Commentary on Numbers 6:22-27
The Bible does not come with instructions. When a Christian opens the Bible, literally or electronically, she does not hear the voice of Oprah Winfrey or James Earl Jones, telling her how to organize the Bible’s diverse claims. This is one reason why there are countless Protestant denominations. The Bible’s own variety leaves it open to innumerable interpretations, especially when believers understandably assert their right to read it for themselves.
The consequences of the Bible’s variety may be most significant in how different views of God can be emphasized. On the one hand, one can paint a picture of God in which divine judgment is highlighted. This can be done with verses from Genesis to Revelation, such as the divine command to kill every Canaanite in Deuteronomy 20, or the winepress of God’s wrath with human blood up to the horse’s bridle in Revelation 14. On the other hand, one can portray God as characterized by forgiveness, mercy, and grace. This can also be done with verses from Genesis to Revelation, such as God’s mercy toward Assyria in the book of Jonah, or Jesus’ petition for divine forgiveness of his executioners in Luke 23.
The ability of interpreters to take the Bible in various directions is an important point of departure for the lectionary passages about the Name of Jesus for the first Sunday of the calendar year. Each passage focuses on God’s graciousness and humanity’s importance to God. Specifically, God’s favorable disposition is the theme of the first reading from Numbers 6; God’s high regard for humanity is the message from Psalm 8; God’s son becoming human is the focus of the second readings from Galatians 4 and Philippians 2; and the actual naming of Jesus is relayed in the gospel reading from Luke 2.
These passages for January 1 can be an important moment in which one reminds congregants of how Jesus defines God’s character. Christians often do not know how to assemble their Bible. If faced with hard questions about difficult passages, do most believers have a good response? Is God the kind of God who would command the killing of innocent people, as God is depicted in Deuteronomy 20? Does God’s eschatological judgment include murdering rebellious unbelievers, as symbolically portrayed in Revelation 14? One might be surprised that these kinds of passages continue to play a role in how some Christians think about God, even in mainline Protestant congregations.
Two additional passages not included in the lectionary readings are also relevant. The first is Hebrews 1:1-4. It directly addresses the question of how one interprets the Bible’s diversity in light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, referring to the “many and various ways” God has spoken in the past, yet presenting Jesus as “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” It also includes the theme of Jesus’ name. The second passage is the end of John’s prologue at John 1:17-18: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, himself God, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.” Like Hebrews 1, these verses present Jesus as the definitive revelation of God.
In view of these larger issues, one can approach the key points of Numbers 6:22-27 in thematic and theological terms. Originally addressed to Israel, these verses can be read as a poetic declaration of God’s favorable disposition regarding all people: Israel, Christian believers, and humanity in general. In fact, the opening command is a call for the proclamation of this good news: “Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them” (verse 23).
The people are told of God’s promise in six verbs, two in each of the three poetic lines of verses 24-26. The first verb, “bless,” refers to God’s provision. God will give the people what they need for life. God blessed the first man and woman to be fruitful, providing food for their sustenance (Genesis 1:27-28). God also blessed Abram, promising to make him a great nation in a new location (Genesis 12:1-3). Now in Numbers 6, God will bless Abram’s offspring as they travel to the promised land. Of course, this promise occurs repeatedly, especially in the Psalms. Psalm 67:6, for example, says, “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us” (see also Psalm 128:5).
The second verb, “keep,” refers to God’s protection. In its original context, this would have included protection for the nation in battle and for individual Israelites. The most famous example of this promised protection is Psalm 121, where the verb occurs six times. That psalm ends with a promise of perpetual protection, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time on and forevermore” (Psalm 121:8).
The two verbs “bless” and “keep” in verse 24 are elaborated with the four verbs in verses 25-26, with God’s face as a metaphor for God’s disposition. Thus, God’s face will not be turned away from God’s people (Job 34:29; Psalm 102:2). Rather, God’s face will “shine” on and “be gracious” to God’s people. This is the prayer of Psalm 67:1, where “bless,” “shine,” and “be gracious” are together in one line. Similarly, Psalm 80 pleads, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:3, 7). Verse 26 restates the imagery of verse 25, with the verb “lift up” parallel to “shine” and “give you peace” parallel to “be gracious.”
After the three poetic lines of verses 24-26, the benediction ends in verse 27 with a declaration in prose, repeating God’s promise of blessing and peace. Yet, there is also a change of imagery. This concluding line promises God’s name being placed on the Israelites. The image of God’s name usually refers to the place where God is worshiped (1 Kings 9:3; 11:36; 2 Kings 21:4, 7; 2 Chronicles 33:7). In Numbers 6:27, however, it refers to God’s claim to be their God and they will be God’s people (see Jeremiah 31:1, 33).
When one reads the lectionary passages for the Name of Jesus Sunday, as well as Hebrews 1:1-4 and John 1:17-18, God’s favorable disposition culminates in God being defined by the name of the one in whom God became human. Do those named for Christ also know the God defined by Christ? Is Christ the measure and means by which they organize the Bible’s claims about God? The first Sunday in the calendar year would be an excellent opportunity to pursue these questions.
January 1, 2023