In these early chapters of Numbers, we see the organization of the tribes and the priesthood taking shape, reflecting the fact that “God is not a God of chaos, but of harmony (I Cor. 14:35a).” The orderly marching of Israel, organized by tribes, behind the priests and Levites with the Ark of the Covenant, following the divine cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night, would have reinforced, in the hearts and minds of the Canaanites, the fear of the Lord that was to go before them and prepare the way for their coming.
The Apostle Paul, reflecting on the very histories we are reading, wrote: “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.”We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (I Cor. 10: 1-12)
ON TOP OF EVERYTHING ELSE, RACISM TOO?
In Numbers 13, we read that Moses has a “Cushite wife.” Beyond that, she is not named. Cush we usually associate with Ethiopia. Was his wife, Zipporah, whom we first encounter in Exodus, “Cushite?” Moses married her during his sojourn in the Desert of Midian, east of Egypt, so that’s unlikely. Or complicated. Or had Zipporah left and divorced Moses? Or died? Or had he divorced her, or even taken a second wife? That wasn’t technically illegal under Mosaic law, nor unusual for the Patriarchs, but it never went well. By the time of Jesus, both he and his fellow Jews were re-affirming the Edenic ideal of “the two become one flesh.” We don’t know the answers to these questions. But the fact that she was “Cushite” very likely Ethiopian, brought scorn from Moses’ brother and sister. And that brought a harsh response from God. If racism was the problem, all the more ironic that Miriam turned “white” with leprosy. This story may reflect two ideas that were revolutionary at the time: 1) that the Hebrews and fugitives from Egypt were a mixed lot in color and culture, down to the level of their families; and 2) God was declaring himself, in the strongest of terms, opposed to racism.