Sea Cows and the Birth of John the Baptist: 16th March 2021

Numbers 4:1-5:10

In today’s reading, there is plenty more counting. However, this book is called ‘Numbers’ and so we can hardly sue Moses for false advertising.

In Chapter 4, God specifies exactly how the most holy things and the Tabernacle are to be wrapped and transported. My wife has a virtually fulltime eBay job disposing of unwanted articles from the loft. She carefully wraps items in scraps of bubble wrap and recycled Amazon packaging. However, God wants all of his Holy Things lovingly covered in pristine blue cloth before hides of ‘sea cows’ are laid on top (see also Exodus 26:14). If you want a leather that’s really waterproof, I don’t suppose you can choose anything much better.

Why are the Israelites commanded to use blue cloths?

Blue in iconography represents transcendence, mystery, and the divine. It is the colour of the sky and as a result is viewed as a heavenly colour‘ (https://aleteia.org/2017/06/24/why-is-the-blessed-virgin-mary-always-wearing-blue/). A blue cloth in modern times might sound like a more modest request than a sea cow hide but in Biblical times it might have been even more difficult to procure. Blue dye was extremely rare. It was painstakingly extracted from sea snails. Thousands of the little critters were required to dye a single garment (https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-israel-blue-20180910htmlstory.html#:~:text=Wool%20dyed%20in%20various%20colors%20extracted%20from%20the%20Murex%20trunculus%20snail.&text=Forty%2Dnine%20times%20the%20Bible,all%20but%20impossible%20to%20describe).

When it comes to the sea cow hides, why, in the middle of the desert, would God specify such a strange material? ‘The Layman’s Bible‘ came to my rescue: https://laymansbible.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/hides-of-what-now/comment-page-1/#comment-19361

It’s not as if the wandering Israelites could order sea cow hides from Amazon and have them delivered. They couldn’t go to a convenient shop: Costcow or the Cow-Op. We wouldn’t be able to obtain sea cow hides now as they are most likely a protected species. Yet, in the middle of a dry desert, far away a sea cow’s natural habitat, God asks for them.

However, there is no sign that this strange request phased Moses in any way. We can presume that he simply went to the couple of million Israelites camped around him and asked. As the request was circulated, plenty of people had sea cow hides to donate. In fact, they had already been donated, along with all the rest of the materials required for the Tabernacle, after God asked for them in Exodus 25: 1-7. They were so plentiful that Moses had to order the Israelites to stop donating materials (Exodus 36:5-7) because they had more than enough. There was a deluge of sea cow hides from the eager and helpful Israelites.

We might think it would be impossible to find sea cow hides in a desert but God only asks for what He can provide. Some of the Israelites might have carried sea cow hides since they left Egypt and were only too glad for the Levites to carry them instead. Perhaps, the Israelites dispatched hunters to the Persian Gulf to bring back the skins; they could also fetch the sea snails for the blue dye while they were there. Maybe, when God split the Red Sea, a herd of sea cows became stranded in the shallow water and the Israelites harvested them thinking ‘They’ll come in handy!’

The moral of the story is that if God asks for some specific items for a project, He will have already lined up people who can provide them. Our Pastor often says, ‘The money is in the house’. If God tells her to do a project, she just has to believe that her congregation or other contacts have the funds at their disposal and will willingly donate them. God won’t ask you to use any exotic materials that He hasn’t already lined up for you.

Aaron and his sons were the only people permitted to cover the holy articles with blue cloth prior to transportation. Other Levites couldn’t ‘go in to look at the holy things, even for a moment, or they will die’ (4:20). People would have died either because they were disrespecting God or the holy things may have retained some of the awesome power of God that would overwhelm non-ordained people. This reminds me of 2 Kings 13:21 when a dead man was placed in the tomb of the deceased prophet Elisha. The dead man came back to life when he touched Elisha’s bones. Some of the healing power of God had remained stored in the prophet’s bones.

It is fascinating that the actual Ark of the Covenant is now said to reside in the Ethiopian city of Aksum, having been carried back by Menelik, the illegitimate son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/keepers-of-the-lost-ark-179998820/ ). The Ark is guarded by a single virgin monk who prays, lights incense and pays tribute to God day and night and who can never leave the compound until he dies. God allowed the Ark to be relocated without destroying Menelik’s retinue and He now permits an individual to guard it without lethal consequences. It must be afforded the proper level of respect.

Numbers 8:48 reminds us not to try to do everything ourselves and to help out in our church and community. Many hands make light work. It must have been intimating to think of transporting the heavy Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant and all the tent materials and coverings. However, there were 8,580 people to do it, which would have made it very bearable. ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30).

Numbers 5:1-4 specifies that anyone with an infectious skin disease or who is ceremonially unclean must leave the camp, away from where God dwells. This is in contrast to Matthew 4:23-24 ‘people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases …. and he healed them.’ Only a very few ordained priests could approach God in the Israelite camp. In contrast in the New Testament, all people could come to Jesus to have their sicknesses healed. God’s awesome power flowing through a man (Jesus) becomes approachable and healing, just as the remnant of God’s power in Elisha’s bones was still able to raise the dead.

God sets out the law for confession in Num. 5:5-8. If someone wrongs another they are also unfaithful to God and are guilty. They must confess the sin and make full financial restitution (plus a fifth extra) to the person they have wronged. This is a sound practice we can carry on with today.

Luke 1:57-60

Elizabeth’s neighbours and relatives shared her joy after God had blessed her and removed ‘her disgrace’ of not having a child. Some people will turn up for a party only when things are finally going well having failed to reassure us that we were valued and loved when we were facing emotional challenges.

Elizabeth wanted to call her baby son John but no-one listened to her. Similarly, no-one believed Mary Magdalene when she reported that Jesus had risen from the dead (Mark 16:11).

Zechariah confirmed that their son would be called John which means ‘God is Gracious’. I was christened ‘Jonathan’, which is another great biblical name that means ‘Gift of God’. I recommend that all babies are given biblical names or, at the very least, the name of a saint. However, if a child is given a secular name, they can have the ambition, through the grace of God, to be the very first saint with that name. Maybe Elon Musk’s little boy will grow up to be the first ever Saint X Æ A-12.

In Luke 1: 67 – 70, we have the magnificent song of Zechariah, known as ‘The Benedictus’. Zechariah, like John and Elizabeth, is ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’. He predicts John’s role as a prophet preparing the way for Jesus and predicts that Jesus will rescue us and bring salvation. We will be able to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness. No-one predicted how he would become our saviour (through his death on the cross) and how his blood would make us justified and righteous before God.

We are all called to shine our light on those living in darkness and quaking in the shadow of death (Luke 1:79).

Psalms 34:11-22

Don’t tell lies, do good, seek and pursue peace.

(Ps. 34:17). The Lord hears the righteous and delivers them from all their troubles. How many troubles does he deliver them from? Yes, correct. All their troubles.

(Ps. 34:18) ‘The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit’. The last time I was crushed in Spirit, the Lord inspired me to walk down the High Street on a Saturday morning. Here I found a small choir from the local Pentecostal Church singing in public – as they do once a month. It was perfect timing – engineered by the Lord. They took me in and enabled God to un-crush my Spirit and heal my broken heart. (Ps. 34:19) ‘A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers them from them all.’

Through his precious blood, Jesus has redeemed us. (Ps. 34:22) ‘No-one will be condemned who takes refuge in him‘.

Praise the Lord!

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: