Numbers is probably one of the most difficult books in the OT in terms of “what on earth is going on”.
Numbers is filled with a mixture of things – narrative, additional laws, census lists, oracles from a pagan prophet (Balaam) and it is not easy to see how it all fits together.
To understand Numbers you need to remember the driving force of the Pentateuch as a whole – God’s promise / covenant with Abraham that his seed would inherit the land of Canaan. This is what underlines everything in the book of Numbers. God WILL bring about the fulfillment of this promise, even in the face of Israel’s reluctance and disobedience.
A summary of the content of Numbers: The Israelites long stay in the desert as they journey from Mount Sinai to the Plains of Moab – a journey which takes them 38 years. During the journey they are given supplemental covenant laws.
A summary of the Emphasis of Numbers: Preparation for military conquest of the promised land – God’s covenant loyalty towards Israel – Israel’s repeated failure to keep covenant with God – God’s leadership of his people and His affirmation of Moses’ leadership; preparation for entering and worshipping in the promised.
The book itself opens with a Census – The Lord spoke to Moses…. a pattern seen in Exodus.
So Moses, in Chps 1 & 2 takes a census of the people and then tells them to camp around the Tabernacle – Num. 2:1-2 1 The LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron: 2 “Every one2 of the Israelites must camp3 under his standard with the emblems of his family;4 they must camp at some distance5 around the tent of meeting
The purpose of the census is to list all those who were to be fighting men for the coming conquest of the land of Canaan. According to Num 1:1 this takes places on the first day of the second month the second year after God brought them out of Egypt.
Israel is being prepared, as we saw last week, to be God’s people, and to take the claim of Canaan in order to do the work of the Lord.
One of the characteristics of Numbers is that the people of Israel are not shown in a good light at all.
Chp 11:1 When the people complained; 11:4-5 If only we had meat to eat. We remember the fish we used to eat freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. But now we are all fried up and there is nothing at all before us except this manna! 16:1ff Now Korah son of Izhar the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, the son of Eliab and On son of Peleth who were Reubenites took men and rebelled against Moses. 20:3ff The people contended with Moses saying, ‘If only we had died when our brothers died before the Lord. Chp 21:4-9
Each time Israel complains God punished them. They should have known better. They had witnessed untold miracles and still they refused to trust in God’s provision for them, even wishing they were back in slavery.
But in the middle of this complaining and grumbling something goes horribly for the wrong for the Israelites.
Chp 13 – Spies are sent out to look at the land and coming back they all, apart from joshua and Caleb, say that Israel cannot win. They show their distrust of God’s power, despite knowing how he defeated Egypt.
God punishes them by promising they will not dwell in the land:
Num. 14:20 Then the LORD said, “I have forgiven them as you asked.36 21 But truly, as I live,37 all the earth will be filled with the glory of the LORD. 22 For all the people have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tempted38 me now these ten times,39 and have not obeyed me,40 23 they will by no means41 see the land that I swore to their fathers, nor will any of them who despised me see it. 24 Only my servant Caleb, because he had a different spirit and has followed me fully–I will bring him into the land where he had gone, and his descendants42 will possess it. 25 (Now the Amalekites and the Canaanites were living in the valleys.)43 Tomorrow, turn and journey into the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea.”
Now begins their long desert journey. Numbers overs the 38 years they are in the desert as the original generation, except Joshua and Caleb die.
In this period of ‘wandering’ in the desert the Israelites are prepared for warfare.They encounter hostile Canaan and Amorites Kings who come to fight and God tells the Israelites to attack the Midianites. Scholars talk about this being the second stage of the Holy War. The first stage – against Pharaoh in exodus was carried out by God himself, extracting his people fro Egypt and killing the Egyptian army. This second stage is the conquest of the land and this stage requires the people’s co-operation and participation.
Hence, after the 38 years, a second census is called by God, so that the second generation will be recorded and ready to take the land God had promised them. The Israelites were now by the Jordan opposite Jericho and ready to go!
Num 26:2-3 “Take a census of the whole community of Israelites, from twenty years old and upward, by their clans,3 everyone who can serve in the army of Israel.”4 3 So Moses and Eleazar the priest spoke with them in the plains of Moab, by the Jordan River5 across from Jericho
God’s promises will come true – He is patient – he is true and even in the midst of our failings, our sins, our mistakes, God’s promises will happen.
Two things stand out very importantly in Numbers – firstly, is the constant challenge to Moses and Aaron’s leadership.
Chp 16 we see korah challenging Moses. Some of this is jealousy – v3 Why then do you exalt yourself above the community of the Lord – most of it is about the fact that things are not going the way they thought it would go.
The issue here is not that Korah thinks God has NOT spoken to Moses – or that Moses is doing something that God has said NOT to do. The issue is korah does not LIKE what is happening
Following the Lord’s calling, both individually and together as a community is not about a free ride – that everything goes smoothly, without any hitch or challenges. It can be HARD, the challenges can be huge and the outlook can sometimes look bleak EVEN when you follow the way of the Lord.
Korah wanted things his way in his own time. That’s not how things are done – and when we push our own agendas and our own ways and our own timings we rebel against God. This is why Korah’s punishment is so dramatic.
The second thing is the narrative about the pagan prophet Balaam.
Here we have a wonderful image that when you walk in the paths of the Lord, you shall be protected. Notice something here. This is going on behind the back of Israel. Apart from the fact that God obviously tells Moses what happened so to put it in the book, this whole episode is happening without the Israelites knowledge.
If you were aware of every spiritual battle that took place over your life you would be terrified.
The King of Moabites goes to Balaam in order to curse the Israelites. The fact that God intervenes to speak to and direct Balaam shows that this was a real issue – the curing of the Israelites would have had consequences.
Yet God intervenes. Balaam is unable to prophecy a curse against the Israelites to the chagrin of the king.
The big theme then of Numbers is that despite ISrael’s sins, wafflings and complaints, this is above all God’s story and God will keep and fulfill his part of the covenant with Abraham.
The issue is whether Israel will keep the covenant with God – and Numbers reminds you over and over again that the divine provision for them to do is always ready at hand.
There are some major events in Numbers which are mentioned elsewhere in Scripture – Joshua and Caleb alone think Israel can take the promised land (Num 13-14 / Jos 14:7); Moses striking the rock and water coming out (Num 20:11 / Ps 106:32); Moses lifting up a bronze serpent on a pole so that believing Israelites may be healed (Num 21:6-9 / John 3:14) & Balaam was rebuked by his donkey (num 22:21 / rev 2:14).
OK, to sum up – in this book the people of God tested God’s patience and he in turn tested their endurance and faithfulness. Though the people failed many times God showed his own faithfulness by his constant presence leading the way.
What can Numbers teach us? Well, the apostle Paul helps here: 1 Cor 10:1-6 says: For I do not want you to be unaware,1 brothers and sisters,2 that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized3 into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5 But God was not pleased with most of them, for they were cut down in the wilderness. 6 These things happened as examples for us, so that we will not crave evil things as they did.
Let’s not doubt the goodness of God – even when we feel we are in the wilderness – let’s rejoice in his provision for us, even when it may appear mundane and let us not crave other things beyond what God has for us. A re we grumbling? Are we rebellious? Can we be like the Israelites?