Much of the Old Testament can seem pointless. Take Numbers 33. Consecutive verses begin, “And they journeyed from.”
After a brief interruption, there are 9 more verses that begin the same way. They journeyed from some place we’ve never heard of, went some place else we never heard of, and stayed there for. . . Who cares?
I remember similar disappointment when I encountered my great-grandfather’s journal. But there is a point.
My great grandfather
Several years after the death of his first wife, Rev. Benjamin Franklin Morgan remarried. His new wife bore him a daughter, my grandmother, when he was 61. She was 8 when he died, but I remember hearing about a letter home from California, when he described the beef there as having “the taste, color, and tenderness of raw mahogany.”
He must have been a fascinating man. Judging from that one sentence, he had a way with words that has been passed from generation to generation. (One of my nieces, Rev. Morgan’s great-great-granddaughter is an aspiring novelist and playwright.) So when my sister in law, an avid genealogist, transcribed his journals for her Christmas present to me and my sibs, I was really excited. When I read it, it was hard to stay excited.
Here is the longest entry on a page I selected at random:
March 5, 1870. Saturday
The day cloudy and damp. Attended the funeral of Bro. Willson. There was a large congregation & deeply affected. The Supt. of the Street Railroad cars furnished cars for all that wished to accompany the remains to the depot & then the friends took him to Viana on the Jeff Railroad. The official meeting the stewarts reported. There was quite a snowfall during the night.
Most days, he just reported the weather, whose house he ate at if invited somewhere, a word about church attendance on Sundays and other mundane details. Here and there, as in the excerpt quoted, his entries show some emotion or glimpses of his personality.
He didn’t exactly keep a diary. It was a simple journal. Extant letters and sermons give a rounder picture of his life and character. That, it would appear, perfectly explains Numbers 33. It is a brief journal presented within a longer and more personal diary that comprises the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
In that journal, we learn that Aaron died, that the Israelites found plentiful water at one camp site and none at all at another. Their travels began in Rameses, in Egypt, while the Egyptians were burying all the first-born that died in the last of the plagues. They ended on the banks of the Jordan, across from Jericho.
Numbers 33 may seem to serve no purpose for us, but for the generation of Israelites that left Egypt and their children, who crossed the Jordan to destroy Jericho and conquer the promised land, it was a reminder of how long and difficult their journey had been, and also a that only two individuals in that first generation, not even Moses and Aaron themselves, proved worthy to cross the Jordan.
When we read it, we can see the reference to the camp with no water and recall the absolute rebellion that the faithless first generation mounted in response. We read about the death of Aaron and recall that he was appointed priest on no other basis than grace. After all, he had taken a leading role in an earlier rebellion by making a golden calf and declaring it the god who had led the people out of Egypt.
We read of Moses addressing the people across from Jericho, saying “when you cross the Jordan, not when we cross. Moses himself had impetuously disobeyed God in wrath and thereby stretched God’s patience with him to the breaking point. God finally forbade Moses himself to cross.
We know these details from the larger account, which Moses surely didn’t share with everyone. In those books of scripture, he spares no one, not even himself. He describes both the high points of victory and the low points of rebellion in detail.
You and me
Each of us can easily compile a list of biographical facts. We know our various addresses, the places we have lived, the schools we have attended, the churches we have belonged to, the relationships we have had, many of which are now broken in various ways.
That is our journal, whether we have ever committed it to writing or not. That is the structure of our lives. Our memories of those structural points reveal our spiritual journey. That journey is our diary, whether we have ever committed it to writing or not.
We can be as unsparing as Moses in remembering and describing those who have opposed us or hurt us.
Can we be as unsparing as Moses when we describe our own moral failings? Can we be as accepting as Moses of the just consequences?
And can we continue to serve God as faithfully as Moses did in the face of disappointment? Can we maintain Moses’ same understanding of God’s gracious love and faithfulness to his promises?