/ Book of Numbers / Andrew Kerr

Making Sense of Statistics?

I've been preparing to give two lectures on Numbers out in Africa next month - I've been delighted at some discoveries I've made in the, I have to confess hitherto, rather confusing Book of Numbers.

This is the account, after election of Abraham, redemption of Israel & regulation of the Tabernacle, that traces the camp's departure & 40-year pilgrimage through the wilderness.

The point & purpose of the book are bound up with both the name & structure of Numbers: the latter is a literary masterpiece & carefully ordered by Moses: two censuses, or head-counts (of fighting men), dominate the book - firstly, the numbering of the fallen generation and secondly, the numbering of the future generation. The former doesn't reach Canaan for their complaining disobedience, while the latter cannot fail to enter the Promised Land because God is determined to follow through on His given-to-the-Patriarchs Word.

Complaining, grumbling, murmuring, unbelief is the reason Moses gives for not entering into the land. It is really instructive to trace Israel's history of complaint - I unearthed a really helpful table, made out by Michael J Glado in his chapter on Numbers, in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament.

Unfortunately I don't think this blog will let me set the table out before your gaze in the form that might be most visually striking - but, failing that, if you read the details below, with patience & prayer, and put on your thinking caps, it will, I believe, prove most instructive for your hearts (doubly-so for the Irish Men present at Kenny Stewart's talks at the recent 'Ministers' Conference' in Ballykelly, 2018).

Numbers 11:1-3
Complaint: The people grumble about general misfortunes
Response: God’s anger is kindled & Outer camp is burned
Result: People cry out to Moses; Moses prays: Fire falls down; Place is named Teberah

Numbers 11:4-35
Complaint: The rabble complain of no meat or fresh vegetables
Response: God’s anger blazed hotly (11:10) & Moses complains to God, not able to “carry all this people alone” (11:14)
Result: Elders are appointed to share Moses’s burden; God gives Israel a month of meat to chastise them; God strikes the camp with a plague; Place is named Kibroth-Hattaavah

Numbers 12:1-16
Complaint: Miriam complains about Moses’s Cushite wife & questions Moses unique authority
Response: God vindicates Moses’s unique authority; Miriam is afflicted with leprosy
Result: Moses interceded for Miriam; Miriam is cleansed

Numbers 13:1-14:38
Complaint: The people lament the spies report, their departure from Egypt, and Moses’s leadership; they threaten to stone Caleb and Joshua
Response: God appears at Tent of Meeting and threatens pestilence, disinheritance, and a remnant nation; Moses intercedes appealing to God’s glory
Result: God relents; But God decrees that the people will wander for forty years in the wilderness; God bans the whole first generation from entering the land, Caleb & Joshua excepted

Numbers 16:1-40
Complaint: Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On rebel against Moses and Aaron
Response: Moses rebukes rebels, announces context of incense offerings; God declares intent to punish all; Moses intercedes; God calls all Israel to separate from rebels
Result: The ground opens and swallows the rebels and their households; Rebel fire pans are made into altar plates

Numbers 16:41-17:13
Complaint: The people grumble about the judgment upon the rebels
Response: God threatens to consume the people and commences a plague; Moses instructs Aaron to hastily make an atonement offering; Plague is arrested
Result: Aaron’s rod blossoms

Numbers 20:2-13
Complaint: The people complain of no water
Response: Moses intercedes angrily toward God
Result: God provides water from the rock (again); Moses is rebuked and sentenced to the fate of the first generation

Numbers 21:4-9
Complaint: The people question God’s benevolence
Response: God sends a plague of fiery serpents; God provides the bronze serpent as a remedy
Result: Moses fashions the bronze serpent; All who look to the bronze serpent are healed

A couple of interesting points....

  1. Pardon for Complainers - throughout the book, interspersed & side-by-side with the complaint-punishment material, there is provision of priestly atonement through sacrifice & the effective intercessory prayer-mediation of Moses (and also the heart-stopping stake of Phinehas!). The mercy of God seems to reach a Mosaic climax, with the fashioning of the bronze serpent, which Moses lifts on a pole, so that those who look to the proposed object of faith may be healed. Are you guilty of complaint or grumbling against leaders of the church (like Aaron, Miriam, Korah et Al), against providential provision, or against God Himself? It is a very serious sin to give way to bitter complaint in the blindness of unbelief - but if you have, don't despair, repent with broken heart - mercy can be found, through the atonement by Christ's blood, which is surely here typified, and applied by penitent faith! The death of Jesus, applied to the conscience, removes deep ingrained dirt & washes the whole man white as snow (Psalm 51)

  2. Warning to Complainers - if unbelief in what God was doing through Moses resulted in exclusion from the land, how much more serious it is if we fail to learn from the generation that fell, and fail to enter God's rest on account of a hard, unbelieving, heart. That this warning applies to us, as New Testament believers too, as well as the succeeding Old Testament generation, is very clear in Scripture. This is shown by texts like Deuteronomy 1:30-32, Deuteronomy 9:23, Joshua 21:45, Psalm 78:6-8, Psalm 95:7b-9, 1 Corinthians 10:6, 1 Corinthians 10:11-12 & Hebrews 3:12.

'Once-saved, always-saved' is only half of the truth for, along with eternal security & perseverance of the saints, this is, as Glodo notes, "true in itself" but "precarious by itself." For, he adds, "the Scriptures also teach that there is something that every believer will do in order not to fall away from God's favor - he will persevere in faith." If "the ultimate cause" of our "security is found in God & His decree, the instrumental means of his perseverance is a faith that obeys." So, he concludes "we must not blunt the warnings with false assurance" but let them have full force to warn a grumbling, hardened, heart of unbelief: and I think Moses would also agree with that! p.131 (pastors this is a book that is definitely worth purchasing!)

Application

  1. We too have a journey to make through the wilderness of this world: true believers should be deeply reassured that the God of saving grace, who reveals Himself in the Gospel of Christ, has all-sufficient supplies of grace - these are made available to us through the means He has appointed for His Church. Be assured, from the future generation that attained to the land, that the promise will prevail: we will reach the Heavenly Country for which believers long! With Bunyan we can gaze from Delectable 'Gospel' Mountains, through the telescopic 'Eye of Faith' with the City in our sight - the Celestial City , whose founder, builder & architect is God!

  2. Is anyone guiltless of doubt or complaint - I know no one - except the Christ Himself? Only by God's grace, which also comes through biblical warnings, do we take God at His Word. There is mercy, pardon, atonement, cleansing - a redemption & propitiation which should lead to the fruit of sanctification. Former grumblers in churches, once forgiven, in light of mercy, should gradually grumble less & less with growth in grace! We obtain both of these gifts (cleansing & contentment) by looking to the Cross where, in Nehushtan-like fashion, the Son of Man was lifted up (John 3:14) - in union with, through faith in, our Crucified Jesus, we are promised Eternal Life! In this glorious truth, surely, repentant grumblers will rejoice!

  3. Pastors must not mollycoddle the kind of rebellious grumbling complainers that resist Christ's greater-than-Moses-leadership & decline His offer of atonement: rather we must prayerfully, humbly, lovingly urge and warn of the dangers of continuing in a rebellious complaining frame of heart & mind: referring to the wilderness years, and Corinthian temptation to immorality, idolatry and rebellion through unbelief, Paul writes to that liberally-minded congregation, confident, as their pastor, that they might pursue a saving course:

"We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come ...No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." 1 Corinthians 10:9-13 (ESV)>

It's a very sombre footnote that Moses adds to the account of the plague that his grandson stopped:

"Nevertheless, those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand!" (ESV)

  1. Teachers of the church have a 'great' sermon series here which has much to teach the church. I don't advise speaking it into a 'conflict situation' which would surely only stir up strife, and compound congregational heartbreak, but to prepare such a series to safeguard the flock, delivered in a time of peace.

  2. Prayer - the final thing to mention is the prayer of one saintly poet, who wrote with certainty of faith in the pilgrimage soon complete, in full reliance on grace. Perhaps, you too, will now kneel and bow, and join me in this prayer:

Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah
Pilgrim through this barren land
I am weak, but Thou art mighty
Hold me with Thy powerful hand
Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven,
Feed me till I want no more... Feed me till I want no more!