A couple of weeks ago we finished our studies in the book of Leviticus. And since we’re studied the books of Genesis and Exodus and Leviticus in succession, it seems to make sense to keep going and to turn now to the book of Numbers.
And, of course, if you look at verse 1 of Numbers 1, you’ll see that it continues on from the book of Leviticus. God spoke to Moses and gave him the contents of the book of Leviticus while the people were camped at Mount Sinai. And you’ll see from Numbers 1:1 that they’re still at Mount Sinai. They’ve been camped there for some time, because it’s now the second year since they left Egypt. However, they’re still at Mount Sinai, where God had met with them and had made his covenant with them.
So, this book follows on from the book of Leviticus which itself followed on from the book of Exodus, which itself followed on from the book of Genesis.
We know this book by the name ‘Numbers’. It seems this title goes back to an early Greek translation of the Old Testament when this book was known as ‘arithmoi’ — our word ‘arithmetic’ obviously comes from that Greek word — and ‘arithmoi’ means quantity or numbers. And since the book records the number of men who were aged 20 years and over who were able to serve in the army, you can see why it was called Numbers.
However, the early Hebrew title for this book came from the first word of the Hebrew text which we translate as ‘The Lord spoke’. In the same way, the book of Exodus was known by its first words:
And these are the names of….
And the book of Leviticus was known by its first word:
And the Lord called….
However, a later Hebrew title for this book was ‘in the wilderness’. And that’s perhaps a better title for the book, because it tells the story of the things that happened once the Israelites left Mt Sinai and began their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. And if you look at the end of the book, you’ll see that it ends with the Israelites on the plains of Moab by the Jordan River across from Jericho. The book begins at Mt Sinai; it ends near Jericho; this book tells the story of what happened as the people made their way to the Promised Land.
The book can be divided several different ways, and different interpreters have their own ways for dividing up the book. For instance, interpreters have noticed that all the way through the book you have a narrative section followed by some instructions from the Lord. So, chapters 1 to 4 contain narrative; chapter 5 and 6 contain instructions. Chapters 7 to 9 contain narrative; the first half of chapter 10 contains instructions. And so on; that alternating pattern continues throughout the book, because, of course, God’s people who live on the earth are to be like him and live holy lives.
Another way of dividing the book is according to geography. So, from the beginning to verse 10 of chapter 10, the people are still at Sinai. Then from chapter 10 to chapter 20 verse 21, they’re travelling from Sinai to Kadesh. Then for the rest of the book they’re travelling to the plains of Moab. And that makes sense because the book is telling us about their journey to the Promised Land.
And there are other ways of dividing the book up, but a major division occurs in chapter 26. You see, in chapter 1 we read about the first census of the people where it records the number of men who were aged 20 years or over. Then, in chapter 26, a second census was taken. Why two censuses? Well, the first census was of the people who had come of our Egypt, but who died in the wilderness; the second census was of their children, the new generation of Israelites who would enter the Promised Land. The first generation fell in the desert, because of their rebellion and unbelief; and the privilege of entering the Promised Land was given to their children.
One of the main features of the first 25 chapters is the way the people kept rebelling against the Lord. We see this in different places, but especially in chapters 13 and 14 and also in chapter 16. Turn with me to those chapters.
Firstly, in chapter 13 we read how Moses sent men to spy out the Promised Land. The men went out and they had a look around the land; and they cut clusters of grapes and some other fruit to bring back to show the people. And the cluster of grapes was so big that two men were needed to carry it. And they told the people that it was just as the Lord had said: it was a land flowing with milk and honey, a land like the Garden of Eden, with everything they could want. However, they also said that the people in the land were very big and powerful and there was no way they would be able to overpower them. They spread a bad report, we’re told.
And so we read in chapter 14 that the people raised their voices and wept aloud. What’s more: they began to grumble and complain against Moses and Aaron. They said:
If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword!
Do you see their unbelief? The Lord had promised to give it to them, but now they did not believe his promise and instead of trusting that the Lord is good and will do all that he promised, they believed he was evil and had brought them there, only to let them die. And so, they began to say it would be better for them to go back to Egypt. So, instead of going on to begin a new life in the Promised Land, they were prepared to go back to their old life as slaves in Egypt And they despised Moses and Aaron and said that they should choose another leader to take them back to Egypt. When Joshua and Caleb spoke up and urged them to trust in the Lord and warned them not to rebel against him, they would not listen and they even talked about stoning them. They despised those who preached God’s word to them and they refused to believe God’s promises.
And so, the Lord was angry with them and he would have destroyed them, had not Moses interceded on their behalf and pleaded with the Lord to forgive them. And the Lord agreed to forgive them, but declared that — with the exception of Caleb and Joshua — all the men who spied out the land would die immediately from a plague; and the rest of that generation would die in the wilderness and not enter the Promised Land because they treated the Lord and his promises with contempt. So, because of their unbelief, they could not enter the Promised Land.
Well, in chapter 16 we read how Korah, a Levite, and some others rose up in rebellion against Moses and Aaron, the servants of the Lord. They said:
You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?
They were saying:
Who made you to rule over us?
And they complained that Moses and Aaron had not brought them into the Promised Land, but had brought them to die in the wilderness. Furthermore, they declared that Egypt was a land flowing with milk and honey. So again, they wanted to return to the place of their captivity; and they refused to submit themselves to those men God had appointed over them.
If you read on, you’ll see that the Lord caused the ground to open up under them and Korah and the others were destroyed, because they rebelled against the Lord and they refused to submit to Moses, whom God had sent to save them and to lead them. And one day God will punish everyone who refuses to believe his promises and who despises the Lord Jesus, whom he sent into the world to save us and to lead us to the Promised Land of Eternal Life. He will punish all those who, having heard the good news of salvation, turn back from the hope of heaven to return to their old life of sin and shame in this fallen, sinful world. He will destroy all those who treat him with contempt and who doubt his word and who disobey his promises.
And, of course, we would be among them, because by nature we are sinners and rebels and unbelievers. But thanks be to God, who is gracious and merciful and who sent his Son to redeem us from our captivity to sin and Satan and death and who now lives forever to intercede for us so that we are not destroyed. Thanks be to God who worked in our life by his Spirit to enable us to believe his promises and to leave behind the old life of sin and shame and who is even now leading us to the promised rest of everlasting life in the presence of God. Thanks be to God, for his grace and mercy to sinners like us.
And yet, we must be careful that we continue to believe his promises and that none of us has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns us away from God. We must continue to trust in the Lord and all his promises, and to persevere along the narrow path that leads eventually to everlasting life in his presence.
That first generation of Israelites died in the wilderness and did not enter the Promised Land. But the second generation did enter the Promised Land, because they believed the Lord and his promises; and even though the great city of Jericho stood in their way, and though the Canaanites were strong and mighty, the Lord was able to do all that he had promised and give them the land.
And so, these are some of the things we will discover as we study this book together, because this book — like every other book — was given to us by God to reveal to us the good news of the gospel, and the hope of everlasting life which God gives to all who trust in his Son.