A Reflection on Numbers: war language and temptation in the Desert

The First Reading is Numbers 1:1-16,44-46. The Gospel Reading is Luke 4:1-13.

As we read through the bible in an entire year, today we’re four books in. We call this book Numbers but it’s Hebrew name is Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness.” And that’s a good title for this book. Since the last third of Exodus, the Israelites have been camped at Mt. Sinai. They escaped Egypt, received many different teachings from God while at Mt. Sinai, and they are now about to journey to the land of Canaan (modern day Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan). We call the book Numbers because the book, as we see in our first reading, starts with a census. They want to know how many soldiers they have for war. The journey into the promised land requires moving through territory filled with people who do not want the Israelites to be there. The people are heading to war.

I’ve always struggled with the war imagery that is part of Scripture’s story. War is violence and that’s never been part of my experience of Jesus. Wars involve struggle, loss, hardship, and the death. They involve entire nations and peoples committing themselves wholly towards a goal of victory against their enemies. There is excitement, energy, and a huge amount of resources that are devoted to a goal of victory. Soldiers, their families, civilians, and innocent bystanders are required to make, and sometimes be, a sacrifice. Even necessary wars, where evil is fought against and destroyed, are costly. So when we hear stories about God’s people being an army with descriptions of God as a general (‘the hosts of heaven’ means ‘the armies of heaven’), I struggle with what I hear. God’s army is on God’s side but why does God need an army in the first place?

Our gospel reading today might help with that. The story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan can be framed as a moral struggle. Satan is trying to trick Jesus into making an amoral choice when Jesus is weak from hunger and thirst. But what if Satan is trying to do something more? What if Satan wants Jesus to make a choice that denies who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do? Jesus’ journey involves the Cross and Satan offers him away out. Jesus doesn’t fall for it even though Calvary isn’t far away. Jesus doesn’t make a moral choice; he makes the only choice necessary to save the world. I don’t know why God needs an army and I don’t have a satisfactory answer for why this kind of violence happens. But I do know, through Jesus, God does what is necessary to love the world. Numbers has an army. Jesus will be killed by one. God, in so many ways, is a mystery and this season in the church called Lent is an invitation to ask these kinds of questions even if no satisfactory answer comes to us.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 1st Sunday in Lent, 2/14/2016.