Thursday, February 28, Numbers 33 – 35

It’s difficult to make much of the wilderness travel narrative in Numbers 33 without a map. But even a map is only moderately helpful since most of the sites mentioned are unknown to us today (you can find this map online at (http://www.bible-history.com/maps/route_exodus.html).

The long list of forty-two places can be divided into three parts.

Verses 3-18 list cities covered in the account of Exodus 12 – Numbers 12.  The places in verses 18 – 36 are not mentioned anywhere else in Moses’ account except perhaps Deuteronomy 10:6-7 where verses 31-33 are echoed.  The third part of the list parallels the material in Numbers 20-22.

Why do we have this list when no one knows where most of these places were?  Because at one point, people did know where these places were.  The account of the Exodus is a true account because an ancient source was meticulous in writing down (note verse 2) the itinerary.  Bible writers expected their accounts would be questioned, that’s why they did not write in generalities of historical events, but rather, recorded them in excruciating detail.

Wednesday, February 27, Numbers 30 – 32

The elimination of the Midianites causes us a little confusion.

Numbers 31 says that it was the “Midianites” who enticed Israel into immorality at Peor. But Numbers 25 says it was “Moabite” women. To add to the confusion, Midian was a son of Abraham and Keturah, but the Old Testament also refers to “Midianites” as descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar. Moses’ father-in-law lived in Midian and was a Midianite priest, but he is called a “Kenite.”

Confused yet?

It’s probably best to identify the Midianites as a subset of a variety of peoples, perhaps distinguished from others by some facet (unknown to us) of their lives (dress, morality, religion, government or perhaps a combination of these). In any case, they were an identifiable people to the Israelites.

The Midianites were not exterminated. They do live on in Old Testament history (oppressing Israel during the time of the Judges – see Judges 7-8).

Christians usually have a tough time with the story of Numbers 25. But we ought to remember that the Midianites attempted to turn God against His own people by leading them into sin God found abominable. It was an attempt to use God’s own law against God Himself and it did result in the death of thousands of Israelites. The punishment of the Midianites should remind us of the seriousness of sin, and particularly life-threatening hazard of trying to “play” God.

Tuesday, February 26, Numbers 27 – 29

Chapter twenty-seven reveals at least two things about the laws of the Old Testament.

First, those laws are often at variance with the cultures around Israel. It is true that the laws of the Old Testament many times mirror neighboring cultures, but that should not lead us to the notion that Israel took those laws from those cultures, appropriated them for themselves, and said they got them from God. This view will not allow for the great differences between Israelite law and that of other ancient societies.

In Mesopotamian law, daughters did not inherit property from their fathers; only sons inherited. This was also generally true in Israel. Zelophehad, however, a descendant of Joseph, had no sons. This meant that the daughters would receive no inheritance in the “promised land.” This, they believed, was unjust. Why should their father’s family lose the promise of God just because he did not father sons?

It was unfair, and God agreed, making this part of inheritance law different from other cultures.

That brings us to the second point: how laws appeared in the Old Testament. Though laws were handed down from God to Moses at Sinai, these laws would not address every issue that would arise. Cases, like that of Zelophad’s daughters, would arise and require amendments to existing laws, and development of additional laws. In no case should the specific law of God be overturned, but new laws based on old ones could be formed.

The Bible does not address every issue. It does, however, contain enough of the thinking of God that if we give it our attention, and make the will of God the will of our heart, we will begin to think like God and know how to address matters God didn’t specifically address.

Was this story just about being fair to the girls?

I don’t think so. In fact, the girls do not ask for this judgment for their own benefit. It is simply about the promise of God. Should a person lose his divinely promised inheritance through no fault of his own? “No,” is the answer. The promises of God are sure, and you can depend on them.

Monday, February 25, Numbers 24 – 26

The oracles of Balaam are an important part of the Balaam story. It is not that they are simply blessings on Israel, but rather that they offer insight to Israel’s relationship with God as well as her future.

In the first two pronouncements, Israel is presented as the admirable people of God’s preference. Though Balaam is not an Israelite, he would like to be one and he wishes his future – even his death – could be like theirs (23:10). Once God has made up His mind about something (in this case, the election of Israel), that mind cannot be changed. Because God has shown preference for Israel, no people, power or god can stand against this God’s chosen ones (23:23-24). God’s blessing radiates from them so powerfully that those not of Israel will be blessed simply because they showed Israel favor (24:9).

I think it is important to notice the great partiality God has for His people. The Moabites were not God’s people. Neither were the people of Amalek or Assur or Eber. Israel was His people, and he preferred them above all others. That great preference has not diminished in the mind of God. The oracles of Balaam underscore for Christians today how important they are above all other people.

And why are we important?

Because we are so very numerous?

Because we are so very powerful and well connected?
Because we live such holy lives?

No, no, no to them all. It is for only one reason. He prefers us because we, through Jesus, belong to Him.

Verse 17 of chapter twenty-four foresees the coming of a king from Israel. It is a distant vision. Balaam says: “I see him but not now; I behold him but not near.” Who is this king? Perhaps the writer is speaking of David. Perhaps he is speaking of Christ. Israel, of course, would not, at this time, understand either interpretation but it would lead her to hopeful expectation of a super king whose ascension would usher in the fulfillment of the promises of God’s preference. Balaam describes the king as a rising star. The coming great king is a theme that will be repeated in the Old Testament and find fulfillment in Jesus whose star appeared in the east (Matthew 2:2) and who is himself, after all, the “bright and morning star” (Revelation 22:16).

Sunday, February 24, Numbers 20 – 23

In Numbers 21, reference is made to a book, Wars of the Lord. Of course, you will not find that book in your Bible, only this quote, and only here. There are other books cited in the Old Testament that we do not have: The Book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13), the Book of the Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41), the books of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel/Judah and the books of Nathan the Prophet and Gad the Seer. I point this out because sometimes we tend to think that Bible books just “appeared,” or were dictated to human writers. But references like these point us to the need, even of inspired men, to do research and be familiar with the literature of their day.

The story of the bronze (or copper) snake is important. Jesus refers to the story in talking about his own death (John 3:14). It is the last time recorded that Israel grumbles about her food. As I’ve mentioned before, God does not appear to resent complaining. He urges us to bring our concerns to Him. But this isn’t just complaining. It goes to the heart of how the people feel about God. Their comments are, in fact, insulting, and that crosses the line.
But what is the significance of the snake?

Snakes were symbols of uncleanness, of sin, and Israel was forbidden to have anything to do with any animal that crawled on the ground (Leviticus 11:41-42). In order to receive healing, they would have to acknowledge their sin by looking to a symbol of sin. In doing so, they turned from rebellion to obedience and God healed them. Jesus said: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Christ on a cross became the symbol of sin, and everyone who would be saved must acknowledge personal sinfulness (no one else can look for you) and trust in God’s means to save.

For forty years, Israel wandered in the desert – a period covered between Numbers 14 and 21. It was near Hormah that Israel rebelled against God and refused to enter the promised land. And now, back at Hormah, Israel’s fortunes begin to turn. The victory over the King of Arad is but the beginning of a new age for a new Israel.

Saturday, February 23. Numbers 16 – 19

For all the emphasis on integrity in leadership (and we should emphasize integrity), rebellion against leadership is seldom over integrity. It is usually either a personal matter (we don’t like the leaders), or some other quest for personal (or shared) power.

We saw the personal side when Aaron and Miriam objected to Moses’ leadership because he married a “Cushite” woman. We don’t know why they objected to her. ” It was but a convenient excuse.

In Numbers 16, a leader of the Kohathites, one of the Levite clans whose job it was to carry the sacred tabernacle furnishings, along with some Rubenites (who had no priestly function at all), objected to the power of the priesthood being vested in one family – that of Aaron. “You’ve gone to far” they said to Moses and Aaron. ‘Who do you think you are? We’re all holy. We should ALL get a shot at serving at the tabernacle.’

Did they feel slighted that they didn’t get to live and function as closely with the Lord as the priests? Or did they feel oppressed that they had to work and make all the sacrifices to keep the tabernacle worship going, while all the priests had to do was administer the sacrifices? Or was it simply a matter of wanting to share the power of the priesthood?

The text doesn’t specifically say, and God doesn’t spend a whole lot of time delving into the intricate motives of the human heart. The point was this: these rebels were opposing God’s order of things.

In religion, in nature, in government, in the home, and in the Church, God has a divine order He expects to be respected. Like Korah and his 250 compadres, many modern people have their own ideas about shared power, equality, and democracy – and those are fine unless they conflict with the Lord’s ideas. When you oppose God’s order, the ground may not open and swallow you immediately. But the fact that it did do so to this group of rebels should give anyone in the rebelling business great pause.

Friday, February 22. Numbers 13 – 15

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.

Thursday, February 21. Numbers 10-12

What did “manna” taste like? There are two references in the Bible to its taste. It tasted like wafers made with honey (Exodus 16:31) and like something made with olive oil (Numbers 11:8).

There are three issues in chapter 11.

First is the matter of Moses’ struggle to deal with all the complaints of the people. With several million of them under his care (600,000 men alone old enough to serve in the army), there had to be a lot of complaints. Moses needed help, and God gave it to him by placing His Spirit on the seventy Elders of Israel, dividing up the work load. Joshua saw this as a diluting of Moses’ power and authority, but Moses wisely saw the value of delegation. Leaders who, in an effort to preserve power, fail to share it, most often lose it – or die and leave good works in the hands of incapable people who never learned the value or the way of the effort at hand.

Second was the matter of the complaint of Israel. Had Israel gone to God and asked for meat rather than manna, there would have been no problem. But their complaining implied that they had it better in Egypt, and that they did not wish to be under the care of God. This is really what angered the Lord, and why He killed the complainers.

But third, and most important, is “why” the people complained. It wasn’t really that they had grown tired of manna. It was that they listened to the “rabble” with them, non Israelites who had come with them from Egypt (11:4), “tag-alongs” who had no allegiance to the God of Israel and whose dis-satisfaction infected the people of God. The world will always find fault with God, and Christians must be careful that their dis-satisfaction does not invade our lives and foolishly make us unhappy to be in His care.

Wednesday, February 20. Numbers 7 – 9

God is readying the Israelites to leave Sinai. Nearly everything has been done. The tabernacle has been built, the Levites have been counted and assigned their tasks (chapter 3). Gifts have been given that will help the Levites in their work (chapter 7) and now, in chapter 8, the Levites are finally consecrated for the tasks given them.

The chapter seems a bit repetitious. Sometimes, repetition has the goal of emphasizing a point. Sometimes, the repetition emphasizes that something was done “just as the Lord commanded.” But sometimes, repetition is intended to highlight a particular point that is not repeated – and that’s what is happening here.

Notice the repetition of the following points: The ordination service for the Levites was to (A) make atonement for them (vs. 12, repeated in vs. 19) so they might (B) serve at the tent of meeting (vs. 15 repeated in verse 19). They were C) given to Aaron as helpers (vs. 16, 19) instead of (E) the firstborn of Israel (vss. 16, 18). What is not repeated is what occurs in the middle, i.e. verse 17, that this was done because God had taken them to himself at the exodus when he had killed the firstborn of Egypt. This is the highlighted point: that the Levites belong to God because of the Passover event.

There is no direct parallel to the Levites in the New Testament. The Levites are not priests, even though the priests are Levites. In the New Testament, all Christians are priests (1 Peter 2:5,9). But perhaps that simply elevates the greater deliverance Christ offered through His death over the event of the Exodus. In the Exodus, God took the Levites to be a more special people from among all God’s people. In the Christ event, God takes all His people to be more special.

Tuesday, February 19. Numbers 4 – 6

The priesthood of Israel was made up of Aaron and his sons – with Aaron as High Priest. Aaron and his family were Levites, but the Levites were not priests. That position was confined to Aaron’s family and its descendants. The Levites in general were divided into three groups: descendants of Kohath, Gershon, and Merari – all sons of Levi (with Gershon being the eldest – Exodus 6:16).

Though Aaron was of the Kohath group, his family was treated differently because they comprised the priesthood. Authority in Israel came from God, through the Priests, to the Levites, to the people. Israel was not a democracy. The priests ministered before the Lord. The Levites served in the religion administered by the priests. The people fought in the army for the protection of Israel. Everyone had a job in the community, and the community was structured along specific lines of authority.

I believe it helps us to understand that even today, there is structure and authority in the Church. The Church is not a democracy. God appoints special servants in the Church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (see Ephesians 4:11ff). There may be others, but when people are appointed to these positions, they are to live as examples to the church and the church is to follow them (Hebrews 13:17).

In America, Christianity has become far too democratized. Church members, rather than seeing their place as one of service, hold themselves out as voters with equal power to affect the polity of the body of Christ on earth. If they don’t get their way, they split churches or simply leave and go where their opinions will have more acceptance.

The Kingdom of God was not intended to be this way. Christ is our King. The Church must act like Jesus in all things, for it is His body and life on earth. Members are not on their own, each to do whatever is “right in his own eyes.” We are subject to one another (Ephesians 5:21), and subject to our leaders in the church, and supremely subject to Christ. There is no place for the abandonment of the body of Christ in order to be subservient to God. That notion is simply not present in the Bible.