Masei – “Journeys”

This week our parasha is Masei which translates to “Journeys”.  Masei covers Numbers 33:1-36:13 and completes the book of Numbers.  This parasha summarizes the journeys of our people and contains strong warnings that apply not just to the generation entering the land of Israel, but to those reading today as well.

Chapter 33, written to the second generation that was to inherit the land of Israel, serves as a summary of the wanderings of our people in the wilderness.  There are 40 sites listed in this chapter where our people encamped. The number 40 is significant since it is the number of years we lived in the wilderness as the first generation passed away. This list should probably be understood as a stylized list by Moses under the authority of God to serve as a reminder for the generations to come.  The stylizing of the journeys listed in this chapter is quite interesting, if you were to read this list on its own you would think the journey went very well.  This is a point I will come back to later.

In verses 50-56 the Lord commanded that new generation to utterly destroy the Canaanites.  We were to destroy every religious site and item they possessed and to take complete possession of the Land.  Israel was to be divided by tribe and then further subdivided by family. This passage also contains a powerful warning from the Lord:

“But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.”

These verses serve as a strong warning from the Lord to not let the enemies of God remain in the land.  If we decided to not drive them out completely they would continue to cause us problems from one generation to the next.  The Lord also promised to drive us from the land just as He had done to the Canaanites if we fail to follow His instructions.

Chapter 34 contains the boundaries for the land of Israel and lists the tribal chiefs for the purpose of establishing a historical record.

Chapter 35 contains commandments concerning cities of refuge.  The Lord commanded our people to establish six cities of refuge for those who had unintentionally killed another person.  These cities were to be a safe place for them to live until they could be brought to trial, and served as protection from family members seeking revenge.  For cases involving the death penalty, at least two witnesses were required to convict a person of murder.  A person on trial could not offer payment to escape execution, but must be executed if they intentionally spilled the blood of another person.  It is interesting to note that on one occasion the land of Israel itself was considered tainted by blood which had been spilled during a murder, and eventually the execution of the murderer was a form of atonement for the crime.

The Lord commanded our people not to defile the land He had given us, because it was in this land the Lord chose to dwell.  The holiness of the land of Israel is based on the fact that the Most Holy One chooses to dwell there.

Chapter 36 concludes the book of Numbers and records an interesting incident.  The sisters of a particular deceased tribal head were concerned that if they married outside their tribe they would lose their family’s land inheritance. The women went to Moses to seek council on how to resolve this predicament and through the Word of the Lord he allowed them to marry whomever they wanted within their own tribe.   In this way the book of Numbers ends on a positive note, with godly women seeking and obeying the Word and the will of the Lord.

“Journeys” is a great name for this parasha and is a fitting one-word summary of the book of Numbers.  In the first parasha of this book, our people started on a high note, following the commands of the Lord.  But the record soon took a turn for the worse with many examples of sinful behavior being recorded in this book.  In particular, the sin of unbelief of the generation that left Egypt was so great that they were condemned to die in the wilderness.  In the summary of chapter 33 Moses chooses to leave out these shameful events, if you were to just read his summary you would think the journey from Egypt went incredibly well!  This is intentional by Moses because the sins of the previous generation were not being held against this next generation; they had the opportunity to succeed where their fathers had failed, and Moses implores them to not repeat those mistakes.

The “cliffhanger” ending of Numbers makes us wonder what happened next.  We can read the subsequent books of our people’s history or we can turn to another summary of the journeys of our people.  This summary is given by the Lord Himself and is found in the Haftarah portion, Jeremiah 2:4-24.  This summary is not a recording of physical movement but rather a spiritual assessment.

In this chapter of Jeremiah, Adonai indicts our people in the land He has given us with grievous and assorted sins.  Now many generations from Moses our people have not only failed to remove the Canaanites and other peoples from the land, but have imitated their practices, and the Lord is preparing to make good on His word to send us into exile.  These verses are a scathing condemnation by God.  He states, as Moses had  previously, that the generation from Egypt decided to abandon the Lord and follow their own ways.  Adonai states in verse 5 that “they went after worthlessness and became worthless”.  He then turns to the generations that came after and states that from the priesthood, to the scholars, to the shepherds they all had departed from Him and worshiped the false gods of foreign nations.  The Lord recounts in detail the shameful spiritual corruption of our people. We are compared to whores and slaves; it is a difficult chapter to read.  The Lord promises that judgment is coming, in the form of a 70-year exile.

When I read these passages of Scripture I am struck by how consistently stubborn and sinful mankind is, even in the face of the clearest warnings imaginable.  Despite knowing in advance the consequences for disobedience, and having the historical record of what happens when God’s commands are not followed, our people continued in a cycle of sin, a collective journey from one generation to the next.  The sins that condemned our people to exile mentioned in Jeremiah are the same sins of this present time; namely, turning away from God and turning to false idols.  In our day those who are still in the darkness of this world are on a journey whose final destination is of horrendous judgment, an exile not from the land God dwells in but from the presence of the Lord Himself.

But the good and gracious God has provided a way for all of us to stay on a good path, to walk forward along a journey whose ultimate destination is Heaven, and the New Jerusalem in the land the Lord has chosen to dwell.  The cycle of sin has been broken by God through the death, burial, and resurrection of Messiah Yeshua!  Just as He rescued us from physical slavery in Egypt, through the shedding of His blood we are rescued from spiritual slavery, from a cycle of sin that has continued from generation to generation.

In light of the Torah and Haftarah portions there are some important questions that need to be asked: What journey are you on and what way are you following?  Have you turned away from the Lord?  Are you worshipping false idols?  These are the questions we must ask ourselves.  If you are not on the right path, if you are not on the right journey, resolve this day to take the Lord’s warnings to heart!

Our Haftorah portion this week ends on a positive note with Jeremiah 4:1-2.  The Lord invites us to return to Him, a sincere return setting aside our idols, and becoming loyal once again to Him. Adonai is calling each one of us to a right relationship with Him through Messiah Yeshua. Yeshua taught that the road that leads to destruction is wide, but that the path that leads to salvation is narrow.  Few walk down that narrow path, too few people follow the Lord’s way and not their own. I pray that each one of us walks down that narrow road, returning if we have strayed, on a journey whose ultimate destination is of a joy and peace that is beyond all understanding.