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).