Numbers deals with the organisation of a fledgling nation and its move towards the Promised Land.
A question for some people concerns the extraordinary size of the numbers quoted, given the small populations of the day. Various explanations have been given suggesting that the word for “thousand” has been mistranslated (in this context) or that the figures are related to astronomy, and that Israel’s population is associated with the heavenly hosts. The latter theory would divide the large numbers by 100 and is quite an attractive proposition, though none of these theories quite explain everything. I don’t think this glitch undermines the authority of Scripture however. It really just points to the fact that our knowledge in translation and interpretation hasn’t turned up a definitive answer yet. Theologically it doesn’t make much difference.
The Nazirites (Chapter 6)
The Nazirites, by their unusual physical appearance and practices, were a symbolic reminder to other Israelites that they were an unusual chosen people, set aside for God’s purposes. Samson and John the Baptist would later become the most famous of these.
It occurs to me that, especially in Evangelical circles, we can overlook the significance and usefulness of symbols and visual reminders out of a fear that they may become objects of worship or spiritual dependence. I remember someone once saying that they thought graveyards were a good thing because they reminded people of their mortality. I have sometimes wondered what impact it might have on a community if all the Christians within it identified themselves with a cross or badge of some sort. It would show that there are more Christians around than people sometimes realise and I reckon that it would generate quite a number of useful conversations. It’s rather like going into a store and seeking out someone in the store’s uniform when you need help. Why not identify yourself and be available, especially if you are a church leader?
The Spirit (Chapter 11)
God’s Spirit seems to have been given either on special occasions or to specially chosen people. Moses’ desire: “I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them” (11:29) is fulfilled (the latter part anyway) through the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.
The Nature of God and Punishment of the Children.
I will write something about God’s treatment of the inhabitants of Canaan, when I deal with Deuteronomy. But here I note in 14:17-18 that Moses declares, “The LORD is slow to anger , abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…”. A balanced view, best borne in mind for a balanced understanding of the Old Testament! A more difficult addition immediately follows as a repeat of Exodus 20:5 : “…he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” It appears to contradict a command in Deuteronomy 24:16, “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents…” I understand it to mean that the natural results of the sins of parents tend to perpetuate in following generations, who in those days were usually all living under the same roof at the same time. Parents who turn their back on God find that their children often follow suit and bring down the results of sin upon themselves. This can be seen in the period of the Kings of Israel, but in that same period we can see that some broke the mould and turned back to Yahweh. God responds positively to that! Notice too that Exodus 20:5-6 reserves judgement for three to four generations, but promises blessings to those who love God “to a thousand generations.”
The Bronze Snake 21:4-9
This incident is short but especially significant in that Jesus used it as a picture of the healing that he was to bring through his death on the cross (John 3:14-15). Looking at the snake was a response of faith but unfortunately this symbol became an object of worship (2 Kings 18:4). “Ha, you see! The danger of symbols!” you may be thinking. But then you can misuse just about anything, can’t you? (Take Gifts of the Spirit in the New Testament for example). It shouldn’t stop you using symbols in a useful way.
Balaam, the Donkey and the Blessing. 22-24
I sizeable chunk of text is given over to the story of Balaam. We remember the talking donkey part. I have no trouble believing that an almighty God could cause an animal to speak, though I would guess that some people would want to believe that this was Balaam’s mind being opened up out of shame for the way he had treated a faithful beast. In any event the important part of this account is the prophecy or blessing that Balaam is compelled to pronounce in spite of the pressure to curse Israel. The blessing reaffirms the status of Israel in God’s sight and their part in the Covenant promises given to Abraham. It even anticipates the monarchy (24:17-19)
The book of Numbers is a catalogue of complaints by Israel and judgements against her. It wasn’t just that they were hungry or thirsty or afraid. It is because, having been set free and provided with ample evidence of the presence and power of Yahweh to provide for them, they wanted to go back to Egypt. They wanted to give it all away – the Covenant, the Promises, the future, everything! It serves as a stern warning to the Christian communities of the New Testament and the present day – Do not be like Israel was in the wilderness! (Hebrews 3:7-11, quoting Psalm 95).
The prize would be the Promised Land — eventually a place of completeness and rest.
“Rest” is one of the great Bible themes, linked to Sabbath. A generation of Israel would miss out on it because of unbelief. For Christians there is a “rest” in Christ which finds its fulfilment on the Last Day. Like the readers of Hebrews and Revelation, we are exhorted to hang in there. To continue in the Faith until the end.