Parasha Bamidbar (In the Wilderness): Does God Ordain Suffering?

 Parasha Bamidbar (In the Wilderness) בַּמִּדְבָּר

Numbers 1:1–4:20; Hosea 2:1–22; Romans 9:22–33

Last week, in Parasha Behar-Bechukotai (On the Mount–By My Decrees), we read that the agricultural land in Israel was to have a rest every seven years.  We also read about the Jubilee Year, which followed seven cycles of seven years, when the Israelites were released of their debts and could return to their inherited lands.

This week’s Parasha studies the opening chapters of the Book of Numbers.  In Hebrew, the Book of Numbers is called Bamidbar, which means in the wilderness or desert.

The Hebrew name for the Book of Numbers comes from the fifth word of the opening line of Numbers: “The Lord spoke to Moses in the Tent of Meeting in the Desert [Bamidbar] of Sinai.”  (Numbers 1:1)

The Hebrew word midbar (desert) comes from the same root as m’daber, which means to speak.

It’s often during the wilderness times of our lives that God speaks to our hearts.

El Shaddai: What’s in a Name?

“Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name.”  (Numbers 1:2)

In Numbers 1, Moshe (Moses) is commanded to take a census of all adult males.  They are numbered according to family and name, by their father’s houses.

In Jewish tradition, names carried significant meaning; for example, Elitzur (Numbers 1:5) means My God (Eli) is a rock (Tzur).

Of the twelve men who were to assist Moses and Aaron in taking the census, nine of them contained the Divine name, El (God) in their own names.

Three of their names contained Tzur (Rock), which is frequently used for God, as in Tzur Yisrael (Rock of Israel) or Rock of Ages.  (Numbers 1:6–15)

The name Shaddai, which is a revealing word study, also appears three times in the names of the men.

The compound El Shaddai is usually translated God Almighty in English Bibles, but this label does not begin to do justice to the meaning of this name of God.

“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty [El Shaddai]; walk before me and be blameless.”  (Genesis 17:1)

Shaddai is derived from a Hebrew root shadad, which means to overpower.

Interestingly enough, this root also can mean a demonic power.  Therefore, El Shaddai also means that God overpowers or prevails against all demonic powers.

“Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty [Shaddai].”  (Isaiah 13:6)

Shaddai is also derived from the Hebrew root shad, which means breast.  This reveals the maternal, merciful nature of God.

If we read the Word carefully, we will see this aspect of God’s nature as Shaddai – the woman’s breast – the source of nourishment and comfort to her children.

“…because of the Almighty [Shaddai], who blesses you with blessings of the skies above, blessings of the deep springs below, blessings of the breast [shadim] and womb.”  (Genesis 49:25)

We know from the Book of Genesis, that we were created in God’s image as male and female.  As strange as it may seem to us, God is not only a Father, He is also a mother.

God has many names in the Tanakh (Old Testament).  He is our rock, provider, and much more.  He is everything we need.

This was proven when Moses asked God for His true name.  God answered, “Ehye Asher Ehye,” which though commonly translated as “I am who I am,” is more accurately translated as “I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14).

In this one name alone, we can call on El Shaddai to be our comforter, nurturer and savior.

“The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.”  (Proverbs 18:10)

Haftarah (Prophetic Portion)

Today’s Parasha and Haftarah share the themes of wilderness and numbering Israel.

In the Parasha, Moses takes a census, and in the Haftarah, God promises that “the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted” (Hosea 1:10, which is Hosea 2:1 in the Hebrew text).

In Genesis 15:5, God also likens the numbers of Israel to the stars:

“He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’  Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’”

Can Suffering Be Ordained by God?

The Haftarah (prophetic portion) promises that God will allure Israel, bring her back to the Land, and that the relationship between God and Israel would be, once again, like a healthy marriage:

“Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.  There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.  There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.  ‘In that day,’ declares the Lord, ‘you will call me ‘my husband.’”  (Hosea 2:14–16)

To understand the themes of marriage, betrayal and redemption in Hosea, we must understand Hosea’s situation.

God instructed him to take a harlot for a wife—a woman who was seemingly destined to be unfaithful to him.  The rabbis, in fact, believe that Hosea’s resulting domestic tragedy was actually ordained by God.

Through his personal ordeal and the agonizing pain of loving a woman who would turn to other men, Hosea came to understand at a very deep level how God feels about Israel, His unfaithful Bride.

“Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress.  Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.”  (Hosea 3:1)

God might take us through periods of suffering—even anguish of heart, soul, and body—not only to identify with God’s pain over sin, but also so that we may identify with the pain of others.

This is a hard concept to understand—that God may actually ordain personal suffering.

Still, how can we truly minister to a suffering, lost, broken, despairing, hopeless, confused, depressed, sick, poor, trapped, and hurting humanity unless we have also experienced these same painful states?

Sometimes we are burdened beyond measure, beyond our strength, to the point that we despise life itself.  But God gives us His comfort to ease our burdens and those of the suffering world:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”  (2 Corinthians 1:4)

Jewish-praying-Western WallA young Jewish man seeks the Lord at the Holy Western (Wailing) Wall.

Finding Strength in the Storm

Are you burdened and grieved by some kind of domestic tragedy like Hosea’s adulterous spouse?  Is it beyond your ability to bear?

Do you struggle with despair over a situation in your home or family that never seems to be resolved?

Sometimes we feel like we live in a never-ending storm, and we might even begin to doubt God’s love for us.

The Bible records that the disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) were once in such a storm—a storm of hurricane proportions.  Their boat was filling with water, and they were sinking fast.  They thought they’d drown for sure!

And where was Yeshua (Jesus) during all of this?  Asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat!  In their distress, the disciples cried out, “Master, don’t You care that we are perishing?”  (Mark 4:37–38)

What was Yeshua’s answer?  “Do you still have no faith?”  (Mark 4:40)

There are times when we feel like we’re drowning, and it seems like God is asleep.  We wonder if He even cares anymore.  Why does He allow our storms to go on and on?

We have prayed and fasted and prayed some more, but the wind and waves continue to beat against our tiny, sinking boat.  The storm rages on.

By understanding how God healed Hosea’s turmoil, we can know for sure that our storm-tossed soul will find rest.

Hosea was deeply unhappy in his marriage.  He had seemingly wasted his love on Gomer, a promiscuous, adulterous woman.  Nevertheless, his marriage symbolized God’s experience with the nation of Israel.

Like Hosea, God is a loving, faithful husband who was abandoned and betrayed by a wife.  God chose Israel and delivered her from Egypt to be His own special segullah (treasure).

The Jewish people suffered as slaves in Egypt, and He delivered them.  He showered them with blessings, lavished them with love, gave them their own home—a land flowing with milk and honey (the wedding gift), and made them into a mighty people.

And yet, in utter ingratitude, they adopted the customs and worship of the idolatrous Canaanites and forsook the one true God, Creator of heaven and earth.

We often live like Israel and Gomer lived, in rebellion and unfaithfulness to our El Shaddai.  But Gomer had a destiny to fulfill and so do we.

The name Gomer comes from the Hebrew root gamar, which means to complete, to perfect and to finish.

When Gomer finally realized that the gifts of her worldly suitors could not compare with fulfilling God’s purpose for her—being a wife to Hosea and a mother to his children—God sent Hosea to redeem her from being sold as a slave.

Because of His great mercy, God has redeemed us from the slavery of our own unfaithfulness and rebellion to Him.

He has given us a hope and a future through Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah), our Redeemer, who was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.  (Isaiah 53:5)

Because God has paid the price of redemption for us, we can trust Him to perfect that which concerns us:

“The Lord will fulfill [His purpose] for me; your love, O Lord, endures forever—do not abandon the works of Your hands.”  (Psalm 138:8)

Just like Hosea as a husband would not give up on Gomer, God will not give up on Israel because His People also have a destiny to fulfill:

“They will be called the Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord; and you will be called Sought After, the City No Longer Deserted.”  (Isaiah 62:12)

And so, just like a mother’s love draws her children near to her, El Shaddai is drawing His children to Him through His love.

Look at the beautiful imagery that reflects the gentle, merciful, long-suffering, ever-faithful, loving nature of God in the following passages:

“It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.  To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.”  (Hosea 11:3–4)

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, Israel? …  My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.”  (Hosea 11:8)

In fulfillment of Bible prophecy, God brought the Jewish People back to the wilderness that was the Land of Israel.  He has made that wilderness blossom, and He is still alluring and speaking to His people, just like Hosea prophesied, until their destiny is fulfilled.

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