Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the LORD and the fire died down.”~Numbers 11:1,2
I’ve been thinking a lot about Scripture lately, and not just particular passages but even more basic then that. What does it mean to hear God’s Word, what does it mean that the Word is living and not a dead letter? How do we hear this Word like Samuel did in the night? Or perhaps more people ask why don’t we here?
“Lord, You have always spoken
when time was ripe;
and though you be silent now,
today I believe.” (Celtic Daily Prayer, “Daily Office: Evening Prayer”)
I’ll be honest, though hesitantly so. I have been very fortunate and blessed to have a ready, ongoing and daily conversation with God. And this conversation is a two way street. I listen, he speaks and I talk and he listens. I’ll admit I usually do more talking then listening but God speaks and I hear. That’s amazing! Of course, I may not always hear perfectly. Sometimes I need to sift out my own thoughts and listen more deeply to realize a dialogue going on between my spirit and God’s and not assume everything going on is purely his thoughts. Some people are so afraid or turned off by the idea of hearing from God that its completely out of their schema. Therefore they relegate such phenomena to the realm of weird, extreme and maybe even fanatical or a psychological disorder. Others would love to hear from God and perhaps have asked him for this very thing but it happens seldom or not at all or perhaps not in the way they expect. But this has not been my experience, at least not recently. Learning to listen to God speak was a growing process so I it had a beginning and measurable growth period. But tonight when praying the daily office I didn’t feel, as I often have felt, able to resonate with this faith expression. I understood that God’s present silence was something other people experienced and I tried to identify with that but it was not part of my experience as would be quickly confirmed by talking with God to make sure I’m still hearing okay. But tonight something different happened.
I asked God, “where is my silence?” Where does the idea of this kind of silence fit in my life? Is it good, because it seems troubling for so many but it also seems good in a necessary way at some junctions, something like discipline, the testing of faith, the feeling of silence in the midst of devastation. But it often takes a prophet to realize that in the queer silence at the end of catastrophe God is still speaking. This is where the lament passages that litter much of the Scriptures speak. Thus prophets are turned with the task to present and demonstrate through proclamation the word of God in powerful and dynamic ways to the people of God, or whomever God has called them to share his Word with. The unlimited creative energy stored up in these words crack open the present circumstances to offer new meaning, birth hope and inspire courage to act in alignment, with rhythms in resonance with these Words. But before I take this thought further, what about that silence?
I heard something like this from the Lord, “My silence is in-between the words that I speak. Its the place where you respond.” I think it would be fair to say, this is the place “where you do.” We hear words like those from James “Do not merely hear the words of the message, and so deceive yourselves, but do what it says.” Jesus himself says, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I tell you?” And the author of Hebrews enters a discussion about the same issue. After explaining how the promise was not entered by the disobedience of the Israelite in the desert this same promise is for us in great measure through Christ if we conjoin it with faith and obedience. They go on to say, “For the word of God is living and active” (4:12).
But this is where comes the idea of the “hearing place.” Going back to the text for this meditation (Numbers* 11:1-2ff) the “people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord.” God was listening. It suggests he was not speaking. He had already done a lot of speaking through Moses (Mt. Sinai) and the people of Israel were called to respond through loving obedience. But they are given freedom in what to do with the Word given them. They do not trust it or combine it with faith nor are they obedient. And this wasn’t faith seeking understanding. I don’t think God didn’t have room for their questions, doubts, fears and concerns. But their response was beyond doubt and questions it was the movement from doubt to the decision not to trust God, not to obey and to speak back or back talk God. Their responsive dialogue is one of visceral accusation and complaint. This murmuring choir was the antithesis of praise and eucharista, the just response due to Almighty God.
Taberah,, it means burning or blaze and its God’s response to this unholy grumbling. “…and when he heard them his anger burned against them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the Lord and the fire died down. So that place was called Teberah, because fire from the Lord had burned against them.” The text never mentions whether anyone is consumed in this fire but it certainly seemed to cause terror or some kind of fear. Notice that the people turn not to God but to Moses to deliver them. This is consistent to what happened at Sinai when the people were so afraid that they did not want to hear the voice of God for fear of death so Moses was the mediator. It seems like they wanted a one way conversation at Taberah, but then God’s fire brought an outcry until Moses’ prayer saves them from the fire. I’m sure there was some kind of queer silence after that. But silence is often a great opportunity for panah (to turn, to turn away from or towards; cf. Det. 1:7). By “turn” I intend to employ a bunch of Biblical pictures of repentance. We don’t see a clear turn away from complaint (Heb. ‘anan.) until we enter into the language of lament. In fact, this word is only used one other time in the whole Bible and that is by Jeremiah in Lamentations 3:39. But Jeremiah is coming out of a different queer silence. The city of Jerusalem has just been destroyed and its people killed or sent into exile. This is after generations of disobedience. There is no repentance at at Taberah, at least not directly to the Lord. But we hear words like this in Jeremiah’s lament. (The passage is long but it’s all relevant to the conversation at hand).
19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
25 The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.
27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is young.
28 Let him sit alone in silence,
for the LORD has laid it on him.
29 Let him bury his face in the dust—
there may yet be hope.
30 Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
and let him be filled with disgrace.
31 For men are not cast off
by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to the children of men.
34 To crush underfoot
all prisoners in the land,
35 to deny a man his rights
before the Most High,
36 to deprive a man of justice—
would not the Lord see such things?
37 Who can speak and have it happen
if the Lord has not decreed it?
38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that both calamities and good things come?
39 Why should any living man complain
when punished for his sins? (Lamentations 3:19-39, NIV, emphases added).
The Message paraphrase puts the emphasized versus in interesting words:
28-29 When life is heavy and hard to take,
go off by yourself. Enter the silence.
Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions:
Wait for hope to appear.
37-39Who do you think “spoke and it happened”?
It’s the Master who gives such orders.
Doesn’t the High God speak everything,
good things and hard things alike, into being?
And why would anyone gifted with life
complain when punished for sin?
God’s “silence,” real or perceived is the hearing place. God is listening. The reality is God has already spoken loudly in Jesus and in Holy Scripture. God’s Words are alive and active and they continue to come to us and create “hearing spaces.” Whether or not we hear personally from God, what will we do with these hearing places. I think we have a good example of what not to do. But if we have found or find ourselves grumbling and complaining we can cry out to Jesus to pray for us before the Father. In Jesus we don’t just have another man but we have the very Words of God for us in human form and can sympathize with us in every way and we have the image of the invisible God, which to even behold is to be transformed. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to enter “that” silence, to wait on God for him to speak. We can and should expect this. Jesus promises this kind of living voice. We hear his voice by the Holy Spirit. Its the still small voice in the silence that Elijah heard, the voice calling in the night that Samuel heard. Perhaps there is something profoundly beautiful, in entering in this silence, the reality that we might be listening to God’s listening. We’re listening to each other. And if we know how in love with us he is, and that love creates a new love in us for him,,, that’s one thing worth it for sure.
*Numbers (Hebrew name, במדבר, Bəmidbar meaning “in the desert) is a the book of wilderness wanderings, largely in the desert and was also part of the current reading cycle when I started to enter the “desert” back in May. Thus I’ve chosen it to give shape, or “be the topography” of my desert pilgrimage and these meditations in particular.