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Old Testament Survey

Numbers




Key Verses

9:15-23
14:22-23
20:12


Key Chapters

Chapters 13-14


Key Concepts

Disobedience v. Guidance
Wanderings v. Deliverance


Thoughts for Reading

Are we punished for our sins?
If you answered this yes, does the punishment fit the crime?


Numbers is really the story of the march to the promised land. Only, a short time into the journey, the people revolted and God, as punishment, extended the short (eleven day?) walk into almost thirty-nine years! The entire central message of the book is found in Numbers 9:15-23:

15 And on the day that the tabernacle was reared up the cloud covered the tabernacle, namely, the tent of the testimony: and at even there was upon the tabernacle as it were the appearance of fire, until the morning. 16 So it was alway: the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. 17 And when the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, then after that the children of Israel journeyed: and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel pitched their tents. 18 At the commandment of the LORD the children of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the LORD they pitched: as long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle they rested in their tents. 19 And when the cloud tarried long upon the tabernacle many days, then the children of Israel kept the charge of the LORD, and journeyed not. 20 And so it was, when the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle; according to the commandment of the LORD they abode in their tents, and according to the commandment of the LORD they journeyed. 21 And so it was, when the cloud abode from even unto the morning, and that the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they journeyed: whether it was by day or by night that the cloud was taken up, they journeyed. 22 Or whether it were two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle, remaining thereon, the children of Israel abode in their tents, and journeyed not: but when it was taken up, they journeyed. 23 At the commandment of the LORD they rested in the tents, and at the commandment of the LORD they journeyed: they kept the charge of the LORD, at the commandment of the LORD by the hand of Moses.

Title

The English and Latin titles both mean “numbers” and refer to the censuses which open and close the book. The Hebrew title comes from the overall setting of the book, “in the wilderness.”

The Time Frame of Numbers

Therefore, Numbers covers a period of time known as the wilderness wanderings which lasted 38 years, nine months and ten days.

The Census

There are two censuses taken in Numbers. Essentially, the first generation out of Egypt is numbered and then the first generation entering into Canaan is numbered. Only the men able to go to war are numbered, so the actual size of the nation is probably 2-4 times larger, taking into account women, children, the elderly, and those who of fighting age, but not able bodied.

The Census Figures of Numbers 1 and 26
Tribe Reference Figures Reference Figures Change
Reuben 1:20-21 46,500 26:5-11 43,730 -2,770
Simeon 1:22-23 59,300 26:12-14 22,200 -37,100
Gad 1:24-25 45,650 26:15-18 40,500 -5,150
Judah 1:26-27 74,600 26:19-22 76,500 +1,900
Issachar 1:28-29 54,400 26:23-25 64,300 +9,900
Zebulun 1:30-31 57,400 26:26-27 60,500 +3,100
Ephraim 1:32-33 40,500 26:35-37 32,500 -8,000
Manasseh 1:34-35 32,200 26:28-34 52,700 +20,500
Benjamin 1:36-37 35,400 26:38-41 45,600 +10,200
Dan 1:38-39 62,700 36:42-43 64,400 +1,700
Asher 1:40-41 41,500 36:44-47 53,400 +11,900
Naphatali 1:42-43 53,400 26:48-50 45,400 -8,000
Totals   603,550   601,730 -1,820
Average Size of Tribe   50,296   50,144 -152

A review of the individual tribes will show some of the factors which cause the changes in numbers, but in general, the changes during the wilderness experience were not overly great. While individual tribes changed, the nation only decreased slightly. God continued to preserve His chosen people. Note the trivial amount of change.

Throughout the Bible, the nation is referred to as the Twelve Tribes, but those who make up the Twelve change based upon the occasion. As stated above, if the Levites are not included, usually it is Joseph’s two sons and not Joseph who is included to make twelve. If Levi is included, then either the twelve sons are all named, or if another one is left out, Joseph and Manasseh are usually named (Rev 7:4-8, where Dan is left out).

Purpose and Unity

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Many find a large disunity in this book as segments of stories are mixed with segments of law. God works in history. The entire of Scripture is set in the history of mankind. We live out our lives in history. It is only fitting that the statements of the law which show the moral code God strives to instill in us would be mixed with the wilderness narrative in which the moral code of the nation of Israel broke down time and again. God’s point of this is that “NOW” is the time to apply His rules to your life. If we do not apply His rules now, when will we?

God is faithful to fulfill His promises and this is shown in His faithfulness to the concepts of the law, the righteousness behind the law. Israel can fulfill this righteousness when they walk with God. It is when they grumble and turn away that disbelief sets in and the righteousness is lost.

There are, then, several purposes to the book of Numbers.

A Big Circle

The book of Numbers outlines in three simple steps:

God guides the path of His children, even when they are not walking a straight line. In Numbers, the nation starts out on its final journey to the Promised Land. God provides the pattern for the manner in which they are to Camp and to March. The nation is on its way! Eventually, the nation comes to the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh-barnea..

Numbers 13:1-2
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 2 Send thou men, that they may search the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel: of every tribe of their fathers shall ye send a man, every one a ruler among them.

God responds to Moses prayer of intercession. This is a model of how we should be praying for each other.

So, for forty days the spies went throughout all of the land, gathering data on the people and crops. Then they return to Moses, but no in great faith. The spies admit that the land was flowing with milk and honey (13:27), but it was also inhabited by giants and huge machines of war (13:28, 29). The spies report that the Israelites were “as grasshoppers” (13:33). Only Joshua and Caleb argued that the nation should rely upon God and enter the promised land.

The people rebelled and complained. God offers Moses the right to start afresh. God offers to kill the entire nation and start a new nation from the loins of Moses (14:11, 12)! Moses, ever the great leader, pleads for his people. The Lord points out that “Because all those men which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice; Surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked me see it: But my servant Caleb, because he had another spirit with him, and hath followed me fully, him will I bring into the land whereinto he went; and his seed shall possess it” (14:22-24).

The Lord immediately sends a plague which kills all of the spies except Caleb and Joshua (14:37, 38). Then the wilderness wandering begins. It is this section, commencing with chapter 15, where commentators find the analysis difficult because of the mixture of law and history. These scholars fail to find the setting of God’s Word in the history of His people, for as we have seen, and will see, our God is a God Who works in the history of His people – you, me and the Israelites!

The people continue to rebel. Korah rebels and several are swallowed by an earthquake (Chp 16). This episode leads to the test of priesthood using the rods of the leaders of the tribes. Remember these rods are just dead tree limbs. But Aaron’s rod buds blossoms and almonds (17:8). God confirmed His Word. The author of Hebrews tells us that Aaron’s rod was added to the pot of manna and the tablets containing the Ten Commandments which were kept in or on the Ark of the Covenant (Heb (9:4).

And the rebellions and murmurings continue. At the start of the Exodus, the people had come to Meribah thirsty and God instructed Moses to strike the rock (Exod 17:1-7). Water flowed forth at the power of God’s rod. Now, the people come to the same place, but this time God instructs Moses simply to speak to the rock. The murmuring of the people gets Moses so frustrated that he strikes the rock twice. God still delivers water, but Moses forfeits the right to enter the promised land (20:7-20).

During the wilderness experience, the people complain ten times (Exod 14:11; 15:24; 16:2; 17:2; Num 11:1; 14:2; 16:2; 16:41; 20:2; 21:4). These are not events that show apostasy like the golden calf, but rather are complaints at the manner in which God (and Moses) are handling the situation. While God supplies manna and water in response to some complaints, He frequently sends judgment. The complaints show the rebellious nature of the people.

Aaron dies shortly after this event, and the people set forth on their final journey. While the will continue in a start and stop fashion, they are now headed in a reasonably straight line without any further wanderings. But notice that these final events all take place at Kadesh (20:1), the same place the rebellion started! The people have just spent thirty-eight years walking in a big circle! The New Testament writers make great use of this time period as a reminder of the manner in which God saves His people and as an example of how not to act in repayment of what God has done for us (1 Cor 10:1-12; Heb 3:7-19).

The Land "A land of milk and honey"

The promise of Exodus, based upon an implied promise to Abraham, is the giving of a land to the nation of God. God took the people out of Egypt with the intention of depositing them in a “new” land. This land is the land God gave to Abraham (Gen 13:14-18). This is the land of Canaan, the land flowing with milk and honey, the land known today as Palestine.

The concept of a land flowing with milk and honey speaks to the ability of the land to richly produce crops and livestock. As the history of the nation progresses, this ability is shown to be closely tied to God’s preservation of the nation. When the nation is disobedient, the land suffers famine, in part because the people do not comply with the land usage rules set forth in the giving of the law.

Grapes on a stick

One of the great descriptions of the richness of this land during the time of Moses is given by the spies who went into Palestine. They brought back with them grapes. But not just any grapes. The spies brought back “a branch with one cluster of grapes and they bore it between two upon a staff” (13:23). Now, I want to see grapes so large that it takes two men and a pole to carry them!

What, then, is this land?

Palestine is a land mass roughly the size of Vermont, or about a quarter the size of Virginia. In this small area dwelt a number of tribes. Just as one comes to know and understand the habits of one’s neighbors, so, too, would the inhabitants of this region come to understand each other, at least in loose terms. The Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites all dwelt in the land (Exod 3:17). To the south was the land of Edom, the heirs of Jacob’s brother Esau. Across the Jordan River to the east lie the lands of the Moabites and the Ammonites, the heirs of Lot’s incestuous off-spring by his two daughter (Gen 19:30-38).

The Greek form of the term Philistine is where the name Palestine arises.

To the southwest along the coast came the Philistines. These were sea traders who are believed to have migrated to this area during the time of the Judges, or perhaps, a little earlier to coincide with Israel’s entry into the land. The name of the land at the time of the Exodus was Canaan, one of the sons of Ham (Gen 10:6, 15-20).

On the northern coasts were the Phoenicians. This was the land of Tyre and Sidon.

The Amalekites, named after Amalek, the son of Eliphaz, the son of Esau, play a role in the history of Israel commencing in Exodus 17:8-16. Israel battles them during the early Exodus, defeating these people. They, in turn, defeat the Israelites at Hormah following the report of the spies (Num 14:45). Centuries later, Saul’s failure to destroy them in accordance with God’s specific instructions led to Saul’s fall from grace (1 Sam 15:1-9).

The borders of the land have varied a great deal during both biblical and modern history. In general, the wester boundary is the Mediterranean Sea, the Great Sea in Scripture. To the north are the mountains of Lebanon. The south is framed by the Negev desert. On the east, the border first stretch well east of the Jordan River as Gad and the half tribes of Reuben and Manasseh settled in the land of the Moabites and Ammonites. During the days of Christ the boundaries went to the Arabian desert. Today, the eastern boundary of Israel is along the Jordan River itself.

The Dead Sea lies at the foot of the Jordan River, thus, along the eastern boundary. The country itself is comprised of several geological areas:

The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is one of the amazing features of God’s world. It is about 50 miles long and averages around 10 miles across. The Sea contains rich mineral deposits, but there is absolutely no life in these waters. It is the lowest point on the face of the earth, its surface being about 1300 feet below sea level, with its depth being around another 1300 feet. There is no outlet to this sea. The water is so heavy with minerals that a person can float on its surface with no effort. The Dead Sea is also known as the Salt Sea and the Sea of Arabah. It is unclear if the condition of the waters have been this way since the Fall in the Garden, or if this was a living sea until the time of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Balaam – A Lesson in Prophecy

Paul records in Romans the difference between Jacob and Esau –

Romans 9:13
As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.

While many view this as a relative hatred, a review of Scriptures might suggest that here Jacob and Esau represent not individuals but the tribes and descendants of these Old Testament characters. As the nation moves forward, the people desire to pass through Edom, but the Edomites, the children of Esau, come out in force against Israel. The nation moves around them (20:14-22). Then, they move towards the plains of Moab and one of the most interesting stories and sources of prophecy in all of Scripture occurs. Chapters 22-24 tell us the story of Balaam and his talking donkey.

In simple terms, Balaam was a “for hire” prophet. His oracles favored those who paid him the best. Balak, king of Moab, hires Balaam to curse Israel. Because of the appearances of God to Balaam, the prophet ends up blessing the nation several times throughout these chapters. The Spirit of God came upon this heathen prophet (24:2) and he spoke of the glory of Israel and the Messianic Kingdom. Notice in particular Numbers 24:17, spoken by Balaam.

I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.

But Balaam is not the hero this prophecy would suggest he could be. When he cannot curse the nation, he instead councils the Moabites on how to defeat the Israelites. He basically argues that sex is the key and the women of Moab should seduce the Israelites with both their bodies and their gods. And it worked!

Numbers 25:1
And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.

For this Balaam lost his life (Num 31:8). But the legacy of Balaam lives on. His sins are described by three different authors of the New Testament in three different ways:

Jesus in Numbers

The picture of Christ in Numbers is very similar to that of Exodus. He is the manna from heaven (6:31-33), the pillar of cloud and fire which leads the nation (Num 10:11), the Rock at Meribah (1 Cor 10:4), and the sacrifice for sin. In Numbers this sacrifice is the Red Heifer (Num 19), a special offering to be used for the cleansing of sins. And, we have seen Jesus in the prophecy of Balaam.

But, there is one other significant type of Christ in this book. Even as the people start their final approach to the Promised Land, they are still murmuring. God sends poisonous snakes into the camp (21:4-9). Many are killed. In response to Moses prayers, God has the prophet and leader of the people make a brass or brazen image of the snakes. This brazen snake is placed on a pole in the center of the camp. Whoever is struck by one of the poisonous snakes needed to only look at the brazen serpent to be healed. Jesus applies this type to Himself.

John 3:14
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:

When was the last time God chastised you? Did you learn anything?

 

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December 9, 2019

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