Numbers 6:22-27 A Blessing
The Book of Numbers is foreign to us. The ancient (instruction) law is filled with many expectations which confuse and even offend modern people with its talk of clean and unclean, blessings and curses. We are outsiders religiously and culturally, which means we easily fall into the sort of judgemental attitude of an outsider.
Early Christians (first six centuries) struggled with the place of the Jewish Bible in the church. This is the "book" (actually a collection of scrolls, so really a library!) which Jesus used to explain His identity. When Jesus "opened their minds to the Scriptures" these were the writings to which He opened them. These books, especially Torah, were the Bible for Jesus. The idea that Jesus "fills up" these books and that these writings "point to Him" is worthy of reflection. Those early followers of Jesus who rejected the Jewish Bible in total were condemned as heretics (false teachers). Likewise, those who failed to see that Jesus (the Son of God and Messiah King) had established the New Covenant (promised in the "Old") were also outside the walls of mother church. Jesus' ongoing conflicts with the Temple (in the priests and Scribes) must be factored into our own reading of Numbers (which is a priestly composition).
Numbers begins with narratives on the camps of Israel and in particular the division of clean/unclean and sacred/profane. The latter issues dominates the first four chapters. God is holy (people are not) so Israel must be holy to interact with God. Ritual purity (clean/unclean) has to do with keeping holiness unpolluted. The complexity of the ritual purity and metaphors to explain it are foreign concepts to us.
Today's short reading is found in chapter 6. Most of that chapter focuses on the Nazirite vow. This was a temporary vow of consecration. Acts 18 indicates Paul took such a vow.
[see for some discussion on this issue http://pauls-post-crucifixion-temple-sacrifices.info/pauls-nazirite-vow-acts-18.html ]
The priestly blessing in 6:22-27 feels a bit out of place, though its place in the entire narrative may have been clearer to the ancient author (or final editor). It is powerful and beautiful and remains in use in many churches today. Friedman (Torah commentary, p.445) shares that in 1978 he saw an archaeological dig of iron age tombs which contained thin silver foil on which this benediction (slightly altered) was engraved.
"Bless" the Hebrew word barak (to bless, to kneel, very rarely (6x) means curse or blaspheme) occurs 330 times, the vast majority of times it is translated as bless. [The word 'sanction' can similarly be either positive or negative.] In Genesis 27:30-38, the blessing by Isaac is almost of magical power (he can not withdraw it from Jacob), yet in other places the word is little more than a greeting. One calls down God's power upon the one who is blessed, providing them with an abundance in life. To bless God has a related though different meaning which including praise and thanks. In Genesis the term barak occurs some sixty times; God blesses animals, then humans, then the seventh day. God blesses at creation. Then later, God is invoked as the one who blesses.
"Keep" the Hebrew word shamar is used to describe man's function in the garden. It means to watch over, guard, keep, tend and occurs over 460 times. One is reminded of God telling Moses that He has seen and heard Israel and knows their situation. The protective nature of God comes in parallel with His desire to bless and prosper.
The 'face' of God being 'light' is an image of His benevolence. One of the contrasting metaphors in the Jewish Bible is the idea of God "hiding His face" when angry. The face of God is chanan (gracious, 78x). The Christian contrast of Law and Grace is probably a misread of the Jewish Bible. Arguably, Paul is claiming that grace is actually the foundation of God's relationship to Israel and that Jesus is the fullest expression of what has always been the case. Psalm 4:7 repeats this image as an invocation to God for those who seek better days. In places to see the face of God is death (emphasizing His surpassing holiness) here it is life (emphasizing grace). This is a reminder of the metaphorical nature of all God talk!
The next verse reuses the same word, "face" which this time is paired with "shalom" peace. Once again Freidman offered a comment which struck me--that Numbers is the only book of the Torah with extensive narratives on war and it has the prayer of peace, too. What strikes me is the face of God is paired with grace and peace; these two words are the greetings found in the Pauline letters (echoing the customary Jewish and Greek greetings). Peace, as we often say, is far more than an absence of war, but rather the state of perfect balance and abundance in the God's kingdom. Such a blessing is indeed a blessing!
The final sentence speaks of God's name (sham, sounds like shame) being upon the people. 1 Kings 8:18ff some thirty times the word "Name of God" appears in reference to building a Temple to the Name of God. The Name of God resides in the Temple (Dtn 12:5; it started with the Tabernacle). The Name is almost a mediator of God's presence. Ps 22:22 (I will proclaim your name to my brothers in the assembly) indicates praise. Recall the commandment said to not take God's name in vain. Also at the Last Supper in John Jesus says (John 17:6, 12) "I have made your name known to them...I have protect them in your name that you have given me." The Name is an expression of one's personality and power. In fact, there is reason to believe that the mystical practice of speculating on the names of God dates to early times. The mystery of naming the Unnameable and the mysterious presence of God through His name underlie the idea that God's name is upon His people and this is connected to blessing.
The Gospel is a continuation of last week's reading where Jesus exhorted the apostles/people to stay alert and be on watch for the return of the Master. The note last week indicated that Luke and Matthew have parallel accounts which include numerous important differences. The first verse (41) which we see today is an example, as it appears only in Luke. "Peter said, "Lord are you telling this parable for us or for all?" In a three layered approach to the Scripture (past, present, future) this question can be seen as an inquiry in the ministry of Jesus, an issue in the early church at the time of Luke's composition and/or a starting point for contemporary reflection upon the meaning of the text for the church/myself today. Why did Luke add the question (or Matthew omit it?). One clue might be the shift in tense (Mt has present, Lk uses the future "who is the faithful servant the Master has (Lk 'will') set over His household). Commentators think that Luke is applying the teaching to church leaders in his own age, saying that the role of the leader is to be servants (following Jesus' example). The word oikonomos (compound word household +law= household manager, very often a slave over slaves) occurs four times in Luke (here and in a parable Luke 16) but in no other Gospel. However, its appearance in 1 Corinthians 4:1-2 ["This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy."], Titus 1:7 ["For a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain"], and 1 Peter 4:10 [As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace] indicates that the apostolic age employed this terminology in reference to church ministry and church leaders.
What then is the 'parable' saying? The abuse of power and authority is an ever present temptation. What is true in our own time was even more true in the ancient world where the rights of citizenship were limited to very few and the vast majority of folks were either slaves or destitute poor. This story itself reflects that, a slave in charge of slaves remains a slave (think of Joseph in Potipher's house in Egypt). Jesus is arguably reflecting the dictate to love your neighbor as yourself in the parable. How the slave treats other slaves is judged by the Master. I think the parable is being used by Luke as an illustration of how the church must conduct business--those in roles of leadership must refrain from acting like the leaders of that day (and likewise we must practice servant leadership). The pomp and majesty of the church must always be in dialogue with the towel wrapped Jesus at table, the parable of the proper behavior of His followers making clear that He looks with disdain on those who act as rulers instead of servants.
What does it mean to be a church in preparation for the return of the Lord? How do we understand our mission as we live each day under the promise of "That Day."? Jesus makes it clear that we must think and act like those who expect the Lord to return. In other words, judgment is real. We will give an accounting and that accounting will in large part reflect our treatment of one another. Love your neighbor as yourself.