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How To Study Puzzling Bible Passages

by Kristen C. Strocchia

“Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000, from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000, from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi 12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000, from the tribe of Zebulon 12,000, from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000.” Revelation 7:4-8

Image result for puzzleI’m going to be honest, I’m not exactly sure the significance of the numbers in this passage. But when I come across a piece of scripture that perplexes me, it is exciting to start hunting through God’s Word for understanding. The best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. It makes the simple wise and enlightens the eyes [Psalm 19:7-8].

Obviously, 144,000 is the product of 12,000 sealed from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. But my question is why 12,000 from each tribe? I’ve searched through the commentaries to see what others have said and the agreement is inconclusive. This is a point of Scripture on which we can pray for God’s understanding and that, if it still pricks our hearts to know, we can ask Him about in heaven .

A few thoughts to consider when delving into the Word to understand this matter:

1) The tribes are given out of order and two are omitted, but there are still twelve total–so in all things we can know that God’s purposes prevail [Proverbs 19:21];

2) These same 144,000 are mentioned again in Revelation 14 with the Lamb–so we can read within the larger context of Revelation to see if anything else can be disclosed about who and why;

3) There are many Old Testament passages that refer to the twelve tribes in list fashion, often with social/spiritual commentary about the state of each [i.e. Genesis 49, Numbers 26 and Deuteronomy 33 to name a few]. I’m particularly interested to study through these scriptures to see what light they can shed on the puzzling Revelation 7 passage, because they may give insight into the order rearrangement and omissions mentioned above. But also because they give snapshots of the tribes over distant points of time and place.

In Genesis 49, the patriarch Jacob is blessing his sons, the tribal heads, on his death bed. Blessing in this instance meaning that he speaks to the character and lets them know what it will produce in their life, so not always a positive. While the Deuteronomy 33 passage is Moses blessing the twelve tribes before they part ways–him to his death and them to possess the Promised Land. This blessing is as it sounds, good things spoken on behalf of each tribe, good things spoken with future blessing in mind.

4) One other factor not to be overlooked in interpretation of difficult Scripture passages–the Holy Spirit. As I puzzled over this the last few days and looked for other passages that might give insight, the Holy Spirit spoke to me about the equality of the number 12,000.

No matter what each tribe’s patriarch behaved like or the decisions he made, no matter what the particular history of each Israelite tribe throughout scripture and beyond, God does not show favoritism [Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25]. He forgives each of us equally. He loved each tribe equally. No matter their position or their history, when they devoted themselves to God they inherited the same measure of blessing.

What’s your Bible study routine? Do you dig deep into passages that perplex you or skip over them? Do you have sound Bible study tools and practices?

The Pergamum Compromise

by Kristen C. Strocchia

“Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teachings of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teachings of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” Revelation 2:14-16

Image result for pergamumBalaam was an Old Testament diviner who lived near the Euphrates river [Numbers 22:5]. He was neither Israelite nor Moabite, and yet he found himself caught up between these two colliding cultures.

In reading the Numbers account, we see that Balaam’s words are the words that God places in his mouth to bless the Israelites while Balak–King of Moab–has paid Balaam to curse them [Numbers 23:11-12]. He even builds altars and offers bulls and rams like one of God’s own in his divination processes.

But we can see here in Revelation [as well as in 2 Peter 2:15] that beating his donkey was not Balaam’s only wrongdoing. While he may not have cursed Israel with his mouth, he showed Moab’s King, Balak, how to tempt the Israelites into sinning against God. And when they sinned, they came under the curse of those sins.

Likewise, the church in Pergamum was being enticed to sin with the culture around them. They compromised their unswerving faith by also attending pagan temples and participating in pagan worship practices. This eased the cultural strain on their daily life, but in essence, partaking of idol’s food and temple immorality proclaimed their allegiance to the false Greek and Roman gods. Scripture is very clear that you cannot serve two masters [Matthew 6:24].

There were also church members in Pergamum who bought into the ideas of the Nicolaitans. This heretical sect said that body and soul were two separate things. So as long as your soul believed in Jesus, you could do whatever you wanted with your body.

But Jesus condemned these compromises. Either they worshipped Jesus alone. Or they were sensual idolaters. There was no middle ground. No way to do both and still be a follower of Christ.

It’s the same for us today. The world would like us to believe that we can call ourselves Christians and even attend church and read our Bibles, but still behave like the sinners we once were. And there are some Pergamenian-like Christians today who are trying to do just that. Drugs and Jesus. Adultery and Jesus. Greed and Jesus. Tolerance/Mindfulness and Jesus. Etc. But each of these is mutually exclusive. Sure, He can forgive us, but we are not to just keep on sinning in the presence of grace [Romans 6:1].

Are there any compromises in your faith? Any worldly practices or beliefs that stand in stark opposition to the word of God? Any issue that you believe God dislikes, but you do any way to make it easier to fit in with your peers?

An Unfinished Work

by Kristen C. Strocchia

“The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. [Ham was the father of Canaan.] These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth. Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent.” Genesis 9:18-21

Image result for vineyard + imageHere we see a point of view shift. The flood narrative to this point has been focused on Noah, but now God shifts the lens to include Noah’s sons–Shem, Ham and Japheth. Noah had no other children. So these three men and their wives repopulated the post-flood earth.

Shem means name or renown. Ham may mean hot, heat, warm, or brown. And Japheth means may he expand.

And in this shift, the author also mentions Ham’s son, Canaan; a name which has several possible meanings: flat, low, merchant, trader, or that humbles and subdues. From this we can infer that Canaan was already born by the time of the incident to follow.

Though we know that Noah had sufficient time to plant a vineyard, cultivate it through grape production, harvest grapes, press them and ferment them into wine, we don’t know exactly how long after the flood this event takes place or how old Canaan was at the time.

The sons and grandson’s name meanings may or may not have any story significance here, however their mention leads up to a small but important narrative.

Now, God does not mention His thoughts on the fact that Noah ended up drunk on homemade wine. We know that God chose to save Noah from the flood because he was favored for being upright [righteous; Genesis 6:9] in the sight of the Lord.

Upright does not mean perfect or sinless. And the Bible certainly warns against drunkenness [Galatians 5:21; 1 Peter 4:3; et al.]. Hebrews 11:7 tells us that Noah became an heir of righteousness because of his faith, but in this post-flood account Noah is described as a man of the soil.

Interesting.

The last person to be described as such in scripture was Cain [Genesis 4:2], though we know that Adam himself was charged with working the ground for his food [Genesis 3:17]. And we know that both men were identified as sinners.

All of this shows us that we can know for certain that the ground was still under the curse of sin and that Noah–like Adam and Cain before him–was still a sinner saved by grace, as were his sons. He allowed himself to become drunk, and, in this drunken state, slept naked in his tent. This is reminiscent of the three verses in Genesis 4 devoted to Lamech McCain in that it shows us that–after all of the destruction and devastation of the flood–there is still sin in the world. The work of redemption was not finished. And as was the case with Abraham [Galatians 3:6], it seems that Noah was credited as righteous because of his faith, not that his own righteousness was enough to save him from sin.

Just because we accept Christ in our lives, doesn’t mean that our sin nature instantly disappears. But when we allow Christ to be Lord of our hearts, we begin to become more like Him. Where God is, sin cannot be also.

Have you asked Jesus to be Lord of your life? Do you put Him first in all your ways? Will you allow Him to show you any sin that may be harbored in your heart so that He can root it out and you can become more like Him?

When God Closes the Door

by Kristen C. Strocchia

“Then the Lord shut him in. For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits…The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.” Genesis 7:16b-21 & 24

Image result for pitching hayIf Noah or his family had any doubt whatsoever that they were obeying the will of God, surely when God Almighty closed the door to the ark once they were all safely inside was sign enough.

But was it sign enough to endure forty days of intense flooding that pushed the ark off the safety of dry land, rocking it–none too gently–as the waters swelled deep enough to cover the highest mountains of Noah’s day under about 23 feet of water?

Looking forward from Noah, the Israelites of the Exodus saw God do many miraculous things, and yet they grumbled against Him all the same, losing their opportunity to settle the Promised Land [Exodus 16:12, 17:1; Numbers 14:2]. Did Noah’s family feel this same frustration and temptation at any time when they were being tossed about in their floating zoo, pitching hay and other vittles to three stories worth of wild animals for a hundred and fifty days [about five months]?

Or did they whole heartedly trust God and just go for the ride of their lives?

More than that, I think it’s fascinating that God describes the ark here as floating on the surface of the water. Remember back in Genesis 1:2b that God’s spirit moved over the surface of the deep, and looking forward to Matthew 14, Jesus physically walked on the water.

God was with that ark, because God was in that ark with His faithful servants.

Everyone who didn’t have the faith to build and board with Noah was judged by the flood water and found wanting [Daniel 5:27]. But those who put their faith–their absolute certainty in what they hoped for but couldn’t see–in God, by His grace–undeserved favor–were saved.

The truth of sin is very real. But salvation by faith alone through grace alone is also a very real truth.

Like Noah, are you building your life in faith alone? Do you recognize God’s grace in your life that allows you to board His ark of salvation? In whom is your faith?

Seed of Faith or Spore of Doubt?

by Kristen C. Strocchia

“By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land: but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.” Hebrews 11:29-30

Image result for tree and mushroomIt’s not often that we read about the Israelites’ corporate faith, but here the writer of Hebrews–as inspired by God–commends their faith. By absolute certainty in what they hoped for, but couldn’t see, the Israelites walked through the parted Red Sea.

By Moses’ faith, God parted the sea, but if the people failed to believe God they would never have walked through the watery walls. They would have turned back, or been crushed by the Egyptians, or–like the Egyptians–been drowned by the waves.

But despite witnessing God’s awesome power at work, this generation turned from their faith and grumbled against God [Numbers 14:1-4]. Consequently, they passed away in their desert wanderings.

Forty years later, by a renewed corporate faith, the youth from the Red Sea parting  obediently marched around Jericho behind the ark of the covenant. Armed with nothing but trumpets, marching orders and the command to shout on cue, this next generation stormed the gateway city to the Promised Land and saw God deliver it miraculously into their hands.

This generation went in to take hold of the Promised Land, but their faith–and that of the generations after them–eventually gave way too [read Joshua, Judges, Kings, Chronicles, and the prophets].

Without their initial belief, the Israelites would never have seen these two great miracles. But even having seen them, they lost their absolute certainty in what they hoped for, but couldn’t see.

The difficulties of life and the murmurs of others seeded doubt. And just like a tiny mustard seed of faith can grow into a mighty tree that moves mountains, so a tiny spore of doubt can decay the faith of individuals and, eventually, an entire nation.

We must be careful then what we allow to inform our faith–family, friends, feelings, circumstances–or God Himself? Have you surrounded yourself with those who seed faith or spread spores of doubt? Both can take root and grow, but only one to the glory of God.

How about you? Do you tend to be a seed or a spore to those around you?