God invented the Extra Value Meal.
So, in the first chapter of the book of Numbers, God has Moses take a census of the Israelites. And the tally of men over the age of 20 was 603,550. That’s just men over the age of 20 (who are able to be part of an army). So, when you figure in women, children, and elderly men, scholars estimate that the total size of the Israelite community at this time was between 2 and 3 million people.
I suppose there were a lot of different things I could have chosen to say about this chapter. But honestly, as I read over the list of numbers, I was only thinking one thing: How in the world did God feed all these people every day?
Okay, I know how He fed them. He made bread—that manna stuff—show up on the ground every morning, and I believe there was quail in the evening. (Or perhaps the quail was a one-time thing. I’ll have to check.) But the manna was every day. I think we sometimes think of that story as an isolated event. But these were 2 million people out in the middle of nowhere. They had to eat! And God fed them every, single day.
So, I got a little curious and decided to do some of that highly-unscientific internet research I’m so fond of. How would the world’s most famous restaurant, McDonald’s, compare with God? Did you know that an average McDonald’s restaurant, during “rush” hours, serves about 60 people? When you think about it, that’s going at a pretty good clip. That would be taking the order, preparing and wrapping the food, and serving it—all of that to one customer every minute. Probably a pretty reasonable estimate.
So, let’s pretend that a McDonald’s restaurant served up food at a “rush” hour pace 24 hours a day. At the end of the day, they would have been able to serve 1,440 people. That’s all. This means that, in order to serve as many people as God was serving on a daily basis, the Israelites would have needed nearly 1,400 McDonald’s restaurants!
Of course, God has supernatural ways of getting things done. But feeding 2 million people a day in one fell swoop? Now that’s what I call an Extra Value Meal! In our media-driven age, can’t you just hear the commercial? It would take nearly fourteen hundred McDonald’s restaurants to equal the feeding power of our God.
And He did it every day, 365 days a year, for 40 years. Talk about numbers! By the time the Israelites were done wandering in the wilderness, God could have put up a sign that said Jehovah—Over 29 billion served!
God does things for our benefit.
Why did God number the Israelites? Why take a census? Didn’t He know how many Israelites there were? Doesn’t the God who knows how many hairs are on your head also know how many faces are in a crowd?
As I read this chapter—which repeated the census results whilst giving the layout plan for tents—it occurred to me that God didn’t need a census to know how many Israelites were living in the desert. He already knew! (Especially since He was feeding them all on a daily basis. The first thing a good cook will tell you is that she needs to know how many people are coming to dinner.)
So, why go through the process of counting? I believe God did it for the same reason He does most everything—not for His benefit, but for ours. And what benefits did the census have for the Israelites?
1. It demonstrated a fulfillment of God’s promise. God had originally promised Abraham that he would become a great nation. When Jacob moved to Egypt during the famine, his family numbered about 75 people. And now, from that fledgling nation, there were more than 2 million! I wonder if Abraham could ever have dreamed that he would be the “father” of so many. And it was good for the Hebrews to have concrete evidence that God had, indeed, blessed them as He promised He would.
2. It revealed that God is more than a distant deity. To God, the Israelites weren’t just a faceless mass of people. On the contrary, by “numbering” them, He was showing them that each of them was important to Him. Even though there were more than 2 million of them, He still cared about their personal heritage—their clans and families. And even within the different tribes, each family was registered by the head of the household. Following the census, the Israelites could no longer live under the illusion that they were just “one of the crowd.” Each family had been seen and counted by God Himself. What other “god” ever interacted with his subjects in such a way! It boggles the mind that Israel ever turned back to false gods.
God is always acting in ways that benefit us. He asks questions when He doesn’t need information. He requests a census when He already knows the names of everyone in His kingdom. He asks us to worship Him even though He’s not looking for self-exaltation. Everything He does is for us.
He is for us!
God lets us choose.
Here’s what struck me from this chapter: “The Lord also said to Moses, ‘I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether man or animal. They are to be mine.’” (vs 11-13)
I’ve been thinking about this all day. I think God was trying to teach a very important lesson with the “plague of the firstborn” in Egypt. Let’s think about this for a moment. Firstborn children (especially firstborn sons) were nearly worshiped in Israel, and they were literally worshiped in Egypt! For God to threaten the life of the firstborn of Egypt was a direct assault on one of the most powerful “gods” the Egyptians had. Remember, it was the first plague God warned Pharaoh about, but it took a long time to actually get around to it in the sequence of things.
And, if you remember the actual plague, the firstborn of Egypt didn’t have to die. In fact, there was no household in Egypt—Hebrew or Egyptian—which was exempt from the conditions of the plague. The conditions were that every household with blood on the doorpost would still have a living firstborn child at sunrise. The Egyptian firstborn didn’t die in the plague because they were Egyptian any more than the Hebrew firstborn survived because they were Hebrew. If an Egyptian family put blood on the doorpost, their firstborn child would have lived through the night. And if a Hebrew family had failed to meet the conditions of that first Passover night, their firstborn child wouldn’t have survived.
And now, after the Exodus, after the Israelites are out in the wilderness, God lets them know that their firstborn children still belong to Him. I think God was trying to teach the Israelites (and us) a very important lesson: We don’t belong to ourselves. We didn’t create, nor do we sustain, our own lives. We are dependents. And as created beings, it is in our nature to be mastered by something. And I think God is trying to help us see that we have a choice: We can be mastered by Him, or we can be mastered by something else. Being mastered by Him leads to life and freedom. Choosing to be mastered by something else (by rejecting God) leads to death.
In Numbers 3, the lesson was that, when we choose to be “mastered” by God, we discover that He isn’t into slavery. Yes, we acknowledge that we are not our own. We acknowledge that He is our rightful Ruler. But then, He offers a “redemption,” just like He gave the Israelites the opportunity to reclaim their firstborn. When we give ourselves to God, He responds by giving us freedom instead of slavery. When we give ourselves to sin, sin responds by enslaving us and leading us right down to death.
It’s an age-old paradox in Christianity. Jesus said, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.” (Lk 9:24) The fact is, we all belong to God—whether we want to believe it, acknowledge it, or even know it. But it is in surrendering to Him as our Master that we will find the yoke of slavery removed. If we “give up” our life into His hands, we will truly find it. If we don’t surrender to Him as our Master, we will wind up in the slavery of things we can’t get out of. In trying to live our life “free” of God’s restraints, we will truly lose our freedom.
The remarkable thing is that God lets us choose. He could choose to make slaves out of His “firstborn,” but He doesn’t do that. Instead, He offers the right of redemption. And if we decide to surrender to Him, the more we surrender, the more He is able to release us into true freedom—the freedom which is only found in Him.
God likes sneak peeks.
I’m intrigued by the idea that the tabernacle where God dwelt was a symbol of our bodies, which are called the temple of the Holy Spirit. In 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, Paul said this: “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”
God is into sneak previews . . . giving them to us, that is. In Numbers 4, He gave instructions for the various Levite clans in how to care for the tabernacle—how to take it down, pack it up, and move it from place to place. This took thousands of people. We don’t often think about that, huh? The metal alone weighed more than ten tons! Not to mention the immense weight of the skins, hangings, cords, boards, and posts. It would have taken semi-trucks to move this thing around in the desert. And God didn’t have any eighteen-wheelers. But He had thousands of people.
The thing is, God was longing to dwell within the people even more than He was longing to dwell in the tabernacle. But the first step was to invite the people into a brick-and-mortar structure to meet Him. Once they began to form a relationship, perhaps He would be invited to dwell in their hearts. That’s what He’s really after.
But the great thing about God is that He’ll start with the sneak previews, the coming attractions. And as the Israelites learned to revere and treat with care the various parts of the tabernacle, He was planning to show them just how much He cared for them—they, who were going to be His future tabernacle. For certainly, God takes no less care of us than He does of a building! As Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many small birds.” (Lk 12:7)
One day, our earthly tent will be dismantled, and we will enter the eternal house of God. That’s what He is waiting for, and as we also wait, He has plenty of ways to give us a sneak peek of the wonders that await us!
God protects the vulnerable.
Women didn’t always have it so good in Bible times. Especially women with jealous husbands. Treated as “property,” the majority of women were at the whim of their husbands. I suppose it is still like this in many, many countries around the world. So, it’s no wonder that we find this elaborate “test for an unfaithful wife” in Numbers 5.
If a husband was jealous—even if he only suspected his wife of cheating on him—he could take her to the priest, and he would conduct the elaborate test. As far as I can tell, the test was mainly designed to play upon a woman’s guilty conscience. If she had truly been faithful to her husband, she didn’t have anything to fear. If she hadn’t been faithful to her husband, at some point during the process, her “guilt” would probably start to show somehow.
Setting aside the reality of the test for a moment, however, let’s consider what it accomplished. First of all, it removed the burden of dealing with jealousy and suspicion from the husband’s shoulders. The husbands may not have liked this very much. But the women were probably ecstatic.
The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary on Numbers 5 reveals that “from the earliest times, the jealousy of Eastern people has established ordeals for the detection and punishment of suspected unchastity in wives.” Jealous husbands and suspected wives were commonplace in Bible times. Not just in Israel, but in every nation. And methods of dealing with women suspected of adultery were often brutal, left to the whim of the husband.
In Assyria, for example, the husband had total say over what happened to his wife if suspected of adultery. He could put her to death, mutilate her, or punish her in any way he saw fit. We can only assume that other cultures were similar. But not so in Israel. For the God of Israel loves and protects the vulnerable!
In Israel, a husband had to relinquish control of the situation to the wisdom of God. Whether he had proof of the adultery or if he was simply jealous, he had to bring that to God and let Him handle it. Likewise, his wife had to place herself in God’s hands. Whether she was guilty of adultery or not, she entrusted the judgment to God. I’m sure—especially for an innocent woman!—this arrangement was highly preferable to one where she was left at the mercy of a jealous husband’s whim.
I find it incredible that with this one procedure, God provided for both the husband and the wife. The husband was given a way to deal with strong and confusing emotions. He could bring his jealousy and suspicion to God and trust that He was going to judge correctly. And the wife was given a safe alternative to what could easily turn into a bad situation. She could come to God and know that He was a fair judge, not someone who was acting out of jealousy or suspicion.
I look around at today’s world and wonder just how many things in our culture would be modified if God were setting up His tabernacle on Earth. What rituals, traditions, values, or beliefs would He seek to re-educate us about? What powerful emotions would He give us an outlet for? Who would He view as the most vulnerable in our culture?
Amazingly, He cares for us all—the vulnerable and the strong. But I believe He has revealed a special place in His heart for the vulnerable. And as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings, so God shelters the weak and helpless ones among us.
God wants to share Himself with us.
Who knew one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible was in the book of Numbers?!
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. (vs 24-26)
What is more amazing? The simple beauty of this heartfelt blessing? Or what it tells us about the heart of God? Here’s what it told me about God: He is longing to share Himself with us, as much of Him as we can handle. And here’s why I say that.
Notice . . . this blessing is in three parts. Do you think that’s a coincidence? I think very little in the Bible is coincidence (especially if it directly involves God!). And particularly when it comes to numbers. (Ha! Numbers!) So, when it comes to God, what is significant about the number three?
Right off the top of my head, of course, I think of the nature of the way God exists—as One in Three Persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. Could it be that in this beautiful blessing, God is yearning to give us a tiny glimpse of His very nature? Let’s examine the three sections of the blessing.
1. The Lord bless you and keep you. Here is the Father. Heavenly Giver. Strong Sustainer. He is always seeking to bless, always working for our best good and protection. Jesus described Him as the one who causes “His rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (Matt 5:45)
2. The Lord make His face to shine on you and be gracious to you. Ah, Jesus. Son of the Living God. Light of the World, causing His face to shine on us. And Grace of the World, revealing the tender, merciful heart of God toward sinners.
3. The Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace. And here we have the Spirit. Holy Comforter. He who brings the peace that passes all our human understanding.
How incredible it is to find the Trinity tucked away here, nestled into all the formal facts and figures of Numbers. At every moment, in every way possible, God is seeking to share more and more of Himself with us. He wants to be known. He knows everything about us; He created us! But He wants us to know Him. It’s not enough for Him to know. The cry of His heart is to be known.
One final nugget worth considering here is the word face. The Hebrew word, paniym, often translated face,also carries the connotation of the whole person (not just one part of the body). That goes right along with the idea that God—as a Person—is longing to really be known. And it spun a whole new meaning in this blessing for me:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord brighten your day with His presence and grace;
the Lord turn Himself toward you and personally bring you peace.
Sure sounds like a blessing to me!
God shoulders responsibility.
Here’s what I loved about this chapter: “But Moses did not give any [carts] to the Kohathites, because they were to carry on their shoulders the holy things, for which they were responsible.” (vs 9) I just love the way that’s worded. They were to carry the holy things on their shoulders.
I think this is a beautiful description of what God is like. And I think it’s what the entire sanctuary system was designed to teach the Israelites. God carries on His shoulders the things He takes responsibility for, the holy things.
Of the three branches of the Levite clan, the Kohathites alone were responsibility for shouldering the weight of the holy things in the sanctuary. All the other sanctuary items were moved via oxen and cart, handled by the Gershonites and Merarites. But when it came to passing out the carts, there were none for the Kohathites. They would literally shoulder the weight of the holy things as they carried the ark of the covenant and all the items used for sacrifices.
This is just like God. He doesn’t leave the “heavy lifting” to anything or anyone else. He shoulders it Himself. As Paul said in Romans 8, “God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all.” (vs 3-4, The Message)
When sin became a problem in His universe, God didn’t ignore it. Instead, though He was not to blame for sin, He has personally picked it up and shouldered it, paving the way for our salvation at tremendous cost to Himself. He didn’t demand help. He didn’t give excuses. He just carries it.
What a privilege it would have been to be a Kohathite—to walk in God’s footsteps, as it was. To play a small part in revealing God to the Israelites. To shoulder the holy things. That’s what God does.
God is the light.
At the beginning of Numbers 8, God instructed Aaron on how to set up the lampstand in the sanctuary: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you set up the lamps, see that all seven light up the area in front of the lampstand.”‘ Aaron did so; he set up the lamps so that they faced forward on the lampstand, just as the Lord commanded Moses.” (vs 1-3)
As I read about the lamp, it occurred to me that the sanctuary had no source of light other than this lamp. Without it, all was dark. The sanctuary was covered with a four-layered roof. First fine linen, then goat’s hair, rams’ skins, and porpoise skins. In addition to this, there were no windows in the sanctuary. It was a very dark place—except for the seven-stemmed lampstand.
I think this was designed to teach the Israelites a very important lesson: God is the only light. Period. The hope, of course, was that they would be able to apply this symbolic message to the world. For the world is an extremely dark place, and God is the only light. Period. If and when those lamps were extinguished, the sanctuary would go dark. The same is true of our world.
I think the fact that there were seven stems on the lampstand was also significant. And not just because the number seven is a recurring Biblical number. But because of what it tells us about God’s light. He is not a floodlight, like some kind of Divine Spotlight that is either shining in your face, blinding you, or is off completely. No, God is much more into freedom than that!
Seven stems on the lampstand, to me, says that God is interested in our choices. He is willing to let us make choices that would dim His light in our lives. On the contrary, He is willing to let us make choices that would brighten His light in our lives. And I believe that’s how sin and salvation work.
Sin is a process. By successive choices, we may choose to consistently reject the Holy Spirit in our lives and cause God’s light to dim—until we will be left in total darkness, blind, unable to see anything. On the other hand, salvation is also a process. By successive choices, we may choose to consistently respond to the Holy Spirit in our lives and cause God’s light to brighten—until we are able to stand in the fully unveiled glory of God Himself. Whether we end up in darkness or day? God lets us make that choice. It’s our call.
At the end of the day, however, God is the light. And He is the only light. If we don’t want to stumble around in darkness, there is only one choice for us to make!
God has a travel plan.
This chapter of Numbers detailed how the Israelites mapped out their travel through the desert . . . they didn’t. “Whenever the cloud lifted from above the tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped . . . Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. At the Lord’s command they encamped, and at the Lord’s command they set out.” (vs 17, 22-23)
Have you considered this idea about God lately? He is a God on the move. He is not still, static, or fixed. He is energetic, engaging, and active. He has a plan for the journey. He knows when to go and when to stay.
You’ve probably heard that old saying that life isn’t about the destination, but the journey. I think this also applies to our relationship with God. To me, it seems clear from this passage that God wants to go on a trip. We can relate to that, can’t we? We plan trips all the time. And when was the last time you planned to go on a trip alone? No, we take trips to have fun experiences with others.
Doesn’t that sound like what God is doing here? He’s got a travel plan, and He wants to take His people on a trip. He wants them to experience the immense blessing of a journey with Him. And He wants to enjoy their company along the way. Why else would He have built a sanctuary so He could dwell with them?!
God likes to travel with friends. He has a travel plan. He’s got the best, most exciting journey all planned out. Part of His fun is in living the journey with us. Now the only question is, does He have people who are willing to move when they see the cloud ascend?
God, I want to be someone who will go when You go and stay when You stay!
God requires only a little.
And so, the Israelites left Mount Sinai: “On the twentieth day of the second month of the second year, the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle of the covenant law. Then the Israelites set out from the Desert of Sinai and traveled from place to place until the cloud came to rest in the Desert of Paran. They set out, this first time, at the Lord’s command through Moses.” (vs 11-13)
They had been out of Egypt for an entire year, most of it spent in the Desert of Sinai at the mountain. It took all that time for God to organize them, settle them down, and supervise their building of the sanctuary and ordination of the priests. Once that was done, it was time to move.
I think there is a very important lesson about God in this for us. For our relationship with Him in the journey of our life, God only requires a little. The bare minimum. Just the basics. Sure, it took Him an entire year to try to get the Israelites grounded in just the basics, but that’s all it took to be ready for the journey.
And what were those basics? I think it boiled down to two things:
1. Approach God with respect. (In other words, take Him seriously.)
2. Approach God with everything. (In other words, bring to Him both your faith and sin—especially the sin.)
Those two things are the simple foundation upon which God establishes a relationship with us that can last for eternity. If we treat Him with respect by taking Him seriously, and, thus, if we are willing to bring our whole selves to Him, knowing we can trust Him to deal fairly and honestly with us, there are no barriers to a saving relationship with Him. Anybody who does these two things are saved. Anybody who does these two things are ready for a journey with God. Period.
Notice especially the part about the sin. We aren’t the ones who deal with sin in our lives! All we are asked to do—as were the Israelites—is to bring it to God. He deals with it! He deals with it! When we try to control the sin in our lives, when we try to “clean ourselves up” before coming to God, what we are doing (in effect) is keeping Him away from that part of our hearts. He doesn’t want us to keep it away. He wants us to bring it to Him—in all its ugliness. That’s the message of the sanctuary.
Just because these are two, simple things doesn’t mean they are necessarily simple to do. Remember, it took God an entire year to get the Israelites immersed in the basics. But that’s all God wants. That’s all God needs. He’s eager to get started on the journey. He’s eager to have your attention, so that when He starts moving in your life, you’ll want to go with Him.
And it only takes a little to be at that point. God doesn’t require us to jump through endless (or unnecessary) hoops in order to get a ticket to go. All He requires are the basics: Take Me seriously and share every part of you with Me. I take you seriously, and I’m going to share every part of Me with you. C’mon, what are you waiting for? Let’s take this journey together!
God sometimes says yes.
You’ve heard this, right? Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
That’s the message of Numbers 11. Sometimes God says yes. We, of course, think that our lives would be just wonderful if God said yes to everything we wanted. But I believe that, more often than not, God blesses us by saying no. His blessings come in the form of keeping His children from things they think they want—things that He knows will not be good for them. Things that might even be destructive for them.
On the other hand, God will not keep harmful things from us forever if we demand them. This, we know, is true in the ultimate sense. If we demand to live a life apart from God, a life unto ourselves, a life of sin, God will eventually give us up to those desires. (That’s what Romans, chapter 1 is all about.) And even as a temporary measure, I think sometimes God says yes to things that we demand in order to help us understand that what we think we want just might kill us.
In this chapter, the Israelites are a pretty good picture of basic human nature, aren’t they? Human nature always wants more. It always wants what it doesn’t have. It is never satisfied. As Paul said in Philippians 4:12, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” Contentment is definitely not something that comes naturally to us! We have to learn how to be content. And the Israelites in Numbers 11 were anything but content.
But there is a problem in our discontentment. There is a law of diminishing returns in our universe that says perversion leads to decreased reward. What does that mean? The more we crave something (and something we ought not to crave), the less it is going to satisfy us. That means, we have to get more every time in order to reap the same reward. This, incidentally, is why unchecked sexual perversion ends up heading down all sorts of dark alleys. Every time satisfaction is sought, it takes more and more to arrive at the same point. It is a law of diminishing returns.
That’s why God seems to deal so harshly with lust. When lust is involved, our expectations are always greater than the reality we end up with. That’s why the human nature (so controlled by lust) is never satisfied. And God was trying to teach the Israelites (and us) that blindly following after one’s cravings leads to grave consequences. If we don’t let Him be the One who satisfies us, we will never be satisfied. We will always be chasing after an elusive high, a fleeting ecstasy.
And if that lust ultimately goes unchecked in our lives, God is in danger of losing us altogether. And He doesn’t want that. That’s why He sometimes says yes. One thing we can know for sure about God: He is interested in our best good. He knows what is in our best interest, and He is dedicated to helping us find true fulfillment and satisfaction in our lives. We can trust Him to do the right thing by us—whether that means saying no, or whether that means saying yes.
Perhaps we would do well to follow the example of Jesus, who didn’t ask God a yes-or-no question when it came to His moment of crisis. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He was honest with the Father about what He wanted: “If it’s possible, let’s do this another way.” But then, He surrendered the decision into the hands of the One He trusted: “Nevertheless, don’t do as I want, but as You see is best.”
God defends us.
There is so much going on in this chapter. There were a lot of different things I could have highlighted. But I decided to go in the direction I did because it goes along with one of my favorite songs (“Praise to the Lord”) I was just singing over the weekend. My favorite line from this hymn says: Praise to the Lord who prospers your work and defends you.
God defends us. Did you notice that from this chapter of Numbers? Aaron and Miriam, the brother and sister of Moses, had turned against him and started to talk badly about him behind his back. They questioned the relationship between the Lord and Moses. “‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?’ they asked. ‘Hasn’t he also spoken through us?’” (vs 2)
Since Moses was just asking God in the last chapter to either help him out with the people or just kill him and get it over with, it makes you wonder exactly what Aaron and Miriam had to be so jealous about. But, for whatever reason, they were totally jealous and trying to undermine the authority of Moses.
Did you find verse 3 interesting? “(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)” The Lord had heard what Aaron and Miriam had been saying, and we can only assume that it had gotten back around to Moses as well. Yet, what is Moses’s response? Nothing. He doesn’t defend himself.
But God defends him. He comes right to Miriam and Aaron and answers their questions about those who speak for God:
“He said, ‘Listen to my words:
‘When there is a prophet among you,
I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions,
I speak to them in dreams.
But this is not true of my servant Moses;
he is faithful in all my house.
With him I speak face to face,
clearly and not in riddles.’” (vs 6-7)
I love that! God comes and basically says, Here you are, thinking that Moses is just like any other prophet in Israel. Oh, he’s a prophet, all right, but he is not just ANY prophet. Because of the kind of person he is, I am able to speak to him in a way that I can’t speak to any other prophet!
Wow! Moses doesn’t have to defend himself; God comes right to his defense. Later in the chapter, we see more evidence of Moses’s humility, as he asks God to heal Miriam of her skin disease. Please, Lord, don’t hold her foolishness against her. Moses is so much like the Lord, caring tenderly about Miriam, even though she had just been trying to turn the people against him.
There’s a good lesson in this for us. Next time you feel under attack, remember, you don’t have to defend yourself. No matter if the attack is coming from family, friends, co-workers, or even the devil himself, God is our sure defender. Praise to the Lord—He prospers our work and defends us!
God shelters us from unnecessary fears.
This was one of those times where God apparently said yes to something that wasn’t so great for the Israelites. That is, sending in spies to scout out the Promised Land.
Although it’s not apparent from this chapter of Numbers, when Moses recounted the story to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, this is what he said: “Then I [Moses] said to you [the Israelites], ‘You have reached the hill country of the Amorites, which the Lord our God is giving us. See, the Lord your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, told you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.’ Then all of you came to me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us and bring back a report about the route we are to take and the towns we will come to.’” (Deut 1:20-22)
So, it seems that the idea to send spies to check out the land ahead of time wasn’t in God’s original plan. If Moses’s memory is serving him well in Deuteronomy, when the people came to the Promised Land, they were simply supposed to go in and take it, trusting in God to show them how. But they weren’t ready to “rest on the promises.” They wanted to scout out the task ahead so they would know the best way to go about it.
After more than a year of being in the desert with the Lord—after being miraculously rescued from Egypt, seeing water come out of a rock, seeing bread appear on the ground every day, and following the cloud by day and fire by night—they still weren’t ready to simply trust. They wanted to make sure they were going to be “in control” of the Promised Land acquisition.
Of course, after reading the rest of Numbers 13, it seems quite clear why God wouldn’t have wanted them to scout things out ahead of time—they saw that there were a bunch of giants living there. And they lived in fortified cities. Giants in walled cities. Doesn’t sound too promising, does it? But that’s what they saw because they were determined to look through their eyes and not the eyes of faith.
This story reminded me of one of my all-time favorite Bible passages:
“Look around at the nations; look and be amazed! For I am doing something in your own day, something you wouldn’t believe even if someone told you about it.” (Hab 1:5) This is God’s response to Habakkuk, a prophet who was distressed about the state of the world around him. All he could see was evil and wickedness, and his question was, “How long will you be silent, Lord?!” And, in response, God said, “I’m doing something that you wouldn’t believe . . . even if I told you.”
This is how God works—in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. So when He sees giants in walled cities, He thinks, no problem. He knows how to bring those walls down with . . . army tanks? heat-seeking missiles? atom bombs? No, He brings down walls with trumpets and people marching in circles. Ridiculous! Who would use that as a military strategy?
God’s ways are higher than our ways. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. And because of that, He tries to shelter us from unnecessary fears. If it wasn’t His plan to have the Israelites scouting out the Promised Land ahead of time, it was because their fear of the giants was unnecessary. God knew just how to deal with the people who were occupying the land . . . the Israelites didn’t need to be burdened with such concerns.
As I write this, I am once again asking myself, how many things in my life do I demand to be burdened with? How many stresses would God like to keep from me . . . but I insist on trying to take matters into my own hands? Surely, God has proven Himself capable of keeping His promises! I don’t want to second-guess Him anymore.
In this journey we’re on together, I want to allow myself to be sheltered by God from unnecessary burdens. So the next time I’m at the edge of the Promised Land, I’m not going to send in spies!
God's forgiveness doesn't negate consequences.
As I read this chapter of Numbers, it occurred to me that it contained a fabulous example of how God’s forgiveness doesn’t equal salvation. I was just about to write that this was a fabulous example of how God’s forgiveness doesn’t have anything to do with salvation. But I don’t think that’s entirely true. If God wasn’t a forgiving Person, we would have no opportunity for salvation in the first place. So, forgiveness and salvation are linked in that way.
However, I think it has a become a popular notion in Christianity that God’s forgiveness equals salvation. That, somehow, the problem with sin is just that God—in all His holiness—can’t tolerate it and won’t accept us since we are tainted. Thus, the solution becomes about finding a way to get God to forgive us. Enter Jesus, and His death on the cross. Now, Jesus has died for our sins, which frees up the Father to forgive.
I’ve got to be very blunt and say that I don’t agree with that scenario at all. I don’t believe that God has a forgiveness problem. If He did, I don’t think Jesus would have described the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son as having already forgiven the wayward son before he came home (Lk 15:20). Also, why would Jesus have spoken forgiveness for those who were tormenting Him on the cross? They didn’t repent or ask for forgiveness (Lk 23:34).
No, I think the reality is that God forgives us because He is a forgiving Person. Even Satan is forgiven! (Okay, I know this will ruffle a few feathers, but hang with me for a moment.) Invariably, the question will be asked: If the devil is forgiven, why won’t he be saved? And one of the answers is in Numbers 14.
Here, we see the Israelites rebelling . . . again. Now that they’ve heard about the giants in the land, they’ve had it. They’re angry that they’ve been dragged through the desert only to “fall by the sword.” (vs 2) They even say that they’d rather die in the wilderness (a request God is going to eventually say yes to), and they’re ready to appoint a new leader for themselves to take them back to Egypt.
God doesn’t immediately respond. Moses, Aaron, and two of the spies (Caleb and Joshua) fall facedown in front of the people and beg them to rethink what they’re doing. Can’t you hear them? Hey, you morons! Don’t you remember God?! This guy who removed you from the grip of the most powerful king in the world, the guy who split the Red Sea in two . . . Hello?! They are begging and pleading with the people to calm down and trust God for two seconds, but instead of getting through to them, their pleas fall on deaf ears as the people decide to stone them instead.
And that’s when God comes on the scene. Poor God. You really have to feel for Him. He is just itching to give these people—His people!—this awesome land. But (if you remember yesterday’s blog) He’s also planning to overthrow the people who already live in the land with weirdo tactics, like marching and trumpets. And now, it’s clear that He’s dealing with a group of people who don’t have the slightest inclination whatsoever to listen to Him. If He came to them now and said, “Don’t worry about the giants. When you play this trumpet tune I’m going to show you, the walls will fall down and all the giants will run away,” the people would be ready to stone Him.
What is God going to do with these people? They certainly can’t defeat the giants in their own strength. If they try to go into the land now, God might lose the whole nation. At first, it looks like God has come to His wit’s end, as He tells Moses to stand aside: “I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they.” (vs 12) Well, Moses rejects that idea out-of-hand. There are bigger things at stake, he says, such as God’s reputation in the world-at-large.
Instead, Moses asks God to “live up to His name” and forgive the people. And this is God’s reply: “I have forgiven them, as you asked. Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth, not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times—not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it.” (vs 20-23)
God had already forgiven the people! He loved them even more than Moses did . . . of course He had forgiven them! But, to me, the interesting thing is how that forgiveness did not have any dissolving effect on the consequences of the Israelite’s rebellion. Just because God had forgiven them didn’t mean they were magically going to listen to Him. Because of their attitude, God’s forgiveness couldn’t effect any sort of change—they were still in grave danger if they attempted to go into the Promised Land on their own.
And that’s why God decided to grant their wish to die in the wilderness. Forgiven though they were, they would not enter the Promised Land. Their children—whom they were willing to take right back to slavery in Egypt—would inherit the land instead.
What a startling revelation about the relationship between forgiveness and salvation. God is a forgiving Person, and because He loves us so much, He wants to save us all. However, if we are firmly set against Him in our hearts and minds, God’s forgiveness can’t do anything for us. It can’t magically soften our hearts or force us to come back to Him. He has given us freedom, and even though He freely forgives and pardons all the wrongs we do, we often still bear the consequences of our poor choices.
Hopefully, for most of us, the consequences that we bear will be temporary. But I believe that even those (the devil and his followers) who bear the ultimate consequences of sin won’t do so because they’re unforgiven. On the contrary, as God said to Moses in Numbers 14, I have already forgiven them. God’s forgiveness doesn’t override our freedom, and that’s why it doesn’t negate consequences. In the end, we really are free to choose!
God cares most about motives.
Have you heard the story of the kindergarten teacher who was having trouble getting a little boy to sit down in his chair? After a long battle, the boy finally plopped down into the chair with his arms crossed, glaring at his teacher. After a moment, he said, “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I’m still standing on the inside!”
Such an elementary (if you’ll pardon the pun) story, but it’s a very good example of the ultimate problem God is facing when it comes to sin: the problem of defiance. He addresses this in Numbers 15:
“Now if you unintentionally fail to keep any of these commands the Lord gave Moses . . . The priest is to make atonement for the whole Israelite community, and they will be forgiven, for it was not intentional . . . But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel.” (vs 22, 25, 30)
This really intrigued me, because it doesn’t really have anything to do with behavior. It has to do with the attitude and motive of the person who has done wrong. In theory, two people could commit the same sin—but it could have very different consequences, depending on whether the act was committed intentionally or not.
In the first scenario (unintentional sin), the community or the individual was to bring an offering to God. The very act of bringing the offering was an indication that there was still a relationship between God and that person. However, in the second scenario (defiant sin), the offender was cut off from the community. This was designed to be an indication of the consequences of defiance—it ends relationships. It cuts us off from God.
This doesn’t mean that our actions don’t matter at all. Bad acts done unintentionally still hurt people. However, for God, a defiant heart is the real problem, for God can do very little with a person who is defiant.
In verse 30, the Hebrew word translated “defiantly” is ruwm, which means “to rise up, to be lofty, to exalt oneself.” Interestingly, it is the same word used in Isaiah 14:13 when God, speaking about Lucifer, said, “But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God.’” So, inherent in this defiant attitude is the motivation to “get out from under God’s thumb” or to not be beholden to anyone or anything. It’s not just a matter of accidentally doing something wrong . . . or even acting out of bad habits when our desire is to do better. Defiance is about telling God to “shove it.”
God is more concerned with our motives and attitudes than with our behavior. This is another nail in the coffin of the idea that God is some kind of exacting Deity who watches us like a hawk, just waiting for us to slip up so He can pounce. On the contrary, our God is the kind of God who could call David—a deeply flawed human being who made great mistakes—a man after His own heart. How could He do that? Because David’s heart wasn’t defiant against God. He may have done a lot of bad things—including committing adultery and murder!—but God is primarily concerned with the inside.
To return to the story I used at the beginning, if the whole idea of salvation could be compared to “sitting down in a chair,” the fact is that God won’t ultimately force us to sit down. In the process of trying to get through to us and save us, He may get us to “sit down” for a time. (He may even temporarily strong-arm us into the chair in order to shock us, get our attention, and win the opportunity to get through to us.) But if we stubbornly continue to think I’m still standing on the inside, we will eventually destroy our relationship with God—the only avenue through which He can reason with us.
God doesn’t want that to happen. As long as we’re willing to listen, changing our behavior is no problem for Him. That’s why He cares most about our motives!
God is utterly willing.
Wow. Where do you begin with a chapter like Numbers 16?
I wonder if that wasn’t God’s predicament with the Israelites by this time. Where do you begin with people like this? I mean, do they not pay attention? At all?
For starters, let’s recap the events immediately preceding this chapter. The Israelites have finally journeyed away from Mount Sinai, where they have been encamped for a year. Of course, immediately preceding that, they were witness to ten miraculous plagues in Egypt. Plus, they got to walk through the Red Sea bed whilst skimming their fingers through the walls of water that were standing at attention on either side of them.
But let’s forget about that. While they were encamped at Mount Sinai, they were fed and watered (miraculously) by God and sustained by His power. (In Deuteronomy 8, Moses will remind the people of how, interestingly enough, their clothes and shoes never wore out, no matter how many miles they trekked in the desert.) And, during a time when all other nations never even saw the gods they prayed to, the Israelites had daily communication and visual “sightings” of their God—who loved them so much that He asked them to build a house for Him right in their midst.
Then, they get to the edge of the Promised Land. First they decide there’s no way they’re going in there. Uh, uh. No way. No how. They decide to elect a leader to take them back to Egypt. When that fails, they decide they’re suddenly ready to take the land after all. Moses warns them not to go, but they go anyway and get spanked all the way back to the border.
After all of that, God tries to communicate to them about the dangers of defiance. (Hmm, wonder why.) Are they listening? No way! They’re still trying to figure out how they can take charge of the situation, because they don’t much care for God’s leadership. So, we come to Numbers 16. Right on the heels of God’s sermon on defiance comes Korah, Dathan, Abiram, On (son of Pethel), and 250 other Israelites who had been appointed to be part of the council. (Seems like the people decided that a little community organizing was in order.)
Everything they had been through with God . . . it didn’t matter. They had either forgotten it, never noticed in the first place, or decided that they could do just as well without God. Yes, where do you begin with people like that? Can you begin with people like that?
Well, by the end of the next day, Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and the 250 appointed Israelites were gone. The ground opened up and swallowed everyone associated with the three ringleaders (including family members), and the others were consumed by the fire that came out from the Lord’s presence.
For what it’s worth, here are a few personal observations from the chapter:
1. Was God simply trying to “wipe out” the competition? I don’t think so. And here’s why—what happened to On, son of Pethel? He was listed in the first verse of this chapter as one of the four who initially came in rebellion to oppose Moses and Aaron. Yet, that’s the only time he’s mentioned. Neither he nor his family died the next day. Consequently, when we think of Numbers 16, we normally think only of “Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”
What about On? My guess is that On had a change of heart. He initially stepped forward in rebellion, but something changed his mind, and he became willing to listen. That’s it! That’s all God needs. Our misguided behavior is not the problem. Stubborn defiance is the problem. It cuts us off from our only Savior.
2. I think there is further evidence to support the idea that defiance is the real problem God is concerned with because of what happened to Korah’s family. At the climax of this event, the earth opened up and swallowed Korah’s family—his wife, his children, those who had come out to stand at the entrance of their tents. That doesn’t seem fair, does it? Why destroy Korah’s whole family because of what he chose to do? But I don’t think that’s what really happened.
Have you ever sung that popular worship song, As The Deer? Those words come straight out of Psalm 42. And do you know who wrote Psalm 42? The sons of Korah. How could there be any sons of Korah if his entire family was swallowed up? Furthermore, the Korahites (descendants of Korah) are listed much later in Israel’s history as gatekeepers and worship leaders in the temple. So, to me, it seems reasonable to conclude that God didn’t just arbitrarily get rid of everyone who was related to Korah, but that those who were swallowed up were only those who had chosen to stand with him in defiance against God and His government.
3. This is, I think, one of the most startling revelations from Numbers 16: A mighty display of power/force doesn’t stop rebellion and defiance. Fascinating. The day after these incredible events, the people “grumbled against Moses and Aaron. ‘You have killed the Lord’s people,’ they said.” (vs 41) I can’t believe that! How could they have turned on Moses and Aaron after the preceding day’s events?
Korah and his followers had accused Moses and Aaron of being imposters. And Moses responded by saying that if something miraculous didn’t occur to end Korah’s rebellion, then he would agree that he was not from God. And shortly after that, the ground opened up and swallowed a whole lot of people.
Just imagine that. You’re standing there, watching the drama unfold. You’ve heard the accusations, you’ve heard the responses, and now you’re wondering: Is anything going to happen? And then, you hear a loud rumbling and cracking sound, you watch the ground split in two and swallow the defiant rebels, and then see the ground close right back up over them. I mean, wouldn’t that at least make you stop and think? But not the Israelites! They were back the very next day accusing Moses and Aaron of killing their leadership hopefuls.
Astonishing. More, more, more evidence that defiance is truly deadly. It blinds you. It deafens you. It turns sensible creatures into raving lunatics. It destroys relationships.
So, I guess the only thing I can say about God from this chapter of Numbers is that I am awed and humbled by His utter willingness to hang in with us. He is infinitely patient and forbearing. I read a chapter like this and I think, Why does He even bother? He cares so deeply about us. He feels so passionately about us. He will do anything, anything at all, that He can do to save us.
Thank you, God.
God speaks sign language.
This chapter contains one of my favorite Bible verses. But I doubt it’s one that makes the usual “Top Ten” list of most-quoted Scripture: “The next day Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds.” ( vs 8 )
I laugh every time I read this verse. And as I have come slowly, chapter-by-chapter, to this point, it now holds all the more significance. God had just finished dealing with some major Israelite rebellion. After the people had reached the edge of the Promised Land and realized that they weren’t going to be going in after all, they were fit to be tied. In their desperation and anger, they resolved to overthrow Moses and Aaron, their God-appointed leaders.
Their zeal for new leadership led them to question whether God Himself had ever appointed these two men in the first place. (If you remember from chapter 16, the accusation against Moses wasn’t necessarily that he was a bad leader, but that he was an imposter.) And so, even though God dealt swiftly with the rebellion, the people were still grumbling, and perhaps many of them were still questioning if God was really with Moses and Aaron.
So, God asks Moses to take one staff from each of the tribes of Israel—twelve in all. Each staff would represent the head of the tribe. Thus, in the case of the Levite tribe, the staff represented Aaron. Then God told Moses, “Place them in the tent of meeting in front of the ark of the covenant law, where I meet with you. The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites.” (vs 4-5)
Seems reasonable enough. And that’s where my favorite verse comes in. By the next morning, not only had Aaron’s staff sprouted, but it had budded, blossomed, and produced almonds. I love it!
Do you know how long it takes to grow almonds? A whole year! Almond trees begin to bud in the fall, and they blossom slowly through the spring. Finally the fruit appears, and the following September, the almonds may be harvested. God caused Aaron’s staff to do overnight what normally takes 365 days.
After this, could there be any doubt? If anyone from any tribe ever stepped forward again to challenge Aaron’s high priest position, his staff—complete with buds, blossoms, and almonds—would remain in the sanctuary as a continual reminder that God had chosen him. At last, this seemed to quell the rebellion. By the end of the chapter, the people’s energy had turned from overthrowing God’s government to wondering whether they were all going to perish.
So, for me, here’s the point. Have you ever wondered how you could really know the truth? Ever wished you could “set out the fleece” for God (just like Gideon did) and receive a definitive sign? Well, you’ll be happy to know that God speaks sign language. That is, He is not shy about giving us signs when we need them.
God is not in the business of leaving us in the dark! Remember, He is called the Light of the World. That’s why this chapter reminded me of another favorite Bible passage of mine in Romans 1: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (vs 18-20)
What this says to me is that God doesn’t leave any of us in the dark. He provides clear and convincing evidence about who He is and His plan for us. It’s up to us to decide what we will do with that conviction—whether we will accept it or reject it. But don’t ever think that God wants us to wander around in confusion. He speaks sign language fluently! If you need a sign, He’ll give you one!
God gives the best gifts.
After the blogs on defiance over the last week or so, I’ve been itching for a short and sweet blog. And Numbers 18 gives me the perfect opportunity for that. Nestled in amongst instructions to Aaron and the Levites about their priestly ministry in the sanctuary is this little nugget: “But only you and your sons may serve as priests in connection with everything at the altar and inside the curtain. I am giving you the service of the priesthood as a gift.” (vs 7)
That last sentence really stopped me in my reading tracks. I am giving you the service of the priesthood as a gift. Of all the reading I’ve done about the priesthood, it never dawned on me to think of it as a gift. The priests had what appears to be an almost non-stop job. They had to be ready (ceremonially clean) at any time in order to receive the people who were coming to God with their sacrifices and offerings. Seems to me like it would have been a lot of hard (and probably thankless!) work.
So, what’s such a gift about that? Well, I think it starts with understanding that true happiness is a by-product of service. To live in service to others is not only to dedicate yourself to something worthwhile, but it is the closest we can get to what God is like. In asking the Levites to spend their lives tending to the needs of the people, He was giving them the opportunity to be like Him and to do the job He wanted to do.
What a privilege! What an opportunity! What a gift!
God turns the abstract into concrete.
Right off the bat, I have to be honest. This was a weird chapter, and it was difficult to settle on what I was going to write about. It felt a little hard to “get my bearings” in this chapter. First of all, I don’t understand why the red heifer. After doing some research, the best I could find was that it may have been another repudiation of Egyptian custom and tradition. Apparently, the Egyptians regularly sacrificed red heifers in worship to their “evil god” Typhon. But that connection was somewhat tenuous, at best.
It was a very practical chapter, to be sure. Since God had declared that this particular “generation” of Israelites wouldn’t see the Promised Land, that meant nearly 1.2 million people would die in the desert within the coming 40 years—nearly 2,500 funerals a month. The Israelites were going to start coming into contact with a lot of dead bodies. So, in light of that, I guess I can understand the need for the cleansing ritual.
Here’s the thing that got me, though: “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.” (vs 21) Ummm, how could the “water of cleansing” make someone unclean? Isn’t it there to cleanse you?
As I mulled this over, it occurred to me that, perhaps, it wasn’t the water of cleansing that actually made a person clean. It certainly seems like that’s what God was saying to the Israelites—just in case they were inclined to think there was something “magic” in the water! But, if the water didn’t have the ultimate cleansing effect, why go through the ritual?
I’d like to hear your thoughts. The best I could come up with is that it is God who makes us clean. In this case, physical cleansing was the issue, but perhaps God was also trying to teach us the same truth on the spiritual level. Through our relationship of faith with Him, it is God who makes us clean. Why, then, the water? Because concrete actions reveal abstract realities. A person who was willing to listen to God would demonstrate that willingness by following the ritual of cleansing—even if the heifer-ash water didn’t have any magical cleansing power.
Our true characters are only revealed in the midst of circumstances. God knows the abstract contents of our hearts, but others don’t, and often we don’t. For that reason, God doesn’t deal in generalities and vagueness. He finds ways to turn the abstract into concrete so we can see clearly—see Him for who He is and see our sin for what it is.
God has a tender heart.
In this chapter, we see part of what it means to say that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. It doesn’t mean that God arbitrarily punishes children who have wicked parents. It doesn’t mean that He “takes out His anger” over sins committed by the older generation on the younger generation. It does mean that the evil tendencies and influences that children grow up with have an effect on them too, and often, they repeat the same behaviors and hold the same attitudes as their parents. (Look no further than our own society for modern-day examples of this.)
In Numbers 20, we hear a familiar refrain: “Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They quarreled with Moses and said, ‘If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!’” (vs 2-5)
Here’s the interesting thing, though. There is at least a 38-year gap between Numbers 19 and 20. All of a sudden, we have fast-forwarded through all the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness, and four decades later, the children of that original generation are . . . still sounding like their parents. (The clue that we have time-traveled forward comes at the end of the chapter, with the report of Aaron’s death. In Numbers 33, it says that he died in the 40th year following the exodus from Egypt.)
And not only do we have a familiar refrain from the Israelites, but we also see an event repeated from Israel’s history—water from a rock. But this time, there’s a significant difference, and I think it tells us something about God.
The first story of water from a rock is told in Exodus 17. And at that time, immediately following the escape from Egypt, God was dealing with a special situation. He had a lot of scared people who didn’t know what they were doing or where their next meal was coming from. They were superstitious and terribly prone to idolatry. Priority number one was to get their attention and keep it. So, in Exodus 17, God has Moses bring forth water from the rock with a fantastic display of power: “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” (Ex 17:6) And that’s exactly what happened.
But that’s not what God asked Moses to do in Numbers 20. Here, when the people took up the familiar complaint, grumbling against Moses and Aaron and God for the “hardships” they were enduring, God said, “Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.” ( vs 8 ) Interesting, isn’t it? The difference?
What this says to me is that God, at heart, is a tender person. He wants friends, not servants. He wants relationship, not authority. He wants agreement, not blind obedience. He wants to speak, not shout. But don’t let it be said that God is above shouting. Oh, He will. He will rant and rave and thunder and lightning and do whatever is necessary to get our attention. Once He has our attention, however, He wants us to know that He doesn’t much care for the shouting. He is, at heart, a tender person.
It reminds me very much of the story in 1 Kings 19, when Elijah climbed up a mountain to meet with God. And first came a great and powerful wind, followed by a mighty earthquake, and then a devastating fire . . . but the Lord wasn’t in any of these. He came afterward, in a whisper. A quiet, tender voice.
This is why Moses’s decision to strike the rock and speak angrily to the people on this occasion was so egregious. God was about to bring these complaining Israelites into the Promised Land, and He desperately wanted to move them forward a step in their relationship with Him. He wanted them to know that, when they needed to be cared for, He was a tender shepherd. He wanted them to know that a single word from His mouth could provide for all their needs. He wanted them to know that He was not angry and displeased with them—even though they were still complaining 40 years later.
God has a very tender heart. He’s a Lover—I really don’t think He can help Himself. And because He loves us so fiercely, He will produce the smoke and lights and loud noises when we need them. But, in His heart, He is whispering: I love you . . . I love you . . . I love you . .
God is the only savior.
There’s no way to write a blog about Numbers 21 without talking about the poisonous snakes. Oh, the snakes. Here’s how the story reads: “Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” (vs 6-9)
From the story, it’s clear that it was not snake venom, but lack of faith, that was most dangerous to the people. I mean, since when is faith the antidote to poison? How about sucking out the poison from the bite? A shot? A doctor?
No, all that was required for healing and salvation was for the Israelites to look at the bronze serpent that had been lifted up on the pole and trust that the promised healing would occur. If this isn’t a direct lesson about sin and its cure, I don’t know what is! For what is sin, if not pure poison?
In fact, human beings were thrown into our current predicament because of the encounter Eve had with a snake. That snake (Satan) convinced her to drink the poison and buy into his lies about God. These lies quickly produced an unhealthy fear of God in both Adam and Eve . . . and we’ve been afraid of Him ever since.
What is the only antidote to this poison? Faith in the One who was uplifted on a pole. Jesus said it Himself: “If I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself.” (Jn 12:32) That’s it. God is the only savior. Without Him, the poison will kill us. The lies, the fear, the sin will destroy us. If God doesn’t win us back to faith and trust in Him, we’re doomed.
The other thing that was interesting to me about this story was that God didn’t remove the snakes. Did you notice that? That’s what the people asked Moses to pray for—specifically that God would take away the snakes. But He didn’t do that! Instead, He made a way for the people to find healing in the midst of the crisis. He didn’t remove the problem; He provided a solution.
I think God still works this way. I’m sure you have heard the saying that goes something like this: God doesn’t promise a way out, but a way through. This is exactly how He’s dealt with the whole sin problem, isn’t it? He didn’t make it impossible for His creatures to rebel, nor did He stamp out sin once it had arisen in His universe. Instead, He has provided healing for us in the midst of the crisis. He didn’t remove the problem of sin; He provided a solution.
I’m trying to take this lesson to heart in every area of my life. Even though I’m often caught up in praying for God to “remove the snakes” (since I think that’s the only way I can find relief), the truth is that God is the only savior! That goes for the physical realm, spiritual realm, emotional realm, financial realm, and every other realm you can think of. It doesn’t matter how well off we think we are (or how bad off we think we are!), without God, there is no security. Only He can heal. Only He can save!
God is not a manipulator.
Here’s what I love about this chapter: it proves that God is not a manipulator. He’s not a control freak. He doesn’t stack His own deck. How do I know that? The story of Balaam shows just how few options God really had for “prophets.” Prophets are the people who are supposed to be in tune with God, the ones who will listen to Him. And what do we find in Numbers 22? A donkey was more attuned to God’s presence than Balaam: ”When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road.” (vs 23)
When it came to the question of having open eyes to see and perceive God in the world, the donkey beat Balaam hands down. That’s stunning! How far must things have fallen in the world when—as between a man and an animal—it was the animal who was aware of God’s presence? If God was a manipulator or a control freak, this would never happen. He would make sure He had representatives on the ground who would do what He said when He said, without question.
The other thing I love about this chapter is the stark contrast between Balaam’s actions and God’s actions. Notice this: “When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?’ Balaam answered the donkey, ‘You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.’” (vs 27-29)
Balaam was angry because the donkey was not doing what he wanted it to do. And so he beat it. If he’d had access to a sword, he would have killed it. How interesting, then, to discover that there was someone in the story who had a sword! “Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown. The angel of the Lord asked him, ‘Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me.’” (vs 31-32)
The Lord must have been upset because Balaam was not doing what He wanted. Yet God didn’t resort to violence in order to manipulate Balaam’s behavior. On the contrary, He interacted with Balaam on his level, got his attention, and took the opportunity to communicate. He didn’t force Balaam or manipulate him. He took what He had and worked with it.
God doesn’t force us to be what He wants. He works with what we bring to Him without manipulation and coercion. He doesn’t stack the deck in His favor. He uses what is available to Him in a way that will stack the deck in our favor!
God cannot be manipulated.
I love this! Right on the heels of yesterday’s blog, God is not a manipulator, comes today’s message: Neither can He be manipulated by others! Both of these are important, right? We don’t want God to be someone who pulls puppet strings and manipulates us. But neither do we want Him to be someone that we can push around.
Balaam and Balak discovered this truth about God after they climbed up Bamoth Baal with the intention of cursing the Israelites. Balaam already knew that God didn’t look on his mission with a favorable eye. Nonetheless, the two built seven altars and “offered a bull and a ram on each altar.” (vs 2) Why did they do that? Because somewhere along the way, one or both of them had come to believe that you can get what you want out of God if you say or do the “right” things. As if God’s a cosmic vending machine—put in the right change and out falls your desired treat.
Three times they offered the sacrifices, apparently trying to “butter God up.” And three times, the Israelites received outrageous blessings straight from the mouth of Balaam. Balak was mad, but as Balaam explained, “Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?” (vs 12) The sacrifices had done nothing to change God’s mind about the mission.
God cannot be bribed. He cannot be bought off. He doesn’t “have a price.” He doesn’t manipulate us to do what He wants. And, in the same way, we are not able to manipulate Him into doing what we want. He is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Heb 13:8) What a foundation on which to build our faith and trust in Him! He is steady and unchanging. We can truly count on Him to always do what’s right, no matter what the situation.
God is not an elitist.
Sometimes, I get these tiny glimpses of God and see, once again, just how far removed He is from our human nature. I find Him acting in ways that are totally contrary to how I would act, and I’m in awe all over again! There was another such wonderful glimpse for me in this chapter. Balaam is still blessing Israel. By the time this chapter is over, he will have handed out seven blessings—ah, such a Biblical number!
But something interesting struck me in the first verse: “Now when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not resort to divination as at other times, but turned his face toward the wilderness.” To me, it was clear from this verse that Balaam was far from being the ideal choice for a prophet of God. From the story, we know that Balaam obviously knew about the Lord and was able to communicate with Him on some level, but the revelation that he also practiced divination (something God did not like) gives us a clue that Balaam wasn’t an esteemed prophet of God.
And that’s why it floored me to realize that one of the most beautiful prophecies about Jesus Christ—God Himself!—actually came out of Balaam’s mouth! There it is, right in the midst of his fourth message: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” (vs 17) This is one of the very first direct references in the Bible to Christ’s coming. What a privilege Balaam had in delivering it!
And it just made me admire God all the more for giving it to him. I mean, if you’re going to begin announcing the most important event in the history of the world, wouldn’t you want to give that honor to a loyal friend? And yet, here’s Balaam, the greedy prophet who resorts to divination when it suits him, delivering the message.
The point? God is not some elitist snob who only blesses those who bless Him. He lets us in on the important stuff even if we haven’t been completely faithful to Him. Though Balaam was far from perfect, God included him in the circle of those who were privileged to announce the coming of Christ. He is always looking to draw us in, not keep us out!
God is fair.
If you’ve already read the chapter for today, you might be wondering how you can find the “fairness” element in it. It’s a pretty gruesome chapter. The men of Israel went off whoring with some Moabite women—who subsequently took them to church in order to offer sacrifices to their god, Baal. What happened next wasn’t pretty: the ringleaders of this little jaunt were killed and publicly exposed, an Israelite man and Moabite woman were both run through with a sword and killed after acting in open defiance against the Lord’s command, and then a subsequent plague killed thousands of people.
As a little aside, let me just say that the Lord hates idolatry. Why? Because it hurts us. When we “bow down” to other gods—no matter what they are—we are entrusting ourselves to things that don’t exist. And believing that we can manipulate these gods into giving us “a good life” produces defiance and rebellion in us toward the God of heaven. We’re in control. We know what’s best. How else could the Israelite man have taken the Moabite woman into his tent in open defiance of everything he saw going on around him? He thought Baal was going to protect him. I guess he found out that Baal is no match for Jehovah.
So, what does this have to do with fairness? I found it interesting that this awful turn of events comes right on the heels of Balaam’s seven-fold blessing of Israel. Balaam wanted to curse Israel, but God only wanted to bless them. And bless them He did. But not too much later, God is doing some seemingly-unsavory things in Israel—once again dealing with defiance. And what this says to me is that God isn’t into nepotism.
You know what I’m talking about, right? You know people who will defend their friends or their children or their spouse no matter what, don’t you? They have their list of people who can “do no wrong,” and they will turn a blind eye to any amount of evidence to the contrary. I see parents like this with their children sometimes on television courtroom shows; it’s clear that the children have misbehaved in an unbelievable way, but it all falls on deaf ears when it comes to the parents. They have an endless amount of excuses as to why their kid shouldn’t be held accountable.
God is not like that. Even after Balaam’s seven-fold blessing, God didn’t shut His eyes and say, “My people are blessed. Now they can do no wrong.” No way. Because they were blessed and because God cared about them so much, He was right in the midst of their idolatry and rebellion, taking a very hard line with them, trying to correct their wayward tendencies.
God doesn’t play favorites. He doesn’t just decide to bless some people forever—no matter what they do—and curse some people forever—no matter what they do. Actually, He blesses everyone. That’s what Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew. Whether or not we reap all the intended benefits of those blessings is up to us. The benefits are intrinsic, not arbitrary.
Because God is out to bless us, because He is looking out for our best good, He doesn’t close His eyes to our wickedness. Instead, like a doctor confronted with a rotting flesh wound, He comes in and cleans it out. It may stink. It may not be fun. We may howl in pain. But if we are willing to let God work, in the end, we will be healed.
God means what He says.
Just before entering the Promised Land, God had Moses take another census of the Israelites—men over the age of one month. And the census ends with this declaration: “These are the ones counted by Moses and Eleazar the priest when they counted the Israelites on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho. Not one of them was among those counted by Moses and Aaron the priest when they counted the Israelites in the Desert of Sinai. For the Lord had told those Israelites they would surely die in the wilderness, and not one of them was left except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.” (vs 63-65)
The first step in establishing a foundation of trust with children is to teach them that you mean what you say. How do you do that, exactly? Well, you say what you’ll do, and then you do what you say. This teaches them to trust you. If you’re consistent in doing what you say, they will know that when you speak, you mean business.
I have experienced this personally in a powerful way in my life. I don’t have any of my own children yet, but about six years ago, I began spending time with a then-five-year-old boy who lived in an abusive and neglectful home and had/has major emotional and behavioral problems. As much as possible, in the last six years, I have seen him as regularly as his father would allow.
I had observed this boy in his kindergarten class for a while before ever taking him out in public, just the two of us. And I had seen firsthand his wildness. He was impulsive, out-of-control, and not prone to listening to anyone about anything. But I knew that if we were going to have a good time going out together (and in public!), he was going to have to be willing to listen to me and obey me—for his sake!
One of the first times we went out, I took him to a local water park. He was very good for quite a while, but after some time, he began to act up. First, he was running on the wet pavement (a no-no). Then, he was annoying other kids in the pool by getting close to them and splashing them out of the blue. Then, he wasn’t listening to one of the lifeguards who was trying to instruct him. At that point, I was standing at the edge of the pool, and I asked him to get out so I could talk to him. He glared at me from the pool. I asked him a second time. He didn’t move; he even started to smirk a little—ha! I’ll show her. She can’t force me to get out. In a calm voice, I then told him that if he didn’t get out of the pool, we would be leaving.
After a few more seconds of staredown and him not moving, I turned and went over to my poolside chair to begin collecting my things. Now he was out of the pool, running after me, saying, “Okay, I’m out. I’m out. We’re not leaving, are we?” I informed him that yes, we were leaving, because he would not get out of the pool when I asked him to come. He began to cry and shout a little bit, and I just ignored him and told him to get his things. Well, of course he wasn’t going to get his things. So I gathered up everything and began to walk away from him. It really hurt me to take him away from the water park when he had been having such a good time, but I knew that if I gave into his tantrum, I would have to face it every single time I wanted to take him anywhere. Eventually, he followed me out the exit, and I took him home.
I didn’t have another problem with him for a very long time. And then one day, about a year later, we were in McDonald’s and he was playing in the PlayPlace. When it was time to go, I gave him a ten-minute warning, letting him know that he would be able to play for a few more minutes and then it would be time to go. When it was time to go, he said he wasn’t ready to go and refused to put on his shoes. I told him again that it was time to go, and he repeated that he wasn’t going to put on his shoes. And so I leaned in close to him, looked him right in the eye and said, “Okay. I’m going to let you make the choice. You can listen to me and do what I ask; I know you don’t want to go, but it’s time. So you can put your shoes on and leave now, and we’ll come back another day. Or you can play now for as long as you want, and I will sit here and wait for you, but then I will never bring you back to McDonald’s again. You choose.”
And with that, I sat back in my chair, gave him a sweet smile and ate a french fry. And after thinking it over for a few seconds, he went and put his shoes on. You see, by that time, he knew that I meant exactly what I said and that I would do what I said, because I had demonstrated that very lesson to him at the water park. And here’s the amazing thing to me: I have been spending regular time with him for six years. He continues to exhibit wild misbehavior in school and at home, but I have never had another problem with him. Ever. He trusts me, and he listens to me—even when I’m asking him to do something he doesn’t want to do.
I’d like to think that this was what God was trying to teach that new generation of Israelites at the end of Numbers 26, before they went into the Promised Land. He commissioned the second census so they could see with their own eyes that things had worked out exactly as He said they would. Please listen to Me. As you can see, I say what I’ll do, and I do what I say. When I give you My word, you can surely count on it!
God champions women's rights.
Long before there was the National Organization of Women, there was God. In this chapter, the daughters of a man named Zelophehad came to Moses to plead their case: their father had died, never having had any sons, and under the current rules of ownership in Israel, they would be left without any land inheritance. So they said, “Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” (vs 4)
What an extraordinary request for these women to make! They were asking to own property in a time and place in which they were considered property. The first thing Moses did was to take their question straight to the Lord. Apparently, he wasn’t too sure what the answer should be. After all, as an Israelite man, his first thought would likely have been something along the lines of, Women don’t own property.
But the answer came back from the Lord: “Say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies and leaves no son, give his inheritance to his daughter.’” ( vs 8 ) Fascinating. God was making a way for women to own property—something unheard of in ancient times, and something that likely went against every patriarchal instinct in the minds of Israelite men. But God didn’t want to leave them stuck in their patriarchal ways. He wanted them to know that He doesn’t see women as inferior to men. In His view, women were just as worthy to receive an inheritance.
How wonderful to see that, in our work to champion the rights of women around the world, we are simply joining the cause God began 6,000 years ago in ancient Israel!
God has expectations of us.
Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, once again, God went through His expectations of them regarding the offerings and sacrifices they were to bring to Him at the sanctuary. This included daily offerings, Sabbath offerings, monthly offerings, and sacrifices to be offered during The Passover and The Festival of Weeks. With daily, weekly, monthly, and annual sacrifices prescribed, it sounds like God wanted the Israelites to come see Him often.
God asked the Israelites to do these things in order to help them have a good relationship with Him. This was, quite frankly, unheard of in Biblical times. Every other nation had its gods, to be sure, but those gods didn’t actually exist. As a result, the people who were trying to serve or appease these gods were left to devise their own rituals and traditions of worship. Not knowing anything about these gods, they were left to the trial-and-error system of figuring out what would either please or anger the gods.
But Israel was different. They had a God who came to them. They had a God who wanted to have a relationship with them. They had a God who wanted to live with them. They had a God who initiated a covenant with them—a contract that included a list of responsibilities on both sides. God had expectations of the Israelites, but He also promised to fulfill responsibilities for them. No other god had ever done such a thing (of course, because there is no other god).
God has expectations of us. Sometimes we chafe against that. But when you really think about it, the fact that God has expectations of us means He really cares about us. Think about the relationships you have. Each one has a different set of expectations, depending on the type and quality of the relationship. But when you don’t have expectations of a person, it’s usually because your opinion of them is so low that you know better than to actually expect something from them.
That God has expectations of us is an indication of just how highly He thinks of us. He loves us. He wants to have an intimate relationship with us. And He’s not afraid to let us know just what He expects!
God wants us to be happy.
There’s an interesting observation to be made in Numbers 29. Here, we find instructions for three religious festivals that the Israelites were to observe in the seventh month. Actually, this was a very practical thing, because this was the time of year between harvest and seed-time, so it was the perfect opportunity for the people to slow down and attend to worship.
The three festivals in the seventh month were The Feast of Trumpets, The Day of Atonement, and The Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Trumpets seemed to be an announcement of the beginning of the worship that lasted for nearly a whole month. Then came The Day of Atonement—the most important spiritual day of the year for an Israelite. This was the only day of the year when the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place and perform the sacrifices that would remove the collective sin from the Israelite community. Immediately following The Day of Atonement came The Feast of Tabernacles—an eight-day celebration of joyful worship that marked the beginning a new year for Israel—both agriculturally and spiritually.
Here’s what I found very interesting about all of this. In our sinful human condition, I think we associate sacrifice with guilt. Would you agree? This was certainly the case when it came to the sanctuary system. There were lots of prescribed sacrifices designed to deal with the guilt and shame of the Israelites’ sin. With all of this, it was probably easy to jump to the conclusion that the sacrifices were meant to appease an offended God. This was most certainly true in the heathen nations; they did outrageous things—even sacrificing their own children—in an attempt to win the favor of the gods.
Even now, when we feel guilty or ashamed, I think our thoughts tend toward sacrifice. We want to do something to show God how sorry we are. Perhaps we subconsciously think our sacrifices will also win a bit of His favor (as if we don’t already have it). Bottom line: we think of sacrifice as a means of finding forgiveness.
That’s why it’s so interesting to me that—of all these festivals—the one which required the most sacrifices was not the one where the Israelites were repenting, but the one where they were celebrating. That’s right. The Feast of Tabernacles—Israel’s version of a county fair—required nineteen times the amount of animal sacrifices as The Day of Atonement. That was astonishing to me. I mean, The Day of Atonement removed a year’s worth of sin from the Israelite community. That should take a lot of sacrifices, right?
But the reality is, there were many more sacrifices involved in the new year’s celebration known as The Feast of Tabernacles. Why? Well, I suppose there could be many reasons, but here’s what I think is one of the most significant: God wants us to know that the by-product of self-sacrifice is happiness. Happiness isn’t something you can buy; it’s not even something you can chase after and grasp. It only comes as a by-product of self-sacrifice.
That’s why Paul said, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith—who for the joy set before Him endured the cross.” (Heb 12:2) When Jesus contemplated coming to this earth, He didn’t see misery, suffering, and death. He didn’t see the cross, the thorns, and the scourging. He saw His children. He saw the crown. He saw the joy.
It is no coincidence that the time when the Israelites were asked to sacrifice the most to the Lord was a time of celebration and rejoicing. God was hoping to help them understand that the more we sacrifice, the more joy we will have. You can’t find happiness by chasing after it—it’s a by-product of self-sacrifice. That’s whyGod is the happiest person in the universe!
God listens when we speak.
There is a very simple point in this chapter: God listens when we speak. Our words are important to Him. And He wants us to take our words as seriously as He takes them.
Nowadays, business is run on the basis of written contracts. If you have to take a business partner to court, the court will make a judgment based on the terms of the signed contract. With little exception, what is contained in “the four corners of the contract” determines the outcome of the case.
There were no signed contracts in Israel. All the people had was their word, and God wanted to make sure they thought very carefully before they promised to do something that they weren’t prepared to do. There were heavy penalties for breaking your word because, if you think about it, without the ability to rely on one’s word, there is no basis for trust.
This is a particularly important point for us to consider, because the whole problem of sin began with a breakdown of trust. Lucifer (the then-covering cherub) began to do something no one had ever done before—lie. And what followed has been a thousands-year-long demonstration of what happens when you don’t know who to trust.
God’s number one objective in this “war” has been to convince us that we can trust His word. And in Numbers 30, He reiterates once again how important it is that we practice the same trustworthiness. God takes us seriously. When we speak, He listens. And He expects us to do what we say, just as He does.
God is the strongest.
This has to rank right up there as one of those “horrifying” chapters in the Old Testament that make us cringe and want to run to the “safety” of Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild in the New Testament. But there is a lot going on here, and I would suggest that there is much more going on than meets the eye.
There is a lot I could say about this chapter, but I don’t want this blog to turn into a lengthy theological treatise. So I’m just going to briefly touch on a few of the things that jumped out at me. I have a feeling that there will be plenty of opportunities to explore these ideas in more depth as we continue through the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and—eep!—Judges.
1. The first thing I saw was that Balaam—you know, that “prophet” who received the stunning prophecy of Christ’s first advent—ended up being a very bad boy. When the returning soldiers brought the plunder back to Israel, Moses asked, “Have you allowed all the women to live? They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident . . .” (vs 15-16) Interesting, isn’t it? Balaam couldn’t curse the Israelites with his words, so it seems that he set about trying to get the Israelites to curse themselves by falling prey to the wiles of the Midianite women. We don’t know the specifics of his behavior, but apparently, it was egregious enough to warrant an explicit mention of his demise in verse 8. His actions certainly don’t negate the culpability of the Israelite men (as evidenced by the consequences they encountered), but I thought it was all the more revealing about God that He would use a man who was so bad to proclaim something about Him.
2. The second thing I saw in this chapter was that God isn’t greedy. When the Israelite soldiers returned from war with the Midianites, they brought 675,000 sheep; 72,000 cattle; 61,000 donkeys; and 32,000 women. What was God’s “share” in this booty? A tenth of one percent. What government, dictator, or king—let alone Universal Deity—settles for a tenth of one percent? Compared to God, modern governments charge their citizens an exorbitant amount for taxes. Unlike earth’s dictators—who live in gold-laden palaces whilst their subjects starve—God reserves the riches for His people. He doesn’t hoard anything for Himself.
3. And so now we come to the third observation from this chapter—and the one that made the headline. God is the strongest. That certainly must have been one of the motivations behind this war with the Midianites, just as it had been with the plagues in Egypt. In a world where every nation claimed to have the strongest god, idolatry was a serious offense. And wasn’t that the problem with what the Midianite women did with the Israelite men? Do you remember from Numbers 25? “While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.” (vs 1-3) By worshiping Baal, the Israelites had proclaimed that he was stronger than the God of Israel. The war with the Midianites—where their nation was all but wiped out—would certainly have been the evidence to the Israelites and all the surrounding nations that this wasn’t true. As between the God of Israel and Baal of Peor, bet on Jehovah.
I chose this one as the title of the blog because I think it’s going to be a recurring and very important theme throughout the Old Testament. God is the strongest. Is there any doubt of that? I suppose there might have been some at certain points in history. But, given all the evidence we’ll encounter in our Biblical journey, we probably wouldn’t harbor those doubts for very long.
God is the strongest. But here’s what intrigues me most about that: as far as I can tell, that hasn’t won a single person over to love and trust in God. Not one. Think of some of the major events in the Old Testament that put God’s immense power on display—the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues in Egypt, thundering on Mount Sinai, and the list could go on and on. After which of these events did those who remained suddenly become trusting friends of God? I can’t think of a one.
So, what’s the point, then? God doesn’t use His power to win us over to “His side.” He uses His power to get attention. Apparently, He had to do an awful lot of that in the Old Testament. Once He has our attention, though, He doesn’t continue the smoke, thunder, and lightning. Instead, He talks to us in a calm voice. He tries to reason with us. The fact that God is the strongest has never won Him any friends—and friends are what He wants. In the meantime, though, when we need the reminder that He is powerful, He will provide the evidence. Hopefully it gets our attention long enough for us to learn that we can trust Him!
God travels forward.
So, the Israelites are again poised to enter the Promised Land, when the Reubenites and Gadites come to Moses and request to settle where they already are, outside the border of Canaan. After Moses makes sure they don’t intend to desert their Israelite brothers in the effort to drive out the Canaanites from the land, Moses makes the deal to let them have the land on the other side of the Jordan as their inheritance.
There was nothing wrong with making this deal. What was most important was that they weren’t going to abandon their fellow countrymen in their time of need. However, it made me think of how often I am satisfied to settle when it comes to God—instead of continuing to move forward.
I think we all do this, a lot. We have a “mountaintop” spiritual experience—and we want to stay right there. We accomplish a personal goal—and we’re ready to tread water. We achieve a small victory over sin—and we’re content to settle right down and “inhabit” that territory. But God is always on the move!
Life with God is a grand journey, an epic adventure. And He never takes us backward. He is always going forward. Even when we do something that causes a setback in our lives, He takes that setback and turns it into a setup. He is always seeking to take us higher, further, and deeper. Just because we’ve reached a spiritual peak today, it only means there’s more to come.
Let’s never be too quick to “settle” during our journey with God. He always has something better for us. To be sure, He will never take us any faster than we are willing or able to go. But He never wants us to go backward. He wants to take us forward—I can’t resist the famous line from Toy Story here—to infinity and beyond!
God is not a destroyer.
So, right off the bat, you know that there is a lot in the Old Testament that would seem to contradict the title of this particular blog. If God is not a destroyer, He certainly has a lot of explaining to do . . . because it seems like He has gone around and done (or condoned) an awful lot of destruction in the Bible.
This is an aspect of God that I’m still studying and learning about, especially now as I’m reading through the Bible slowly, one chapter at a time. Of course, I know the stories that make God look like He’s out to destroy anyone who disagrees with Him, but is that really His plan?
No matter what, I certainly don’t think it’s His ultimate plan. No matter how we may “die” on this Earth the first time around, I’m thoroughly convinced—by examining the death of Christ—that God does not execute or destroy unrepentant sinners. However, in the less “ultimate” sense, is God responsible for putting some of us “to sleep”? For “killing” us on this planet? Perhaps. At least in places, the record would seem to indicate that He does this at times. And one of the problems many people have with God is that He apparently authorized the Israelites to thoroughly destroy whole nations of people.
We will encounter these stories of “annihilation” as we continue along in our Bible journey. However, at least for now, this is not what we find in Numbers 33. Where God is talking to the Israelites about going in to take the Promised Land from the Canaanites, He said this: “When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.” (vs 51-53)
Here, God makes it clear that His intention is not that the Israelites should wipe out the Canaanites. The Israelites weren’t supposed to destroy them. They were supposed to destroy their idols and places of worship, but God wanted them to evict the Canaanites, not kill them. This was God’s Plan A. Why? Because God intended for Israel to be a light to all the other surrounding nations. Eventually, they were supposed to teach the Canaanites about God.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way. But, at the outset, I think it’s important to note that God had no plans of destruction for the Israelites or the heathen nations. He doesn’t have plans of destruction for any of us! On the contrary, He is trying to keep us away from destruction. That is the message borne out by the 66 books of Scripture. If we ultimately face destruction, it will be at the hands of our own sin, not at the hands of God. He is not the destroyer.
God is the landowner.
I’m having an awe-filled moment with God right now. I love this little chapter. I just love the straightforwardness of it. It’s God, simply spelling out to His people the land they will inherit in Canaan. He plots out the land for them with no ceremony, no pomp, no fanfare. What I absolutely love about this is, the Canaanites were living in this land. Undoubtedly, they thought the land belonged to them. They thought they were the rightful inhabitants. They were wrong.
And here is God, giving away His land to His people, just giving it to them, not asking the permission of any of those who thought they had “previous rights” to live there. There is something I love about that, although I realize that it is totally foreign to our modern way of thinking. Maybe that’s what I love about it.
What do you own today? Are you sure you are the rightful owner? Everything we have and enjoy is a gift from the hand of our gracious God. When it comes to this world, He is the landowner. He has all the property rights! (But don’t worry, He’ll share.)
God is a refuge!
There is a beautiful analogy about God in this chapter of Numbers. If a person had unintentionally killed another person, the cities of refuge provided a place for them to flee when they were being pursued by the “avenger.” If the “avenger” found them outside the city, they could be killed, thus “avenging” the death. But if the person made it to the city of refuge, they could request a trial. If found innocent, they would be allowed to stay in the city. If they were found guilty, however, they would be turned away from the city.
I think there is an analogy here about sin, rebellion, and God. First of all, whether a person could flee to a city of refuge (or remain there) depended on the circumstances of the death. If it was premeditated, intentional murder, they could not take advantage of a city of refuge. Once again, I think this points to the seriousness of willful rebellion. God can heal a willing heart, but in the end, there’s not much He can do with a rebellious heart. If we are unwilling to listen to Him, there will be no refuge for us against the “avenger.”
In this analogy, I think the “avenger” represents our sin, guilt, and fear. I could say it represents Satan, as we know from Scripture that he prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking people to devour. However, I think we participate in plenty of rebellion without his help, so we can leave him out of it for now. In this world of sin, what we need refuge from is our guilt, our sin, and our fears about God. We all harbor these things, even if they reside in our subconscious most of the time. But that fear of God, if not corrected, will eventually sever our relationship with Him. If we don’t find a refuge, we will ultimately be overcome by our own sin.
And that brings us to the cities of refuge. God is the refuge! Specifically Jesus, the Son of God, is our city of refuge. He is the one who came to reveal the truth about God. In the testimony of His life and death, we see unmistakable evidence that we can indeed trust the God of heaven completely. It is this light that helps to tear down our defenses and make us willing to listen. The less we are afraid of God, the more we will trust, and the more we will listen.
Throughout life, we are pursued by the consequences of our own sinful rebellion. But there is a refuge for us! May we fly to the arms of Jesus. May we believe what He has shown us about the Father so that we will leave behind our fears, the “avenger” of our soul. God wants us to stay with Him in that safe city. He is our refuge!
God answers our questions.
After God instituted the inheritance rules for women (in response to the request of Zelophehad’s daughters), the family heads of their tribe came to Moses with a concern over the “unintended consequences” of such a rule. They were concerned that if the women married men from another tribe, the land would become the property of their husbands, thereby passing the land from one tribe to another. Theoretically, over time, one or two tribes could potentially amass a good deal of land through marriage.
The fact that the men from this tribe brought their concern to Moses (and, thus, the Lord) is a good sign. Instead of seeking to take matters into their own hands and solve their own problem, this indicates to me that they had a willingness to present their concerns to God and see what He had to say. They were beginning to trust Him.
I love the whole exchange. The men come with their concern. And God responds very kindly and simply, providing a solution to their problem. It is all done with such little fanfare that it might be easy for us to miss the simple truth: God really listens to us. And not only does He listen, but He answers our questions. He wants us to know that we can come to Him with any problem we have—big or small.
Sometimes it’s so easy to (even subconsciously) think of God as that Almighty Sovereign of the Universe who is concerned only with “the big things.” He’s running the universe, right? So why should I think He would care about what happens to my measly little parcel of property? But here, God proves that He cares about everything that affects us—especially the things that seem small. This is the God who cares enough to know how many hairs are on our heads. When a small bird falls to the ground, He feels it. When you sigh, He knows it.
Whatever is on your heart today, bring it to Him. It’s not too big. It’s not too small. He knows. He cares. He listens. He answers.