Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

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Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Point of Entry

Daily Readings
Proverbs 2 + Numbers 21 + Deuteronomy 14 + Galatians 2

Quote of the Day
For the one who turned toward it (bronze serpent on a pole) was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Savior of all. The Wisdom of Solomon 16:7

Daily Text: Numbers 21:4-9, 14-20
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." 6Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. 14“On this very matter was it stated in the Chronicle of the Wars of YHWH: At Waheb in Suphah, and at the wadis; [At] the Arnon 15and the cataract of the wadis. Where it bends to the settlement of Ar, and leans toward the boundary of Moab. 16From that point to Beer, the very spring where YHWH had instructed Moses: Assemble the people and I will provide them with water. 17It was then that Israel sang this song: “Surge, oh well!”—they sang to it. 18Oh well that the commanders delved, that the knights of the fighting force dug; Along with magistrate[s], bearing their scepters. 18b-19From the desert to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nahliel, and from Nahliel to Bamoth. 20And from Bamoth to the valley located in the open country of Moab, to the peak of the summit overlooking the wasteland. [Translation of 14-20 from Levine, 410:81]

Point of Entry
Entering the Promised Land begins with this chapter. But early in this process the people set out to march East and North around the country of Edom and the way is difficult, so difficult the people begin to complain against both God and Moses about the lack of water and the detestable food. One can sense their anger and their rejection of their lot. God is so angry in return that he sends poisonous serpents among them. This view of God is far from the one most hold, that of a Deist being who perhaps set the universe in motion, but leaves it alone thereafter! This YHWH responds to his people and anger is as appropriate as love and patience. But he does provide Moses with a cure for those bitten—a bronze serpent suspended on a pole. When the bitten person looks on the serpent, healing occurs.

Critics want to make of this story an etiological explanation for the action of King Hezekiah in II Kings 18:4. However, Jews and Christians for centuries have responded without concerning themselves with when the story was written. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon, 16, responds to the story and offers the theological point that it is God who does the healing, not the image. John’s Gospel (3:14-15) makes the reference a Gospel image. Like God’s discipline at many times, the serpents bring the people to their senses and they repent of their sin and recapture their vision of a future as the people of God.

One other element in this chapter is that of the Book of the Wars of YHWH. From it is quoted at least one and perhaps three pieces of ancient poetry, poetry obviously older than the Torah itself. The first two, beginning in verse 14, are beautifully translated by Levine as found above. His translation allows this ancient poetry to describe the movements of the Israelites on their march from the Zered Gorge to the point where they might cross the Arnon into Moab.

The third poem is a triumphal taunt song most likely sung by the Hebrews after they conquered Heshbon, the city of the Amorite king, Sihon. These poems and the book, read ‘scroll’, they are written in, give evidence of very early written and undoubtedly oral traditions behind the Torah. Our God has provided for us so much in these texts. For his people a cure, and water in the wilderness, for us a record that allows us to look between the seams of time at traces of our Redeemer’s grace.

God is Not Dumb
James Russell Lowell

God is not dumb, that he should speak no more;
If thou hast wanderings in the wilderness
And findest not Sinai, ‘tis thy soul is poor;
There towers the mountain of the Voice no less,
Which whoso seeks shall find; but he who bends,
Intent on manna still and mortal ends,
Sees it not, neither hears its thundered lore.

Slowly the Bible of the race is writ,
And not on paper leaves nor leaves of stone;
Each age, each kindred, adds a verse to it,
Texts of despair or hope, of joy or moan.
While swings the sea, while mists the mountains shroud,
While thunder’s surges burst on cliffs of cloud,
Still at the prophets’ feet the nations sit.
395:4

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