Numbers 20-24

The lessons we learn from the Israelites journey from Egypt to the Promised Land are countless, God nurtured and trained them to become His people just as He disciples and disciplines us to become more like Him every day. Numbers 20 finds the Israelites back at Kadesh, at the edge of the Promised Land with all its guaranteed goodness forty years after the Israelites stumbled in their faith and after that entire generation that rebelled against God has died. They are poised to accomplish what their fathers failed to do, but the tension continues, will they obey God or fall into the same fears and lack of faith?

The fate of the Israelites as a people unfolds in this chapter, but also the fate of their leaders Moses, Aaron and Miriam. First Miriam dies, the young girl who was brave enough to approach Pharaoh’s daughter to save Moses from death in the Nile, then later conspired to usurp his leadership and was quickly punished then healed by the LORD. She is laid to rest, not in the Promised Land but in the Wilderness just outside.

Once again the Israelites are tempted with the same persistent sin; God has provided for them for forty years in the desert, but when they don’t have what they want they mount a rebellion against Moses and LORD once more. They complain about the lack water, grain, figs and pomegranates, they are focused on their longings and not their provisions and blessings. Isn’t this just like us? We are surrounded with blessings beyond imagination, we have so much stuff our garages are overflowing yet we continue to want what is just beyond our reach rather than being content with the things that God has graciously provided in abundance.

Again Moses and Aaron plead with the LORD, both for God’s patience with this ungrateful people and for water. God gives Moses clear specific instructions gather the community in front of the rock and speak to the rock and it will pour forth water for the beasts and people. Moses in his anger disobeyed the LORD note the words and actions: ‘“Listen, you rebels, must we bring water out of this rock for you?” Then Moses raised his hand, and struck the rock twice with his staff. And water came out abundantly. So the community drank, and their beasts drank too.’ First, Moses appropriates God’s glory when he says, “must we bring water out”, it was not Moses and Aaron doing the work but the LORD and additionally Moses struck the rock twice, as if his actions did the work not God. I am always amazed that God allowed the water to pour forth and reminded of the many times that God is faithful even when I am un-faithful.

God’s merciful answer was swift; Moses and Aaron will not enter into the Promised Land. “Because you did not trust me enough to show me as holy before the Israelites, therefore you will not bring this community into the land I have given them.” This is lasting example to us, even leaders who have been faithful in many things suffer the consequences of their sin, and we all sin; “No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it”.
Now the Israelites move towards the Promised Land God through the kingdom of Edom. The Edomites are the descendants of Esau, Israel’s twin brother, therefore Moses asks as a relative to allow them to pass through their land. But the King of Edom refuses, and threatens to come out and attack them; so Moses takes the Israelites the long way around to avoid conflict with their brothers. It is in the mountains of Edom that Aaron dies, and the role of the High Priest is passed on by God’s command to his son Eleazar.

While they are mourning Aaron’s death, the Canaanite king of Arad comes out to attack the Israelites. Remember when they were last here, the Israelites decided to go into the Promised Land without the Ark and the LORD leading them, they were attacked and defeated. This time they go with the LORD, they make a vow to God and they completely destroy the Canaanite cities. Pumped up by their success they quickly fall into their old patterns, the once again complain against Moses and the LORD, they are tired of the desert route and Moses’ leadership. God punishment is quick, he send poisonous snakes among the people and many people died. Note that Numbers 20:7 makes clear that the people repented, this is new, they are learning slowly, so Moses intercedes again and the LORD instructs Moses to “Make a poisonous snake and set it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will live.” Jesus points to this occasion saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

The Israelites travel up the eastern side of the Jordan River in the wilderness, they send a message to the King of the Amorites asking to pass through peacefully but they came out and attacked the Israelites. Israel defeated all who came out against them and they took possession of the land and settled people, then turned toward Bashan which they defeated as well. The Israelites traveled to the plains of Moab across from Jericho, where King Balak and his people are fearful of the Israelites success. So King Balak sends for a pagan prophet named Balaam to offer sacrifices and curse the Israelites. Once again it is a battle of the pagan gods against the LORD of Heaven and God will use pagans and animals to accomplish his purposes. Balak offers a great reward for Balaam to curse the Israelites, but God reveals himself to Balaam and causes him to bless Israel instead of cursing. This clearly shows that no one can curse someone whom God has blessed. However, Balak does not give up easily; he repeatedly implores Balaam to come curse the Israelites. Finally God allows Balaam to go to Balak along the road where an angel of the LORD stands in his way with sword in hand ready to kill Balaam, but Balaam’s donkey sees the angel and attempts to flee, which only get her beaten repeatedly until finally God opens the donkey’s mouth and she speaks to Balaam complaining about the ill treatment. Then the LORD opens Balaam’s eyes and he sees the angel who says he would have killed him except that the donkey saved you three times – Balaam admits his evil and is instructed to only speak the words that the angel gives him to Balak.

Three times from three different locations Balak and Balaam offer up sacrifices and Balaam only blesses the Israelites instead of cursing. Balak finally pleads in anger, “Neither curse them at all nor bless them at all!” At the final location for purposes of curses, Balaam lifts up his eyes and sees Israel camped tribe by tribe and the Spirit of God came upon him; he delivers a blessing, “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel!” Then Balaam prophesizes all the nations that Israel will conquer: Moab and the sons of Sheth, Edom, Seir, Amalek, the Kenites, Asshur and Eber all will perish forever.

God is fulfilling His promise made to Abram, “Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing. I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name.” Genesis 12:2-3

Exodus 35-40 and Numbers 1-8

Exodus ends with a repetition of God’s commands, but this time stated in the past tense, the details of God’s design are intentionally fixed in the minds of the readers and listeners. This is what God said to do, now do it! We also notice the emphasis on death as the payment for sin; this leads us to the sacrificial system as payment for sin – the animal as a substitute. We also hear the emphasis that these commands are for everyone, women, men, slaves and children; there is not one law for the elite and another for the commoner – we all stand equal under God’s law.

Now the actual work on the Tabernacle and its furnishings begins with a call for offerings from anyone with a willing heart and “they came, men and women alike, all who had willing hearts”. We understand the importance of the freewill offering in that it is mentioned and repeated many times, all was done willingly, not reluctantly or under compulsion. Then God fills Bezalel and Oholiab with the Spirit of God – with skill, with understanding, with knowledge, with artistic designs to work in gold, silver, bronze, cutting stones, wood and fiber arts. Additionally God gave them the ability to teach others to be craftsmen, weavers and designers. God call us and He equips us to do his work; but we also notice they were obedient in that they followed the instructions exactly as the LORD commanded Moses. This enterprise of receiving the offerings and doing the artistic work was so successful that Moses needed to restrain people from bringing any more materials; they received enough for them to do all the work.

Exodus 36-39 repeats all the directions for the Tabernacle and its furnishings and the directions for the priestly clothing. “Just as the LORD commanded Moses” is repeated over and over again, we get it, they did it exactly as God commanded. Following this they present the articles to Moses for inspection who confirms the exactness of their work. On the first day of the first month, one year after the Passover in Egypt, Moses sets up the Tabernacle exactly as God designated it to done. Then the Tabernacle and all the furnishings are anointed with the holy oil. Then Aaron and sons are brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting to be cleansed and anointed with oil. “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle”.

From this point on the Israelites travel throughout the area with God dwelling among them, in their midst, they have set their schedule and timing to God’s movement in their lives. When God moves they move, when God stays in one place they stay in one place. God is their Sovereign, their LORD, their King they have made a treaty or covenant with God, and Moses is their leader. “For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, but fire would be on it at night, in plain view of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys”.

Our journey continues in the book of Numbers which gets its title from the census taken at the beginning and end of Israel’s journey. God commands Moses to “Take a census of the entire Israelite community by their clans and families, counting the name of every individual male”; every male 20 years and older who can serve in the army are numbered. The only clan not included in this census is the tribe of Levi; they are set aside, appointed to take care of the Tabernacle and its furnishings. We will see that the Levites will participate in all of Israel’s battles by carrying the Ark at the head of the army of the Israelites.

Aaron and sons are responsible for Tabernacle and all its furnishings and for the needs of the Israelites as they serve in the Tabernacle; the punishment for violating the Tabernacle is death. God must only be worshiped and approached in the manner He has commanded. Aaron was the High Priest his son Gershon’s family was responsible for the tent covering and the curtains that surrounded the Tabernacle. Kohath’s family was responsible for the furnishings: the ark, the table, the lampstand, everything used in ministering in the Tabernacle and the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. Merari’s family was responsible for the structure, the posts, bases and all its equipment.

God commands another counting, this time the numbering of the Levites; they will be the required payment for the firstborn saved during the Passover plague in Egypt. Then the number of Levites is compared to the number of firstborn males of the Israelites; there are 273 more firstborn males than Levites. Therefore a sanctuary shekel is collected “for the redemption of the excess number of them to Aaron and his sons”. A final numbering of the Levite males age 30-50 is completed; they are the ones who can work and serve in the tent of meeting.

Numbers 5 is a reminder of the importance of keeping the laws and gives additional information for infectious diseases, making restitution and being unjustly accused of adultery. We are reminded that God always gives us a way to become clean and holy again after we sin. Additionally, the sins that defile our communities are not just the visible sins, but also the sins that go unseen; the sin is not just against your neighbor but against the LORD too. Numbers 6 details the self-discipline, rules and devotion that a person does when making a Nazerite vow. Finally, the LORD instructs Moses to teach Aaron how to bless the Israelites. “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace”.

Number 7 and 8 give the packing and moving process for the Tabernacle. Before the Israelites move each tribe brings offerings for the Tabernacle, carts and ox for carrying the heavy loads, then sin offerings, burnt offerings, fellowship offering and grain offerings. The LORD instructs Moses and Aaron to set up the lamps in the Tabernacle and to make the Levites ceremonially clean for service. The Israelite people lay their hands on the Levites as a substitution for them to do the work in the Tabernacle as representatives of the entire community. “When Moses entered the Tent of Meeting to speak with the LORD, he heard the voice speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the atonement cover on the ark of the Testimony. And he spoke with him.”

Exodus 31-34

Exodus 31 begins with God’s reminder to “keep my Sabbaths”; this pattern will be a lasting covenant a sign throughout the generations that God has established their days of work and rest and that God continues to be an active part in their sanctification. This reminder comes with a warning, which signifies its importance that those who do not obey the Sabbath rest will be “cut off from among his people”.

Moses is still on the mountain with God, it has been forty days and forty nights; God gave Moses two tablets of the testimony, the covenant stipulations, written by the finger of God. Meanwhile back in the camp, things have gotten out of control; a rebellion against Moses and God has begun.

Some of the Israelites, impatient with God’s timing, approach Aaron demanding that he make “gods that will go before us” and saying “as for this man Moses we do not know what has become of him!” This is the first of many brewing rebellions; they are against both God and Moses, His chosen leader of the Israelites. We are reminded how often our impatience with God’s timing leads to foolish decisions; our impulsive choices result in dreadful consequences even after we repented of our lack of faith.

Aaron quickly succumbs to the pressure of the crowd; he receives the offering of gold earrings to make into a golden calf, which was a symbol of fertility and strength for the Egyptians. Aaron presents the idol and quickly sees the danger of his decision; he proclaims that “tomorrow will be a feast to the LORD” and prepares to offer burnt offerings and peace offerings to the LORD. But his wrong decision spirals out of his control, they arise early the next day and “offer up burnt offerings and brought peace offerings and the people sat down to eat and drink and they rose up to play”. This was more than a festival, when they “rose up to play” they engaged in a pagan orgy. Aaron tried to redirect their worship to Yahweh, but the people had already broken down the barrier and were beyond control.

Up on the mountain God informs Moses of the corruption of the Israelites and refers to them as “your people”. God has disowned the Israelites; they no longer can claim Him as their God because they have shared His honor with another. Even more than that the crowd declared that it was the golden calf that brought them out of Egypt; they have stolen God’s honor and given it to another! It is no wonder that God declares that He is finished with these people; He will destroy them all and start over with Moses.

Moses intercedes by seeking the favor of the LORD reminding God of His promises and plans for His people and His ultimate plan to bless all the earth through them. When Moses prayed he moved the arm of God – he saved his people from certain destruction. Now Moses comes down from the Mountain and deals with the wicked disobedient people.

Moses is extremely angry as he approaches the camp, when he see their full descent into evil he throws the tablets to the ground breaking them, he destroys the idol, burns it in the fire, grounds the ashes to a powder and mixes that with water and made the Israelites drink it. This is a type of bitter water test, those who were guilty of sin in the worship of idols and the orgy that followed would suffer distress indicating their guilt.

Moses confronts Aaron about his sin, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought on them so great a sin?” Aaron first blames the people, then he blames Moses and finally claims that mysteriously the golden calf just appeared out of the fire. I often wonder why Aaron didn’t die for his part in this episode, Moses clearly puts the blame on Aaron and in God’s mercy he must have passed the bitter water test. The idea seems to be that the people had broken loose, were undisciplined, and were completely given over to their desires. And we will see in future study that Aaron will suffer the consequences of his sins. Finally, Moses calls his tribe to him in a war cry, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me” and all the Levites gathered around him. He tells them to arm themselves and they go through the camp and slay all those who led in the false worship. The Levites did what Moses ordered, and that day about three thousand men of the people died. Three thousand is approximately 1% of the people, what a cautionary tale for us, that such a small number of the Israelites could cause them all to suffer the wrath of God and how easily a small number can corrupt the whole camp.

Moses mediates again with the LORD and offers himself in their place, accepting the guilt upon himself for Israel’s sins. Moses took out his wrath on Israel saving them from God’s complete wrath and destruction. The LORD relents, the guilty were slain but the consequences for their disobedience are postponed to some future date. The final consequence is that the LORD removes himself from the camp “lest I destroy you”; the seriousness of their rebellion is clear, their lives are at risk. The people had a daily reminder of their sinfulness by the removal of God’s presence and they mourned their wickedness. Moses pitched a tent away from the camp; there the LORD would arrive to meet Moses face to face. The point is that sinfulness prevents the active presence of the LORD leading his people. Do you feel like you are in the wilderness without God’s direction? Consider if your unrepentant sins and disobedience are separating you from the LORD’s presence; our LORD will not share His glory with the idols of our hearts.

Moses earns his title as mediator as he again intercedes with the LORD for the Israelites. God assures Moses that He is with him and He will give Moses rest, but Moses wants more, he wants the LORD to lead Israel again. Moses pleads with God to acknowledge Israel as his people by providing the divine leadership needed. Moses’ main appeal will be for the people and not himself; he already has God’s favor. The LORD said to Moses, “I will do this thing also that you have requested, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Finally Moses asks one last request; “Show me your glory” Moses wanted to see God in all his majesty. God places Moses in a safe place a cleft in a rock; He covers Moses with his hand as protection and passes by. God removes his protection and Moses see the LORD’s back; God allowed Moses to see His goodness pass by in a flash.

Once again the LORD renews the covenant with Moses; Moses prepares two stone tablets and commands Moses to “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” Moses returns to camp with the new tablets not knowing that the skin of his face shone with God’s glory while he talked with the Israelites. He once again gives the commands of the LORD to the Israelites, and they were afraid to come near Moses. Moses covers his face with a veil so that the Israelites would not see the fading radiance; he would remove the veil when he met with the LORD then relay the commands from God. Afterwards he would put on the veil until he met with the LORD again. Moses reflected God’s glory, but it faded in the time between his meetings with the LORD; we now through Christ have a glory that is not fading away. “And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit”. 2 Corinthians 3:18