The Book of Numbers: “The Way of Transgressors is Hard”

(In this post, we’re taking a little side-trip.  A friend was curious about the Book of Numbers.  Since my printer has expired, I give this to him, and to you, like this.  Thanks for your patience.  C.)

Numbers is the fourth of the first five books of the Bible:  the Pentateuch.  After telling us a little of the origins of this world and its inhabitants in Genesis 1-11, these books focus on the nation of Israel, its origin and what happened to it before it finally entered the Promised Land as told in Joshua and the books following.

1. GENESIS speaks of ELECTION, as God chose Abraham out of all the family of Terah, Isaac instead of Ishmael, and Jacob instead of Esau.

2. EXODUS speaks of EMANCIPATION, with the redemption and release of Israel from Egyptian bondage.

3. LEVITICUS speaks of EXPECTATION, as God instructs His people about their worship of Him.  In passing, it’s interesting that nowhere in the OT is it ever said that God expected Israel would actually do what He told them to.  Israel had a “relationship” with God as a NATION, but this did not guarantee an INDIVIDUAL relationship to any particular Israelite.  There were some in every generation who knew and followed the Lord, but for the most part, if we can put it like this, the Mosaic Law given to Israel at Sinai was “religion for lost people,” showing them, and us, the righteousness required to walk with God and also showing that it’s not possible for us on our own.  This explains why it was so easy for Israel to stray – indeed, they were in a wild orgy before Moses came down from the mountain!

4. NUMBERS speaks of EXPERIENCE, revealing the wilderness journeys and the sad failure of Israel to live up to their responsibilities.

5. DEUTERONOMY speaks of EXHORTATION, as Moses makes one final plea and appeal to Israel as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.
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Numbers may be divided like this:

1. Preparation for the Journey, chs. 1:1-10:10

2. Progress of the Journey, chs. 10:11-22:1

3. Postscript to the Journey, chs. 22:2-36:13.
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1. Preparation for the Journey, 1:1-10:10.

The nation of Israel wasn’t just to be a motley collection of people with no direction.  They were carefully organized into a coherent nation and every part of the national life was covered in the laws they were given.  Much of their personal lives was covered as well, as any nation is, by necessity, made up of individuals.

There is much food for thought, and much to be learned, from what seem to be lengthy, boring and irrelevant details about people long dead and situations long past.  The NT refers to the usefulness of these OT passages in such places as 1 Corinthians 10:1-12, where Paul refers to the example and admonition to be found in them, v. 11.  At the same time, nowhere in the NT are we instructed to try to duplicate what we find in the OT.  We’re not some replacement for or spiritual fulfillment of the nation of Israel.  Christians do not live under the terms of the Mosaic, or old, Covenant.  Through the Lord Jesus, we live under the New Covenant.  Much of Hebrews deals with this.  Even in eternity, Israel and the church will never lose their distinct identities, Revelation 21:12-14. 

In chs. 1-4, Israel was organized.   God is a God of order, 1 Corinthians 14:33.  In the wilderness or in the land, Israel was to be a nation of order.  We see in Judges what happened when Israel ignored that, cf. Judges 17:6; 21:25.

In chs. 5-9:14, Israel was separated from all that was unclean or diseased, 5:1-4.  This wasn’t just a “health” matter, though that certainly was involved.  It was a matter of “holiness.”  Holiness isn’t an experience or a denomination; it’s separation to God from the filth and defilement of the world; it’s the imperfect manifestation of the character of God in the believer.  I say “imperfect” because we’ll never be “perfect” in this life.

In chs. 9:15-10:10, Israel was instructed.  God didn’t let the people wander aimlessly or leave them to their own devices, but led them step by step along the way.  We may not have the pillar of fire or of the cloud or the trumpets, but we have the New Testament and the Spirit of God to guide us in our journey.  Alas, we’re too often like Israel, intent on doing our own thing or doing things our way.

2. Progress of the Journey, 10:11-22:1.

This portion may be divided into two sections.

Chs. 10:11-15:41 tell of the journey.  It began and continued under divine guidance, 10:11, cf. 9:22.  It was plagued by continual complaining by the people, chs.  11, 12.  It was postponed by unbelief and rebellion, chs. 13-15.  Because of this, it took Israel 38 years to complete an 11-day trip, Deuteronomy 1:2.  Yet, in spite of their unbelief and even before they turned back into the wilderness to begin their punishment, God gave instructions to Moses for when they finally would enter the land, Numbers 15.

Chs. 16-21 tell of some judgments which befell the Israelites in their complaining and rebelling.  They finally got the the land, but it was a difficult trip.  Chs. 16-18 tell of the establishment of the Aaronic priesthood because the people accused Moses of promoting himself as leader and because he hadn’t brought them into the land.  It was all his fault!  Almost 15,000 people died as a result of this judgment.  Ch. 19 tells of “the red heifer,” which was sacrificed and her ashes used in purification.  Chs. 20, 21 give some details of the journey:  Moses striking the rock instead of speaking to it, 20:1-13; this lost him the privilege of entering the land.  There is the refusal of Edom to allow passage through its territory, 20:14-21, the death of Aaron, 20:22-29, victory over some attacking Canaanites, 21:1-3, the incident of the bronze serpent, 21:4-9, to which our Lord refers as a foreshadowing of His own death in John 3:14, the last leg of the journey to the border, in which they defeated Sihon, king of the Amorites and took his land as theirs, 21:10-34.

3. Postscript to the Journey, 22-36.

Even on the very border of the land, there were things to be done or overcome.  Moses gives 3 chapters, 23-25, to Balaam, a false prophet referred to 3 times in the NT, 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11; Revelation 2:14.  He was hired by the king of Moab to try to defeat Israel.  Balaam gave four prophecies about Israel, none of which satisfied the king.  We just list them here.  Meditation on their contents is fruitful, cf. Micah 6:5.

a. the people of Israel, 23:7-10.
b. the God of Israel, 23:18-24.  Note v. 21!
c. the prosperity and peace of Israel, 24:3-9.
d. the future of Israel, 24:15-24.

Chapter 25 describes yet another failure on Israel’s part.  They were invited to join the Moabites in the immoral worship of their gods and did so.  Though we’re not specifically told here, Balaam was behind this sin, Numbers 31:16; Revelation 2:14.  Perhaps he thought that since he himself could not curse Israel, he would get God to do it.

Chapter 26 describes a census of Israel.  This was to make sure that all the men who had rebelled 38 years earlier had died, vs. 64, 65, in fulfillment of the judgment pronounced against them for that rebellion, Numbers 14:34-36.

Chapter 27:1-11 describes a strange request by some women.  We spent some time on this in our post on “The Daughters of Zelophehad.”  If you’re interested, you can look for it in the “search” box at the top of the blog.  We’ll only say here that it’s because of these four women that the Lord Jesus will one day sit on the throne of David in Jerusalem.

Chapter 27:12-23 tells of Joshua, the young man chosen to be Moses’ successor.  Chapters 28-30 give instruction for sacrifices as well as some other laws.  Chapter 31 gives the victory over yet another of Israel’s enemies.

Chapters 32-36 close the book and give us these incidents:
a. Some of the tribes requested land on the east side of the Jordan River (Canaan was on the west side).  They had a lot of cattle and the eastern plains were lush and fertile.  Moses granted this request after some discussion, but this area was almost always the first to come under attack because it wasn’t protected by the river.  Like Lot, they chose according to what they could see and not by the wisdom of God, and their descendants suffered because of it.
b. Chapter 33:1-49 gives a recap of Israel’s journey in the wilderness.
c. In the rest of the book, chs. 33:50 through ch. 36, God instructs Israel about what they were to do once they entered into the land.
1).  They were to destroy the present inhabitants.  This troubles a lot of people.  How could such genocide be justified?  Two things to remember:  a). it was a judgment against the inhabitants of the land for their wickedness.  The Canaanites were not an innocent and childlike people.  Archaeology has brought some of their wicked activities  to light.  Leviticus 18 lists some of these abominable practices and forbids them to the Israelites.  b). It was a protection for the Israelites, lest they be tempted to do the same things.  In Numbers 33:55, 56, God warned Israel that if they did these things, the Canaanites would be trouble, and Israel would suffer the same judgments as the Canaanites.  Well, they did, and God did.
2). The rest of the book, chs. 34, 35, shows the division of the land, the boundaries of the land, and the distribution of Levitical cities throughout the land.  Just a couple of thoughts on this.  Israel is the only nation in the history of the world whose boundaries are listed in Scripture, and they are listed several times.  Israel was never to extend herself beyond those boundaries.  She was never, at least in this world, to be an “empire” like the Babylonians or the Romans.  So it’s not a matter of UN directives or political or military maneuvering, but from God, that Israel lives where she does.  No one else has any claim on that land.
In the distribution of the Levites throughout the land, God made provision for His word to be everywhere in that land.  Even though the Temple was the central focus, there was to be a spiritual influence throughout the land with the Levites.  As Israel obeyed in this matter, she prospered.  When she was lax, she suffered.
An application can be made to this land.  In spite of those who deny it, this country was founded by men who had some respect for the Bible.  Being men, they were imperfect and the country they founded was imperfect.  But it rose to be a beacon of freedom and opportunity for its inhabitants, and we’ve never had to build walls to keep people from leaving.  But as the Word of God has had less and less influence, we’ve seen what happens.  The daily newscasts give abundance evidence of the truth that the nations who forget God shall perish. Things done in secret just a few years ago are now done in broad daylight and people demand to do these things as their “rights”.

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5 thoughts on “The Book of Numbers: “The Way of Transgressors is Hard”

      • You know, Maria, there’s a really interesting verse in Ezekiel 3, where God is telling him about his mission. God isn’t sending him to foreign nations whom he can’t understand, but to Israel, but they won’t pay any attention to him. Then, in v. 6, God say this, that if He had sent Ezekiel to another nation, THEY would have listened to him. You and I have been given a great and gracious blessing in being able to read and understand a little of the Word. Many people have not. How much do we owe our Lord??

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