Numbers: God's Presence in the Wilderness
Click on image to enlarge.
by Iain M. Duguid
Description: Numbers tells of the events occurring in the years between Israel's exodus from Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land. Iain Duguid aids both pastors and laypeople by explaining the profundities of the biblical text and communicating the lasting message of God's devotion to those who follow him in faith.
eBook Publisher: Crossway Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: July 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [751 KB]
Reading time: 496-694 min.
In the Wilderness
Sports come in many different levels of complexity. At the simplest level, some sports are easily understood by everyone. What is complex about the 100 meter dash? Someone shoots a gun, the athletes run as if the man was firing at them, and the one who breaks the tape first wins. The next level up is baseball. Once again, it is a fairly straightforward game to follow, at least in broad outline. You hit the ball, you run, and you try to get all the way around the diamond. The field positions are easily comprehensible from their names: right field, center field, left field, first, second, and third base, and so on. More complex still is American football. The first time I watched it, I had no clue what was going on. The players kept stopping and starting inexplicably, while the umpires were constantly throwing their handkerchiefs in the air. Why in the world did they do that? Why is a tight end called a tight end? What is the difference between a fullback and a halfback? I've been watching for years now, and I still don't know the answers to some of these questions.
However, when it comes to truly complex sports, there is nothing to match cricket. None of the fielding position names make any obvious sense: there is a third man, but no first man or second man, and the long leg may be only five feet, two inches in height. If you are batting on a sticky wicket and fail to distinguish between a googly and a leg-break, you may end up caught in the slips or at silly mid-on. Are you following me? What other sport could be played for five full days and still end in a draw because they ran out of time? The uninitiated novice certainly needs an experienced guide to comprehend the complexities of England's national summer pastime.
It is the same way with literature: it comes in differing levels of complexity. At one end of the range, you have the simplicity of a children's story, like The Tale of Peter Rabbit. At the other, there is the mammoth and sprawling canvas of books like The Lord of the Rings, which comes complete with interspersed songs about totally unrelated events from the fictional history of Middle-Earth and citations in several completely fabricated languages such as Dwarf and Elvish. It is a daunting step upward from Peter Rabbit to The Lord of the Rings, and still further to complex Russian novels like War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, where every character seems to have at least three different names and a deeply tortured relationship with his or her soul. When you read such books, there are often times when you wish for an accompanying wizard to shed a little light on what is going on.
THE BOOK OF NUMBERS--A COMPLEX BOOK
The Bible too is made up of books of varying complexity or, perhaps, different kinds of profundity. Even the simplest tale in the Bible, such as the epic battle of David and Goliath, is actually far more profound on close reading than it at first appears. The Bible is, to paraphrase something Augustine once said, shallow enough for a child to paddle in and yet at the same time deep enough to drown an elephant. There are really no simple tales in the Bible. Yet even having said that, there are some books of the Bible where the elephant will disappear from view more easily and in which the child sees little benefit in splashing.
The Book of Numbers is certainly no Peter Rabbit story: it is a complex and involved tale that, like Tolkien's mines of Moria, seems likely to swallow up the unwary. At the same time, however, this too is the Word of God, all of which is inspired and profitable for reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). There is a blessing attached to the reading and hearing of God's Word, and it is my prayer that over the course of these chapters, with the guiding of the Holy Spirit, we will unfold some of the riches of this book.
THE BOOK OF NUMBERS--A CHRIST-CENTERED BOOK
Nor is the book of Numbers simply a book about ancient Old Testament history. The gospel is not a New Testament invention; on the contrary, it is the center of the whole Bible. When Jesus caught up with the dispirited disciples on the road to Emmaus that first Easter Sunday, he rebuked them for being "foolish" and "slow of heart" because they had failed to recognize that fact (Luke 24:25). Then, taking them on a tour of the Old Testament, beginning with Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy) and continuing through all the Prophets (Joshua to Malachi), he showed them how obvious it should have been that the Christ had to suffer death and then enter his glory (vv. 26, 27). Sometimes we may wish that we had been able to eavesdrop on that conversation, because it may not always be immediately obvious to us as we skim the book of Numbers exactly how this book points to the sufferings of Christ and the glories that will follow. Yet if we approach the book with an understanding of this apostolic hermeneutical key, we will find that what seemed at first sight dusty and irrelevant antiquities open up their pages to us and yield rich food for our souls.
[Footnote 1 : See also Luke 24:44; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6; Acts 26:22, 23. For further explanation of this principle, see Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), pp. 11-44; Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), p. 272; Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text. Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), pp. 118-120.]
AN OVERVIEW OF THE BOOK OF NUMBERS
To begin our study, we need to get a perspective of the big picture of the book. This is one book of the Bible where it is extremely helpful to have a sense of the overall organization of the book before we plunge into the details. This is all the more important, paradoxically enough, precisely because the book at first sight doesn't seem to have much order to it. We look in vain for a developing plot line, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is a different kind of story from the ones with which we are familiar. It is a story that doesn't really have a beginning. Grammatically it starts in midsentence, as it were, with a Hebrew narrative form that usually links back to the preceding verb. That is because the book of Numbers wants you to know that it never existed as an independent narrative: it is itself a continuation of the story of God's dealings with his people already begun in Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus.
Nor does the book of Numbers really have much of an ending: it seems to peter out with the story of the request by Zelophehad's daughters that they too might share in their father's inheritance, even though they had no brothers (36:1-13). We'll see later why that is, after all, a fitting ending to the book, but it is not exactly a resounding conclusion. Contrast that with the book of Genesis, which begins in the Garden of Eden and ends with a coffin in Egypt. There is movement there--a story. Or consider the book of Exodus, which begins with Israel enslaved in Egypt and ends with them set free to worship the Lord, who is present in their midst in the tabernacle, just as he promised. There's a story there.
TWO GENERATIONS IN THE WILDERNESS
The book of Numbers, however, starts out in the wilderness and ends up in the wilderness. In fact, the Hebrew name for this biblical book, fittingly enough, is precisely that: "In the Wilderness." Israel started out the book of Numbers on the brink of the Promised Land, being counted for the holy war that would be required to enter, and they ended it still on the brink of the Promised Land, ready to have another chance to enter into the enjoyment of what God had promised. In between the beginning and the end are thirty-six chapters of wandering, chapters that cover some forty years and record the lives of a whole generation. Yet at the end of the book, even though geographically the Israelites had progressed in three stages from the sojourn at the wilderness of Sinai (Num. 1:1--10:10), by way of the journey to Kadesh-barnea (10:11--20:1), and then on to the plains of Moab (20:1--36:13), they had in some ways simply come full circle, back to where they started. They are still in the wilderness, waiting to enter the Promised Land. The essentially circular narrative structure, lacking in progress, is not an error or failure on the author's part but is a mark of his literary skill, a part of his message.
In fact, though, the end is not quite a complete return to the beginning. The book of Numbers is essentially the story of two generations. Each generation undergoes a census in the book: the first generation at the beginning of the book, and the second generation in Numbers 26. Numbers 1--25 is the story of the first generation--a story of unbelief, rebellion, despair, and death. It shows us what happens to the generation that refuses to place their trust in the Lord in spite of his manifest trustworthiness: they are unable to enter his rest, and their bodies are scattered over the wilderness. Numbers 27--36, though, starts the story of the next generation, a story that begins and ends with Zelophehad's daughters, whose appeal for an inheritance is the first issue to be addressed in the beginning of that story in Numbers 27 and the last to be covered as the book concludes in Numbers 36. These women of faith are emblematic of the new generation because they were deeply concerned about ensuring that their descendants would have an inheritance in the Promised Land--even though not one inch of it had yet been won by Israel at the time when they first raised the issue in Numbers 27. Zelophehad's daughters believed firmly in the promises of God, and so they acted in faith on those promises, claiming a share in the future inheritance of God's people for themselves and for their children too. So, in broad terms we may say that the story of the book of Numbers is the story of two consecutive generations, a generation of unbelief that leads to death and a generation of faith that will lead to life.
[Footnote 2 : See Dennis T. Olson, The Death of the Old and the Birth of the New: The Framework of the Book of Numbers and the Pentateuch, Brown Judaic Studies 71 (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1985).]
[Footnote 3: The exact point at which we move from one generation to the next is disputed. Won Lee has argued that the victory against the Canaanites at the beginning of Numbers 21 marks the beginning of the experience of the new generation, not the second census (Punishment and Forgiveness in Israel's Migratory Campaign [Grand Rapids, MI: 2003], pp. 266-268). ]
A PEOPLE LIVING BETWEEN SALVATION ACCOMPLISHED AND SALVATION CONSUMMATED
We're going to explore all of this in much more detail in the chapters ahead, but for now I just want to pick out a couple of fundamental observations that follow from the opening verse of the book and its overall structure. The first verse runs like this:
The LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt.
The story of the book of Numbers is written to a people whose lives are lived between the accomplishing of their redemption and its consummation, between the exodus and the Promised Land. The book starts by identifying this people as those who came out of Egypt. The story of the book of Numbers essentially picks up where the books of Genesis and Exodus left off. God chose for himself the family of Abraham and redeemed them from their bondage in Egypt. He then brought them into the wilderness to Mount Sinai where he graciously entered into a covenant with them. They were to be his people, and he would be their God. As a token of that promise, he gave them the tabernacle, a tent in which he would dwell in their midst. The Lord has done what he promised Abraham in bringing his descendants out of their bondage--but he has not yet brought them into the Promised Land. They live in between the times, and their present experience is not one of the fullness of their salvation but rather of the wilderness along the way.
This should all sound familiar to us. We live as they did--between salvation accomplished and salvation completed. We live between the work of God in accomplishing our salvation at the cross and the time when that salvation will be brought to its consummation when Christ returns. We too live between the times. What is more, our experience of this world is likewise one of wilderness rather than fullness. Jesus promised his disciples one sure thing in this world--tribulation (John 16:33), and he has been faithful to his promise. Wars, sickness, sin, broken relationships, misunderstandings, pain, tears--all of these are part of our experience in this world. We should surely therefore be able to identify with the experiences and temptations of the first wilderness generation.
However, as we journey toward the consummation of our salvation when Christ returns, there is one other certainty that Jesus promised his disciples, isn't there? Jesus promised us his presence with us in the wilderness: "Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). This too matches Israel's experience in the wilderness, for God did not bring them out of Egypt and then abandon them to make their own way through the wilderness. The provision he made for them in the tabernacle in the wilderness should therefore speak to us also, for we have God's presence with us through his Holy Spirit.
THE TEMPTATION TO LOSE THE PLOT
What are the chief temptations of life in the wilderness? The first temptation is surely the danger of losing the plot. The people of Israel were constantly tempted to doubt that there really was a Promised Land ahead. All they could see with their eyes was the barrenness of the wilderness. All they could hear with their ears was the howling wasteland around them. All they could taste on their tongues was the hunger and thirst of the wilderness. The wilderness was very real, and the obstacles in terms of opposition and lack of resources were very visible, while the Promised Land seemed very remote. Life must often have seemed to be a succession of completely unrelated and random events that were getting them nowhere. They surely felt as if their whole lives were slipping away from them in one meaningless round of unsatisfying experiences.
Isn't that somewhat like our lives? The surface structure of our lives often appears chaotic and random, just one frustration after another, like the surface narrative of the book of Numbers. You wake up, you go to work, you go home, you go to bed. There is never enough time to get everything done, never enough money to meet all your commitments, never enough of you left for yourself or to give to others. Events that God could so easily have orchestrated to make your life more straightforward regularly become tangled and twisted. This life is often a chaotic wilderness.
So what is life all about? Sometimes we are tempted to believe that the wilderness we see is really all there is: that when all is said and done, there is no guiding purpose or meaning to this world. Our lives appear as meaningless as the game of cricket is to the uninitiated: days full of incomprehensible activity that at the end of them accomplish exactly nothing. Yet the deeper structure of the book of Numbers points us in a different direction. On the surface our lives may seem to wander from one place to the next, driven apparently off-course by our grumbling and sin and the vicissitudes of fate. Yet under and through and behind it all, there is a guiding hand, a divine author, who holds the whole grand narrative in his hand and brings it around to the ending he himself has written for us. There is a story line to our personal stories, an intricate plot that will, after all of life's twists and turns, end up with him bringing us into the place he has prepared for us. That is the reality to which we need to firmly hold.
THE NEED TO LIVE BY FAITH
That is what it means to live by faith: to affirm the reality of God's plot for our lives even when we cannot see it with our eyes. The first generation did not live by that faith; they believed their eyes and distrusted and abandoned God and so experienced the bitterness of death in the wilderness. The second generation, however, had a new opportunity to begin again on that journey and start afresh to live by faith. The story of the next generation has just begun at the end of the book of Numbers. The end of their story is left open because the writer is not simply interested in recording the faith or folly of ancient generations. He is far more concerned to challenge us as to our faith in God's promises. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 10:6, after summarizing the wilderness experience, "Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did." The question for us, therefore, is: "Do we believe the Word of God, and are we consistently willing to act upon it, whether or not it makes sense to those around us?" The lives of faithful pilgrims show the indelible marks of their faith. Their lives are utterly inexplicable unless the Word of God is true and Heaven is their ultimate destination. Everyone around them can see that they have staked everything on the faithfulness of God to do what he has promised. In contrast, others live as if their lives are simply tied to eking out the best existence they can in the wilderness, as if this really is all there is.
It is profoundly challenging to ask ourselves how our lives would be different on Monday morning if there were no Heaven. I suspect that for most of us the answer would be, "Not much." That's why we grumble so much about the food and the accommodations along the way, as if this temporary way station were really our home. That's why our lives are not radically different from the non-Christians all around us. We've lost the plot of our story and have forgotten that we are in the middle of an incredible exodus from death to life, a journey from the city of destruction to our heavenly home.
KEEPING FAITH ALIVE: THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD
How do we keep faith alive in the wilderness? How do we hang on to the plot? The answer is surely that we must remember and respect the presence of our holy God in our midst. It is therefore no coincidence that having identified the people as those who have come out of Egypt, the other item that Numbers 1:1 mentions is the presence of God, who speaks to Moses in the Tent of Meeting. The Tent of Meeting is another name for the tabernacle, a name that focuses our attention on its function as the place of communication from God to man. We follow a God who speaks, who orders the existence of his people. The Lord is the one who orders their lives; he is the one who commands their worship. That is why blocks of law are regularly interspersed with narrative throughout the book of Numbers, to remind us that the God who is with us is our covenant overlord who demands our obedience. The God who dwells in the midst of his people is holy.
[Footnote 4 : In a stimulating book, Mary Douglas has suggested that the whole book of Numbers is arranged structurally around the tabernacle (In the Wilderness. The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001], pp. 135-138). Not all of the structural parallels that she adduces are equally convincing, but the "tabernacle-centered" principle of construction is attractive.]
To keep your life in this present wilderness on track, you need to orient it constantly around the presence of God. You need to seek his face daily, reading his Word, the place where he promises to meet with us and communicate to us by his Spirit, just as the Israelites went individually to the Tent of Meeting to seek the Lord (Exodus 33:7). However, the primary focus of the tabernacle was not as an individual meeting place with God. The tabernacle was the place of corporate worship, where the tribes of Israel worshiped together. There is no place for becoming isolated in the wilderness: isolated believers will die alone in the desert. We need each other and the encouragement and challenge that comes from the church gathered together.
In order to keep a firm hold on the plot of life, we therefore need to come together as God's people weekly to celebrate his redemption, to remember the exodus that Jesus accomplished for us through his incarnation, perfect obedience, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, and to remind ourselves of the place he has gone to prepare for us. Our hearts need to be constantly refreshed by his gospel announced in the preaching of the Word and tasted in the Lord's Supper. Our lives need to be re-submitted to his ordering, as his Word challenges us week after week to live a life worthy of the calling we have received (Ephesians 4:1). In the wilderness, we desperately need the blessings that flow to us through the means of grace that God has established in the church.
THE CENTRALITY OF THE GOSPEL
Do you ever get tired of hearing the gospel? Is it possible to focus on it too much in church? If you think that, you are in desperate danger of losing the plot and starving to death in the desert. For the amazing truth of the gospel is that God himself has shared our wilderness wanderings with us, first in the Old Testament tabernacle and then in the person of Jesus Christ. The Word became flesh and tabernacled in our midst (John 1:14). He came from the undisturbed glories of Heaven and took on himself the frustrations and temptations of wilderness life. In fact, at the beginning of his earthly ministry, after his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus went out into the wilderness just as Israel had done for a forty-day fast (Matthew 4:1-11). In that way, he shared fully in the experiences and sufferings of his people. He went into the wilderness, where he faced exactly the same temptations that his Old Testament people had faced, but he remained faithful to the end. This was a picture of his earthly ministry in microcosm: voluntarily facing the same temptations that his people face and passing the tests that we fail. Where we grumble constantly, he never grumbled. Where we doubt God's goodness and question his provision, he never doubted or questioned.
Jesus has thus gone through the wilderness for us, as the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), the one who himself accomplished our salvation. He journeyed through the wilderness not simply to show us that it could be done and that it was possible for a human being to live a life of obedience there. That would simply have added to our condemnation and sense of guilt because we have not obeyed as he did. No, the gospel is not that Jesus survived the wilderness and so can you. It is that Jesus went through the wilderness faithfully in our place, establishing the perfect righteousness that he now gives to us. His obedience credited to us as a free gift is what enables us to stand in God's presence.
What is more, having passed through the wilderness, Jesus has now ascended into Heaven to prepare a place for us. This wilderness will eventually end, to be replaced by the promised land of rest. How can you know that for sure? You can be certain of Heaven because Jesus has already reached it, and he has promised that where he is, we too shall be one day. If you are united to Christ by faith, then his destiny is yours: where he is, so shall you also be. That is the ultimate plot structure of your life. That certain assurance for the future is what then stirs our faith in the present to become like Zelophehad's daughters. We too should be those who in the midst of our present wanderings are so sure of our future inheritance that we become unbelievably bold in what we ask for by faith and incredibly eager to reach that place where our inheritance will finally be received. We should have the boldness and eagerness that comes from true faith. We should cry out, "Come, Lord Jesus, and feed our hungry hearts with your presence now. Come back, Lord Jesus, and slake our thirst for your presence with us in a communion that will never end!" This is what the book of Numbers should do for us as we study it: it should stir us up to present faith in Christ and thanksgiving to his name, along with a hunger for the end of the wilderness and the beginning of our final rest.