* 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, April 1, 2012

Numbers 15: Crime and Punishment, Abundance Thinking, and Orchestrating Delayed Gratification

Tucked in the middle of the Israelites' narrative in the book of Numbers is a chapter with more about what sacrifices to offer in atonement for disobedience, followed by a couple of short anecdotes.  One of these anecdotes is about a man who was collecting wood on the Sabbath.  The Lord had just finished telling Moses that if someone sins unintentionally, they have to make a specific atonement sacrifice to be forgiven.  If someone sins intentionally, however, they are to be ostracized -- cut off from the community.  So, what happens to this man who is collecting wood on the Sabbath?  They kill him.

We aren't told of any opportunity this man is given to make any sort of atonement, and they don't just cut him off from the community.  They take him into custody because they aren't sure what should be done to him.  Although God just told Moses what to do with people who sin -- intentionally or unintentionally, native Israelite or foreigner.  So they ask God what to do with the man, and instead of repeating what he just finished telling Moses, God declared that the man should be stoned to death.  There are certainly other places in the biblical narrative where the death penalty is asserted as just punishment for nearly any law-breaking a person might commit, but this was not one of those passages.  The appearance of this story at this point is honestly a bit baffling.  It serves as another implication that there is something unpredictable and unreliable about the god the Israelites worship.

Somewhat interesting in Numbers 15, as with other passages that describe what offerings must be made, is that most of the sacrifices are food products.  The Israelites have been complaining about the lack of food, have died from disease when they ate the "gift" of quail that got blown in from the sea, and have been told that they'll have to keep wandering in a wasteland until a generation of people passes away.  And yet, all of this time, the sacrifices that they have been ordered to make for nearly everything have been things like the firstfruits of their flocks or herds or fields or orchards.  Why were they complaining about food if they had bulls and goats and doves and grain and olive oil to sacrifice?

Obviously, based on the amount of space the subject is given in the first books of the Bible, sacrificing things is an important symbolic contractual practice in Israelite culture.  It isn't at all odd that one would offer the best fruits of one's labor as a sacrifice to atone for disobeying God.  It's unthinkable, though, that the Israelites would sacrifice all of their food (which the priesthood would eat) while complaining that they had nothing to eat.  Never is the complaint voiced that they have no food because they sacrifice it all to God or because the Levites get all of it.  The only logical answer to this strangeness is that this cultural practice of the Israelites was written back into the tale of their wilderness wandering years, implying that sacrifices were a part of their spiritual identity ever since their god first gave them rules to follow.  For the orders about what should be sacrificed to make sense in the context of a food-deprived nomadic people, they wouldn't include mandates to sacrifice things to which the people had no access.

So, assuming that the prescriptions for offering various foods to God were contemporary with the Israelites having those foods to offer, there is something rather interesting imbedded in the practice.  Sacrifices have at this point been commanded for nearly anything imaginable.  Even if a good Israelite managed to go through life without breaking any actual laws, there are supplemental offerings that everyone is supposed to make.  It would be difficult to wallow in a scarcity mindset and maintain a practice of giving over a tenth of what one possesses.  When the Israelites were eating something unidentifiable from the ground in the desert, it was understandable for them to say, "we're not going to have enough."  And no amount of holy punishment could wipe away that fear.  But when you have something to give up, and you give away a fraction of it and still have enough, the fear of starvation -- or not having "enough" of something -- loses its teeth a bit.

Once we start accumulating things, it's natural to want to accumulate more things.  Or at least better things.  What we have isn't good enough for very long.  If we didn't have anything to begin with, it would be easy to slip into the mindset that we would always be struggling, that we would never have enough.  But there are a lot of people who have very little and seem to be able to appreciate what they do have without worrying about what they don't have.  If you have enough that you can give something away, you have enough.  The people who realize that, and actually practice giving a little bit away, are more likely to appreciate what they have than the people who always want more.

Our culture doesn't value sacrifice.  We are often loathe to give up things that we don't even really need, perhaps because of the irrational belief that we have to protect our possessions.  And we're not even talking about food and shelter and survival-level things here.  I'm talking about unused exercise equipment, clothes that will never fit us, books we'll never read again, that fourth television set we had to have.  The bottom line is that we are capable of examining our lives if we choose to do so.  You know whether or not your survival is realistically in jeopardy.  If you find that you normally consider yourself to have more than enough -- that you live an abundant life -- you probably also give things away on a regular basis.  Generosity and abundance thinking seem to feed into each other.

If, on the other hand, it seems like you are never satisfied with what you have, that you never believe that you have "enough", your scarcity thinking is most likely based on some irrational fear.  You can combat that by developing a practice of giving away a few things.  You don't have to sacrifice them to God the way the Israelites did, but you can if that works for you (adhering to local fire restrictions, of course).  You can also just give things away to other people.  People you know or people you don't know.  You'll quickly find that if you are honest about what you need and what you won't ever really use, your generosity will reveal that you have plenty.  More than enough.  Without imposing any household austerity measures.  You probably live in enough abundance that you wouldn't miss giving up 10% of what you possess.

Sometimes, our scarcity thinking comes from short-sighted greed that gets in the way of us acknowledging the things that matter most to us.  So many things we just want to accumulate have little real value to us in the long run.  The Israelites had a clever way of reminding themselves not to focus on fleeting, short-term satisfaction that distracted them from long-term goals as a culture.  They put symbolic tassels on their clothing to remind themselves what their culture stood for as a people.  Like permanent strings tied around their fingers.  It wouldn't be a stretch for us to create some of our own reminders about what matters most in our lives.  What would remind you that you have plenty?  What would remind you to keep things in perspective?  To make decisions that reflect what's actually important to you?  If it's tassels on your clothes, start stitching.  If it's little notes to yourself scattered around your home, start writing.  There are some things that are more important to you than just accumulating more stuff.  When you know what those things are, there is no reason not to orchestrate your life around those values.

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