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B'Midbar/Numbers 14:11 And how long will they not have faith in Me, in spite of all the signs that I have done in their midst?
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Following the sending of twelve spies, one from each tribe, into the Land to explore and to take the measure of the inheritance thatHaShem had promised our people - "Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land" (B'Midbar 13:17-20, NJPS) - and the subsequent return of the spies with a 10-2 majority bad report - "The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there -- the Anakites are part of the Nephilim -- and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (vv. 32-33, NJPS) - the people propose to return to Egypt and are threatening to stone Joshua and Caleb (the two good spies). Suddenly, "the Presence of the LORD appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites" (14:10, NJPS) and, in what sounds like sheer exasperation, HaShem declares to Moshe, "I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!" (v. 12, NJPS).
Our text falls in the middle of the exasperation as HaShem expresses His frustration at the repeated failure of the Israelites to take Him at His word and believe that He not only can but will do what He he has promised to do. The opening words of the text, literally, "and until where" - are usually translated "[and] how long" or colloquially, "how much longer". The verb is the Hifil 3mp prefix form of the root , "to trust, confide, believe in, rely on" (Davidson), preceded by the negative particle and followed by the indirect object , "in me", referring to HaShem; together they translate as "will they not believe/trust/have-faith in Me". As usual, we must remember that this process of faith is completely different from one of intellectual assent or mental assent. The same verb is used in Avraham's moment of faith when receiving G-d's promise: "he believed the L-RD, and He counted it to him as righteousness" (B'resheet 15:6, ESV). Avraham totally committed his life, his way of living, his future, everything that he had, to following the L-rd. The people cannot or will not make that commitment.
The second half of the text - "in spite of all the signs that I have done in their midst" - shows why HaShem is so frustrated with the Exodus generation. AsRashi puts it, "Because of all the miracles that I did for them, that they should have believed that in My hand is the wherewithal to fulfil My promise." This generation have had far more proof of HaShem's ability than Avraham. During a year in the wilderness they have eaten the manna each day, drunk the bitter water that turned sweet, heard the voice of HaShem Himself at Mt. Sinai; and that was all after seeing the plagues that led to their departure from Egypt and the parting of the Reed Sea. Richard Elliott Friedman cannot understand what is going on. "Why in fact do the people not trust? Why are they still afraid and doubtful?" he asks, pointing out that "even as they complain in this moment, there is a miraculous column of cloud and fire right in front of them." Rabbi Hirsch attempts to explain: "In the judgement [the people] had formed over their future, 'G-d' had momentarily completely ceased to be a factor to be considered." The people have stopped looking at G-d and have become myopically fixated by the bad report of the ten spies. They cannot see past that report - dashing, as it appears to do, the hopes and dreams that have sustained them and given them hope and a reason for living over the past year - to see the ever present pillar of cloud resting on the Tent of Meeting. That had, in their eyes, just disappeared from both sight and memory.
Among the classical scholars, OvadiahSforno paraphrases HaShem's words as, "To what extent must I perform wonders before they will trust Me and rely upon My word?" Don Abravanel offers, "How long and how far must I lead them before their character improves?" The contemporary scholar Thomas Dozeman echoes them, explaining that "G-d complains that the people have rejected divine leading and do not believe in divine power, even though they have seen signs of it both in Egypt and in the wilderness."1 I suggest, however, that these commentators miss the point entirely. It is as if they too have lost sight of what is going on. Dennis Cole compounds the felony: "The question will continue to be asked throughout Israel's history. How many times would G-d's people reject Him in spite of the wonders that were performed before their very eyes and on their behalf? ... Why was there not a great revival of Yahweh worship after the dramatic demonstration of G-d's power on Mount Carmel in the days of Elijah's ministry? ... To believe G-d was to accept His precepts, His teachings and His general revelation in nature, and then to act accordingly in obedient faith."FootNote(2) While these are valid questions to ask, the underlying assumptions are that Israel received one or more revelations that they could understand and interpret correctly and then took a rational decision to disobey G-d. In this case, the surrounding text makes it clear that the people were given misleading and biased information dressed up in highly emotional language, which they failed to correctly interpret or discern, and so reacted in a totally irrational way. In the case of Mt. Carmel, while the revelation was good, the leadership (read: King Ahaz and his queen, Jezebel) failed to interpret it correctly for the people and largely suppressed its distribution so that the majority of Israel would either have received no report at all or a version carefully edited and expurgated by the regime; hence no revival and no change.
In common English usage, the question "how long" or "how much longer" is often used to express the feeling that something should have changed or happened already, if not quite some time ago. While they can both introduce genuine questions - "How long does it take to boil an egg?", which might receive the answer, "Three minutes for soft, six for hard." - said in a slightly different tone of voice, they imply a rebuke for taking too long or longer that expected and might elicit a rather different response: "I'm coming as quickly as I can" or "The first one cracked." The context of our text makes it clear that it is the latter meaning that the Torah intends to convey. Another example is David's cry to G-d recorded by the Psalmist: "How long, O L-RD; will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?" (Psalm 13:2-3, NJPS). The words , "how long" are used four times in two verses and the associated time words in the first half of each verse - 'forever' and 'all day' - make it clear that the second usage is David's intention, particularly followed by "Look at me, answer me, O L-RD, my G-d!" (v. 4a, NJPS) in the next verse. He is worried that he has been forgotten.
Yeshua allows a few words of exasperation to escape from His lips when He comes down the mountain after His transfiguration, to find most of the disciples trying and failing to 'cure' a boy who, according to his father, "is a lunatic, and is very ill; for he often falls into the fire, and often into the water" (Matthew 17:5, NASB). Yeshua didn't even pause mid-stride but responded, "O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me!" (Mark 9:19, NASB), then rebuked the evil spirit and cast it out. This seems to have fairly clear overtones of frustration, disappointment and, perhaps, irritation: the disciples still hadn't got this right.
We find similar but slightly different words attributed to Yeshua in John's account of the Last Supper. After Judas has left the group, Yeshua tells the other disciples again that He is leaving them and that they cannot go with Him at the moment. As the discussion turns rapidly through the way to get there, Yeshua being the only way to the Father, and whether they know the Father because they know Yeshua, Philip makes one of those "well-meaning disciple trying to be helpful" remarks: "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us" (John 14:8, ESV). Yeshua turns towards him and says, "Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?" (v. 9a, ESV). Do we hear bewilderment or even hurt that after all the time He has invested in the disciples - being with them, teaching them, doing miracles, sending them out on exercise - they still haven't understood who He is? He goes on, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" (vv. 9b-10a, ESV). How can you say that Philip - hello? Then Yeshua explains: "The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own authority, but the Father who dwells in Me does His works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me, or else believe on account of the works themselves" (vv. 10b-11, ESV). This is exactly the same as the Israelites in the wilderness: Believe that G-d can keep His promises or believe the pillar of cloud in front of your noses.
Yeshua asks the same question of each of us today. At the end of His story about the dishonest judge and the persistent widow, He asks the question, "when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8, ESV). Do we believe who He is and what He says? And, having received the revelation of who He is, do we faithfully express that in a practice of humble and but joyful obedience in our daily lives? How much longer will Yeshua have to wait before we are ready to welcome Him back into our midst?
1. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 746.
2. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 229.
Further Study: Psalm 78:40-43; John 10:37-38; Hebrews 10:35-36
Application: Does "how long" apply to you? Are you still undecided about who Yeshua is and how you should respond to Him? Don't let "how long" become "too long" and ask Him today how you can believe and obey Him in your life.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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