Zipporah (Numbers 12)

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Zipporah by Alan Jones

I’ve never heard a sermon preached on Zipporah. She never got mentioned in Sunday School, and is often airbrushed out of the Exodus story. But Zipporah is someone we need to pay more attention to, especially in a world full of racial tensions and an emboldened KKK. Because on the few times I heard her mentioned, no-one pointed out that she was black.

The daughter of a priest of Midian, Zipporah became Moses’ wife during his forty-year exile from Egypt, eventually accompanying him and the rest of Israel into the wilderness. But in Numbers 12 we encounter an uncomfortable story: Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron confront their brother – he’s married a Cushite woman, an African, and they’re not pleased. They may be the spiritual leaders of a fledgling nation, but that doesn’t mean family dinners aren’t uncomfortable.

What happens next is dramatic – God himself descends, rebukes Miriam and Aaron, and curses Miriam with leprosy.

Knowing that Zipporah is African casts a new light on this punishment – leprosy turns Miriam’s skin “as white as snow”. It’s a form of poetic justice, made all the more shocking and heart-breaking because it’s Miriam, the prophet who danced through the Red Sea singing of liberation and freedom and God’s justice has a problem with her sister-in-law because she’s black. Two women who saved Moses’s life were at each other’s throats. Doesn’t matter how much of an ally someone might see themselves as, there are still underlying prejudices to confront, systems to dismantle. Black lives matter, and Zipporah matters as much as Moses, as Aaron, as Miriam.

(Note that God agrees with this, by the way: it’s the racism that earns a punishment, not the inter-racial marriage.)

But let’s not limit Zipporah to being the victim of racism and injustice; she’s also a hero in her own right. Either intellectually or intuitively she seems to grasp whatever the heck is going on in Exodus 4:24-26. She gets between her husband and the Wrath of God, saving Moses and getting things done; while Moses saved the Children of Israel from Egypt, Zipporah first had to save Moses. In that sense this woman of colour can be seen as a Christ figure. That’s not an image we see portrayed that often; maybe we should ask why not.

This would be a fascinating story in itself, but it speaks to us today. As long as Sunday services remain the most racially segregated time of the week, Zipporah’s story, and the reactions of her in-laws, remain relevant. As long as people of colour face prejudice and injustice, as long as the white church remains silent about its complicity in structures that enable that, Zipporah remains a woman whose story needs to be retold and reclaimed; this obscure story tucked away in Numbers becomes a story for our times.

Art, Healing and Bezalel

TED have recently uploaded a talk by art therapist Melissa Walker. She describes her work with war veterans, helping them to recover from PTSD through the use of visual arts.

See, art allows veterans to embody their trauma, turning it into something they can relate to, something that exists outside of them that can be safely left behind at the end of each day. And it’s a long, hard process, but art – particularly the creation of masks – seems to enable and empower those suffering with PTSD to find healing.

In Exodus 35 we read of Bezalel. He’s God’s craftsman, an artist responsible for decorating the Tabernacle and building the Ark of the Covenant. Bezalel has a clear spiritual gift, and we often see that in terms of worship – he’s making God’s throne and God’s dwelling place as a way of honouring and worshiping his Lord, and obviously that’s vital, but Walker’s talk got me thinking about how art is a spiritual gift with wider applications

For one, it seems to be a gift that can heal. PTSD is, I guess, an invisible wound, but a real one nevertheless, and art can serve as a vehicle by which healing can enter into a situation. It may be a long and difficult process, not the flashy, miraculous story we’d like, but there are people who have endured terrible trauma who, by painting and drawing and creating something with their bare hands, have been able to move on with their lives. That’s healing too, and in a world where mental health needs to be taken a lot more seriously, maybe Bezalel’s legacy incorporates art that can heal. The Holy Spirit is a healer after all.

Then there’s the idea of peace. Walker works with veterans, servicemen and women who’ve been to war and are still carrying the trauma of their experience. Now that trauma needs to be reckoned with, and if there’s opportunity to do that through art, if taking a situation, an emotion, an image and coming to peace with it through creativity and art, then that’s another facet of the gift, one that has echoes of shalom.

We have many artists in our churches. We need to be creative in how their gifts are used, but more than that, maybe it’s time for a wider vision of art as a spiritual gift. Maybe Bezalel’s legacy is more expansive than we think.

(More on Bezalel here.)

Noticing Injustice and an Unburning Bush (Exodus 3:1-4)

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The story of the Burning Bush is iconic. Every Sunday School student has drawn it, and it’s almost too famous – when we know something so well we can take it for granted. That’s dangerous: always be on the look out for the new thing God’s trying to tell you.

For instance, it took me years to notice how God waits for Moses to spot the bush before He speaks. This isn’t a sudden Road to Damascus experience, it’s a pause, a pregnant moment in history. We don’t know how long the bush was burning, only that the conversation was initiated when Moses went to investigate. God seems to be waiting for him.

But then Moses noticing things is what brought him to this point in the first place: he may have been raised in a palace, but despite this privilege he still noticed the suffering of the Hebrew slaves; later he sees Zipporah and her sisters attacked by shepherds and intervenes to save them, an act that draws him into another adopted family and gets him the job that takes him to the Burning Bush and an encounter with God.

You know, the God who has also recognised the suffering of his people.

Maybe, despite his later protests, Moses is exactly the right person to lead the Hebrews out of slavery because he and God both share an attentiveness to injustice (and notice that what really catches Moses’ attention is that the bush is on fire but not destroyed – it’s wrong and out of step with how the world should work, so how does that reflect on his earlier attention to injustice?). And that comes at a cost: Moses is forced to reconsider his identity, abandon his privilege and become a shepherd. It’seems a bush in the desert that burns, not a palace in Egypt.

(I suspect Shiphrah and Puah would have spotted the bush, had they been there.)

God appears to Moses, but waits for Moses to take the first step toward him, to plant his feet on holy ground. It’s a dynamic that echoes throughout the Exodus, God doing the heavy lifting but with Moses serving as herald. It’s a lopsided partnership, but a partnership nonetheless. And maybe that partnership is important, as it’s not just about defeating Pharaoh, it’s about making the Hebrews into the people of God.

That means we need to be attentive to what’s going on around us, to see where darkness reigns and to spot where the Kingdom needs to come – especially if that needs to break down our own privilege, the injustice we perpetuate with our own hands. And as we step towards those places, we’ll see that God is already there, waiting to transform situations but also his people. Because bushes still burn.

Keeping Watch In Gethsemane (Exodus 12, Mark 14:32-42)

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It’s the night after the Passover meal and the household take their positions as they prepare to keep watch. They’re looking out for salvation, maybe, or the power of God’s right hand, and they sit in the traditions of their ancestors, remembering how the Israelites stood vigil on the night they fled Egypt, getting ready to run as soon as a broken Pharaoh gave the word. This is Leyl Shimurim, the Night of Watching.

Leyl Shimurim commemorates the Exodus, and keeping this in mind, maybe there’s an oblique reference to it in the story of the first Easter. The Last Supper has ended, Jesus and the disciples retreating to the Garden of Gethsemane to face the horrors of the coming day. Jesus asks his friends to keep watch with him; knowing what’s to come, he pours out his anguish on his Father; the disciples, either exhausted or oblivious, fall asleep. Mark repeats the phrase “Keep watch” twice in a handful of verses; whether or not he’s referring to a specific ritual, something important seems tied up with those words. And so, not for the last time that weekend, the disciples fail their master.

But had they been able to fight off fatigue, what would they have seen? Their ancestors, had they chanced a quick, awestruck glance out of their window in Egypt, would have seen something powerful, cosmic, raw, primal, an empire brought to its knees overnight. The disciples would have seen a quite different aspect of God – scared, shaking, sweating blood and weeping. Was this something they’d have wanted to see? Maybe, for the sake of their categories, their falling asleep was for the best.

But on the other side of Gethsemene, we see God with 20:20 hindsight. This was a different kind of exodus, one in which God’s majesty would be revealed not through power but through sacrifice, compassion and love. But while I may be good at knowing the words, I’m not as good at seeing how God is at work right now, at living that out in my own life.

So maybe there’s a benefit to practicing a form of Leyl Shimurim, in pulling an all-nighter to become a witness to what God is doing, in engaging with prayer and the Bible in seeking to find God, not just in 1st century Palestine, but also in 21st century England. In the dim stillness while half the world’s in bed, maybe there’s an opportunity to meet with the God who never sleeps.

Still, nowadays we live 24/7, and so there’s something to be said for looking out our windows and seeing how God is actively at work. Watch the church soup kitchen giving people a bed and a dinner for the night. Watch the street angels safely getting party-goers into 3am taxis.

I used the word ‘watch’ there, and that’s when my own words convict me because maybe I should have said ‘help’ instead. Because what’s the point of keeping watch if you don’t do anything about the things you see? Talking the talk is easy, so is blogging the the blog, but staying awake to stand vigil, to discern what God is doing even when he seems far away, can be a whole lot harder…

Because that’s the thing; God is always at work. Sometimes we’re not looking though, and other times we miss it because his actions don’t fit within the confines in which we place him. He reaches out to the outsider and offends the religious and makes empires tremble, and if we don’t keep watch for all that, we miss something important. Because we miss seeing his power and his compassion; we see the world, but we fail to see Jesus.

 

The Golden Calf and the Importance of Plurals (Exodus 32)

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This post was inspired by an almost-throwaway comment made last Sunday in the sermon at Mars Hill Bible Church. Heck, this blog wouldn’t exist if I wasn’t obsessed with the obscure references and readings used by preachers; on the other hand, I should probably try not to get so distracted half way through a sermon…

Anyway, the Golden Calf. Moses has climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Law of God, and he’s been gone so long that the people back on the ground start getting twitchy. They go to Aaron, the brother of Moses and designated high priest, to get something sorted; they don’t want a God stuck up a mountain who may well have just fried Moses, they want a god who they can see and touch and understand. They want a god to carry before them.

And Aaron, who is either an idiot or terrified he’s about to fall victim to a lynch mob, goes along with it. He collects all the gold he can – much of which was plundered from Egypt, so there’s perhaps something here about their relationship with their former oppressor – and forges it into a golden calf. “Here are your gods!” he proclaims; notice he uses the plural even though there’s only one calf. This may be important.

Anyway, Moses returns, sees what’s happened, grinds down the calf, makes the Israelites drink the resulting gold dust (a metaphor for the lack of sustainable provided by the memory of Egypt?), people get executed, it all ends badly. The story is the archetypal warning against idolatry and if that’s all there is to it then that’s enough. But there may be something else going on…

See, this story is referred to in Nehemiah 9, only there the writer corrects the weird plural thing – one calf, one god. And reading it like that leads to another possible interpretation – what if the calf is meant to be the God? We tend to think the calf was intended as a replacement for God, but what it was a mockery, a grotesque charicature that reduced the majestic God of the universe, God the Uncreated, to a tacky bit of bling made only to shut up some whiners? They’ve turned the God who liberated them from slavey into a craft project, a cynical craft project at that.

But why not? After all, a craft project is controllable. You can worship it as a god if you want, but you’ll always have the upper hand because you know where it came from and you could always throw it away and get a better one, maybe in a nicer colour and with full social media integration. God isn’t that safe – he’s in charge. Maybe that’s why the calf is still an attractive prospect – given how some Christians treat others, I’m convinced they want God less than they want a golden calf who justifies hatred of whatever group they’re angry at this time.

And maybe that’s one of the greatest sins that makes up idolatry, turning God into our mouthpiece rather than us acting as his. And it’s a blasphemy because it results in a brutalised representation of God when God has already made himself visible and present in the world, through the person of Jesus. I mean, look at how Jesus is misrepresented and co-opted. Goodness knows what we could do if we were still making our own gods.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? If, as Christians, our God doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s just another golden calf. And it’s time for it to go.