Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage (Numbers 27:12-33) transports me to Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, NC, for the 2005 Rolling Stones concert tour. Fourth song out of the shoot is “Tumbling Dice,” a great blues that has the crowd on its feet, swaying and singing to beat the band, baby, I can’t stay, you got to roll me, and call me the tumbling dice. The crowd’s vocal prowess notwithstanding, it’s the female background singers on stage who really make this song.
Here in the Numbers passage Moses is in Mick mode, with baby I can’t stay running through his mind as he approaches the end of the runway. He sees the time flashing by as the Lord meets up with him for one final heart to heart to help him exit the stage. Moses asks God to provide a successor, and God recruits Joshua to fill the bill (think Ronnie Wood replacing Mick Taylor). God tells Moses to bring Joshua before the priest and the entire assembly, to give him some of your authority. And here’s the curious twist: God tells Moses that Joshua will exercise that authority through the use of the Urim. The Urim and Thummin were the rolling stones of fortune for the early Israelites. These two small gemstones were placed in the breastplate of the priest, who would pull them out at serious forks in the road when the leaders were not quite sure of God’s will. Roll the stones, toss the dice – yes or no, guilty or innocent, do this, don’t do that. For a person accused of some serious crime, it beat the heck out of a trial by ordeal (throw her into the water; if she sinks she’s innocent, if she floats she’s a witch and we’ll burn her at the stake). At least with Urim and Thummin you had a 50/50 chance.
It’s fascinating that the covenant people put such stock in the tumbling dice. It points to an erosion of authority. God doesn’t say to Moses, “give Joshua your authority.” God says, “give him some of your authority.” After all, Moses is able to talk directly with God, and bring the news directly to the people. But post-Moses, God’s will is a bit veiled, and there’s some mystery, some ambiguity, some gray areas where it’s not always clear and Joshua can’t be absolutely sure which call to make. At times he’ll be like Dylan’s rolling stone, with no direction home. He will have to struggle with hard questions – Is this true of false? Is she innocent or guilty? What should we do about those pesky neighbors? The covenant people won’t completely trust their authority figures to have all the answers. So they trust fate. Chance. The dice. Urim and Thummin.
We live in the murky post-Moses world, a world of ambiguity and mystery. While as a Christian I claim to know the Truth, this Truth has set me free to figure out the small-t truth for myself much of the time. And none of us are not in a position to know all the small-t truth about any given situation. We are not on top of Mount Sinai or Old Smoky with God giving us direct instructions on how to handle many of our challenges. We toss the dice when we make decisions about who to trust and what to believe when it comes to issues of the economy, violence, climate change, health care, immigration, sexuality, and the list could go on and on. As a Christian I have been instructed to put on the breastplate of righteousness, but I wonder if that breastplate doesn’t have a couple of stones in it, like the old priest’s ephod, that I can pull out whenever I come to one of those foggy forks in the road. After all, we walk by faith, not by sight, and sometimes it’s a roll of the dice.
As always, feedback and comments are welcome.