How do you show strength?
Numbers 14 presents somewhat of a puzzle. Here is God, “fit to be tied” in anger and threatening to wipe out the entirety of the nation of Israel. He seems a bit out of control.
Moses, on the other hand, is the calm quieting voice of reason. If God does as his anger allows, the nations will be led to believe God could not complete His plan of bringing Israel into Canaan.
Is this really the way things were? Is God “losing it” over Israel? Is Moses more rational than God?
It’s important to remember that the Pentateuch is not just a recounting of history, but a teaching tool to inform about the nature of God, the expectations of God, the promises, blessings and blessedness of having this particular God. It would appear that God sometimes orchestrates events so that particular lessons will be taught.
So what can we learn from the chapter?
First, rebellion, ungratefulness, and an unwillingness to trust, particularly when it comes to our relationship with God is a serious matter. God believed it was so serious Israel deserved to be fairly well exterminated. It is not a trivial matter to turn against God or disobey Him.
Second, you don’t get to dictate the terms of repentance. Israel’s idea was that they would indeed go to Canaan – after God had told them they would not. In their minds, they thought they were being faithful. In God’s mind, it was still rebellion.
Third, as I’ve mentioned before, God believes in the value of punishment. It not only is a matter of justice, but also a matter of pedagogy. In punishment, you learn that disobedience has a price. Obedience and conformity has value. Sin has consequences – and some of them are life-long (no temporary time-outs for some infractions). The older a person gets, the more severe the penalties. Every child needs to learn these lessons before the penalties become too severe.
But finally – and no less importantly – is this lesson about strength and power. Moses’ point, which God didn’t need to learn but which Moses’ readers often do, is that strength of character is not always played out in displays of power, but in displays of restraint – to be slow to anger, abounding in love, forgiving. These are God’s characteristics. They should also be characteristics of His people.