I think Numbers is one of the most underrated books. Once you get past the first few chapters, several significant events create tiny ripples that form tidal waves of judgment and redemption throughout the rest of the Bible. A few passages we’ll read about this week are picked up in the New Testament and used as exhortations to faithful obedience.
We get more detail here about the offerings given on the day the tabernacle was set up. Each gave as his heart moved him. The Lord was pleased with the offerings because Moses spoke with the Lord who was above the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant.
Here are further instructions about the tabernacle, priests, and plans to summon the people, followed by the one-year anniversary of the Passover journey out of Egypt. At the end of chapter 10, the people set out from Sinai into the wilderness ultimately heading to the Promised Land. I’m reminded of the song “The Lord Our God” which says, “Promise maker, promise keeper, you finish what you begin. Our provision through the desert, you see it through ‘til the end … We won’t move without you, you’re the light of all and all that we need.” He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.
This is an important reading today. Notice the familiar pattern: All is well, the Lord dwells with and leads his people, then the people ruin it. They distort their former situation in Egypt and second-guess the Lord’s faithfulness. Therefore, the Lord gives them up to their desire for meat until it becomes loathsome to them (sounds like Romans 1, huh?). Also, Moses’ wish for God’s Spirit at the end of chapter 11 is amazing – talk about a foreshadowing of the new covenant mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31-34! Finally, we finish with a bang as spies are sent into the Promised Land and report back to the people.
Numbers 14 is also significant. There’s rebellion and pardon. There’s an appeal to Yahweh’s steadfast love. This whole story becomes an exhortation in Hebrews 3: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the day of the rebellion.” Respond in trust and obedience, for the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness – but he will not acquit the guilty.
This is another significant moment and is also referenced in the New Testament (Jude 11 – which re-mixes a lot of OT rebellions). Here, some Levites come to Moses saying they want to be priests. They’re Levites but they want to be priests. They want more than what they have. I’m struck by Moses and Aaron’s response to the Lord’s anger in 16:22 – “shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?” Here’s an opportunity to see the gospel in this passage. I love how Ligon Duncan explains it:
“This picture of Aaron running through Israel, swinging this censer around and saying, ‘Lord God! Don’t wipe them all out!’ They’ve just tried to reject God’s appointed mediator, and now he is standing between the living and the dead, and he is the one thing between them and the wrath of God. And it’s the picture of Christ standing in between the dead and the living, that the plague might be spared…except He bears the plague.”
After the disaster of Korah’s rebellion, the Lord clarifies and instructs the priests and Levites about their proper duties. Clarity is a great kindness from the Lord and is for our good. Numbers 20:10-13 is also significant as Moses “steals” God’s glory and is not permitted to enter the Land.
It is a good and beautiful thing when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.
The account of the fiery serpents in chapter 21 foreshadows Jesus’s crucifixion which he alludes to in John 3:14-15. After rescue from the fiery serpents, the people travel into inhabited territory nearer to the Promised Land and encounter some persecution from those nations – but the Lord is with them and gives victory. In chapter 22, Balaam’s donkey speaks – which is one of the funniest stories in the Bible (to me, at least). Stay tuned because this is just the set-up for amazing oracles we’ll read next week. I’m intrigued by the juxtaposition of these stories. In one, the Israelites look and live. In another, Balaam looks and can’t see what’s actually there.