23 July 2011

Summary: The Prayers of Numbers

Though there are only five prayers in the book of Numbers, they are as varied as they should be in our own prayer lives. Since Numbers is a book that contains both narrative and legal section (stories and laws), the prayers reflect that: there are two intercessions, one blessing, one petition, and then a section on the proper use of vows.
Both of the intercessions concern complaining (Num 11.2; 21.7). Despite all God had done in delivering the Israelites from slavery and protecting them on their desert journey, they often complain. The complaining gets so bad that eventually God warns them by causing fires to break out at the camp perimeter. Like many of us when we complain, it got their attention. They said they were sorry, and they asked Moses to pray for them, and God put out the fires. Unfortunately, like many of us, the Israelites returned to their habits and began complaining even more. This time, the warnings of God are more severe: desert snakes get into the camp, and some of the Israelites even die from bites. Now the people become more serious: they tell Moses that they know they have sinned against God. Once again, he prays for them. This time, God does not just take the snakes away. Instead, when they are bit, they must do something themselves.
These two prayers have a lot to say to us about prayer. First, they encourage us to examine ourselves and our own attitude towards God. Though we might not be consciously and formally praying, when we complain about life we are telling God something about how we feel about his creation. Second, they tell is that God will often send us a warning that we might need to check our attitude: a good way to do this is to consciously begin praying thanksgivings and praise-prayers, to help us refocus. Third, the prayers show us that sometimes God thinks we need more than just a warning. In that case, he may bring events into our lives that require us to act in some way: to participate in our own growth. Finally, these prayers demonstrate that God might sometimes use suffering to help us learn and grow. Both of these prayers are excellent places to turn when we find ourselves caught up in a culture of complaining.
The blessing-prayer that is found in Numbers 6.24–26 is one of the most well-known prayers in the Bible. Moses instructed the priests to pronounce this blessing over all the people before they began their journey: “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”  The rest of this prayer indicates that when we pray it, it not only reminds us (and God) that He has adopted us,  but that he will protect us, bless us, and give us peace. It is a prayer that can be prayer for loved ones, for congregations, for nations—indeed, for any individual or group.
The petition in Numbers 10.35–26 is a little-known prayer, yet contains a great reminder of how a prayer of petition can be practiced in our lives. For the Israelites, this was the Song of true Ark: they prayed it before they went out into battle (with the Ark leading them) and wen they returned from battle. It was a set of “bookends” for a difficult time. Before battle, the Song asks for victory; after battle, it asks God to be with them at rest. It is an example of a type of prayer we can use before we begin and  end a journey, a project, or any period of time.
Chapter 27 contains rules about a vow, and is quite different than the prayer passages we have studied to this point. Though it discusses vows, which we can also offer to God, the passage is heavily influenced by the values and realities of that ancient culture, making it a bit more difficult to understand and apply. Yet when we strip away those cultural elements, we can understand the principles about vows that the passage teaches: a vow offered to God is very serious and it is a way to focus and hold ourselves responsible. Additionally, we learn that when we keep our vows, God honors us in return.
As Genesis through Leviticus, we see that prayer in the Bible takes many forms, and appears in many different contexts. The richness and variety that should be part of our prayer lives is seen even in this mere collection of five prayers. This variety will continue as we move on to the prayers found in the book of Deuteronomy.
Here are the list of prayers we have studied in the book of Numbers:

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