* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Numbers 12-14: Trusting in Divine Inspiration

These chapters of the book of Numbers once more reflect a supreme being with menacing and punitive tendencies.  It's a view of God that still exists in many ways today, perhaps because it's easier for us to notice our struggles and mistakes than it is for us to take delight in our accomplishments.  Chapter 12 begins with an accusation against Moses, brought by his brother and sister.  Speaking for the Israelite god, Moses had commanded that the people remain pure by not intermarrying with the "unclean" people of the land around them.  And yet, Moses himself had married a Cushite.  This wife may have been Zipporah, whom Moses married before he became the leader of the Israelites, or this may refer to a second wife.  The important part of the story is the response to the accusation.

According to the tale, Miriam's lack of respect for Moses got her cursed with leprosy, and she was confined outside of the Israelite camp for a week.  She wasn't punished for noticing that Moses' own marriage broke orders everyone else was supposed to live by.  The punishment came because of her lack of respect for Moses.  The ability to curse people with leprosy seems a bit of an unfair advantage, though.  Coming from a perspective that rejects the existence of a supreme being, particularly one who would feel the need to get angry and punish someone for insulting Moses, the simplest explanation is that Moses himself had a few tricks up his sleeve. 

Leadership is tough to begin with.  When you're trying to tell people to behave one way while you are behaving differently, it becomes even tougher.  Aaron and Miriam weren't really making an astounding observation, but the way they went about their accusation was to grumble and gossip behind Moses' back.  Had they gone to him and pointed out the discrepancy with a modicum of concern for his own well-being, the story might have gone differently.  Sooner or later, the issue of living differently than what you're demanding of other people has to be addressed.  You can't just afflict everyone with leprosy after all, and Moses quickly had his hands full with more complaining from people.  Quite simply, people are better leaders when they are open to criticism without stooping to petty retaliations, and their followers are more likely to get what they want when they approach the person in charge with love and respect.

Once again, in Numbers 14, the Israelites cry out that they should have stayed in Egypt instead of following Moses out into the wilderness to die.  A special team of spies had gone to investigate the land of Canaan, the "promised land" where the Israelites were headed.  They came back with a report that the place was indeed bountiful, but it was also inhabited by peoples who were stronger and more numerous than the Israelite forces, willing and able to defend their lands against invasion.  So, the people were understandably demoralized.  The response from some of the spies was, "If we trust God, there is nothing to fear."

The Israelite god spends a lot of time being angry in this book.  He threatens to unleash his wrath on the Israelites, and Moses appeals to his sense of pride, suggesting that if the Egyptians were to hear about all the Israelites dying in the wilderness, they would think that the Israelite god was unreliable and weak.  As if The One True God would actually care what the Egyptians think.  So God relented and decided that he wouldn't kill the Israelites outright, he'd just deny them access to the land of milk and honey and force them to wander for forty years until they died of natural causes in the wilderness.  Because that would look good to the Egyptians.  God does strike down the spies who brought back doom-and-gloom reports about the Canaanites, and when the Israelites attempt a foray into Canaan the next day despite the proclamation of divine punishment, they are chased off by the local denizens.

There's a big problem with the whole "God is on our side" philosophy that still infects international politics today.  Every military and paramilitary force in existence seems to claim in one way or another that they are in the right, that God is on their side.  Can God really be on everyone's side in a war?  I suppose betting on all the horses in a race would guarantee that you pick a winner, but it seems ludicrous to assume that a perfect divine being is hedging his bets.  Do people actually believe they're going to win in combat because of divine intervention?  Or is the whole thing just intended as morale-boosting rhetoric?  If taken seriously, false belief can lead people to take some otherwise ill-advised actions, purely on faith that their god will work out the details in their favor.  I would like to believe that if there was an intelligent higher power that took an interest in humanity, our ability to reason and work out diplomatic solutions peacefully would be more impressive than our ability to effectively slaughter one another.  From the right perspective, a god that promises military victory in this day and age seems like a brutal, bloodthirsty primitive compared to a god that promises the ability to reach a satisfying compromise with minimal bloodshed.  Honestly, which seems like more of a miracle?

But the issue for the Israelites boiled down to trust.  When the odds seemed against them, were they willing to trust divine guidance, or were they going to doubt every step of the way?  Trust eventually led some of them to their destination.  Doubt prevented others from realizing the divine promise.  The underlying spiritual truth of the story really has nothing to do with plagues and punishments, it has to do with trust.

Within each of us, there is a spark of inspiration that grants us a vision of what we could accomplish.  For some people, it's just a momentary glimpse, seemingly little more than wishful thinking.  For other people, it becomes a detailed goal, a lifelong aspiration.  Sometimes, people create goals that are motivated by greed, that take advantage of other people, that capitalize on loopholes in an unfair system.  These kinds of goals reflect a lack of faith in oneself to actually do good in the world.  When you believe that it's unrealistic to actually achieve your dreams, it's easy to settle for the next best thing.  There are a lot of unhappy, dissatisfied wealthy people in the world who lost sight of their vision of what really mattered to them.  Some people manage to accomplish impressive feats without ever realizing the goal that truly inspires them. 

It all has to do with how we respond to that "divine" inspiration within us.  When we glimpse that inspiration that matches with our most noble intentions for ourselves and other people, we can either trust it or doubt it.  When we doubt it, we wind up punishing ourselves, in a way.  Denying ourselves the thing that we most deeply desire for ourselves and the world.  Settling for less.  Sometimes we convince ourselves that we are just being realistic.  But when we trust that spark of inspiration and feed it, we can start to see ways to move closer to it.  The initial idea may seem out of reach, but when we trust ourselves to create a path toward that inspired target, the very process nourishes the vision.

The feedback we get along the way may not always be what we would like it to be.  We may have to adjust our path to fit with reality, but that doesn't necessarily mean setting our sights lower in the long run.  It may mean changing the benchmarks along the way, not the ultimate goal.  New information may lead us to conclude that what we initially envisioned actually isn't a beneficial target for ourselves and others, in which case we have an opportunity to fine tune our target based on that new information.  But we have to first trust our inspiration in order to get to the point of clarifying or fine tuning targets and benchmarks.  The journey is rarely a straight line, but the first step is always to trust the inspiration. 

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