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  • The Book of Numbers. This fourth book of the Bible carries forward the story of

  • Israel after their exodus from slavery in Egypt. God had brought them to Mount

  • Sinai and He entered into a covenant with them there, and despite Israel's rebellion,

  • God had graciously provided a way for Israel to live near his holy presence in

  • the tabernacle. So the Book of Numbers begins as Israel wraps up their one-year

  • stay at Mount Sinai and they head out into the wilderness on their way to the

  • land that God promised to Abraham. Now the book's storyline is designed

  • according to the stages of their journey. So the first section begins at Mount

  • Sinai, but then they set out in travel to the wilderness of Paran. And then from

  • there they travel to the plains of Moab, which is right across from the promised

  • land. Now the first part opens with a census where the people are numbered.

  • That's where the book gets its name. And then there are laws about how the tribes

  • of Israel were to be arranged in their camp. So the tabernacle was to be at the

  • center, and then around that the priests and the Levites, and then around them

  • the twelve tribes neatly arranged with Judah at their head. Now this was all an

  • elaborate symbol about how God's holy presence was at the center of their

  • existence as a people. This is all followed by a whole series of laws that

  • developed the purity laws from the book of Leviticus. If God's presence was going

  • to be in their midst, every effort should be made to make the camp pure--a place

  • that welcomes God's holiness. In chapter 10, the cloud of God's presence lifts

  • from the tabernacle and guides Israel away from Sinai out into the wilderness

  • and immediately things go terribly wrong. So in chapter 11 the people start

  • complaining about their hunger and thirst and how they want to go back to

  • Egypt. And then in chapter 12, Moses's own brother and sister began opposing

  • and bad-mouthing him in front of all of the people. This trip is not off to a

  • good start. The next section begins as the Israelites arrived in the desert of

  • Paran--about halfway to the promised land. And God tells Moses to send out the

  • twelve spies, one for each tribe, so they can scout out the Promised Land. So when

  • the spies all return, ten of them say that there is no chance Israel can

  • survive there because the Canaanites will destroy them.

  • But there are two spies, Caleb and Joshua, who say that God can save them but the

  • 10 whip up the people into a fearful rage and they start planning a mutiny!

  • They're going to appoint a new leader and head back to Egypt. So God is

  • understandably angry and Moses intercedes on the people's behalf. He calls

  • God to be faithful to His promises to Abraham. And so God does, but not at the

  • expense of his justice. He gives these Israelites what they want--to not enter

  • the land. And God sentences this generation to wander in the wilderness

  • for forty years until they die.

  • Only their children will get to enter the Promised Land. Now you'd think this severe

  • consequence would wake them up, but it gets even worse. So, in the next story

  • there's a whole group of Levites that began a rebellion and they challenged

  • Moses and Aaron's leadership, saying that they have gone way too far. So God deals

  • severely with these Levites and he renews his commitment to Moses and Aaron as

  • Israel's leaders. Now as they leave the region of Paran and hit the road, it goes

  • downhill yet again. The Israelites start complaining again about their thirst and

  • they ask why Moses even brought them out of Egypt in the first place. So God tells

  • Moses to speak to a rock, to bring out water for all of the people. But Moses

  • doesn't really do this. He oversteps his bounds. He hits the rock twice and

  • then says, "You rebels! Do we have to bring water out of this rock?" So Moses

  • dishonors God by putting himself in God's place as the one who brings out

  • the water. And so Moses brings down on himself the same fate as the wilderness

  • generation. He too will die in the desert and never get to enter the Promised Land.

  • After this the Israelites rebel yet again and God brings a very strange

  • judgment on them.

  • Venomous snakes to come and bite the people. And so Moses again

  • intercedes on behalf of the people and God tells Moses to do this: to make a

  • bronze snake and lift it up on a pole so that whoever looks at this snake

  • would be healed of the poisonous snake bite. It's a very strange symbol, but it speaks

  • to the challenge that God has by being faithful to His covenant. He's right to

  • bring justice on the Israelites' evil.

  • But even God's justice gets transformed into a source of life for those who will

  • look to God for healing. From here the people head into the plains of Moab.

  • The first main part of this section focuses on the strange figure of Balaam.

  • So the king of Moab is freaked out at this huge group of people traveling

  • through his territory, so he hires a pagan sorcerer, Balaam, to pronounce curses

  • on Israel. And three different times

  • Balaam finds that he cannot curse them. He can utter only blessing upon Israel.

  • Remember God's promise to Abraham from Genesis 12. So not only can Balaam not

  • curse Israel, but God actually gives him a vision about a future Israelite king

  • who will one day bring God's justice to all of the nations. This vision recalls

  • Jacob's promise to Judah in Genesis chapter 49. Now it's worth stopping to reflect on

  • the flow of the book so far. The rebellion stories in the wilderness, they

  • just heap up on one another, getting worse and worse. And while God does bring

  • partial acts of judgment on Israel, he's also kept showing mercy, providing food

  • and water along the way. And so the Balaam story, it shows God's grace in

  • bright colors because here's Israel-- they're down on the camp grumbling and

  • rebelling--but up in the hills, unbeknownst to them,

  • God is protecting and even blessing them. And it's this contrast between Israel's

  • rebellion and God's faithfulness in the wilderness that has made these

  • stories so important for later generations of Israel. So the wilderness

  • stories are retold time and again by later biblical prophets and poets and

  • even by the apostles in the New Testament. And these stories always serve

  • as a warning that while God will remain faithful to His covenant promises, he

  • will also allow his people to walk away in rebellion and face the consequences.

  • After this, the rest of the book focuses on the children of the wilderness

  • generation and they begin preparing to inherit the promised land. They take

  • another census of the new generation, then they go on and win a number of

  • battles with the people groups around them and then a few tribes even begin to

  • settle in the Promised Land. So the book ends with the new generation poised to

  • enter into the land

  • and Moses is about to deliver his final words of wisdom and warning. But for now,

  • that's what the book of Numbers is all about.

The Book of Numbers. This fourth book of the Bible carries forward the story of

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