The Israelites saga continues. The Book of Numbers, which in Hebrew means “in the desert” records Israel’s journey from Mount Sinai to the plains of Moab on the border of the promised land. In the process we read stories, census lists, lists of offerings, a pagan prophet’s oracles, more laws, a genealogy, a record of locations visited, and details about the boundaries of Canaan. It is sort of a hodge podge of topics. But in all of this there are some things that stand out. We see God’s willingness not only to live with the Israelites but also to speak directly with Moses. We see God’s careful guidance as His people traveled. He showed them when to camp and when and where to travel. We also see Israel’s rebellious refusal to trust God and to enter the promised land. God’s willingness to listen and even to change His mind is on display as is His patience with His constantly rebellious people. Israel’s rebelliousness comes with consequences and we will see them as well. This is where we see Moses be disobedient to God, something that sems almost impossible to fathom. But everyone has their moments and Moses is due. Finally, we will see God’s love of holiness and hatred of such sins as idol worship.
God is faithful to His people even when they are not faithful to Him. Long ago God had made promises to Abraham, then Isaac and Jacob. One of the promises was land, the very land the Israelites were traveling to. God’s commitment to keep that promise links together with the Book of Numbers. As you read, notice God’s response to the people’s disobedience and God’s methods for preparing them for upcoming battles. Keep in mind too, that the law related passages continue to emphasize the people’s relationship with God. All four promises God made to Abraham play a role here in Numbers. There is the land they will soon enter. There is the promise of descendants. Jacob and his family numbered 70 when they arrived in Egypt. Now there are upwards of two to two and a half million Israelites. God promised that the Israelites would be His people and He would be their God. And lastly God promised the Israelites would be a blessing to others. He told them those who bless you I will bless and those who curse you I will curse.
There are three major themes in the Book of Numbers. The first is God’s mercy and faithfulness. This book shows God guiding and comforting His people as He offers them forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope. Their rebellion and unfaithfulness are contrasted with God’s faithful love for His own. Second is God’s justice. Numbers describes the grumbling, complaining, and rebellion of the people…and their leaders against God and His provisions. Although God is merciful, judgement often follows repeated rebellion and unbelief. Third is hope. Disobedience brought judgement and pain but repentance and obedience result in forgiveness and hope. Even after their repeated failures, God did not leave the Israelites to die in the desert. We see here that Numbers displays the truths that God is Sovereign and that His plan will be accomplished.
Already today we see the beginnings of lists and names. God asked for a census, in part so that the Israelites could see how big an army they had and how strong they were. But they would need to trust in the Lord as they faced upcoming armies. This first census found 603,550 men of fighting age among the Israelites. The tribe of Judah had the largest number and the tribe of Manasseh the smallest. The camp was arranged like an army camp, in a square. The tabernacle of the Lord was in the center, a sign that God was dwelling among His people. Assignments were made as to which side of the tabernacle the tribes would camp on and the order they would follow when they broke camp and moved to the next location. Chapters three and four deal with the Levites and Arron and his sons who serve in the tabernacle. As we have seen before, God gives VERY specific instructions. God gave the Levites to Aaron and his sons to work in the tabernacle but only Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar served as the priests. The Levites are counted and there are 22,000 Levite males one month or older. Levi had three sons and the sons, and their descendants were the ones who cared for the tabernacle. They also were the ones to carry all the pieces and parts when the Israelites moved. It was up to Aaron and his two sons to prepare the tabernacle for moving as far as the sacred furnishings were concerned. All of the pieces were wrapped so no one could see them or touch them. The penalty for doing either was death. We have heard God say repeatedly that Israel is holy because God is holy. But no one is as holy as God so to touch the sacred and holy things was not permitted.
What we see here is that not everybody has the same burdens to bear. The Gershonites and Merarites could put their burdens on a wagon to move but the Kohathites had to carry their burdens on their shoulders. The sacred furnishings were carried by hand, not in a cart or wagon. There are some burdens we can share with others but there are also some burdens we alone must bear. Today’s reading shows us that our God believes in organization. It is a means to an end but not the end in itself. If an army isn’t organized, it cannot fight the enemy successfully. If our families are not organized there will be chaos and confusion. God was preparing His people to engage enemy nations in battle and defeat them. It was important for the camp be orderly, and the work of the tabernacle to be organized. There could be nothing haphazard in serving the Lord. Otherwise, the worship would not please God and their warfare would lead to defeat. When God’s work is done God’s way, in obedience to God’s truth it will never lack God’s blessing.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W