Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Spring up, o well

by John D Ramsey

Kingdom in Context:[1]

When God led Israel out of Egypt, he did not take them immediately to the Promised Land. He led them into Sinai, a desert place, to sanctify them to be his own people. Nevertheless, Israel failed because of unbelief, and they wandered another forty years until every adult who had come out of Egypt had died. That is, every adult except Joshua and Caleb. Joshua and Caleb stood firm in faith when the evil congregation doubted God. For their belief, God gave them inheritance in the land of promise; nevertheless, all other adults having come out of Egypt, died in the desert.

Moses and Aaron also died in Sinai because of unbelief. God told them, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12 NASB) Neither Moses nor Aaron were guilty of outright disbelief in God. God met with them at the doorway of the Tabernacle. They could not ignore his existence, yet they failed to trust God. Consequently, God prevented them from entering the land of promise. Numbers 20 records their sin:

There was no water for the congregation, and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron. The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! “Why then have you brought the LORD'S assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here? “Why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink.”

Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. Then the glory of the LORD appeared to them; and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,

“Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink.”

So Moses took the rod from before the LORD, just as He had commanded him; and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank.
Numbers 20:2-11 (NASB)

If you are not familiar with this story, you might read Numbers 20 without seeing Moses’ sin; nevertheless, God told Moses to speak to the rock, but Moses struck it with his staff. This may seem to be a trivial infraction for which to lose the land of promise. Surely, there was nothing immoral about striking a rock with a staff. In Exodus 17, God provided water for Israel by commanding Moses to strike the rock. Yet when we look at Moses’ words we realize that Moses and Aaron were taking credit for God’s power, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” Moses believes that water will come out of the rock; nevertheless, the context indicates that Moses and Aaron thought that they were necessary to the process. Moses thought that he controlled God's power. By failing to fully acknowledge God and instead usurping his credit for his power, Moses and Aaron lost the Promised Land.

Israel wandered over forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, yet Scripture tells us of only five instances where God provided them water. Surely, God in his providence supplied them water on a daily basis, or they and their flocks would have never survived. Yet Scripture records five specific instances of God’s provision. Once God provided by sweetening the bitter waters of Marah. Twice God provided water flowing from a rock or geological formation. Twice God provided water by seemingly natural means. Exodus 15:27 records the first of these, and Numbers 21:16-18 records the second.

When we come to Numbers 21, Aaron has died. God directed Moses and Aaron’s son Eleazar to lead Aaron up onto Mount Hor. They climbed the mountain so that all of Israel could see. On the mountain, Moses strips Aaron of his priestly garments and transfers them to Eleazar; then Aaron dies. Aaron, as high priest, had stepped behind the veil and sprinkled the blood of the atoning sacrifice upon the Mercy Seat in the presence of God in his Holy Tabernacle. Yet Aaron dies for his unbelief within the sight of the entire nation, “Because [he did] not believe [God], to treat [him] as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel.”

Moses, who for nearly forty years had watched men of his generation pass away, now watches his brother die for a sin in which Moses shared. Perhaps Moses and Aaron usurped God's authority because they thought that Israel would show them a little respect. Although Israel now reveres Moses, they did not respect him in Sinai. Israel abused Moses when Arad attacked them and captured hostages. Moses still led the people to victory.

Israel complained about the lack of food and water, yet Moses interceded for them before God when they repented. Moses fashioned a bronze serpent upon which Israel had to gaze to receive healing for snakebites. God healed all those afflicted who looked upon the symbol of judgment. Moses led Israel from place to place despite their grumblings. When they came to a place called "The Well", God said, “Assemble the people, that I may give them water.” (Numbers 21:16 NASB) How did Israel respond? They sang a song:

Spring up, O well!
Sing to it!
The well, which the leaders sank,
Which the nobles of the people dug,
With the scepter and with their staffs.
Numbers 21:17, 18 (NASB)

Various translations treat this song differently. The Septuagint (LXX), which is an ancient Greek translation from the Hebrew, says roughly,

Take the lead to him, O Well;
Rulers dug it
Kings of nations quarried it;
In their kingdoms, in their dominating.

The LXX translators appear to disregard the figurative language in favor of the interpretive meaning. Nevertheless, most modern English translations attempt to preserve the imagery of the Hebrew. We reconcile the differences when we realize that the scepter represents a kingdom and the staffs represent authority or dominance. The LXX translators want us to know that the people were not singing to Moses. Moses was not a king; he did not have a kingdom. Israel was singing to a people and nation that had at one time dug a well in the desert.

Regardless of translation, we can look at this passage and ask, “Who gave Israel water?” Answer: God told Moses to assemble the people so that God could give them water. When God gave them water, whom did Israel praise? Answer: They praised the leaders, nobles, and kings of the people who had commanded workers to dig the well.

Israel did not see the hand of God in their provision. They saw ancient kings whose authority and command had ordered the well dug. In Israel’s mind, God was a last resort. They turned to God when there was no other hope, but they disregarded him when events were favorable, as if God had nothing to do with it.

Nevertheless, there is more than ignorance of God in their words. Moses had recently buried his brother Aaron because together they struck the rock with the staff instead of speaking to the rock as God commanded. Although Moses and Aaron disobeyed, water flowed from the rock. From Israel’s perspective, Moses and Aaron had provided the water at Meribah. They saw Moses strike the rock with his powerful staff.

Yet Israel was calloused to miraculous provision. They sang praises to a king of another nation who had provided water by a civil engineering project. They preferred engineering to the miraculous intervention of God. In their minds, civil engineering was easier to trust. Israel’s song appears to disparage Moses’ staff. Moses used his staff to strike a rock. The king used his staff to dig a well. Praise the king who planned ahead! Praise civil authority. Praise civil engineering! With the authority of a king commanding civil projects, God or Moses would not hold Israel hostage to faithfulness. With the right leadership, Israel could take care of itself. Israel seemed to be enthralled with the well, which the rulers dug, without wondering how it supplies water for millions of people and their livestock.

We learn two lessons from this story. The first is that we cannot usurp God’s glory. Isaiah 43:7 reminds us that God created us for his glory. Nevertheless, Romans 8:17 says that “we share in [Christ’s] sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Peter was confident that he would “share in the glory to be revealed” (1 Peter 5:1), yet Peter knew by which death he would die (John 21:18, 19). Christ will share his glory with his saints. That is a wonderful promise he has given to us, but it is nothing that we can usurp.

We learn also from this account that God is intimately involved in our daily lives whether or not we acknowledge him. The water Israel drank in the wilderness came from the hand of God whether he provided it miraculously or through natural means. Our blessings and trials both come from God’s hand. Had Israel seen God’s hand at work at the well, they would have sung a different song. They would have praised God their provider.

How do we view ourselves before God? Do we see ourselves as essential? Do we believe that God’s power is ours to control? If we think so, God will humble us as he did Moses and Aaron.

How do we see God’s hand in our daily lives? Is God our last resort? Do we run to God for triage when we get hurt, and then expect to continue in self-reliance once our situation is patched up? Do we expect that we live our lives outside God’s interest or intervention? If so, we need to look more closely at how God works. He works both through natural and supernatural means. We need not worry about giving God undue credit. All credit belongs to God; that is why Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica saying, “In everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” Paul saw what Israel did not. Paul saw everything in his life as coming from the providence of God. So should we.

[1] This discussion is taken from Kingdom in Context, a little weekly Bible study in which I take part.

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