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B'Midbar/Numbers 17:10 Separate yourselves from the midst of this assembly and I will consume them
Ramban asks an obvious question: is it that G-d cannot destroy the rest of the assembly, leaving Moshe and Aharon untouched? "No", he replies, clearly G-d's supernatural powers can distinguish between persons. So why is it that Moshe and Aharon should withdraw themselves from the people so as to avoid the plague? Avraham asked HaShem, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" (B'resheet 18:23, NASB). The answer from the Bible seems to be - yes, the righteous perish with the wicked unless they leave the community: Lot and his family must leave the plains of Sodom; Noah is given the ark to ride out the flood; the Israelites in Egypt require blood on the door-posts and live in the land of Goshen. Only in the previous chapter, earlier in this episode of rebellion, "[the people] got back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Aviram" (B'Midbar 16:27, NASB) so that they should not be swallowed up when the earth split open to consume them. Of course, G-d can spare the innocent but only - as Avraham's negotiations with HaShem show us - if He also spares the guilty.
Hirsch sees our text as a personal invitation: "If you wish it, get yourselves up out of them and I will immediately make an end of those masses that rise up against you." On the contrary, he comments, "they threw themselves down on their faces before G-d; and instead of going away from the people, Aharon places himself between the dying and the living, to make atonement for them." Instead of accepting G-d's invitation to have those pesky troublemakers cleared out, so soon after the last uprising, Moshe continues to sense G-d's real heart for the people and instructs Aharon to engage further with the people - standing in their midst to offer incense for their atonement - rather than withdrawing or disengaging. By remaining with the people and interceding for them, not only did Moshe and Aharon please G-d, but they also proved to the people that the complaints and accusations they had made were unfounded so that the people would be open to the proof that G-d was about to offer them.
We see this dichotomy between separation and integration being a struggle for believers through the ages. The great monasteries of past times were places where men withdrew from the world around them in order to live holy lives dedicated to G-d: regular services, a simple lifestyle, and serving their communities by giving alms, feeding the poor, healing the sick and providing shelter. At the same time as being separate, those religious communities still had a significant level of integration with the people around them, providing what are now sometimes referred to as mercy ministries. The Jewish world did not, as a whole, embrace the ideas of separated religious communities - the Essene sect being perhaps a notable exception - but because of both covert and overt anti-semitism have often been forced to live a segregated life. The modern church suffers from the same effect in different guise. One church leader recently remarked, "We have problems reaching into the social housing areas. We no sooner get a few people saved, but they change their lifestyles, become 'church' and 'nice' and move out of the area to a better neighbourhood, so that we have to start all over again."
Rav Sha'ul writes: "Through us [G-d] brings knowledge of Messiah. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Messiah, we give off a sweet scent rising to G-d, which is recognised by those on the way of salvation - an aroma redolent with life. But those on the way to destruction treat us more like the stench from a rotting corpse" (2 Corinthians 2:14-16, The Message). How can we be an aroma in peoples' noses unless we are, in that sense, also in their faces? How can we be available for people to talk unless we are there? How will our lives be seen unless we live cheek by jowl with those who do not yet know Yeshua, be that in the Jewish or Gentile world? One of the most noticeable characteristic of Yeshua's ministry was the way He associated with those whom respectable society had rejected, so that the Pharisees asked the disciples, "Why is your Teacher eating with the tax-gathers and sinners?" (Matthew 9:11, NASB). Yeshua replied, "Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: 'I'm after mercy not religion.' I'm here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders" (Matthew 9:12-13, The Message).
Further Study: Jeremiah 5:1; Luke 19:9-10
Application: Over the years, have you built your life into a Christian enclave, with a regular round of church/synagogue, house-group and Bible study, so that you hardly ever see anyone else? Have you separated yourself from those you are meant to be reaching and left them to be consumed? This is not how it is meant to be - ask G-d to show you how He plans to turn the situation around and get you integrated with the people He wants to reach. Then say "Yes"!
© Jonathan Allen, 2007
Comment - 18Jun07 09:46 Tricia Vardy: Although Moses was being greatly criticised by the people he humbled himself and threw himself down on the ground and prayed to G-d not to leave them to their fate as Moses knew this was G-d's heart. How this is an invitation for us to pray for all people to come to know the love of G-d whoever they are knowing our righteousness is from Christ and not of ourselves, G-d's heart is none should be lost even if they irritate us.
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