Apportioning God's Breath - Numbers 11:22-32

It is hard for us to focus on things spiritual, especially when we are consumed with baser issues like food. Comfort, warmth, hunger, thirst, and other immediate concerns often interfere with our grappling with those issues we consider more spiritual. In the Bible, however, these issues are all bound up together, even if we often cannot quite understand them as related. God, however, calls us to see both the spiritual and mundane as part of a whole.
We make the distinction between economic concerns, dietary issues, workplace demands, and leisure activities, keeping them separate from the spiritual or religious aspects of our lives. We even make a distinction between those called to full-time ministry as somehow different from those whose jobs are not in a church or other non-profit institution. We somehow entrust our official ministers with greater responsibility for living in God's presence than what we expect of others.
Moses struggled with these issues in relating to the people under his charge. He wanted to focus on the spiritual issues of following Yahweh's instructions, yet the crowds following him were insisting on asking him for meat to eat in contrast to the manna Yahweh had provided for their needs. Moses wanted to focus on leading worship, while they wanted him to feed them. He cried out in frustration to God, unsure how he should respond to their mundane concerns, knowing that he did not have access to butcher stores with the stock to feed hundreds of thousands of people.
Yahweh responded in unexpected ways to Moses' cry. For one thing, Yahweh addressed the more spiritual concern of the people's lack of trust. Secondarily, Yahweh answered with the promise to address the physical craving of the people for meat to eat. In addressing the spiritual issue, Yahweh spoke of placing a portion of the spirit or breath of God upon Moses upon a number of the leaders of the nation, as well.
The term for spirit or breath here is not what we might expect. The Hebrew term has a much more basic meaning of “air in motion,” which is not what we understand by spirit or spiritual. The term in Hebrew is much more closely associated with the concept of God's breath than we would assume. Hebrew relied upon one's breathing as a symbol or sign of one's life. Breath was the defining sign that one was alive. Breathing was understood as one's connection to life, but also one's connection with God as the giver of life to all who breathed.
As the wind blew across the land, the people saw the activity of God's breath blowing trees, grasses, and clouds across the face of the earth. We may understand wind as a mundane movement of air based on changing pressure zones due to temperature fluctuations, but for the Hebrews and their neighbors, these were much more spiritual realities pointing to the direct activity of God. As God's Breath had moved over the primordial waters in creation to create dry land, so the Hebrews understood the movement of the winds to reflect God's Breath, what we generally call the Spirit of the Holy One, or Holy Spirit for short.
Moses was upset with the people for grumbling about Yahweh's provision with its lack of diversity and meat. He wanted them to consider Yahweh more directly active in their lives. He wanted them to focus on the higher issues of Yahweh's actions and purposes. He did not want to be brought down to the mundane processes of feeding this refugee nation.
Yahweh was not seemingly as concerned with the physical needs of the people. On the other hand, however, Yahweh took the initiative to bring a circle of leadership among the people into more direct contact with Yahweh's empowering Breath upon Moses. Yahweh linked the material manifestation of providing food with the spiritual understanding of Yahweh's identity and purposes.
In one sense, Moses was the one failing to measure up as a faithful servant of Yahweh. When faced with the cry of the nation over their material needs, he wanted to recuse himself to focus on some concerns other than the application of faith issues to the life of the nation in their day-to-day circumstances. It was in this way that Yahweh addressed Moses' critiques of the people. Yahweh declared to be sufficient to handle these mundane concerns, just as much as any other concern or critique.
Seventy elders of the people were designated by Yahweh and Moses to receive the very same access to Yahweh's Breath that Moses had enjoyed. They would be enabled to prophesy, sharing with others the aims, ideals, and purposes of Yahweh. They would join Moses in representing Yahweh before the nation. Yahweh's Breath would flow into them, surround them, and inspire them with a word to share with the nation.
Joshua was concerned about the fact that two of the elders had remained in the camp and were not at the tent of meeting, and yet they were prophesying along with the others. Rather than share Joshua's concern for control, Moses desired that God's Breath had been visited upon the entire camp of the Hebrew people. Rather than restricting access to God, Moses wanted all to enjoy the same access and its resulting responsibility for speaking and acting on behalf of God.
After this moment of prophesying, God sent a wind, a breath, a spirit, to bring quail to the Hebrew encampment. The term here is again the same as the Breath of Yahweh upon Moses. It is the same term to designate the Breath of Yahweh in the mouths of the seventy elders. It is this same Breath that acts as a wind to bring a horde of quail to serve as food for the nation. Just as the people were to learn to trust Yahweh in spiritual matters, they were to trust Yahweh with the mundane concerns of food. They were to learn to lean on Yahweh as sufficient to meet all their needs.
Trusting Yahweh to lead the people out of bondage in Egypt was not to be the end of Yahweh's call for them to act in confidence. They were not to rely upon Yahweh for some things and not for others. They were not to trust Yahweh to speak with Moses alone. They were to trust Yahweh to be part and present in the complex whole of their lives.
As they moved and lived and breathed, so they were to expect Yahweh's presence to remain as close to them and as intimately tied to their living and progress as their own breaths. As Moses wanted the entire nation to live in intimate fellowship with Yahweh and Yahweh's designs, so we find in Jesus' words regarding the coming of God's Breath upon the disciples. God's breath was not a commodity to be kept to Moses alone or to a few disciples in particular. God is too interested in being present with and among all people.
God was concerned for the people despite their grumbling and complaining. God was intent on meeting their needs and teaching them to live in a fuller dependence and confidence in God's care for the people. God was interested in sharing God's very breath among the people. God is invested in doing the very same for us, as well.

We are apportioned God's Breath in order that we, too, might speak God's word to others. We are empowered with God's presence to be emissaries of God's presence and will among all those we encounter. As God breathes into our lives, so we are commissioned to breathe God into others.
©Copyright 2018, Christopher B. Harbin 


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