Wandering in the Wilderness (On Numbers)


The Book of Numbers returns to the narrative of the people of Israel after their departure from Egypt.  Where the second half of Exodus focused on the construction of the tabernacle, and Leviticus was almost entirely comprised of ceremonial and ethical law, Numbers is much more interested in recording events from the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.

The story begins at the base of Mt Sinai, with the Lord commanding Moses to take a census of the people (from which the book takes it’s name, “Numbers”).  The census had at least three purposes: 1) it demonstrated God’s fulfillment of his promise to multiply the children of Abraham; 2) it established the centrality of the worship of God by placing the tabernacle at the center of the camp 3) it coordinated the people for their specific roles and for their upcoming travels.  In other words, the census, together with the teachings of Numbers 1-10, serve as a set of marching orders for the people of God on the move.  One of the most memorable teachings from this material is the priestly blessing that God instructed Aaron to say over the people:

“The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace (Numbers 6:24-26).

The Israelites set out on their journeys in Numbers 10, and don’t arrive at Kadesh until Numbers 20.  These ten intervening chapters cover some thirty eight years, and though there are not detailed time markings within the chapters, the many events they record sound like the major highlights of a generation.  Or perhaps we should say “lowlights,” as the constant theme is the disobedience of the people.  There is the complaining of the Israelites about their food in Numbers 11, the insubordination by Miriam and Aaron in Numbers 12, the timidity of the spies in Numbers 13, the rebellion of the people and a defeat in battle in Numbers 14,  the rebellion of Korah in Numbers 16.

What the disobedience of Israel does highlight, however, is the faithfulness of God to his covenant with his people.  Though the LORD is driven to anger, he always relents (often at the prompting of the intercession of Moses).  This should demonstrate to us not only the power of prayer, but also the fixed character of God’s loving-kindness, who is always ready to forgive when we repent.  There are consequences to disobedience, however, and the consequence for the Israelites is that an entire generation will not enter the promised land.  Even Moses and Aaron will not be allowed to enter, after their disobedience at Meribah in Numbers 20.  And so in this last year of their time in the wilderness, Miriam and Aaron die, and many people die in the episode of the bronze serpent (Numbers 21), and others die during conflicts with neighboring peoples as the Israelites travel through Edom and Moab.

The Israelites’ arrival at the plains of Moab, just east of the Jordan opposite Jericho, launches one of the more intriguing episodes in the book of Numbers.  Balak, the King of Moab, calls upon the magus Balaam to come and curse the Israelites.  Numbers 22-24 follows this story, in which Balaam travels at Balak’s request, and sees the Israelites, but then blesses the Israelites rather than cursing then.  Of course Balak is not happy, but Balaam insists he can say only “what the LORD puts in my mouth” (Numbers 23:12). Ultimately, the Israelites both become too intimate with Moab, and also strike down the Moabites (see Numbers 25 and 31), thereby frustrating Balak’s hopes.  Balaam’s final Oracle is famous for its prophecy of the Messiah, referring both to David and Jesus, who will himself be blessed by another group of magi.

 “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth” (Numbers 24:17).

Numbers concludes in parallel to the way it began, with another census, now taking count of the new generation (Numbers 26).  God is finally preparing his people to enter and take the promised land, and he declares that Joshua will succeed Moses (Numbers 27). The final chapters include some additional legal material, the disposition of two of the tribes, whose ultimate land will be east of the Jordan, and a recap of the Israelites’ wilderness wandering.

All that remains before entering the promised land is the finale to the story of Moses.  Thus the next book, Deuteronomy.

Peter Johnston