How many of you have read the book of Numbers? What keeps you from studying it? Numbers gets a bad rap – an undeserved reputation – as the most boring book of the Bible. Almost everyone thinks that numbers is just a book of long lists of names and census numbers.
It is true that a good portion of the book deals with numbers and names – but it is so much more than just that. After all, it is one of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – the Pentateuch, the Law, the Torah.
Numbers is also a history book – picking up the story of the journey of the Hebrew people from Egypt to the Promised Land as the Book of the Exodus ends.
God commanded Moses to set up the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting in the last chapter of Exodus – spiritually preparing them to enter the Promised Land. Then in the first chapter of Numbers God commanded Moses to conduct a census of the people.
This was not like the census the US government uses to get demographic data and to determine how many members of Congress each state gets. The census in Numbers was a 15th century BC version of registering with Selective Service – something I did when I turned 18, and every 18-year-old American male still must do.
For the children of Israel, it gave them an idea of how many men they had from each tribe aged 20 and older. It was a way to organize them – to prepare them militarily to enter the Promised Land.
And quite an army they had: 603,550 men – not including those from the tribe of Levi. The Levites were set aside for service in the Tabernacle – which contained the Ark of the Covenant. So Numbers contains some military history from the time in the Wilderness.
Numbers also explains why the trip from Egypt to Canaan took almost 40 years, when it could have been done in 40 days. I’ll give you a hint – at the end of chapter one of Numbers this morning, we were told that “The Israelites did all this just as the LORD commanded Moses.”
If only they had done so every time, then God would not have subjected them to the refining fire of being stuck in the wilderness – away from the land that was promised to them. It was something of a foreshadowing of the exile to Babylon – a way of preparing them to be a new people in a new land.
So Numbers is even more than a history book. We will find the stories of rebellion and redemption. We will also find laws, instructions for the Tabernacle, the consecration of the Levites, the most popular benediction of all time, a bronze serpent, a red heifer, and a talking donkey.
When taken as a whole, it is a picture book of the Story of Redemption – which preachers like to call “Redemptive History.” Numbers is one part of the overall redemptive history that is the Bible – a significant part.
God has been at work redeeming His people from the moment they first sinned. Everything that happened and everything that God commanded in the book of Numbers is connected to God’s redeeming work. We can find that in our lesson today from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
“… our forefathers were all under the cloud [the pillar of the cloud of God’s presence] and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. [Passing through the waters of the Sea gave them deliverance – an image we remember when we baptize someone.] They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. [That refers to the time that God gave the people water from a rock – but it also suggests the Passover, which found its fulfillment in the Lord’s Supper and the Crucifixion of Jesus]
The Scottish theologian James Phillip, in his commentary on Numbers, goes so far as to say that even the Christmas story is integrally related to the book of Numbers – because the birth of Jesus is crucial to the story of redemption.
And he is right – if we consider what Paul said about the Hebrew people in the Wilderness in verse 11: “Now all these things happened to them as example, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” We are to learn from the mistakes of the Hebrew people – and to see even more clearly our need for Jesus.
So as we wade into our study of Numbers between now and Thanksgiving Sunday, we must keep our eyes open to see how everything that happened to the Children of Israel is connected to God’s redeeming work – in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, and in the wilderness in which we find ourselves.
God lays down the Law – and His people break it. God chastises His people. His people may repent and find forgiveness through the shedding of blood. God will eventually bring His people to the Promised Land.
Does that sound like the story of your life? It sure sounds like mine.
If we learn nothing else from Numbers, we will learn that our God is the Lord of history. Human leaders may have perceived power – but God is ultimately in charge. He is working all things together for our good – for our redemption – to bring us to the Promised Land.
We will also learn that the God of the Hebrew Bible is not vengeful and angry – smiting people without compunction. God is patient and merciful – far beyond our ability to be patient and merciful with people who offend us. God may bring suffering to His people to bring them to repentance, but He never lets them go. They can never get away from Him. And neither can we. As I read from Romans 8 at Vera’s committal service yesterday:
… neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So join me on this more spiritual than physical journey across the Sinai Peninsula. And – as He did with the Hebrew people – may God prepare us to enter our Promised Land.