Getting the attention of middle school students is a common fight, but I didn’t think I would have trouble getting the attention of a horse. A few years back, I was starting a colt for an older gentlemen. He told me that this horse was hard headed, but most of my interactions with it had gone real well. I stepped into the round pen one day expecting to continue with the training as planned. I began by running him around the round pen, first to the right and then the left. After 15 minutes of keeping the horse moving, I stepped back, taking the pressure off the horse. I caught his eye as he turned and faced me. He stood, 20 feet from me, collected, attentive, and ready. The second his gaze broke from me, I sent him to the right again. After repeating this story for another 40 minutes, my patience had been tested to its end. I stepped back in exhaustion, and sent the horse around the pen one last time. This time the second I took the pressure off, he turned and faced. And for the first time, for just a couple seconds, he waited for my command. I took a step towards him and he lowered his head, but kept his eye on me. What I was looking for out of that horse was a connection. I wanted him to be ready for whatever I asked him to do. When his face turned toward me, his eyes connected with mine, I knew that he was present and ready to work.
Last post was about the hand of the Lord. The hand was the power of God in action. When the OT writers conveyed God’s power, they could say “power” or “his hand” and it would mean the same thing. The face of Yaweh then is about His presence with His people. After the “hand of Yahweh” had delivered Israel from Egypt (Ex. 13), the face of the Lord was Presence with his people.
The “Face of the Lord” [hb. paneh] is a picture of his intimacy, relationship, and presence with his people. Moses spoke to Yahweh, the Lord, “face to face” [paneh] at the Tent of meeting, as the Israelites were camped after leaving Egypt (Ex. 33.11). It was in the same way that you or I would talk to a friend, just two buddies hanging out. God’s Presence was there. Then 3 verses later, after Moses had asked the Lord who would go with him, Yahweh replied, “My Presence [paneh] will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exodus 33.14) The same word translated “face” in verse 11 was translated “presence” in verse 14. The face of the Lord was the presence of God with His people. Nearly a year later, his presence would need to be remembered and celebrated.
The book of Numbers isn’t a really exciting or positive book. The book starts at Sinai and ends on the plains of Moab, just across the river from their final destination. The problem lies in how they arrived there. It has been a struggle for Israel as they traveled, a struggle documented in the book of Numbers. The journey from Egypt to Canaan, was plagued with complaints, 9 times the nation of Israel Complained to God on the trip. “We’re hungry? We’re thirsty? Someone’s touching me?” you remember car trips with your kids…This was their journey. On top of complaints, people were killed on the journey. The ground split open under Korah and his sons for their sins (Num. 16.31) and fire consumed the 250 who were offering incense (Num 16.34). Their punishment also came in response to a negative report on the land of Canaan. When the spies returned they scared the people with a report of impenetrable walls and giants. When God heard his people grumbling about the land, He answered by declaring that this generation would fall in the desert in a 40-year wandering (Num. 14.26-35). Just before these events would happen, God wanted his people to know something very important.
Camped in the desert of Sinai, the Lord said to Moses: “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face [paneh] shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turned his face [paneh] toward you and give you peace.” This is actually, the oldest piece of Biblical text that archaeology has uncovered (The Silver Scrolls and Numbers 6). Dating to the seventh century B.C.E. and written on a silver amulet in paleo-hebrew script, is the text of Numbers 6.24-25. This shows that these verses were at the forefront of the Jewish mindset. The Hebrews, based on this verse understood that life is to be lived gazing upon and acting before the face of the Lord and living in his presence. God is telling his people that during this journey to Canaan, that a blessed life is one that God face is before. The blessing, to be given to all the Israelites, is to remind them of God’s presence with them. The presence that was shown in the quail and manna (Num 11); the shoes and clothes on their journey (Deut 8.4-5); the pillar of fire and cloud above the tabernacle (Ex. 40.36-38); a simple reminder that the Face of the Lord shone upon the nation of people. When the face of the Lord was there, communication was possible, action was possible, and comfort was given.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus arrives on the scene as Immanuel, “God is with us” (Matthew 1.23); a gift to Earth of the Lord’s presence. When Peter and the disciples see Jesus walking on the water and call out to him, Jesus responds, “Take courage! I am. Don’t be afraid.” (Matthew 14.27); a reminder of His presence in the midst of the storm. The book ends with Jesus’ Great commission, “and surly I am with you always to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28.20); a reminder of his presence forever. In each case, the face of the Lord turned to His people. In a tangible picture of God’s words in Numbers, the “face of the Lord” shinned upon us!
The blessing of Numbers 6, was central to Israelites throughout their history. A reminder that God’s presence was vital to their survival. How vital is the “face of the Lord” to us today? How often do we go one with life, without a second thought to His presence? In what ways does he communicate with us that he is present? Where will you see his “face” today?