Israel is on the move, heading from Mount Hor on the border of Edom towards the promised land. Arad was a Canaanite town about 20 miles south of Hebron. The Israelite army would spend nearly seven years conquering the nations of the promised land, so God gave them some military training to prepare them. The news of Israel’s moving north literally put the fear of God into the nations. The journey around Edom was necessary because the king of Edom refused to grant Moses’ request for passage through the territory. After their first military victory, where they devoted everything to God as an offering, this longer route was particularly tedious for the Israelites. And once again they complained to Moses and God about the food. The manna, which had sustained them for 40 years in the wilderness was not good enough. They referred to the manna as worthless bread. But when we look at manna in light of John 6, we see that the manna was much more than just daily food for Israel. It was a type of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Bread of Life. The manna came only to Israel, but Jesus came to be the Savior of the world. All the manna could do was sustain life, but Jesus gives life. When the Israelites despised the manna, they were really rejecting the Son of God. Once more God had tested His people and they had failed.
In the past when Israel had complained, the glory of the Lord would appear, and the judgement of the Lord would follow. This time there was no warning. Judgement came immediately as God sent poisonous snakes among the people. The word for fiery is the translation for the Hebrew word, “seraph” which means “burning.” It also refers to the angelic creatures…seraphim…who minister before the holy throne of God. Their appearance wasn’t fiery. That was a description of the inflammation and burning of the venom from the snake bites. There was no cure and death was agonizing. All the times before Moses had fallen on his face before the Lord to intercede for the people but this time, they came to him and asked him to pray. Maybe progress was being made…a little at a time. Moses did pray but God didn’t answer by removing the snakes. Moses was instructed to make a bronze snake affixed to a pole high enough so that the people could see it. When the people were bitten, they could look at the snake on the pole and live. The pole was lifted up, the same language used when Jesus spoke of crucifixion…being lifted up on a cross. In John 3:14 Jesus refers to His own death this way. The comparisons between the bronze serpent in Moses’ day and the cross of Christ help us to better understand the meaning of God’s grace in salvation. All people have been infected by sin and will one day face judgement, but if they look by faith to Christ, He will save them and give them eternal life. Looking to the bronze snake saved people from a physical death but looking to Christ saves us from eternal death.
The serpent on the stick would have normally been a contemptable symbol and the people would have moved away in revulsion. But in this case, it was the only way for them to live. To the Jews, crucifixion was a sign of a curse. Just as the Israelites had to look at the repugnant image of the snake on the pole, so we look upon the horrific cross and find Jesus there covered with our sins.
In chapter 21 we see a reference to the Book of the Wars of the Lord. This is the only place this is mentioned in scripture and it appears to be a collection of war songs and writings. In their journey north the Israelites defeated both king Sihon of the Amorites and king Og of Bashan. We must not confuse the Amorites and the Ammonites. The Amorites were the descendants of Noah’s son Ham through his son Canaan. The Ammonites were related to the Israelites through Abraham’s nephew Lot, and God prohibited the Israelites from confronting them. In God’s eyes the Amorites were wicked people and ripe for judgement.
Chapters 22-24 tell the story of Balak, king of Moab and Balaam who comes from Pethor near the Euphrates River. Balaam had a well-known reputation as a diviner and one associated with the occult. Moab was not yet facing any threat from Israel but Balak knew his enemy Sihon of Heshbon had been defeated and the Moabites were terrified of Israel. He was certain he was next. God had forbidden Israel to attack Moab but Balak either didn’t know that or didn’t believe it. And Balak believed he could not fight Israel on the field of battle and win so he decided to fight them on a different level. Moab and Midian needed the help of the evil one and Balaam was in touch with him. This would-be spiritual warfare. The Moabites believed that blessings and curses from the gods could be manipulated by skilled agents who presumed to be able to traffic with these gods. In those days people believed each nation had their own gods so Balaam went to seek the Lord because he knew the Lord was the God of the Israelites. But God came to Balaam and told him he was not to go, that the Israelites were blessed. Balaam knew that without the Lord on his side he would fail miserably at this assignment. Balaam told Sihon’s messengers that he could not go with them, but he did not tell them why. If he had, they would not have returned, and he would not collect a fee from them.
Balak was not to be deterred. His fear of the Israelites was much greater than what it might cost to employ the services of Balaam. God came to Balaam again and told him to go ONLY if the men of Balak came to call on him the next morning. (v20) But God gave Balaam a warning. Only do what I tell you to do and say, however, Balaam disobeyed the Lord. He rose the next morning and went to where the men of Balak were camped. Balaam was determined to do his own will. This was all about the money he could make. And that made the Lord angry. Balaam knew that Israel was blessed, but he was hoping to curse the Jewish nation and earn his money from Balak. Balaam referred to the Lord my God, but this was not a confession of faith in God. Instead, it was a sly manipulation on Balaam’s part. He was claiming to be a medium for Israel’s God like he was for many other gods. God became an adversary to Balaam. His donkey saw the angel of the Lord, but Balaam did not. In this case the ‘seer’ was too blind to see. Three times the angel of the Lord appeared and three times the donkey acted out of reverence for the Lord. And three times Balaam beat the donkey. God opened the donkey’s mouth and the donkey spoke. (Ever since Shrek I hear Eddie Murphy when I read the donkey’s words!) The donkey saved Balaam and for the first time he realized there was much more going on than he realized. He offered to return home, but God would use Balaam in mighty and powerful ways to reveal great truths about Israel and Israel’s promised Messiah.
The use of seven altars for sacrifice and the offering of both a bull and a ram on each was a part of Balaam’s pagan ritual. But in His mercy, God gave Balaam not one but several oracles that blessed Israel. In these oracles we see that God had blessed Israel and they could not be cursed. This was part of God’s covenant with Abraham. The second truth here is that the Israelites were chosen by God and had been set apart from the other nations. The third truth mentioned was that the Israelite camp and the people were like dust, again a fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham about descendants. Here is another reminder that God always keeps His promises. The first oracle pictures Israel as a chosen people because of the love of God. The second oracle presents Israel as a conquering people because of the faithfulness of God. The third oracle is focused on the contentment of God’s people in their own land.
In chapter 24 we see the prophecy of Jesus, verse 17. Pagan Balaam had a vision of the coming of the Hebrew Messiah, Jesus Christ. He was visible from afar. It was not His time to appear yet. He was like a star, radiant and beautiful. He was like a scepter, majestic and powerful. And He is the victor over His enemies, including Moab. The One out of Jacob, the Messiah will be a victor over His foes. Star and scepter speak of the Messiah’s kingship and reign. While a part of this vision may have been filled with King David, Jesus the Son of David will fulfill them completely when He returns to conquer His enemies and establish His kingdom on earth.
Chapter 25 returns to the camp of the Israelites. They are in Acacia Grove, their staging area across the Jordan River from Jericho. They were there long enough to be drawn into the worship of other gods. What the men of Moab could not do, the women did. The Israelite men began having relations with Moabite women, who trapped them on both sexual immorality and idol worship. God’s fierce anger flashed again. This was the most serious offense yet, worshiping other gods. It was one thing to complain about the food and water. This was a direct offense against the Law of the Lord. Moses was instructed to hang the offenders in full view of the people. But Zimri, a man of the tribe of Simeon brought a Midianite woman into camp and headed right into his tent with her. God had already started a plague among the people that would eventually kill 24,000 Israelites. Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron went into the tent after them with a spear and ran both Zimri and the woman, Cozbi, a princess of the Canaanite god Baal, right through with the spear. This action satisfied the Lord and the plague stopped.
The disobedience of the Israelites is ours today. It is easy to be tempted with things we know are not good for us. And it is easy to fall away in our relationship with the Lord. We have a God of grace but that does not give us permission to sin just for sinning’s sake and expect there to be no consequences. God will forgive, but there will always be consequences.
In His Grip,
Pastor Matt W.