I’m sure you’ve noticed that in my sermons I very often begin with a recap of the previous one. So, before going on to study the latest passage, I summarise what we learned from the previous passage. In this way anyone who missed the last sermon can catch up; and everyone else is reminded of where we got to.
In today’s passage, Moses is providing the people with a recap of the places where they camped on their way to the Promised Land. As we read in verse 1, here are the stages in the journey of the Israelites when they came out of Egypt. This is their travel itinerary; the places they’ve been to and the places where they camped along the way. And you’ll see from verse 2 that the Lord commanded Moses to keep this record of where they camped. It was the Lord’s will that this record should be kept for posterity.
Verses 3 to 15
The location of most of these places is unknown to us today. After all, when the Israelites camped at these places, that’s all they were: campsites. They weren’t cities or towns; they were just campsites in the wilderness; and their location is unknown to us today. Even the site of an important place like Sinai is not known with 100 percent certainty. And many of the places are not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. However, some of the places are mentioned elsewhere, so that, while we may not know their location, we’ve heard at least something about these places and what happened there.
Their journey can be divided into three parts. The first part is from Rameses in Egypt to Sinai. This is covered in verses 3 to 15. Verse 3 tells us that they set out from Rameses on the fifteenth day of the first month, the day after the Passover. According to Exodus 1, the people of Israel built the city of Rameses when they were slaves in Egypt. So, leaving Rameses meant leaving behind their life of slavery.
The left Rameses on the fifteen day of the first month. You might recall from Exodus 12 that the Lord established a new calendar for his people. Since they were about to leave behind their old life as slaves and begin a new life of freedom, it was fitting that they should have a new calendar for a new life. And so, from that time on, the month when they celebrated the Passover and the Lord’s victory over Egypt was to be regarded as the first month of the year.
And, of course, on the night of the Passover, the people slaughtered a lamb and put its blood on the door-frame of their homes, so that when the Lord went through the country to kill all the firstborn males, he passed over the houses where he saw the blood on the door-frame. Because a lamb was killed and its blood was put on their door-frame, they were kept safe from God’s wrath. And because Christ, the Lamb of God, has been killed, all who trust in him and in his shed blood are kept safe from God’s wrath. What happened in Egypt all those years before anticipated how the Lord Jesus would die to rescue us from the coming wrath of God.
According to verse 3, they marched out boldly, while the Egyptians buried their firstborn children, which was part of the Lord’s judgment on them for their idolatry. And though Moses doesn’t mention it here, you’ll remember from the book of Exodus that the Lord led his people by means of the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire. And so, the Lord led them to Succoth and then to Etham and on to Pi Hahiroth and Migdol where they crossed the Red Sea. Verse 8 mentions Marah where they complained against Moses because the water was bitter. But the Lord heard them and made the water sweet and fit to drink.
Verse 9 mentions Elim; in Exodus 15 we read that there were 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees in Elim. It was an oasis in the desert. When the entered the Desert of Sin, the Lord began to provide them with manna to eat after the people grumbled and complained about having no food to eat. And at Rephidim, mentioned in verse 14, the Lord brought water from a rock, after they complained about having nothing to drink. And in verse 15 we read how they arrived at Sinai, which was were the Lord established his covenant with them and promised to regard them as his treasured possession.
Verses 16 to 36
Less is known about the second part of the journey from Sinai to Kadesh which we read about in verses 16 to 36. Kadesh though is important, because it was the place where the spies reported to the Israelites on their exploration of the Promised Land, so that the people talked about returning to Egypt. And because of their sinful rebellion and unbelief, the Lord condemned them to wander through the wilderness until that whole generation had died. And so, forty years later, after all their wilderness wanderings, they arrived back at Kadesh. And that means that between verse 36 and verse 37 of Numbers 33 40 years have passed. Moses doesn’t record any of the places where they camped during that time of wandering. All he does is record that they arrived at Kadesh and then they left Kadesh, but he doesn’t mention the 40 years of wandering that happened in the meantime.
Verses 37 to 49
Verses 37 to 49 cover the third and final leg of the journey from Kadesh to Moab, which was just across the Jordan River from the city of Jericho. Moses refers to the death of Aaron in verses 37 to 39, which took place at Mount Hor. And it was after leaving Mount Hor that we have the incident involving the bronze snake.
Verses 50 to 56
And according to verses 50 to 56, it was on the plains of Moab that the Lord commanded Moses to speak to the Israelites about driving out the inhabitants of Canaan and destroying their carved images and cast idols and their high places. Not only were they were rid the land of the Canaanites, but they were to rid the land of their false gods and religions. The Lord was going to use the Israelites to punish the Canaanites for their sin and unbelief. Furthermore, they were to take possession of the land, because the Lord was giving it to them; it was his gift to them; and their inheritance from him.
As we read in chapter 26, they were to divide the land according to the size of the tribes. So, a larger portion of the land was to be given to a larger tribe; and a smaller portion of the land was to be given to a smaller tribe. No tribe was to have too much; no tribe was to have too little. As to the location of their allotted land, that was to be decided by lot.
And then the Lord warned them about what would happen if they did not drive out the Canaanites. They would become thorns in your side, he warned. And, of course, that happened, didn’t it? In the days of the Judges, the Canaanites who remained in the land attacked the Israelites again and again. And, according to verse 56, the Lord warned that if they did not drive out the nations, then he would do to the Israelites what he was planning to do to the Canaanites. In other words, just as he would drive out the Canaanites from the land, so he would also drive out the Israelites from the land. And that also happened when the Lord sent his people into exile because of their sinful rebellion and unbelief.
The importance of this chapter becomes clear when we remember that Israel’s exodus from Egypt and journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land speaks to us of our life as God’s people, because through faith in Christ — who is our Passover Lamb and who was slain for us — we have been set free from our sin and misery and from bondage to sin and Satan and death; and we’re now pilgrims on the way to the Promised Land to come.
And just as the Israelites were able to think back to this place and to that place, where they stopped and camped on the way; and where they faced times of joy and times of trouble; times of great blessing and times of sorrow and failure, so we can think back over our life to the different times we’ve been through.
And there have been times of joy — haven’t there? — and blessing, just as there were for the Israelites when they saw the power of God and his kindness to them: when he delivered them from the Egyptians; and when he fed them with manna; and when he gave them water from the rock; and when he protected them from their enemies. And there have been times of joy and blessing in our life as well.
But there have also been times of trouble and sorrow. On the way to the Promised Land, the Israelites faced trials and temptations and dangers: when their faith was put to the test; when they grumbled and complained about Moses and Aaron and the Lord; when they doubted God’s faithfulness and disobeyed his word; when they faced enemies who wanted to destroy them. And it’s the same for every believer, because the road to the Promised Land to come is also filled with trials and temptations and dangers. We all know this only too well.
And so, the record of their pilgrimage to the Promised Land speaks to us of our pilgrimage to the Promised Land to come and of the troubles and trials we face on the way. But the record of their pilgrimage is also a record of how the Lord kept his promise and brought his believing people through all the troubles and trials in the wilderness to the Promised Land. And as we think back over our lives — and to the times when we faced troubles and trials and sorrow and sadness; and when our faith and obedience were tested; and when the Devil came at us with his wicked schemes — we can give thanks to the Lord because here we are today, still trusting in him, still following after him. He’s brought us through dangers and toils and snares and he’s kept us safe thus far. And so we can trust in him to help us the rest of the way.
And we know that, in the end, if we trust in him, we’ll receive the inheritance he has prepared for us, which is eternal life in his presence forever. We know that we’ll receive it, because Christ our Saviour has gone before us. Like Israel, he was God’s firstborn son who came out of Egypt, where he was taken after his birth. And like Israel, he was in the wilderness, not for 40 years, but for 40 days and nights. And like Israel, he was tempted in the wilderness and his faith and obedience to his Heavenly Father were put to the test.
But unlike Israel, who gave in to temptation, the Lord Jesus remained obedient at all times. Indeed, he remained obedient throughout his life, even to the point of death on the cross. And after his suffering, he has entered the glory of the life to come. And he has sent us — hasn’t he? — his Spirit to help us and to uphold us and to lead us through the wilderness to the Promised Land to come. He’s gone before us, and so he knows the way. And he’s with us by his Spirit to show us the way.
And so, we ought to give thanks to the Lord for all the ways he’s helped us in the past. Think back over your life to those times of trouble and to those times of sorrow. And remember how he helped you. And remember as well that you can trust in him for tomorrow and the next day and for every day until your pilgrimage is over; and you can dwell safely on God’s holy mountain in the new heaven and earth.