day to present herself before the living God is by far the greatest concentration of power ever to be found in this world, far exceeding all armies and navies that exist altogether! The church should be seen to be this. Our children should grow up conscious of this. But when the church fails to understand this, fails to grasp her calling and then fails to confirm it, to ratify it, to adorn it with the rituals that express it, she forfeits both the blessing that should come to her and the opportunity to wield that power in the world. Corrupt and worldly Israel, forsaking the way of worship God had prescribed for her, was no match for the pagan nations of the Promised Land. When she accommodated herself to their ways she was engulfed by them because she did not maintain her uniqueness, a uniqueness rituals do so much to preserve and adorn. Faithful, ordered Israel, on the other hand, filling her ritual life with living faith swept all before her.
It is no accident that Jesus said that the Father was seeking worshippers. It will be worshippers – as that term is understood in Numbers – who will be the Lord’s instrument of conquest in the world. Numbers seems at first glance to be a strange and forbidding book, at least when it is not giving us an account of what happened to Israel in the wilderness. That part of Numbers is endlessly interesting as we will see. But when faced with all the ritual and organization, look deeper and find your life where it ought to be found, your life as God means for you to understand it and to live it and as it is now being lived by the saints in heaven.