Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thoughts on Numbers

“Hills of Gilead” (David Bjorgen, Wikipedia)
Most Christians don’t like the idea of a God who’s flexible, sometimes letting believers have their way. In fact, it’s a favorite pastime of church leaders to frighten people out of doing anything for fear that it might conflict with “God’s will.” (Apparently, they believe it’s super easy for people to mess up and prevent God from getting His way). Instead they assume that God sets a highly detailed, fixed, permanent seventy-year plan for the average individual, and any attempt by the said individual to make modifications constitutes damnable sin.

Reading Numbers has always been a bit of a chore, even for someone like me who worked as a demographer, analyzing census data. What stood out to me this time around was how Moses, or God for that matter, responded to the Reubenites and Gadites’ request to settle in Gilead instead of the “Promised Land” of Canaan (ch. 32). The people of these tribes cared about their economic prospects and asked that their shares of Canaan be exchanged for shares of land more suitable for livestock.

The request initially upset Moses. He was afraid that losing the fighting strength of Reuben and Gad. Weaker numbers in battle would discourage everyone, jeopardizing the other tribes’ chance to inherit Canaan. When the shepherds promised not to abandon their brothers in their conquest, Moses approved their request and even let one half-tribe of Manasseh join the Transjordan settlement.

What struck me about this passage is how Moses never lectured these tribes into accepting what they really didn’t want. If he were a typical preacher today, we might expect a sermon about how greedy people are for asking for what they want rather than being satisfied with what God has already given them. We’d also expect the before mentioned warnings about crossing God’s plans by zealously seeking anything more in life.

Although I’m not settled on the matter, I wonder why Christians are discouraged from petitioning for whatever they want in life and from actively pursuing those things. No doubt there will be disappointments and failures, and God rejecting sinful requests shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone (James 4:3). But this passage in Numbers makes for a good case study: God wants us to make requests (Matthew 21:22, 1 John 3:21-22), and He enjoys fulfilling them because He enjoys seeing us happy (Matthew 7:11, Luke 11:13).

10 comments:

  1. What I've always struggled with though are all the questions that go along with asking: Is this a want or a need, and how do I differentiate which is which from Scripture? Am I asking in faith? God is sovereign, so does He have a different idea about this request? The harsh reality is that we have no guarantees about what--if anything--we will get in response to our prayers.

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  2. Greg: Being an economist, I'm a bit skeptical about humans' tendency to separate out "needs" from "wants." "Needs" are just "wants" that we "want" more than other things we "want." We're told that God will supply our needs (Phil. 4:19), yet it's a fact that Christians can and do starve to death. Also, Psa. 37:4 and the verses I mentioned earlier do suggest that God considers what we "want." It's also arguable that, even if Gilead offered superior land for grazing, the tribes didn't "need" to settle there. They wanted to because they recognized its economic value to them.

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  3. You're right--there is the aspect of wanting something better because it's a good investment (like the tribes recognizing the land's better economic value). However, while Scripture tells us that God wants to give us good things, I wonder if it isn't too easy to interpret those "good things" as benefits rather than trials or difficulties that will make us more like Christ. I'm not trying to play Devil's Advocate here--just trying to think this through. I admittedly have more questions than I have answers. :-\ It's trying to figure out what/how Scriptural truth plays out in our lives that's so challenging to nail down.

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  4. Someone shared with me recently this scenario: on a long trip, needing a place to sleep...I can sleep upright behind the wheel of my parked car, or I can sleep in a 4 star hotel...which do I think God wants for me?

    I believe that asking for more, and getting it is part of the bounty of life, when we accept these gifts were are acting in Divine accordance. There is nothing godly about asceticism, lack and limitation.

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  5. James 4:3 (NIV1984): "When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures."

    What defines those wrong motives? And why else would we ask for something for ourselves except to spend them on our pleasures?

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  6. Considering the context (Jam. 4:1-3), covertness (often leading to arguments and murder) seems to be a big issue. So James appears to be saying something about Christians tendency to want what belongs to others.

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  7. I'd better lay down my shovel ("when in a hole, stop digging"). :) Truth is, I have zero Bible training, and shouldn't be pretending I do. :-O Sorry for the rabbit trail on this. :(

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  8. What? Come on, we're all learning here. I wouldn't have brought up the subject if it hadn't been confusing me.

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  9. Thanks for the comment on my blog "I Kissed Dating Hello." You're totally right...I should get testimonials before writing the "dourting" book. Great advice!

    P.S. I enjoyed this blog. It is a hard concept to get your head around that God's will involves both us actively pursuing Him with our wants and trusting Him with the outcome of these petitions.

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  10. :) Well, I just have to be honest and say I don't have any clear-cut answers on this one. :-| I'd just be speculating. Reminds me a bit of my Sunday School class--with the topics we cover, we often have a lot of questions, but very few answers. :) Some issues in Scripture are just easier to take a particular stance on.

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