As I write this post, we are about to begin reading the Book of Numbers in Faith Church’s 4 Year Bible Reading Plan. This Old Testament book is rarely mentioned by people as one of their favorite books of the Bible to read or study. In fact, if people were to rank their favorite books of the Bible, it would likely rank near the bottom of the list! While it might be neglected or ignored by modern Bible readers, we find reference to it by many New Testament writers – particularly the Apostle Paul (see 1 Corinthians 10) and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (see Hebrews 3-4) – and by Jesus himself (John 3:14). Thus, we are wise not just to read the book so we can check it off the list in our Bible Reading plan, but should pay close attention to its message.
It Features Much More Than Numbers
One reason that I think people are hesitant about reading the Book of Numbers is its name – many people don’t like numbers or think that something named “Numbers” must be inherently boring. This title for the book is one that traces itself back to the Greek translation known as the Old Testament, which named the book “Arithmoi” (you can see the root for “Arithmetic” in that). This is because the book features two censuses of the people of Israel (in chapters 1 and 26) as they prepared to journey from Mount Sinai (where they’ve been since Exodus) to the land of Canaan. However, it should be noted that these censuses are only a small part of this book that contain a number of different elements. There are various instructions from God about how the people should organize themselves (e.g., chapters 2, 4, 34-35) and also various laws about offerings and sacrifices (e.g., chapters 5-6, 15, 28-30). However, the bulk and the central portion of the book are narratives, describing various events that occurred while God’s people were in the wilderness. This is why an alternative name for this book is “In the Wilderness,” and I wonder if that title might cause people to feel less intimidated by the book and recognize the importance of these narratives about the censuses that are included. These narratives deal with a variety of situations, such as the people complaining against God and His leaders (e.g., chapters 11-12, 16-17, 21), the negative response of the people to the report of the spies who scouted out the land (chapters 13-14), Moses’s punishment for going beyond God’s command in striking a rock (chapter 20), a prophet named Balaam blessing the people of Israel even though he was hired to curse them (chapters 22-24), the handling of idolatrous practices that arose from the (chapters 25), and some battles (e.g., chapters 21 and 31).
Not only are these narratives interesting, but they also help us understand and appreciate the other elements of the book. For example, they explain why there needed to be two censuses in the book. These narratives show how God’s people did not just complain when things didn’t go their way, but also doubted God’s power and rejected His plan (see Numbers 13-14), which caused a whole generation to die in the wilderness. The first census is that of the first generation, with the second census indicating that the first generation had died and now the second generation is ready to enter the Promised Land. These narratives also reveal the need for and gift of the rules and regulations that God provides. God gives these instructions to direct people who are prone to wander and to remind them to keep Him at the center of their lives. In addition, these laws show that God offers forgiveness and keeps His promises in the face of the sin of His people.
It Teaches Us Much About God and Ourselves
The combination of the numbers, narratives, rules, and regulations found in this book teach us a lot about God and about ourselves; let me highlight some key insights that emerged from my recent time in the book.
First and foremost, the book reminds us about the faithfulness of God even in the face of the fickleness and faithlessness of His people. The opening census is a reminder of how God had greatly multiplied the descendants of a childless old man and woman (Abraham and Sarai), growing them from 70 when they went to Egypt to the thousands as they left. God had kept His promise. He continued to keep His promises throughout the Book of Numbers, even as His people complained and doubted Him. The faithlessness of the people does not nullify God’s promises, and actually magnified His faithfulness as He continued to keep His promises. One of these promises is that the generation of adults who left Egypt would pass away and a new generation will emerge who will enter the land. The disobedience of Moses (Numbers 20) and the death of Aaron (Numbers 21) of God’s chosen and appointed leaders do not jeopardize God’s plan, as He is ultimately the one leading His people. In addition, the opposition of other nations, such as Balak when he hires Balaam to curse Israel, will not prevent God’s promises from being accomplished. Once again, such a situation offers the opportunity for God to demonstrate and display His commitment to fulfill His promises. We also see God’s faithfulness at work in giving the Israelites victory over the Midianites without losing a single person in battle (31:49); God continues to bless, protect, and provide for His people even through their history of rebellion. He seeks to set His people up for success by giving them direction and guidance.
In addition to the contrast between the faithfulness of God and the fickleness of His people, the Book of Numbers also contrasts the holiness of God and the sinfulness of the human heart. The discussion of various purity laws are reminders of God’s holiness and purity – that He is a God without blemish and one we should hold in complete reverence. He will not be dishonored or mocked, as we see God punishing the nations that opposed Him and His people in the vengeance poured out on Balaam and Midian in Numbers 31 for their actions in Numbers 25. Yet, we also see His people failing to honor Him. Many times they treated Him with contempt by complaining about Him and His appointed leaders, breaking His commands, and engaging in immoral and idolatrous activities. There are grave consequences for these actions which demonstrate the holiness of God. No one is exempt from the requirement to treat God as holy as we see from Moses’s disqualification from entry into the Promised Land. God will not tolerate disobedience from His people, but we also see His grace and mercy on display in these moments. The disobedience leads to significant earthly consequences but do not nullify God’s promises and show that He offers forgiveness for sins when we trust in the means and the path that God provides (such as looking at the snake in Numbers 21:8, which Jesus compares himself to in John 3:14-15). This forgiveness is possible even when there is repeated failure, but there is also a limit in terms of a complete rejection of God (see Numbers 15:30-31). We should not presume upon His mercy and grace in such a way that we deliberately choose to do whatever we want because of His promises; that is a failure to take heed to what He has truly said and promised.
It Reminds Us to Keep Looking to Our Faithful, Holy God
Much more could be said about this book, but hopefully this brief exploration has moved us from being afraid to being excited to read it. We should love the Book of Numbers because it reminds us of how easy it is to drift away from faithfulness to God even after seeing Him do great things for us and around us. We, too, are in danger of falling into sin and idolatry (as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 10) and of disbelieving God’s ability to deliver on His incredible promises to us (as discussed in Hebrews 3-4). The wonderful news is that when we do stumble in these ways, we can look to the way that God has provided for us to Jesus who points back to this book and the lessons it points to. May this book help us look to Him and remember his faithfulness and holiness that is greater than our sin and fickleness.
Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org.