Sun Tzu and the spaceman

Finding a way into Numbers

One of the most significant challenges for any preacher in a regular, established ministry is to help people chart their way through those parts of the Bible which they would habitually avoid. Numbers is one such part. Named in Hebrew after the phrase ‘in the wilderness’ in the first sentence, later Greek translators chose the word ‘numbers’ instead. Between that, the many censuses and the numbers quoted here and there – the name stuck. Last night I was looking at Numbers chapter 2, with its detailed description of the precise ground plan for the set-up of the Exodus encampment as it travelled. Using the details in the text you can draw a sketch map of the camp – with tribes to the East, West, North and South and the Tent of Meeting, symbolic of God’s presence, in the centre.

When the Egyptian army travelled – the king’s tent would be at the centre.  When God’s people were on the move, it was God’s tent which sat in the heart of the camp. After a hard day’s travelling with over 600,000 people, the last thing anyone would have felt like was consulting a plan to see exactly whose tent should be where. However, it had to be done – since it served as a permanent reminder to them of God’s abiding presence. As Kosuke Koyama writes ‘Unlike the pagans, who carried their gods, the Jews were carried by theirs’. After this, God would be referred to time an again in the Old Testament not as the ‘God who sent us up out of Egypt’ but ‘the God who brought us up out of Egypt.‘ This is an image which would crop up time and time again.

  • In John 1 v.14 we are told, literally, that the Word ‘pitched his tent amongst us’.
  • When Paul came close to abandoning his mission in the unforgiving environment of Corinth, Jesus spoke to him in a dream restating the old desert truth “I am with you”
  • When Paul then sought to encourage the fledgling Corinthian church he reminded them of the rock which travelled with them in 1 Corinthians 10 v.4.
  • Looking up from the dust bowl of his penal colony on Patmos – John saw a vision of Jesus who was right there in the midst of things.
  • At the end of all things we read that the dwelling of God is to be found in the midst of his people once again.

Sun Tzu, 5th Century BC author of The Art of War, once wrote that we should keep our friends close and our enemies closer. According to Numbers 2, we should keep God closer still.

Images: and make-me.

Images: and make-me.

And what of the spacemen? Al Worden was the command module pilot on the Apollo XV space mission. At times he was circling the moon over 200,000 miles from earth, with his two fellow crew members over 2000 miles below him on the lunar surface. Passing round the dark side of the moon, deprived of all radio contact with any human being, he was described as the ‘most isolated man in the universe’. In his own words, though ‘I was alone, but not lonely’.

Those who intentionally place God at the heart of their lives will find that to be true on earth as well as in space.

You can now listen to the sermon here.


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