The first word that comes to mind as I read some of these chapters is yikes! God commanded Moses to send twelve spies or scouts into the promised land. Keep in mind this is the land God has been promising His people for nearly 500 years. Moses gave the spies specific directions where they were supposed to go and what they were to look for. The spies covered the whole land, seeing things Moses was hoping for them to avoid. The spies were obedient and after 40 days they came back to the camp and made their report. Remember they are now at Kadesh, on the border of the promised land. It is so close they can almost taste it. The land was just as advertised...fertile and fruitful. The produce was plentiful. They could eat a variety of foods once again and they wouldn't have to complain about what they missed from Egypt. But...only two of the spies believed the Israelites could conquer the land. The other ten only saw huge people and big, fortified cities. There was no way the Israelites could fight these people.
The Israelites rebelled against Moses and Aaron...and the Lord. The Lord had already promised to give them the land. He surely wouldn't bring them all this way only to let them fall into the hands of the people who lived in the land. But the Israelites didn't trust Moses and they didn't trust God. They were going to stone Joshua and Caleb and choose a new leader. Then they would return to Egypt. God was prepared to strike all the Israelites dead. He would start over with Moses, but Moses talked God out of this idea. The Israelites could live but the consequences were significant. None of the people over the age of twenty would live to enter the promised land. They would get their wish to die in the wilderness. In their disobedience their doubt had turned into unbelief and unbelief is rebellion against God. Often in churches there is a complainer or two who plague the spiritual leaders. But here was an entire nation moaning and groaning about a plight they had caused themselves because of their unfaithfulness and unbelief. They blamed God. They blamed Moses and Aaron. Worse yet, the ten spies who convinced the Israelites to rebel were struck down by a plague. Yikes!
Chapter 15 brings more rules and regulations about additional offerings and how to atone for unintentional sins. And we see just how serious God is about keeping the sabbath day holy. It is to be a day set apart, different than the other six days of the week. We read earlier that the punishment for breaking this commandment was death. Yet we see an Israelite out on the sabbath collecting wood. Still the people did not know the heart of God. This was a presumptuous sin, one committed with full knowledge of the danger involved and disregarding what the Lord commanded. This man was cut off from the people. That means being stoned to death. No sacrifices could be made at the altar for this kind of sin and there was no forgiveness. Many call this a high-handed sin. There were two issues here. Collecting sticks was considered work and no work was to be done on the sabbath. And it was unlawful to start a fire on the sabbath. As Christians we must be careful not to fall into the trap that the words of 1John 1:9 are some sort of a religious rabbit's foot that will get us out of trouble after we have deliberately disobeyed God. German poet Heine said on his deathbed, “Of course God will forgive me. That's His job.” He understood neither the awfulness of sin nor the outrageous cost of God's grace.
At first the last couple of verses of chapter 15 seem sort of random and out of place. Why write about tassels on garments right after a list of rules and regulations? So here is the thing about tassels. God's command to affix them to the hems of Israelite garments carried rich symbolism in the ancient world. People perceived the hem of a garment to be an extension of the wearer’s person and status. Think about the woman who just wanted to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. She knew because Jesus had power, the hem of His garment would too. So strongly did the hem represent the wearer's identity that legally binding agreements were sealed by impressing the hem as a signature onto the wet clay tablet of a recorded contract. In Israel, fringed hems with twisted cords of blue marked the wearer's community as being consecrated to the Lord. The prescribed blue color of the tassels was a reminder of the sacred blue used to make tabernacle coverings and high priestly garments. Israelites affixed these tassels to their garments to jog their memories in terms of the commandments, the keeping of which would make them holy. God's people were to be set apart by dress and observance of the law as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Chapter 16 brings more disobedience among God's people. It seems to be never ending and we are seeing more and more of Aaron and Moses falling to the ground to intercede for the people. Moses was a lightning rod for the Israelites frustration and anger. This time it was a group of 250 Levites who demanded to know why Moses set himself above everyone else. They are angry they have not yet gotten to the promised land. Never mind it was the people's disobedience that brought this about. God demanded a meeting with Moses, Aaron, and the 250 Levites. They are to appear at the tent of meeting with their censors filled with coals from the altar and incense. God would choose the censor of the man He wanted to lead the people. The 250 Levites were wicked in God's sight, especially the three instigators. They were like leaven, poison in the camp. Imagine the silence as the Levites waited at the tent of meeting with Moses and Aaron. The glory of the Lord appeared, and the hour of God's judgement arrived. Again, Moses and Aaron find themselves on the ground interceding for the people. Why should the whole nation be punished for the sins of these few men?
God commanded the Israelites to move clear of the tents of the three instigators...Koran, Dathan, and Abram. Once the people had moved away the ground beneath these three men’s tents opened and swallowed up their whole families, tents...everything. It was as though they had never existed. This brought fear among the rest of the people. God was not finished with the disobedient Levites. Fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 Levites. Their censors were taken from their smoldering bodies and hammered into a covering for the altar so the Israelites would not forget. Again...yikes! God made it abundantly clear Israel was to accept their appointed leaders and respect their authority. One would think the Israelites would have now understood God was serious, but the very next day the people were again grumbling against Moses. God sent a plague to spread through the camp. Romans 6:23 tells us the wages of sin is death. Here we see this in action. As Moses and Aaron are interceding for the Israelites God sent a plague among the camp. To stop the plague Aaron runs to the altar, puts coals in his censor and incense and runs amid the people, standing between the dead and the living. The plague stopped but 14,700 disobedient people paid for their disobedience with their lives.
This disobedient generation will die in the wilderness. But the human condition means that while many will follow the Lord many others won't. It is the same for us today. God made a way for us to return to Him when we sin but that does not give us license to sin at will. There are still consequences to our actions.
In His Grip,
Pastor Matt W.