Category Archives: Numbers

Numbers 22-24

This is a fascinating section of Numbers. Because of this long commentary I’m not going to write extensively on it. It puts the whole story in context, why this leader of other peoples, Balak, is trying to get this diviner, Balaam to curse Israel, something that simply cannot be done. This takes place after the people of Israel have been in the desert for 40 years before they go into Canaan. The passage that many Christians and probably non-Christians would know is Balaam’s talking Donkey. The commentary does an excellent job of explaining the significance of God’s covenant to Abraham to the story. God’s blessing is on Israel, and whoever blesses them will be blessed and whoever curses them will be cursed. Balaam doesn’t quite get this, or want to get this, until it’s almost too late.

What to make of a talking donkey in the Bible. To me, this is again something that seems absurd but rings true. Why would the writer, presumably Moses, put a talking donkey in the story if we all know donkeys cannot talk? Why would you make up something that is on its face absurd? But within the story it makes exquisite sense if in fact it is true, and because it is in God’s Word, I indeed believe it is true and happened as it says. God using a donkey to rebuke a big, bad “holy man” who is pursued by nations to do their bidding. It’s perfect. Then Balaam, despite himself, ends up blessing Israel and not cursing them as Balak wanted. God’s will shall be done.

There is also a verse spoken by Balaam that I memorized long ago, verse 19:

God is not human, that he should lie,
    not a human being, that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act?
    Does he promise and not fulfill?

So like the Nav days to memorize a text outside of its context. This entire story fits perfectly within the context of God’s covenant with Israel, which eventually leads to Christ. God doesn’t lie, he will save his people from their sin, from death itself. Some 1500 years(!) after this, we read in Matthew 1:

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

God himself by his Holy Spirit brings into being on earth himself in the form of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to accomplish what he himself promised Adam and Eve, then Abraham and on throughout Israel’s history. Indeed, God speaks and acts, he promises and fulfills. We can trust his Word.

 

 

 

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Numbers 21

This chapter is mostly about battles Israel had as they were moving through the desert, but the story of the bronze snake is another in the long line of Israel’s grumbling stories. Yet again the people grow impatient with the food and situation and speak against God and Moses. Again they ask why they brought them up out of Egypt to die in the desert.

This time the Lord sends venomous snakes, many people get bit and die. This of course freaks them out and they come to Moses and confess their sin, and they ask him to pray to the Lord to take the snakes away. Of course Moses does, but interestingly God doesn’t actually takes the snakes away, but provides in effect an anecdote in a bronze snake the Lord instructs him to put up on a pole. Anyone who gets bitten and looks at it can live.

There is all kinds of symbolism here. God doesn’t take the snakes away as they ask, at least right away, but likely leaves them as a reminder of the peoples continued rebellion. Look, people, you are still going to get bitten because of your sin, you are still going to experience the pain and fear, but I will force you to trust in me and experience my power for you to be healed. And what do they look at to be healed? A representation of the very thing that could have killed them. They are reminded who has the power of life or death. We too experience the pain and consequences of sin, but because Jesus was raised up and hung on a tree, all we have to do is trust in God and look up to him and we will live.

In John 3 as Jesus is telling Nicodemus that we must be born again, he references this snake on a pole:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

It is amazing to contemplate, but even as God instructs Moses to put the bronze snake up, he knows Jesus will reference it as pointing to his purpose when he comes to earth. His purpose is to be lifted up so he can give eternal life to all those who look up to him. And think about the context. The people rebel and continually rebel, yet God provides a remedy. We too rebel, we are sinners, yet God provides the eternal remedy even as we continue to experience the pain and misery of sin. We taste just a bit of eternity now. The people of Israel, bitten could look up and live, as we do now looking up to Christ, but this life we get now is but a shadow of what is to come.

Numbers 20

Again, the Bible doesn’t sugar coat. The Israelites continue their grumbling, this time about how they’re going to die of thirst in the desert. Not an unreasonable thing to be concerned about, but instead of asking Moses to pray to God for water, they “quarreled” with him, wishing they died with the other rebels.

So Moses and Aaron fall face down once again before the Lord at the Tent of Meeting, and God says he will provide water from a rock. He gives Moses instructions to speak to the rock and water would pour out. So what does Moses do? He strikes the rock, twice! The way it reads it’s almost like Moses was showing off:

So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. 10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.

Must “we”? Uh, no Moses, you don’t have any power to bring water out of a rock. That’s God’s department. God’s assessment of the situation is that Moses and Aaron didn’t trust him “enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the” people.

Moses wanted to perform Magic, and be seen as the one who had the power to get water to come from a rock. This kind of makes sense when you think that from the very beginning when other Hebrews in Egypt rejected his help, and they’ve been rebelling against his leadership ever since. He seems to be saying, look what I can do, now stop rebelling! You wonder that if in the moment he struck the rock, that very moment, he knew he’d blown it. He knows how specific God is with all his instructions. Now because of this God says he and Aaron will not make it into the promised land. Indeed Aaron dies in this chapter.

Numbers 19

This chapter has the title “Water of Cleansing,” and it mostly has to do with how the people can cleanse themselves after they’ve come in contact with a dead body, and this can mean even entering the tent where someone has died. There have obviously been a lot of dead bodies around of late, and many more will come as they wander in the desert for the next 38 years. Much more detailed rites were spoken of earlier in Leviticus, but this must be God’s provision for an Israel on the move.

As I’ve said over and over, the wages of sin is death, and we’ve seen a lot of it so far. But the very factness of death, if you will, is wrong. What happens when people die and are left unattended? They rot and smell horrifically. For those who think sinning and disobeying God is fun and will bring satisfaction, they have not spent any time around a dead body to know the true wages of sin. Jesus himself when he looked upon Lazarus’ tomb just prior to raising him from death, wept. And I’ve heard that the meaning conveyed is that he was angry. He was looking upon something that should not be, that is a complete perversion of what God intended when he created the world “very good.”

So we might look at it as the “dust of death.” The residue of it would get on people by just being in its presence, and thus they would become ceremonially unclean. They could not interact with God at all until they were made clean. And this dirt, this dust was so pervasive it would infect others by mere touch of someone who was unclean but hadn’t been anywhere near the dead person. As it says:

20 But if those who are unclean do not purify themselves, they must be cut off from the community, because they have defiled the sanctuary of the Lord. The water of cleansing has not been sprinkled on them, and they are unclean. 21 This is a lasting ordinance for them.

“The man who sprinkles the water of cleansing must also wash his clothes, and anyone who touches the water of cleansing will be unclean till evening. 22 Anything that an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean till evening.”

It’s like passing on a disease, which is exactly what death is, a disease of our alienation from God, the source of all life and the ground of all reality. As it says, it defiles the sanctuary of the Lord, and these people who refuse to purify themselves must be cut off. This is serious business. Fortunately for us, we have a better way. The writer to the Hebrews talks about the ceremony in this chapter in reference to Jesus in chapter 9:

11 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

The references to the ashes of a heifer come right out of this chapter. The old covenant could only offer outward cleansing, while the new offers us inward cleansing. We are completely and thoroughly clean before God, like we never sinned. Our redemption and cleansing is eternal because Christ himself was the only offering that could be acceptable to God for the full, complete and forever remission of sins. Knowing the OT redemptive economy makes this truth that much more powerful. It was the only way that man and God could finally be reconciled. There is an infinite chasm between God and man, and only that which is infinite could fill it. Jesus did.

Numbers 17 & 18

God has had enough of this jealousy and rebellion, so he makes the people do a test to see who he chooses to serve before him in the Tent of Meeting. In this short chapter, they are to pick one staff from each tribe, and on Levi’s staff will be Aaron’s name. The staffs are then put before the Lord in the Tent of Meeting. The next day Aaron’s staff sprouts, but also budded, blossomed and produced almonds! Get the message?

This is actually an act of mercy. They are to put Aaron’s staff in front of the Testimony as a sign to the rebellious. He wants them to stop their grumbling “so that they will not die.” God is always condescending to our weakness, even to the point of sending his son, to come himself to save we who could never save ourselves. And what do the people do? They freak out and think they’re all going to die, just when God said they wouldn’t as long as they don’t rebel. Simple.

Then chapter 18 tells us how the Levites and the priests will be provided for, how they will make a living and feed their families. The first-fruits and the people’s tithes and offerings go to them. One thing stands out and it is something I must have underlined in my Bible long ago, v. 29:

You must present as the Lord’s portion the best and holiest part of everything given to you.’

There is a great truth in here also expressed by Paul in Romans 11:36:

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Everything comes from God, and everything comes through God, and everything is for or to God. We have nothing of our own; it all belongs to him, and in his grace and mercy he let’s us keep and enjoy most of it. We are completely and totally dependent beings. Paul also says in Colossians 1, that in Christ all things hold together. And in Acts before the Greek philosophers he says that God “gives all men life and breath and everything else.”

He just wants the best and holiest of everything back for the service of his will in the world. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven . . . . God’s grace, mercy, goodness and love breaking to a fallen world via his people, his church.

Numbers 16

Oh man, this story does not get any easier. This chapter is brutal. Again I don’t know if this is chronological, but if chapter 16 comes after what came before, you have to wonder how people could be so stupid. Clearly there are consequences for rebellion and disobedience and sin. Clearly Moses and Aaron are God’s anointed to lead Israel to the land of Canaan. Yet here we see three men, and 250 followers who decide to “rise up against Moses.” This is not going to end well.

One aside before I get to the story. Why would people write a history of themselves that is so incredibly unflattering? It’s not just once or twice that they rebel and do the wrong thing and suffer the consequences; they do it over and over and over. That’s why the Bible has the ring of truth to it. If it was a human invention there is no way a people would portray themselves in such a way. There is simply too little nuance for it to be fictitious. We learn from Genesis 3 that the wages of sin is death, and than mankind’s rebellion is wanting to usurp God’s rightful authority, to “be like God, knowing good and evil.” We learn from Paul that fallen man is God’s enemy, that in his natural state he wars against God, refuses to obey because he wants to call the shots, his pretense is to autonomy. And God is holy and just and this cannot stand in his universe.

So back to the story. Moses doesn’t take this challenge sitting down, and we learn that those in the rebellion are Levites. As Moses says, it’s not good enough that they’ve been set apart and brought near to God to do his work, they want more. So they challenge Moses and Aaron (this should sound familiar to Aaron) and say that the latter have set themselves over the people. So Moses says let’s put this to the test and see who God chooses. I love this very Reformed (i.e. Biblical) conception:

When Moses heard this, he fell facedown. Then he said to Korah and all his followers: “In the morning the Lord will show who belongs to him and who is holy, and he will have that person come near him. The man he chooses he will cause to come near him.

The man God chooses. God is always the initiator, and it’s not just choosing, it’s causing. He will cause those he chooses to come near to him. It’s not their own decision or power.

These men want to be priests, not just whatever other duties they were given as Levites. So Moses tells them to get to get censures with fire and incense in it and come before the Lord at the Tent of Meeting. Two of the men say they won’t come because basically they call Moses a liar. Ironically, the men say they’ve been taken from a land of milk and honey (i. e. slavery) to be killed in the desert. That should sound familiar. Again chronology is an issue. Which of these events happened before the other? I don’t know, but every time it will end the same.

God says he will destroy all those in rebellion, but the ever forgiving Moses asks him not to. So God says to separate out the three ring leaders, and back away from their tents. This is heartbreaking. It says:

27 So they moved away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. Dathan and Abiram had come out and were standing with their wives, children and little ones at the entrances to their tents.

Then they are all sucked into the earth, kids, babies, everything.

31 As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. 33 They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community. 34 At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, “The earth is going to swallow us too!”

Then the 250 that followed them are consumed by fire. Imagine all this death and destruction happening and the people watching it. This is no movie; it’s happening before their very eyes. But instead of humble submission, they also grumble against Moses and Aaron blaming them for killing all these people, when in fact it was their own sin and rebellion that caused God’s wrath. Amazing. More wrath to come.

God tells Moses and Aaron to get away from the people so he can wipe them out, and instead of doing that they again fall down on their faces and intercede for the people. God hears and allows atonement to be made for them, but not before another 14,700 people die from a plague. What a gruesome couple of days it has been. Think about all these people having to be buried, and the stench that must have been everywhere.

Yet God had mercy because he could have rightly and justly destroyed them all. The wages of sin is death. Over and over they and we have been told, from the very beginning we have been told. Yet we delude ourselves into thinking sin, i.e. rebellion against God, will have no consequences. It may not be immediate like it was for the people of Israel, but the price must be paid. Either by the person himself or a mediator, and that would be Jesus. As 1 Tim. 2:5 says:

For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus . . .

 

Numbers 15

I think the first part of this chapter is one of the sections that is probably out of order chronologically. The Lord has just told the Israelites in the previous chapter that they will spend 40 years in the wilderness before he lets them enter the promised land, yet this chapter starts with the Lord instructing them to give him certain offerings when they enter the land. It makes no sense given the previous chapter. But whatever the time frame, God again confirms he will lead Israel into the land he promised, and when he does he’s giving them a way here to continue to enjoy his presence by having their sins covered by sacrifice. They are also to offer to God the first of their crops as an acknowledgement of his blessing.

The next section, offerings for unintentional sins, I think leads to the last section about the Sabbath-breaker being put to death. This again is one of those stories in the Bible that makes modern people very uncomfortable, and it gives the cynics and skeptics fodder for heaping abuse on the Bible and the God of the Old Testament, so to speak.

A man is found gathering wood on the Sabbath, and they bring him to Moses and Aaron and “the whole assembly” to see what is to be done with him. Obviously this was a big deal. God had been very clear over and over again that the Sabbath day is holy and is not to be violated, that there would be consequences for breaking it. And if I’m wrong about the above and this incident is close in time to their rebellion, then God had no choice but to establish his authority again.

This sin must have been very intentional and egregious. In other words, the whole community is hanging out, relaxing on the Sabbath, when you basically did nothing. You couldn’t even build a fire. Then this guy who for whatever says I’m tired of this stupid Sabbath. I want a hot cooked meal and I’m getting the wood to do that, damn it! And as we saw in the previous chapter when spreading a bad report about the land almost caused the people to stone Moses and Aaron, God simply could not let this insolence pass.

And as I talked about in previous posts, this is a kind of treason, a spitting in the face of God, the ultimate general or King of Israel. In any military environment if authority is flouted consequences must follow or everything will breakdown. Modern people who think this is just ridiculous simple have a double standard because they wouldn’t say treason is ok, and should be pardoned, no consequences. No, they realize it is a necessary ingredient to a functioning military and society. Authority must be established and defended or there will be chaos. They also sit in judgment on God, as if they know better how to pull off this whole plan of redemption thing. The hubris is just how Satan, the liar, planned it in the garden, “you will be like God knowing good and evil.” So the man is stoned; message served.

Finally, God commands the Israelites to put tassels on their garments so that they will remember God’s commands, and he says all the commands, that they will obey them and not prostitute themselves (the sexual imagery is jolting) by “going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.” I immediately thought of 1 John 2:15-17:

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

God is telling them, giving them a daily reminder that life, true life, is found in his commands, which we know cannot ever be perfectly kept by sinful human beings. The irony is that if they do indeed keep his commands, they will be proud of that fact and think God is in their debt! There is only one answer to this catch 22, and that is Jesus of Nazareth.