Information Point: Numbers

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Each month, the Big Bible Project takes a book of the Bible as a theme for posts. This series acts as a tourist information point, highlighting some of the best-known parts of each book of the Bible and drawing attention to some hidden gems which you might not have thought to explore!

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Quick Overview

Anyone who has had their interest piqued by the name ‘Numbers’ given to this book will rapidly have it un-piqued when they come across the census lists that give rise to its name. Power through, though, because Numbers is about much more than just a census of the fighting men of Israel. The Hebrew Bible knows this books by a name meaning ‘in the desert,’ and that is both accurate and an extremely helpful reminder of its place in the big Bible story.

The book is all about the highs and – mainly – lows of Israel’s forty-year sojourn in the Sinai desert. The people are preparing to take possession of the land of Canaan, as God has promised they will. He is building them into an army fit for his service, disciplining them and preparing them for action. He is executing his plan for the world, and has called Israel out as his people chosen for the task of bringing all nations to himself. Yet they are stubborn and rebellious. They complain about what God has done for them and want to turn the clock back to when they were slaves in Egypt. The grass is always greener on the other side. The people are punished for their sin, but there is grace too, from the God who won’t recant on his promises.

The conquest of Canaan might well jar with our beliefs in world peace and national self-determination, but we ought not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when we read of Israel’s history. God is teaching us, even now, of what it means to prepare to take inheritance of a promised land. As Christians living after Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are in a position very similar to that of the Israelites in Numbers. We have been saved (in the Exodus / at the cross). We are awaiting our inheritance (the promised land / the Kingdom of God). We continue to sin, just as the Israelites do in the desert, seeking to turn back the clock to how things were before our rescue as if the grass is greener over there in darkness. And God is faithful to us, just as he was to them. He delivers.

The difficulty in reading Numbers (apart from those census passages) is that we see history repeating itself over and again, and recognise how truly the events of the desert reflect our lives. But there is great comfort to be found in these pages for those who will trust in God’s faithfulness, the goodness of his plan for the world, and his power to execute it.

Historical and Literary Context

Numbers is one of the five books of the ‘Law’, the ‘Pentateuch’, which stand at the beginning of our Bibles. Numbers contains a good deal of narrative, telling the story of the time between the first giving of the law at Sinai in Exodus and Leviticus, and the second giving of the law in Deuteronomy. There is also some prophecy and some census-like material, as well as some chunks of law material. Numbers is richly drawn on throughout the Old and New Testaments and while the traditional view that Moses wrote the books of the Law is difficult to substantiate to any degree, Numbers shares in the historical and literary heritage of the Law that stretches back to the earliest times of Israel’s identity as a worshipping community.

Best-known bits

I once won a competition on hospital radio entitled Quails of the Unexpected. I successfully answered a series of questions about quail, and won a set of toy fire engines for a prize. Israel’s experience of quail in Numbers 11 was doubtless even less expected than my quiz victory. God had been providing manna faithfully for the people to eat while they were living in a pretty inhospitable desert, yet they complained and demanded better food from Moses. They had delusions of eating lavish food in Egypt, where they had been slave labourers. They wanted meat to eat. So God answered their prayer as clearly and forcefully as he could, by dumping a metre-deep delivery of quail across their entire camp. This episode serves as a reminder that we don’t always know what is best for us. Sometimes it takes a change in circumstances to show us that God has been caring and faithfully providing for us all along.

12 men went to spy on Canaan; ten were bad, two were good (Chapter 13). The story of the spies in Canaan is well-loved, I think, because it is a classic underdog story. It is all about speaking truth to power. Standing up for what you believe in, in the face of apparently insurmountable opposition. It’s exactly the sort of story we like to read about. But it’s the kind of story we are slow to learn from, and in the terms of biblical narrative it’s the sort of story that we’re reluctant to apply to our own lives. For while the twelve tribes gave an honest account of the land they had spied out, only two trusted in God to do what he had promised. The faithlessness of the spies stirred the people into hopelessness and rebellion (Chapter 14) while Caleb and Joshua were forced to wait forty years to see fulfilled what they knew could have been done by this earlier generation. Sometimes we are called to be Joshuas and Calebs in our own circumstances, trusting God’s plans and his promises and his provisions. More often, we’re the people who are faced with conflicting reports from those we look to for leadership: the message of this story is to follow the faithful because of the unchanging faithfulness of God.

When poisonous snakes came among the Israelite camp, Moses erected a bronze snake on a stick which acted like an antidote if looked upon (Chapter 21). This sounds a bit like pagan mysticism at first glance, as if looking towards a magical item will cure your sickness. It won’t, and this narrative doesn’t make that claim. Instead, it is a very concise telling of the big story of God’s rescue plan for his people. The pattern is everywhere in Numbers; everywhere in the Bible; everywhere in the testimonies of the people of God throughout the ages. It looks like this: 1) The people rebel against God. 2) God responds with judgement. 3) The people repent. 4) An intercessor pleads with God on their behalf. 5) God sends rescue. 6) The people live. This story is probably so well-known because John refers to it in explaining the mission of Jesus: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:14-15). The stencil, if you like, the master-copy of the pattern of the snake-on-a-stick in the desert is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary.

My mental image of Balaam and his donkey (Chapter 22-24) has been irrevocably perverted since watching the animated film Shrek. The talking donkey has the voice of Eddie Murphy, and, yes, Balaam is an ogre. Of all the stories of prophecy in the Bible, this is among the strangest. (After all, God speaks through the mouth of a donkey.) The account of Balaam is very important to the whole message of Numbers. A pagan diviner has his misconceptions about God shown up to him as his donkey can see the angel of the Lord when he cannot, and corrected as he speaks the truth when he intends to speak lies. This is prophesy in the most unlikely place: a compromised and confused man speaking the of the consistent character of God and his intention to bring blessings on his people.

Under the surface

In essence, Numbers is all about having the correct perspective. The people of Israel grumbled at their circumstances in the wilderness, choosing to daydream a fantasy of indulgence and plenty in their slavery in Egypt. When told of the land flowing with milk and honey standing ahead of them as their inheritance, they did not trust God to deliver it into their hands. In grumbling about having left Egypt, they forgot the miraculous power and faithfulness God showed in rescuing them in the Exodus. To fail then to trust in the completion of his plan was a short-sighted and failure of faith. Contrasted with the poor perspective of the people, God’s perspective never changes through the book. His patience with his people stands unaffected even when they continue to rebel against him. His righteousness is uncompromised as he punishes sin. His grace is undiminished as he provides for them each day and forgets the sins of the repentant. As you read this book, ask what kind of perspective would make the people behave the way they do, and then ask what kind of perspective would make God behave the way he does. Let’s have the perspective of the talking donkey, who can see what his master, renowned seer though he was, could not.

Key verses

All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (14:2-4)

God is not human, that he should lie,
not a human being, that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act?
Does he promise and not fulfil?
I have received a command to bless;
he has blessed, and I cannot change it. (23:19-20)

About Ali Gledhill

Ali lives in London, reads quite a bit, writes a little less, rides a bike, serves the church, avoids eye contact with strangers on the train, and has a website profile at gledhillonline.co.uk.