December 11 - Numbers Introduction

The book of Numbers covers the 40-year period of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness.  Up until the spying out of the promised land in Numbers 13 and the subsequent rebellion against God through unbelief in his power and promises (13:31-33), the plan was for Israel to make the two-week journey from Mt. Sinai to Canaan and take the promised land.  Verses 1:1-10:10 describe the organization of Israel for the journey and preparation for life in the promised land.  However, when the people rebel through unbelief, God disciplines the unbelieving generation and promises that they will all die in the wilderness (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) prior to Israel’s reception of the promised land (14:31-35).  After 40 years of wilderness, Israel began to move toward “the plains of Moab,” directly across the Dead Sea from the promised land of Canaan (21:3-22:1).  Here the new generation prepares, once again, to enter the promised land.  Note that Moab is also the setting of the book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 1:5), which literally means, “second law,” referring to the second giving of the law for the new generation.  

Outline of Numbers - a story of three mountains

1:1-10:10 -- Mt. Sinai:  Preparation for the Journey — Several Weeks

10:11-14:45 – Sinai to Kadesh (Mt. Hor):  The Test — Exploring the Land

15-21 – Kadesh to Moab: Wilderness Wanderings — Old Generation dies after 38 years

22-36 – Plains of Moab (Mt. Nebo):  End of the Journey — New Generation prepares

As with the book of Leviticus, we will be relying at times on the expertise of Gordon Wenham, whose Numbers commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) is also one of the most respected commentaries around, though it is from a different series than his Leviticus commentary.  In his introduction, he offers some helpful warnings as we approach the book:  “In ancient times numbers were seen as mysterious and symbolic, a key to reality and the mind of God himself.  Today they are associated with computers and the depersonalization that threatens our society.  Furthermore, the pervasive influence of the romantic movement with its stress on spontaneity and individual freedom has made it yet more difficult for us to appreciate Numbers’ insistence on organization, ritual and hierarchy" (9).  Certainly much of Numbers is not about numbers, even though there are multiple censuses taken!  The title of the book in the Hebrew Bible is “in the wilderness.”  Nevertheless, Wenham’s warning offers us a helpful perspective as we set out on a journey.


Numbers 1 & 2

It has been thirteen months since coming out of Egypt and it is time to begin moving in earnest towards the promised land.  Of course, Israel is on God’s timetable (1:1 -“The Lord spoke . . .”).  God has already given them his law, the tabernacle (i.e. his dwelling place among them), the sacrificial offerings (i.e. his forgiveness), and the priesthood (i.e. his peacemakers).  Now God organizes Israel into his army, which will carry out the judgment of God* on the wicked nations of Canaan and enable Israel to renew the corrupted land of Canaan into a holy land of worship.  Exodus 30:12 mentions a census for the purpose of funding the tabernacle, but this census** is clearly for purposes of battle (1:3,20,22, etc.).  For this reason, the Levites were not included (1:47-54).  Instead, they are called to care for and carry the tabernacle, around which all of the tribes and living quarters of Israel were to be organized (chapter 2).  The Levites form a sort of holy shield immediately around the tabernacle (1:53), and they will have their own census (chapters 3-4).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

•Today’s passage reminds us that God’s people are usually a people on the move, seeking to be agents of God’s good purposes in the world.  Am I on the move with God?  Am I an athlete “in action”?  If so, am I going out in the strength of my own power and personality, or is my life organized around God and centered on God (chapter 2)?  Is He the strength and the direction (1:1) behind what I am seeking to do?  

* See on the judgment of God in Exodus 8-10 devotional.

** Even among orthodox biblical scholars, there is uncertainty about the census numbers (e.g. 603,550 fighting men in 1:46, which would entail a nation in the desert of about two million).  There are a number of very good reasons for the uncertainty.  These scholars are not doubting the inspiration of the original manuscripts, but there is a good possibility of symbolism in the numbers, or scribal errors in copying or translating the numbers.  For instance, the word translated “thousand” may also be translated “family," so that the tribe of Reuben may have consisted of 46 families containing 500 men rather than 46,500 men (Wenham 68-76).   


Numbers 3 & 4

Why two different censuses, one in chapter 3 and one in chapter 4, for the Levites?  Unsurprisingly, both are directly related to Israel’s worship of God, but in different ways.  The first census served the purpose of fulfilling Israel’s “firstfruits” offering.  Just as God called Israel to offer the firstfruits of her harvest in worshipful thanksgiving and recognition of the fact that everything comes from and belongs to God, so was Israel to offer the firstfruits of her womb -- her firstborn sons -- to God.  God not only created these sons, He also redeemed them from death when He passed over them in Egypt, as they were covered by the blood of a sacrificial lamb (3:13).  In chapter 3, God calls the sons of the Levites to substitute as offerings in place of the firstborn sons scattered throughout the other eleven tribes.  All Levite sons older than one month were counted (3:14-15), and their lives would be devoted to tabernacle service.  Since there were 273 more firstborn sons throughout Israel than Levite sons, a financial offering was taken in their place (3:40-51).  

The second census, in chapter 4, only counts those who had maturity and who were in the prime of physical strength to carry out the work in the tabernacle (i.e. those aged 30 to 50 -- 4:3).  Tabernacle labor is divided between the Levitical clans descended from the three sons of Levi — Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.  The Merarites were to set up and tear down the “hardware” or framework of the Tent of Meeting or tabernacle (4:31-32).  The Gershonites were to care for the “software,” namely the coverings and curtains (4:24-26).  The Kohathites were to care for the “most holy things” (4:4ff.)  This makes sense, as the Aaron and Moses are Kohathites.  The sons of Aaron, who had been set apart, ordained, and purified as priests (Leviticus 8), had their own work to do and had closest contact with the “most holy things" (e.g. 4:15-20).  Aaron and sons camped in the prominent position nearest to the entrance of the tabernacle (3:38), east of the Tent (as did the tribe of Judah, though at a farther distance - 2:3), while the other Levite clans camped to the south, west, and north of the Tent.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • The first Levitical census reminds us that all that we have and are belongs to God.  The firstfruits offering of firstborn sons to the worship of God reminds us that our very lives are to be offered to the service of God.  Where I am trying to find life outside of worship and service of the only Lifegiver?  
  • The second census reminds us that not all have the same gifts or calling in serving, but every believer is essential in the work and worship of the church.  Do I value certain callings over others?  Where do I see pride or feel insignificant?  Am I fully participating in the worship and work of the church to the best of my ability?  


Numbers 5

As the Israelites prepare to move the LORD reminds them of a few things that could block their fellowship with God:  uncleanness through skin diseases or contact with the dead (5:1-4)*, neglect of restitution for wrongdoing (5:5-10), and adultery (5:11-31).  All of these are covered in Leviticus, although Numbers adds some instruction regarding restitution in the case where the offended party is no longer living (5:8) and a detailed ritual for dealing with suspected adultery.

Wenham points out that all three dangers show up in the New Testament.  Revelation portrays the new heavens and earth as a place where “nothing unclean shall enter” (Revelation 21:3ff., 27).  “In anticipation of the heavenly consummation, the early church exercised a discipline over its members who blatantly erred in practice or belief (1 Cor. 5:2; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:13; 2 Thess. 3:14; Titus 3:10f.; 1 John 10f.) . . . But if the New Testament upholds the moral side of these uncleanness regulations, it abolished the symbolic physical distinction.  Our Lord healed lepers and the woman with the flow of blood and raised the dead with his touch (Luke 17:12ff.; 8:40ff.)” (Numbers 88).  The New Testament also reasserts the importance of lateral restitution if we are to have fellowship with God.  Jesus said, “'If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift . . . first be reconciled to your brother (Matt. 5:23f.; cf. Luke 19:8f.; 1 Cor. 6:7f.; Gal 5:15, etc.).’” (90).  

Finally, we are continually reminded of the importance of sexual purity throughout the New Testament, but why this elaborate ritual?  “Would not God have answered the priest’s prayer without resorting to the mumbo-jumbo of magic?  Does not this ceremony imply an unbiblical notion of a God subject to human manipulation, or at least an unscientific belief in the efficacy of holy water?  Similar objections could of course be raised against the practice animal sacrifice . . . The rituals accompanying graduation, baptism or marriage indicate the importance society attaches to these institutions.  Similarly, here the offering of sacrifice and the drinking of the bitter waters underlines and dramatizes the curses imposed on the woman.  Whether the potion was effective in making a guilty woman sterile no more depends on magic than does intercessory prayer.  Prayer and symbolic rituals both depend ultimately on the will of God for their efficacy” (92-93). 

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • The uncleanness laws remind us of God’s absolute purity and wholeness*, while the restitution and adultery laws remind us that faithfulness and purity in our interaction with other humans is part and parcel of holiness before God.  Take a few minutes to consider your relationships.  Are there any in which some form of restitution needs to be made?  Am I living in faithfulness to God and to my spouse/potential future spouse (known or unknown) in the sexual realm?  Ask for The Holy Spirit's courage and help in making restitution and pursuing sexual purity. 

Wenham quotes Mary Douglas in her book Purity and Danger.  “For Douglas, a bleeding or discharging body lacks wholeness and is therefore unclean.  Loss of blood can lead to death, the antithesis of normal healthy life.  Anyone losing blood is at least in danger of becoming less than perfect and therefore unclean . . . Holiness in Leviticus is symbolized by wholeness” (The Book of Leviticus 188, 203).


Numbers 6:1-21

Vows were common in Israel, but we’re told that the Nazirite vow was a “special” vow (6:2), usually taken for a limited time.  Gordon Wenham observes that the “restrictions placed on Nazirites suggest that their sanctity exceeded that of ordinary priests and resembled that of the high priests.  Priests were prohibited from drinking alcohol only before going on duty in the tabernacle (Lev. 10:9); Nazirites were forbidden to consume any products of the vine at any time (6:3-4).  Whereas ordinary priests could mourn their closest relatives, high priests and Nazirites could not (6:7; cf. Lev. 21:2f.,11)” (98).  Other restrictions, such as a more intensive purification process after accidental contact with the dead, also resemble the restrictions placed on the high priest.  Yet Wenham points out important ways that Nazirites and the priests, including high priests, differ.  For example, they do not receive their income through the offerings, they do not offer sacrifices, and they do not wear the special articles of the priesthood.  In addition, the Nazirite vow was open to all of the people, men and women (99).  

The fact that the Nazirite vow was open to all reminded the Israelities that every one of them, not just those designated as priests, were called to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” set apart for God (Exodus 19:5-6).  This reality is emphasized perhaps even more explicitly in the New Testament (1 Peter 2:4-5,9-12).  While there may still be a place for temporary vows toward special service in the church (Acts 18:18, 21:23), total dedication is always the fitting response to the goodness and mercy of God!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does total dedication to God sound right now?  Does it sound like a burden or a joy?  It depends on our current state of mind, but when we’re thinking rightly about the God we serve, when we’re seeing Him for who He actually is, joy will prevail.
  • What may be holding me back from being totally dedicated to glorifying, honoring, and serving God?  What am I not offering to him?  The Nazirites' abstention from products of the vine, which was self-denial of a good thing,  perhaps was used to remind them that God is the true source of joy and satisfaction.  Their long hair was perhaps a daily reminder that their lives were set apart for God.  How might a parallel type of temporary denial and/or self-reminder help me?  


Numbers 6:22-8:26

This section begins with the blessing of God (6:22-27) and some may be tempted to say, “May the Lord bless you if you read every word of the extremely repititious seventh chapter!”  Yes, you may want to read this chapter quickly, but do not miss its importance or the connections between the various passages in these opening chapters of Numbers!  

Just as the Nazirite vow (6:1-21) reminds us that everyone in Israel is called to wholehearted devotion (i.e. not just the priests and Levites), so the tabernacle offerings from every tribe portray (in painstaking detail) the solidarity of all Israel in the worship of God (7:10-88).  Numbers 7:89 reveals God’s pleasure with this unified offering.  The tabernacle offerings then flow into Aaron’s tabernacle work and the dedication of the Levites to their tabernacle work.  Why was it so important that Aaron make the tabernacle lamps, part of “a seven-branched flowering tree, [symbolizing] the life-giving power of God,” face forward on the lampstand (8:3)?  Wenham points out that turning the lamps forward would cause them to shine across the room “on the table of shewbread, where twelve loaves of bread, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel, were heaped up (Lev. 24:5-9)."  This provided a visual sign of God’s blessing on all the tribes in 6:25:  “. . . the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you” (107).  

In chapter 3, we read of Levitical census in which all of the Levites older than one month were counted as substitute offerings for the firstborn sons throughout the tribes of Israel.  In 8:5-22, we find the dedication ceremony in which this substitution actually takes place (8:16-19).  The purification of these Levites is not as extensive as the purification of the priests (Leviticus 8). They are dedicated to full-time service in the tabernacle and we once again see a vivid display of the unity of Israel in this ceremony, as representatives from every tribe lay hands on the sacrificial animals that provide (temporary) purification for the Levites (8:9-10).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Unity, unity, unity!  Do we get the point?  “How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity!  It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes” (Psalm 133:1-2).  How does my life together with other believers reflect and/or neglect the unified worship that we see in the first part of Numbers?
  • Take time to reflect on God’s words to Moses and Israel in 6:22-27.  This is God’s heart for us even in the midst of the pain of a very broken world, and it will be fully realized in our future.


Numbers 9:1-10:10

Every Israelite was twice God’s possession.  Not only did He create them, He redeemed them from slavery and death when his judgment “passed over” their firstborn sons in Egypt and He brought them out of Egypt through the Red Sea.  We’ve seen that this is the basis for the offering of the firstborn sons to the Lord (Exodus 22:28-29; 34:19-20) and, in turn, the eventual substitution of Levites for the firstborn sons from the other eleven tribes (3:44-48).  This substitution takes place in Numbers 8, so it is fitting that the account of the first Passover anniversary occurs in Numbers 9:1-14.  Two Passover warnings are given:  Israel is not to neglect the Passover (9:13) nor eat it when they are “unclean" (9:6-12).  Of course, New Testament believers are also “twice God’s possession,” having been redeemed from slavery to sin and death through Christ our Passover Lamb, and we are given the parallel warnings in regard to the New Testament Passover meal -- the Lord’s Supper (see John 6:53; 1 Corinthians 11:27,30; Wenham, 111-112).  

The remainder of today’s passage (9:15-10:10), which brings Israel’s time in the Desert of Sinai and the first section of Numbers to a close, concerns the imminent movement of Israel.  First, Israel is only to stop and go at the LORD’s command (9:15-23).  Second, the LORD instructs them to make “two silver trumpets to coordinate the movements of the tribes on their march through the wilderness.  Though they were to be guided by the cloud, more precise means of control were necessary if the people were to march in the tight-knit formations envisaged in chapters 2-3” (Wenham, 114).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • This passage reminds us of the weightiness of our Passover meal, the Lord’s Supper.  In this meal we celebrate our redemption through the tangible signs of Jesus’ death and fellowship with us, given to us by Jesus himself.  Does this meal enjoy its rightful prominence in my life?  Am I bringing any known-but-unconfessed sin or unresolved conflict to the table?
  • We do not enjoy the benefit of divine guidance by cloud, but we are a temple of the Holy Spirit.  Am I “going out” and “resting” at my own command, or am I seeking the direction and power of the Holy Spirit today?  


Numbers 10:11-11:35

Israel is finally on the move again, thirteen months after arriving at Sinai.  This passage (along with tomorrow’s) describes the journey from the Desert of Sinai to Kadesh in the Desert of Paran (10:12, 12:16, 13:26).  “This is the largest and most barren of the wildernesses traversed by the Israelites ...” (Wenham, 117).  However, the people set out triumphantly and full of faith, following the precise order God had given the tribes and Levitical clans (e.g. Numbers 2:17, 4:15, 10:14-21).  We hear Moses twice recall the promise of God to provide “good things to Israel” to his brother-in-law Hobab (10:29,32).  Just as Moses’ non-Israelite father-in-law, Jethro, provided direction to Moses and Israel (Exodus 18), so will Jethro’s son serve as a guide in what was familiar territory to him (10:31).  Moses also daily reminds the people of God’s power to scatter his enemies and refresh his people (10:35-36)!

But what begins in triumphant faith quickly turns to discontented doubt (11:1ff.) after a few days in more challenging terrain.  First, the people once again complain about the food and reminisce about Egypt (11:4-6).  “In the wilderness of Sin it was lack of food that prompted complaint (Exod. 16:3):  [now] it was the lack of variety” (Wenham, 121).  Second, Moses complains about the burden of carrying the people and asks to die (11:10-15,21-22).  Finally, Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses’ unique authority (in tomorrow’s passage, 12:1-2).  

The LORD responds with help for Moses (11:16-17,24-25), whose complaint was apparently of a different nature than the people’s, and judgment on the people (11:1,20,31-34).  God puts his Spirit on seventy of Israel’s elders to help Moses and sends a “wind” to bring the quail.*  (The Hebrew word for spirit/wind is the same.)  Perhaps these are the same elders who were earlier designated to help Moses (Exodus 18:17ff., 24:9), but now they are empowered to provide greater spiritual support.  Like the disciples after him (Mark 9:38f.), Joshua believes that these elders should be stopped (11:28), but humble Moses is happy to share the work with as many fellow servants as the Lord will provide!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How am I responding to situations in which it looks like God is absent and has forgotten his promises?  Remember that Jesus succeeded for us in the wilderness where we and Israel have failed (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13).   
  • How do I feel about sharing leadership?  How does my heart respond when I see God using other people in powerful ways?  Take time to thank God for the spiritual gifts of others and ask for his Spirit to empower others.  

* Wenham interestingly notes, “Both Exodus and Numbers date the arrival of the quails in the second month of the Hebrew year (Exod. 16:1; Num. 10:11), which would coincide with the northward migration of the quails across the Sinai peninsula . . . Quails are small birds of the partridge family.  They migrate northwards from Arabia and Africa in the spring (from the middle of March) and return again in the autumn (August to October).  Their route takes them over Egypt, Sinai and Palestine.  Earlier [last] century Arabs living around El-Arish in northern Sinai used to catch between one and two million quails during the autumn migration in nets spread out to catch the low-flying birds” (121,123).  This helps us to see that the provision of quail was not completely random, yet their arrival in mass, just outside Israel’s camp, is nothing less than miraculous.  


Numbers 12

Even Moses’ right-hand man, and woman, are contending with him!  It’s one thing when the congregation is disappointed, but quite another when there is jealousy among the senior staff.  Their complaint against Moses’ foreign wife (12:1) is only a guise for this jealousy (12:2).  We can imagine Moses’ sense of fatigue, frustration, and perhaps self-doubt.  We are reminded of James and John’s ambitious request of Jesus and their fellow disciples’ indignant and correspondingly prideful response (Mark 10:35-45).  In both cases, we take comfort in the fact that hearts were changed and the work of the gospel continued!  

When the people complain against God, Moses brings their complaints before the LORD.  When the complaint is aimed directly at him, Moses does not open his mouth in self-defense.  He truly is a humble leader, as we have already seen in his willingness to share power (11:29).  The LORD intervenes for him, affirming Moses’ unique relationship with God,* bringing judgment on Aaron and Miriam, and accepting Moses’ intercession on behalf of Miriam.  (Note that Miriam’s leadership is reaffirmed as everyone waits to move until she is clean - 12:15.)  

Wenham succinctly summarizes the “… many comparisons between Moses the mediator of the old covenant and Jesus the mediator of the new.  Jesus is the prophet like Moses (Acts 7:37).  Like Moses, Jesus is meek and lowly in heart (Matt. 11:29), and kept silent before his accusers (1 Pet. 2:23ff.)  But whereas Moses was but a servant in God’s house, our Lord was the son of the house (Heb. 3:1-6).  Moses saw God’s form and heard his word, but Jesus was the Word and in the form of God (John 1:14-18; Phil. 2:6).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • There are few things quite as distressing and revealing (of our own hearts) as contention and jealousy among those closest to us.  How do I respond when I hear or see or feel this contention?  How are the motives of my own heart revealed?  Should I seek to humbly address the situation to move toward unity or is it an instance in which it is better to keep quiet and wait on God to intervene?  Take time to confess, to praise Jesus for living the life of humility that we were made to live, and to ask for God’s help and unity.  Pray for those who may be contending with you, just as Moses’ intervened for Mary.

* Wenham explains, “he sees the very form of God (11:8).  That is not to say he saw God directly and unveiled.  This, apparently was the privilege that Moses requested when he asked to see God’s ‘face.’  On that occasion he had to be content with seeing God’s ‘back’ (Exod. 33:18-23).  The word ‘form’ is used of visual representations, pictures or images, of earthly and heavenly beings (Exod. 20:4).  Job saw someone’s ‘form,' but could not identify the person from it (Job 4:16).  Thus, although Moses enjoyed a much closer relationship with God than any ordinary prophet, he saw only God’s form, not the very being of God” (127).  


Numbers 13-14

“How long will these people treat me with contempt?” (14:11).  Contempt?  To not trust God, even in the face significant opposition and danger, is to treat him with contempt?  The resounding, and convicting, answer of this passage is “Yes.”  Israel’s “contempt” of the LORD arose in the context of mission.  They were a people on the move, advancing the kingdom of God in the power of God, but their lack of trust hindered the mission and invited God’s judgment.  We also see that this lack of faith may manifest itself in fearful paralysis or brazen, prayerless presumption (14:39-45).    

The fact that Hebron is highlighted as a significant part of the spy mission is not coincidental (13:21-26).  (Note that the “valley of Eschol, which means ‘cluster’” is likely "near Hebron, which is still a centre for growing grapes.")  “It was near Hebron that God first promised Abraham that he would inherit the land (Gen. 13:14-18).  It was from that area that he set out to defeat the coalition of kings (Gen. 14:13ff.).  It was in Hebron that he acquired his only piece of real estate for the burial of his wife, and where he and the other patriarchs were buried (Gen.23; 25:9; 35:27-29; 50:13).  The narrator knew these traditions, and he assumes the spies did and that the reader does” (Wenham, 133).  The spies and other Israelites should have remembered the LORD’s past faithfulness to Abraham, as Joshua and Caleb did!

Questions for Reflections and Prayer   

  • In my life, is a lack of faith more likely to manifest in fearful paralysis or brazen, prayerless presumption?  Where do I need to trust the Lord to advance, and in what ways may I need to retreat and ask for God’s direction and empowerment?  
  • What are the “Hebron’s” in my life that I need to remember?  By God’s grace, every believer is called to remember a perfect Savior, who trusted God in his mission, even in the face of death.  Apart from his trust in the LORD, there would be no humans in the kingdom of God, but through union with him we are welcomed into the kingdom and are called into the mission of God.  


Numbers 15

Just when it seemed like Numbers was starting to pick up steam, we find another chapter about levitical laws and sacrifices!  Why here?  After Israel’s failure to trust the LORD after spying out the land, these sacrifices “reassert very emphatically” that God will indeed continue to be their God, atone for their sins, and bring them into the land, while at the same time the laws remind them that they are called to absolute holiness.  Wenham comments, “If God insists that [large amounts of flour, oil and wine] be offered [15:4-11,17-21], it is a pledge that Israel will eventually reach the land where they are freely available . . . The insistence on a libation of wine is specially appropriate after the spies had brought back a huge cluster of grapes (13:23)."  Grain offering accompaniments have been mentioned before (Leviticus 8-9,14) as have wine offerings in conjunction with the Nazirite law (Numbers 6:15ff.), but "this is the first time that it has been made clear that they must accompany every burnt offering and peace offering."  Perhaps this addition stressed the fellowship that God intended to have with his people, or these offerings, which were the "main agricultural products of Canaan," symbolically stressed the offering of one’s “whole life and work to God” (142-144).  

The distinction between intentional and unintentional sins can be confusing (15:22-31).  Aren’t most sins at least somewhat “intentional”?  When the Scriptures mention “intentional” sins, they seem to be implying “high-handed," deliberately rebellious sins against the LORD, in which the sinner is unrepentant (see also Hebrews 10:26-29).  For “Leviticus 6:1-7 does allow sacrificial atonement in some cases of deliberate sin, if the sinner publicly confesses his fault, makes full restitution to the injured party and offers a guilt offering” (147).  The story of the Sabbath-Breaker in 15:32-26 appears to be a case study in “intentional” sin, and a stark reminder of God’s holiness.

Finally, we must consider the tassels (15:37-41)!  As Wenham says, “Prevention is better than cure” (151).  The tassels were always to include blue or violet thread, the color of royalty.  As such, they were a constant reminder to every Israelite, not just the priests, that they were a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).  Only by continually remembering their true identity, as those loved by the King and set apart for the King, would they be able to turn away from “the lusts of [their] own hearts and eyes” (15:39).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • After a major failure to trust the Lord, even as Israel failed to believe in God’s power to take the promised land, many struggle to believe that God will continue to be their God and forgive, as we see in today’s passage.  Do I believe that God’s grace covers all of my sin?  Am I finding forgiveness at the foot of the cross?  Am I holding back part of my heart/life from God, or am I finding fellowship as I bring everything I have before him?  
  • What continual reminders or signs (or "tassels") may be helpful in remembering my identity in Christ, the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit, and the call to live out God’s ways in the power of the Spirit of Christ?  

Numbers 16-19

The “tassels” at the end of Numbers 15 were a continual reminder that all of God’s people are holy, but Korah seeks to press this reality at the expense of Moses and Aaron’s unique callings as prophet and high priest (16:3).  Even though Korah already enjoys a special levitical role in caring for the tabernacle furnishings as a son of Kohath (16:1,9-11), he and two fellow south-of-the-tabernacle-dwelling cohorts from the tribe of Reuben, Dathan and Abiram, want more.  The desire is analogous to that of Adam and Eve who, already in the image and likeness of God, wanted more (Genesis 3:5).  

God confirms the unique roles of Moses and Aaron three times over.  First, Korah, Dathan and Abiram are judged for their pride (16:28-33), while many others are spared through Moses’ intercession (16:22-24).  Second, 250 community leaders (16:2,16-19,35) and 14,700 others (16:42-45,49) are judged for their pride and grumbling, while many others are spared through Aaron’s intercession (16:46-48).  Finally, God displays Aaron’s priestly authority through the budding of his staff, “as a sign to the rebellious” (17:1-11), while the community is spared from the judgment they now fear (17:12-13) through the ongoing intercession of the priests and Levites (18-19).*  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Moses and Aaron are the primary pictures or “types” of Christ in the book of Numbers, yet many of the Israelites see no need for them.  How have I seen self-reliance or prideful self-promotion in my life?  In the midst of serving in Christ’s church, how have I attempted to take the place of Christ and point others to my own wisdom, goodness, etc. instead of to Christ?  Take time to worship Jesus for his irreplaceable offering and ongoing intercession for us!

*  Note that these three stories may have taken place "at any time within the thirty-eight years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness near Kadesh” (Wenham, 150).*  Wenham’s comments from pages 149-165 of his commentary were helpful is preparing today’s devotional.  


Numbers 20

Thirty-eight years of wandering have passed with virtual silence (Numbers 16-19).  The “first month” mentioned in 20:1 is most likely the beginning of Israel’s 40th year in the wilderness, given that Aaron dies at the end of this chapter (see 33:38).  Miriam, the “Mary/Maria” of the Old Testament, also dies, leaving Moses to lead the people to the border of the promised land.  Sadly, he will not enter the land due to his reaction to yet another confrontation with the community.  

Moses had an extremely similar confrontation with the community on the journey from Egypt to Sinai (Exodus 17), so similar that both places are nicknamed “Meribah” or “quarreling,” but this time he allows himself to get dragged into sin against the Lord.  Also unlike the first “Meribah," Aaron is involved and complicit in Moses’ sin (20:6-12,24), and they are commanded to speak to the rock to produce water rather than strike the rock (20:8,11).  God must be obeyed at his word and it seems that Moses and Aaron allowed their pride, anger, and impatience with the people to come before obedience to God.  Moses and the first high-priest, Aaron, may be preeminent Christ-figures in the Old Testament, but they are not finally able to save God’s people.  God is our only deliverer.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • If it weren’t for other sinners, we would sin so much less often!  How often we allow the sin of others to drag us into sin, but really this just reveals what is beneath the surface of our own hearts.  How has my own sin been exposed through confrontation with family members, roommates, teammates, co-workers, others?  
  • I am looking for human deliverers?  I am elevating or despising or subtly judging human leaders for their success or failures?  Take time to worship Jesus as our only true deliverer from our own sin and a world engulfed in sin.  


Numbers 21

Today’s passage is a Janus between Israel's wilderness wanderings and the conquering of the promised land.  Looking back at life in the wilderness, we see one last complaint about food (20:5), God’s judgment on Israel’s grumbling (20:6), Moses’ intercession on behalf of the people (20:7), and God’s deliverance through an unusual purifying ritual (20:8-9).   As with other purifying rituals, the impurity and resulting death is transferred from the unclean person to a sacrificial agent, whether it be an animal, the ashes of a dead heifer, or a snake.  The transfer takes place by laying hands on the agent, the sprinkling of blood on the unclean person, or, in this case, looking at the snake on a pole.  Jesus tells us that just as the snake was lifted up so that all those who looked upon the snake were healed, He was "lifted up” so that all of those who look to him receive eternal life (John 3:14-15).

Our passage looks forward to the conquering of the promised land through various battles east of the promised land.  For forty years, Israel has wandered in wilderness areas directly south of the promised land.  As the time of discipline nears an end, they begin to move east and north, east of the Dead Sea and Jordan River, where they encounter Edomites, Moabites, and Amorites.  Israel did not want to enter into conflict with them.  When Edom will not let them pass through peacefully as they begin to move east, they take another route (20:14-21).  As they move north, however, the Amorite king Sihon (21:23) and Og king of Bashan (21:33) march out to fight Israel, as did Canaanite king Arad earlier (21:1-3).  God’s judgment comes on these kingdoms as it will later come on the other Canaanite kingdoms (21:2).  Wenham summarizes, “Extracts from the travel log interspersed with fragments of old poems convey the sense of elation as the goal of their wanderings comes into sight” (178).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • We see the active reception of forgiveness by faith throughout the Old Testament, whether it is by laying hands on a sacrifice or by looking up at the snake.  We receive a once-for-all forgiveness when we first look to Christ, lifted up on the cross for us, but in order to existentially experience this forgiveness and fellowship with him, we must continue to look to him each day.  Am I looking to Christ, lifted up, today?


Numbers 22-24

Balaam is the instrument of God’s ironic means of blessing Israel.  Israel had passed by Moab on their journey north (21:13), but Israel's victories over the Amorites (21:25-26) and Bashan (21:33-36), along with their proximity on Moab’s northern border, made Balak king of Moab nervous (22:1-4).  So Balak, together with Midianite tribesmen who lived “in both Sinai and in the deserts east of the Jordan,” recruited a famous diviner named Balaam (22:6), who lived in a town on the Euphrates River in northern Syria (Wenham, 190-191).

The greatest irony is that Balaam is a pagan sorcerer (23:23; 24:1), yet God uses this man, who is able to talk a good game (e.g. 22:18), to pronounce his blessing on his people.  The donkey episode reveals Balaam’s true “spiritual blindness and powerlessness . . . Such a thing would have seemed just as unlikely to the ancient Israelite as it does to us,” but if the Spirit of God speaks through a sorcerer, can He not speak through an animal? (189,192).  Balaam is famous for his powerful blessings and curses, but we see over and over that all blessings and curses are subject to God alone (22:12; 23:8,11-12,20,25-26; 24:9).  Balak and Balaam’s three generous sacrifices in three different locations cannot coerce God’s blessing (23:1-3,13-15,27-29).  Moreover, the blessings that Balaam pronounces are confirmations of God’s three-fold blessing of abundant land, numerous people and special covenant relationship on Abraham (23:9-10; 24:5-7).  God's promise to make Abraham into a great people includes the promise of future kings (Genesis 17:6,16; 49:9-10), and Balaam’s oracles begin to narrow the focus of this promise on one glorious King to come (24:7-9,17-19).*

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • This passage highlights God’s absolute determination to bless his people, even when enemies gather around and conspire against them.  When God determines to bless, which is what He has determined for all of his people through King Jesus, nothing can thwart his plans!  There are occasions in Scripture when God changes his mind about how He will accomplish his purposes, particularly in response to prayer, but his character never changes and He does not revoke his covenant promises to bless (23:19).  Am I living in this confidence today?  Am I looking to God for blessing in Christ, or am I seeking to manipulate blessing by human means?

* It is worth taking a minute to compare Numbers 24:9,17-19 to God’s blessing through Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, in Genesis 49:9-10.


Numbers 25

Any way you look at it, this is a shocking story.  The son of the new high priest drives a spear through an adulterous couple, presumably in the act.  His action brings an end to God’s plague against his people and results in a “lasting priesthood” among Phinehas’ descendants.

There are several lessons to be learned.  First, we see that the Israelites’ sexual immorality leads them away from God and into the worship of the false god Baal.  One can see how the worship of Baal, who was supposedly induced to water the earth with his semen through human sexuality, would be attractive to Israel.  Sexuality immorality was cloaked in religious garb (25:1-2).  False gods like Baal in the ancient world were often covers for the same idols of the heart that we are tempted to worship today.  

Second, God takes sexual unfaithfulness and the worship of false gods extremely seriously.  Israel has a special covenant relationship with God by his grace, and as his redeemed people they are called to exclusive allegiance to him.  Through both sexual immorality and Baal-worship they break this special covenant and incur God’s righteous anger and judgment.  

Third, this unfaithfulness immediately after God’s repeated promises of blessing through Balaam (Numbers 22-24) highlights “the full wonder of God’s grace in the face of man’s incorrigible propensity to sin.”  “The Bible startles its readers by the way it juxtaposes the brightest of revelations and the darkest of sins.  The lawgiving at Sinai was followed by the making of the golden calf, the ordination of Aaron by the disobedience of his sons (Lev. 8-10), the covenant with David by the Bathsheba affair (2 Sam. 7-12), Palm Sunday by Good Friday” (Wenham, 206).  

Finally, just as the Levites violently intervened to turn away God’s wrath after the golden calf episode (Exodus 32:27-29), Phinehas the Levite violently intervenes to turn away God’s wrath when Zimri openly flaunts his rebellion (25:6,14).   “Priests, such as Phinehas, were God’s representatives among Israel and were to symbolize God’s character in their life and behavior . . . [Phinehas expressed] so clearly and visibly God’s own anger through his deed, that anger was turned away” (Wenham, 207,211).  There are several occasions in which we see Jesus express God’s righteous anger over sin, but ultimately He took the violent piercing that our rebellion deserves on himself.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • In what ways have I not taken sexual sin as seriously as God does?  Are there any ways in which I have recently tried to make sin appear more acceptable in my own eyes, God’s eyes, or in the eyes of others?  
  • How has God chosen to bless me in spite of my sin?  Am I live in the mercy of Christ, who was pierced for my rebellion, today?


Numbers 26-27

Israel has been at their final stopping point in their journey to Canaan since the Balaam/Balak episode (22:1; 26:3).  Now that an entire generation has died off in the wilderness, in accordance with God’s judgment (14:22-23), they prepare once again to enter the promised land.  Another census is taken, both for military purposes and for the purposes of measured land allocation in the promised land (26:54).  Though some tribes have grown and some have decreased, the overall number is almost the same as the first census (1:46; 26:51), highlighting the reality that “God’s promises to the patriarchs may be delayed by human sin, but they are not ultimately frustrated by it (cf. Rom. 11)” (Wenham, 212-213).  

The case of Zelophehad’s daughters (27:1-11), which ends up changing an Israelite law that was common practice in the Ancient Near East, displays the faith of the new generation.  Israel had not yet received any inheritance in the promised land, but John Calvin points out that the daughters have no doubt that Israel will receive their inheritance from the Lord (Denham, 216).  Joshua will shepherd the people and lead them into their inheritance (27:15-23), just as Jesus (the New Testament “Yeshua”) will lead all of God’s people into our inheritance with God.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does God’s faithfulness to his promises, even when “delayed by human sin,” speak into my life right now?  
  • Just as Zelophehad’s daughters’ were preparing for and acting in light of the promised land to come, am I living in light of Christ’s return?  Am I living today for those things that will last in the new heavens and earth?


Numbers 28-30

Really?  More detailed descriptions of offerings, feasts, and vows, most of which we have already read about?  Remember, it has been 38 years and an entire generation has passed since the last time the Lord gave instruction on these things.  Also, note the repeated pattern of blessing, fall into sin, and grace.  God blesses Adam and Eve immensely in the garden and they rebel, but God promises a deliver and covers their shame with the skins of (presumably sacrificed) animals.  God blesses Israel by giving them his law and they worship a golden calf, but God rewrites the law on two new stone tablets (Exodus 34:1ff.), more fully reveals his compassionate character (Exodus 34:6-7), and reaffirms the construction of and his presence in the tabernacle (Exodus 35-40).  In Numbers, God prepares the people to enter the promised land and they refuse to trust him (Numbers 1-14), but God reaffirms the sacrificial system of grace (15).  Once again, God blesses the people through Balaam (22-24) and the people rebel (25), but God reaffirms his faithfulness through the census (26), by providing a successor of Moses (27:12-23), and reaffirming the sacrifices of grace (28-30).  This repeated pattern tells the story of the gospel over and over!

Yet much of our passage is not simple repetition.  While the general subject matter is much the same as previous material, Wenham points out that the “central concerns of these chapters is . . . the type and number of sacrifices that must be offered on every day of the year by the priests for the nation as a whole.  Whereas in Leviticus lay obligations are paramount, in Numbers 28-29 the priestly sacrificial duties are the prime concern” (219).  Wenham counts 113 bulls, 32 rams, and 1,086 lambs per year, as well as "a ton of flour and a thousand bottles of oil and wine.”  These numbers point both to Israel’s prosperous future as well as their great need for forgiveness before a holy God (220).  Finally, the chapter on vows adds guidance in the case that husbands do not support vows that wives have taken, placing responsibility on men to lead their families spiritually.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does the continued repetition of blessing, sin and grace speak into my life?  


Numbers 31

“There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 2:9).  This verse from Paul’s letter to Rome tells us that all sin results in judgment, but that God’s judgment begins with his own people.  We see this truth displayed in the book of Numbers (Wenham, 235).

After Israel falls into the sins of idolatry and sexual immorality with the Moabites and Midianites (25:1-2,14), a plague breaks out among the Israelites (25:8-9), stopped only by the priest Phinehas carrying out God’s righteous vengeance on his fellow Israelites (25:11).  Only after this plague does God call Moses and Phinehas to carry out his vengeance against the Midianites,* who led Israel into sin with the help of Balaam’s advice (25:16; 31:6,16), just as Israel will soon have the unique role of carrying out God’s holy judgment against the pagan nations in the promised land of Canaan.  Much later, God will use Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel, after Israel turns to idols.

God’s judgment is always an uncomfortable subject.  Of course it is.  While God’s holiness and the impossibility of life apart from him are displayed in judgment, no one enjoys judgment, including God (Ezekiel 18:23,32; 33:11).**  However, we need to know that before any human being had died, God had already decided that his own Son would take the “trouble and distress” and death of all who repent and trust in him (Genesis 3:15).  In this sense, judgment began “first for the Jew” known as Christ our Savior.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • This is one of the many chapters in the Bible that ought to startle us out of any comfortable relationship that we have with sin.  In what ways have I become comfortable with certain sins?  Are there any ways that, like the Midianites, I may be leading others into sin?  How does this passage increase my appreciation and love for Jesus?

* "The Midianites were a large confederation of tribes , associated with various smaller groups such as the Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:28; Judg. 8:22,24), the Moabites (Num. 22:4,7), the Amalekites (Judg. 6:3,33), and Ephah (Gen. 25:4; Isa. 60:6).  They roamed through the arid lands of Sinai, the Negeb, and Transjordan.  Here it is those Midianites associated with Moab that are picked out for vengeance . . .” (Wenham, 233).  

** “Though the Midianite war was a holy war carried out in obedience to the divine command and sanctified by the presence of the priest, those involved became unclean through killing or contact with the dead [31:19-24] . . . Over every war, however glorious its outcome from the victor’s point of view, hangs the shadow of death” (Wenham, 236). 


Numbers 32-33

These two chapters are made up of three very different sections, but they are of course united around the continuing theme of the new land that Israel is to possess.  The first section, chapter 32, concerns the unity of Israel.  The tribes of Reuben and Gad, along with the half-tribe of Manasseh,* want to remain east of the Jordan because they have seen that the land is suitable for their abundance of livestock (32:4).  Given Moses’ lengthy rebuke (32:8-15), it seems unlikely that these tribes were intending to enter into battle with the other 9 1/2 tribes in the promised land.  However, at the very least, they are extremely responsive and submissive to Moses’ warning, keeping the unity of the Old Testament church rather than splintering off.  If they fail to remain in courageous unity with Israel, Moses warns them that their “sin will find [them] out” (32:23).  

The second section, 33:1-49, recounts Israel’s long journey to the edge of the promised land, the plains of Moab (22:1), and the final stopping point after wandering for 38 years.  It is a clear reminder of God’s faithfulness in the midst of Israel’s unfaithfulness.  "The journey from Goshen to the plains of Moab falls into four main sections:  Goshen [in Eypgt] to the Red Sea [Exodus 12-14], the Red Sea to Mount Sinai [Exodus 15-19], Sinai to Kadesh [Numbers 10-12], Kadesh to Moab [Numbers 15-21]” (Wehham, 249).  

The final section, 33:50-56, gives explicit instruction for war in the promised land.  Israel is to completely destroy the nations and their idols.  A clear reason is provided:  if they do not drive them out of the land, they will be pulled down by these nations and God will then bring his judgment on Israel.  This is exactly what ends up happening hundreds of years later (e.g. II Kings 17:7ff.)  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Numbers 32 provides a vivid picture of God’s desire for unity in mission and worship among his people.  How am I experiencing unity in mission and worship in my life with God’s people?  In what ways am I tempted to splinter off for my own temporary comfort, security, etc.?
  • Just as Israel was called to get rid of anything that may later tempt them to worship idols, we too are called to get rid of things in our lives that may become “barbs in our sides and thorns in our eyes” (33:55; Matthew 5:29-30).  What do I need to get rid of or flee from?  

* Manasseh is called a “half-tribe” because Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel, is effectively given a double-portion in Israel's inheritance (Genesis 48:5ff.).  His sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, are treated as full tribes and each are given a full-portion in the land.  


Numbers 34-35

“Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the LORD, dwell among the Israelites” (35:34).  This final verse of these two chapters not only provides the reason for God’s meticulous attention to murder and manslaughters laws, but also reminds us why Israel is called to cast out the idolatrous nations from the land and to be holy in all they do.  The presence of 48 Levitical towns sprinkled throughout the land (35:1-8) is a continual reminder of God’s presence. Wenham explains, “Canaan is more than a promised land:  it is the holy land sanctified by the presence of God living among his people . . . Blood guilt is singled out for special attention because the pollution it causes is the most serious.  In other words this section is placed here not merely because some of the levitical cities were cities of refuge (6), but because homicide could have such a disastrous effect on Israel’s tenure of the promised land” (262-263).  God provides several safeguards against false accusations and rash judgment against the accused (35:12,22-25,30), but both murder and manslaughter bring punishment, with the presence of premeditated intent to kill being the most important distinction between the two crimes (35:20-24).  While there is no ransom for the murderer (35:31), the one guilty of manslaughter is ransomed through the eventual death of the high priest (35:25,32).  “Both have caused the death of another man, and only the death of a man can atone for the killing” (Wenham, 265).

Wenham also helpfully points out that “Canaan as defined [in chapter 34] is a much larger area than ever Israel settled.  David controlled most of Canaan and much of Transjordan as well, but the land defined here does not correspond to Israel’s actual boundaries at any time in her history.  The land described here is therefore an ideal, the territory promised by God to the people of Israel, but never fully occupied by them” (258).  Only through Jesus — a better high priest, a better Joshua (i.e. Yeshua/Jesus), and the one true and faithful Israelite — will God’s people receive their full inheritance.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How does God’s acute concern for the dignity of human life impact my heart, my prayers, my mission?
  • Is my hope today in the inheritance that Jesus provides or in an earthly inheritance?


Numbers 36

The reappearance of Zelophehad’s daughters may seem like a random way for the book of Numbers to conclude, but it’s not.  Originally (27:1-11), their issue concerned the inheritance of land if an Israelite man were to have no sons to receive the inheritance.  Against common ancient near eastern law, God changed Israel’s law to allow daughters to receive the inheritance.  Simply by raising the issue, Zelophehad’s daughters display steadfast faith in God’s provision of the land.  

Now the daughters’ concern is the potential transfer of land to another tribe if they were to marry outside of their tribe.  God commands that they marry within their tribe to prevent this from happening (36:6-9) and the daughters once again respond in faithful obedience (36:10-12).  “Formally this is of course a statement of a legal principle forbidding the transfer of land from tribe to tribe, but theologically, like many laws in Numbers, it is a promise that the tribes of Israel will always dwell in their God-given land” (Wenham, 267).  Once again, even though God’s promise is (partially) fulfilled in glorious ways through Joshua and David and Solomon, his promise is only fully realized in Jesus, who will restore all things in the new heavens and earth!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • In Numbers 27, we see Zelophehad’s daughters faith.  In Numbers 36, we see this faith manifest in obedience to God’s command.  This is always the way of sincere faith — it takes God at his word.  How is God calling you to show your faith in obedience?  Like Zelophehad’s daughters, is my hope today in the inheritance that only God provides?