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Numbers is named for the years Israel spent in the wilderness, and for taking a census for the rebellious generation and then their children who enter the Promised Land. It covers the first census, Miriam’s death, the ’jealousy test’ a case of temporary mutiny, the plague of serpents, the death of Aaron, the account of Balaam, and the sin with Moab. As with Leviticus, we will focus on overarching principles rather than minute details, which again can be found in Constable’s notes. The overarching point is that Israel’s wandering was the direct result of their unfaithfulness to God.

The Big Picture

The first 25 chapters center on the older generation and its eventual disqualification for entering the Promised Land, whle chapters 26-36 turn to the next generation. Notice how the Bible is defining generation here, which should not be confused with lifespan. A generation is defined by parents and children. The wandering was 40 years because that’s how long it took all the rebellious parents to die off, not because a generation must be 40 years.

This is why, in the study of Bible prophecy, many err in taking Jesus’ statement this generation shall not pass away as meaning 40 years after Israel is reestablished in the land (or after Jerusalem is retaken). At best, Jesus meant that the generation of adults at that time would see the completion of the prophecies. If this is the case, the outside limit would be about 60 years after 1967, if people who were 20 yrs. old live to be 80, which brings us to 2027.

But whether we’re studying the past or the future, we see that God will never break his promises, and that includes the perpetuation of Israel as a nation per Jeremiah 31:35-37. That nation will endure as long as the earth and sky, no matter how far the people stray. Replacement- and Fulfillment-Theologists need to read that passage several times.

The first census was to determine the amount of land needed for each of the twelve tribes, as well as the size of the army to clean out the Promised Land. In those early chapters we also see that the tribes camped around the Tabernacle evenly, three on a side, though the Levites camped on all four sides closest to it. Notice that Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, make the Levites a 13th tribe in a sense, though one without land.

Of particular interest here is also the animals representing four of the tribes. Rev. 4:7 lists four creatures described as resembling a lion, a calf or ox, a human, and an eagle, which also match the four angelic beings of Ezekiel 1:10. The future city of the Lord in Ezk. 45-48 and the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21 have gates named after the twelve tribes as well, though the order is different. Such facts mitigate against the teaching that since Jesus came, God has dispensed with any physical nation of chosen people.

Now let’s look at the ’jealousy test’ of chapter 5, which was referenced in the study of Exodus when Moses threw soot into the air and it caused boils to break out on the Egyptians’ skin. This test, where a woman suspected of adultery was forced to drink water with dust from the Temple courtyard mixed in, would actually discourage false accusations of adultery by husbands against wives, since her proof of innocence would shame the man. And if the men of Israel wanted to use this one-sided test to show a husband’s authority, it also represented God’s authority― reminding them of their own unfaithfulness as his spiritual wife.

In any case, society considered women property, and God is simply regulating this practice. The explanation of the actual physical curse seems plausible: that the guilty woman’s body would be affected in such a way that she could bear no more children. Constable also contrasts this situation with one where they know the identity of the man who committed adultery with her, in which case both were to be executed according to Lev. 20:10.

Constable notes as well that there was in fact no corresponding right of the wife to test an adulterous husband. Again, though God makes concessions and puts limits on human choices, he never intended the practice or attitude of humans ruling over other humans. But we must always remember that the injustices of this life will be compensated for in the next. People with any kind of entitlement mentality would do well to remember Jesus’ warning in Mat. 7:2: We will be judged the way we have judged others.

In chapter 9 God makes provisions for those who couldn’t celebrate the Passover due to defilement; they could celebrate it one month later. So again we see that God is not a hard legalist when there are good reasons for inability to follow his decrees. But we should be careful not to use such auxiliary feasts to confuse and obfuscate prophetic symbols.

Now when it comes to prophetic symbols, we cannot gloss over the two silver trumpets to signal Israel to break camp and then move out, and to do so in a controlled and orderly manner. These, not the as-yet unrevealed judgment trumpets of Revelation, were undoubtedly what was referred to in 1 Cor. 15:52 regarding the last trump.

In Constable’s notes you will find a nice little chart showing where and when the nation of Israel moved from one place to another, along with a simple map. But just when the people of Israel seem to be getting their act together, they find an excuse to whine again and earn God’s punishment, as you can read starting in ch. 11. Some take those people as the non-Hebrews who left Egypt with them, which at least would explain where the whining started, though certainly it was picked up and amplified by the Hebrews. This is a lesson for us in not seeking the exciting, flashy, ever-changing trinkets the world offers― as well as when the churches offer the same things in the form of spiritual experiences.

After some more houskeeping for governing the day-to-day whining, the discontent reaches the point where even Aaron and Miriam became a problem. They had an issue with Moses marrying a non-Hebrew, though there is some disagreement over whether she was from Cush or Ethiopia, and they assume he married her after his first wife Zipporah died. At this time, God had only forbidden the Israelites to marry Canaanites, so there was no ethical reason for the complaint.

But what the text seems to emphasize is not the excuse for the complaint but the attitude: They wanted to have equal standing with Moses. Miriam, apparently as the main antagonist, is stricken with the same instant skin disease as Moses had been when he himself doubted God’s sanctioning of his leadership. But then Aaron pleads to Moses for her healing. He in turn prays to God, though she would have to stay alone outside of the camp for a week. And lest we point fingers at Miriam, how many of us would tolerate one of our siblings being chosen by God as our leader?

Now we come to the point where the people are to move north and begin battling against the people of Canaan. This is where we first read about the men sent to spy out the land so they could decide how best to attack. One was chosen from each tribe, but the two key names here are Caleb and Joshua, whose original name was changed by Moses from Hoshea.

When the report came back, the spies all agreed that it was a good land. But everyone except Caleb and Joshua was afraid of the people there, not only for the fortified cities but also for the Anakites, who are equated with the Nephilim. We remember from our study of Genesis that these were the hybrid offspring of fallen angels and humans who had super-human strength, and some of them were giants. Ten of the twelve spies had forgotten that it is always God, not themselves, who wins their battles.

Again the people whine to go back to Egypt, and they add to their sin by threatening to murder Joshua and Caleb for telling them to trust God to give them victory. On top of that, they decide to look for a new leader to take them back to Egypt! So again they bring God to the brink of wiping them out and starting over with Moses, who again intercedes for them and reminds God what the Egyptians would say if he did. For this wholesale rejection of God and complete lack of faith, the adults would never enter the Promised Land. God turns them away until they all die and are replaced by their children.

Meanwhile, and nobody’s sure exactly when, some of the sub-Levitical clan of Korah decide to do more than whine: They actually muster a small force to rebel against Moses. They blame him for failure to enter the Promised Land, in spite of the overwhelming evidence of their own guilt. Because of this, God needs to make it clear enough even for the Israelites to see that Moses is his chosen leader. He tells the people to separate themselves from the tents of the leaders of the rebellion, and then the rebels and everything and everyone belonging to them are swallowed up by the earth. As Constable points out, let this be a lesson to anyone claiming authority that doesn’t belong to them― which is to say, anyone claiming that the authority of God or the Bible rests with them instead of the Holy Spirit.

After this, God also reconfirms Aaron as high priest by causing buds and even almonds to form on his staff, per ch. 17. So not only has God once-and-for-all put an end to questions over his choice of leaders, he also has them put Aaron’s staff into the Ark as a reminder, along with the jar of manna and stone tablets.

After details about priestly service in ch. 18-19, Miriam dies and is buried in the wilderness of Zin. But right away the people begin to whine about having no water, I guess because people with the memory of a goldfish need lots of water. So God tells Moses to assemble them in front of a rock that he is to speak to and make water come out. But instead of speaking, Moses strikes it twice with his staff. It works anyway, but because he struck it instead of only speaking, he and Aaron would be denied entry to the Promised Land. The ones who had been vindicated over and over were not above accountability, which is another lesson for us all.

The death of Aaron

As Israel travels, Moses sends messengers ahead to the king of Edom to request passage through his land, but he refuses to allow it. While nothing more is said about it here, later on this refusal will be a factor in God’s judgments against Israel’s enemies. After going around them, God tells Moses that Aaron is about to die, so he needs to pass on his priestly office to his son. He does so up on a nearby mountain for everyone to see, and immediately Aaron dies and is buried there.

The bronze serpent

After a victory over the Canaanite city of Hormah, Israel gets impatient having to go around Edom. So they decide this is a good time to whine about free food from heaven, because it’s boring. So God wastes no time in punishing them, in this case with poisonous serpents that kill many of them. The solution after they repent is for Moses to make a bronze likeness of one of the snakes and put it up on a pole, such that whoever looked in faith to it would be healed if they were bitten.

This is precisely what Jesus referred to in John 3:14. He too would be lifted up, and whoever looks to him in faith is saved. As always, God has reasons for what he does and commands, and he’s not obligated to explain every one of them to us as we often demand. Are any of us really better than Israel, when we keep forgetting what God has done for us, and how many times he’s forgiven us?

King Og

Israel keeps going after this, and you can see in Constable’s notes a map of the various people groups in Canaan, with the strongest being the Amorites. Ch. 21 is where we meet Og, king of Bashan, and they defeat him after the Amorites. There will be more detail about Og in Deut. 3, who is described there as a Rephaite— a giant.


Now in ch. 22 we come to the account of Balaam. As Constable notes, commentators are divided over whether or not Balaam was a prophet of God. There is a good case made for ’not’, but Balaam still appeared to know about the God of Israel and had a respectful fear of him. He was at the very least an influential and sought-after soothsayer, and what he was about to experience would certainly have made him reconsider his views of the supernatural.

As you can read in the passage, at first Balaam simply accepts God’s command not to go with the officials from Moab and curse Israel. But king Balak sweetens the deal, so Balaam waits again for God’s answer— not as though he really considered God as his own God, but that this was the entity who was communicating with him. This time God lets him go with the officials, but he still has to refrain from cursing Israel.

But then God is upset that he goes with them, apparently because God meant for him to choose wisely rather than actually carry it out. So this is where we see the well-known incident of the talking donkey. The donkey sees the Angel of the Lord blocking the path and holding a drawn sword, so it goes off to the side to go around. But Balaam sees nothing and beats the donkey for straying. Then it happens again, this time with the donkey going to the other side and pressing Balaam’s foot into a wall, so he beats the donkey again. It happens a third time, and since there’s no place left or right to go, the donkey crouches down and gets another beating.

Though it isn’t clear in translation, the donkey was not actually enabled to talk on its own, but instead was operated by God like a puppet. The likely reason Balaam carried on the conversation as if talking to a person is because of his deep familiarity with the supernatural. The conversation is actually kind of funny:

Then God lets him see the angel, who says something just as comical: If the donkey hadn’t tried to avoid me, I’d have killed you but let the donkey go! Balaam is terrified of course, but God just repeats the command to say what he is told to say.

So in ch. 23 he finally meets up with King Balak, but though they arrange for the curse to be pronounced, it comes out a blessing instead. The king is pretty exasperated, especially since he already paid him, but he decides that the gods just need a little more appeasement. So they try it again in a different place, though to no avail.

In vs. 19 we see a very key statement: that God is not a man, as if he could lie or change his mind. This is a good statement to remember when people claim God is just an exaulted man or is like the pagan gods. But the second blessing infuriates Balak so they try a third time. And again, another key statement in vs. 9: blessings on those who bless Israel, and curses on those who curse Israel. Can today’s anti-Israel Christians take such a risk, if they are convinced modern Israel is not part of God’s plans? Can they guarantee that the nation is completely fake and fulfills no prophecy?

Though Balaam tried 4 times to curse Israel, he not only kept blessing them but also prophesied details about their conquests and their enemies’ defeat. God has shown in this incident that he will dispense true messages even through the ungodly, even an animal. God is all about the message, not the messenger. If he decides to use someone who doesn’t meet our approval, who are we to get in the way?


Ch. 25 highlights another lesson for us today: Great achievements are often followed by great failures. After all that has happened, Israel’s close proximity to Moab leads the men to chase after the heathen women who invited them to their sacrifices. The order of the text is not chronological, so we have to look ahead to ch. 31 to see that this came at the instigation of Balaam, who had given up directly cursing them and turned instead to enticing them to curse themselves.

God tells Moses to arrest every leader in Israel who sinned with the Moabites, and publicly execute them. But while he’s still speaking, one of them brazenly brings a Moabite woman to his tent. So one of the priests grabs a javelin, runs into the tent, and impales both of them at once. God had brought a terrible plague on Israel, but this stops it— after 24,000 had already died.

Land disputes

Ch. 26 begins the final phase of Israel’s wandering, with the second census of men of fighting age, to also calculate the amount of land for each tribe. But just when many readers are chalking up another male-centric win, ch. 27 tells of five women who realize that their clan is about to be robbed of land just because their father left no male heirs. God tells Moses that the claim is valid and the women must be granted land. To this we could add the fact that Job also granted inheritance to his daughters. God will only go so far in accomodating social norms.

Preparing for the death of Moses

The text turns to the impending death of Moses, and God has him go up on Mt. Nebo to see the Promised Land that he himself would not be allowed to enter. Moses takes the news well, which might be at least partly due to all the grief he had endured in his life, especially as the deliverer of ungrateful and fickle Israel. Joshua is chosen to succeed him, but at this point the text turns back to the requirements of the feasts.

Along with the feasts we see more about vows, and again we see the lesser social (not spiritual!) value of women. Even so, a woman not viewed as the possession or honor of a man was responsible for her own vows. Of course, I strongly dispute Constable’s quoted statement that Adam was held responsible for Eve’s actions because of his silence. We have already seen in our study of Genesis that no such responsibility or authority existed before they left Eden. It is especially inappropriate to compare a parent-child responsibility with husband-wife. Possession of some humans by others was never God’s natural order.

Ch. 31 tells us that Moses has one final task to perform: He must see to it that Israel wipes out Midian. Among the slain is Balaam, whose clever plan finally caught up with him. And though most people balk at the taking of women and children as plunder, it would be more humane than either killing them or leaving them to fend for themselves.

But there’s a further complication here: Moses is angry that they failed to kill all the women. He reminds them that these women were the ones who had enticed them to sin, and that the boys would grow up and try avenge their fathers. So the decision was that only virgin women would be spared. Even so, we might accept God wiping out women and children if they had Nephilim blood in them, but there’s nothing in this passage to indicate that this was the reason. Rather, the whole justification is that the people as a whole had earned God’s wrath, and their lives belonged to him anyway.

When critics allege that God is a bloodthirsty, cold, vicious tyrant, they ignore the fact that as God all life is his, and if we use our lives in ways that defy him, he has the right of vengeance. Wouldn’t innocent children go to heaven anyway? When God took the firstborn of Egypt as vengeance for taking the baby boys of Israel, was that less objectionable?

The question for the critics, though, is whether or not they have the right to point fingers at God. If they had the power, many of them would gladly destroy God and all his followers, out of sheer hatred. We know from Bible prophecy that the world will gladly put all followers of Jesus to death by beheading, starvation, and all other forms of atrocity. Even now they condone violence against others just for ideological differences, and turn a blind eye to the suffering and death of millions that they simply don’t like. This very Israel about whom we’ve been reading is a nation many have desired to wipe off the map. Who are all these critics to judge God?

Moses takes care of a lot of last-minute business after ch. 31, but one point worth mentioning for our instruction is in ch. 35: that God required at least two witnesses to convict anyone of a crime worthy of death. How often do we as Christians quickly condemn someone on the basis of nothing but one person’s claims, or worse, by nothing but suspicion or personal dislike? Remember what Jesus said about being judged by the standards we use to judge others.

Finally, the repetition of land grants reminds us that God’s dealings with Israel were— and will be as long as this earth remains— about a people, a land, and a covenant. Yes, the ultimate fulfillment was in Christ; yes, eternity future is spiritual and immortal, though also physical. But at least a thousand years remain for this earth, and we in the body of Christ cannot rush God’s plans or tell him they’re already completed.

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