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Numbers—Preparing a Nation
Have you ever heard someone say something like, “It took twenty years to get yourself into this mess; it’s gonna take some time to get yourself out”? That’s the way it was with God and Israel. For over four hundred years, the Hebrews had been indoctrinated into Egyptian culture. Although it took the Lord a few weeks or so to get Israel out of Egypt, it took about forty years to get Egypt out of Israel!
This book starts and ends with a census—first with the generation that entered the wilderness, and then with the generation that left it. Hence, the name “Numbers” for this fourth volume of historical records from Moses.
Although God’s intention was to take His new bride straight to their home in the Promised Land, the people showed they were not ready to go there. So for forty years, that generation wandered in the wilderness until they were all killed off, and the Lord was able to begin the conquest of their inheritance with a new generation.
Numbers Chapter 1
The first day of the second month, in the second year after they had left Egypt, the Lord ordered Moses and Aaron to take a census of all the men of Israel twenty and over (Num. 1:1-3). To assist in this process, they enlisted one leader from each of the tribes, including Ephraim and Manasseh (vv. 4-16). They assembled the entire congregation, “and they recited their ancestry by families,” and counted every man fit to go to war, as God had instructed (17-19).
As they numbered the men of each tribal group, here’s what they found:
- 46,500 men aged 20+ from the tribe of Reuben (20-21)
- 59,300 men from the tribe of Simeon (22-23)
- 45,650 from Gad (24-25)
- 74,600 from Judah (26-27)
- 54,400 of Issachar (28-29)
- 54,700 of Zebulun (30-31)
- 40,500 from Ephraim (32-33)
- 32,200 of Manasseh (34-35)
- 35,400 of Benjamin (36-37)
- 62,700 from Dan (38-39)
- 41,500 from Asher (40-41)
- 53,400 of Naphtali (42-43)
All these together numbered 603,550 from the ten and two half tribes that were counted (44-46). This number agrees with the figure given in Exodus 12:37 of approximately 600,000 men on foot who left Egypt. If each of these men had a family of four (probably a conservative estimate, considering how prolific the Israelites tended to be), then that would mean there were about 2.5 million men, women and children assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai!
The Levites, you will notice, were not included in this census, because God intended to use their men for a purpose other than to go to war (47-50). The Levites were to encamp around the tent of meeting wherever Israel went, so they could tend to it (50). They were also to take it down, transport it, and then set it up, whenever the Hebrews broke camp (51-53).
On the east side was Judah, Issachar and Zebulun arranged with their armies and leaders (vv. 3-8). This largest group of 186,400 men would break camp first and Judah would lead the armies of Israel whenever the Lord ordered them to move on (9).
On the south side were Reuben, Simeon and Gad, totaling 151,450 men (10-16). This group would be the second to break camp and file out with the Reubenites at their head.
The Levites would camp in the middle of the formation. Whenever Israel broke camp, they were to take down their tents and the tabernacle and follow third in line (17).
On the west side camped Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin (18-23). Whenever Israel moved out, these 108,100 men would strike their tents and head out fourth with Ephraim in the lead (24).
Dan, Asher and Naphtali were stationed on the north side of the camp (25-30). These 157,600 men would bring up the rear, with the Danites leading their group (31).
How spectacular it must’ve been to see this massive army encamped—especially if you looked at it from an aerial perspective! As you can see in the downloadable diagram entitled, “The Wilderness Encampment,” this orderly arrangement of the various tribes may very well have formed a cross covering the miles of territory needed to accommodate so many men and their families.
Numbers Chapter 3
With the other tribes all situated, Moses and Aaron turned their attention to the remaining population of Israel, the tribe of Levi. The chapter starts with a recounting of how the priesthood originally consisted of Aaron and his four sons (Num. 3:1-3). But the two eldest, “Nadab and Abihu had died before the LORD when they offered profane fire before the LORD in the Wilderness of Sinai; and they had no children. So Eleazar and Ithamar ministered as priests in the presence of Aaron their father” (v. 4).
The Lord verbalized His intention of having the Levites assist Aaron in ministering to the needs of the other Israelites (5-7). He also wanted them to help with the furnishings of the tabernacle (8). The Levites were to serve as substitutes for all the firstborn males of Israel, and would therefore be God’s own possession to serve Him and the priests (9-13).
First, God had Moses and Aaron count all the males in the family of Levi who were a month old or more (14-16). We read a brief genealogy of the family in verses 17-20. Of the three branches of the tribe of Levi, we learn the following:
- There were 7,500 males from the family of Gershon. They were to camp on the west side of the tabernacle and transport all the curtains and cords of the tabernacle and court surrounding the worship center (21-26).
- There were 8,600 from the family of Kohath. Their job was to camp on the south side of the tabernacle and transport all the furnishings and utensils of the worship center—including the ark of the covenant, the table, lamp stand, altars and basin with their accessories (27-31).
- There were 6,200 males in the family of Merari, encamped to the north of the tabernacle. They got to carry the hardware designed to support the tabernacle and its fence—including all the boards, bars, poles, pegs and stands (32-37).
- On the east side were encamped Moses, Aaron and their families, who were in charge of the worship center as a whole (38).
The total number of Levite males from infancy to older adulthood totaled 22,000 (39). These formed a human barrier around the worship center, to keep unauthorized personnel from gaining access to the holy things (38).
Next, God had Moses and Aaron take a tally of the number of firstborn males from the other tribes of Israel (40). The Levite males and their livestock were to be substituted for the firstborn men and livestock of the other Israelites (41). When they counted the firstborn from the eleven tribes, they found they numbered 22,273 (42-43). That meant 273 were unaccounted for, so God had them pay five shekels apiece to redeem the extras—for a total of 1,365 shekels—which were given to the priests (44-51).
Starting with Kohath, He said this family was to carry the “most holy things” from the tabernacle (Num. 4:4). Aaron’s sons were to take the veil that screened the Ark of the Covenant and wrap it around the holy box, followed by a covering of leather and another one of blue cloth. After that the Kohathites could carry it by its poles (vv. 5-6). The golden table would be wrapped in layers of blue cloth and red cloth with its utensils, and then covered in leather and carried by its poles (7-8). The lamp stand was wrapped in cloth, covered with its utensils and wrapped again with leather and then carried on some sort of wooden frame (9-10). The golden incense altar was wrapped in two protective layers and carried with its poles, while the rest of the utensils used inside the tabernacle were wrapped and placed on another wooden frame (11-12). The altar, after its ashes were dumped, was wrapped in purple cloth, and then wrapped with its utensils in leather and carried by its poles (13-14). None of the Kohathites could see or touch the holy articles themselves, or they would die. They could only transport them once they had been carefully wrapped by the priests (15 & 18-20). Eleazar was in charge of the oil, the incense, the anointing oil and the offerings (16).
The Gershonites got to carry the soft parts of the tabernacle—including the decorative curtains, and their coverings, the screens in front of the tabernacle and the courtyard openings, and the hangings that formed the “fence” around the worship center (22-26). Ithamar was charged with overseeing their responsibilities (27-28).
The Merarites carried the hardware: the boards, bars, pillars and sockets of the sanctuary, along with the pillars, sockets, pegs and cords of the courtyard (29-32). Ithamar was also in charge of these Levites (33).
When a census was taken of the men aged thirty to fifty of each branch of the Levite tribe, the results were as follows:
- 2,750 Kohathites (34-37)
- 2,630 Gershonites (38-41)
- 3,200 Merarites (42-45)
These all totaled 8,500 who were able to help carry the loads of temple articles (46-49).
Numbers Chapter 5
Having arranged the people by groups in the camp, God next had the leaders expel anyone who was ceremonially unclean or possibly contagious—all the lepers, people who had some sort of discharge or anyone who had come in contact with a body. These were still part of Israel, but they were quarantined from the rest of the congregation, so no one else would be contaminated or infected by them (Num. 5:1-4).
If a person had done something wrong to a fellow Hebrew (or anyone else, for that matter), they were obligated to confess their sin before God and man and make restitution (vv. 5-7). If the offended person was deceased and had no living relative to whom the offender could make things right, then the priest would get the money (or whatever needed to be returned), along with the ram to atone for his/her sin (8-10).
The rest of this chapter deals with suspicion between a husband and his wife and how the Lord wanted it to be resolved. If a man had reason to believe his wife had had a secret affair with another man, but she had never been caught, or if he was jealous of her without cause, the Lord commanded the two of them to appear before the priest (11-15). They were to bring a basket of barley meal without oil or frankincense to the tabernacle, and then the priest would perform a ceremony over the woman which would reveal whether she was guilty or not.
With the woman standing before God, her husband and the minister, the priest would take some holy water in a clay cup and toss in a bit of dust from the floor of the tabernacle (16-17). With her head uncovered and the barley meal in her hands, the priest would put her under oath, saying,
“If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone astray to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has lain with you…the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people…and may this water that causes the curse go into your stomach, and make your belly swell and your thigh rot” (18-22).
To this, she was obligated to respond, “Amen, so be it.” The priest would then write out the curse on a scroll, scrape the words into the cup (23-24). He’d wave the grain offering, take a handful to burn on the altar, and then have the woman drink the mixture in the cup (25-26).
I think the very thought of what could happen to her body might make a woman confess her sin to God and her husband, rather than drink the bitter water. However, if she knew she could be stoned for committing adultery, she might still hesitate. Either way, this would be a deterrent to most women to forsake their marriage vows and try to get away with adultery.
If the woman was guilty of adultery, the man and everyone else in the community would soon know, since “the water that brings a curse will enter her and become bitter,” her uterus would become diseased and bloated, and she would be considered cursed because of her unfaithfulness to God and her husband (27). The man would be justified for his suspicion, while the woman would bear her guilt (31). If, on the other hand, nothing happened and the woman remained healthy and was able to conceive children, then her husband would know she was innocent and he was being unreasonable (28).
Numbers Chapter 6
Most of this chapter deals with the Nazirite vow, by which a person could set him/herself aside for a period of time to serve God. Famous Nazarites in the Bible were Samson (Judges 13:6), Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11) and John the Baptist (Luke 1:15).
When a person took such a vow, he/she was to separate him/herself to the Lord by doing these three things:
- They could not consume grapes in any form—whether wine, vinegar, juice, fresh fruits, raisins, seeds, etc. (Num. 6:1-4).
- The person could not have his/her hair cut, but had to let it grow long (v. 5).
- He/she could not go near any dead body—not even a parent or sibling (6-8).
If by accident the person happened to be defiled by a corpse, they had to undergo the usual seven-day separation from the community, and then cut their hair (9). They had to bring a sacrifice of two turtledoves or pigeons to offer for this sin, as well as a male lamb for a trespass offering (10-12). All the days of the person’s vow to that point would be nullified, because of the defilement, so they would have to start all over again to fulfill the vow (12).
Once the days promised were successfully fulfilled, then the person was to bring an unblemished yearling male lamb as a burnt offering, a ewe lamb for a sin offering, and a ram as a peace offering, along with unleavened bread, cakes, wafers and flour with oil and drink offerings to sacrifice at the tent of meeting (13-18). The individual would cut off his/her hair in front of the tabernacle, and then the priest would add it to the offerings in the fire of the altar (18). He/she would receive the portions of the ram from the priest, and then the Nazarite was allowed to drink wine again (19-20). If anything else had been promised to God when the person originally took the vow, then they were obligated to pay it at this time, as well (21).
The chapter concludes with a blessing God commanded Aaron to speak over the children of Israel to invoke the name of YHWH over them:
The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make His face shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace (22-26).
Numbers Chapter 7
Backing up to the time that he first set up and anointed the tabernacle, Moses provided more detail of what happened—probably following the week of consecrating the priests and the holy structure as recorded in Exodus 40 & Leviticus 8-9. After they had counted everyone, the elders each brought something for the new worship center (Num. 7:1-2).
First, they donated six carts and a dozen oxen for the Levites to transport the articles of worship—one cart and two oxen for every two leaders (3-5). Two carts and four oxen went to the family of Gershon for transporting the curtains of the tent and courtyard; the remaining four carts and eight oxen were for the Merarites to carry the heavier hardware (6-8). The Kohathites were given none, because the holy articles they were responsible for had to be carried on their shoulders using the poles provided (9).
Each day for twelve days, a leader representing a different tribe brought a contribution for the daily offering (10-83). Basically, they rotated through their ranks in order of their encampment, each presenting the following:
- A large silver platter and a silver bowl, each filled with fine flour mixed with oil as a grain offering
- A golden bowl full of frankincense
- A young bull, a ram and a yearling male lamb for the burnt offering
- A kid for a sin offering
- Two oxen, five rams, five male goats and five male lambs for the peace offering.
I used to wonder why in the world God felt it necessary to repeat the same list over and over for each leader, taking so much time and space to record these redundant offerings. I have since realized it was for at least two reasons: First, God valued each contribution and wanted to give the leaders equal recognition for what they brought. Second, it is typical of cultures with a strong oral tradition to repeat themselves, in order to reinforce important information in their minds.
The total number of platters was twelve—each weighing 130 shekels, or about 3¼ pounds; there were also twelve bowls—each weighing 70 shekels, or about 1¾ pounds. That made the total weight of the silver donated approximately 60 pounds (84-85). There were twelve golden bowls donated—each weighing ten shekels or approximately four ounces apiece—for a total of six pounds of gold all together (86).
There were a total of twelve bulls, rams and lambs brought for the burnt offering; twelve goats for the sin offering; and twenty-four bulls, plus 60 rams, goats and lambs for the peace offerings (87-88). Verse 89 informs us God spoke to Moses from above the mercy seat between the two cherubim on the ark, whenever he went to meet with YHWH in the tabernacle.
Numbers Chapter 8
In Numbers 8:1-2, the Lord told Moses how to have Aaron aim the lamps on the golden lamp stand in the tabernacle. Verse 4 repeats the manner of craftsmanship that went into the lamp stand.
Having dedicated the tabernacle and the priests, God next had Moses and Aaron dedicate the Levites who were designated as their assistants (5-6). First, they were sprinkled with water of purification, then they were to shave all the hair on their bodies and wash their clothes (7). The people gathered around the Levites, laid hands on them and symbolically offered them to God like a wave offering (9-11 & 13-14). The Levites brought a young bull and its grain for a burnt offering, plus another bull as a sin offering; and laid their hands on the animals before they were sacrificed to atone for them (8 & 12).
After that, they were considered cleansed and ready to enter into service at the tabernacle—God’s chosen substitutes for the firstborn of the Israelites, who belonged to Him (15-18). They were the Lord’s “gift to Aaron and his sons from among the children of Israel,” to help with the work in the tabernacle and to make atonement for the children of Israel, “that there be no plague among” them whenever they approached the worship center (19).
God then instructed Moses that the Levites were to serve in the tabernacle from age 25-50 (23-25). The older men were allowed to offer encouragement and assistance (rather like a consultant, perhaps?) but they could not do the physical labor any longer (25-26).
Numbers Chapter 9
Shortly after the tabernacle was erected and everything was dedicated, the Lord told Moses to have everyone celebrate the Passover according to His original instructions in Exodus 12 and since then (Num. 9:1-3). Moses passed the word along to the people, so “they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month, at twilight, in the Wilderness of Sinai” in that second year after their departure from Egypt (v. 5).
Unfortunately, someone died about that time, so there were some men who were ceremonially unclean from handling the body (6). When they came to Moses and Aaron and explained why they had to be excluded from the Passover, Moses told them to wait while he checked with God about their concerns (7-8).
The Lord said that from then on, if an Israelite was defiled by a corpse or far from home during the normal Passover celebration, he/she could observe the festival a month later in the same way (9-12). However, if an individual had no compelling reason for being absent from the festival, “that same person shall be cut off from among his people, because he did not bring the offering of the LORD at its appointed time” (13). Without the covering of the blood of the paschal sacrifice, the man would bear his own sin.
“And if a stranger dwells among you, and would keep the LORD’s Passover, he must do so according to the rite of the Passover and according to its ceremony” (14). According to Exodus 12:48, this meant the resident alien and his household had to become circumcised in order to participate.
On a side note, that next phrase of verse 14 is very significant—especially as it applies to our situation with immigration in the United States: God said, “you shall have one ordinance, both for the stranger and the native of the land.” Considering all the debate about illegal aliens in this country, and all the arguments for and against allowing them to stay, I have one simple reply: If foreigners want to live here, they are more than welcome to—but only if they are willing to abide by our rules. If someone is not willing to come to this country legally, then that tells me they don’t respect our government; therefore, they don’t deserve the benefits of living and working here. That was God’s requirement for His nation, and it should be for ours. We are fully justified in investigating, arresting, detaining and deporting anyone who violates this principle.
Expanding on the record of Exodus 40:33-38, Moses described how the manifestation of God’s presence in the cloud and fire that rested over the tabernacle guided the nation of Israel in their journeys. Whenever it moved, they moved; whenever it rested in one place, they did the same (Num. 9:15-22). “At the command of the LORD they remained encamped, and at the command of the LORD they journeyed; they kept the charge of the LORD, at the command of the LORD by the hand of Moses” (23).
Numbers Chapter 10
Next, the Lord ordered the manufacture of two silver trumpets to be used “for calling the congregation and for directing the movement of the camps” (Num. 10:2). With a congregation as large as the millions in Israel at that time, they needed something more efficient than a verbal message to summon the people to worship or war.
The priests were the only ones authorized to use these trumpets (v. 8), and the signals to be given were as follows:
- A blast from both trumpets meant everyone was to assemble at the tent of meeting (3).
- A blast from only one meant just the leaders of the people were required to come (4).
- A different signal indicated the camps were to advance from their location to another and would be sounded once for each section of the Israelite tribes (5-6).
- Once they reached the Promised Land and went to war, they were to sound an alarm on the trumpets to call God to defend them against their enemies (9).
- The trumpets were also to be sounded over their regular offerings, to signify the beginning of a new month and at all their appointed feasts (10).
After the men who had been defiled by the body were able to observe their delayed Passover, the Israelites saw the cloud lift from the tabernacle (11). So Moses ordered everyone to pack up, and they left the Wilderness of Sinai and followed the cloud to the Wilderness of Paran (12-13). As had already been planned, the tribes moved out in the following order:
- Judah, Issachar and Zebulun took the lead under the direction of their commanding officers (14-16).
- The tabernacle was taken down and carried by the sons of Gershon and Merari (17).
- Reuben, Simeon and Gad were next, headed by their leaders (18-20).
- The Kohathites were next, carrying the holy articles on their shoulders (21). The gap between them and the other Levites would allow time for the Gershonites and Merarites to set up the tabernacle by the time they arrived at their new destination.
- Next marched Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin with their leaders (22-24).
- Finally, “the rear guard of all the camps” was Dan, Asher and Naphtali’s group (25-28).
Apparently, in addition to his many daughters, Jethro/Reuel Moses’ father-in-law, had a son named Hobab as well. He must’ve come with his dad and sister when Jethro brought Zipporah back to her husband, and then stayed after the priest of Midian returned home (See Exodus 18). As they were preparing to leave Sanai, Moses asked his brother-in-law to come with them, to instruct them in how and where best to camp in the wilderness and “to be our eyes” on Israel’s journey to their Promised Land (Num. 10:29 & 31). Although Hobab was reluctant at first to leave his homeland and his people in Midian [modern Saudi Arabia], he was persuaded by his brother-in-law’s assurances that “whatever good the LORD will do to us, the same we will do to you” (vv. 30 & 32).
For three days they journeyed from the mountain of God to their new camp, overshadowed by the cloud—which no doubt sheltered them from the hot desert sun (33-34). From that day on, whenever the Ark of the Covenant set out, Moses called:
“Rise up, O LORD!
Let Your enemies be scattered,
And let those who hate You flee before You” (35).
Whenever they came to rest, he said, “Return, O LORD, to the many thousands of Israel” (36). Thus, he invoked God’s protection when they were on the move and His presence when they were stationary.
Numbers Chapter 11
The brief period of complicity and contentment among the Israelites ended during their next encampment. As “the mixed multitude who were among them yielded to intense craving” and reminded the people of all they had left behind, the people complained about the food God was providing and longed for the meat and vegetables they used to eat in Egypt (Num. 11:4-6). The Lord became angry and sent a fire that burned up some of the inhabitants along the edges of the camp, until Moses interceded for them (vv. 1-2). For that reason the place was given the name, Taberah, or “burning,” by the Israelites (3).
The next few verses give us a little more information about the manna the people so despised. It “was like coriander seed and looked like resin” (Num. 11:7, NIV). Once they had gathered up the little golden flakes, the people ground it with millstones or used a mortar and pestle to reduce the manna to a sort of flour that could be mixed with oil and baked or pan-fried (v. 8). Every night when the dew appeared on the ground, the manna showed up, too (9).
With everyone around him weeping at his tent door, YHWH was ticked off, and even Moses got upset (10). He asked God, “Why have You afflicted Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all these people on me?” (11). He was weary of playing nursemaid for all these spiritual infants he had not even conceived or asked for (12). He had no idea where or how to get meat for his people and felt the burden of leadership was too hard for him to bear alone (13-14). The poor guy was so miserable, he wanted to die (15)!
Addressing the matter of leadership first, the Lord commanded Moses to round up seventy trusted elders among the people and call them to the tabernacle (16). There, YHWH would appear to Moses and the other men and take some of the same Spirit that was on Moses and allocate it to them, so they could help Moses lead the people (17).
Then God angrily addressed the matter of the people’s craving. I can almost imagine Him thinking, “You rebels want meat? Okay, I’ll give you meat, but you’re going to regret it!” Scripture records His actual words. He told Moses to have the people consecrate themselves in anticipation of their coming banquet (18).
“You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, but for a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have despised the LORD who is among you, and have wept before Him, saying, ‘Why did we ever come up out of Egypt?’” (19-20).
Moses could not imagine how that could ever be possible. Even if they slaughtered all the animals with them or harvested all the fish of the sea, how could that feed over 600 thousand men and their families for a month (21-22)? God replied, “Has the LORD’s arm been shortened? Now you shall see whether what I say will happen to you or not” (23).
So Moses went and passed along God’s words to the people and assembled the elders as instructed (24). When God distributed some of the Spirit that was on Moses to the elders, they prophesied—but just that one time (25). Not only were the 68 assembled with Moses touched in this way, but also two men who had not come were prophesying in the camp (26).
When Moses was informed about the other two, Joshua blurted, “Moses, my lord, forbid them!” (27-28). The older man replied, “Are you zealous for my sake? Oh, that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them!” (29). If all God’s people heard from Him, it wouldn’t put so much pressure on their leaders.
Then God send a strong wind that blew in quail from the sea. Everywhere the people turned for a day’s journey in either direction, there were fat little birds flopping around three feet off the ground (31). It took the next day and a half to gather them all, and no one collected less than about fifty bushels (32)! “But while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was aroused against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very great plague” (33). Because of the many people who died, they called the place Kibroth Hataavah, which means “Graves of Craving” (34). Once the dead were buried, the people moved on to Hazeroth (35).
Numbers Chapter 12
At some point in time, Moses must have taken another wife besides Zipporah, who was a Midianite, because his brother and sister got all up in arms about him marrying an Ethiopian (Num. 12:1). They started thinking they were equal to or better than Moses, since they had been used by God as well (v. 2).
Although Moses was too humble to make an issue of the matter, God called his two critics out for their grumbling against their brother (3-4). He said from the pillar of cloud:
“If there is a prophet among you,
I, the LORD, make Myself known to him in a vision;
I speak to him in a dream.
Not so with My servant Moses;
He is faithful in all My house.
I speak with him face to face,
Even plainly, and not in dark sayings;
And he sees the form of the LORD.
Why then were you not afraid
To speak against My servant Moses?” (6-8).
Either Miriam was the main instigator of the incident, or God was remiss to disrupt the worship system He had set in place by afflicting the high priest, as well—for when He left in a huff, Moses’ sister was white with leprosy (9-10). Aaron appealed in behalf of the woman to Moses, saying, “Oh, my lord! Please do not lay this sin on us, in which we have done foolishly and in which we have sinned” (11). He begged Moses not to leave her in this condition of a walking dead person with half rotted flesh (12).
Moses graciously prayed for God to heal Miriam, but God insisted, “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back” (Num. 12:13-14, NIV).
So for an entire week, Miriam was quarantined from the others, during which time the people stayed put (v. 15). When she was restored, I’m sure she not such a sharp-tongued woman! At any rate, that’s when the multitude moved on to the Wilderness of Paran (16).
Numbers Chapter 13
Sometimes, what starts out as a good idea can turn out really badly. The Lord told Moses to send in some men from each of the tribes to gather recognizance from the land they were planning to take for themselves (Num. 13:1-2). Moses selected twelve able-bodied leaders [although not the same as those originally listed in chapter 1] from all but the tribe of Levi to go in and spy out the land (vv. 3-16). Most notable among them was Caleb the son of Jephunneh of the tribe of Judah, and Hoshea the son of Nun of the tribe of Ephraim.
Interestingly, Hoshea means “salvation,” but Moses renamed this young man Joshua (in Hebrew Yehoshua), which means “YHWH is salvation.” So every time he called his assistant by name, Moses was making a statement of faith, reminding Joshua that we can’t save ourselves—only God can.
Moses gave directions to the twelve:
“see what the land is like: whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, few or many; whether the land they dwell in is good or bad; whether the cities they inhabit are like camps or strongholds; whether the land is rich or poor; and whether there are forests there or not. Be of good courage. And bring some of the fruit of the land” (17-20).
His orders were clear, simple and reasonable. For the most part, the men followed them to the letter (21-24). Their only problem was, they neglected that one statement, “Be of good courage,” for when the men came back to report, most of them were anything but courageous!
After forty days in Canaan, the twelve returned and found their people in Kadesh (25-26). Displaying a huge cluster of grapes (so heavy it had to be carried by two men on a pole), along with pomegranates and figs they found in the Promised Land, the men said the area “truly flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” (23 & 26-27). It was desirable. “Nevertheless the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large; moreover we saw the descendants of Anak there” (28). They also reported the territories of the various people groups in the land (29).
Caleb, a man of true faith and courage, was ready to go right away and conquer the land God had promised them. He said, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it” (30).
But the other ten said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we” (31). They discouraged an invasion, saying, “The land through which we have gone as spies…devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature” (32). Mentioning the giants again, they declared “we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight” (33).
As far as these guys were concerned, the odds against their success were just too high to risk an invasion. They forgot how God had defeated the mighty army of Egypt, as well as the Amelekites who attacked them after they left. Like so many of us tend to do, they were too impressed by the size of their enemies to realize how great was the God who was calling and equipping them for the task ahead.
Numbers Chapter 14
“So all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night” (Num 14:1). So convinced were they by the ten faithless men of the hopelessness of their situation, the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the LORD brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims?” (vv. 2-3). They started thinking again that it might be better to return to Egypt, and even talked about selecting someone else to lead them back (4)!
“Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the children of Israel” (5). Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes and tried to reason with the others: “The land we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us…” (6-8). They tried to refocus the people’s attention on God, rather than themselves and their enemies, urging them, “do not rebel against the LORD, nor fear the people of the land,…their protection has departed from them, and the LORD is with us…” (9).
But their fellow Israelites wouldn’t listen; they were in fact ready to stone Joshua, Caleb, Moses and Aaron. That’s when God had to intervene. (10)
YHWH said to Moses, “How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them?” (11). He was ready again to wipe them all out with a plague and start over with Moses (12).
But the prophet stepped in once more, reminding God of His reputation among the Egyptians and surrounding nations which had seen and heard of all the amazing things YHWH had done for Israel so far (13-14). If the Lord were to exterminate the Israelites now, all the nations would think, “Because the LORD was not able to bring this people to the land which He swore to give them, therefore He killed them in the wilderness.” (15-16). He also repeated what God had said concerning Himself, that He was “longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression” and urged Him to pardon the people, just as He had been since they left Egypt (17-19).
God agreed to pardon the people as Moses suggested. Nevertheless, He decreed,
“all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD—because all these men who have seen My glory and the signs which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have put Me to the test now these ten times, and have not heeded My voice, they certainly shall not see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who rejected Me see it” (21-23).
The Lord did make one exception: “But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit in him and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land where he went, and his descendants shall inherit it” (24). Then He ordered the people to head back to the wilderness—most likely to avoid conflict with the Amalekites and Canaanites He mentioned (25).
Then to both Moses and Aaron, God said, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me?” (26-27). He ordered them to let the people know:
“just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you: The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above. Except for Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun, you shall by no means enter the land which I swore I would make you dwell in. But your little ones, whom you said would be victims, I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised” (28-31).
For forty years—one year for each day the spies were gone—their children would wander like Bedouins in the wilderness, bearing the penalty for their parents’ iniquity, until all of the current generation had died off (32-35).
Having said this, the Lord immediately struck all ten of the men who brought back a bad report with the plague, so they died (36-37). Only Joshua and Caleb survived of the twelve who had spied out the Promised Land (38).
When Moses relayed all God had said to the people, they were very sad (39). But for some reason, they got up the next morning, thinking they could go on into the Promised Land and take it, even though the Lord had already said they wouldn’t be allowed to see it. “Here we are,” they said, “and we will go up to the place which the LORD has promised, for we have sinned” (40).
Moses tried to deter their misguided attack, saying, “Now why do you transgress the command of the LORD? For this will not succeed” (41). Because they had turned away from the Lord’s plan, He was not about to bless their efforts; they would be defeated before their enemies, if they tried to go against them without His help (42-43).
As usual, the stubborn Hebrews would not listen, but went up against the Amalekites and Canaanites, while Moses and the others stayed behind with the ark (44). The inhabitants of the land soundly defeated them, as Moses had warned, and chased them all the way to Hormah (45).
Numbers Chapter 15
Returning to the subject of acceptable sacrifices, the Lord described how the size of a worshiper’s grain, oil and drink offerings should be increasingly larger, the bigger the sacrificial animal they brought (Num. 15:1-12). As mentioned previously, the Lord said that both the native Israelite and the stranger would be obliged to worship in the same way (13-15). “One law and one custom shall be for you and for the stranger who dwells with you” (16).
God also said, once they reached their homeland, the Israelites were required to make a “heave offering” of cakes made with the first of their grain harvests before they could eat what they had grown (17-21).
If the people as a group sinned unintentionally, they were to bring a young bull with its grain and drink offerings as a burnt sacrifice, and a kid as a sin offering to be forgiven (22-26). If an individual sinned unintentionally, they were just to bring a yearling female goat as a sin offering (27-29). However, anyone who presumptuously sinned would be “cut off from among his people” and would bear his own guilt, because he “despised the word of the LORD” and willfully broke His commandments (30-31).
One such person who was found knowingly sinning was caught gathering firewood on the Sabbath (32). He was arrested and put under guard, while Moses consulted with the Lord regarding the man’s sentence (33-34). The penalty was death by stoning for breaking God’s fourth commandment (35-36).
To make sure the people did not forget God’s basic laws, He ordered them to put tassels on the corners of their garments from that time on (37-39). That way, whenever they saw the tassels with the blue thread, it would remind them to do things God’s way, rather than follow their own foolish impulses (39-41).
Numbers Chapter 16
Now the real trouble began. A man named Korah, a Levite from the family of Kohath, joined forces with two Reubenites named Dathan and Abiram (Num. 16:1). They and 250 other prominent Israelites decided it was not fair for Moses and Aaron to be the only ones considered to enter God’s presence and lead His people. They said, “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (vv. 2-3).
Now, remember, Moses and Aaron never asked for this job. In fact, just a few chapters back, Moses was ready to turn in His resignation (Num. 11:11-15). Furthermore, it was not a case of the two of them thinking they were better than the others, since Numbers 12:3 tells us “Moses was more humble than any other person on earth” (NLT). These guys were just plain jealous of the power and prestige they perceived in Moses and Aaron, and they wanted a piece of that action!
In response, Moses fell on his face in front of the men (Num. 16:4). He told them, “Tomorrow morning the LORD will show who is His and who is holy, and will cause him to come near to Him” (v. 5). He proposed a test to show who was accepted by God as His priests: “Take censers, Korah and all your company; put fire in them and put incense in them before the LORD tomorrow, and it shall be that the man whom the LORD chooses is the holy one” (6-7). Furthermore, he addressed the Levites in the crowd directly:
“Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the work of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to serve them…. And are you seeking the priesthood also? Therefore you and all your company are gathered together against the LORD. And what is Aaron that you complain against him?” (9-11).
So many of us tend to do the same thing when we think something is unfair: We attack the men in charge; when really the One we are opposing is the Person who put those authorities in place—God (See Romans 13:1-2). These 250 Israelites were accusing Moses and Aaron of going too far, when it was in fact them who were doing that!
Moses also called Dathan and Abiram to the tabernacle to discuss their issues, but the brothers refused (Num. 16:12). They retorted,
“Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you should keep acting like a prince over us? Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards…” (13-14).
Having totally forgotten their suffering in Egypt, these men were saying the place they left was “a land flowing with mild and honey”! They were accusing Moses and Aaron of keeping them out of the Promised Land, when it was their own unbelief that prevented them from claiming their inheritance. In an obvious case of psychological projection, they were accusing Moses of an arrogant attitude, when they were the ones filled with pride!
That ticked Moses off. He said to YHWH, “Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, nor have I hurt one of them” (15).
The next day, Korah and his crew gathered with their censors at the door of the tabernacle for a face off with Moses and Aaron (16-18). “Then the glory of the LORD appeared to all the congregation” (19). YHWH told His two servants, “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment” (20-21). God was ready to wipe out the Israelites and start over with Moses and Aaron, but they interceded for the others not involved in this rebellion (22).
So the Lord had the others distance themselves from the guilty parties (23-27). Moses said to everyone, including the rebels and their families,
“By this you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own will. If these men die naturally like all men, or if they are visited by the common fate of all men, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD creates a new thing, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit, then you will understand that these men have rejected the LORD” (28-30).
No sooner had these words left the prophet’s mouth, than a huge fissure opened in the earth and swallowed up the tents of Dathan and Abiram, their families and all they possessed, so they all “went down alive into the pit” [the Old Testament term for hell or the abode of the dead] (31-33). As the ground closed back up, everyone scattered, terrified that they, too, would be swallowed up alive (34). Then “a fire came out from the LORD and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering incense” (35).
God had Eleazar gather up the bronze censors from the smoldering remains of the 250 dead, pound them into sheets and apply the metal to the altar of sacrifice (36-38). It was to serve as a constant reminder to the Israelites that no one but the descendants of Aaron was authorized to approach God to burn incense—lest they suffer a fate like Korah and company (39-40)!
The following day, the Israelites were blaming Moses and Aaron for the deaths of the rebels (41). As an angry mob approached the two men of God, the Lord appeared in His glory, ready to zap them all (42-45). Moses had Aaron take a censor of incense and run in among the people to stop the plague YHWH had sent among them (46-47). “And he stood between the dead and the living; so the plague was stopped” –but not before 14,700 perished, on top of the ones who died with Korah, Dathan and Abiram (48-50). Here was yet another hard lesson to teach the people to respect those in authority!
Numbers Chapter 17
In order to settle this matter of Spiritual leadership once and for all, the Lord prescribed an interesting demonstration. He had each of the houses of Israel submit a rod, or staff, of wood with the name of their family carved into it (Num. 17:1-3). The rods were to be left overnight in front of the Ark of the Covenant, and the one representing the tribe God chose to stand before Him in worship would blossom (vv. 4-5).
So Moses gathered the twelve rods from the twelve tribes and left them in the tabernacle overnight, as instructed (6-7). The next day, Moses brought out the rods to each family to reveal that the one belonging to Aaron from the house of Levi had miraculously branched and budded, blossomed and produced ripe almonds overnight (8-9)!
The people were convinced and a little freaked out that they were going to die, if anyone else tried to usurp the Aaronic priests. They said to each other, “Whoever even comes near the tabernacle of the LORD must die. Shall we all utterly die?” (12-13). Just in case they ever forgot and needed a reminder, YHWH had Moses place the rod of Aaron permanently on display in front of the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle (10-11).
Numbers Chapter 18
The Lord again explained that Aaron and his sons were charged with all the priestly duties related to the sanctuary and its rituals, while the Levites were assigned to assist them in the work (Num. 18:1-5). He referred to the priesthood as a “gift” to Aaron’s family and reiterated that the Levites were His gift to the priest in aiding them in this service (vv. 6-7).
As further blessing and provision for the priests, God gave them all the “heave offerings” and “wave offerings” from the sacrifices of Israel. This included the portions of meat, grain, bread, oil and wine which were not burned up on the altar (8-11 & 19). Also the best of the first fruits of oil, new wine, grain and other produce the people were required to bring to the tabernacle was theirs (12-13).
The devoted things—the firstborn of all the Israelites’ livestock and the redemption price of the people and animals not for sacrifice—belonged to the family of Aaron, as well (14-15). Those animals considered unclean were to be redeemed when they were a month old for the sum of five shekels of silver (16). However, the firstborn of a cow, sheep or goat was to be sacrificed, with its blood sprinkled on the altar and their fat burned as a “sweet aroma to the LORD” (17). The meat was to be eaten by Aaron and his family (18).
All of this was in compensation to the family of Aaron not only for their service, but also because they did not receive an allotment for an ancestral inheritance like the rest of the tribes of Israel. God said, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, nor shall you have any portion among them; I am your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel” (20).
In payment for their service and in compensation for their exclusion from the allotments of land to the Israelites, the Levites were promised the tithes that came from the Hebrews (21-24). From these, the Levites were required to give 10% of the best the Israelites brought as a donation to the priests, so that they too were provided for (25-29). Whatever was left over was to be divided among the Levites to feed their families (30-32).
Numbers Chapter 19
The Lord’s next concern was how to make His people ceremonially clean after they had been engaged in any activity that brought them into contact with a dead body. First, they were to select a flawless red heifer, which had never been used to pull a plow or do any other work (Num. 19:1-2). The animal was to be slaughtered in a clean place outside the camp (v. 3). Eleazar the priest was to sprinkle some of its blood seven times in front of the tabernacle (4). Then the entire animal—skin, meat, innards, blood and all was burned—along with some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet thread (5-6). After the priest and the individual who slaughtered and burned the heifer washed their clothes, another man who was ceremonially clean came and gathered up the ashes and stored them in a clean place outside the camp (7-9). He then also cleaned himself up (10).
This unusual concoction was used anytime someone became unclean from touching a body. For seven days they were quarantined outside the camp (11). On the third and seventh day, they were required to add some of the ashes to running water, which was then sprinkled on the individual with a branch of hyssop (12 & 17-19). Failing to do so would leave the person in a perpetual state of uncleanness, so they would not be accepted by God as part of His community (13 & 20).
Whether a person was present when another individual died, or they touched a bone or walked over a grave or was engaged in battle, they were required to go through this purification rite (14-19). The tent where a person died was made unclean, along with any open container within it, and they had to be purified by sprinkling, as well. Anyone touching the water of purification who was clean would become unclean until evening, and whatever was touched by an unclean individual would likewise be made unclean (21-22).
Numbers Chapter 20
When the children of Israel moved on to the Wilderness of Zin, and the people stayed in Kadesh, Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron died and was buried (Num. 20:1). Moreover, there was no water, so everyone ganged up against Moses and Aaron again (v. 2). I’m not quite sure what it was with these people, but whenever things got difficult, their default was to wish they had all died under different circumstances (3). They got to thinking about Egypt again and wishing they’d never left (4-5).
Moses and Aaron fell on their faces again before God at the tabernacle (6). God told them to take the rod of Aaron, gather the people, and speak to a particular rock, which would then provide water (7).
Every man has a limit to his patience. Unfortunately, Moses had finally reached his regarding the people of Israel. Instead of following the Lord’s instructions, he called everyone together and chewed out the Hebrews, saying, “Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock?” and then he gave the rock a couple of whacks with his stick (10-11).
Although God graciously supplied the water the people needed, He let Moses and Aaron know their behavior was unacceptable. “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them” (Num. 20:12, NIV). By following a method other than that prescribed by YHWH and taking the glory for themselves, saying “Must we bring water for you…” the two men managed to exclude themselves from entering the Promised Land. The place forever bore the name Meribah, or “Contention,” due to the conflict between the Israelites and their God yet again (13).
As they were finally ready to approach the land of Canaan at last, Moses sent messengers from their camp in Kadesh to the King of Edom, requesting permission to pass through his territory (14 & 17). Moses related how the Israelites had sojourned in Egypt, until the Egyptians abused them, and how God delivered them (15-16). Although they promised to stick to the main road without disturbing anything and to pay for any water their livestock drank, the Edomite ruler was unwilling to allow the Hebrews safe passage—in fact, he came out in force to turn them away (18-21).
From Kadesh, the Israelites then journeyed to Mount Hor near the border of Edom (22). There, the Lord instructed Moses and Aaron to go to the top of the mountain with Aaron’s oldest surviving son, where the younger priest would be given his father’s robe and title. Aaron, having been excluded from entering the Promised Land, would die on the mountain, while his son would succeed him in leading the people in worship (23-26). When the deed was done, Moses and Eleazar returned to the people without Aaron, who died on the mountain (27-28). The Hebrews mourned for an entire month for their deceased priest (29).
Numbers Chapter 21
So far, the Israelites weren’t doing so well resisting the people of Canaan. Although they defeated the Amalekites who first attacked them on their way out of Egypt (Ex. 17:8-16), they had not won a battle since (See Num. 14:39-45). Now, they had been forced to move away from Edomite territory. Perhaps for this reason, the King of Arad came and attacked the Israelites as they traveled on the road to Atharim (Num. 21:1). When some of their brothers were taken captive, the Israelites made a vow to YHWH: “If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities” (v. 2). The Lord took them up on the offer and gave them complete victory over the inhabitants of southern Canaan, so the Hebrews called the place Hormah, which means “Utter Destruction” (3).
Taking the long way around Mount Hor to avoid encroaching on Edomite territory, the people became discouraged and took to complaining again: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert? There is no bread and no water, and we hate this terrible food!” (Num. 21:4-5, New Century Version). Tired of the constant grumbling, God sent venomous snakes to bite the people, so many of them died (v. 6). The people admitted their sin to Moses and asked Him to petition the Lord to ride them of the serpents (7). So God had him place an effigy of a snake on a pole and command everyone who was bitten to look at it in order to be saved from the snake venom (8). As many as followed this unusual prescription were able to survive the poisonous snake bites (9).
Making their way along the outskirts of their homeland, the Israelites camped on the banks of the Arnon River between Moab and the Amorites (10-15). From there they went to Beer, so named because the leaders dug a well in the wilderness under the Lord’s direction to find water for the Israelites (16-18). While in Pisgah, overlooking the desert near Moab, the Israelites sent messengers to Sihon, king of the Amorites, asking permission to pass through his land (19-22).
Like the Edomite monarch, Sihon refused to grant safe passage (23). What’s more, he came out in force and attacked Israel. When the Hebrews fought back, they utterly defeated the aggressor and took all his territory between Moab and Ammon north of Edom for themselves (24-26). So these worshipers of Chemosh were utterly defeated before the people of YHWH and were eulogized in song for centuries later (27-31).
The Israelites also spied out and invaded the nearby kingdom of Jazor, another Amorite territory (32). Next Og, the king of Bashan, opposed Israel (33). God sent Moses and his people into battle against him, promising the same success they had enjoyed against Sihon (34). So they took over his territory, as well (35).
Numbers Chapter 22
When the Israelites completed their conquest, they camped in their new territory, right along the border of Moab. Balak, the king of that country, became extremely nervous that his would be the next kingdom invaded. So he decided to try something different to overcome this vast army (Num. 22:1-4).
Balak sent messengers to Balaam, a well-known shaman living in the east (v. 5). The men told Balaam about this group of people settling uncomfortably close to Moab and asked him to come and curse them, so the king could gain some power over them to drive them away (5-6).
When Balaam asked God about the matter, the Lord told him, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (7-12). So Balaam sent the messengers back to their master with a refusal (13-14).
Quite likely convinced every man has his price, Balak sent another group of men even more distinguished than the first with the message, “Please let nothing hinder you from coming to me; for I will certainly honor you greatly, and I will do whatever you say to me” (16-17). Although Balaam should have known from God’s previous message that the Lord would not approve this, he inquired of Him again. He pretended submission to YHWH, saying, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of the LORD my God, to do less or more” (18). But there were clearly dollar signs in his eyes, when the shaman went to see “what more the LORD will say to me” (19).
By concession, the Lord allowed Balaam to accompany the messengers to their persistent king, but instructed the man to be careful to do only what He said (20). So Balaam loaded up his donkey the next morning and went on his merry way (21).
Although God allowed Balaam to go, He was not happy about it; therefore, the Angel of YHWH “took his stand in the way as an adversary to oppose him” (22). Like other animals, which are typically more sensitive to spiritual matters than most humans, the donkey saw the angel and cowered away from the mighty warrior with sword in hand. Balaam whacked her for leaving the road and running into a nearby field (23). When next the angel stationed himself between two walled vineyards, the donkey scraped her master’s foot when she pressed against one wall to pass the angelic warrior (24-25). Again, her master gave the poor animal a sound thrashing. Finally, the angel stood in a passage so narrow, there was no getting around him, so the donkey knelt down and refused to go further (26-27). Embarrassed by the disobedient beast, Balaam beat her again mercilessly.
Now the Lord performed a miracle, allowing the donkey to speak for herself. “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (28). Without considering the impossibility of a talking animal, Balaam replied, “Because you have abused me” (29). He wished he had a weapon so he could destroy the animal for disgracing him in front of the other men. The donkey reminded him how she had faithfully served him all this time without any similar incident (30).
“Then the LORD opened Balaams’s eyes, and he saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand” (31). After Balaam “bowed his head and fell flat on his face,” the angel explained how the donkey had actually saved his life (31-33). So the fellow admitted his sin and offered to turn back (34). The angel said that wouldn’t be necessary, but reiterated God’s command to say only what the Lord told him to (35).
When Balaam arrived in Balak’s territory, the king went out to meet him and asked why he had not come the first time (36-37). Balaam said he was here now and that was all that mattered, but made it clear he was limited by God in what he could do (38). So the men went together and enjoyed a rich feast (39-40). The next day Balak took Balaam to a high place where he could see the people he’d been summoned to curse (41).
Numbers Chapter 23
Balaam had Balak build seven altars and offer a bull and a ram at each one (Num. 23:1-2). Meanwhile, he went up to a desolate place and asked God what he was supposed to say (vv. 3-4). The Lord sent him back with a message, but it was not what Balak had in mind. Balaam said, “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how shall I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?” (5-8). He described the multitudes of Israel visible from that height and said he’d love to be in their place (9-10). When Balak objected to Balaam blessing the Israelites, rather than cursing them, Balaam reminded him that he could only say what God told him to (11-12).
Balak thought maybe a different perspective might persuade the shaman to change his tune, so he led Balaam to another high place and presented the same offering in the same fashion (13-14). When Balaam inquired of YHWH this time, the Lord sent him back to Balak with an even stronger message:
“God is not a man, that He should lie,
Nor a son of man, that He should repent.
Has He said, and will He not do?
Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?
Behold, I have received a command to bless;
He has blessed, and I cannot reverse it” (15-20).
He then informed the king of Moab that Israel had no sin accounted against them that would merit cursing; neither was it possible to use any kind of magic arts against them. God was with them, royalty and conquest was their destiny, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it (21-24).
In frustration, Balak protested that it was better for the shaman to do nothing than to keep blessing the people (25). The king took him to another location and offered the fourteen animals on seven altars as before, hoping the third time would be the charm (28-30). He explained, “perhaps it will please God that you may curse them for me from there,” still not grasping what Balaam had told him so far (27).
Numbers Chapter 24
At this new location, Balaam didn’t even bother to use divination to receive God’s message; he just looked out over the multitudes of Israel, and the Spirit of the Lord came over him (Num. 24:1-2). The message he delivered was both a prophecy and a blessing over Israel. He talked about:
- the loveliness of the Hebrews’ dwelling places (v. 5)
- the productivity of their gardens (6)
- how well their land would be watered (7)
- how they would excel over the region’s greatest kings
- the greatness of Israel’s strength (8)
- how they would defeat all their enemies.
He concluded by repeating what the Lord had told Abraham long ago, “Blessed is he who blesses you, and cursed is he who curses you” (9).
Balak angrily “struck his hands together” and told the shaman to go home. Although he had promised to honor the man if he cursed the Hebrews, God had prevented Balaam from receiving any rewards from the king, because he had “bountifully blessed them these three times” (10-11).
Reminding the king how he had told the messengers, “If Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of the LORD, to do good or bad of my own will,” Balaam continued under the influence of the Holy Spirit to foretell what God intended to do with the Moabites “in the latter days” (12-14). At some point in the distant future, “A Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and batter the brow of Moab” (17). Not only that, but Edom would be dominated, as well (18-19). He also prophesied doom for the Amalekites and Kenites, as well as other nations (20-24). Then the two men parted company (25).
Numbers Chapter 25
Sometime thereafter, the Israelites got a bit too cozy with their Moabite and Midianite cousins. The Moabites invited them to some of their parties, and the Hebrews ate of the sacrifices and bowed down to their pagan gods (Num. 25:1-2). Perceiving this spiritual unfaithfulness as a husband would see a wife’s harlotry, YHWH was deeply offended and demanded the execution of those engaged in this idolatry (vv. 3-5).
So blatant was the sin of these people, one man actually brought a Midianite woman to his tent in plain sight of Moses, the elders and everyone else who was grieved by this violation of God’s law and the plague that had resulted (6). In righteous anger, Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, jumped up with javelin in hand and followed the lustful couple into the Simeonite’s tent (7-8 & 14). The moment he thrust the weapon through the wicked man and woman, the plague stopped—but not before 24,000 had died (8-9).
In commendation of this noble deed, Phinehas was promised a covenant of peace, granting “an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel” (10-13). The Lord commanded the Israelites to make war against the Midianites, “for they harassed you with their schemes by which they seduced you in the matter of Peor and in the matter of Cozbi,” the Midianite woman who was killed (15-18).
- The Reubenites, descended from Jacob’s firstborn son, numbered 43,730 (vv. 5-7), which was down 2,770 from the first census in Numbers 1:21. Numbers 26:8-11 recalls the two Reubenite brothers, Dathan and Abiram, who took part in the uprising against Moses and Aaron, but were killed. This suggests that some portion of the population of Reuben’s family may have been significantly reduced when the earth swallowed up these rebels and their households.
- Simeon’s family also had a dramatic reduction in numbers from 59,300 in Numbers 1:23 to 22,200 in 26:12-14. This was a difference of 37,100!
- The Gadites numbered 40,500 according to 26:15-18, as opposed to 45,650 in 1:25—a reduction of 5,150.
- Judah, however, was up by 11,900 from 74,600 in Numbers 1:27 to 76,500 in 26:19-22.
- According to Numbers 26:23-25, Issachar was up 9,900 from 54,400 in 1:29 to 64,300.
- The Zebulunites had increased, as well, from 57,400 in 1:31 to 60,500 in 26:26-27 [up 3100].
- Following a brief genealogy of Joseph’s son Manasseh, which included mention of Zelophehad’s daughters, we learn this half-tribe numbered 52,700 (Num. 26:28-34). This was up 20,500 from the original count in 1:35.
- The half-tribe of Ephraim, however, was down by 8,000 from the count in Numbers 1:33 to 32,500 in 26:35-37.
- Benjamin was up 10,200 from the first census in 1:37 to 45,600 in 26:38-41.
- The Danites increased their numbers by 1,700 from the count in 1:39 to 64,400 in 26:42-43.
- Numbers 26:44-47 mentions a daughter of Asher, named Serah, and tells us their population by the second census had risen to 53,400. This was an increase of 11,900 from the original count in 1:41.
- Naphtali’s numbers were down from 53,400 in 1:43 to 45,400 in 26:48-50.
Overall, the population of all but the tribe of Levi dropped from 603,550 in the first census (See Num. 1:46) to 601,730 in the second (26:51)—a reduction of only 1,820 adult males.
The purpose of gathering this information was to know how much property the leaders should allocate to each tribe. “To a large tribe you shall give a larger inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a smaller inheritance. Each shall be given its inheritance according to those who were numbered of them” (vv. 52-54). The Promised Land was to be divided by lot to each family (55-56).
In verses 57-62 focus on the family of Levi, including a brief history of Moses’ family. Here we learn: “The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed the daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt; and to Amram she bore Aaron and Moses and their sister Miriam” (59). From the first to the second census, the number of Levite males at least a month old rose from 22,000 to 23,000 (c.f.—Num. 1:39 & 26:62).
Of all the men counted on the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho, there was not one survivor of those originally counted, except for Moses, Joshua and Caleb. This was in fulfillment of God’s edict that the unbelieving generation would die in the wilderness (Num. 26:63-65).
Numbers Chapter 27
The four daughters of Zelophehad—his only children—approached Moses and the other leaders and explained that their father had died leaving only them as heirs. He hadn’t been involved in the uprisings against Moses, but simply for being one of the unbelieving generation that God excluded from the Promised Land. So they felt it only fair that they should inherit his family portion with the rest of the half tribe of Manasseh settling in Gilead (Num. 27:1-4).
Moses checked with God concerning the matter, and the Lord agreed with the ladies’ point (vv. 5-7). He said, in the case of a man with no male descendants, his property should pass to his daughters. If he had no children, then his brothers should get it; if no brothers, then his uncles should have the inheritance. In the event that there were no uncles either, then the nearest relative would be eligible to receive what the man had to his name (8-11).
YHWH then told Moses to go up to Mount Abarim and survey the land he was not going to be allowed to enter—thanks to his foul-up at the rock of Meribah, at Kadesh in the Wilderness of Zin (12 & 14). Because they had failed to follow God’s instructions and give Him glory before the Israelites in that one incident, Aaron died and Moses was going to do so before the Hebrews were able to enter Canaan (13).
Moses’ big concern was for the Lord to appoint a successor before he died, so “that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep which have no shepherd” (14-17). Therefore, the Lord instructed him:
“Take Joshua the son of Nun with you, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him; set him before Eleazar the priest and before all the congregation, and inaugurate him in their sight. And you shall give some of your authority to him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may be obedient” (18-20).
My guess is, either Joshua was one of the seventy elders the Lord filled with the Spirit to assist Moses in judging the people, or his constant devotion at the tent of meeting and his faith in YHWH had given him this distinction (See Exodus 33:11; Num. 11:16-17 & 24-30, 14:6-9). Even with the Holy Spirit as a guide, Joshua would not be talking face-to-face with God as Moses had, but he would be guided by the priest’s use of the Urim in response to his inquiries (Num. 27:21). So Moses followed the Lord’s instructions and publicly inaugurated his assistant to be the next leader of Israel (vv. 22-23).
Numbers Chapter 28
In the next two chapters, the Lord prescribed the specifics for the offerings to be made to Him daily, weekly, monthly and on special holidays. Each morning and evening they were to sacrifice a male lamb less that a year old, along with flour, oil and wine. The lambs, flour and oil were to be burned on the bronze altar; while the wine was to be poured out as a “drink offering” somewhere over holy ground (Num. 28:1-8). On the Sabbath, they were to offer double the amount of lambs, flour, oil and wine at each time and in the same way (vv. 9-10).
At the beginning of each month (possibly the New Moon Festival we read about in Numbers 29:6), the priests were to offer “two young bulls, one ram, and seven lambs in their first year, without blemish”—along with their proportionate grain, oil and wine offerings—in addition to the usual morning and evening sacrifice (11-14). They were also to make a sin offering of one goat kid (15). On each day of the Passover week, they were to this same special offering (19-24). The first and last day of the Feast of Unleavened Break was to be a holy assembly, with none of the Israelites doing any of their usual work (18 & 25). Likewise, there was to be a day off observed with this same offering on the day of firstfruits, inaugurating the Feast of Weeks.
Numbers Chapter 29
The Feast of Trumpets began the first day of the seventh month, so the Lord prescribed double the usual offering of two bulls, a ram, seven lambs and a kid, with their grain, oil and wine required at the beginning of each month (Num. 29:2-6). He also called a holy convocation and holiday from work, with the priests blowing the silver trumpets (v. 1).
Ten days later, on the Day of Atonement, they were to again take a break from work to fast and pray (7). The priest was to offer one bull, a ram, seven lambs and a kid with their grain, oil and wine—in addition to the daily burnt offering and the special sin offering of the bull and two goats described in Leviticus 16 (Num. 29:8-11).
On the fifteenth of that month was another convocation which marked the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles (v. 12). Starting with an offering of thirteen bulls, two rams, fourteen rams and a kid with their proportionate grain, oil and wine offerings, they were to slaughter the same number of animals, decreasing the number of bulls by one daily for a week (13-34). On the eighth day was another convocation, wherein the priests offered one bull, a ram, seven lambs and a goat with their grain, oil and wine (35-38).
So the priests were daily earning their keep with all these sacrifices—not to mention the offerings the people brought on their own (39)!
Numbers Chapter 30
This chapter deals with the matter of sacred promises, or vows, made to God. If a man, a widow or a divorced woman made a vow to God, whatever they promised had to be carried out (Num. 30:1-2 & 9). If a woman who was unmarried, still living with her father made a vow, however; her dad could overrule the vow once he learned about it (vv. 3-5). If a woman was married, her husband had the same option (6-8). If the husband or father didn’t say anything about the vow when he learned of it, the woman was responsible to carry it out, but if he objected later on, he was guilty for keeping her from fulfilling her vow (10-15).
Numbers Chapter 31
Remembering the trouble the Midianites brought against the Hebrews by enticing them to sin (See chapter 25), God told Moses to order the Israelites to take revenge against them (Num. 31:1-2). So Moses called for a thousand men from each tribe—a total of 12,000—to arm themselves for battle against Midian (vv. 3-5). Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, who so zealously opposed the pagan practices of his countrymen during their apostasy (Num. 25:7-13), led the troops into battle, carrying the silver trumpets and leading the Levites with the ark (Num. 31:6).
The Hebrews slaughtered the men of Midian—including their five kings and Balaam (vv. 7-8). They took the rest of the Midianites captive, along with their livestock and spoils, then they burned their settlements to the ground (9-11). [One wonders how Moses’ wife Zipporah (if she was still living) or her brother Hobab might have felt about having distant relatives killed and whether any provision was made to protect Moses’ in-laws.]
When the army returned from battle, Moses, Eleazar and the other leaders came out to meet them (12-13). Moses was angry that the officers had spared the Midianite women, reminding them it was these very females who “caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the incident of Peor” (14-16). Therefore, he ordered them to kill every boy and any woman who had been sexually active (17). Only the virgin girls were allowed to be kept as slaves or taken as wives (18).
As previously prescribed (chapter 19), the warriors were required to stay outside the camp for seven days, purifying themselves with the water from the red heifer on the third and seventh days (19). Their clothing, leather and wood were to be washed, while metal implements were to be purified with fire (20-24).
The plunder that had been taken was divided into two lots. From the goods that belonged to the men who had gone to war, one out of every 500 persons and animals taken as booty were given to the priests in tribute to YHWH; while one out of every fifty were given to the Levites from the portion distributed among those who stayed behind (25-30). The living plunder included:
- 675,000 sheep
- 72,000 cattle
- 61,000 donkeys
- 32,000 virgins (32-35).
Of these, the men of war got:
- 337,500 sheep and gave God 675
- 36,000 cattle and gave God 72
- 30,500 donkeys and gave God 61
- 16,000 virgins and gave God 32 (36-40).
The men who had stayed behind got the same number of animals and slaves, but their contribution to God of one out of every fifty was as follows:
- 6,750 sheep
- 720 cattle
- 610 donkeys
- 320 girls (42-47).
When the officers mustered their men and found not one had been lost in battle, they decided to donate all the gold jewelry they had taken as spoil as an offering to God (48-50). The gold of their atonement gift weighed about 420 pounds (51-52)—about $6 million in US currency! It was gathered up and placed within the tabernacle “as a memorial for the children of Israel before the LORD” (53-54).
Numbers Chapter 32
The tribes of Reuben and Gad had an exceptional amount of livestock. When they saw how fine the wide open spaces of the land they had taken in recent warfare would be for raising their flocks and herds, they asked if they could be allowed to stay and settle on that side of the Jordan River, rather than going into Canaan (Num. 32:1-5).
Moses at first objected, “Shall your brethren go to war while you sit here? Now why will you discourage the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land which the LORD has given them?” (vv. 6-7). He compared them to the ten spies who had brought forty years of wandering on the congregation, when they discouraged the Israelites from going in and taking possession of the land before (c.f.—Num. 13 & 14 to Num. 32:8-15).
So the two tribes clarified their intentions:
“We will build sheepfolds here for our livestock, and cities for our little ones, but we ourselves will be armed, ready to go before the children of Israel until we have brought them to their place; and our little ones will dwell in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until every one of the children of Israel has received his inheritance” (16-18).
That made Moses feel better. He said if they did indeed do that, then the Reubenites and Gadites were welcome to receive their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan (20-22). However, he warned,“if you do not do so, then take note, you have sinned against the LORD; and be sure your sin will find you out” (23). Then he gave instructions to Eleazar and Joshua to fulfill the two tribes’ desire for the land of Sihon and Og, if they followed through, but to allocate land on the west side of the Jordan with the other tribes, if they did not (28-30).
So the Reubenites and Gadites rebuilt several of the cities they had taken from the Sihon and Og and gave them Hebrew names (33-38). Meanwhile, the descendants of one of the sons of Manasseh named Machir conquered some more Amorite territory and took up residence there (39-42). So two and a half of the tribes settled in what is today part of modern Jordan.
Numbers Chapter 33
This chapter is primarily a recitation of all the stages of Israel’s journey from the day they left Egypt in turmoil until they reached the plains of Moab (Num. 33:1-49). The intrepid explorers, Larry Williams and Bob Cornuke, actually followed the order of locations in this passage and found many of the places, just as Moses described [Read about their remarkable discoveries at the BASE Institute website, http://www.baseinstitute.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=52&Itemid=66].
The chapter concludes with God’s instructions to make sure everyone drove out the pagans in the land across the Jordan and demolished all their articles and places of worship (vv. 50-53). Then they were to divide the land by lot, in proportion to the sizes of each tribe (54). If they failed to do so, YHWH sternly warned, “then it shall be that those whom you let remain shall be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land where you dwell,” and the Israelites would suffer the same fate God intended for their predecessors (55-56).
Numbers Chapter 34
Next, the Lord laid out the boundaries of the territory to be taken for the other 9½ tribes west of the Jordan River. If you compare the boundaries of the land allotted to Hebrew tribes with the territory controlled by modern-day Israel, you will see that what God described in Numbers 34:1-15 is much more extensive. For a decent visual aid on this subject, go to Wikipedia’s map on file at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map_Land_of_Israel.jpg.
In verses 16-29, the Lord named the men from each tribe who were supposed to help Joshua and Eleazar divide up the real estate, once the territory was conquered.
Numbers Chapter 35
Since the Levites were not supposed to get any inheritance of their own in one area of the Promised Land, the Lord designated the cities they were supposed to receive from among the other tribes. While it may seem unfair that these guys didn’t get their own hunk of property, you have to remember the following:
- The purpose of having land in those days was so the men in this agrarian society could make a living by growing crops or raising livestock. Since by Law the Levites were promised 10% of all the crops and the firstborn from the livestock the other tribes produced, this wasn’t an issue for them.
- The Levites served as the legal experts of their time. Therefore, it was necessary that they be available to all the other tribes—rather like the courthouses and we have in our county seats today.
- They were also the religious experts. It was important for God to have the Levites evenly distributed among the tribes, so they could educate people about the Lord’s expectations for them in how they were to live and worship.
Within each town allocated to the Levites, they were supposed to get property on which to build homes, and they were supposed to have a band of common pasture lands extending from 1,500 feet around the city to 3,000 feet from the city in which to graze their livestock (Num. 35:1-5). They were to receive six cities of refuge, plus 42 other cities from the other tribes, for a total of 48 cities (6-7). The cities were to be allocated in proportion to the size of the inheritance allotted to each tribe, in order to be fair (8).
On each side of the Jordan, the tribes were to allocate three cities of refuge to which anyone who accidentally killed someone could flee, until he could stand trial before a judge (9-14). Whether the manslayer was a Hebrew or a foreigner, he was to be given shelter to prevent a close relative of the victim from taking revenge against him (15).
If, however, a person used an iron, stone or wooden object to strike the victim, he was considered a murderer and could be killed by the family member seeking revenge (16-19). If the aggressor pushed, hit or threw something at the victim with malicious intent, then he was guilty of murder, as well (20-21). If, on the other hand, the act was impulsive and unintentional, then the man would stand trial, and would be protected from the avenger of blood if he was found innocent (22-25).
Causing the accidental death of a man was not without its consequences. The person found guilty of manslaughter would be confined to the boundaries of the city of refuge as long as the current high priest was in office; only at the priest’s death would the manslayer be allowed to return to his own home and family (25). If he ventured outside the city of refuge before that time, it would be his own fault if the avenger of blood caught up with him and killed the man (26-28).
A convicted murderer could only be killed if the testimony of at least two eyewitnesses agreed—never on the word of just one man (30). I believe capital punishment is warranted in this case, but not when mere circumstantial evidence points to a man’s guilt. There was no ransom or pardon allowed for such a person; nor was anyone allowed to bail a manslayer out, so that he didn’t have to stay in the city of refuge for the full time (31-32).
Why was it necessary to execute the man guilty of murder? Because “murder pollutes the land. And no atonement can be made for murder except by the execution of the murderer” (Num. 35:33, NLT). Because God planned to live among the people in their land, He didn’t want them making it unholy with unrequited bloodshed (v. 34).
Numbers Chapter 36
The final chapter of the book of Numbers returns to the issue of Zelophehad’s daughters and the matter of females inheriting the land. The families of Gilead, a descendant of Machir, son of Manasseh, approached the leaders and expressed their concern about the ladies marrying outside their extended family, with the result that the land would transfer from that tribe to another (Num. 36:1-4).
Moses communicated the Lord’s agreement and commanded that Israelite women could only marry within their ancestral tribe when they were the sole heirs of a man’s inheritance—that way the land would continue to belong to the original tribe it was allotted to (vv. 5-9). Therefore, Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, married men of their father’s extended family (10-12).
Faith in God—even when the odds seem against you—has its rewards; while grumbling, complaining and arguing with the Lord and those He has placed in authority over you is a very bad idea! When we fix our eyes on our problem, that’s when we tend toward the latter extreme and suffer the consequences. But when we recognize how much bigger God is, then we are more likely to trust in Him and enjoy success.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
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