One of my favorite books of the Bible is Numbers. Numbers? Yes!
It is often forgotten. It is often avoided. Just the title of the books scares people away. It also happens to be located in that area of the Bible most people tend to skip over when they are doing their daily Bible reading. But, Numbers is full of great stories and important lessons . . . lessons that still teach us today!
Indeed, the preacher of Hebrews had the stories of Numbers in mind when he warned, "There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience" (Heb. 4.9-11). The "example of disobedience" the preacher is citing is that of the first generation of Israelites freed from Egyptian slavery, the very people whose story is told in the opening chapters of the bbok of Numbers.
It is a rather sad and tragic story. God, in his great mercy, had freed this people from oppression in Egypt. He had brought them into a wilderness on a journey to a land "flowing with milk and honey," to a land of great promise and blessing. Yet, the people rebelled against God, they doubted him and amazingly looked past all of the great things he had done and was doing to deliver them and keep them safe. They turned their backs on God and desired other gods. They rejected his way of things and the order he demanded in life and gave themselves to carnal pleasures and pursuits. And, so, God condemned them to die in the wilderness. And die they did, every single member of that generation, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, men who remained faithful to God.
The first 25 chapters of the book of Numbers tells the tragic story of this first generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt. The following 11 chapters tell the story of the second generation, the children of the former slaves. A distinctive feature of Numbers is the two censuses that preface the two sections of the book. In chapters 1 and 2, God commands Moses to count the people, specifically the men of each tribe. In chapter 26, Moses is commanded to count again, but this time he is counting a new generation; the older generation had died as a result of their rebellion and faithlessness. The book of Numbers needs to be read with an understanding of this structure.
The book of Numbers is really a manual on how to survive the wilderness journey (and, on the flip side, on how to fail on the wilderness journey). The wilderness journey is a motif to describe the life of faith in a faithless world. God was leading the Israelites through a difficult and threatening place to prepare them for the life of blessing ahead. In the opening chapters of Number, God tries to prepare his people for the arduous journey, but the course of the narrative shows that they did not take serious the preparation and the resources given to them by God, and they failed. The second generation, on the other hand, is shown as taking God seriously and, ultimately, they succeed where their parents had failed.
The Apostle Peter describes Christians as "strangers in the world," as "sojourners in a foreign place." God's people, men and women of faith, Christians, find ourselves in a world that is different from ourselves. We are in the world, but not of it. This world is not our home, we are journeying another place . . . to a land of eternal rest (to use the metaphor of the Hebrew writer). We, like the Israelites before us, need to prepare for the arduous journey before us. The principles found in the preparation given by God to the Israelites in Numbers can help us. The lessons learned from the failure of the first generation of Numbers can help us to avoid the pitfalls that will surely stand in our way.
In the coming days and weeks, I will devote this blog to a study of the book of Numbers (with an occasional break for other ramblings). I hope that you will follow me in this study. If you are not that familiar with Numbers, and even a bit intimidated or put-off by it, I imagine that by the end of this study you will have changed your mind and come to love this great book.