Of the four standard works, the Old Testament has to be the most challenging but perhaps also the most rewarding. The narratives are deceptively complex in ways that prevent quick, superficial interpretations and as a result map quite well onto the complexity of our actual lives. The prophets are flawed, the covenant people are often as troubled as the people they contend with. Even God, at times, acts in mystifyingly, seemingly human ways. Fundamentalist interpretations of the text have to flatten out all of this complexity in order to preserve fundamentalist loyalties. A manipulative reader must cherry pick, hand-wave past contradictions, and otherwise force the text into the shape the reader already had in mind for it. Why even read the text with this objective? Many don’t.
I, like many, believe this text to be set apart as sacred scripture and as such, I’m required dig in and figure out what God is trying to teach through these complicated, confusing and sometimes contradictory narratives. The words come at me through thousands of years of translators and redactors. Flawed people wrote these words down, flawed people redacted, compiled and translated the text over time. We don’t have to accept every word as the literal word of God, but we ought to take it seriously.
With that as introduction, I’d like to go through the book of Numbers from all of the perspectives offered – Moses obviously, but also other leaders identified, Moses, Miriam, Caleb, Joshua and Balaam, and of course from the perspective of the Israelites as well as those the Israelites encounter. Come Follow Me suggests the focus be placed on Numbers 11-14 and Numbers 20-24. (The Old Testament is really, really long).
Moses was born an Israelite of the tribe of Levi, the tribe ultimately responsible to administer the tabernacle. But this was by birth. Culturally, he was raised in the Pharaoh’s household, raised not as an Israelite but as an elite part of the Egyptian class. As a young man, encountering injustice, he slays an Egyptian and then ultimately flees, realizing his life is in danger. Away from both Egypt and the Israelites, he marries and raises a family. In this setting, he’s called by God to rescue the Israeli people from slavery. I mention this to point out Moses’ awkward and disconnected relationship with the Israelites. He did not directly experience the slavery of his people. He was raised with the comforts of power but then flees from the conflict to save his own life. Only as an older man, he is called into service and leadership but reluctantly and with uncertainty. Ultimately and over time, Moses becomes a great conduit of God’s law and power. The rescue from Egypt was done by the power of God with very little help from Moses . But Moses led the people out of Egypt, received and administered the law and was the religious leader of this early Israelite nation.
The Israelites were multiple generations removed from Jacob and Joseph by the time Moses came to rescue them from slavery. The Lord had not instituted formal religious ritual or an expansive law. Noah and Abraham were given instructions and commandments, but it’s far from clear how much of this was passed down. Joseph, in Egypt, showed a resilience and a natural ability to depend on God in the face of trouble, receiving revelatory dreams and turning bad situations in his favor. But he was clearly fully acclimated within Egyptian culture, setting up his family for what would ultimately become generational slavery in Egypt. By the time Moses arrived, the Israelites had born the increasing burden of slavery that proved unifying but also gave them burdens and weaknesses that needed to be rooted out if they were to become the nation God wanted them to be. Even their deliverance was more God remembering the promises made to Abraham rather than the Israelites really asking for it.
Numbers describe their journeyings through the desert. Almost from the get-go, whenever they faced difficulties, rather than lean on a dependency of God, time after time, they yearn for a return to what they know – Egypt.
Moses’ Burdens – Numbers 11:
This chapter describes two episodes of Israelite’s complaining, both times incurring God’s wrath and then ultimate redemption through Moses’s interventions. The first is very brief. The people complain in verse 1 and God responds with fire. The people plead to Moses for help (verse 2), and Moses prays to God and the fire dies down. The second complaint is more specific – the people are tired of manna, remembering the meat, cucumbers, melons, and other diversity of food they enjoyed in Egypt, perhaps forgetting the slavery bits. This sets Moses off. Moses hears these complaints and decries the burdens of leadership he’s forced to carry in verses 11-15, culminating in a plea for God to just kill him now.
God’s responds to Moses’ burdens by calling seventy of Israel’s elder. “I (God) will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden that is on you and put it upon them; and you shall not bear it alone.” (verse 16, 17).
The Lord promises Moses that he will send enough meat to consume them for an entire month, so much meat that it will come out of their nostrils. Moses wonders how this could be done, in verse 23, the response, “Is there a limit to the Lord’s power?”.
Seventy people are called out to the tabernacle and blessed with the Lord’s spirit such that “they spoke in ecstasy” (verse 25). Two men, Eldad and Medad, who weren’t called, remained in camp but receive the spirit as well. Joshua pleads for Moses to restrain them. Moses’ responds:
“Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!”Numbers 11:29
From this chapter we see a Moses burdened with leadership, weighed down by the concerns of the people he loves, who seem to constantly want to reject Moses’ offerings and visions, rather preferring to return to the people who had enslaved them. We see a Moses that does not seek for power or rejoice in hierarchy, a sort of reluctant leader, who wishes his people would stand up and seek God for themselves. He seems reluctant to delegate, the command for delegation and hierarchy comes from God to help Moses with his burdens.
Ultimately God responds to their desire for food diversity by sending quail. They engorge themselves on the unexpected abundance, but this abundance comes with a curse. The chapter ends with a plague with quail still in their teeth.
Moses’ Meakness and Sibling Rivalry – Numbers 12
In chapter 12, Moses’ brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam question both Moses’ authority and marriage. (verse 1, 2). “‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?'” The narrative pauses at this question to describe Moses in verse 3, “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other on earth.”
It’s not Moses that confronts Aaron and Miriam, it’s God. They meet God at the Tent of Meeting and Miriam is struck with leprosy. Moses prays for Miriam and is told that after seven days, banished from the camp, she will be healed and may return. The people wait for Miriam’s return before setting off again on their journey.
Moses has often been the reluctant leader but always willing to respond to God’s call. Time after time, Moses receives the brunt of the people’s criticisms and grumblings. Time after time, Moses responds with love, service and ultimately redemption. Here, his siblings question both his authority and his marriage. God intervenes, not Moses. Miriam receives the blunt of the consequence and then Moses advocates on behalf of Miriam to God.
Moses the Advocate, the Israelite Fears and then Overcompensates – Numbers 13-14
In Numbers 13, Moses sends representatives from each of the twelve tribes into Canaan to scout it out. Canaan is their ultimate destination, the land promised to Abraham as the blessed land where a righteous nation would be established. Unanimously they declare the land full of abundance but also worry that the people are too formidable for a confrontation with the Israelites. Caleb and Joshua pronounce faith that God will deliver this land, the rest of the people, once again wish they had never left Egypt.
Verse 11, the Lord repeats an earlier desire to give up on the people and replace them with Moses’ seed. Moses resists this plan in almost the exact way he resisted it the first time it was proposed. What would the Egyptians think if the Lord gives up on these people (verse 17)? Moses reminds God of his capacity to forgive with mercy (verse 18). And then pleads with God for forgiveness of this people.
The Lord forgives the Israelites but they lose the right to enter Canaan, postponing this blessing for the next generation (and to Joshua and Caleb (verse 30)). When the Israelites realize they will not in fact be able to takeover Canaan and will be forced to wander the wilderness, homeless, for forty years, they realize their mistake and vow to try anyway. Moses warns them against this. They will not succeed without God, and they don’t to devastating effect.
Here again, Moses, the dutiful leader of a people still struggling to rid themselves of the legacy inherited from Egypt, lacking confidence both in themselves and in God. Lacking it because they haven’t earned that confidence in themselves, nor have yet learned how to completely trust in God, not yet prepared to begin a nation.
Moses Forgets the Source of His Power, So Do the Israelites – Numbers 20
They give up on Canaan and move on, still in the desert. In Numbers 20, the Israelites worry about water. What’s so toxic about their complaints, time after time it’s coupled with either a desire to return to Egypt or a regret of ever having left. Moses and Aaron receive instruction from God to call forth water from a rock. Instead, Moses announces his ability to get water from the rock and then strikes it.
In this moment, perhaps, God realizes Moses isn’t quite up to the task of leading them into Canaan, which is understandably extremely difficult work. In verse 12:
“Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land I have given them.”Numbers 20:12
In this chapter they encounter the people of Edom, requesting safe passage through the city which they are denied. To avoid conflict they must head south and around Edom. Near Mount Hor, Aaron dies, denying him the blessing of seeing their arrival into Canaan. Aaron is beloved by his people, Moses brother and religious counselor but unlike Moses someone who had lived and suffered with the people.
The Israelites Grow in Strength as they learn to trust in God – Numbers 21
The chapter opens with an encounter with the king of Arad who initially captures some of the Israelites in battle. After Israel vows with the Lord, the Lord delivers them victories as a preview of coming future successes in battle.
For the final time, the people after years of wandering, again complain about the food and regret their departure from Egypt. This time the people are plagued with serpents. The people immediately recognize the connection and plead to Moses for an intervention. Here is where God tells Moses to build a staff made up of a bronze serpent. If the people look at the staff they will live.
This chapter concludes with further battles. As Israel pushes north they encounter and defeat the Amorites and King Og of Bashan allowing them to continue on to the steppes of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho.
Balak and Balaam – Numbers 22-24
The reputation that comes from these Israelite military victories grow to an extent that Balak, king of Moab fears what Israel might do to them and seeks Balaam, a religious figure, to curse Israel. Balaam speaks to God and receives the instruction not to curse them for they are God’s people. Balaam refuses Balak’s request refusing to go against God’s counsel. Balak tries again, offering riches, really offering anything Balaam might want.
Baalam’s response to Balak through these chapters is consistent expressed in Numbers 22:18 but repeated throughout.
Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.”Numbers 22:18
Balaam’s power does not come from within but comes from God and Balaam recognizes he does not have the to control God at all. Balak’s insistence, pulls Balaam to him in which he tries three times to get him to curse the Israelites by placing him in three different perspectives. All three times Balaam blesses rather than curses Israel.
I cannot skip the truly wild incident of the talking donkey. On his way to Moab, riding a donkey, the donkey is blocked by an angel that the donkey sees but Balaam does not. Balaam beats the donkey into proceeding but in three attempts the donkey refuses to move. Finally, the donkey speaks, asking Balaam why he would beat him. Eventually Balaam sees the angel, repents, and is further repeated to only speak the words God gives him.
We can’t change reality, we can only face it with courage, truth and grace. Balaam could have vocalized a cursing, that he refused to speaks to his relationship to the true God. Even a donkey could see this.
This lesson ends with Balaam, a prophet residing without the Israeli camp who had direct access to God, personifying Moses’ desire that all people would become a prophet. Israel takes forty years and possibly the next generation to grow into the kind of people worthy to receive their inheritance, to begin a nation as a covenant people in service to God. I don’t think those who escaped Egypt should distress over this turn of events. They were in difficult circumstances, asked to do something that turned out to be beyond them. That vision was left up to their children. Every parent wants their children to go beyond them, a burden we impose that’s not always fair. But in this case, it’s ultimately successful. Moses is a central figure in the Israelite history, a founding father of the nation. Throughout it all, they were successful as they leaned into the mission God had for them to fulfill. That mission is both unique and individual to each of us.