By the time we come to Numbers God’s people have experienced some amazing things. They have seen how God delivered them from Egypt. They had walked through the parted sea and watched as God drowned their pursuers. They had been fed manna in the wilderness. They had been delivered from the Amalekites.
Now they are preparing to enter Canaan. This should be an exciting time for them. God has demonstrated that his power and his faithfulness, surely they will trust him and obey, taking the land that he has promised. If only things worked out so well!
Preparation for entry: (Chapters 1-10)
On the first anniversary of the Exodus the Tabernacle was erected (Exodus 40:17), a fortnight later the Passover had been celebrated (Numbers 9:1-3), and a fortnight later again a census was taken. Numbers takes its name from the censuses that are recorded in it.
We see this first census in chapter 1. Note that this census is of all the men twenty years or over, who would be able to serve as soldiers. This is preparation for war—the rabble that had emerged from Egypt is beginning to look like an impressive army. Three weeks later the march begins. The Tabernacle is dismantled and God marches before them in a pillar of cloud (Numbers 10:11-12).
How are things looking? Things are looking good!
Entry Postponed: chapters 10-19
However, within hours of setting out the people start grumbling. They complain about the conditions God was making them endure—especially with regards food and water. They refuse to accept the leaders he has provided. Most seriously, despite all the evidence of God’s power that they have witnessed as he delivered them from Egypt, they will not trust that he is able to bring them into the land.
Moses had sent out spies to explore the place. They returned with fruit proving that it was indeed ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’, but the spies added that in their view the inhabitants were invincible (see chapter 13). At this report the people wept. Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, urged them not to disobey the LORD or fear the people of the land (14:5-9). But it was no use, indeed the people talked of stoning them.
The people had treated the LORD with contempt, they had refused to believe in him despite the miraculous signs he had performed among them (14:11), and so God’s judgement fell upon them for their rebellion. None of the adults of that generation, except for Caleb and Joshua, would enter the Promised Land. For forty years they wondered in the wilderness, and there they died.
What has happened God’s promise? In faithfulness to his promise he does not abandon it but, because of their unbelief, it is postponed.
Preparation for entry ‘again’: chapters 20-36
It would seem that by chapters 20 and 21 all the older and unbelieving generation had died. The census of chapter 26 confirms this. So at the end of Numbers we are again getting ready for entry into the land. In preparation we see discussions on such things as inheritance issues—for when the people are settled, and the urgent question of who will succeed Moses and lead the people into the Promised Land is answered with the appointment of Joshua. In these chapters God’s promises again come to the fore. We see this in the story of Balaam.
Balaam is hired by the king of Moab to curse the advancing Israelites, but Balaam finds he is unable to do anything but bless them, even quoting God’s promises to Abraham in the process. Here is a pagan prophet incapable of nullifying God’s promise. The Moabites, standing between Israel and Canaan, are not able to stop its fulfilment.
Numbers and the New Testament:
In both Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) a parallel is seen between Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness and Israel’s forty years in the desert. The temptations that Jesus faced were almost identical to those faced by Israel—relating to food, protection and idolatry. But Jesus did not give in to the temptations. He responds to the devil by quoting passages from Deuteronomy—passages that were dealing with Israel’s wilderness experience. Jesus is the new Israel, where the old Israel failed.
Amongst John’s use of Numbers is the story of the bronze snake in the desert, recorded in Numbers 21:4-9. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, we read in John 3, so the Son of man must be lifted up (a reference to the cross and his exaltation), that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15).
In the New Testament epistles (the letters) this time in the desert stands as a great warning to us. As we have seen, despite being miraculously delivered from Egypt, and daily evidences of God providing for their needs, Israel refused to believe and rebelled against their Saviour. God’s judgements against them are a warning for us. In a passage that draws heavily from Numbers Paul writes, these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did’ (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-13). Vaughan Roberts expands, ‘If we have faith in Christ, we too have been set free from slavery (to sin, not to Egypt) by a Passover sacrifice (of Jesus, not a lamb), and we have been set on a journey to the Promised Land (heaven, not Canaan). We must make sure that we do not fall because of sin and unbelief, but that we keep on trusting God until we reach the destination.’
Extra notes on Numbers:
- Redemption of firstborn (who would have died in the Passover). Firstborn are replaced by Levities and offering for extra 273. See Numbers 3.
- Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses’s Cushite wife (12:1-13)
- Korah’s rebellion (16)
- Aaron confirmed as High Priest (17)
- Moses lack of faith (20)
- Balaam in New Testament (2 Peter 2:15 and Revelation 2:14)