Scripture Reading: Numbers 10-14, 20-21, 25, 27; Deuteronomy 1-2, 4, 6, 8-9, 29-34
Significant Moments in The Story
Israel leaves Mt. Sinai – Numbers 10
Spies sent into Canaan – Numbers 13
The people rebel against Moses and God – Numbers 14
Moses strikes the rock at Meribah – Numbers 20
The death of Aaron – Numbers 20
Joshua commissioned as Moses’ successor – Numbers 27
The death of Moses – Deuteronomy 34
It is easy to read this part of the story and hear the details of Israel’s grumbling, God’s anger, and the wandering of Israel in the wilderness. It has to be noted, though, that at the heart of all of these details is a fundamental problem: faithlessness. After seeing the forces of Egypt defeated in the waters of the sea and seeing the majesty of God on Mt. Sinai, Israel still cannot believe that God will do what He says He will do. Their constant complaining and rebellion reveals a lack of faith in God’s trustworthiness and God’s power. We often say that faith would be easier if we could see God do certain things or hear God speak, as if the difficulty of faith was all God’s fault. However, this part of the story reveals that faith’s struggles are also found in our inability to trust that God will really do what He says. Israel got all the proof that we ever ask for, and still could not believe that God would lead them to the Promised Land. Would all the proof in the world really alleviate our own struggles to believe?
Punishment, purification, and preparation
Why does God force the Israelites to wander in the wilderness for 40 years? It is not because somebody couldn’t follow a road map! The answer could center around 3 “P”s: punishment, purification, and preparation. The books of Numbers and Deuteronomy certainly contain a message that God was punishing Israel for giving into fear rather than trusting that He could lead them against the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. This part of the story of Scripture hits us with a hard truth: faithlessness has its consequences. It should be noted, though, that God’s punishment is, in one sense, exactly what the people say they would prefer: “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!” (Numbers 14:2). They would rather have died in the wilderness than followed God into the Promised Land. And so that is what God allows to happen.
There is also a sense that the wandering in the wilderness was a time of purification. This part of the story provides some very extreme, very violent examples of rooting out sinful behavior in the community (see the story of Phinehas in Numbers 25). The violent nature of such stories make us cringe. However, perhaps we can best understand them in the light of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”
These are very violent words that Jesus is speaking, seeming to be right in line with some of what we read in Numbers! However, both Numbers and Jesus are pursuing a point that, as God’s people, we must confront the realities of sin in our lives and seek to remove the presence of sin from our hearts, words, and deeds. Such passages do not deny the existence of God’s grace. However, they remind us that God’s grace is not an excuse to allow sin to continue to guide our lives.
Deuteronomy 8:2 touches on the third “P” – preparation. Moses says, “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” Israel’s relationship with God didn’t end the moment they took residence in the Promised Land. God’s intent all along was to dwell with his people – remember the tabernacle? God wanted to remain in his people’s midst. The time in the wilderness was time that God used to teach them what life with Him looked like so that they would be ready to transition from liberated slaves wandering in the wilderness to a nation living at peace with their God.
Leaving from Sinai – Numbers 10:11-12
Based on the calendar dates given here and in Exodus 19:1, the Israelites spent 11 months at Mt. Sinai.
The prophesying elders – Numbers 11:25-30
This is the first of what will be several references in the Old Testament to a type of ecstatic prophecy where men and women are overcome by the divine spirit and break into some sort of speaking that they cannot control. The image portrayed here of prophets is certainly slightly different from that of later prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who seem more “in control” to us. There are some who hear in this passage, especially Moses’ words in Numbers 11:29, a validation of the prophetic movement which will become a huge part of Israel’s later religious life.
The Anakites and the Nephilim – Numbers 13:33
The Nephilim are mentioned in Genesis 6 as those peoples born from the union between divine beings and humans. Ancient tradition held that the Nephilim were taller than normal humans and possessed extraordinary strength. Numbers describes the Anakites, among the inhabitants of Canaan, as descendants of the Nephilim and possessing their unusual height.
Ten times Israel tested God – Numbers 14:22
Referring to previous events when Israel has doubted God’s ability or failed to heed God’s commands: Exodus 14:11-12, Exodus 15:24, Exodus 16:1-3, Exodus 17:3, Exodus 32:1, Leviticus 10:1, Numbers 11:1, Numbers 11:4-6, Numbers 12:1-2, and Numbers 14:1-4.
Edom, the brother of Israel – Numbers 20:14-21
The people of Edom were believed to be the descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. Thus, this story of mistrust and rivalry between Edom and Israel continues the narrative that began with Esau and Jacob.
The bronze serpent – Numbers 21:4-9
This bronze serpent that Moses creates will be given the name Nehushtan. It seems that it would become an object of worship, perhaps even an idol, later in Israel’s history. In 2 Kings 18:4, we are told that King Hezekiah, noted for his reforms of Israel’s worship life, destroyed Nehushtan because the Israelites were bringing offerings to it.
Serpent magic was a popular form of magic practiced in certain ancient cultures, especially among the Canaanites and the Egyptians.
Baal of Peor – Numbers 25:3
This is the first reference to the Canaanite god Baal, the god of storm and fertility. As we move forward in the story, we will see that the worship of Baal will remain a consistent temptation for Israel. As part of the worship of Baal, the people would offer sacrifices to Baal and eat a portion of what they offered as a burnt offering.
The daughters of Zelophehad – Numbers 27:1-11
In ancient Israel, as in many ancient cultures, women were typically not allowed to inherit property. Thus, this act of allowing the daughters to inherit their father’s property was a radical and unusual step. The book of Numbers ends by coming back to another situation regarding these daughters and the concern that, should they marry men from another tribe, their property would leave the possession of their native tribe. In a society where family inheritance was an important part of maintaining tribal heritage, this would have been considered a tragedy. Thus, Moses commands that, though the women have the freedom to marry whom they think best (also a radical idea for this culture) they must marry within their family’s tribe.
The book of Deuteronomy is considered by some to be the beginning of what will be called the “Deuteronomic History”. This history encompasses the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. These books are grouped together, in part, because they share a common theme that loyalty to God brings reward while disobedience brings catastrophe. In the book of Deuteronomy, there is a heavy emphasis placed by Moses on “blessings and curses” and his dramatic call to “choose life”. The later books will bear out the practical implications of this theology and tell Israel’s history through this sort of lens. We also see in all of these books a pattern of Israel’s relationship to God – apostasy, judgment, repentance, and deliverance.
Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ last testament, his final words to Israel before they enter the Promised Land. Traditionally, the authorship of the book was attributed to Moses himself. However, since the last chapter of the book details the death of Moses, it is highly unlikely that Moses himself put the pen to paper.
Horeb – Deuteronomy 1:6
Horeb is another name for Mt. Sinai.
Cities of refuge – Deuteronomy 4:41-43
Within Israel certain cities were set apart as places of refuge for those who had unintentionally caused the death of another person. The law operated by a “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” concept. Thus, if you caused the death of an individual, that family had the right to kill you. While this sounds barbaric, the law was actually intended to limit bloodlust and force individuals to operate by a mindset of equitable justice. You could not, for example, wipe out an entire family in return for the death of one person. Cities of refuge were sanctuaries where those who had unintentionally caused the death of another could flee and be safe from the repercussions the law allowed.
The Shema – Deuteronomy 6:4-9
“Shema” is the Hebrew imperative for our English word “Hear” or “Listen”. These verses in Deuteronomy came to be known as the Shema because this is the first word in the passage. The Shema became the core statement of faith for the Israelite people. Still today, many Jews will recite the Shema as part of their corporate worship and devotional life. Some orthodox Jews will literally wrap little boxes around their hands and head that contain verses of Scripture.
Some Questions that Might Come Up
In Numbers 12, why is Miriam punished but not Aaron?
There is no clear explanation for why Miriam is struck with leprosy but there is no apparent punishment for Aaron after both of them have called into question God’s choice of Moses as a leader. Their complaint about Moses’ marrying “a Cushite woman” was a reference to Moses’ marriage to Zipporah, indicating that Cushite was a broad term that included several Arabic peoples.
Isn’t Moses’ punishment rather harsh? Why is he even punished in the first place? Just what did he do wrong?
In Numbers 20:2-13, we read the story of Israel at the waters of Meribah. There is no water, and the people are complaining. Moses takes their complaint to God, who tells him to take his staff in his hands and command water to come from the rock. We are told that Moses gathered all the people together, took his staff, and struck the rock twice, and water came out of it. Everybody drinks and is happy, but God says, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).
The first thing that should be noted is that, in an earlier story (Exodus 17:1-7) when Israel was thirsty, God commanded Moses to take his staff and strike the rock. When he struck the rock, water came out of it. There are some who have wondered if this is a case where Moses gets confused, assuming an earlier action and repeating it rather than truly paying attention to what God has said. Such consideration leads one to wonder why such a harsh punishment would be handed down for a misunderstanding.
The most common explanation given for why Moses is punished is that he disobeys God. God did not tell him to strike the rock, but to command the rock to bring forth water. I think this is part of the idea. A concept of disobedience must be partnered with the idea that God was intending to show His power to provide for Israel, thus why He instructed Moses to command the rock and not strike the rock. However, Moses’ action brought the appearance that it was Moses, not God, providing the water. This point is emphasized by Moses’ words before he strikes the rock – “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10) This is really the first time we have seen Moses try to “replace” God, a problem that the rest of the Israelites have struggled continuously with, most clearly in the story of the golden calf. Thus, Moses is now guilty of the same sin that prevents Israel from entering the Promised Land: his actions seem to indicate that he does not believe that God can provide for Israel what God has promised.
Philip Yancey, in his book The Bible Jesus Read, points out that Moses’ story does not end in Deuteronomy. In Matthew 17:1-9, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain and is transfigured in their presence. All of the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration tell us that standing there next to Jesus on the mountain was Moses. Moses’ dream, his goal, was realized: he was finally standing in the Promised Land.