February 28, 2015
Scripture and Commentary, March 1-7
Numbers 11:1-23, Mark 10:32-52
Num. 11:24- 35 , Eph. 6
It has been a full year since Israel left Egypt. In the third month of their travels they came to Mount Sinai. They have remained there until now. Moses has been called to the Mountain top several times, but it seems that in Numbers 1:1 and 2 God speaks to Moses in the camp. He commands Moses to “take the sum of the children of Israel.” It is from this counting, or, numbering of the people that our English version names this fourth book of Moses, “Numbers.” The numbering will enable the children of Israel to become more organised for the journey to Canaan. It will facilitate the march, and make it easier to deploy soldiers in case of attack.
Chapter 9 chronicles Israel’s second observance of the Passover. The first Passover happened in Egypt, so in chapter 9 they are obeying the command to observe it annually in remembrance of their mighty deliverance from Egypt, and the great cost of that deliverance. In chapter 10, after months of preparation, the Pillar of cloud and fire leads Israel to depart from Sinai. The march to the Promised Land has begun.
It must be a euphoric day for Israel to leave Sinai and move toward Canaan, but in chapter 11, euphoria soon gives way to murmuring. Verses 1 and 2 show God’s weariness of this complaining. He sends the fire of the Lord to consume the complainers. It is not known whether it came down from Heaven, out of the fire of the altar, or from the Pillar. It is known that it was deadly and thorough.
The “mixt multitude” of verse 4 suggests that other enslaved people came out of Egypt with Israel. They “fell a lusting” meaning they want meat to eat in addition to the manna. They speak longingly of the food they enjoyed in Egypt. Since they were slaves in Egypt, their food was probably much less glorious than they picture it here. Moses is displeased, and the anger of the Lord is kindled greatly.
God promises meat, and Moses fears it will be the flocks and herds of the people. But in verse 31 a wind brings quail from the sea (coast) which land in and around the camp. But God brings a plague again to the camp, and all of those who lusted die. Thus they named the place, Kibroth hattaavah, the graves of greed.
Also in this chapter, a small measure of the prophetic mission of Moses is given to the seventy elders. These men are probably upper level judges appointed at Jethro’s suggestion.
Num. 12, Mk 11
Num. 13, Philippians 1
The sin of Mariam and Aaron is not their rebuke of Moses for marrying an Ethiopian, for polygyny is clearly contrary to the will and intent of God. Moses’ marriage to Zipporah seems to be less than ideal, for she seems to have resisted his calling from the start. But when Moses eventually takes another wife, his sister and brother are angry. How can this man who speaks with God do something so obviously out of character with the heart and soul of God’s Law? Even minsters sin, and such a rebuke would have been fitting.
Their sin is two-fold. First, it is envy of Moses’ position as leader of Israel and prophet of God. Second, it is a desire for power and recognition. After all, doesn’t God speak through Miriam the prophetess and Aaron the priest too? Why should Moses get all the glory? Even their rebuke seems to motivated more by envy than a concern for the Law of God or Moses’ sin. It is this envy which God punishes. God orders them to come to the Tabernacle. How they must tremble in fear as they remember God’s punishment of others for murmuring against God’s prophet. God strikes Mariam with leprosy, making her unable to go into the camp or the Tabernacle. Aaron, who seems to be penitent, receives a fearful rebuke from God. Moses intercedes for Mariam, and God restores her to health, and to the congregation.
God is ready to move Israel again. Hasarath is northeast of Mount Sinai on the Sinai Peninsula. The wilderness of Paran is in eastern Sinai, near the southern shore of the Dead Sea. The spies move into Canaan as far as Hebron, about 25 miles southwest of modern Jerusalem. As we might expect from these murmurers, their report says the Canaanites are unconquerable. Their cities are walled. The people are giants. The land “eateth up the inhabitants thereof.” Only Joshua and Caleb believe Israel can possess the land.
Num 14:1-25, Mk. 12:1-27
Num 14:26-45, Phil. 2
The children of Israel are camped in Paran, about 150 miles north east of Mount Sinai. How long did it take them to get here from Mount Sinai? We can only make a rough estimate. Since they are families with children and flocks and herds, assume they move about 10 miles a day. That means the journey would take at least 15 days. Add two Sabbaths, in which they did not travel, and two weeks for the events at Kibroth hataavah and Hazaroth. Now add forty days for the spies to enter Canaan and return with their report. The total time since leaving Sinai, then, is about 71 days. Why is this important? Because it means that less than three months ago the people heard the promise that God will give them the land of Canaan. They heard the word of God say He will supernaturally give them victory over the Canaanites. “Ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. And five of you shall chase an hundred, and an hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight: and your enemies shall fall by the sword” (Lev. 26:7,8). In less than three months, the people went from bold affirmation of God’s word to total unbelief and rejection of it. Rather than going on to Canaan, they actually want to depose Moses, and elect a leader to take them back to Egypt (vs. 4).
God will not allow them to return to Egypt. Nor will He allow them to enter Canaan, now that they have refused. They will dwell in the wilderness forty years, until every person who refused to enter Canaan has died. Hearing this, some decide to try to take Canaan. Moses warns against it, but they charge into the land. The result; Amalekites and Canaanites discomfit (slaughter) them in battle (vs. 45).
Israel’s refusal to enter Canaan is nothing short of deliberate disobedience. Why do they openly and flagrantly disobey God?
One reason is that they do not trust God. Men, like themselves, weak and limited in knowledge and wisdom, told them they cannot defeat the Canaanites. In spite of the mighty and daily miracles of God, the people believe the men instead of God. They simply do not trust God to keep His promise. The very first requirement of God is faith, and the very heart of faith is trust in God. Believe God. Believe Him in morality. Believe Him in doctrine. Believe that obeying His word is good for you. Without faith, obedience is impossible.
A second reason for their sin is that they don’t like what God requires. They would be glad to take the land if it were empty of people and waiting for them to settle it in peace. But they don’t want to have to fight, man to man and hand to hand, or to trust God to bring them through the battles. They also don’t want to have to give up sin to follow God. They don’t really want to live holy and Godly lives as God requires. They want to indulge their whims and fleshly desires. A simple, but relevant, contemporary example is a person who refuses to be an active part of a Biblical church. He cannot make himself sacrifice an hour a week to worship God, in obedience to His will.
Third, they don’t like what God gives. When God gives manna, they want meat. When God gives freedom, they want Egypt. When God gives the opportunity for self-discipline, they want self-indulgence.
Num 16:1-35, Mk. 12:28-44
Num. 16:31-50, Phil. 3
This chapter records a rebellion led by a Levite named Korah, and two other men of the tribe of Reuben. They are joined by 250 princes of Israel, men of renown. The reason for their rebellion is two-fold. First, they claim Moses and Aaron have monopolised the priestly and prophetic offices, which, they believe, should be shared by the whole nation. They want all people, especially them, to be allowed to offer the sacrifices as priests in the services of the Tabernacle, and to speak for God as prophets. Second, they claim Moses’ leadership is a failure because he has not taken Israel into Canaan. This claim probably refers to Moses not going with the men who entered Canaan after being warned not to go (Num. 14:42-45).
The issue at stake here is whether the ministry in the Church of God will be ordered by the directives of God or the innovations of men. This is similar to Leviticus 10:1-3, where the issue was whether the worship of God is to be ordered by the innovations of people or the directives of God. In Leviticus, God called human innovation “strange fire,” for which the worshipers died.
Moses calls the dissenters to come before God with their censers, meaning, they gather at the Tabernacle and perform the service to which God has called and ordained the priests. When this is finished all the people are commanded to go to their own tents, where they are to stand in the door to see what God will do. If God does nothing, their service is accepted. But God does something. He opens the earth in a great and fearful rift which literally swallows the dissenters, along with their families and all their belongings. The sight of the rift and the cries of the dying are so horrendous that everyone who sees and hears them flees in desperate panic. Now the Lord has the priests make the censors of the dead into plates to cover the Altar, and no one dares to add or detract from the directives of God for the Tabernacle.
Still the people murmur, and God again threatens to destroy them all. He causes a plague to fall upon them, and fourteen thousand and seven hundred of them die in it. As though to further reinforce the lesson, Aaron offers incense in the Tabernacle according to the directives of God. He makes the offering as an intercession for the people according to his priestly function as a mediator between man and God. Now God stays the plague. It is a costly, costly lesson.
Num. 17, Mk. 13
Num. 20, Phil. 4
The blossoming rod of Aaron is yet another confirmation of God’s election of the Levites to serve before His altar. Israel is beginning to understand, but not fully. They fear that anyone who comes near the Tabernacle will be killed. In reality, those who come in faith, serving and worshiping according to God’s directives are received and welcomed by God. The great lessons here are, first, that the worship and services of God are to be done as He directs, not according to human desires and preferences. Second, those who minister in the organised services of God are those who are dully called and ordained to the ministry. Third, no person may come into the Sanctuary, which symbolises the immediate presence of God, except through a mediator who serves as a peacemaker between man and God. The contemporary Church would do well to mark these important points.
The events in chapters 18 and 19 occur during the wilderness wanderings. Chapter 20 finds Israel headed toward Canaan and encamped in Kadesh, less than forty miles from the Dead Sea. Here Miriam, so greatly used by God, dies. She, like all people, was a sinner, and had glaring faults. Yet few among us would claim to be as faithful and obedient as she.
There is no water in the place, and the foolish Hebrews complain to Moses and Aaron that it would have been better for them to die with their brethren in the wilderness. It appears they blame Moses and Aaron for the death of their brethren, instead of blaming their brethren’s sin and accepting their just punishment. But in Kadesh Moses and Aaron are told their sin will keep them out of Canaan. What is it about the actions of Moses and Aaron that is so sinful God tells them they will not enter the Promised Land?
After all they have been through, Moses and Aaron doubt God. God tells Moses to speak to the rock (vs. 8). Instead, Moses strikes the rock with his rod, twice. Why does he strike the rock? According to verse 12, he does not believe God will send out the water if he merely speaks to it. He doubts God. We may think that a very small lapse after nearly forty years of faithful service under extremely trying conditions. But God wants us to know that His directives are meant to be followed to the very smallest detail by everyone, no exceptions. Moses is no exception. I am no exception. You are no exception.
To the immediate east of the Hebrew camp is the kingdom of Edom. Descended from Esau, the Edomites are close relatives of the Hebrews, and Moses, sending messengers to their king, tells them to tell the king they are of “thy brother Israel” (vs. 14). The messengers are to recite a summary of the release from Egypt, and to ask for safe passage through Edom, south and west of the Dead Sea. The request shows that Moses hopes to take Israel up the east side of the Jordan, probably intending to start the invasion of Canaan there. The existence of a large, well kept road which parallels the river will make their travels easy. But the forty years are not over. The Edomites refuse to allow the Hebrews into their land, and God moves Israel to Mount Hor on the northern coast of the Gulf of Aqabah. Here Aaron dies, and Israel is forced to continue her wilderness exile.
Num 21, Mk. 14:1-25
Num. 22, Colossians 1
The presence and movements of the children of Israel in the Sinai desert were known and feared by the Canaanite tribes. When the king of Arad learns the Hebrews are camped in Kadesh, less than sixty miles away, and that they have sent spies into Canaan, he fears they are going to attack him. Like most of the Canaanite tribes, Arad is more of a city state than a kingdom. Its location, about twenty miles south of Hebron and ten miles east of Beersheba on the south western border of Canaan, make it a natural target for an army invading from the desert. But the king does not wait to be invaded. He strikes first, and delivers a very successful defeat to the Hebrew people. The Hebrews are taken by complete surprise and suffer heavy losses. Many of them are even taken prisoner, which means some are tortured to death and others are put into slavery so bitter it made Egypt seem gentle. The king probably thinks the defeat will dishearten Israel, and send her running back to the desert in fear.
It should have. Israel is inexperienced in war, morally weak, and cowardly. Her people are much more inclined toward appeasement than battle. But this time, instead of running, the Hebrews plan a counter-attack, which completely annihilates the kingdom of Arad.
God enables Israel to defeat Arad, This victory opens a way for the Hebrews to move deeper into Canaan and conquer the city states one by one. But the forty years of wandering are not completed yet, so, instead of leading them to easy victories, God sends them back into the desert. Verse 4 finds them encamped at Mount Hor again, by the Gulf of Aqabah.
Israel has just delivered a crushing blow to a formidable enemy. Now she lies at rest beside a scenic sea. Her people have food, water, and everything they need to sustain life. Most of all, they have God, in all His grace and mercy. But the Hebrews are not satisfied. They are unhappy because God did not allow them to pass through Edom and conquer the west bank of the Jordan. So they begin to murmur. Instead of giving thanks for their victory and sustenance, they speak against God and against Moses (vs.5). They loath the manna, which God is still providing for them every day.
Learning to desire what God gives is one of life’s most challenging lessons. Frankly, we want God to give us what we want, instead of what He wants us to have. That is why our prayers have long lists of requests, and short lists of thanksgiving. We need to learn to pray more prayers like the Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter in the 1948 Book of Common Prayer. It asks God to enable us to “love the things which Thou commandest, and desire that which Thou dost promise.
The result of Israel’s resentment is the well known plague of fiery serpents. The healing for their bite is an image of a serpent placed on a pole and raised up in the camp. All who look upon the serpent are healed. Jesus said He is like that serpent in the sense that when He is raised up on the cross He will heal the sins of all who look upon Him. Let us look to Jesus.
Now Israel is led north again. Moving through the desert, well clear of Moab, they camp in a desolate place south east of Moab before moving northward to camp on the Moabite border in the Zared Valley. Still skirting Moab, they move to the north side of the Arnon River, which forms the border between Moab and the Ammorites.
Verse 14 hints that God provided a miraculous passage across the Arnon, and verse 15 continues to report Israel’s travels. Consulting a map reveals that they are traveling in a seemingly haphazard way on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, just outside of the territories of the Moabites and the Ammorites. While their travels may appear haphazard, they are learning the territory and finding weak spots in the local defenses.
Like the Moabites, the Amorites do not allow Israel to pass through their land. They even come out in force to fight Israel. God gives Israel the victory, and, this time, He does not lead them back into the desert. This time He allows them to stay in the new land, to possess it as their own. The conquest of Canaan has begun.
The plains of Moab are not located in the land of the Moabites. They are in the area that formerly belonged to the Amorites. Moab is south of them. Jericho is west of them, on the other side of the Jordan River. Learning of Israel’s complete victory over the Amorites, the king of Moab fearfully seeks divine help to protect his land and people from Israel. Since he refused to give Israel safe passage through his land, he is sure Israel will attack him.
Desperate, the king of Moab attempts to get Balaam to curse the Hebrews. Balaam is a puzzle. He is not of the house of Israel, yet he calls the God of Israel, “my God” and fully expects Him to reveal His will to him. At the same time, he is a soothsayer (Josh 13:22), which, by definition is a sorcerer, which the Law of God condemns. We cannot consider him “saved” at this point. He is like the Magi in the New Testament before they came to Christ: able to recognise the revelation of God, though not yet a child of God. The curse Balak wants Balaam to place on Israel is a magic spell. It is what Numbers 23:23 calls an enchantment. The point of the chapter is that Balaam, realising God has blessed Israel, does not curse Israel. There is no enchantment to counter the will of God. There is no spell that can bind Him or prevent Him from accomplishing His sovereign will.
Num. 23, Mk. 14:26-72
Num. 24, Col. 2
Commentary, Numbers 23 and 24,
The climax of the story of Balaam is the prophecy given to the Canaanites through him in 24:14-24. The prophecy says a star will come out of Jacob and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel. Both the star and the sceptre refer to a person who will defeat the enemies of Israel.
In its first sense this person is probably Joshua. At this time he is an obscure servant of Moses, but he is destined to lead Israel in a victorious campaign that subdues her enemies and secures the Promised Land. In a second sense this person is David, who extends the borders of Israel and ushers in a golden age of peace and prosperity. Still further in the future the prophecy sees turmoil among the nations; wars and disasters. Yet it points even further into the future. It looks for One who is greater than Joshua or David. It looks for One who will defeat all enemies of God until the whole earth resounds with His praise. It looks for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Balaam, then, instead of cursing the Church of God, curses her enemies, both Old Testament and New Testament, and foretells the One who will bring all enemies to their knees.