When Mark was leading us through Exodus a few weeks ago, he highlighted the fear that the people of Israel had of God. Turn with me to Exodus 20:18 – lets refresh our memories after the workday and school – Exodus 20:18. Remember the context here, the people have just stood at a distance, and as the Ten Commandments are given by God, we see in verse thunder and lightning and the sounds of trumpets and trembling of the earth. Even the blind or the deaf or the barely awake could not POSSIBLY have missed the outpouring of power manifested before them!
Their response to a physical manifestation of God, confronted by this other – this cloud before them – read with me verses 18 and 19,
Exodus 20:18–19 (ESV): Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”
As we look at the book of Numbers tonight, I am sad to say does not reflect this realization. Either at the beginning or the end of the book. The people of Israel after sending Moses up to God and staying at a distance themselves – while Moses is gone, its not even later, its not even with the excuse of a 40 years or even 1 year – these same people who just trembled in the power of the Lord would stray to idolatry with the golden calf days later. Under judgement, Numbers reflects a people who, given the law, demonstrate the consequences of sin in Israel.
Which brings us to Numbers.
The Hebrew title is literally, “in the wilderness of”; the title Numbers comes from the Greek title given to the book in the Septuagint, Arithmoi, meaning “numbers” because of the prominence of the census figures in the book.
Moses, there are almost no serious scholars which challenge Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch of which this is a part.
The exodus occurred in 1445 BC and numbers covers primarily the second year after the exodus from chapters 1 to 14 (1444 BC). WE know this because Kings gives us a good indicator of when the exodus was. If you would turn with me to 1 Kings 6:1: 1 Kings, Chapter 6. If you’ll remember a bit of the context of this passage of Kings – in the chronicles of David’s lineage, we see the activities of Solomon. David prepared to build a temple to the Lord but God said, as a paraphrase “thank you, David but you have too much blood on your hands.” The construction would commence under king Solomon.
Chapter 5 Solomon makes an alliance with King Hiram of Tyre, an ally, and gathers wood which isn’t very plentiful in Israel, and then conscripts the labor for the house of God. As Chapter 6 opens, the historians of the kingdoms of Israel know that building a permanent house of God in the theocracy of a united Israel is an important moment, and so they want to capture it’s relationship in time to some of Israel’s key formative events
Read with me in 1 Kings 6, with verse 1:
In the four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, he began to build the house of the Lord.1
Because we have some other external references to the dating of David’s life, Solomon’s reign, and thus the temple, we can work backward from the text of Kings to date the Exodus through the Word’s testimony about itself. A temple construction date of about 965 BC helps date the Exodus. Based on the travel and events of Exodus and Leviticus, we can date the first part of the book to the second year, 1444 BC.
Chapter 20 through the end of the book focuses on the preparation to move into the promised land, which is the completion of the 40 years of wandering from the consequences of sin, thus 38 years later which is 1406 BC. So to summarize, Numbers is primarily 1444BC and 1406BC which represents the 2nd and 40th year of the exile.
The failure of Israel to obey Yahweh in faith brought Yahweh’s discipline by death, yet Israel should be instructed and reminded that Israel’s rebellion and discipline did not frustrate Yahweh’s ultimate purpose to bless Israel.
Unbelief – Numbers chronicles the unbelief of Israel as they refuse to obey the LORD and enter the Promised Land by faith in his Word. As a consequence of this choice, the Lord disciplines that entire generation during thirty-eight years in the wilderness. Even so, God takes care of the Israelites and shows God as a God who cannot tolerate rebellion but who still keeps His promises.
The outline for Numbers is simple. Numbers follows the generational unbelief, consequence, provision, and preparation of Israel in the land. Accordingly there are two big divisions in the book:
- The first generation of Israel is addressed from the opening of Numbers in chapter 1 through Chapter 25.
- Starting with chapter 26 to the end of the book, the focus is on the second generation of Israel.
Not on your handout, if you have a pen handy, I’d like to give you a few things to highlight in that outline. IN the first generation, from chapter 1 to chapter 10, verse 36, we see a pattern of general obedience ot the Lord.
In chapter 11 through the remainder of Chapter 25, this first generation has disobeyed, does not place their trust in God and fulfil His direction to take the promised land, and the consequence of that rebellion is that although they have provision and protection from the Lord, they taper off in the lad in consequence for the sin.
So two quick notes on that first generation, Verse 1:1 to 10:36 is obedience to the Lord, and then 11:1 to 25:18, Disobedience of Israel toward the Lord.
With chapter 26 through the end, the second generation is the primary focus of the book. Chapter 26 to chapter 32 we see Israel preparing to enter and take the Land of Canaan.
Starting in chapter 33, the journey that the nation of Israel had during the exile is reviewed, and includes God’s instruction. So from 33:1 to the end of verse 49, we see a recitation of the journey, which acts as a kind of pivot, a review of sorts from preparation and reaching this point of preparation to now
Chapter 33, verse 50 to the end of the book in chapter 36, Israel receives command and anticipates the conquest of the Land.
let’s take a pause.
Sharing from my own devotions, I know that God put every word, every snapshot in the bible for a reason. It is His Word and He executes perfectly on His plans in the most efficient way. Yet humanly, Numbers is usually the first challenge for me in devotionally reading through the bible. The census, the falling away and remembering God.
Let me ask you this: Why are the census recordings in Numbers important for us, Christians in 2021 who never were and never will be wandering the sands of the middle east?
- As a warning to Israel and all of Judaism of disobedience and idolatry
- To demonstrate God’s care as the census of Israel remained consistent from the first to the second
- To demonstrate God’s love and fulfillment of His own plan and covenant preparing them to take the promised land
Working through the Book
For the rest of our time together today, we are going to work through the book of Numbers. I’d like to talk through some of the features, key events, and interpretive challenges in the text together as they are often inter-linked.
Before we can get to the text itself, there are a couple of interpretive challenges related to the book itself.
- Textual Criticism
- Relatively few intact large manuscripts of numbers survive from the earliest texts
- Nearly the entire text has multiple references for comparison and textual accuracy
- The literary and thematic elements of Numbers are attested to by scripture’s quotation and references to the events of Numbers, including both sin and God’s caretaking of His people
- Literary Structure
- Generally, Numbers does not stand alone. It continues a history started in Leviticus, and Judaism looks at the 5 books of the Pentateuch as a single unit.
- In the early texts we have of these books, we see consistent division in how these books are divided – identical to the modern texts. Numbers tells a story of continuation, understanding of the law, man’s sinfulness, God’s faithfulness, and the initiation of the theocracy of Israel.
- Both literary divisions are possible – based on the geographic portions of the journey, or the thematic/ideological units of a generation passing away and the new generation learning anew God’s character and realizing the promises of God.
Going to jump around in the themes:
- Theme: The Wilderness (1, 3, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 24, 26, 27, 32, 34)
It wouldn’t be exile without the wilderness.
Despite the wilderness, there is an Order to God’s people moving among it.
From Chapter 1, the very first verse, read with me the first verse
The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt,2
From this very first verse we see time and again the setting of the people of Israel as active a participant in their provision, judgement for sin, shaping of their people, isolation from other nations as any human actor. All under the supernatural provision of God.
- Theme: The Numbers: The Glory and Grace of Yahweh (1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 14, 26)
Manifests in the census of the first generation from Chapters 1 to 4 and again in the second generation in the 26th chapter.
God preserves substantially the entirety of the size and capability of the nation of Israel, despite an entire generation passing away in judgement.
Which raises one of the interpretation and historical challenges to the book of Numbers: an assertion that these vast census numbers cannot possibly being accurate.
- There are two census lists in the book of Numbers. Presented as having been taken 38 or 39 years apart.
- Chapter 1, Verse 46 in approximately 1444 BC
- Chapter 26, verse 51 in approximately 1406 BC
- Both census put the number of men of war at over 600,000. Extrapolating for family units, men too old and too young, corresponding estimates for the total population of Israel are at least 2.5 million people.
- The physical sciences of our modern age protest that the desert region that they were in could not support a population of that size roaming around.
- We see God’s supernatural care for the people of Israel. God miraculously providing water. The provision of manna. Bird populations miraculously coming among the people to provide protein.
- In fact, lets go back and see God’s miraculous provision a few times:
- Turn with me to exodus 16
- Manna: v1 to 7
- Meat v8 to 21
- God had continued to provide for the people of Israel
- Just as we believe in the literal reading of God’s creation of the earth, the relatively simple miracle of feeding and watering a flock of sinful Israelite refugees should not even register a doubt.
- Of the grace of God, I love the commentary in Acts on this from Paul.
- Acts 13:16-19
- The Old and the New: The Patience of Yahweh (1-10; 26-36)
|The census of the second generation
- The Land (Of Sinai but also of Canaan particularly)
(9:14; 10:9; 13-15; 16:14; 18:20; 20:12, 24; 26:53, 55; 32:7-9, 11; 33:50-56; 34-36)
- Occupied by many peoples, yet God protected them in Sinai even as he ultimately prepared them for Canaan.
- God commanded Israel’s conduct and preparation to take Canaan
- God prepares instrument to announce warfare and jubilation, 10:9
- Chapter 13 spies and the Spies report…
- 13:27 a good land
- Yet for the rebellion of Israel, distrusting God, fearing the inhabitants
|One of the twelve spies sent by Israel into Canaan, who believed God’s promise, brought back a good report, and was not condemned to death in the wilderness.
|Along with Caleb, one of the twelve spies who believed God’s promise and was not condemned. He became Moses’ servant and successor, and later led the second generation of Israel into the Promised Land.
- The Rebellion of Israel ( 11, 12, *14, 15, 16, *20, 21, *25)
Earlier we spoke of God’s provision for His people. Miraculous water. Manna from heaven. Meat with birds. Lets look together at the Rebellion of Israel, starting in Chapter 11…
|The complaining of Israel, Miriam and Aaron
|Led a rebellion against the leadership of Moses in the wilderness.
|The rebellion of Korah
Moses rebellion against God at Meribah Chapter 20
25 Peor steals an idol rather than being fully trusting and committed to God
Tightly integrated with the next point: the wrath of God toward His disobedient people.
- The Wrath of God toward His Disobedient People (11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 25)
- The Blessing of God through Balaam (23-24)
|Balaam, Balak, and the talking donkey
|A heathen prophet hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse Israel; but by divine inspiration he was only able to speak blessing on the nation.
- Balaam claimed to know the Lord in 22:18
- 2 Peter 2:15-16 and Jude 11 refer to Balaam as a false prophet.
- The Lord used Balaam as his messenger to speak the words that God put in his mouth
- Scripture is clear that even the plans and machinations meant for evil God will use for His purpose
- Genesis 50:20 with Joseph
- Jeremiah 29:11 in the midst of Babylonian captivity (vv10-14)
- Romans 8:28
- Miracle of the Talking Donkey
- God’s manifestation of language through the animal of burden would be objectively impossible in ordinary circumstances
- We do not elsewhere see animals with miraculous speech
- The incident with Balaam and the donkey must be taken literally as a narrative of events as comparative language and metaphorical language is not present
- This story demonstrates the character of Balaam and that God confronted and warned Balaam for his false prophetic ways but also preserved Balaam to permit him to complete the part God yet had in store for Him
The book of Numbers, named for the census of the first and second generation in which God kept Israel whole even as they experienced justice for sin. A time in Israel’s history where God constantly provided for them as they wandered. Where God delivered them from nature and tribes and rivalries that were potential threats in the land. Right after delivering the entire nation out of the hand of the most powerful dynasties in the area – Egypt. This same nation of people experienced God’s real presence at Mount Sinai with Moses, the mere reflection of whose glory they could not stand in Moses’ face.
Sadly, they would again and again forget this exposure to the holy. To the most powerful. To Yahweh, the LORD. The great “I am”, who could call on nothing and no one else to compare Himself because there is no other.
Hopefully we learn from the consequences of their rebellion. Lets take it to the Lord in prayer.