The God of Numbers is a God of honour. When He promises something, you can be sure He will fulfil it. And when His honour is challenged, you can bet He proves the accusers wrong — and does so with a truly great sense of humour.
Numbers. Wow, what a title. The word drudges up memories of senior high school calculus, and I shudder. The original Hebrew name actually means “in the wilderness”, which is a little easier to swallow.
The book is named so in English due to the two censuses of the Israelite people, one at the beginning of the book and one at the end. While a little dull to read, they serve an important purpose. They stand as evidence for God honouring His promise with Abraham, back in Genesis.
The book starts with God preparing the people for the next step: heading across the wilderness to the promised land. Every tribe is given special positions, and every Levite family is given different responsibilities within the tabernacle.
So, about a year after escaping the claws of Egypt, Israel sets out towards a bright future, following God’s cloud form. Things are finally getting exciting. And can you guess what happens next? Yep, the Israelites are at it again.
The People Doubt God’s Honour
So, God promised to make Abraham’s descendants abundant. And He’s off to a good start. A whooping 633, 550 males aged 20 or older, not including the Levites. Then He promised to rescue them from Egypt. Tick. Now He’s promised to give them a home, and look after them.
A few days into walking, and the people complain about food. Now, let’s remember the food called manna that God made appear each morning, back in Exodus. He’s still providing this food, but it no longer satisfies. The people want meat.
God Steps Up To The Mark
God agrees to give the Israelites meat. Meat for a whole month. In fact, so much meat that they would grow sick of it! Moses can’t understand how such a thing could be possible, but God responds:
… “Has the Lord’s arm been shortened? Now you shall see whether what I say will happen to you or not.” — Numbers 11:23
The next day, lo and behold, quail everywhere! A day’s journey in each direction full of quail. Two cubits (above half a metre) deep. Well, well, how the tables have turned.
It’s quite common for God to become angry when He is doubted. An experience we, as images of God, can all understand. But He doesn’t ever retract His promises. He could have taken away the life-sustaining manna, but instead He proved His point in a way that kept Israel alive.
Those who missed the point and gorged themselves on quails were made sick by God (Num 11: 33-34). From the start, He has been pretty clear that sin leads to death, and throughout all history, has stuck to that.
Now God’s really proven His honour, things should go smoothly, right?
The People Doubt God’s Honour Part 2
On the cusp of the great promised land, a group was sent to scout what lay ahead. Forty days later, they return with praise for the richness of the land. Truly God was leading them to a great future.
But, those currently occupying the land were too strong. All but two of the scouts said it was too dangerous.
Then the people of Israel wished they were dead! And they feared for their children, who would become victims of the strong nations in the promised land. So they decided to appoint a new leader and return to Egypt. The place they had for generations cried out to be rescued from.
Freewill and God’s Greater Mercy
God is understandably hurt and frustrated. It is no wonder. Even nowadays people challenge the existence of God, asking why He doesn’t do some incredible sign or other. The truth is, there are amazing signs and miracles all the time. But humans forget, humans get distracted. Just like the Israelites.
Then the Lord said to Moses: “How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them?” — Numbers 14:11
And so Israel chose to not go into the promised land. And God respected their choice, even though it meant death in the wilderness. But God promised that the children, whom the generation was so eager to protect, would enjoy the promised land in their parents’ stead.
Thus began the forty years of wandering in the desert.
The Human Condition and God
Over these years, the children of Israel made the same mistakes, over and over. And God responded each time. Even Moses sinned, performing a miracle for his own glory instead of God’s (Num 20:7-12), and losing his right to enter the promised land.
Then, in a moment of faith, Israel turned to God for help when some of them were captured. They trusted God’s power and honour, and together rescued their people and destroyed the captors’ cities (Num 21:1-3).
And then they were back to complaining about the food. Cue fiery serpents from God (really, who can blame Him?). But the snakes went away when Israel repented, and God stuck by them in battles and kept His promise to prosper the nation.
Victory With God
Numbers contains some amazing stories of what happens when a people follow God, and when they don’t. One story that amazes me is the war with the Midianites. Following God’s lead into battle, the Israelites came out victorious. But that wasn’t all.
and they said to Moses, “Your servants have taken a count of the men of war who are under our command, and not a man of us is missing.” — Numbers 31:49
God didn’t just give victory, He gave victory without a single Israelite casualty! That is truly amazing. That is truly a God who stands by His word to protect and prosper His people. And the soldiers praised God, giving to Him much of the plunder and jewellery they had collected after the battle.
A Continuation of a Just God
Remember how the God of Leviticus is a just God? Well, the great the about all these personalities traits of God I’m finding is that they don’t only exist in one book, but across all. There are many instances of God being just in Numbers. Here are a couple of stand-outs.
Inheritance For Women
God had divided portions of the promised land amongst the tribes, and amongst the families in advance. But there was one family left in the grey-zone.
Zelophehad of the tribe of Manasseh had died with only daughters to carry on his name. But daughters could not carry on his name. So they came before Moses and all of Israel and asked for their father’s portion to be recognised and given to them.
Moses takes the matter before God, and His response is this:
“And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘If a man dies and has no son, then you shall cause his inheritance to pass to his daughter.’ ” — Numbers 27:8
Our Just God recognises females and allows them to take on their father’s inheritance, before all male relatives aside from sons. Later God added the condition that such women inheritors must marry within their tribe, to insure each tribe’s land portion was still equal (Num 36:2-9). Fair enough.
Inheritance For Levites, Priests For Israel
Levities were the chosen priest tribe. They received a lot of extra blessing, but also a lot of extra laws. Interestingly, they also received no land inheritance. Instead every tribe was to give a portion of their cities for Levites to live.
And here’s where God is really clever. Because now there are priests all over Israel. Every tribe has easy access to places of sacrifice and worship. Easy access to God. A more perfect, just solution is not possible.
In the time of the Israelites, the surrounding cultures were full of fickle Gods. In our culture today, we are in the same situation: popularity, money, success. But God will always honour His promises. He is the one God who can be relied on.
Recently my family’s financial situation has been difficult. My dad’s job was made redundant earlier in the year, and he’s picked up some other work but we’ve had to juggle a lot of money. I recently got a job. It’s not much, but at 22 I’m the biggest earner in the house, which is a scary thought.
But, you know, it’s going to be okay because our God is a God of honour, and He has vowed to protect us. That doesn’t mean He’ll make us rich, but He will provide what we need to live. Because He promised. Because He honours His promises. This is the God of Numbers.