12 September 2009

A Nation Tested: Thoughts on Numbers 14

Franklin Roosevelt famously claimed the "freedom from fear" as one of his four freedoms. For a long time I thought that freedom and fear were opposites--that places where freedom existed were those that kept fear out. For example, the fact that I am free to speak and practice my religion in America gives me an absence of fear for being imprisoned or persecuted for my opinions and beliefs.

But I am beginning to see a stronger antonym to fear. Freedom is a chain-link fence when it comes to fear. Freedom is a word I associate with my marriage, my kids, my relationship to God, but I cannot say that fear doesn't creep in from time to time. There must be a better antidote--a stronger wall to keep fear out. I need it in my marriage; I need it in my walk with God; and I truly feel that my nation needs it now as we lurch into the 21st Century.

The antonym to fear is faith--at least that's what I've learned. When I look back at the times I was really scared, it's pretty funny. I laugh about them now, because the roller coaster wasn't that bad, or, I should have known that my friend was hiding in the dark waiting to jump on me. But when I look back at the true dangers I have faced in my life--hitchhiking across Europe, going under the knife for brain surgery, or hiking through Mammoth Cave National Park in pitch darkness--I feel an incredible peace. I don't remember being afraid. I was convinced I was going to make it through.

The Apostle John writes that "There is no fear in love. But perfect loves drives out fear" (1 Jn 4.18). I understand this at a deep level. This 'perfect love,' then, is faith, isn't it? A perfect love of God drives out a fear of destruction, even unto death. This, then, is faith, and faith is the antonym to fear.

It was last weekend's Bible study that really brought this issue to the fore with me. We focused on Numbers 14, the story of the Israelite spies' return from Canaan. As we studied, I was transported back and forth in time with this realization: these people are my people, these leaders are my leaders. This isn't fear that we're talking about anymore. It is a crisis of faith.

The Hebrew title for Numbers means "Wilderness." I think it should be renamed "Impudence." Throughout the book, Moses faces challenge after challenge to his leadership. Just prior to the "Grapegate" incident of Chapter 14, his own brother and sister organize a leadership coup against him (Chapter 12). I'm sure that Moses is ready to get this journey over with--enter Canaan, as God had promised, and get out of this Wasteland of Grumbling. Let's just scout out the terrain, cross the Jordan River, and get on with fulfilling the promise of God.

Moses waits forty days for the spies to return. When they do, it's incredible: two men are struggling to carry a huge bundle of grapes stolen from a vineyard. They carry a basket of figs, another basket of pomegranates--and remember the Israelites haven't eaten fresh fruit for a number of months now.

The people's mouths must be watering even before the spies report, "We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is the fruit" (Nm 13.27).

"But..." (Nm 13.28a).

It's the next word. Look at the transition from verse 27 to 28: "...fruit. But..." Remember these people haven't eaten fresh fruits or vegetables for months. To me, it's like "...a brand new Lexus. But..." or perhaps it is more "...an all-expenses-paid trip through France and Germany. But...." Whatever it is, I want to pause here, partly because the denouement of the story is so depressing, partly because I want to linger on that fruit. It will be forty yearsbefore I'll see that sight again. Forty years. Forty, four-oh, forty years.

There has been division as the men struggled through the canyons along the Dead Sea, returning from their expedition, carrying this bounty. The division comes from fear, the absence of faith. Perhaps it was Palti who saw them first--the people, taller than him by a foot or two. They moved in and out of fortified cities with confidence, projecting wealth and strength. Sethur, son of Michael, remembered legends of the Anakites he had heard on his mama's knee--giants who had roamed the earth since the days of Noah. As they made their way back into the desert, Gaddi, son of Susi, saw those men grow to the size of cedars; Gaddiel, son of Sodi, saw those city walls grow as tall as cliffs.

Before the people can taste the grapes and pomegranates, one of these men utters Verse 28: "But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there."

By the end of Chapter 13, the descriptions have turned into fairy tales and outright lies: Nahbi, son of Vophsi, becomes the spokesman for the Stop Where You Are Party: "The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim* there. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them" (32b-33).

What explains this behavior? Would anyone really fall for the line about grasshoppers? Did followers of God, believers in Genesis, really believe that legendary creatures like centaurs, giants, and Nephilim roamed the earth ready to devour them? I think the only explanation isfear. Fear casts out logic, even as it triumphs over faith.

"That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud" (14.1). I'll point out here that the night is lighted by a bright pillar of cloud that hovers over the Sanctuary, but it only makes the scene all the more maddening. Fear is master here, and his henchmen, aggression and stupidity, are closing in for the kill.

"Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?" we ask. Why would we choose slavery over freedom? Why would we give our babies to the river instead of raising them in the Promised Land? It's fear. It's fear. It's fear.

In graduate school, my professor gave me a scholarly look at the leadership of Moses entitled, "The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader." Describing this scene, the author, Aaron Wildavsky, assesses Moses's view of this and writes, "The truth is out. It is not Canaan but YHWH the people reject" (page 116).

This is why Caleb and Joshua tear their clothes at the sound of this. This wasn't merely a way of saying, "I'm upset." It was stronger. It meant, "Someone I love very much has died." The people who had chosen to identify with Yahweh in order to leave Egypt had rejected him. In realization of this, they have already admitted, "We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt" (4).

Caleb, son of Jephunneh, tries to cast out the fear. "Do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them" (9). As he says this, men are picking up stones to silence him for good. Aggression is the henchman of fear, even as stupidity is his herald.

This is the nadir of the history of Israel, and it is a poor example for any nation for that matter. Yes, I know that they take possession of the land forty years later, led by Joshua and Caleb, but it's hard to find another place in the Bible where God's promise is so openly humiliated. It's worse than the scene at the golden calf (the only other time God offers to wipe out the entire nation and begin again with Moses and his half-Jewish sons).

And this is also what comes to mind as I see folks acting out about health care reform. I wonder if the vehement fears of some might actually bely a crisis of faith in our own country--the ability of "We the People" to solve our own problems and provide a better life for our children.

This charade has many of the same elements. For folks like me, the Promised Land looks like this: Americans live three to four years longer, infant morality drops to the level of well-developed countries, families like mine have $3,000 to $5,000 more every year to invest in our families instead of health insurance (basically the prices we were paying when things were already too expensive in 1999). Entrepreneurs can start their own businesses without the threat of losing health care for their families. Bigger businesses can thrive because their profits aren't being sucked away by out-of-control health care premiums for employees (one of the factors that sank GM). No one is bankrupted by health-care costs in this land; the 20,000 Americans who die each year because they put off health care no longer have to die. My health insurance bill is closer to what I pay for groceries and less what I pay for my mortgage.

But there are giants in this land, too. Health insurance CEOs have to settle for six-figure incomes and doctors are paid about 40% more than public school teachers. There are taxes in this land, so that everyone in America can be covered. And there is also the strong chance that illegal aliens benefit from these services.

In recent weeks, those who believe in giants have made the leap into fairy-tale realms where government panels decide who lives and who dies. Dark fairy tales about Nazis are retold, and hyperbole like "government takeover" and "socialism" gets bandied about. If you thought "grasshoppers" was a whopper, you should hear about how physicist Stephen Hawking wouldn't survive in the British Health Care system (somehow he has managed to live in Cambridge and survive with ALS for decades).

And it leaves our nation at a key point: do we move forward under the leadership of President Obama, or do we go back to Egypt--the free-wheeling health care days of President Bush? Some are reaching for stones; a man stood outside of an Obama town hall forum last week with a handgun strapped to his leg. Others are ready to tear their clothes.

Again, it's about fear, and fear is about faith. For me, it's more than faith in one person. Many of my friends on the other side of the aisle didn't support President Obama last fall, and they would love to see him fail, whether it be tripping over a shoelace or losing a legislative battle like this one. The lives at stake are not those of President Obama or members of his family; they are the lives of Americans whose work disqualifies them from public assistance but whose incomes are not high enough to pay exorbitant insurance premiums. The fortune at stake is not Joe Biden's but thousands of families who face hospital bills for care that will bankrupt them.

It's about faith in my country and its ability to solve problems. As I look at my country's history, I see tremendous problems that we confronted and eventually overcame thanks to great leadership. From President Jefferson's determination to expand the country westward to President Lincoln's push to end slavery, there was opposition, much fear, some violence (great violence in Lincoln's case). I think of Teddy Roosevelt taking on the trusts or Dwight Eisenhower sending the National Guard to Central High School in Little Rock. These men met incredible resistance, and my nation is better for their courage.

I guess that's how I'm able to read Numbers 14. I see my country's leader tested like Moses was tested. I see the people of my nation scared in the way the Israelites were scared. I hear monster myths, but I see grapes. I know the past, but I think I can see the future, just over that next range of mountains. I don't want to wait forty more days, much less forty more years, for that future to become real.

*See Genesis 6 for information on the Nephilim, who were basically all the demigods of other cultures who got inserted into the Old Testament and forgotten about. Hercules, Gilgamesh, Perseus, these come to mind from the descriptions found in those first four verses of Genesis 6.


Shadowphone said...

JD, thanks for a thoughtful, reasoned look at fear in the light of God's love. There is far more fear than is healthy these days.

However, I have to wonder about some of your comparisons here. It almost sounds as if you're likening President Obama to Moses, conversing directly with God and being the most meek man on the face of the earth.

We have a leader who is far from perfect, and who -- to my knowledge -- does not have divine inspiration. Furthermore, just like his predecessor, he has the potential to be swayed by special interest groups with the time and money to demand his attention. I'm not sure we can rightly claim faith in anything as an antidote for fear, since man will always disappoint. Rather, we should look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who works all things to our good and is making all things new.

This world is not our home, and though we seek to live wisely in it, we must remember that we hope for far better things from the one who gave us his life.

JD said...

I don't think that President Obama has a direct line to God. I think you're getting too personal here.

President Obama IS the leader of our country, and he was elected last fall to--among other things--reform our health care system. He is appointed by the people as much as by God. We don't get to re-choose our leader 10 months into a presidential term any more than the Israelites deserved the right to re-choose their leaders there on th edge of the promised land.

Christ didn't call us to fix things in heaven--he called us to fix them here. We cannot accept inequality AND profess to care for those in need.

Shadowphone said...

Maybe we should back up for a minute. I came in because I saw your comment at the Rabbit Room, and was curious to hear you expand on the points you brought up there. For what it's worth, I didn't take it personally; your hermeneutic just didn't ring true in my head. Please forgive me if I stated that in an unkind or improper manner (or, more likely in my case, just poorly worded out of carelessness).

We agree that the people chose the President, and furthermore that God in his sovereignty has decreed that that president is Barack Obama. Whether or not I agree with the President, I try to give him the respect that his office commands (the same respect I would want in his position).

My confusion came because of your rigorous application of Numbers 14, which seems a bit unwarranted. Comparing the Bush years to Egypt and Obama's policies to the promised land feels politically motivated or just under-thought. I would love to be proven wrong, and for President Obama to have unparalleled success in raising the downtrodden and oppressed (along with other useful ventures)... but that's not what appears to be happening.

As for debating the particular merits of HR3200 (which isn't really the President's bill), that is probably a discussion for a different post; suffice it to say that the Mayo Clinic -- justifiably lauded by Mr. Obama as a great model for exemplary health care -- comes to very different conclusions from those laid out in the currently proposed legislation. I hope and pray that our President and Congress will listen to wisdom from those who know this territory best.

Thank you for letting me ramble yet again.

Owen said...

I wasn't trying to equate anything with Egypt or the Promised Land. In the health care debate, for example, one can't blame all of the injustices of the system on President Bush, because there were problems long before he took over--nor can we expect one bill to lead us to a healthy, low-cost "Promised Land."

Rather, I was focused on leadership itself. This is what tough decisions look like--especially when there are "giants" in the land. People get afraid, they act irrationally, they prefer myth to truth. I think that great leaders understand the interplay of faith and fear. FDR reassured the country with his Four Freedoms and his Fireside Chats. Lincoln, at the very moment the Civil War was turning, encouraged Americans to a faith that "government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth."

Thanks a lot for exchanging ideas!