Category Archives: Numbers

Numbers 34-36

In chapter 24 the Lord God sets up the boundaries of the land when they enter Canaan. Chapter 35 is about something called “cities of refuge” where someone who commits murder can flee, and if they’re not guilty of intentional murder they can be safe from an avenger before they face trial. There were six of these towns, towns that were given to Levites, three on the east side and three on the west. The person who flees there and is not guilty of murder but whom the avenger of blood still wants revenge, must stay in that town until the high priest dies, then he can leave.

Got takes murder very seriously. Only he can take a life justly, so anyone guilty of murder must themselves be put to death. Bloodshed pollutes the land, God says, and atonement can only be made by by the shed blood of the one who killed. This goes back to Genesis 9 and God’s covenant with Noah. In verse 6 we read God’s words:

Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.

It is no wonder that Israelites felt that murder must be avenged, and thus the necessity for a city of refuge when the killing was not intended. If innocent blood is shed then that itself becomes murder, and God is intent on not letting innocent blood be shed. Some commentaries see this as a type of Christ who is our refuge from sin and death.

Chapter 36 is about land being given to the daughters of a man who died and had no sons. If they married outside their clan, then the land they were given would transfer to that other clan because of the man. So God commanded that they marry within their clan, which solved the problem.

Now, on to Deuteronomy.

Numbers 33

God is nothing if not a record keeper. God told Moses when they set out on their journey from Egypt to keep a record of everywhere they went. So from the very day the left Egypt as the people were burying their dead, he records every place by name. There are 41 place overall, which means all million plus people moved approximately once a year. You think God was giving them a message? Look what happens when you rebel against me; you will wander pretty much aimlessly and be kept from which you were promised.

Finally they end up on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho. They’re ready to finally take possession of the land. He commands them to drive out all the inhabitants of Canaan, with an emphasis on all, including all their idols, images and places of worship. This drive to take the land is fundamentally a religious issue, it’s God or idols, there is no in between. Verse 53 is interesting:

Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.

Notice that even though God has given them the land, they cannot just waltz in a settle down. They have to take possession, which won’t obviously be easy because they have to expel the current inhabitants. To take possession of whatever it is that God has given will always take effort in a fallen world. The idols and forces of evil need to be driven out, and they won’t go easily. There is no such thing as float downstream Christianity.

In the last couple verse God gives them a chilling warning:

55 “‘But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. 56 And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.’”

Of course we know they don’t, and that he does. This tendency to go after false idols (a redundancy to be sure) is a theme throughout Israel’s history, and ours. It is the battle of human nature. Whether in time or eternity, if we pursue idols it never ends well.

Numbers 32

One of my favorite sayings applies yet again to the story of Israel’s journey: It never ends. Two of the tribes, the Ruebenites and Gadites, decide that because they have “very large” herds and flocks that they want to stay on the east side of the Jordan and not go into the promised land. Seriously? For forty years they have wandered in the desert and the whole time the purpose of their journey was to eventually get to the land God has promised, which is west of the Jordan. To them the land east of the Jordan seems “suitable for livestock.” Better than the land of God’s promise?

Nothing good can come of this, and of course as Israel’s history progresses, nothing does. Remember this is the land they subdued in the previous chapter, and you know pagans still live there, so they will be corrupted. And God’s promise was not for this land east of the Jordon, but they don’t care. They are intent on doing what is right in their own eyes. I am reminded of Proverbs 14:12:

There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.

It amazes me how prevalent this is in the human breast, all as a result of Satan’s lie and our wanting “to be like God, knowing Good and evil.” Look a v. 19:

We will not receive any inheritance with them on the other side of the Jordan, because our inheritance has come to us on the east side of the Jordan.”

Really? Who says? Well, they do; not God. How stupid can they be! We know it isn’t a matter of stupidity or lack of intelligence that causes a person to reject God’s plain instruction or revelation, but the fallen will, the rebellion in the human heart that is determined to do what is right in our own eyes. Thank the living God he hasn’t left me lost in my sin where I am deluded enough to think my way is superior to his way.

So when the leaders of these tribes tell Moses their plan he gets understandably angry, accusing them of not being willing to go into battle in the promised land to take it for God’s people. But they say all they need to do is build fortifications in the cities they will take over on the east side so their women and children will be safe while they’re gone helping take the land to the west. Moses says if all of the men do this, then fine, but there is no way they left their cities without any men. But they say they will, and God says they can have the land. Beware getting what you want if it is not God’s will.

Numbers 31

This is a chapter in the Pentateuch that the skeptics love, God commanding vengeance upon Israel’s enemies, in this case the Midianites. The Dawkins and Dennets of the world use this to prove that God is a “moral monster.” Leave aside the hubris of a mere human being sitting in judgment on God, maybe there is a mildly plausible reason God has for commanding such things.  Of course I use the term mildly facetiously. God is God, the moral arbiter of the universe, and everything he does or commands is good and right and just, regardless of how it appears to us. If we accept that there is a God, and that the Bible is God’s revelation to us of himself and his will for us and humanity, then it is incumbent on us to try to understand what’s going on to the best of our ability, rather than to judge it based on some standard that seems right to us. God always gets the benefit of the doubt, always.

With that in mind, why would God command the Israelites to kill all the Midianites, even women and children? The precursor of this has to be Numbers 25. When the men of Israel were seduced by Moabite women and got them to worship their gods, the Midianites took advantage of it by sending the daughter of a tribal chief to do something bad. We’re not told exactly what it is, but God commands this after the event:

16 The Lord said to Moses, 17 “Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them. 18 They treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the Peor incident involving their sister Kozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, the woman who was killed when the plague came as a result of that incident.”

Which leads to the command that starts this chapter, for them to “take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites.” I can only think that these people presented an existential threat to Israel, and God simply could not let that happen. This is obviously why he tells them to kill even the young boys, who will one day become men and also be a threat.

When God tells them to go out, he doesn’t tell the whole army, all the men to go out, only a thousand from each tribe, which obviously is 12,000 men. The Midianite army must have been much larger, so God wants Israel to understand that victory depends on him, not on their strength or numbers. Indeed, God is always only our victory.

We learn here that Balaam is killed with the sword, which must have been important for the writer to point this out. Balaam allowed himself to be used by Israel’s enemies, which made him an enemy of God, and as such he was taken down. Lesson? Don’t make yourself and enemy of God’s people and thus God. They also decimated every town, burned them to the ground and plundered everything they owned. God wanted them out for good, but as we know they come back later in Israel’s history as we see in Judges.

Brutally, God also has them kill all the women who have slept with a man (how could they tell, I wonder), and keep the 32,000 that have not. War is hell. Remember that the rulers of Midian tried to get Balaam to curse Israel so they could destroy them. You might just say all’s fair . . . Again, it’s easy to judge when you don’t know the full import of the situation, and God certainly does.

And they get lots of plunder, which God has them divvy up. I note that the priests and the Levites get a share; God is always providing for those who do his work. Which is something to keep in mind as the offering plate goes around every Sunday. Those who work in ministry deserve a living from God’s people, as God gives us many examples throughout the Pentateuch.

Numbers 28-30

Just prior to entering the promised land and prior to Moses death, the Lord commands Moses to reiterate all the offerings and festivals they are to keep. This was a new generation and they needed to be reminded what they must do to keep their relationship with God right. It’s a lot of work! The number of animals that have to be sacrificed in a year is staggering. The wages of sin indeed.

There are daily offerings, morning and evening, Sabbath offerings, monthly offerings, the Passover, the various feasts, the Day of Atonement, and various and sundry other offerings. All to remind Israel that a relationship with God cannot be taken for granted, that it is God who determines the outline of the relationship and what is required to keep it.

I think the burden this put on the people of God only makes what Christ accomplished by his life, death and resurrection all the more astounding. The law and its requirements were fully, completely and totally met in Christ. His sacrifice fully, completely and totally paid the price for our sin, satisfied God’s wrath and justice. All the bulls, goats and lambs in the world could never do that. Knowing the Old Testament sacrificial economy as God wants us to know it puts Christ’s accomplishment in the proper perspective. In fact, according to his own words in Luke 24, it is the only perspective in which his life and death make any sense at all!

It’s a real shame that so few pastors and churches spend any real time on the Old Testament and redemptive history. In fact, the more I learn and immerse myself in the OT, it is an absolute dereliction of duty! And God himself as we see is big on reminding; he sees how weak and myopic we humans can be because of sin, and knows we need constant reminders about the nature of this relationship he has established with us. We will always fall back on works, while he exhorts us to remember that our relationship with him is established and sustained on and by his grace and mercy alone.

Exodus 27

Moses has finally come to the end of his road, and he can only see the promised land from the other side because he struck the rock when he disobeyed God at the waters of Meribah. He goes up on a mountain to look at what he will never experience, and it must have been a bittersweet experience. He was now 120 years old. He spent 40 years as a shepherd, and 40 years wandering around the wilderness trying to lead a difficult people. God affirms him over and over again, and reveals himself to him in ways nobody else experienced; he saw God, talked to him. Then in one display of anger, an obvious problem for Moses we see from way back in Egypt, he disqualifies himself from going into the land flowing with milk and honey God promised.

This is something of a type of our own experience in that we will all die on this side of the river, we in this body of sin cannot make it into heaven, God’s land of promise for us. But the land exists! And we will make it to the other side in a new, resurrected body, as children of the promise, the covenant God made with Abraham, indeed God made with himself in Triune faithfulness.

Before Moses dies he asks the Lord for someone to lead the people, and God picks Joshua. In a public ceremony, Moses conveys some of his authority him so the people will follow and do as he commands. And the high priest lays his hands on him and commissions him. Ceremony is important, it conveys truth people would have a harder time accepting if it was only conveyed in words. People also need leaders, and now Joshua will take over for Moses in the next part of their journey, and ours in the history of redemption.

Numbers 25 & 26

Yet another chapter about Israel’s rebellion, this time committing sexual immorality with Moabite women and worshiping their gods. The text specifically says they worshiped the Baal of Peor. Baal was a Canaanite god of fertility, thus involved sex and prostitution. Of course God’s anger burned against them, and they must die. God sends a plague and 24,000 more die. Rebellion against God is getting costly.

Within the story is a different kind of atonement, to say the least. Because of the plague and evil that has been done, the people go before the Tent of Meeting and are weeping. Then right in front of them, Moses and “the whole assembly,” an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman into his tent obviously to have sex with her. Aaron’s grandson, Phinehas, sees this and takes matters into his own hands. He follows the man into the tent with a spear and drives it through the man into the women in flagrante delicto. Again the Bible pulls no punches, tells it like it is. It even tells the names of the man and woman who were killed. God calls this act an atonement, a payment for sin, and the plague that struck the people is stopped. As the Lord says, here was a man that “was as zealous as I am for my honor among them,” and that satisfied God’s wrath.

It’s strange that some guy driving a spear through two people having sex would atone for sin, but only if you reject something I’ve said and we see over and over again in these first five books of the Bible: the wages of sin is death. We may not like that. We may prefer the wages of sin were some lesser penalty, but when Satan’s lie won out, that “You will not surely die,” the die, so to speak, was cast.

We should think of this more clearly, more in accord with revealed truth than what seems right to us. If we did that, we would acknowledge that God could kill every human being and be completely just in doing so. None are without guilt. We may think it unfair that we inherent Adam’s sin and guilt, our sin nature, but what we think of it doesn’t really matter, does it. We all know we live in a moral universe, where right and wrong exist. We have a conscience, every human does, and we all know we fall short of our own standards, let along the perfect and holy standards of God. We also know that wrong must be paid for (human laws of the state are a simple example). We simply cannot escape this fundamental fact of reality; we cannot explain it away.

So the beauty of this gory story where 24,000 people die of a plague because of rebellion against God and the worship of idols, and where two people are run through with a spear, is that God in his mercy allows atonement for sin at all! That is the way to think rightly about sin and death and God’s justice; his mercy always wins out or none of us would exist. This should lead, with Paul, to doxology, not with having a “problem with the God of the Old Testament.” Those who have such a “problem” have swallowed Satan’s lie hook, line and sinker, that we are basically like God, and we can determine good and evil. So instead of letting God’s revelation be our standard of truth, we in our arrogance think we can sit in judgment upon it.

Once God’s anger is turned away from the Israelites, he makes a “covenant of peace” with Phinehas and his descendants:

13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”

The wage, death, was paid. It is a good thing to be zealous for the honor of our God. Those who think the OT God is not worthy of our worship and honor, well, I just feel sorry for them. They miss a truth that is so grand, so amazing, so incredible: that our God is a God of mercy and grace and love, that he wants a relationship with us, we sinful human beings, that he initiated the relationship when we were hiding from him, running the other way, cursing him as an enemy. Yes, Rob Bell, love wins, not because God made salvation possible for all, or that all will be saved, but that Jesus came to “save his people from their sins.” The God of the Old Testament, the living God himself, is our Savior!

Chapter 26 is another census after the 40 years in the desert when the previous generation died. This is also of men 20 years old or more, and is a similar number as the first one, over 600,000. A not insubstantial number of people, well over a million, will enter the promised land.