Gospel Doctrine Lesson #15, Look to God and Live
Numbers 11-14, 21
Ark of the Covenant
Background: The Israelites have spent months at Mt Sinai, where they have received the Mosaic Law and built the Tabernacle, a mobile temple. The people refused to enter into God’s presence, and so lost the main blessings of the Melchizedek Priesthood and the key to the “mysteries of godliness.” In its place, they received the Levitical or Aaronic Priesthood to perform outward ordinances in the tabernacle, with the view that these would prepare them for the higher ordinances later on (D&C 84:19-27).
Already the Israelites have shown intent to murmur and rebel, choosing to replace Jehovah with the golden calf, complaining about God leading them into the wilderness to die of thirst and/or starvation, etc. It is only through God and Moses’ patience that the people are not destroyed and replaced.
With the Tabernacle (temple or House of God) and the Ark of the Covenant/Mercy Seat (God’s throne) to lead the way, Israel departs from Sinai and heads towards the Promised Land.
Flesh Pots of Egypt again
After several months of eating manna, the people began to wish for a varied diet. They reminisce about the meat they had to eat in Egypt, and murmured. Yet, in Exodus 16 (see last week’s lesson) we read that God provided both manna and quail, supposedly as a permanent solution. Why would they long for meat now, if quail was already provided? In Numbers 11:13, Moses tells the Lord that he has no idea how to provide enough meat for the people. If God had already provided quail in the past, why would Moses now be uncertain on how to provide quail again? Also, was the quail given in Exodus 16 a temporary event, or was it to be a continual event for them? If continual, why would they need to ask for meat again and complain about the Egyptian flesh pots? If temporary, why did they complain again about Egyptian flesh pots, and instead ask God to provide quail again? And if so, why would God satisfy their need at Sinai, but deal with them angrily now?
This is an example of evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis. As discussed before, some scholars believe that the Old Testament and particularly the Books of Moses as we now have them were compiled from various oral traditions somewhere between 800-500 BC. Here we see the same story told twice, but with a different ending. The two oral traditions were brought into Old Testament text and treated as two separate incidents by later scribes, such as Ezra.
According to the Documentary Hypothesis, there were a variety of sources that combined over centuries to make the Bible as we now have it. The earliest written versions were by “J” (the Yahwist /Jehovah) and “E” (the Elohist/Elohim). Later additions and changes were made by “D” (Deuteronomist), “P” (Priest) and “R” (Redactor – usually thought to be Ezra). Little by little, these various versions were combined into the Old Testament we now have.
We see another example in the story of getting water at Meribah. We see Moses and Israel going twice to a place named Meribah. In the first example, God gladly gives them water by having an angel stand above the rock Moses is to strike (Exodus 17). In the second instance, Moses goes to the rock and angrily chastises Israel asking them if he has to get them water from a rock before they will believe him. God is angry with Moses and Aaron for not giving God credit for the miracle, and does not allow either of them to enter into the Promised Land (Numbers 20).
Here we see the conflict that early authors brought into the sacred writ. “J” wanted to ensure King David and the temple priests looked good, while “E” sought to show Moses and the patriarchs as strong and righteous individuals. “J” had God chastise Moses and Aaron at Meribah, while “E” did not such thing. “J” was written in the land of Judah, probably in King Solomon’s reign, or the reign of his son. “E” wrote his version of the sacred text after the division of Judah and Israel in King Jeroboam’s day, to support their version of the faith and to support their version of the priesthood, based upon Moses’ authority, and not on Aaron’s.
Interestingly, the Book of Mormon does mention Moses at Meribah (2 Ne 25:20). There is no mention of God chastising Moses, but rather that Moses did great miracles by God’s power. This is exactly how “E” would have written the story in the northern kingdom of Israel. Interestingly, there is a potentially stronger tie-in to the Book of Mormon. Kevin Barney notes that John Sorensen “goes on to state as his thesis that the variant Old Testament text of the brass plates corresponds to one of the "documents" from which the Pentateuch was compiled. In particular, he suggests E for this role, due to its origins in the north, the ancestral home of Lehi, and for other reasons.” In other words, Laban’s Brass Plates most likely originated in the northern kingdom of Israel, and may have been the original source for “E”!
In this version of the quail, God smites the people for their lust. They filled their stomachs with quail for a month, until they desired no more of it, slaying many with a plague for their greed and lust.
The Seventy Elders
In Exodus 24 (see previous lesson #14), we see that 70 elders went with Moses and saw God. In Numbers 11:14-17, we see where the seventy are called up and chosen. Moses sees that the work is just too much for him to manage, and so God tells him to set apart 70 elders to assist him. Yet, isn't this similar to the Exodus story of Jethro telling Moses to select judges to assist him in the work? Either Moses required both judges and 70 elders to assist him, or we again have two different versions of an event being compiled into the same book.
The Seventy go to the Tabernacle, where in front of the congregation of Israel, the Lord descends in a cloud "and took of the spirit that was upon him (Moses), and gave it unto the seventy elders" (Numbers 11:25). With the Holy Ghost upon them, they too are able to prophesy, having some of the authority given to Moses. It is possible that these elders were given the Melchizedek Priesthood, so as to see God and to perform the work given to them. Yet, while a few in Israel would possess the higher priesthood, the people primarily received the blessings of the Aaronic Priesthood and the temple work was still based on the lesser Aaronic Priesthood.
Two of the elders remained in the camp, or in the general congregation of Israel, where the Spirit also fell upon them and they also prophesied. Some were upset that they would attempt to prophesy away from the tabernacle, but Moses' response is one that still registers today: "would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!" (Numbers 11:29). In other words, Moses wished that all the people had become worthy to stand in God's presence, see him, receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and receive all the blessings of the Melchizedek Priesthood, which was now reserved for just a handful in Israel.
Today, many people dwell in the congregation of Israel, but refuse to receive the higher blessings of God. As discussed in a previous lesson, Moses wanted to take Israel onto the mountain of God to see God and receive a fullness of his blessings. In rejecting Moses, they rejected God's fullness, and they were given the lesser priesthood and a Terrestrial or lesser blessing (D&C 84:19-26). Yet there still were a few righteous (the Seventy) that were willing to accept the fullness of the covenant, and receive a fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood and the key to the mystery of godliness.
Aaron and Miriam complain
About this time, Aaron and Miriam see that much of the power once given to them has now been given to the Seventy. While Aaron and his sons perform the works in the tabernacle, the Seventy see God and manage the judging and affairs of Israel. Aaron and Miriam feel that they should be able to share in the power with Moses, not understanding that God works in a heavenly hierarchy. While there are many who can prophesy and be prophets within their own realms of responsibility, there is only one Prophet over the Congregation of Israel at any time. We shall see that throughout Israel's history, the Prophet is never a direct descendant of Aaron, but is almost always from one of the other Tribes of Israel. God seems to separate out the responsibilities of the Aaronic Priesthood and those of the higher Priesthood and authority.
In their complaint, God once again must use harsh actions to restore order. He makes Miriam a leper for seven days. Imagine what would have happened if God would have allowed Aaron and Miriam to continue in their objections and attacks on Moses. Many of the congregation, including the Levites, would have sided with the two, causing rebellion in Israel.
The Promised Land - so near, yet so very far away
Moses sends out spies to survey the Promised Land. One man from each of the Tribes was selected to go, including Caleb from the tribe of Judah, and Joshua from the tribe of Ephraim. Traveling through the land, they find that it is a land of milk and honey. Yet, upon their return, 10 of the men insist that they cannot enter into the land, for the people are too powerful and numerous. Not only that, the sons of Anak were giants, "we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight" (13:33). The people of Anak did not consider the 12 men a threat, because they were smaller. Sadly, after all of the miracles they had seen, the Israelites did not believe they would be able to overthrow the inhabitants of the land.
Caleb and Joshua begged the people to trust in God and Moses and to go take the land, but they refused. Caleb insisted "we are well able to overcome it (the land)" (13:30). Yet the people mourned, wishing they remained back in Egypt, or had even died there or in the wilderness. Still, the two men went among the congregation begging them to believe. "If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey. Only rebel not ye against the Lord, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defence is departed from them, and the Lord is with us: fear them not" (14:7-9). But the people did fear and did not want to listen to the two men. They picked up stones to slay them.
The only thing that kept God from smiting all of Israel was Moses plea to spare them. God would raise up a people from Moses' seed, since this people had already rejected the Melchizedek Priesthood and the fullness of the gospel, and were rebelling against key commandments to enter the Promised Land. But Moses begs God to reconsider, as it would make Jehovah look bad in the sight of all nations to have rescued Israel from Egypt, only to have them all die in the wilderness. Moses actually reminds God that he is "longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression..." (14:13-18). The Lord agrees to spare them, but no adults in that generation would be allowed to enter into the Promised Land, except for Joshua and Caleb, who did show faith.
From this story we learn a few things. First, Faith truly is the first great principle of the gospel. People can see great miracles and still not have faith. It is faith that helps us patiently endure the trials, believing that God will save us in his own time. Meanwhile, Fear is the antithesis of faith. The fearful doubt, pushing all faith out. Those who fear do not endure patiently, but murmur quickly and constantly. The fearful seek to remove the faithful from among them, even by murder if necessary. The faithful look forward to God's promises, while the fearful look backwards, yearning for the better days (even if they lived in chains). Those who fear will never see the Promised Land, or heaven. But the faithful will endure until God brings them into the Promised Land, whether in this life or in the next.
Fringe of the Garment
Fringe on the Garment
In this chapter, the people repent and are forgiven, yet still are not able to enter into the Promised Land. They accept God's will, knowing they will learn patience and faith while dwelling forty years in the wilderness. Still, there are those who insist in sinning. On the Sabbath Day, a man is found gathering firewood. He is condemned to death. Why? Because rebellion begins with small steps of disobedience. Already, Israel has questioned and rebelled against God and Moses on many occasions, and each time God has had to chastise them. It is better to stop the sinning early on with one man, than to have it spread throughout the congregation, requiring large loss of life again.
As part of the repentance process and their covenant, the people are commanded to "make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring" (15:37-39).
A "ribband" is a ribbon used as decoration, but also to attach the tassels onto the fringe of the garments. This fringe would be a visible reminder of what was expected of Israel. They were to learn to bend their own will to that of God's. They were to begin learning to be Celestial, even as Jesus would show them: "not my will, but thine be done." It is easy to forget our place as Christians and children of God. Placing things around us to remind us of our covenants and responsibilities is important. Filling the home with religious pictures and reminders helps everyone in the home to focus upon the things that are truly important. It reminds us to focus on Zion and the Promised Land of God, and not on the flesh pots of Egypt.
The Levites that were not descendants of Aaron had been given the responsibility to manage, care for, and transport the various parts of the Tabernacle of God. Yet this was not enough for many of them. 250 of them approached Aaron and Moses, insisting they be allowed to offer sacrifice and incense in the Tabernacle. After all, they were also children of Levi, as were Moses and Aaron.
Moses told them to fill censers (incense burners) and to stand near the Tabernacle's door. They did. The Lord told Moses to have the believers in the congregation to remove themselves from near Korah and his followers. When they were separated, the Lord caused an earthquake to occur, which opened up the earth and swallowed up Korah and his followers. This would become a major test for Israel, as they would once again see that God chose Moses over everyone else.
Still, the people became angry on the following day and stood against Moses and Aaron. Obviously Korah and his followers were some very popular people. God sends a plague among Israel to chastise them once again. Moses tells Aaron to take holy incense from the Tabernacle out into the congregation to stop the plague. "And he (Aaron) stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stayed." Still, almost 15 thousand people died of the plague.
The people now feared God, but that isn't the same as loving or trusting God. Each tribe was told to provide a rod or wooden staff, each with the markings of their own tribe. These would be compared to the rod of Aaron. Moses laid all of them inside the Tabernacle overnight. In the morning, Aaron's rod had not only budded, but it had brought forth blossoms and almonds. Aaron's rod was shown to the people, and then placed inside the Tabernacle, possibly within the Ark of the Covenant where the national/religious treasures were stored. With this miracle, the Lord showed the people that they could trust him as a God that could do more than just kill.
Fiery Flying Serpents
Israel still does not learn from previous events. In their journeys in the wilderness they go through a desert place. "And the people spake against God and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?" The Lord again had to chastise them. Rather than enduring in faith as children of Israel, they were again ready to return to Egypt as slaves and idol worshipers.
In this instance, God sends "fiery serpents" among the Israelites. Once bitten, they soon would die, except they learned to humble themselves and obey. God had Moses create a brass serpent and place it upon his staff. Any who looked upon the brazen serpent would be healed and survive. Interestingly, the Book of Mormon gives us interesting insights into this event. Nephi explained, "And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished" (1 Nephi 17:41).
Nephi notes that the serpent was not only fiery, but also "flying." In the Bible, only Isaiah uses the term "fiery flying serpents" (Isaiah 14:29, 30:6), neither verse ties directly to the story of Moses and the brazen serpent. Why would Nephi take Isaiah's term and use it for this event? Among the ancient stories of Mesoamerica is the story of Quetzalcoatl. His image on ancient temples is that of a flying serpent. He was both a ruler and a god. It is possible that Nephi used imagery in Isaiah to describe Moses' story in such a way as to relate it to ancient beliefs held by peoples already in the land. It would also allow Nephi to compare the God of Israel with one of Mesoamerica's chief gods, showing that the God he preached was equal to their own god.
There are stories of Quetzalcoatl being a bearded white god/ruler, but the stories often conflict and we cannot always distinguish the stories of the god Quetzalcoatl from the mortal ruler Quetzalcoatl. Some early LDS scholars considered the stories of Quetzalcoatl as reminiscent of the Christ in America story in the Book of Mormon. There are however several LDS Mesomerican scholars that do not see Quetzalcoatl as evidence of Christ in America.
Temple of Quetzalcoatl with the flying serpent
Regardless of this issue, Nephi's point is that Christ is our brazen serpent. He has been raised up upon the cross, and if we look upon him in faith, we will be healed of our sins and pains. It shows again that God used ancient actions as symbols for Israel and all people to look forward to Christ, believing that they may be healed in him.
And as we struggle through our desert of life, we can murmur and complain, show forth fear and disbelief; or we can place our faith in Christ and live.
For more on the Documentary Hypothesis, please see the following:
“Who Wrote the Bible?” Richard E. Friedman
LDS member Kevin Barney discusses the Documentary Hypothesis
Fiery Flying Serpents and Quetzalcoatl: Jesus Christ/Relationship to Quetzalcoatl