Learning From Numbers - In The Wilderness

“Then the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai . . . “( Numbers 1:1)

Sports come in many different levels of complexity. At the simplest level, some sports are easily understood by everyone. What is complex about the 100 meter dash? Someone shoots a gun, the athletes run as if the man was firing at them, and the one who breaks the tape first wins. Somewhat more complex is the game of soccer. If you watched the World Cup recently it was sometimes a puzzle for those who do not know the game but watched having got caught up in the excitement.

However, when it comes to truly complex sports, there is nothing to match cricket. None of the fielding position names make any obvious sense: there is a third man, but no first man or second man, and the long leg may be only five feet, two inches in height. If you are batting on a sticky wicket and fail to distinguish between a googly and a leg-break, you may end up caught in the slips or at a silly mid-on. Are you following me? What other sport could be played for five full days and still end up in a draw because they ran out of time? The uninitiated novice certainly needs an experienced guide to comprehend the complexities of England’s national summer pastime.

It is the same way with literature: it comes in differing levels of complexity. At one end of the range, you have the simplicity of a children’s story, like The Tale of Peter Rabbit. At the other, there is the mammoth and sprawling canvas of books like The Lord of the Rings, which comes complete with interspersed songs about totally unrelated events from the fictional history of Middle-Earth and citations in several completely fabricated languages such as Dwarf and Elfish. It is a daunting step upward from Peter Rabbit to the Lord of the Rings, and still further to complex Russian novels like War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, where every character seems to have at least three different names, and a deeply tortured relationship with his or her soul. When you read such books, there are often times when you wish for an accompanying wizard to shed a little light on what is going on.

The Bible is made up of books of varying complexity or, perhaps, different kinds of profundity. Even the simplest tale in the Bible, such as the epic battle of David and Goliath, is actually far more profound on close reading than it first appears. The Bible is, to paraphrase something Augustine once said, shallow enough for a child to paddle in and yet at the same time deep enough to drown an elephant. There are really no simple tales in the Bible. Yet even having said that, there are some books of the Bible where the elephant will disappear from view more easily and in which the child sees little benefit in splashing.

The Book of Numbers is certainly no Peter Rabbit story: it is a complex and involved tale that, like Tolkien’s mines of Moria, seems likely to swallow up the unwary. At the same time, however, this too is the Word of God, all of which is inspired and profitable for reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 2:16). There is a blessing attached to the reading and hearing of God’s Word, and it is my prayer that with the guiding of the Holy Spirit, you and I can unfold some of the riches of the book.

Nor is the book of Numbers simply a book about ancient Old Testament history. The gospel is not a New Testament invention; on the contrary, it is the center of the whole Bible. When Jesus caught up with the dispirited disciples on the road to Emmaus that first Easter Sunday, he rebuked them for being “foolish” and “slow of heart” because they had failed to recognize that fact (Luke 24:25). Then, taking them on a tour of the Old Testament beginning with Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy) and continuing through all the Prophets (Joshua to Malachi), he showed them how obvious it should have been that the Christ had to suffer death and then enter his glory (vv 26, 27). Sometimes we may wish that we had been able to eavesdrop on that conversation, because it may not always be immediately obvious to us as we skim the book of Numbers exactly how this book points to the sufferings of Christ and the glories that will follow. Yet is we approach the book with an understanding of this apostolic hermeneutical key (Luke 24:44; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6; Acts 26:22, 23), we will find that what seemed at first sight dusty and irrelevant antiquities open up their pages to us and yield rich food for our souls.

We need first to get a perspective of the big picture of the book. We look in vain for a developing plot line, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is a different kind of story from the ones with which we are familiar. It is a story that doesn’t really have a beginning. Grammatically it starts in mid-sentence, as it were, with a Hebrew narrative form that usually links back to the preceding verb. That is because the book of Numbers wants you to know that it never existed as an independent narrative: it is itself a continuation of the story of God’s dealings with his people already begun in Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus.

Nor does the book of Numbers really have much of an ending: it seems to peter out with the story of the request by Zelophehad’s daughters that they too might share in their father’s inheritance, even though they had no brothers (36:1-13). Contrast that with the book of Genesis, which begins in the Garden of Eden and ends with a coffin in Egypt. There is movement there – a story. Or consider the book of Exodus, which begins with Israel enslaved in Egypt and ends with them set free to worship the Lord, who is present in their midst in the tabernacle, just as he promised. There’s a story there.

The title of the fourth book of the Bible is misleading. It came from the fact that there are two main censuses of the people of Israel, comprising only about five of the 36 chapters in the book. This book is about far more than numbers. The book of Numbers, however, starts out in the wilderness and ends up in the wilderness. In fact, the Hebrew name for this biblical book, fittingly enough, is precisely that: “In the Wilderness” which much better identifies its contents. Israel started out the book of Numbers on the brink of the Promised Land, being counted for the holy war that would be required to enter, and they ended it still on the brink of the Promised Land, ready to have another chance to enter into the enjoyment of what God had promised. In between the beginning and the end are 36 chapters of wandering, chapters that cover some forty years and record the lives of a whole generation. Yet at the end of the book, even though geographically the Israelites had progressed in three stages from the sojourn at the wilderness of Sinai (Num. 1:1-10:10), by the way of the journey to Kadesh-barnea (10:11 – 20:1), and then on to the plains of Moab (20:1-36:13), they had in some ways simply come full circle, back to where they started. They are still in the wilderness, waiting to enter the Promised Land. The essentially circular narrative structure, lacking in progress, is not an error or failure on the author’s part but is a mark of his literally skill, a part of his message.

In fact, though, the end is not quite a complete return to the beginning. The book of Numbers is essentially the story of two generations. Each generation undergoes a census in the book: the first generation at the beginning of the book, and the second generation in Numbers 26. Numbers 1-25 is the story of the first generation – a story of unbelief, rebellion, despair, and death. It shows us what happens to the generation that refuses to place their trust in the Lord in spite of his manifest trustworthiness: they are unable to enter his rest, and their bodies are scattered over the wilderness. Numbers 17-36, though starts the story of the next generation, a story that begins and ends with Zelophehad’s daughters, whose appeal for an inheritance is the first issue to be addressed in the beginning of that story in Numbers 27 and the last to be covered as the book concludes in Numbers 36. These women of faith are emblematic of the new generation because they were deeply concerned about ensuring that their descendants would have an inheritance in the Promised Land – even though not one inch of it had yet been won by Israel at the time when they first raised the issue in Numbers 27. Zelophehad’s daughters believed firmly in the promises of God, and so they acted in faith on those promises, claiming a share in the future inheritance of God’s people for themselves and for their children too. So, in broad terms we may say that the story of the book of Numbers is the story of two consecutive generations, a generation of unbelief that leads to death and a generation of faith that will lead to life.

If we drew up a summary of what we learn from Numbers we could include at least these conclusions:

  1. God is always a loving God, faithful to his covenant, and close to his chosen people. This is evident in 9:15-16 where he is present in the cloud that covered the tabernacle, a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, which must have been an awesome sight, reflecting God’s presence.
  2. In spite of the sin that kept him from entering Canaan, Moses receives high marks in God’s grade book, as indicated in 12:6-8. While God speaks to other prophets in dreams and visions, “I speak with him face to face, even plainly and not in dark sayings” and “He is faithful in all My house.”
  3. God demands obedience and faithfulness, and meets out judgment in the face of sin and rebellion. Miriam was turned into a leper (12:10), a fire of judgment upon those who prostituted themselves with foreign women and bowed down to their gods, and some were hanged (25:1-5); even Moses and Aaron faced a fearful judgment (20:12).
  4. Murmuring, finding fault, and complaining are especially grievous to God, so much so that the generation that left Egypt were all punished by wandering in the wilderness forty years until all, twenty years old and upward, died off, except for two. It should give us all pause to guard against ingratitude, complaining and faultfinding, sins all too common even in the church.
  5. God is always holy and awesome. He is not to be taken lightly, and is not to be mocked.
  6. In spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness, God’s purposes will be realized in his chosen people; they will inherit Canaan, and live as a nation to accomplish what God has decreed for them.

And finally, but not the least, Numbers gives us God’s way of blessing others, a priestly blessing recorded in 6:24-26. Since we as “the royal priesthood” are priests unto God, we can make use of it. And God promises that when we bestor the blessing, he will bless that person. What a powerful spiritual tool to have at our disposal! I covet that blessing from you. surely it can be bestowed from a distance.

The Lord bless you and keep you;

The Lord make His face to shine upon you,

And be gracious to you:

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you,

And give you peace.