I think the devotional writer’s first thought about the readings are good enough to be simply quoted. “Taken at face value, this Numbers text (and lots of numbers texts, really) is weird and, frankly, makes God out to be a jerk. (Surviving the Bible, p. 111)
The book of Numbers makes three appearances in the three year lectionary of readings. (I looked it up. Honestly, I was surprised there were as many as three readings. Of course, two of the three are essentially the same lesson). This beats Leviticus which only appears twice. The paucity of occurrences of these books certainly have something to do with their content. They are largely filled with cultic and legal material which simply doesn’t add much to the Sunday morning readings. But they also take a view of God which is simply strange especially for Christians.
The God of Numbers is a little mechanical. This God’s actions are often punitive and vindictive. God doesn’t delight in meting out a rather handsy justice, but neither does God imply that, “this is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you.”
As is often the case in the Torah (but especially Leviticus and Numbers) God shows mercy toward the murmuring people only after the intervention of Moses.
It is this intervention that becomes a theme in the New Testament and especially John. So Jesus is quoted in John predicting his death saying, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
What is salvific about this is that the instrument of death (serpent/cross) is itself changed into God’s instrument to bring or restore life. Clearly this is what Jesus means when he says it. In a little bit of divine jujitsu God turns the cause of the problem into the means of a solution.
The problem many of us have, including the writer of the devotionals, is that God is the cause of the distress as well as the author of the solution. This is akin to someone starting a fire so they can be the one to put it out. The God of Numbers and Leviticus seems to punish first before being convinced to be merciful. I am uncomfortable with that.
Jesus clearly foresaw and predicted his fate. But you wouldn’t need to have divinely inspired predictive powers to do this. Jesus would have been aware of the fates of the prophets. Few of Israel’s steadfast prophetic figures died of “old age.” That Jesus would not waver in his proclamation of the Kingdom of God made his clash with the religious leaders (collaborators with the Roman Imperial system) inevitable and its outcome almost predestine. But this is a very different thing than saying that God necessitated Jesus’ death in order to forgive human sin. A God demanding Jesus’ death is a God rendered again as the kind of mechanical being we are made so uncomfortable by in Leviticus and Numbers.
In fact, Jesus seems to be saying this very thing in the third chapter of John when he explains himself to Nicodemus. God did not send Jesus for condemnation but out of love. But the world is populated by people whose deeds are evil. These evil, dark loving people will try to snuff out the light of the world sent by God. They were pretty sure they succeeded, but God foiled their plans by raising Jesus from the dead.
Looked at in this way, the effect and the symbol are the same, Jesus is raised up on the cross on account of human sinfulness, but through his death and resurrection such evil is condemned and God declares God’s favor for Jesus. We live in the light of this grace and we flee to Jesus for forgiveness of sins, amendment of life and everlasting hope.
This way of looking at it might seem a small thing but I think it is significant. God doesn’t kill Jesus or require his death, humans did that. But God, as the God of Jesus Christ is ought to do, would not allow human sinfulness to have the last word. The resurrection is God’s strenuous no to the wickedness of the world that killed Jesus and a vociferous yes to Jesus as THE way, THE truth and THE life.
What do you think?