Fox Byte 5775 #39: Chukat (Decree Of)
Is it possible to be a hero without paying a price? A hero is one who does something worthy of esteem on behalf of someone else, and that requires sacrifice. Sometimes it requires the sacrifice of a life, and sometimes merely the sacrifice of time and attention. Sometimes heroes save nations, and sometimes they save little children from tears of embarrassment, pain, or grief. Every act of salvation, no matter how small, entails a sacrifice that someone offers willingly. And that is what makes a hero.
We learn about heroes in The Karate Kid, a 1984 film starring Ralph Macchio as Daniel Larusso, a fatherless teenager very much in need of a hero. Daniel suffers a vicious beating by boys from a local martial arts school. He is saved by a humble janitor, Mr. Miyagi (played by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), who drives off the attackers with a masterful display of karate skills. Before long Mr. Miyagi agrees to teach karate to Daniel. The instruction begins when Miyagi assigns Daniel a number of hard tasks. First he must wash and wax Miyagi’s antique automobiles, using special hand motions to “wax on” and “wax off”. Then he must sand the walkway around Miyagi’s house, paint the fence around the property, and finally paint the house itself. Each task features a specific set of hand motions. After days of arduous labor, Daniel complains that he has learned nothing about karate while working like a slave. Miyagi responds by having Daniel perform the hand motions for each task. He then throws punches and kicks at Daniel, demonstrating that “wax on, wax off”, “sand the floor”, “paint the fence”, and “paint the house” have trained the boy to defend against attacks from many angles. As he blocks Miyagi’s attacks, Daniel realizes the truth: his faithfulness in seemingly unconnected menial tasks has made him ready for further instruction and greater responsibility in the art of karate.
In time Daniel becomes competent at karate and confident in himself as Miyagi’s training transforms him from a self-absorbed braggart into a self-controlled warrior. In the concluding scenes he enters a martial arts tournament where he faces the boys who first attacked him. Each is a formidable opponent, yet while Daniel learned karate as a means of disciplining himself in service of others, they had learned it as a means to exalt themselves over the weak. They do not realize that the humble attitude Miyagi cultivated in Daniel has made him stronger and better able to withstand pain and suffering. Their combined efforts at wounding and weakening Daniel only help him discover deeper wells of strength which in the end bring him victory.
This is a life lesson few are willing to learn. Either we walk humbly in the confidence of our King, or we get eaten by our adversary. As the Apostle Peter says:
You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (I Peter 5:5-8 NASB)
That is a lesson Moses learned, or should have learned. Tragically, as we see in Chukat (Decree Of) (Numbers 19:1-22:1), even Moses, the most humble man in the world (Numbers 12:3), can be driven to extremes of anger that require a harsh response from the Lord. In the fortieth year of their journey, our ancestors of Israel arrive at Kadesh in the Wilderness of Zin, a place where there is no water. Their angry, panicked reaction precipitates what happened next:
Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. Then the glory of the Lord appeared to them; and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink.” So Moses took the rod from before the Lord, just as He had commanded him; and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” Those were the waters of Meribah [strife, contention], because the sons of Israel contended with the Lord, and He proved Himself holy among them. (Numbers 20:6-13 NASB, emphasis added)
Happily the people did not perish. They received the water of life, but at severe cost to Moses and Aaron. It seems such a small thing; YHVH said speak to the rock, but Moses struck it, and because of that YHVH prevented them from entering the Promised Land. Why? The Lord Himself gives the answer: they did not believe Him, and their lack of faith diminished the glory of the Lord in the eyes of the people. It does not seem fair, particularly since the Lord had commanded Moses to strike the rock at Horeb to produce water in the first year of the Exodus journey (Exodus 17:1-7). Moreover, Moses was provoked. If he and Aaron exhibited a lack of faith, it seems small compared to the faithless attitude of the people. They expected the Lord to provide water, but the people apparently had no such expectation. Yet Moses’ indiscretion betrayed something more: in his anger he sought to glorify himself at the Lord’s expense. Look again at his words:
“Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10 NASB, emphasis added)
There was his mistake. Moses inferred that he and Aaron were the ones who brought forth the water. Perhaps he had come to take the Lord’s Presence for granted, thinking that whatever he did as the anointed leader of Israel YHVH would bless. Whatever the motivation, Moses committed an unrecoverable error that brought severe consequences on himself and his brother. The Lord in His mercy did not prevent them from inheriting eternal life, but He did disqualify them from attaining the goal of their forty years of labor. Men of lesser stature may have come away with a lesser penalty, but not Moses and Aaron. They had walked with the Lord for decades, experiencing His intimate Presence, standing between Him and the people, and partaking of the greatest revelation He had given to mankind up to that point. Much is required of those who are given much (Luke 12:41-48; Matthew 13:10-12), which is why the Apostle Paul admonishes us with these words:
Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. (I Corinthians 10:12 NASB)
Paul’s admonition comes from his commentary on the Exodus in which he advises us to learn from the mistakes of our Israelite ancestors (I Corinthians 10:1-13). In that same passage he explains something about the rock from which this water had come:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. (I Corinthians 10:1-4 NASB, emphasis added)
We are quite familiar with the manna which fell for forty years, providing bread for the people each day, but what is not often taught is that a similar miracle happened to ensure the people had water. Apparently that rock which Moses struck at Horeb followed them throughout their journeys, providing water at each place they camped. When Paul says, “the rock was Christ”, he echoes what Yeshua of Nazareth said about Himself (John 4:13-14, 6:35, 7:37-38). He is indeed our very sustenance, and in the case of our fathers and mothers in the desert, He was their physical and spiritual food and drink. The two encounters Moses had with the Rock give us a picture of the two incarnations of Messiah. In His first appearance, he was struck repeatedly on our behalf, suffering crucifixion and death so that He could bring life to the world (Isaiah 53:1-12; I Peter 2:21-25). Similarly, the Rock suffered violence at Horeb so that the people could have the water of life. Four decades later, after enjoying the sustaining Presence of the Lord in the desert, all Moses had to do was speak in faith to the Rock so that the life-giving water would come forth. Scripture tells us the same is true in the Day of the Lord, when Messiah comes and all who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved (Joel 2:31-32; Acts 2:15-21; Romans 10:11-13). Moses failed to present this prophetic picture, and thus failed to impart an essential instruction to YHVH’s people.
Notice that this prophetic picture of salvation by faith comes in the midst of a crisis. Something had happened at Kadesh that caused the people to panic. According to Jewish teaching, it was the death of Miriam, Moses’ sister (Numbers 20:1). Rabbi David Fohrman of AlephBeta Academy goes into detail in his explanation of this passage, noting Miriam’s connection with the three water crises the people experienced during their journeys. In the first crisis, just after Israel comes through the Red Sea, it is Miriam who leads the people in praise to the Lord, after which they travel to Marah, where the Lord shows Moses a certain tree which sweetens the bitter water at that place (Exodus 15:20-25). In the second crisis, Jewish tradition says that the Rock Moses struck at Horeb became Miriam’s Well, and it was Miriam who brought forth the water at each place by singing praises to the Lord. But at Kadesh Miriam died, and there was no one to bring forth the water. No wonder the people panicked, and no wonder Moses grew angry. Not only was there a water crisis, but Moses and Aaron had lost their sister, and in the crisis no one seemed to notice that they were in mourning.
The depth of his grief contributes to Moses’ anger, resulting in his temporary, but fatal, lapse of judgment. And yet the people do get the message eventually. Some weeks later, after Aaron’s death (Numbers 20:23-29), the people arrive at another place where there is a potential water crisis, but this time the outcome is much happier:
From there they continued to Beer, that is the well where the Lord said to Moses, “Assemble the people, that I may give them water.” Then Israel sang this song: “Spring up, O well! Sing to it! The well, which the leaders sank, which the nobles of the people dug, with the scepter and with their staffs.” (Numbers 21:16-18 NASB)
The people had learned that they did not need Miriam to lead them in praise, nor did they need Moses and Aaron to bring forth the Lord’s provision. They themselves could stand in the Lord’s Presence and praise Him, receiving by faith the blessings He had promised to pour out in response to their obedience.
But there was something else the people had to learn about water. This Torah portion opens with a strange instruction: the commandments about the Red Heifer (Numbers 19:1-22). The procedures regarding the Red Heifer are nearly as bizarre as those of the bitter waters in the Law of Jealousy (Numbers 5:11-31). This young cow was to have no blemishes, and would be presented as an offering to prepare the water of purification. It was to be burned entirely outside the camp in a clean place, along with cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet material. The ashes would then be collected and used to purify people of uncleanness associated with death, as the Scripture explains:
The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days. That one shall purify himself from uncleanness with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and then he will be clean; but if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not be clean. Anyone who touches a corpse, the body of a man who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from Israel. Because the water for impurity was not sprinkled on him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him. (Numbers 19:11-13 NASB)
Numbers 19 goes on to explain about contamination by contact with death. Anyone who comes into a tent where a man has died or who touches a dead body or body parts becomes unclean. The uncleanness is contagious: it spreads to any open vessel in the tent where someone has died, and anything or anyone an unclean person touches. It requires the ministration of a clean person to sprinkle the water of purification on the people and objects on the third and seventh day, but oddly enough that person becomes unclean until the evening.
These are very strange instructions. One might say they were superstition, but they are the holy commandments of YHVH Himself, commandments He says His people are to observe as a perpetual statute (Numbers 19:21). Why is that?
By way of answer, let us consider what the Lord would have us understand about death: it is the opposite of God. If He is Life, then death has no part in Him. Yeshua clearly states this when He says:
But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is not the God of the dead but of the living. (Matthew 22:31-32 NASB)
This opens our understanding to the instructions YHVH gave to our first ancestors:
Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17 NASB)
Because Adam and Eve chose death, the Lord had to remove them from His Presence. Since the contamination of death infects everything that comes in contact with it, all who were born of Adam and Eve and the entire world they inhabited suffered the curse. So it has been for 6,000 years of recorded history, or six days in the way YHVH counts time (II Peter 3:8; Psalm 90:4). If this instruction regarding the Red Heifer is any indication, then something should happen on the third and seventh days to make a way for humanity to rid itself of the uncleanness of death.
And something did happen. God provided a spotless offering to serve as a cleansing from sin and death. That offering was not the Red Heifer, but the Lamb of God. Messiah Yeshua was taken outside the camp, meaning outside the holy district of Jerusalem, to Golgotha, where He was executed on behalf of His nation and the world. By the best reckoning, that happened two thousand years ago, on the Fourth Day since Creation, and the third day since Adam and Eve incurred the curse of death. We are now at the dawn of the Third Day since Messiah walked among us the first time. If the Red Heifer teaches us about Messiah, then we should expect something to happen on this Third Day that corresponds with the cleansing process prescribed in Numbers 19. And in fact we do. Consider these passages:
Come, let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us. He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him. (Hosea 6:1-2 NASB, emphasis added)
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord,” declares the Lord God, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36:22-28 NASB, emphasis added)
Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted. Just as many were astonished at you, My people, so His appearance was marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men. Thus He will sprinkle many nations, kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; for what had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will understand. (Isaiah 52:13-15 NASB, emphasis added)
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:19-25 NASB, emphasis added)
Has the sprinkling of the clean water happened, or is it yet to happen? Perhaps the answer is “yes, and no”. Yeshua’s redemptive work made it possible for mankind to enter into the process of returning to God’s holy Presence. One generation after His death and resurrection the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the ashes of the Red Heifer could no longer be procured. There has been no ritual cleansing from contact with death since that time. There will be a Temple again, and a Red Heifer to provide ashes for the water of purification, and once again it will instruct us about the cleansing available through YHVH’s Messiah. Perhaps Messiah Himself will sprinkle the water on His people in the Second Exodus, as prophesied through Ezekiel. The answers are not yet revealed in full, but we can see the pattern more clearly now than our fathers and mothers saw it when the Lord gave Moses these instructions.
He gave Moses another set of instructions about Messiah, although no one at the time knew it was a Messianic picture. The quickest way for the people to get from Kadesh to the place where they would cross into Canaan was to go through Edom, but the king of Edom refused to let them pass through his land (Numbers 20:14-21). Because of that Israel had to endure a long march, leading to great hardship and much complaining. The people’s attitude incurred the anger of the Lord, resulting in a plague of fiery serpents whose venom killed many in the camp (Numbers 21:4-9). When the people cried out in repentance, Moses interceded and received further instruction:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:8-9 NASB)
Yeshua referred to this as a sign of His identity as Messiah:
No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. (John 3:13-15 NASB; see also John 8:28 and 12:31-33)
Those are the words of a Hero. Yeshua knew what was required of Him, but that knowledge did not keep Him from paying the ultimate price so that the contamination of death could be removed from His Father’s creation. It is a process we have only begun to understand since the Father began to reveal it through Moses and the Prophets. He gave them seemingly incomprehensible, menial tasks to perform as a way to introduce not only the concept of Messiah and His work, but the way He would teach us to live in the Presence of Almighty God.