The Story of the Torah, part 4—Numbers

Israel traveled through the wilderness on the way to the land promised to Abraham. Their repeated rebellion was met by God’s justice and mercy.

  • The people constantly grumbled and complained, and God was willing to let his people walk away in rebellion and face the consequences.
  • But behind the scenes, God was turning evil into good and blessing his people according to his covenant promises.
  • Whether Israel believed in God’s promises or not, God is going to fulfill his word.

The Book of Numbers is about a road trip gone really bad. It should have taken only two weeks on foot to travel from Mt. Sinai to the land God had promised to Abraham, but instead it took forty years and an entire generation of Israelites died out. Israel perpetually complained, sinned, and rebelled against God at every step. God responded with short-term judgment and long-term mercy as he led them into the Promised Land. In chapters 1–10, Israel prepared for the trip. Chapters 11–19 tell about their time in the wilderness of Paran and chapters 20–36 about their time on the plains of Moab, right across the Jordan River from the Promised Land.

Part I (ch. 1–10a): preparations for the road trip

After God formalized his covenant relationship with Israel at Mt. Sinai, he instructed Moses to build him a home (a tent called the Tabernacle) in the Israelite camp, so he could come down from the mountain and travel with his new people to their new homeland. This first section opens with a census numbering the people (from which the book gets its English name) and giving them laws for arranging the camp with the Tabernacle at the center. This is all symbolic of how God’s holy presence was to be at the center of their existence as a people.

Part II (ch. 10b–19): the wilderness of Paran

In chapter 10 the cloud of God’s presence lifted from the Tabernacle and guided Israel away into the wilderness. Immediately, things went terribly wrong. After just three days the people grumbled and complained (11:1) about being hungry and wanted to replace Moses with a different leader. God responded with fire for their rebellion and meat for their hunger. Even Moses complained about living with these complainers. God responded with grace by spreading his empowering Spirit from Moses to 70 elders of the people to be his helpers (11:25). Moses wished that God’s Spirit would spread to every single person as a full solution (11:29).

Then God told Moses to send some spies to investigate the land (13:2). When they returned, ten of them said there was no chance Israel could defeat the people who were living in Canaan. They had forgotten what they had seen with their own eyes just one year earlier: God is a warrior who had already defeated the Egyptian army on Israel’s behalf.

God was understandably angry, but Moses again reminded God of his covenant and his character: God is compassionate and gracious (14:18). God agreed to spare the people, but not at the expense of justice (14:20–23). He gave Israel what they wanted—to not enter the land—and sentenced them to wander in the wilderness for years until they died out. Then their children would inherit the promise.

The Israelites ought to have been chastened by this consequence, but their rebellion got worse. They again wanted to replace Moses and Aaron as leaders (16:1–2), and God dealt severely with them by swallowing some of them alive into the earth (16:32).

Part III (ch.20–36): the plains of Moab

As the Israelites left the wilderness of Paran, the story keeps spiraling downward. The Israelites complained about being thirsty (20:3). God told Moses to speak to a rock, but Moses too rebelled and overstepped his bounds by hitting the rock and saying, “You rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” (20:10). Moses put himself into God’s place and earned a consequence—he too would die in the wilderness.

The Israelites again complained about food and water (21:5), and God again punished them, this time with venomous snakes. Moses interceded for the people yet again, and God provided a very strange way out of trouble. He instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up on a pole, and whoever looked at the bronze snake would be healed (21:9). Even God’s judgment is transformed into a source of life for people who trust his promise.

The king of Moab was disturbed by this huge group of people, who cover the face of the land (22:5), traveling through his country, so he hired a sorcerer to stand on a hilltop and curse Israel. But the sorcerer couldn’t do it, instead he blessed Israel three times (24:10) and received a vision from God of a future Israelite king who would one day bring justice to all the nations (24:17–19). Israel was down in the camp rebelling against God, totally unaware that up in the hills God was protecting and blessing them.

The book closes with another census as the new generation made their preparations to inherit the Promised Land. Will they be any better than their parents?