Strength for the Journey: “Returning Soldiers” – Numbers 31:21-54

SoldierAmerica is again facing a new wave of returnee servicemen who have been serving in fields of conflict. They bring home with them some challenges. To illustrate this, I clipped this out of the Buffalo News from a few months ago about this College year in New York schools:

When Dan Frontera enrolled in graduate school at the University at Buffalo, he found himself yelling at two fellow students, one reeking of alcohol, who browsed Facebook instead of listening to the lecture. During Frank Grillo’s first week at Daemen College, he stormed out of class after hearing two young women complain about getting mud on their Ugg boots and remembering his boots being “completely covered in blood.” And Matt Ziemendorf usually counts how many people are in the room and identifies all the exits as he enters classrooms at Niagara University. These young men are a different type of college student. Veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan increasingly are turning to higher education as they leave the military and confront an economy still rebounding from recession. They’re often older than other students, and frequently have spouses and children. They’re not interested in partying, and many try to finish their degrees as quickly as possible. Some also struggle with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD… Veterans are generally more respectful of professors and more focused on their work than many other students, said Andrew Overfield, coordinator of veterans services at Canisius. Administrators at other local colleges agreed. That discipline, Overfield said, helps veterans finish school as fast as they can. … But veterans, despite their maturity, often have trouble with the transition from the service to academia. Many grapple with the loss of the military’s strict routine. “The thing I struggled with for the longest time was, you no longer have your senior NCOs and stuff like that giving you orders,” Ziemendorf said, referring to noncommissioned officers. “You’re kind of figuring this out on your own.”…Jason Gilliland at Buffalo State and Frontera, who’s now the veterans affairs coordinator at ECC. [These men] are both pursuing master’s degrees in the higher education field at Buffalo State, so as they help students navigate the transition from deployment to academia, they are going through the same thing. … Being a veteran himself, Gilliland can understand a veteran with PTSD “hitting the deck” upon hearing construction noises on campus, and can point him to a place where he can get help. And being a student himself, Frontera can understand what it’s like to be surrounded by younger college students who are nothing like you.” (By Luke Hammill on July 15, 2013).

Returning veterans often have many hurdles to overcome, and some who hear this lesson today remember the experience all too well from their own past. When Stephen E. Ambrose wrote his book, Band of Brothers, he featured the awkward return to civilian life at the end of the work, because it was part of the war. The men didn’t return to a new life, it was the re-acquisition of the old life by an entirely changed young man that was often so difficult. Our lesson today is about the same kind of problem, albeit from a short and bloody conflict – not a sustained campaign far away. Returning veterans pose special problems. Yet, it is not only about them. It is also about the expressions of GRATITUDE after a time of God’s unusual provision and pronounced protection – and we ALL need that lesson!

I mention this because if you look into the text of Scripture, you will find the narrative of Numbers 31 contains two distinct stories: 1) the command of God and execution of a raid on Midian, and 2) the return of the raiders and the purification and offerings from the spoils. In our last lesson, we handled the first part of the story – the stirring account of a battle that forced us to face an issue that was uncomfortable – that God has the absolute right to act on behalf of His people and His plan in pronounced ways to bring about His plan. Today we face the second half of the story, in which we must deal with the aftermath of the bloody battle – including the dividing of the spoils and the required offerings to the Lord. The response to the battle was as telling a story and the execution of it. In some ways, the story was similar to what an allied WWII veteran may tell about his service. Neither were wars of personal vendetta, and neither group of returnees came back wringing their hands with glee at the hurt they put on another people group. The Biblical raid was executed in obedience to God’s command, and the chief expression of returnees was relief and thanksgiving to God. That is the story for our lesson today.

Remember, the people didn’t fight to prove anything. They didn’t fight to resolve any leftover feelings in them. They may have had feelings about the Midianites, but the fighting came about at the behest of the Lord, relayed through the instruction of Moses. They marched out with a priest, with holy silver trumpets of the Tabernacle, and with the confidence they were following God’s holy command. With these tools of mind and heart, they were invited by God to participate in a powerful victory. Swiftly the tides of war turned into the fortune of spoils and they returned with arms full of loot – their tunics still stained with the blood of the battle and their skin still covered with the dust and grime of the swift passage through the desert sands. Arriving at the camp, they were relieved and exhausted… but they were not allowed to drop in their tents and run into the arms of their wives and children. Something else came first. There was a time of healing, purifying and worshipful giving. They needed to understand a truth that we need to revisit…

Key Principle: The highest calling for a follower of God is obedient and repeated dedication to the Lord – everything else comes second.

The WAR was a step of OBEDIENCE. Would the RESPONSE be one of GRATITUDE and REDEDICATION?

Before the embraces of loved ones, before sitting around the campfire to share the story of the battle with their children – there had to be planned “down time” alone with God. There was a time of rededication, rest and re-orientation. There was time for celebrating with the comrades in arms, and the quiet thanksgiving of men who returned from a battle whole, along with their brothers and fellow soldiers. The re-entry to society was planned and prescribed by God. The nightmares of war needed to find a place inside of them to rest in their memory – and God was prepared to help them deal with it all. God never calls people to do things He won’t help them through.

Drop your eyes into the scene of the returnees, and listen to the speech they heard outside the camp…

Purification Instructions from Eleazar:

Numbers 31:21 Then Eleazar the priest said to the soldiers who had gone into battle, “This is what is required by the law that the Lord gave Moses: 22 Gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, lead 23 and anything else that can withstand fire must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean. But it must also be purified with the water of cleansing. And whatever cannot withstand fire must be put through that water. 24 On the seventh day wash your clothes and you will be clean. Then you may come into the camp.”

We pick up the story with the High Priest of Israel telling the warriors what to do with the spoils they were carrying home. The remnants of war – its ribbons, weaponry and its victory spoils – all needed a place to be laid before the Lord and cleansed, both physically and spiritually. It was required of a warrior to take the things from his hands and place them before the Lord for cleansing. The passage offers three important principles of cleansing the fighters and their victory spoils.

There were three “Principles of Cleansing” found here:

1. Required Consecration: Cleansing wasn’t just a good idea – it was a God-ordained and revealed idea (31:21). The best surgeon isn’t ready simply because of training – there must be scrubbing. The idea that a fully prepared and fully qualified person should be given time to set aside after a difficult, even harrowing experience is a God idea. Preparation must be matched by periodic purification – and that wasn’t optional. It isn’t just qualification that makes one eligible to effectively serve God today – but purification. Even as a believer and follower of Messiah, I must recognize that purity in my walk will be tarnished while passing through the streets of a fallen world. Jesus told His Disciples that periodic “foot washing” was still absolutely essential – even for those who left the house fully clean that morning.

Two essential truths regarding purification must always be regarded. First, the means of purification has always been exclusively available by God’s provision – God alone can declare me clean by the means that God alone provided. I cannot earn clean-ness before the Holy One any way but through His provided cleansing agent. Second, the application of cleansing has always been personal and deliberate – I alone am responsible to apply what God offers to cleanse my life. No well-meaning parent can do it. No friend can act on my behalf to apply it. Just as God is solely responsible for the provision; I am solely responsible for the application of what He provided. God gave the washing solution at great cost to Himself; I must apply it carefully to my stained life.

Look again at our returning warriors in Numbers. They went through a time of slaughter. It changed them. Killing, even when done for a just purpose before God, was never easy. Ask the man who pulls the switch before the convict who has been sentenced to death – killing is hard. It is supposed to be hard. In war, we must move against compassion, against humanity itself. It was a necessary affront, because it was in obedience to God’s command – but it was still hard. The return of the veteran warrior required “down time” in a “compression tank-like” experience before returning to home and family. The warrior needed to get clean before God and men in the quiet of the desert outside the camp.

2. Careful Scrutiny: The goods brought from the battle had to be heat-purified and then water-purified. (31:22-23). Some things needed to be destroyed and smelted. Shapes that were inappropriate for the camp of God’s people would need to be reduced to liquid and re-formed. All of the spoils would need heating to eliminate any dangerous bacteria or germs that could harm God’s people. Items unable to be heated must be thoroughly washed (31:23b). The warriors needed to detoxify their implements of war and the spoils they brought back. While they did so, they had time to let the events sink into their hearts.

The point is that interacting and ingesting the goods of the world is a dangerous proposition. We are so familiar with handling dangerous things of the world, that we have become glib about their volatility and hazard to our lives. We flip on a TV and nonchalantly laugh at stained humor about things as sacred as marriage, honesty and truth. We watch routinely as people engage in marriage activities outside the holy bonds of that commitment. In war, the rules change. The strong defeat the weak – and not always the right win. Even when they do, the behaviors of warriors, amped up on testosterone and the taste of blood, is not always exemplary. The language of the barracks often reflects the tensions of war.

For God’s servant, the time for inspection allowed them to settle down and look at everything they returned with from that experience, and take the time to allow God to cleanse it, stain by awful stain. I don’t want to stretch the point. There was dirt and germ removal – but that wasn’t all there was too the cleaning. It included scrutiny – looking carefully for any impurity.

3. Personal Responsibility: With the command of God, there was one week of “down time” for each warrior, during the thorough cleansing of clothing, implements and body before resuming their post (31:24). Time alone in intimate inspection and re-consecration was interwoven here. The purification of one’s own life was one’s own responsibility. No one else knew what was hidden.

All three principles added up to one important truth: Warriors need a space between the battle and the resumption of daily life. The lack of that space will make the re-entry harder. The warrior may not sense the need, and anxious to return, they will plow back into the daily grind. God COMMANDED it, simply because the warrior wasn’t always conscious of the needs they had – and they were entirely unfamiliar with the corrupting issues of bacteria and germs. Don’t so fixate of the physical cleaning, however, and forget that God included in the command the mental, emotional and spiritual needs they carried home with them. As Pastor Warren Wiersbe once quipped: “God didn’t just want CONQUERING SOLDIERS, he wanted CLEAN SOLDIERS – He always does”.

The Tribute Offering

The text moved past the men and their cleansing, and then reminded us that in every blessing, no matter how hard fought to obtain, there must be recognition that we have what we have because our Lord has made it possible.

Numbers 31:25 The Lord said to Moses, 26 “You and Eleazar the priest and the family heads of the community are to count all the people and animals that were captured. 27 Divide the spoils equally between the soldiers who took part in the battle and the rest of the community. 28 From the soldiers who fought in the battle, set apart as tribute for the Lord one out of every five hundred, whether people, cattle, donkeys or sheep. 29 Take this tribute from their half share and give it to Eleazar the priest as the Lord’s part. 30 From the Israelites’ half, select one out of every fifty, whether people, cattle, donkeys, sheep or other animals. Give them to the Levites, who are responsible for the care of the Lord’s tabernacle.” 31 So Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Moses.

These verses offer three “Principles of Tribute”:

The children of Israel just fought a Holy War – a war directed by God for His own purposes. The taxing of tribute was the required recognition of God’s goodness in the victory – a “tithe against the blessing”, if you will. Like the “Shelmim Offering” (Thanksgiving Offering) of Leviticus 2, it was a “thank you” to the Lord, that was expected by Him, and prescribed by His Word.

1. Accounting: First, an inventory needed to be taken by the priests accompanied by tribal leaders of all animals captured (31:25-26). This included both inspection and counting. Any diseased animals would need to be disposed, while a strict counting of the whole size of the material blessing was authenticated. The people doing this were priest, but they were accompanied by the watchful eye of the secular leaders. Following a new material acquisition, there was an inspection that was publicly executed and entirely verified. Getting the material blessing wasn’t the end – it was the beginning of taking the responsibility to steward well. That responsibility needed transparency, so the accounting was swift, accurate and public.

2. Dividing: Second, the spoils needed to be divided in two – half for the fighters, and the other half to be divided over the families of Israel (31:27). Clearly those who fought got a higher amount of the spoils, but those who were not able also were blessed by the victory. Some people are enabled to stand on the front line – but those who no longer can, should also be recognized for their value in the struggle. Those who did not fight were able to be a part of the support system, and needed to be blessed in the rewards as well. The prize was to the nation, not simply to the army.

3. Giving: Third, soldiers were to have an offering based on 1:500 “man to animal” ratio – given to the priestly families – the Cohenim (31:28-29). The animal tribute among the non-fighting populace was by a 1:50 ratio, given to the Levite families (31:30). The whole system that God set up was to work together. God’s people needed those who operated the Tabernacle, and those who cared for the administration of God’s work in their midst. This was a state religion, given at a unique time in the life of a certain people. Yet, the principle of giving place to the operations of ministry is elsewhere validated in Scripture. No nation can long endure that pits itself at odds with God’s stated desires for man – and pushes God’s people to the periphery.

A nation must recognize the place of God. Our forefathers knew that in the open praise of Thanksgiving. The History Channel reminds: “In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.”

Today the holiday continues without the “guest of honor” in most of our public institutions, as American shrink in fear of lawsuits from secularists that threaten every imaginable venue because they have been forced to hear about a God they don’t believe in. What bothers them is NOT that they have to hear of a “god” they believe is false – for they show little impatience with public recalling of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny (and I suppose they don’t believe in them either). What bothers them is the WE still believe that God is real, just like our forefathers did. That belief seems to be at the center of their disdain. It bugs them…

We don’t come to church to bemoan culture – even when we know that culture is desperately looking for a replacement for their Creator. We come to be among those, planted in places all around the globe, who WORSHIP the King.

• We will not be stingy, because God has been so gracious and blessed us in abundance.

• We will not be silent, for God has given us a reason to sing.

• We will not be angry, for despite the changes in our culture, God has promised at the end of days to wipe every tear from our eyes.

• We will not be timid, for a God so great deserves our full throated praise for Who He is and all He has done.

Our nation that rewards with greatest income those who can play a ball game, but cannot afford more than minimum wage for one who works with our children and our elderly speaks with little moral authority. Our God, who cares for us “from the rising of the sun to the setting of the same” beckons us to praise Him with our giving. The Gospel must go forth, and we will use the wealth He has given us to make that happen. The poor and the needy must be cared for, and we will not withhold our help. Let the nation grow cold – and let the church be the church. Let us look and act with generosity and charity!

The Inventory and Tribute Offering

As we continue with our story of the returnees, we get an inventory…

Numbers 31:32 The plunder remaining from the spoils that the soldiers took was 675,000 sheep, 33 72,000 cattle, 34 61,000 donkeys 35 and 32,000 women who had never slept with a man. 36 The half share of those who fought in the battle was: 337,500 sheep, 37 of which the tribute for the Lord was 675; 38 36,000 cattle, of which the tribute for the Lord was 72; 39 30,500 donkeys, of which the tribute for the Lord was 61; 40 16,000 people, of whom the tribute for the Lord was 32. 41 Moses gave the tribute to Eleazar the priest as the Lord’s part, as the Lord commanded Moses. 42 The half belonging to the Israelites, which Moses set apart from that of the fighting men— 43 the community’s half—was 337,500 sheep, 44 36,000 cattle, 4530,500 donkeys 46 and 16,000 people. 47 From the Israelites’ half, Moses selected one out of every fifty people and animals, as the Lord commanded him, and gave them to the Levites, who were responsible for the care of the Lord’s tabernacle.

The real question was: How will they meet the continuing needs of ministry? God’s answer was to organize ministry and its support through the people.

This section provided three “Principles of Support” of God’s ministry among the people:

1. The first part of the narrative offered the totals of each category (31:32-35), followed by the divided half to the soldiers (31:36), and the amount taken in tribute (31:37-40). It was one thing to learn about the ratios, it was another thing to actually take the amount that was to be offered and carefully separate out the gift. The theory of giving is only helpful if followed by the ACTION of giving.

Let’s think seriously about the idea of GENEROSITY for a moment…People often think that their giving would change if they had MORE to give. Yet, the truth is the majority of the giving is done by those who have little. Pastor Bobby Scobey related a story:

Don’t say you would give if only you had something to give. There was a farmer who asked his neighbor, “If you had a million dollars, would you give me half of it?” The second fellow was amazed at the question and replied, “Of course, I would do that in a minute.” The questioner persisted, “If you had cars, would you give me one of them?” The friend said, “I can’t believe you asked that. Since we are such good friends, sure; you know I would give you one.” Third question: “If you had two hogs, would you give me one?” The other guy said, “Shoot, man, you know I’ve got two hogs.”

God is honored by what I give, not what I intend to give. Theoretical sacrifice wasn’t what God instructed Israel – actual hard numbers are given to prove that point!

2. The second part of the narrative detailed the part that went to the Cohenim (priests) that was carefully given by Moses in accordance with the Lord’s instruction (31:41). God called out certain men to serve as the intercessor between the people and God – and they and their families needed to be cared for by the people in the process. They were to lead the people in worship, but were, in another sense, dependent upon the people for sustenance. It isn’t wrong for God’s people to shoulder that responsibility – it is appropriate.

I am not bucking for a raise, here – just commenting on the truth. I have had the fortunate circumstance of watching God pour blessing on my life – material, emotional and spiritual. I know some of the finest people this old planet has ever witnessed. I am surrounded by blessing! At the same time, it is my responsibility to faithfully represent the Word of God. Our staff gets wonderful support from our flock – and that is the way it is supposed to be. God has honored your sacrifices and blessed our work together because of your obedience. We all do this ministry together!

3. The last part of this text shows how the animals were the numbers divided among the people (31:42-46) and the amounts that were given in tribute offering to the Levites (31:47). In addition to caring for those who interceded for the people – God also devised a system of caring for both the physical operations of the worship center, and a way to spread out across the camp those who could serve God by serving the people – the Levitical formula. God provided increase, and the people needed to make sure the needs of those who sacrificed a portion of inheritance in this life were cared for as well.

He does the same in our ministry today! Just as you care for the staff, so there are missionaries serving in far flung places in the name of Christ. They, like Levites of old, have traded a land inheritance to be those who work for the Lord in the midst of a tribe that owns the land on which they labor. They live in faraway lands, and miss their families and their friends – all for the cause of the Gospel. Why? In Heaven, French people will stand beside you and remind you that your obedience in giving provided a man or woman who gave them the Gospel. You will meet Cambodians, Africans, Arabs, Europeans, Asians, and many others who were reached by the support you helped with! God blessed us to be a blessing to others. It is our rightful tribute.

A Thanksgiving Offering Added

The final part of the passage displays what happens when people have faced crisis, and seen God deliver blessing.

Numbers 31:48 Then the officers who were over the units of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—went to Moses 49 and said to him, “Your servants have counted the soldiers under our command, and not one is missing. 50 So we have brought as an offering to the Lord the gold articles each of us acquired—armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings and necklaces—to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.” 51 Moses and Eleazar the priest accepted from them the gold—all the crafted articles. 52 All the gold from the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds that Moses and Eleazar presented as a gift to the Lord weighed 16,750 shekels.(about 420 pounds) 53 Each soldier had taken plunder for himself. 54 Moses and Eleazar the priest accepted the gold from the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds and brought it into the tent of meeting as a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord.

Finally, there are three “Principles of Blessing” in the account.

1. First, there was recognition of God’s goodness to them – rejoicing over the protection of God (31:48-49). When the officers looked carefully at the roster of the returnees – they saw it clearly. God brought the entire army back… not one of their men was lost! They were amazed at God’s protection, and overjoyed at His grace!

Have you thanked God for the many times in the last months you have been spared from harm? Every day there are those who wake up and dream of harming our nation and wounding our people. Yet, God has been good and offered protection. Diligent men and women serve our country in a variety of services, and God uses them to protect us. Police, rescue workers, firemen and many others stand by to help if an emergency strikes. There has never been a people, since the beginning of history, that has been so thoroughly guarded and protected by agencies as ours. Yet, we complain. We act as though we deserve peace, prosperity and stability. Have you thanked God for the protection that we have enjoyed?

2. Recognition that is REAL is followed by RESPONSE that is measureable – responsive offerings for God’s goodness (31:50). The result of their collective joy was an offering to God – not compulsory, but as an overflow of their heart! God protected them, but God also showered them with good gifts -and they wanted to give them back to Him!

Let me ask you directly: If God dropped a large amount of money on you right now, would you find it hard to give to Him an offering from it? How quickly and steadfastly do you own the things He provides for you? Isn’t it just possible that God is not placing more in your hands because He knows you would squander it on things that don’t honor Him – selfish pleasures that don’t advance His Kingdom at all?

These men looked that the wealth they accumulated. They recalled the men that lay in the camp, fallen in battle and dispossessed of all their earthly goods. Facing death helps us sort out priorities. The men saw that God saved them, and God blessed them – and no one had to convince them of God’s goodness. No one had to beg them to give. They volunteered.

Let me say something that could sting just a little bit. Those who see God as He is, and themselves as they are – should be inclined to generosity in giving. When we truly recognize the depth of our own sinfulness and the size of the Lord’s gift to us – we see His marvelous generosity toward us. We know of His liberality. It challenges us to respond well.

3. Reception of Freewill Offering and placement before God (31:51-54). The priests took the offering that was given and laid it before God. Mere Midianite trinkets took on the sweet smell of offerings to the Most High God. The people rejoiced, and God was pleased.

As little as I normally speak about giving and generosity, I am still a preacher, and the subject is dangerous in our hands…In fact, it reminds me to warn you with a story:

A barber in a small town was busy cutting hair one day when the local cop walked in to get a haircut. And the barber was feeling a bit generous that day, so he said to the cop… “Since you do such a good job protecting us, and watching over us… today’s haircut is free.” The cop said he appreciated that, and the next day when the barber showed up at his shop, there were a dozen donuts waiting for him. In walks a local florist. The barber tells him how much he appreciates all the work that he has done around town, planting bushes and flowers and making the town look real nice, so he gives him a free haircut. The next day, the barber shows up at his shop and there are a dozen flowers waiting for him. In walks the local preacher, the barber tells him how he is feeling generous that day, and how much he appreciates all his hard work with the children and taking care of the needs of the people, so the preacher gets a free haircut. The next the barber shows up at his shop, and there are a dozen preachers waiting there for him. (Taken from sermon central illustrations).

Seriously, we have followed the Israelites from their beginnings to nearly the end of Moses’ life as we have studied together – and very few times did we end this way – with the people at peace and God pleased with them. What did it take? It took OBEDIENCE. It took practical DEDICATION to what God called them to accomplish. It took understanding the truth….

The highest calling for a follower of God is obedient and repeated dedication to the Lord – everything else comes second.