I want us to keep in mind that we’ve all been given moments of mercy, not what we deserve. So much of what we can say about Israel in Numbers in some way or another could be said about us. We, too, are obstinate, rebellious complainers. Maybe not all the time, but enough of the time that we should deserve what God might give us. Yet, we have mercy.
Miriam was dead, Aaron had recently died, and Israel was getting closer to the Promised Land. Everything that occurs from the waters of Meribah to the end of Numbers does so in one year, and it’s a busy year. After a thirty-day mourning period for Israel’s first high priest, a brief skirmish broke out when a Canaanite king heard that Israel was in transit to the land. Then, after they were utterly destroyed, Israel returns to her ways of disobedience and striving against God.
Speaking against God and Moses because of discouragement (Num. 21:4), Israel hits replay on a somewhat regular complaint that they’ve had, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread” (Num. 21:5). God sent seraphim nahasim (fiery serpents) among the people so that many of them died. This may seem mean on God’s part, but He had already said that this generation wouldn’t see the Promised Land. Rather than seeing God as the one misbehaving, we ought to see Israel’s behavior as faithless and blasphemous. Once more, the people go to Moses (you know, the guy they spoke against) and ask that he pray to God. God gives a moment of mercy: a fiery serpent is fashioned out of bronze, and anyone bitten who looked upon it did not die.
As Israel continues their trek through the wilderness, they send messengers ahead asking for safe passage. When it’s denied, they are once more forced to fight and defeat their enemies. As they enter the plains of Moab, the king of Moab, Balak devises a plan. Because Moab and Midian were petrified at the prospect of Israel entering their territory, Balak sends for Balaam to come and curse the people (Num. 22:6). However, God intervenes (Num. 22:12). Balak sends for him once again, and Balaam replies (Num. 22:18). God instructs Balaam to go with them should they come again, but he is only to speak the words given to him by God and nothing else.
As Balaam goes the following day, an exciting thing occurs. As he rode his donkey, the angel of the Lord stands in his path, but only the donkey sees it. She turns aside, Balaam strikes her. She crushes his foot against a wall. He strikes her. She laid down, and he hit her. The Lord opened the donkey’s mouth to speak to Balaam, then his eyes were opened, and he saw the angel of the Lord. Perhaps to emphasize to him that he ought to be careful to speak only what God tells him, Balaam gets the point (Num. 22:38). Balaam pronounces several prophecies in favor of Israel. God blesses these disobedient, complaining, obstinate people. We see here a moment of mercy.
While in Moab, Israelite men consort with Moabite women and begin their idolatry (Num. 25:1-3). God orders the judges of Israel to kill their men who played the harlot. Israel, meanwhile, weeps at the doors of the tent of meeting when one Israelite man takes a Moabite woman to the tent of meeting. Phineas, a priest, so moved with zeal, runs them both through with a spear. Seeing this and knowing Phineas’ heart, God relents from the harm He is visiting upon the guilty. Once more, we see a moment of mercy.
As the year goes on, another census is ordered, and inheritance laws are given. Then, Moses is instructed to go atop Mount Abarim and view the land Israel is to possess. God reminds Moses of his rebellion and wouldn’t enter the land (Num. 27:12-14). Moses only requests that a worthy successor be chosen to take his place once he’s gathered to his people. God selects Joshua (Num. 27:18-21). This is a moment of mercy because God doesn’t leave Israel without a leader. Offerings are made, and laws are given, then Israel settles east of the Jordan (Num. 32). Next, God gives instructions for the conquest (Num. 33:50-56). Further administrative commands are given, but before Israel takes the land, they’re to be reminded, once more, of the law of Moses. That’s what Deuteronomy is, a second giving of the law.