Blue Is The Colour: Memory and Fashion Choices (Numbers 15:37-41)

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I’m not good with colours.

It’s not really my fault. I’ve got that weird form of colour blindness that makes it difficult to distinguish various shades. To me, some shades of blue look purple, which makes me a bit of a liability when being asked if paint or clothes go together.

So when I read that a scientist has potentially identified the source of a blue dye used in making priestly garments in ancient Israel, I was intrigued and found myself down a bit of a rabbit warren.

Now, to me one shade of blue is as good as another, so I’ve never really thought much about the command that the ancient Hebrews should see blue tassels onto their clothes. Turns out it’s a bigger deal than I thought.

(Lesson #1 of this blog: Never ignore the ‘trivial’ details, because there’s a good chance they’re not trivial at all.)

See, the writer of Numbers is referring to a particular shade of blue, tekhelet. So specific, in fact, that after Jerusalem fell to the Romans and the subsequent exile of the Jews from Israel, the use of the blue tassels fell out of favour because no-one was sure how to make the dye, and there was therefore a reluctance to break the Law by using the wrong shade of blue. That’s how seriously this was taken, that getting the colour right was so important that it’s now become a reminder through its very absence.

Because this isn’t about aesthetics, it’s about remembrance. The tassels were used as a reminder that God brought the Jews out of Israel and, in doing so, established his covenant with them. Having blue thread on your prayer shawl wasn’t a fashion choice, it was a signifier if your very identity. And that identity is bound up in daily life – this isn’t a photo album of memories that gets brought out of a cupboard every so often, it’s something you wear. Every time you put your clothes on, there’s a reminder that you’re a follower of God, and that has implications and importance for how you live from day to day.

It’s easy to forget the Story. God saves and redeems us and establishes us as his kingdom here on Earth, but immense as that is, it’s sometimes less tangible than jobs and traffic jams and getting the kids to school. Maybe that’s why there’s such an emphasis on physical acts of remembrance in the Hebrew Scriptures – the knowledge that no matter how intrinsic and vital God’s Great Story is, we’re a forgetful species. We miss even the most important things if they’re not stuck under our nose.

At the dawn of 2014, maybe we need to create physical reminders of what God’s done in our lives, to find our own shade of blue and bring our memories of his love and greatness into the everyday.

(There’s a recent episode of the podcast Stuff You Missed In History Class that covers the history of colours and dyes and their impact on society. Worth checking out!)

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Telling The Wrong Stories About Giants (Numbers 13/14)

LANFRANCO Giovanni_Moses and the Messengers from Canaan (Mojžíš a poslové z Canaan), Řím, 1621 - 1624_(109kB)This post was inspired by a piece by Bryony Taylor over at the Big Bible Project. Give it a look!

Twelve spies have just returned from scoping out the Promised Land. A homeless nation stands at the border and awaits their report. It’s a report on which the future of their people hangs; caught between a rock and a hard place, the Hebrews who fled Egypt now want to know if they’re ever going to be able to settle down somewhere new, if they’re ever going to stop running. But the news isn’t what they wanted to hear.

“We can’t enter the land,” say ten of the spies, “There are giants there.” And you can almost understand their trepidation, their fear at facing the descendants of a primal, near-supernatural enemy. Except…

Except they’ve also lived through encounters with the powerful. They’re the ones who walked away from slavery while Egypt was left picking p the pieces. And yet listen to these former slaves now: “Let’s go back!” they cry, forgetting that their great escape lead to plagues and darkness and death. The Hebrews had somehow convinced themselves they still had a home back in Egypt, expecting death if they move forward and a warm welcome back into captivity if they return. Talk about getting things backwards. Joshua and Caleb argue against this, but to no avail; they’re trying to get their comrades to remember that God’s been with them all this time, but the majority of people are telling the wrong stories.

They’re telling stories of the past, stories about the power of their enemies, stories of giants and pharoahs and a golden age that never was. And God is left out of those stories, his power and love and competence called into question.

And as a result, Israel spends another forty years in the desert. The generation that grew up on stories about the might and Egypt and giants pass away; a generation grows up whose formative memory is God saving his people. The only adult survivors of that first generation were Joshua and Caleb, two men who started telling that new story in the first place.

They needed to become a nation of survivors, not of victims.

But stories of giants and kings and monsters under the bed still get told. Not in horror movies or Stephen King books, but in the way we talk about ourselves and our history. We’re too sinful, too stupid, too young, too past it. We’re too lonely, too ugly, too much of a failure. We gather together and we tell stories of the past that may as well be eulogies – our churches were better years ago, when the Sunday School was packed, when we were young and dynamic and our presence was respected. Or we sit at home and look back on our private stories, on the ruins of our lives, on relationships gone wrong, on our habits and addictions and failings.

Yes, we still speak of giants. They walk alongside us, taunting us from all sides.

And yet God looks ahead of us, shows us a new world. And we don’t have to fight for it, not really, because this is his battle. He walks before us, he stands next to us, he watches our back.

But that’s so hard to believe, because giants loom on the horizon while God is sometimes hard to see. And those giants get closer and closer and, if you’re looking me, you stop looking for God and fumble for your own sword instead. You know it’s not enough, that it’ll soon be over-whelmed, but what else is there to do? Sometimes it’s easier to hold on to a sword than it is to God, even when we’re aware of just how limited our own resources are.

And yet God remains, bigger than any giant, teller of the greatest tales. We just have to put one foot in front of the other and follow him; follow him into a new future, follow him into a new story.

David’s Census (2 Samuel 24)

But wait; if we’re criticising Solomon, we need to remember that his dad made his share of mistakes, two of which are highlighted as his major flaws. The first is straight-forward – David has an affair with a woman named Bathsheba, gets her pregnant and, when he can’t cover it up, has her husband killed. David pays the consequences of that, and rightly so – there’s no way a situation like that isn’t going to end badly.

His other big mistake is stranger – he takes a census. The man who took down Goliath is brought low by a census. To make matters more complicated, it’s a census that God orders him to take so that God can punish him for taking a census.

What?!

This is one of those stories I don’t quite know what to do with. But here’s an idea.

It’s obvious from the passage that everyone knows that taking a census of Israel’s military is a bad idea. I can see the logic in this – they’re not meant to trust in the strength of their army or their resources, they’re meant to trust in God. After all, the Bible is full of examples of God using a small force to defeat huge armies. Maybe counting the fighting men is the thin end of the wedge, an example of misplaced confidence that could end up with a king having lots of horses (and their associated chariots), thus trusting in their own strength and not God’s. I can understand that.

But then God manouveres them into a stuation where they’re going to get punished for something he told them to do. It seems a little unfair – if they need to be punished, then punish them for what they did in the first place.

(Interestingly, the 1 Chronicles 21 version of this story says that Satan instigated the census, not God… But as Satan’s role in the Old Testament is often to test people’s faith in God, the end result is the same. After all, David has a choice in all this. That said, this post would have been way easier had I just gone with Chronicles…)

So allow me to indulge in some random speculation again: What if God is expecting an argument?

Stick with me. It’s not like people haven’t argued with God before. Back in Genesis, God tells Abraham he’s going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Realising that his nephew is living in Sodom, Abraham starts bargaining with God – “Would you save the city if I could find 50 good people living there? What about 45? What about thirty? Twenty? Ten?”

And instead of getting angry, God goes along with it. It doesn’t pay off, as ten good men can’t be found, but still Abraham tried and got a positive response. God responds to an act of compassion, even if Abraham does have a vested interest.

And then there’s Moses’s disagreement with God. In Numbers 14, the Israelites are on the verge of rejecting God, deposing Moses and electing themselves a leader to take them back to Egypt. God is understandably furious at this lack of gratitude and decides to wipe them all out and start again with Moses.

Moses says no.

“Look, if you kill them all, everyone will say that you couldn’t carry out your promise to give these people a land of their own. Can you forgive them instead?”

And it works, to a degree. The instigators of the rebellion are killed by a plague, and entry into the land is delayed for a generation so that the people aren’t always so eager to go back into slavery in Egypt, but Israel survives. Again, God responds to an act of compassion.

Right, now look at the consequences of David’s census. He carries it out, a plague falls on the land and wipes out thousands of people. David realises what’s happening and sets up an altar to God at his own expense in order that he might intercede on behalf of his people. He does, the plague stops and God responds to an act of compassion.

Which raises the question, what would have happened if David had said no to the census? What if he’d argued with God? Eventually he gets involved on behalf of his people and God relents; would acting sooner have made a difference.

Well maybe, maybe not, but sometimes we need to take a risk on behalf of others. Abraham did, Moses did, David did eventually. And God responds to that, which is understandable, because that’s exactly what he does in the New Testament, with nail pierced hands on a Friday afternoon.