Posted by David Holder on March 7, 2012
Interest in and excitement about Numbers is not exactly encouraged by the book’s title in our English Bibles. And when you combine the totally unglamourous name of the book with its opening chapters containing censuses and other lists, it is understandable why Numbers is not a popular read. But give it a chance, and you may be surprised at what we encounter on this segment of Route 66: A Journey Through the Bible.
Geographically, Numbers takes us from Mount Sinai to the plains of Moab, east of the Jordan River where Israel would enter the Promised Land. But Israel didn’t take a straight shot from Sinai to Canaan, not nearly as straight as it could have been. What was approximately a four-week journey took forty years because of disbelief and disobedience. Chronologically, the book takes us from the old generation that left Egypt and sinned in the desert to a new generation that stands on the brink of the Promised Land. One generation died in the wilderness while the next generation had to learn to do differently and better.
The question raised by this situation and that comes to the forefront in this book is this: Will the new generation be faithful to God, or will they rebel as their parents did? This, in fact, is a relevant and searching question for every generation.
In turning our attention to the message of Numbers, we need to see especially what the book says about God. Though the nation of Israel appears to be on center stage in Numbers – preparing to move, leaving Mount Sinai and heading into the wilderness toward Canaan, complaining, rebelling, and murmuring, the book is really about God.
- Numbers shows that God guides and directs His people. The wilderness may be trackless, as most wildernesses are, but the journeying nation was not without a guide. God led them by a cloud in the day and a fiery cloud at night (9:15-23). The nation set out from Mount Sinai at the command of the Lord – 10:11-13. The ark of the covenant was the nation’s symbol of God’s presence, whether in the middle of the camp (2:1-2, cf. 7:89) or in front of them as they marched (10:33).
- Numbers shows that God provides and disciplines. God made clear what He wanted His people to do and how He wanted them to live. He provided leadership, especially in the persons of Moses and Aaron, and He provided what His people needed – manna, quail, and water (11:1-35, 20:2-13). He gave victory over those who were against them (21:3, 21-35; 31:1-12) and stood ready to bless and keep His people. At the same time, God grew angry with His people. He was not blind to their bad attitudes or forever tolerant of their evil. Numbers presents a sobering, chilling reality. The God who entered into covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12), who delivered His people from bondage (Ex. 14-15), who revealed His holiness and the means to approach Him through sacrificial worship (Lev. 1-7) – is also a God of wrath and a consuming fire, and His wrath extends to His erring children as well as to His enemies. The old generation died in the wilderness as objects of the wrath of their holy God. How important it is for us to hear and heed this message.
- Numbers shows God is holy and forgiving. God provided both priests and sacrifices. He gave instructions about dealing with defilement (5:1-4, 19:10-22). He punished His people’s rebellion and sin (20:2-13, at Meribah and 14:1-45, at Kadesh). God also listened to Moses’ intercession and forgave His people (14:17-20), and He regarded Phineas’ intervention and stopped the plague (25:6-11). In many ways Numbers is a depressing book – an entire generation wasted its privilege and squandered its relationship with a loving and giving God. But at the same time it is an uplifting book. From many miserable situations in Numbers, God emerges as patient and kind, firm in dealing with rebellion, but able to forgive and stay with His people. Numbers holds a powerful and moving picture of God.
The book also says something important about people – all people in general and God’s people in particular. It shows they have decisions to make and that these decisions are not made in a vacuum. According to Numbers, God’s people had decisions to make when they were in places without adequate water and when human leaders tried leading them back to Egypt; they had decisions to make when they faced fortified cities and giants, troubles and temptations. This is not unlike situations faced at times by people of all generations. So, what will people do? What did the people of Israel do?
- Some grew dissatisfied and impatient; they grumbled and complained. Some were clearly rebellious against the leaders God had assigned and some were flagrantly immoral.
- And then at times, Israel did all the Lord commanded. In the setting of Numbers, this wasn’t often, but it did happen.
- Israel was God’s people and Canaan would be His gift to them. One generation squandered their opportunity to possess the land, but this did not invalidate the promise – see 15:1, “When you enter the land where you are to live, which I am giving to you ….” The book warns as well as challenges and encourages (32:8-15, 23), because God will bring people into the land of promise. Will the new generation trust and obey?
Numbers says that God is caring and so fully involved with His people in their journey that even their persistent complaining and rebellion cannot thwart His promise to them. Every generation will face its threats, difficulties, temptations, and struggles. One enduring value and function of Numbers is that it serves as a model for each succeeding generation of God’s people. It invites and demands that we put ourselves in the place of the “new generation.”
- Will we recognize and respect God’s presence and guidance?
- Will we grumble, complain, and rebel?
- Will we trust and obey God so we can participate in His great and wonderful blessings? Will we live, think, and act so we may receive something like Aaron’s blessings on the people: “The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine on you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift His countenance on you, And give you peace” (6:24-26).