Today’s bible trivia question: Why is our study book called the Book of Numbers?
The Book of Numbers is of great historical significance because the Lord ordered the first census of the Israelites. Numbers chapters 1-10 have an awful lot of “begats” – that’s when most people, reading the bible in traditional sequence, get bogged down, or should I say begatted down – but the book of Numbers also gives us historical and genealogical record of the Israelites.
As the book of Numbers opens, the Israelites have been camped near Mount Sinai for more than a year. Moses has brought all the laws and regulations recorded in the book of Leviticus, the tabernacle has been built, priests are busy doing priestly things. The Israelites are well-equipped to be a new nation of God’s chosen people. It is now time to move into Canaan and take the land.
To prepare for Canaan, Moses and Aaron were told by God to take a census, number the men who were able to serve in the army, get the people organized by tribe. This book is named for this census, or numbering of the people. But the book of Numbers could just as well been named the Book of Grumpiness. From the beginning of Numbers to the end, it tells the story of rebellion, unbelief, and grumblings.
As the Israelite set out from the wilderness of Sinai on their journey to the Promised Land, silver trumpets were used to coordinate their stopping and going. God’s presence was always with them – a cloud of shade by day and a pillar of fire as their night light. They were literally guided one step at a time. Each time the cloud or pillar signaled a move, Moses prayed to God for guidance and victory, each time they were signaled to stop, he asked for God’s presence to rest with His people. No matter how many times they started or stopped, Moses would repeat these prayers. Let’s look at the end of Chapter 10:
Numbers 10:33-36, (Chronological Bible page 227, March 1)
So they departed from the mountain of the LORD on a journey of three days; and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them for the three days’ journey, to search out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the LORD was above them by day when they went out from the camp. So it was, whenever the ark set out, that Moses said: Rise up, O LORD! Let your enemies be scattered, And let those who hate You flee before You.” And when it rested, he said: “Return, O LORD, To the many thousands of Israel.”
Moses feared and worshipped the Lord above everything else and put Him first in the life of the people. The people of Israel? Not so much.
Since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, man has struggled to live by faith in the goodness of God and by the Word of God. Instead, we continue to live by sight, trapped in our fleshly existence, blind to spiritual truth and spiritual reality. In the book of Numbers, Israel has the promises of God regarding their existence and their land, plus the very presence of God in their midst. But still they walk in rebellion and unbelief. Today’s lesson will focus on four scenes from Numbers 11-16 that illustrate the depravity of the human heart.
Why do we study the Old Testament? Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10 that specifically this Book of Numbers is a warning to believers. In 1 Corinthians 10:6, 10-11 Paul says:
Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted… nor complain and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now all these things happened to them as examples and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.
We are to note what God’s people did in the past and how their decisions affected their relationship with Him, in order to move forward with our own faith in the present. So, in looking at our passages for today, we are going to look at what NOT to do as God’s chosen people. I’m reminded of some sage advice my grandfather gave to me. He’d say, “Son, if you can’t be a good example, then do your best to be a horrible warning.”
II. #1 on the List of Things Not to Do: Grumble and Complain about God’s Blessings
Let’s look at Numbers 11:1-2 (Chronological Bible page 228, March 2) –
Now when the people complained, it displeased the Lord; for the LORD heard it, and His anger was aroused. So the fire of the LORD burned among them, and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. Then the people cried out to Moses, and when Moses prayed to the LORD, the fire was quenched.
Did your parents ever same something like, “quit whining or I’ll give you something to whine about.” That is exactly what the Lord did. Whatever they were complaining about was so insignificant that it wasn’t even recorded. The Lord send a warning of fire, and the people cried out to Moses and Moses interceded on their behalf.
What did the Israelite do in response? The continued to complain. Numbers 11:4-6:
Now the mixed multitude who were among them yielded to intense craving; so the children of Israel also wept again and said: Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and then garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!
Whaaaah. All we have is this stupid manna. When we are discontented with our current situation, we have troubles remembering how blessed we are. The Israelites “forgot” they were in bondage and slavery in Egypt and only remembered the “flesh pleasing” things.
Though manna was miraculously provided and was healthy nourishment, they tired of this provision from the Lord and lusted for other things.
Numbers 11:10-11,13-15, page 228:
Then Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families; everyone at the door of his tent; and the anger of the LORD was greatly aroused; Moses also was displeased. So Moses said to the LORD, “Why have you afflicted Your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you have laid the burden of these people on me? … Where am I to get meat to give all these people? For they weep all over me, saying “Give us meat that we may eat.” I am not able to bear all these people alone, because the burden is too heavy for me. If you treat me like this, please kill me here and now- if I have found favor in your sight- and do not let me see my wretchedness!
The people were complaining and Moses was complaining about their complaining! “Just kill me now,” he tells the Lord. “This job is too hard!” And yet Moses is humble and realizes that he is no better than they are!
It takes faith to accept God’s guidance and Israel’s faith wasn’t very strong. Among other things, mixed in among them during their journey were unbelievers that God had warned them about. The Israelites listed to these unbelievers who convinced the Israelites that maybe God wasn’t all good, maybe God was withholding something good from them. The people stopped appreciating their blessings and instead focused on what they didn’t have.
Even God’s people too easily forget what God has done and we grumble and complain about what we don’t have. Paul reminds us in Philippians 2:14-16:
Do some things…. No wait, do a few things… no, Paul says…
Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.
Complaining is contagious. Discontentment is at the top of the slippery slope of sin. When we rebel against Him, God often gives us our own way, which can lead to our destruction.
Let’s continue in Numbers 11:31-33, page 229
Now a wind went out from the LORD, and it brought quail from the sea and left them fluttering near the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and about a day’s journey on the other side, all around the camp, and about two cubits above the surface of the ground. And the people stayed up all that day, all night, and all the next day, and gathered the quail (he who gathered least gathered ten homers), and they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. But while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was aroused against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very great plague.
The Lord gave them what they wanted, and it killed them. Moses called the place “the graves of lust.” It served as a reminder to the danger of asking for “my will be done” over “Thy will be done.” In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, the Lord warned Israel that the way they treated the daily manna would be a test of their obedience to His Word. By rejecting the manna, by rejecting the blessings, Israel really rejected the Lord and it was this rebellious attitude that invited the judgment of God.
III. #2 on the List of Things Not to Do: Tell God He’s Not the Boss of You
Everyone in Israel knew that Moses, Aaron, and Moses’ sister Miriam were God’s chosen servants, but that Moses was designated by God as the leader. This had been evident from before they were brought out of Egypt. God had used Miriam to save Moses’ life and to lead women in worship. Aaron was the older brother chosen to help Moses with Pharaoh and to serve as the first High Priest. But Moses was the one to whom God spoke to and spoke through as the leader of Israel. But even among spiritual leaders, the sin of envy is ever present. “Envy” says, “that’s not fair! Why not me?” and it can affect anyone at any time
Numbers 12: 1-10 (Chronological Bible page 229, March 2).
Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman. So they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” And the LORD heard it. (Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.)
Suddenly the LORD said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tabernacle of meeting!” So the three came out. Then the LORD came down in the pillar of cloud and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam. And they both went forward. Then He said,
“Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; He is faithful in all My house.
I speak with him face to face, Even plainly, and not in dark sayings; And he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid To speak against My servant Moses?”
So the anger of the LORD was aroused against them, and He departed. And when the cloud departed from above the tabernacle, suddenly Miriam became leprous, as white as snow. Then Aaron turned toward Miriam, and there she was, a leper.
Despite the Lord clearly talking to Moses, Miriam attempts to be the boss, and convinces Aaron to join her in this rebellion. The Lord was angry and deals swiftly with her. At this point Aaron begs Moses to intercede, and Moses cries out to the LORD, saying, “Please heal her, O God!” So the LORD tells Moses to basically lock her outside the camp for a week and then the Lord will heal her.
God made it very clear that He was in control, God selects the leaders and the people were to respect their authority. Rebelling against His appointed leaders is the same as rebelling against the Lord.
When you review the history of Israel and their journey from Egypt to Canaan, you see that every time they resisted the Lord’s selected authority, it caused them great trouble. As the Lord sought to bring them through difficult situations and build their faith, they rebelled against His authority, blamed those He put in charge and made plans to return to Egypt. No society can function without authority and submission. God’s plan wasn’t just to free them from slavery but to establish Israel as a nation.
IV. #3 on the List of Things Not to Do: Doubt God’s Plan
Israel had journeyed from Mount Sinai on their way to Canaan. Just before they get to the Promised Land, Israel sent out spies to look over the land which they were to possess.
Numbers 13:1-3 (page 230, March 2):
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel; from each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a leader among them. So Moses sent them from the Wilderness of Paran according to the command of the LORD, all of them men who were heads of the children of Israel.
Notice that the Lord’s promise: I am giving this land to the Israelites. No conditions attached, it’s yours. Moses selects twelve men to travel to Canaan to survey the land in Numbers 13:4-16, way too many names to read, but this is where we first meet Caleb. Joshua we met earlier in Exodus 17 as one of Moses’s generals and Joshua also went up Mount Sinai with Moses in Exodus 24.
Moses sends the twelve spies to the land of Canaan on a reconnaissance mission. You know, check out the schools, the cost of living, local museums, that sort of thing. The spies are told to bring back evidence that this is indeed the land of milk and honey. In Numbers 13:21-25,
So they went up and explored the land from the Desert of Zin […] When they reached the Valley of Eshcol, they cut off a branch bearing a single cluster of grapes. Two of them carried it on a pole between them, along with some pomegranates and figs. […] At the end of forty days they returned from exploring the land.
Can you imagine a single cluster of grapes so large that two men have to carry it on a pole between them? At the end of 40 days, the spies return to Moses and say in Numbers 13:26-29,
They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.
But…. You knew there was a “but,” didn’t you?
But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.
Caleb demonstrates his faith in God’s promises by saying in verse 30,
Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”
It’s ours. What are we waiting for?
The other 10 spies begin to spread a false report out of fear. The land isn’t good anyway and we can’t move in. They’re asking for 1st and last month’s rent in advance. The people doubt God’s plan out of fear.
Which brings us to a question. Where is your faith? Is it in God’s promises, or is it your own eyes? Let’s same your name is John Ruiz, you’re a boxer from the USA, and your opponent on December 7, 2005 is Nikolai Valuev, nicknamed “the Beast from the East.”
Nikolai is 7’ 2” and weighs 323 pounds. You look at him like one of the giants from Canaan and you feel like you have zero chance. You are like a grasshopper in his eyes, and worse, you look like a grasshopper in your own eyes, too.
John Ruiz wasn’t afraid to take the fight to Nikolai. In that way, he was like Caleb. I love what John Ruiz said the night before the fight, “I plan on taking the fight to him. His head is the size of a Volkswagen. I can’t miss.”
Twelve spies went into the Promised Land. Ten saw obstacles, and two saw opportunities. It’s a matter of perspective, and it’s the difference between fear and faith. Ten spies looked up and saw giants, Joshua and Caleb looked up and saw God. And what did the people do?
They freaked out.
In chapter 14 it says they wept all night, then complained against Moses and Aaron. They cried out, “We are going to die! It would have been better if we had died in Egypt, or in the wilderness.” And then they started planning to select a new leader and go back to Egypt.
Fortunately, God’s selected leaders stood up to speak in verse 5:
Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the children of Israel.
But Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes; and they spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: “The land we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, ‘a land which flows with milk and honey.’ Only do not rebel against the LORD, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the LORD is with us. Do not fear them.”
And what was the people’s response? Were they supportive? Humbled? Agreeable? No, verse 10:
And all the congregation said to stone them with stones.
After hearing the criticism, the doubts, the fears, Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before the Lord and prayed for them. Joshua and Caleb try to encourage the multitude and inspire their faith. “The Lord will do it,” they proclaim. “The Lord is with us!” But no, fear and rebellion ran deep.
Then the Lord spoke, verse 11
… “How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
Once again Moses prays,
And now, I pray, let the power of my Lord be great, just as You have spoken, saying, ‘The LORD is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.’ Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”
Moses appeals to the Lord based on the Lord’s attributes, reputation, and character. Moses fights his battles from his knees.
And so, the Lord determined that they would wander in the wilderness until all this faithless generation perished, those 20 years and older, except Caleb and Joshua. Only these two would be able to enter the Promised Land. Why? Because Joshua and Caleb followed the Lord with complete faith and trust.
This story tells the story of many of our lives. It was God’s plan that the children of Israel should go straight into the land He had promised them, the land of Canaan, but the people would not. We can put difficulties between ourselves and God like the people of Israel or put God in between ourselves and our difficulties like Joshua and Caleb. The Lord wanted them to enter the Promised Land, but their fear and unbelief kept them out. Their faith failed. They doubted God’s plan.
Is your fear keeping you from all that God has for you? Fear can paralyze even the bravest of hearts. Joshua and Caleb weren’t blind to the giants in their lives. They just remembered God’s promise, and God was bigger than any giant.
God demonstrated His goodness, grace, and mercy by choosing Abraham and His descendants as His own special people, rescuing them from Egypt and leading them to the Promise Land. And yet, Israel’s response to God’s favor reflects the proud, stubborn, rebellious heart of all humanity. People haven’t changed in thousands of years. We continually question whether God is good and whether God keeps his promises.
In our lesson today, we have learned that indeed, if one cannot be a good example than one can be a horrible warning. To stay on the path of the righteous, to walk in the way of the Lord, avoid these horrible warnings:
• Grumble and Complain about God’s Blessings
• Tell God He’s Not the Boss of You
• Doubt God’s Plan
Or if you want to walk in the way of the Lord, do the opposite –
• Give Thanks and Praise
• Submit to God’s Love
• Trust in the Lord’s Promises
To God be the Glory. Amen.