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B'Midbar/Numbers 17:10 "Separate yourselves from the midst of this assembly and I will consume them instantly!" But they fell on their faces.
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What an extraordinary response!HaShem commands - the verb (a hapax legomenon in this form) is the Nif'al imperative of the root , "to lift oneself up" (Davidson), so here literally "get up!" or "rise above!" - Moshe and Aharon to get away from the people so that He can destroy them, but not only do they not move away, instead they lie down where they are, right in the line of fire. A little thought will tell us that Moshe seems to be making a habit of this; this is the fourth time in just four chapters. In parashat Sh'lakh L'cha, when the people hear the majority bad report of the spies and say to one another, "Let us head back for Egypt" (B'Midbar 14:4, NJPS), the narrator tells us that "Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces before all the assembled congregation of the Israelites" (v. 5, NJPS). At the start of this parasha when Korah and his people first attack Moshe and Aharon with the accusation that "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the L-RD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the L-RD's congregation?" (16:3, NJPS), Moshe hits the deck again. The next morning, when Korah's group turn up at the Tabernacle for the "trial by combat" (with incense!), "the L-RD spoke to Moshe and Aharon, saying, 'Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!'" (16:20, NJPS) and once again they fall on their faces - this time explicitly to pray for the people.
RabbiHirsch paraphrases the command to make it contingent: "G-d said to Moshe: If you wish it, get yourselves up out of them and I will immediately make an end of these masses that rise up against you. But they did not move, on the contrary, threw themselves down on their faces before G-d." This seems to leave the decision whether to move away in Moshe's hands; he can choose whether HaShem destroys the people. Certainly, we know from the way this narrative proceeds after this verse that although a plague starts immediately among the people, Moshe instructs Aharon to get his censer - with fresh fire and incense on it - and stand "between the dead and the living until the plague was checked" (17:13, NJPS). Over fourteen thousand people died, but the rest of the camp was saved. As Moshe will exhort the next generation in thirty eight years time - "I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life -- if you and your offspring would live" (D'varim 30:19, NJPS) - so he acted that day: he chose life so that the people could live.
What were Moshe and Aharon doing on their faces? Were they simply keeping a low profile to stay out of the way of the bullets? In the third instance, they appeal to HaShem's sense of justice to dissuade Him from destroying the people, "O G-d, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?" (B'Midbar 16:22, NJPS). This sounds very like Avraham's pleas on behalf of the people of Sodom: "Far be it from You to do such a thing - to kill the righteous along with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike! Far be it from You! Shouldn't the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (B'resheet 18:25, CJB). From there, most of the commentators imply that the same applies on this occasions. On the Jewish side of the house,Targum Onkelos translates the text literally, but Targum Jonathan adds to it: "they fell on their faces in prayer"; Ibn Ezra says, "they fell on their faces to pray"; the Bekhor Shor that "they fell on their faces - to pray for them." The Christian commentators agree - Gordon Wenham writes that "Aharon and Moshe fall on their face in intercessory prayer."1 Dennis Cole is a little more long-winded: "As before, Moshe instead fell on his face in subservience and prayer before the L-rd, always a true servant of the people. By this action he was also putting himself at risk of judgement, but G-d is continually mindful and willing to respond to the submissive hearts of His faithful servants."2
We must learn an important principle from this. First, hear from the prophet Jeremiah: "The word of the L-RD came to me: What do you see, Jeremiah? I replied: I see a branch of an almond tree. The L-RD said to me: You have seen right, for I am watchful to bring My word to pass" (Jeremiah 1:11-12, NJPS). There is a conversation going on. It continues in the following verses: "And the word of the L-RD came to me a second time: What do you see? I replied: I see a steaming pot, tipped away from the north. And the L-RD said to me: From the north shall disaster break loose upon all the inhabitants of the land!" (vv. 13-14, NJPS). HaShem is showing and telling Jeremiah that His judgement is going fall on the people. In fact, as Amos tells us, "my L-rd G-D does nothing without having revealed His purpose to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7, NJPS). Why is that - why does G-d tell the prophets what He is about to do? The answer is simple: so that they - and others with whom they share the words and pictures - can pray. Then having prayed, they tell the people so that they have the opportunity to repent and avert the judgement. Isaiah explains this: "Therefore the L-RD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore He exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the L-RD is a G-d of justice; blessed are all those who wait for Him" (Isaiah 30:18, ESV). Ezekiel says it three times; first, perhaps a little whimsically, "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the L-rd G-D, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?" (Ezekiel 18:23, ESV); then, more directly, "For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live" (v. 32, ESV); finally, rising to a crescendo that surely everyone must hear: "Say to them, As I live, declares the L-rd G-D, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?" (33:11, ESV).
Now watch how this happens in practice. Amos tells us what happens: "This is what my L-rd G-D showed me: He was creating a plague of locusts at the time when the late-sown crops were beginning to sprout -- the late-sown crops after the king's reaping. When it had finished devouring the herbage in the land, I said, 'O L-rd G-D, pray forgive. How will Jacob survive? He is so small.' The L-RD relented concerning this. 'It shall not come to pass,' said the LORD" (Amos 7:1-3, NJPS). He receives a vision of judgement and immediately intercedes; the L-rd responds. A second time it happens: "This is what the Lord GOD showed me: Lo, my L-rd G-D was summoning to contend by fire which consumed the Great Deep and was consuming the fields. I said, "Oh, L-rd G-D, refrain! How will Jacob survive? He is so small." The L-RD relented concerning this. "That shall not come to pass, either," said my L-rd G-D" (vv. 4-5, NJPS). Another vision and intercession with the same result. It is only on the third occasion - "This is what He showed me: He was standing on a wall checked with a plumb line and He was holding a plumb line. And the LORD asked me, "What do you see, Amos?" "A plumb line," I replied. And my Lord declared, "I am going to apply a plumb line to My people Israel; I will pardon them no more. The shrines of Isaac shall be laid waste, and the sanctuaries of Israel reduced to ruins; and I will turn upon the House of Jeroboam with the sword" (vv. 7-9, NJPS) - that Amos does not intercede as the L-rd's explanation makes it clear that this judgement will come.
Back in our text, DonAbravanel paraphrases HaShem's words to a rather harder position: "Do not lower yourselves to pray for this worthless bunch." These are words with which Jeremiah is only too familiar; he intercedes - "Though our iniquities testify against us, act, O LORD, for your name's sake; for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against you. O you hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night?" (Jeremiah 14:7-8, ESV) - but G-d says "Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence" (vv. 11-12, ESV). So much so that when he tries again, the L-rd is more robust: "Though Moshe and Samuel stood before Me, yet My heart would not turn toward this people. Send them out of my sight, and let them go! And when they ask you, 'Where shall we go?' you shall say to them, 'Thus says the LORD: 'Those who are for pestilence, to pestilence, and those who are for the sword, to the sword; those who are for famine, to famine, and those who are for captivity, to captivity'" (15:1-2, ESV).
Famously, Yeshua makes intercession for His disciples. He tells Peter, "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:31-32, ESV). He not only tells Peter that He has prayed for him, but tells him - When you have turned ... - that His prayers will succeed. The good news for us is that Yeshua is still praying for us: "He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to G-d through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25, ESV). His prayers will always be heard by the Father, as are those of the Holy Spirit who also helps and guides our prayers: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And He who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of G-d" (Romans 8:26-27, ESV). When we let Him pray for us and through us, we are guaranteed not only a hearing but an answer as it is already His will! Let's commit ourselves to prayer for our loved ones, for our communities and leaders, and for the kingdom of G-d in these days, asking the Spirit to guide us so that we too will see miracles and the hand of G-d at work as He was for Moshe, for the prophets and for Yeshua.
1. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 155.
2. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 272.
Further Study: Jeremiah 7:16-17; Daniel 9:18-19; John 14:16; Ephesians 6:18; 1 John 5:14
Application: Who do you intercede for each day or each week? Do you frequently feel the urge and prompting of the Spirit as you pray? Why not ask the Chief Intercessor how He wants to extend your reach and effectiveness in prayer to address the key needs of the kingdom in these days.
Comment - 16:36 06Jun21 Stella: Very helpful parasha today!
Comment - 17;53 06Jun21 Kate: "When we let Him pray for us and through us, we are guaranteed not only a hearing but an answer as it is already His will!" Amen - deeply encouraging and faith increasing - thank you!
Comment - 11:47 09Jun21 Jan: I can only say a Loud Amen, ever wider reach, ever more effective by Your Grace for Your Great Name's sake.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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