“Moses instructed the People of Israel in all that God commanded him. (Numbers 29:40 MSG)
I will admit reading Numbers is hard for me, not numbers themselves, but the biblical book of Numbers. All the rules and regulations. The strict guidelines for food. The endless descriptions of the rituals for purification and sacrifice. The day, the time, the trumpet blasts for the festivals. The details are endless.
I don’t follow kosher food guidelines and I’m not very familiar with the various celebrations or the rituals. I’m slightly uncomfortable reading about the animal and blood sacrifices. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t know very much about the culture of the people who were surrounding the Israelites during biblical times. I don’t always know why all of these details are important or how the Israelites could relate to them. But, nonetheless, the book of Numbers is still in the bible and I believe that God still wants us to read it and to get something from it.
I was visiting with one of my best friends recently. We both work at a school and in conversation with him and his husband we starting talking about schools, strange things that happen in schools, and the unique rules that we sometimes have. I was retelling them a story that I heard on the news about a female student at a school in Florida being sent to the office because she was not wearing a bra. The teacher deemed that her not wearing a bra was in violation of dress code because it was “distracting” to other students. In the office, the dean asked her to put on a second shirt under her sweat shirt and “move around.” At which point it was determined that her not wearing a bra did in fact violate dress code. She was sent to the nurse’s office to put bandaids over her nipples because they were found to be “distracting to others.” 1
Almost simultaneously, they looked at each other and both commented, “It’s not distracting to me.” We all giggled.
But it got me thinking about all the rules we have in schools. We have policies for everything. We have policies about dress code. We have policies about cell phones. We have policies about homework. We have policies about locker usage. We have policies about attendance. The list goes on and on. We have lots of policies. Being a middle school principal I feel like I battle the dress code policy all the time. I long for cold winter days when students are mostly bundled up, and I cringe at the first signs of spring, which inevitably bring shorter shorts and smaller tops.
We have a semi-formal dance most years and it makes me a little crazy because that is definitely a time when I am fighting dress code. There really aren’t that many dresses out there for young girls that are appropriate for that type of event. There are many different styles and what might look acceptable on one student would definitely not look the same on another student. So I fall back on the rules and say, “It must be in junior high dress code.”
A student at my school also attends my church. She had she on a beautiful dress at our confirmation ceremony a few weeks prior to the semi-formal. When I told her how pretty she looked in it she laughed a little and said she was planning to wear it to the semi-formal but needed a shawl because her shoulders were exposed. “You know how boys get with naked shoulders.” We laughed.
Our dress code rules state that straps must be three fingers wide.
Yes, I do know how crazy that sounds. Honestly, it’s even more crazy to police. I wish my dress code simply stated: dress modestly and appropriately for school. But then we get into the wild and crazy world of interpretation of what modest and appropriate are. So we fall back to straps being three fingers wide and shorts and skirts must be at or below the tip of their thumb when hands are resting by their sides. We actually even had to add to the dress code that rips in jeans must be covered if they are above the thumbs by your side rule.
It does sound crazy, even to me who has made many of these policies and has to police them as well. But the flip side of it is that we have to make or clarify these policies because they are challenged or tested. If you think about it, why on earth would you want a hole in your jeans (I know, I could stop right there, but for some reason we pay lots of money for someone to pre-rip our jeans – nope, I just don’t get it) that is higher up on your jeans than where you thumb is when your hands are resting by your side. It does get to the point of craziness, but these policies are created for a reason. And then additionally clarified because someone challenged them.
One of the silliest rules we have at our school is that we put up a sign on doors that says: Doors open out. Yup, we actually have signs on our doors that say they open. I mean I thought that was the difference between a wall and a door, one opens, one doesn’t. But the reality is one student wasn’t paying attention to where she was going and another student was also not paying attention and rushing out a door and pushed it hard, hit the first student, and gave her a concussion. It really was bad. So the response was that we put up signs on all the doors.
Some of the crazy rules have a crazy beginning. But the fact remains that rules are there for some reason.
In the New Testament Jesus told his disciples to forgive others. Then he was asked how many times should we forgive? (Matthew 18). Jesus told the his disciples to love their neighbor. Then he was challenged, who is our neighbor? (Luke 10). When given rules we tend to push the limits and challenge the boundaries.
As I read through all of these detailed food restrictions and rituals and purifications and cleanliness and pages and pages of instructions God gives to his people through Moses, it makes me think: Why? What was happening at that time? What were the other cultures doing? What were the challenges that the people of the time were faced with? What was God trying to regulate? What rules were put in place that later had to be clarified? What challenges had to be explained?
All the details – What? When? Where? How? How long? What kind of animal? What kind of flour? Etc. – seem excessive to me in my current time and place. But then I think about the Israelites and their time and place, with the cultures and rituals surrounding them. God must have wanted to give them clear guidelines for what to do and how to do it.
Then it makes me think… what would the book of Numbers look like if it was written today?