THE BOOK OF NUMBERS
Written by Doug Ponder on February 9, 2014
This article is part of a series summarizing the books of the Bible and connecting them to Jesus. After all, he said the Scriptures are all about him (Luke 24:27, 44-45; John 5:39)—and that includes the book of Numbers.
Continuing the Story
Following Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, Numbers is fourth in the five-part book called the Torah (or the Pentateuch). The book of Numbers is named for all the lists of people, families, and tribes found throughout its pages. It’s not exactly the sort of title you’d expect to see on a best-seller, but to be fair, that’s not the original name for the book. In Hebrew, the name for the book was “In the Wilderness”, a title that foreshadows the difficult road ahead for God’s people. For although the Lord would continue to provide for them, his people would reject his provision in faithless rebellion. In this way, the book of Numbers especially highlights the severity of God’s judgment of sin.
The first ten chapters of Numbers outline the many preparations that God’s people must undertake on their journey through the dessert wilderness between Egypt and the promised land. So God told the the leaders of Israel to number the people, to group them into families and tribes, and to organize them in a special way as they traveled together.
Though it’s easy for readers to get lost in the long lists of names and places, the details are not without purpose. For example, the arrangement of the tribes around the tabernacle (the portable temple where God focused his presence) was a reminder of the centrality of God in all things. Every time the Israelites set up camp, God’s was literally the center focus of his people.
The Wandering Hearts of God’s Wandering People
Things seemed to be going well for God’s people. God continued to lead them on their journey, taking the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. He continued to provide for them too, feeding them with a mysterious food the Israelites called “manna.” The word meant, “What is it?”, because even the people who ate it didn’t know what it was!
But suddenly the people began to gripe and complain (Num. 11:1). Instead of thanking God for his care and provision—not to mention their recent rescue from slavery—they complained about their traveling conditions and were bitter in their hearts toward the Lord (Num. 11:4-5). Some of them turned their backs on the food God provided, eating other things as an act of defiance. In response God sent a plague that killed everyone who had rejected his provision.
To make matters worse, Moses’ own brother and sister, Miriam and Aaron, publicly challenged his leadership and caused unrest among the people (Num. 12). In response to their rebellion, God struck Miriam with a skin disease that would have killed her if Moses had not pleaded with God to forgive her and heal her.
The Last Straw
God’s people eventually reached the borders of their destination. But they soon discovered that the land God had promised to give them was already occupied, so they sent spies to learn about the people who were living there (Num. 13). All but two of the spies returned with fear and doubt in their hearts, claiming that it was impossible for Israel to take the land. God had promised he would give this land to his people, but they did not trust him. Instead they cursed God and tried to overthrow Moses, saying, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or even in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Num. 14:2-4).
The Lord’s responded with understandable anger: “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them?” (Num. 14:11)
Because of their continuous lack of faith and disobedience, God punished his people by forcing them to wander in the desert wilderness for forty years (Num. 14:22-24). This ensured that all those who had rejected God would never enter the promised land. (Instead, God would give the land to the next generation of Israelites under the leadership of a man named Joshua.) Even Moses himself, God’s servant chosen to lead his people, eventually proved faithless. And because of his deliberate disobedience, he too was prohibited from entering the promised land (Num. 20:12).
The Severity of Sin
Some readers of the book of Numbers might get the impression that God is cruel or unnecessarily harsh. “Aren’t those punishments a bit severe?” they think to themselves. “Couldn’t God just have forgiven them or something?” If we think that way too, we will overlook one of the main points of the book: sin should be taken seriously, for rebellion against God always has horrific consequences. God hates sin, but not because he is touchy. God hates sin because sin destroys the peace between us and God and between us and each other. God is for our good, and therefore against sin.
That’s a huge part of why Moses wrote the book of Numbers, including the humiliating parts about his own failure to trust God and listen to him. In other words, Moses wrote the book of Numbers to remind the reader to trust the Lord and listen to what he says. The alternative—sin, faithlessness, disobedience, rebellion—means destruction and despair and death. After all, the Lord is a God of life, and he gives commands to his people for his glory and our good.
The Coming King
The book does not end on a depressing note, however. For right after we read of the failure of Moses, God points his people to the true source of their hope. He reminds that one day a king will come who will be greater than the other kings of the earth, and his kingdom will be exalted. The life of this king will mirror closely the story of Israel herself. God will bring him out of Egypt just as he did with Israel. Just as Israel was cared for by God, he will be strengthened and cared for by God.
But unlike Moses or Israel, this king will not fail to trust God. He will not take the provision and care of the Lord for granted. Instead, this king will use his power to conquer the enemies of God’s people like a mighty lion who overpowers his prey. All those who bless this king and his people will be blessed, while all those who curse him and his people will be cursed (Num. 24:7-9).
That prophecy, of course, was speaking of Jesus. He is the lion of Judah, the king over all kings whose arrival had already been foretold in the beginning of the Torah. That means the hope of the book of Numbers is the same as the books that came before it: God’s people must look to the Messiah as they continue trusting in him. The same is still true for us today. We ought to realize that our sin against God is foolish rebellion, destined for failure and death. The alternative is to “bless” God’s chosen king by submitting to him in gratitude and faith, knowing that those who bless him will never face the curse of God’s wrath.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.