Scripture: Numbers 1:17-54
Key verses: (45-46) “So the whole number of the Israelites, by their ancestral houses, from twenty years old and upwards, everyone able to go to war in Israel— their whole number was six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty.”
Reflection: When you imagine the Israelites traveling through the wilderness, what do you picture in your mind? Do you imagine a small group of people aimlessly trudging through the desert? Do you imagine a group of tribes with tents and few belongings seeking God’s guidance? What comes to mind when you think of this traveling community?
Today’s passage may come as a surprise to many, as it often shocks me. The total number of all the men 20 years and older in all of Israel was 603,550. If we add in women of all ages and men under 20, I can only imagine that the number of total Israelites would be above 1 million! For reference, the population in Charlotte last year was 912,096. Can you imagine the entire population of Charlotte moving through a desert … together?
As I read scripture, I try to avoid two different temptations. On the one hand, I try not to romanticize passages or situations, turning them more into fairy tales rather than reality. The fairy tale wandering in the desert might be a joyfully united smallish group of Israelites intimately close to God and following God’s every direction. On the other hand, I try not to cast the Israelites situation as overly negative, as aloof and without any sense of agency. This image of the Israelites might see them as “just not getting it” and always disobedient to God, often subconsciously telling myself “of course I would have done better”.
Instead, when we take the text and try to read reality and culture in to it, we get a very large group of people moving their livelihood from one place to another in an attempt to discern and follow God’s will. This journey is full of hiccups, of success, of drama and delight. When reading these passages of the journey through the wilderness, I not only think about Moses and Aaron and those close to the inner circle, but I think about the other 999,900 Israelites and their daily lives. I wonder how many were on board with this journey, how many were just along for the ride. I imagine all of the life that happens in those years in the wilderness of birthdays celebrated and marriages consecrated in the midst of receiving commandments and discerning God’s will. Life continues to happen in the wilderness.
As I think about the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness I think about this past year of the pandemic. This was a wilderness and continues to be a journey. While political tension, racial reckoning, and the pandemic took the headlines, life still happened, and God was in those moments of life as well. I encourage you as you read scripture to see in, through, and beyond the text. Imagine those not mentioned in the community. And I encourage you today to pause and remember all the life (good and bad) that happened to you this past year. Pause and give thanks for God’s presence in the midst of it all.
Prayer: Faithful God, you guide us through many seasons in life. Hold us by your loving hand to guide us in your way. And when our feet get weary and our eyes are tired, may we pause in your comforting embrace, knowing of your ever abiding presence with us. Amen.
Author: John Magnuson
[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].