In some ways the Book of Numbers is a bit like watching a new country write its laws and constitution. We have seen a plethora of rules already and the directions continue with today's reading. God continues to work to make His people one nation. Some of what we are reading we have read before, the repetition an indication of its importance. The Israelites are still camped at Mount Sinai. The tabernacle has been completed, the camp is ritually purified, the religious leaders cleansed and in place, the cloud of the Lord’s presence is there. Now it is time to celebrate the Passover. All of this was to prepare the Israelites for the march towards the promised land.
The cloud was a dramatic symbol of the active presence of the Lord with His people. The cloud hovered over them for protection, moved ahead of them for direction, and came near at night as fire for comfort in the darkness. This Pillar first appeared at the exodus and it remained with the Israelites through their whole wilderness journey. It was a constant reminder to them that God was always with them. Today we read that when the cloud moved, so did the Israelites. They had to be ready to go when God was. There were strict orders as to who went first and last, and where in the procession the tabernacle and its furnishings fit in. When we look at this pillar, we see that it brings light to the Israelites but dark to her enemies. In this it is like the Word of God because those who do not know the Lord cannot understand what His Word is saying. They are in the dark. Jesus called Himself the Light of the World and He promised that those who followed Him, trusted Him and believed in Him would never walk in darkness. In Jesus we walk in the light.
There are even instructions about blowing the trumpets. These were made from silver, not to be confused with the ram’s horns...shofar...that called people to worship. These were to be blown only by the priests, not the Levites. Different blasts on the horns signaled different things, gathering of the elders, and communicating orders. As we look at this whole process of moving, when the trumpets sounded for the people to begin packing up so they could move on, we do not see a frenzy of activity. There was not a huge rush of people. What we see is discipline and order. God is a God of order and it is reflected here. No doubt the first time they all moved it was a bit stressful, especially for the men who were responsible for moving the tabernacle. Over the years it became routine, at least as routine as moving the dwelling place of God could be.
The first ten chapters of Numbers have recorded the nation of Israel obeying the Lord, at least for the most part. The Israelites were at Mount Sinai for nearly a year. Much had happened between God and His chosen people. God's law had been given, a covenant made, the tabernacle was built, priests and Levites were ordained and consecrated, a census was taken, and the tribes were organized. Now Israel was a nation ready for action. But, from chapters 10-22 we will see a different Israel. For the most part, these chapters detail a record of unbelief and failure on the part of the Israelites.
The Israelites complaining isn't anything new but in obeying God they had everything to gain and nothing to lose. Instead, they refused to trust Him and follow His commandments. Israel is on the move when we begin chapter eleven and history repeats itself. Three days after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea they were complaining because they didn't have water to drink. Now, three days after leaving Mount Sinai they are complaining again. The people complained about their hardships. The scenery didn't change much. It was most likely dusty. Anyone who has moved knows what a chore it is to pack everything and get ready to go. So, they complained. And God heard them, which was probably what they wanted. Since Moses didn't do the things they wanted, they went over his head, right to the Lord. Once again Israel is unfaithful, and God is angry. He sent fire on the outskirts of camp. This could have been lightening or fire itself. Fire in scripture is a sign of judgement. In this case it was most likely for purification as well. That fire came only on the outskirts of the camp showed God’s restraint and His mercy.
We read about the mixed multitude here. In some translations this is called the “rabble.” This is the riffraff that left Egypt when the Israelites did. These folks were most likely not Israelites or believers. Instead, they stirred up trouble. There were a variety of reasons they chose to leave Egypt when the Israelites did. Many may have been slaves who wanted a different life. Others may have been afraid of more plagues. Some may even have had good intentions, but they didn't know the Lord and chose not to. It makes sense that those who did not share Israel's faith in God would make every discomfort an excuse to agitate rebellion against Him and His people. In the parable of the Tares...Matthew 13:24-30,36-43...Jesus taught that wherever the Lord plants His children the evil one comes along and sows weeds...those who make trouble.
Six days a week the Israelites experienced a miracle. Manna came down with the dew and provided food for God's people to eat. But now that wasn't enough. They wanted meat. They were tired of manna. The food was way better in Egypt. This is the old, “second verse is the same as the first, little bit louder, little bit worse” scenario. God provided them meat...out of His anger. They would eat meat every day for a month, until it came out their noses. God brought quail right to the camp. The Israelites spent two days capturing and killing the quail. They all collected ten homers of quail, about 60 bushels each.
The disobedience wasn't just among the rabble. Even Aaron and Miriam fell into disobedience, questioning Moses’ leadership, and God. Again, we see consequences AND the mercy of God. Over and over God has proven to His people that He is in control, that He will watch over them, that He knows best. But in their humanness, they continue to disobey. Just like us.
The final thing I want to look at is Moses himself. He has been obedient. He has done everything God asked Him to do, at least after his initial refusal to return to Egypt. Moses has listened to all the complaining. He has acted as the judge, mediator, parent, and leader. And he has had enough. Like God, Moses is tired of hearing the Israelites complain about everything. Moses knows these are God's people and he is their ’keeper’. But he is turning in his resignation. He is done. In effect Moses tells God if he must keep leading these people then please kill him now. Leadership is not for the faint of heart. Moses was learning the lesson that you cannot be all things to all people, and you cannot do everything by yourself when you lead. Every leader has to learn this lesson. God gave Moses 70 elders who would help him lead. God took some of the spirit that rested in Moses and gave it to the 70 to reduce the burden he felt in attempting to meet the needs of the Israelites by himself. And Moses continued to lead.
God will always provide what we need. But sometimes we have to get ourselves out of the way so He can.
In His Grip,
Pastor Matt W.