The Book of Numbers does not figure prominently in the Lectionary for Mass. It is, after all, a census. It records by name all of the tribes, families and clans of Israel as they made their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Reading through the entire book can prove a daunting task.
However, this book does appear in the Office of Readings during Lent which highlights some of the non-census material. Chapters twelve through fourteen provide us with some very important information. No doubt you are aware of the fact that the children of Israel spent forty years wandering in the desert before they entered into the Promised Land. These three chapters provide us with the answer to the question, "Why?"
Once the Israelites reached the Jordan River, God commanded that Moses send a representative from all of the tribes of Israel on a scouting mission. They were to go into the Promised Land, reconnoiter it, and bring back samples of the produce of the land. They spent forty days doing just that. When they returned, they displayed the various produce they had gathered and reported that this was indeed the land of milk and honey which had been promised them.
However, they also reported that the land was inhabited by men who were "giants." The population was, by their account, a fierce group of men who were, by and large, bigger than the average Israelite. They were sure that should the children of Israel enter this land they would become "food" for this race of people. They counseled against occupying the land. After hearing this report, the people "grumbled" once again and elected leaders who would take them back to Egypt. Of course, Moses and Aaron, along with Caleb and Joshua, argued against such a plan.
God is said to have been so angry with the people for failing to trust in him after all he had done for them that he threatened to exterminate them. Moses interceded and was able to convince God to relent in his anger. However, God decreed that they would never enter the Promised Land. Thus, the people were forced to wander for forty years until all of those who had balked at the prospect of entering Canaan had died. Only their children would enter Canaan along with Caleb and Joshua.
How are we to read this story? If we remember that God's freeing of the people from slavery is a foreshadowing of our own freedom from sin, it becomes rather obvious that the desire to return to Egypt is but another metaphor for our inability to remain faithful to our baptismal commitment. Like the Israelites, we seem to prefer slavery to the freedom God offers us. Time and again, we need to remind ourselves that we are called to be holy, that we are called to live in the light of the Gospel.
As we near the end of our Lenten journey, the story of Israel's freedom from Egypt will continue to play out in the Scriptures. Let us also ready ourselves once again to commit ourselves to the freedom of the sons and daughters of God, a freedom that comes when we, like Jesus, turn aside from our own will and accept God's will for us.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator