Political reflections on Leadership, Communal Tensions and Timing from Numbers 13-14 and Deuteronomy 1
Of course, it is possible to read our contemporary way of "doing politics" back into the biblical text to justify some or other political or theological standpoint. That's not my intention here. What I want to discover from these chapters is something of the patient and gentle rule of God. We live after the coming of Israel's Saviour. In that context, we are called to follow His Rule in working out our political responsibilities.
This is not meant as a full account of Israel's taking possession of the Promised Land according to the commandments of the Lord nor is it the result of a comprehensive study of what is contained in Deuteronomy and Numbers. These bible books require careful study and serious scholarship. Here our concern is with what can be gleaned from an important moment in Israel's history. What is our place in the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation, from Creation to the City of God? How does the biblical story suggest a coherent way of seeing our many responsibilities? How does it give direction as we live out our political lives as citizens of God's City?
The events recounted in Numbers 13&14, are also recorded in précis-form in Deuteronomy 1. (In reading these passages also look carefully at the account of the context provided by these two books). They tell us of the problems faced by the Israelites in the wilderness. They tell us of the problems Moses faced with challenges to his leadership. But for us they are a record of the dealings the Lord God who blessed Moses' leadership as He "went before them" and emancipated the tribes of Israel (i.e. the descendents of Jacob's sons) from slavery in Egypt. But these accounts are there for us as a record of the problems God had with His people; this is the definitive record of the generation who left Egypt and how they were prevented from disaster in the years immediately prior to taking possession of the Promised Land.
These events show an important continuity with the Genesis accounts of the problems God has had in dealing with all His ancient people since the Creation of the man and the woman, His image-bearers. This is an account of the ancient ancestral line of the confused and completely lost who stand in need of the Good Shepherd's care; these are people who, time and again, depend upon His special intervention to stop them from their persistent tendency to bring disaster upon themselves and their neighbours. Genesis tells of the promises of the Lord, and of the covenantal ancestors of these people who stand in dire need of an ongoing revelation of His way, of the Lord's directing word. But now after those commandments were definitively given to Moses on Mount Sinai, the people show that they are still in dire need. Moses might have given them God's laws but their responses showed they had no firm trust in God's promises. They needed to be taught from scratch, as it were, how to walk in the ways of the God they worshipped. They needed to learn from bitter experience that this Lord does things in His way. It was as Moses prophetically told them:
… for you are a stubborn people; … from the day you came out of the land of Egypt, until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord (Deuteronomy 9).
And so this stubborn presumption had to be confronted and overcome. There are three important facets of this process that can be identified from these passages:
1. Progress and Conservation in Leadership
2. Revolts and Reactions from Unbelief and Distrust
3. Timing: When and How is What is Given Taken?
Let us consider the first of these:
1. Progress and Conservation in Leadership:
The biblical story recounts how the Lord Almighty provided His people with leaders, generation to generation. The people who are called to live peacefully under His shadow indeed need "friends of God" as their leaders. By receiving direction from these servants of the Lord they can dwell in safety amongst themselves and in relation to their neighbours. The emancipation from Egypt under Moses, together with the entrance into Canaan under Joshua, discloses the Lord's intense care for His people. A coherent continuity was provided in leadership from one generation to the next. But it did not come without a struggle, without pain. Still, the plans of the Lord God for His people retain their integrity from one generation to the next. The entire Torah (the 5 books of Moses, the Pentateuch) read with the continual refrain that this Lord freely promises protection to the people who walk in His ways, so that they can live with hope, avoiding all panic about the future. God's promises refer to His complete care for this restored people. From one generation to the next they are called to be His image-bearers in this world.
Moses and Aaron constituted the leadership of Operation Exodus, the first phase. Caleb and Joshua were the faithful leaders of the next generation, fired with confidence in the Lord's covenant with Israel. They emerged from among the band of spies sent to reconnoiter the land, and retained their faith in God even when they saw who was in the land, and even when the other spies quaked with fear and fomented revolt.
Among Moses' many leadership tasks was his role as military strategist. The military aspect of this account will be easily avoided if we read this account allegorically. So is it possible that these accounts can give us decisive direction for how we view our current political situation and our place within that?
A military campaign is a complex exercise and requires proper timing, timing that understands when and how to respond to given opportunities. These events tell us about a military strategy which Moses and Aaron had to develop in order to pass on the leadership to Joshua. Occupation of the land came under Joshua's leadership after a 40 year wait. His leadership quality was confirmed right at the beginning of that transition period when he and Caleb registered their trust in the Lord and refused to go along with the "evil report" of the spies.
Before we act we need to first know what time it is. This is as much a matter for us - who claim to serve Israel's Risen and Ascended Messiah - as it was for Israel poised on the border of the Promised Land. What time is it? So think about Joshua's 40 year wait? What did he have to learn during this time?
The first disciples of Jesus also had to consider the question. They began to grasp that the death and resurrection of the Lord restored image-bearer of the Lord to his or her place as God had intended. They were now, as brothers and sisters of the Ascended Messiah were to live as Servants of the Kingdom of God. Their lives, and our lives, are intended to proclaim God's rule over heaven and earth. Christians live in the expectation that the Ruler of the Princes of the Earth is busy completing His work and establishing His Kingdom in its fulness. Sins bonds have been severed and those previously enslaved have been delivered. And that is the word that has to be proclaimed near and far. Our life has been broken open for us to reveal a many-sided service in the midst of a complex world. But it is important that we know what time it is. Then we can face up to the uncertainties that are before us and have to be overcome in our lives. Likewise, after Jesus' resurrection the bewildered disciples approached their Lord with a question:
Is this the time, Lord, when you will now restore the Kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6)
Jesus answer was emphatic:
It is not in your brief to know the times or seasons which the Father, by His own authority, has set (7).
This comment to His disciples, hundreds of years later, helps us discern something of the patience of Joshua and Caleb after they dissented from the "evil report." We read of their dissent because it explains Joshua's faithful contribution to the life of Israel. It is the earliest mention of him and it explains his leadership potential in terms of his faith in the Lord. This man was later nominated by Moses as his military commander and successor. These two spies did not presume to "know the times or seasons the Father had set" for entry into the Promised Land. On the other hand, the other spies panicked faithlessly. For them entry was now out of the question. Since it was not then the time to enter, the idea that they could take possession was based on a massive miscalculation. The Anakim could not be defeated by grasshoppers. So, they were not only re-interpreting their departure from Egypt, they assumed that the Promised Land would only be given to Israel if they could take it.
But the time to take possession of the land would come but not during Moses' lifetime. He was not to enter with the people when Joshua would lead the way. He and Caleb were not panicked into disbelief by what they had seen of the Anakim. They believed that God knew what He was doing. They believed that God, by His own authority, knew what time it was for the Anakim and for all people. He would keep His promises. These two knew the awesome truth that life in this world, for all people, is subject to the judgment of that same Lord who had prepared their way, going ahead of the tribes of Israel in their departure from Egypt. They believed the promises of the One who had rightful claim over all peoples.
Did Caleb and Joshua believe that the land could be taken immediately by the people of Israel? They may have suspected so, but their resolute stand with Moses and Aaron when the spies fomented revolt indicated they accepted Moses' leadership.
The rebels demanded a return to the comforts of Egypt. Then they sought to kill Moses and Aaron and take control. Having been chastened by the Lord's appearing to Moses, they then decided they would go up and take on those who lived in the land. Moses warned them against such a move. They were routed.
Indeed leadership in this context had much to do with providing protection for a vulnerable, sojourning and tribal people. And such protection takes time to unfold among a sojourning tribal people. Such protection is need to oppose military threats from other peoples who would resist the claim which the Lord God had revealed since Abraham. The story of Balaam's apocalyptic prophecies (Numbers 22-24) indicate that the peoples of the region knew full well what this expansive, massing, sojourning people on their borders represented. And at the time when Israel would enter the land there had been a 40 year period in which the Lord God's claim upon it was confirmed.
1. Consider Genesis 1:15 and the record of the task given by the Lord to His image-bearer "to tend and keep the garden". How does the task of tending and keeping the garden now relate to the human task of cultivating the social and organisational aspects of our life on this planet? How are we to tend and keep the relationships we have with our fellow image-bearers?
2. Think about the kind of oversight that was required of Moses? Consider the way in which the children of Israel developed their tribal life in the wilderness. First they had been a tribally differentiated people tending their flocks in Egypt. Then they were enslaved en masse by Pharaoh's decree. Then they left Egypt under Moses' leadership. What then, distinguishes the era of Moses' leadership from that of Joshua? What was needed for a smooth transfer of leadership authority from one generation to the next?
, a project of Bruce Wearne, aims to encourage a sustained Christian political contribution, heeding the gentle and merciful rule of Jesus Christ, the ruler over all the earth's political regimes.
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