Set aside for suffering

I was supposed to have submitted this post this past Sunday, the 15th, but my schedule didn’t allow for that. The content is the same as it would have been, but since it’s not the 15th anymore, the numerical connection isn’t as strong. If that’s important for you, just bookmark this page, and read it again on April 15th. 🙂

You probably didn’t know that 15 was an important number in the Bible. You are probably more familiar with the 7 day cycle of work and rest, the 12 sons and tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples of Jesus, the 40 days and nights of testing, and maybe even the 144,000 elect in the Revelation of John. But what’s the deal with the number 15?

Jews will likely be far more aware of the Biblical signifigance of this number. A number of Jewish festivals fall on the 15th day of their respective month. Passover, when Jews mark the exodus from slavery in Egypt, falls on the 15th day of Nisan. Purim, the celebration commemorating their surviving the Persian conspiracy to destroy the Jews, falls on the 15th day of Adar. Sukkhot, Tu B’Shevat and Tu B’Av also fall on the 15th day of their respective months (Tishrei, Shevat, Av).

There are also fifteen Psalms of Ascent (Ps. 120-134) and when the pilgrims would arrive at the Temple in Jerusalem, they would have to climb fifteen steps from the ground to the temple entrance.

It works it’s way into a few stories as well. During the flood, the story reads that the waters rose 15 cubits above the mountains. Is that the highest mountain or some sort of average? That number is clearly symbolic. Later, in the book of Hosea, when his wife leaves to go back to her life of prostitution, Hosea buys her back, and the price he pays is 15 shekels of silvers.

Still, the Bible is full of numbers, and by sheer coincedence some of them will be the same as others, but the number fifteen is different for mathematical and religious reasons. You see, the ancient Hebrews didn’t have a separate set of characters for numbers than they had for letters.

As you can see in the table, one could easily put together any number from 1 to 999 using the same rules we use with our characters, except in Hebrew they read from right to left instead of from left to right. Everything works pretty consistently, except when you get to 15. To write it out with these characters, you would normally use the yodh (י) for 10 and the he (ה) for 5, except that this Y and H are the same characters that begin YHWH (יהוה), otherwise known as the name of God. So, out of respect for the name of God, they would use the tet (ט) for 9 and the vav (ו) for 6. The number fifteen is set aside and the appearance of these characters is a reminder that God’s people set things aside for God’s purposes.

Lent is supposed to be a time of setting things aside for God, with the idea that in whatever way we suffer as a result we should be drawn closer to God. This is tied to the old and often forgotten understanding that suffering itself brings us closer to God, as much or more than religious rituals. It’s a concept we’re all more or less okay with, as long as someone else is doing the suffering. We all want to believe that we have been set aside for comfort, that God is rewarding our past faithfulness with present and future comfort, so when the pain arrives, we often wonder what we have done wrong.

Near the beginning of the year I had suggested to our congregation that 2015 might be a year that we set aside for a special purpose, to discern a way forward and establish our vision going forward. That may still be happening, but it seems that maybe 2015 is a year set aside for other reasons. It’s only March, but already we know that 2015 will not be remembered as a year of good medical diagnoses and familial stability. The question is worth asking, is 2015 being set aside for us as a year of suffering?

Giving something up for Lent is probably the mildest example of a religious ritual designed to convey some measure of understanding using suffering as a delivery mechanism. One obvious flaw with this is that the things we normally give up, ie. coffee, chocolate, alcohol, fast food, reality TV, etc. are actually bad for us and in essence when Lent ends we choose to embrace our suffering once more. Another flaw is that this kind of intentional suffering is very often temporary. Suffering is not a machine that provides spiritual wisdom and then be turned off. We want to set time aside to learn and then get back to life as normal, but often time is set aside for us to suffer, and suffering becomes the new normal.

For me, this is still theoretical. As a pastor, friend and community member, I can try to lessen the suffering and I can do my best to empathize, but I am not suffering. The challenge for me, and anyone who would dare say something like ‘suffering produces wisdom’ is to not pity those who are suffering but to honour them. If we believe, and I think we should, that people are set aside for suffering, then we dare not set them aside to be excluded and forgotten.