Reading Numbers

Oxford University is believed to be the world’s second-oldest university. Some records show classes as early as 1096, but the establishment of the university isn’t altogether clear. Around the year 1230, they began appointing a vice-chancellor to run the school. In 2015, after 785 years, the first woman was nominated to be vice-chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson. Given the rise in women’s suffrage in the early twentieth century, and many laws granting women equality in the ’60s and ’70s, you might have thought that this day would have arrived sooner. Yet, as we always say, “better late than never.” Some might say, “That took longer than it should have.” 

When you think about the Book of Numbers, think, “That took longer than it should have.” From Exodus 19 all the way through Numbers 10, Israel is in Sinai. From Sinai to the Promised Land is a two-week journey, but Israel will wander in the wilderness for forty years. It takes longer than it should. The name of this book in Hebrews is not “Numbers,” but bamidbar, which translates to, “In the wilderness.” The book can be broken up into three sections: chapters 1-10 are in Sinai; chapters 13-19 are in Paran; chapters 22-36 are in Moab. The chapters not mentioned in this list are the chapters of their traveling from place to place. 

Why is it called the Book of Numbers? In the opening of the book, God orders that Israel be numbered. He even tells Moses how to organize the people in the camp. God’s presence is central to the people, His dwelling place being in the tabernacle (Num. 2:17). Surrounding him are the Levites and priests, and surrounding them are the rest of the tribes. God’s presence in the center of the nation is meant to convey that He is central to their existence. Over the tabernacle is a cloud indicative of His presence, and when the cloud moves, they move (Num. 9:15-19). The Levites break down and carry the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant (Num. 1:47-53). The ark leads the way to communicate that God leads Israel, and the tribe of Judah follows immediately behind with the other tribes in tow. 

So why did it take longer than it should have? Because Israel followed God, and God hindered them from the Promised Land. This book is about why, and the why, simply answered, is Israel’s unbelief and sin. 

Chapters 1-10

Notice, first, where we are in time. We are two years removed from the Exodus (Num. 1:1). God has Moses organize and number the entire nation, which we can guess took some time. Then, He orders for the special role of the Levites (Num. 3:5-13). From there onward, the Levites as a whole are numbered, and the various heads of the families of the Levites are given their special roles. The sons of Kohath were responsible for carrying the holy furniture of the tabernacle (Num. 4:1-20). The sons of Gershon were to carry the structure of the tabernacle (Num. 4:21-28). The sons of Merari were to carry, if you will, the nuts and bolts of the tabernacle (Num. 4:29-33). Imagine a package arrives for a new desk, but it’s one you have to build. In one bag are the nuts and bolts, then there are the actual parts of the desk, and, finally, the things you put in and on it. This is sort of the division of the Levites as it regarded the tabernacle. They were charged with maintaining the sacred space. 

God gives instructions regarding lepers, restitution, and unfaithful wives (ch. 5). Then, He gives the outline for the law of the Nazarite, a person who wanted to consecrate themselves to God for a specified period. One specific aspect of this vow, among others, was that a Nazarite’s hair was to remain uncut while keeping the vow (e.g. Samson). Aaron is given the word of the Lord as to how he can bless the children of Israel (Num. 6:22-27). Hereafter, the leaders of Israel present offerings to the Lord and they celebrate their second Passover. Afterward, God ordered two silver trumpets, shofars, made to sound to call Israel to relocate and in battle. Then, they leave Sinai. 

Everything seems to be going well. That is until Israel begins to complain only after three days of travel. These people seem to be more of a settled than moving people. They complain because they miss the land of slavery’s food, and they’re sick of manna (Num. 11:4-6). Even Moses becomes exasperated (Num. 11:11-15). Leadership isn’t always pomp and circumstance. The only time many leaders hear from people is when there are complaints. Be sure that you don’t only go to the elders of ministers when you’re unhappy. I’ll tell you now if that’s all you approach me for, it won’t be long before I actually quit listening to you and you’ll lose any effectiveness you may have. Complaining isn’t a spiritual gift, so don’t use it as one. 

God gave Moses aid in seventy elders on whom He gave His Spirit. One man shouldn’t bear the burden alone. Even seventy among the many of Israel is too little, but it’s better than nothing. Then, he listened to the people and promised to give them meat for one month, to the point that they loathed it. How quickly we go from zeal to dissatisfaction. Only because circumstances change and we aren’t as comfortable as we once were. Sometimes following God and His plan takes us out of our comfort zone and makes us move. Israel wasn’t meant to reside at Sinai, and they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. God was taking them to a wonderful land, a place better than where they were and had been. But, getting there was too hard. Don’t be afraid to put in the work. Don’t allow comfort to paralyze you. If it seems or is known to be God’s plan, trust Him and go.

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