The special purpose of the first born

Numbers 3 commences with a recount of Aaron the brother of Moses and high priest’s four sons. The two oldest Nadab and Abihu were struck down by the LORD for making unauthorised sacrifices (Leviticus 10:1-7). Their priestly roles were inherited by their younger brothers Eleazar and Ithamar and the priestly succession passed down to their sons after them.

The sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he consecrated to minister as priests were only one small family among the Levites; to be a priest and a Levite were not the same thing at all. Only those who were descendants of Aaron could be priests.

What is readily apparent in our reading is that God desired order and organization in the way the Israelites were to worship him. The families of the Levites had certain callings they were to fulfill. There was no one man or family to do everything; God made them dependent on one another to accomplish the work.

Number 3:6-10 details the role of the tribe of Levi – serving the needs of Aaron and the priests, the needs of the congregation at large, and the needs of the tabernacle itself.
The Levites are a special possession to God. The firstborn belonged to God; a firstborn lamb from a ewe would be given to the LORD. God didn’t want human sacrifice, so He took the tribe of Levi as Israel’s firstborn (v.11-13).

In the census of the tribe of Levi (v.14-20), they were to be categorized by the families, with the main grouping according to Levi’s three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.
The families of the Gershonites (numbering 7,500 males) were to camp behind the tabernacle westward (in between Judah and the tabernacle itself). The Gershonites were to take care of the skins that covered the tabernacle itself (v.21-26).

The Kohathites (8,600 males) were to camp southward to the tabernacle (in between Reuben and the tabernacle itself). Their duty included taking care of the furniture of the tabernacle: The ark of the covenant, the table of showbread, and so forth, under the direction of Eleazar the priest, son of Aaron (v.27-32).

The family of Merari (6,200 males) were to camp northward to the tabernacle (in between Dan and the tabernacle itself). Their appointed duty was to take care of the structural aspects of the tabernacle: The pillars, the boards, etc (v.33-37).

The family of Aaron, and Moses, were to camp on the east side of the tabernacle – closest to the entrance, which was on the east, keeping charge of the sanctuary (v.38-39).

In total they numbered 22,000 Levites (v.39). Those quick at maths will see that this does not tally with the totals of the individual clans given in verses 22, 28, 34 which come to 22,300. Scholars explain this discrepancy as a textual corruption in verse 28. The number of Kohathites may originally have been 8,300. 3 (Hebrew sls) could quite easily have been corrupted into 6 (ss).

The exchange of the firstborn (Numbers 3:40-51)
The firstborn – which was always thought to be the best and the favoured – always belongs to God; so instead of giving the firstborn of Israel to God in sacrifice, the tribe of Levi was “given” to God as in place of each of the firstborn sons of Israel. However, there were 22,273 firstborn sons in Israel; and there were only 22,000 Levite males (Leviticus 3:39). The extra 273 were given a monetary value (five shekels for each one individually), and the money was given to the tabernacle as redemption money.

Numbers 4 further details the duties each of the Priestly families in relation to who was fit to serve and what responsibilities each had in relation to the special task of packing and transporting the tabernacle on its journey to the Promised land.

In our New Testament passage from Luke 1:39-56 we have the account of Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) to share the good news of her special pregnacy. In the encounter we are told:

when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit

Elizabeth gives Mary a prophetic blessing to the mother and her unborn child. Mary responds with a Song of Praise know as the Magnificat – a song of praise for what God has done.

There will be no further need for priests or the tabernacle for he is Emmanuel – God with us (Matthew 1:23), the first born child (Colossians 1:15-20) who will grow up to become our great high priest (Hebrews 4:14-16).

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From the rising of the sun

The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises. – Ecclesiastes 1.5

The sun rises on a new day – what will this day bring?  Is it just another routine meaningless day blurring one into another as the sentiment of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 1 verse 5 seems to imply.  Life can become so cyclic.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

When was the last time you were up to take in a sunrise or a sunset?  Someone once wrote “There’s a sunrise and a sunset every single day, and they’re absolutely free.  Don’t miss so many of them.”

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Commuting to Sydney for work, I get to see many sunrises throughout the year, even if it is a fleeting glimpse over the ocean as I drive safely up Mt Ousley Road.  Similarly in the winter months I get to see the sunset across Maddens Plains on the trip back home.
In making his point, the writer of Ecclesiastes fails to appreciate these daily natural wonders.  Do they become something we take for granted?  I expect that like me, on those days where I take the time to sit and take in a sunrise or sunset – that it is easy to reflect on the power and wonder of God as I marvel at the work of his heavenly palate.

From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the LORD is to be praised – Psalm 113:3
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. – Psalm 19:1

May each sunrise give us a spiritual awakening.

Awakening – Chris Tomlin
Like the rising sun that shines
From the darkness comes a light
I hear Your voice and this is my
Awakening

More than transformed rubble

Nehemiah 12 commences with a generational roll call of eminent priests and Levites (v.1-26) among whom is Abijah (v.4) from whom Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist was descended (Luke 1:5).

Having shared his account of the building of the wall in chapters 1-7, Nehemiah now depicts for us the dedication day, with its twin processions and loud rejoicing for their restoration (v.27-43).

After an extensive rebuilding program that touched the lives of the entire community and brought security and pride to the people of Jersulem again. It was a time to celebrate the goodness of God and give thanks. There is no doubt that this would have been a spectacular event to behold, bringing together Levites, singers and musicians from the surrounding regions. But it was also a sacred event requiring the purification (v.30) of the Levites, the people and gates and wall itself.

Two impressive choirs led the processions which departed in different directions to circumnavigate the city, coming together at the house of the Lord (v.40) where great sacrifices and loud rejoicing was offereds because “God had given them great joy.”

In verses 44- 47, this show of joy and zeal is tapped into, to ensure that worship remains part of the fabric of society with key appointments made to collect and look after the tithes and offerings and lead worship.

While the story of Nehemiah teaches us that rubble can be transformed to restore pride and give security again, the Parable of the Tenants in Matthew 21:33-45 further educates us that more than physical walls can be built with that which has been rejected.

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvellous in our eyes’?

Jesus prophecises of a time when those very walls that Nehemiah built up, were about to come tumbling down again, because the religious zeal for God had been lost (v.43-45).

Processing trauma

How does one process trauma? Be it as the result of a natural disaster, an accident or war. The book of Lamentations is an attempt to give voice to this process.

The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Narrative states that scholars working on the connection of literature, narrative, and trauma have made important connections between an individual’s ability to maintain a coherent sense of self (a personal narrative) and their own psychological and social well-being. Some literary expressions from traumatic circumstances, therefore, can be read as individual attempts to repair personal narratives. The biblical book of Lamentations may well be such an exercise in narrative repair.

Lamentations is raw and unfashionable – both to read and preach or write about (indeed I had to create a category tag for Lamentations in this blog as no one had previously done so). Like any war zone, it is a place we would rather flee from and want to visit.

 

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(This powerful image of a man and his daughter wandering the devastation in the city of Mosul, Iraq gives us some insight into the grief and bewilderment felt by the author of Lamentations)

In the Hebrew Old Testament, the book is entitled ekah, meaning “how” or “alas,” taken from the first verse. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew text) there is a brief notation to the effect that these are the writings (laments – crying aloud) of the priest and prophet Jeremiah when he went up on the hillside and sat overlooking the desolate city.

Lamentations consists of five separate poems, each in the literary form called an acrostic. Each verse begins, in alphabetical order, with a letter from the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (sadly something lost in translation from Hebrew to English).  Each chapter stresses and develops a particular aspect of sorrow.

Lamentations pictures a man of God puzzling over the results of evil and suffering in the world. Suddenly the greatness of Jerusalem is gone. The city and Holy temple has been destroyed, thousands have been taken into captivity and many more have died. Why had God allowed this calamity to fall upon his once great Holy city ?  Whereas Job dealt with unexplained evil, the writer laments a tragedy entirely of Jerusalem’s making stating categorically that God had rejected His people because of their continuing rebellion against Him. There is no specific mention of the invading Babylonians.

“The book expresses with pathetic tenderness the prophet’s grief for the desolation of the city and Temple of Jerusalem, the captivity of the people, the miseries of famine, the cessation of public worship, and the other calamities with which his countrymen had been visited for their sins. The leading object was to teach the suffering Jews neither to despise ‘the chastening of the Lord,’ nor to ‘faint’ when ‘rebuked of Him,’ but to turn to God with deep repentance, to confess their sins, and humbly look to Him alone for pardon and deliverance” – Joseph Angus, The Bible Handbook

The imagery in Lamentations 1 is confronting, it gives us a description of the utter depths of sorrow, the desolation of spirit that sorrow makes upon the human heart, the sense of abandonment, of complete loneliness. Here we can see how vividly the prophet has captured this feeling as he pours out the feelings of his own heart.

Jeremiah remembers the greatness and weeps for the desolation. He was there to see it all. He warned them ahead of time, but they did not listen. People from many nations had come to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. Now, there is no temple for anyone to worship in. whereas New Jerusalem is described as a bride; Jerusalem destroyed is like a widow and her “lovers” the lands they had made alliances with, such as Egypt.

The people have been vanquished and taken into captivity; the city has been set on fire and totally destroyed. Verse 16:

“For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit;
my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.”

Lamentations provides us all with a hard but brutally honest template to consider when we are faced with traumatic events in our lives.

I guess it would be remiss of me not to include a link to the Lamentation Blues which was used to introduce a recent preaching series on Lamentations.

With stringed instruments

Being a musician, the introductory comments prefacing Psalm 67 immediately catch my attention.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.

What I am looking here are song lyrics, with a long lost melody and instrumentation.

Music is referenced many times throughout the Scriptures. Over 1150 verses in the Bible reference music. The bible is replete with songs which were always accompanied by musical instruments. To see and hear what some of these instruments look and sound like click here.

Having been blessed with enough musical ability to be able play a number of stringed instruments – I wonder how this song would have sounded?

How would Psalm 67 musically have stacked up against some of the classic guitar (stringed instrument) songs that I have grown up listening to – the likes of the Beattles, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana or Led Zepplin to name a few that influenced a generation?

There can be no doubt that even without their original music the Psalms stand unique in their ability to touch generation after generation.

Maybe the structure and repetition of the lyrical themes give us some clue to the musical arrangement!

These are my humble thoughts based on the way our modern worship songs are arranged.

The song begins quietly on a harp or lyre with a request for God to be “gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us” (show us favour or benevolence). But it is not about us – the focus is elsewhere – these requests a meanly signposts to someone, somewhere else as punctuated by the words “Selah” and “So that” (NIV) – verse 2 and again in verse 7.

At which point the song builds as other instruments join in, leading into the chorus (v3) – May all peoples and nations praise you.

It is hard to imagine that the feel of the song is anything but uplifting and joyous in verses 3 and 4 as it speaks of gladness and joy.

The chorus is repeated in verse 5. Before returning again to the theme of God’s blessing that opened the song – perhaps musically more reflective at this point – again the reason for God’s benevolence is clearly spelt out – so that the peoples of the ends of the earth “will fear him!”

Here is a link to the Sons of Korah’s interpretation of Psalm 67 to further reflect upon.

 

The leader is rejected

In our western democracies, we are able to reject our political leaders who fail to live up to our expectations, some are rejected by their parties. In 1 Samuel 15 we see God rejecting King Saul for failing to carry out His expectations.

In a dramatic chapter that would not look out of place in a tele-series such as Game of Thrones, we see the tragic consequences when we think we know better than God –  “He doesn’t really mean all that – does he?”

When Saul is ordered to annihilate the Amalekites as punishment for the grief that they gave to the wandering Isrealites (see Exodus 17:8-16; Numbers 14:43-45; Deuteronomy 25:17-19), he spares the life of their king and the best of the livestock.

God reveals Sauls failings to the Prophet Samuel – who is deeply troubled by this (v11). He goes to confront Saul who is acting as if nothing is wrong – the scene is somewhat comical.

Saul – “I have carried out all the Lord’s instructions”

Samuel – “Really ! What is that I can hear ?? Sheep?

Saul – “What sheep?” “Oh those sheep! Well, um –  the soldiers (shifting the finger of blame) – brought them from the Amalekites – we only saved the best – for sacrifices (so its ok) – but we totally destroyed the rest!”

At this point Samuel looses his cool – despite Saul’s best protestations – he has heard enough and delivers the Lord’s judgement:

“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
    as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
    and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
    he has also rejected you from being king.” (v22-23)
Saul caught out and faced with the reality of loosing his crown is full of remorse and repentance and begs for forgiveness but it is too late. As the NIV Study Bible note on verse 25 points out – Saul’s greatest concern was not to worship God but to avoid a break with prophet Samuel which would undermine his authority as king.
He compounds his troubles when in desperation he grabs the departing Samuel’s robe and rips it – so declares Samuel –  “the kingdom of Israel will be torn from you and given to one of your neighbours”.
As we will soon see in the coming days readings – the neighbour destined to receive Saul’s kingdom is David. Just as obedience is better than sacrifice – so David is regarded better than Saul, who had originally considered without equal (1 Sam 9:2).
Samuel shows Saul some mercy, by returning with him to his subjects so he can save some face. But there is no mercy shown to Agag, the king of the Amalekites who is slain by the prophet.
In an echo of Genesis 6:6, God is grieved that he ever made Saul king over Israel.
None of us takes rejection well – especially deposed political leaders and we will see in future chapters Saul’s jealousy for his future replacement.

 

 

 

The Lord’s favour on David

In 1 Chronicles 14, the narrative of the ark’s home-coming pauses to reflect back on the favour that the Lord has shown David- sharing content also found in 2 Samuel 5:11-23.

Verses 1-2 highlight that the king of Tyre provided him tradesmen and timber in order to construct a palace.

Verses 3-7 detail the increase in David’s family – that he took more wives shows a moral failure on David’s part and was contrary to the law – see Deuteronomy 17:17 – a failure that would come back to haunt him later in his life.

The verses that follow (v.8-17) describe David’s first international crisis – a confrontation with an old enemy – the Philistines. When David fled from Saul’s kingdom, he became a Philistine vassal (1 Samuel 27:1-28:2) and during those years at Hebron the Philistines probably considered him as just another client king.

With his anointing as king over a reunited Israel, David became a threat that the Philistines could no longer ignore and move to mount an attack before he is able to occupy Jerusalem. But because he looked to God for his strategy and strength, he was able to repel the Philistine attack and secure independence for God’s people and end the threat of Philistine conquest and oppression.

As a result “David’s fame spread throughout every land, and the Lord made all the nations fear him.” (v.17)