Reading: Numbers 20:1-13
This article is a collection of principles that we learn from a fairly surface reading of the book of Numbers. The book of Numbers is a mixture of story-telling and legislation. The story part is not in a strictly chronological order nor is it a complete story. It omits most of what happened during the 38 years that Israel spent in the wilderness
We might think of it this way: The narrative portions are actually bookends to that period, and even though they cluster at the start and finish, they still identify seven crises that took place.
These begin in chapter 12 with a leadership crisis. Moses’ sister and brother (Miriam & Aaron) challenged his God-given authority to direct the affairs of the nation. Each had upon at least one occasion ‘prophesied’ for God and they thought that this should extend to leadership roles that God had not given. God was forced to step in and settle the question once and for all. Miriam was struck with Leprosy and both were rebuked by God’s voice, speaking from heaven.
Chapters 13 and 14 tell about a national crisis of faith. The spies returned from Canaan and the majority opinion contradicted God’s command to invade. A general mutiny followed with personal threats on the life of Moses.
Chapter 16 records a second leadership crisis when Korah, Dathan and Abiram along with 250 tribal leaders demanded the right to enter the priesthood. Fire from heaven took away the 250 and the earth swallowed up Korah, Dathan and Abiram along with their families. Jealousy over God-given leadership roles goes all the way back…and as the book of Numbers points out, can have deadly consequences.
Now one of the qualities of scripture is…that it does not gloss over the faults of it’s heroes. That includes Moses who not only led Israel but who wrote a large portion of scripture. Thus in chapter 20, we read about an epic failure on his part. Miriam his sister had just died and the people were up in his face again. They accused him of incompetence and wished that they had already died. There was no water to drink and they were still a long way off from the land of plenty that they’d been promised. I guess you could say that Moses had had it. He was fed up. He and Aaron prayed to God and God told him what to do. But instead of speaking to the rock as God instructed, Moses disobeyed by striking the rock.
Moses made it look as if he personally had supernatural power. He took credit for giving them water instead of giving credit to God. He let his anger get the better of him and as a result, lost the right to lead Israel into Canaan. This crisis was personal, and he failed the test.
What God made clear at that time is still true: no human leader is indispensable. And no human leader may ignore the words of God and escape punishment.
Numbers 21 begins with what James Smith calls a program crisis. Israel was forced to go around the land of Edom which added hundreds of miles to their trip. Israel blamed God for their hardships and accused Him of evil. So God sent poisonous snakes bringing havoc and death.
Then there was a military crisis. Having gone around Edom, Israel came to the Transjordan uplands and had to fight for control of the land. It was hard slogging to capture walled cities and to root out armies that were defensively entrenched. But with God’s help, they did it. They conquered both Sihon and Og and took the land that would later be given to Reuben, Gad and part of the half tribe of Manasseh. It seemed that they had finally gotten something right. They had trusted God and God had given them victory.
Yet the people of God had a way of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory so that we finish the narratives in Numbers with a religious crisis. Having failed to curse Israel, Balaam advised the king of Moab to lure Israelite men into fertility worship at Baal-Peor. God responded by killing 23,000 Israelite men who gave in to temptation (Ch 25). Camped just across the river from the land of promise, they died without ever entering. All of which reminds us that Satan is never finished tempting – until we leave this earth and are forever safe from his influence.
Now Moses did not just record the facts in Numbers, he also interpreted them. He combined information with explanation, to inform and exhort. He pointed to the hand of God in their daily lives, so that they would never forget that it was God who had brought them to each new day. He rehearsed how the Lord had provided for all their needs, how he had led them to Canaan and protected them from harm. How he had kept covenant with them despite their unfaithfulness and had loved them enough to discipline. There is after all a point to history beyond a bare telling of it.
Now there are five main literary forms in the book of Numbers
(1) Some information comes in lists
(2) Census data provide an official tally of the men of war…one at the start of their time in the wilderness and the other at the end. Their numeric ability to wage war was undiminished, making it clear that earlier failure was their fault and not God’s.
(3) Numbers enumerates a number of laws that are unique to it.
(4) In includes some poetic oracles
(5) And from about ch. 12 on, the text tells the story of what happened.
The book also quotes from an ancient Hebrew poetic work known as “The Book of the Wars of the Lord” (ch. 21).
All in all, Numbers is the record of God’s discipline in action tempered with patience and grace. In Romans 11:22, the apostle Paul drew attention to two things about God that Numbers remind us of… “Behold the kindness and severity of God.” As much as we would just like to think about kindness, we should always remember that God is both holy and just. He will not allow sin to go unpunished.
Shifting gears a little: According to Numbers, Israel started their march from Mt Sinai about thirteen and a half months after leaving Egypt. During that time, the law had been given, the tabernacle built, the priests consecrated and the Levites commissioned. The usual journey from Mt. Sinai to Kadesh took about 11 days, but since there were several million Israelites and since they only moved when God moved, the trip took about 11 months.
About thirty-eight years went by between their arrival at Kadesh and the conclusion of Numbers. We know very little about what happened during that period. But the scriptures do indicate that for 38 years, the Israelites did not circumcise their children, nor observe the Passover. Both of these resumed once Israel entered Canaan according to Josh 5. It was as if God needed to renew the covenant with that new generation.
Now its fair to ask: what are the main theological truths that come out in this book? Let me suggest five, though there may be more: and each still applies to us.
The first is that God is always present with his people. Now Israel could see God’s presence by looking to the tabernacle. There was a cloud by day and a fire by night. It hovering over the most holy place…and when it moved, they moved. The tabernacle was situated under it. That’s how they knew where God wanted it located.
The whole nation took it’s physical point of orientation from the tabernacle. 3 tribes camped on each of the four sides. The 3 clans of the Levites camped on the north, west and south side – while the priests and Moses camped on the east side where the entrance was. You could say, that for a time God allowed them to walk by sight, so that one day they would grow up and walk by faith.
This began to happen once they crossed the Jordan River. Manna stopped falling and they lived off the land. Mos of God’s miracles ended – leaving them with scripture instead. But first and most importantly, God provided himself. He called Israel into a covenant with himself. He sanctified them and claimed them for himself. He granted cleansing and forgiveness –in order to live in His presence. He gave them hope for the immediate future and for those more spiritually minded, hope for the life to come
The second theological truth in Numbers is that God provides for his people.
- Manna appeared daily and was free for the taking
- Water flowed through the camp – in the middle of a desert
- Mothers did not miscarry and disease was held at bay
- Their clothes and shoes did not wear out
- They didn’t need jobs, infrastructure, daycare or shopping malls
- They built no cities, dug no wells, paved no roads
It was as close to a ‘free ride’ that any nation has ever had. It was all because ‘the Lord provides’. And while the miraculous agency of God’s providence was replaced by more ‘natural’ means, it persisted all the same.
Also, in Numbers, we see that God is patient with his people. Never have a people had so little to complain about, and yet excelled at it. Over and over in Numbers the people grumbled. By the way, grumbling is the polar opposite of thanksgiving. The word denotes a settled attitude of ingratitude – that justifies itself by making accusations of evil
When Israel grumbled, they weren’t reciting pet-peeves.
- They actually accused God of evil motives and hostile action.
- They said that he had brought them into the wilderness to kill them.
- They called God a liar and demanded that he change for the better.
They tried the patience of God and at times he had just had enough. So He disciplined them…yet in the end, his forbearance won out. At the end of 40 years there were just as many men of war as there had been at the start. That is what those two census figures are all about.
Now it is very much worth noting…that while God patient God, there is also an end to his patience. Judgment delayed is not judgment escaped. The day of the Lord is as inevitable as any other. May we purpose never to try his patience or presume upon it.
A fourth theological truth is that God listens to the prayers of his people. Numbers is a book about intercessory prayer. Moses must have had calluses on his knees.
There was probably no one in Israel more put upon than Moses. His life was not his own.
- He was badgered day and night…constantly in court mediating cases
- Blamed when things went wrong and not thanked when things went right. And threatened…his life was put in peril at the hands of his own countrymen.
Yet when the patience of God wore thin, Moses intervened.
- He prayed for Aaron & Miriam who challenged his authority
- When God threatened to wipe out Israel…for refusing to enter Canaan, he asked God to pardon them…and to do it on no other grounds than God’s own reputation and mercy (14:13-16).
- He intervened when they grumbled – when God sent fire and then again when he sent serpents.
- Had it not been for the prayers of Moses, thousands more would have died.
It is hard to pray for sinners. It is even harder when they’ve done you wrong and threatened your life. But that is what Moses did and what God wants us to do
Then, a final theological truth is, that God always protects his people. He protects them from spiritual harm. He protects them from the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. When Balaam tried to curse God’s people, He turned them into blessings. In a world given to magical incantation and pagan ritual, God showed himself superior to all. The civilizations who practised them were wiped from the earth while God’s people became triumphant.
Yet God’s protection was conditional. He blessed those who were obedient while 23,000 men went to an early grave. May we trust and obey God so that he can treat us as the objects of his kindness.