START BY READING NUMBERS 1-6
THE BACK STORY
Numbers starts abruptly 13 months after the Exodus. God directs Moses to take a census of the military-aged men. My first thought after reading chapters 1 – 6 is that the stories in Numbers are going to be fully comprehensible only if I am able to see them in context.
So I did a quick review of the ‘back story’.
The action begins nearly two years earlier with Moses encountering I AM in the desert. I AM commissions Moses to deliver the Hebrews from slavery, from the land Egypt and from the Egyptian gods. Moses returns to Egypt (after a 40-year banishment) to tell the Hebrews of God’s intentions and to confront Pharaoh.
You may be familiar with the rest of the story.
Ten times the God of Moses powerfully confronts the gods of Egypt. Ten times I AM humiliates those world renowned gods. Pharaoh agrees to the Hebrews’ departure only after Egypt is functionally ruined. Then he has second thoughts and pursues the Hebrews to the Red Sea to kill/re-enslave them.
I AM protects the Hebrews, delivers them through the Sea and drowns Pharaoh’s army. God provides food and water and gives victory to the Hebrews in their first military battle. God’s angel goes before them; his cloud shades them by day; his fiery pillar illuminates their nights.
At Mt. Sinai God reveals himself to the people. They are terrified. God gives the Ten Commandments and many other Laws which will govern their community life to Moses. The Tabernacle and supporting implements are constructed and assembled. From the beginning it is clear: worship of God is to be at the center of everything.
Despite God’s powerful validation of His power and his purpose for Israel, the people repeatedly act out their carnality and faithlessness. They repeatedly complain about current conditions and reminisce over their time in slavery!
So as NUMBERS unfolds, I view the Hebrews in the desert as more of a crowd than an organized nation; more of a mob than a true People.
As we continue our journey through NUMBERS we will eventually recognize the central underlying problem. God is keeping his promises made to Abraham 400 years earlier. But Abraham and Abraham’s God are a distant memory to these people. And for all that God has done for them, they do not give their hearts to Him.
The task of turning a crowd into a nation is not going to be easy. Nor is it going to be accomplished quickly. But a nation must be formed before God can do anything else with these people. They must become a nation that God can rightly bless. A nation upon which God can put his Name. A nation which will display to all the other nations of the earth the sovereignty and glory and holiness and power of God.
SUMMARY OF THE ACTION IN NUMBERS 1-6:
In Chapter 1 God begins the process of turning a crowd into a nation. They must immediately become survivable among very hostile surrounding nations and peoples. The military-aged men in twelve tribes (two tribes being from sons of Joseph) are counted. They number 603,550. From this we can interpolate a total population of at least 3-4 million. We should expect no fewer. After all, a growth rate of less than 4% will easily account for than number after 400 years of rapid growth.
Chapter 2 marks the organization of the tribes around the Tabernacle; three on each side; the Levites guarding the N,S, and W sides of the Tabernacle; Moses and the ministry team residing on the East. The integrating factor in the new nation will be the worship of the God whose Presence is continually manifested in their midst.
Chapters 3-4 record the organization of the Levites for worship and for tending to and transporting the Tabernacle. Chapter 5 deals with maintaining moral purity in the camp. Chapter 6 deals with special Nazirite service to God.
IMPRESSIONS & OBSERVATIONS:
My first foray in NUMBERS confirms the original word I heard from God, “There are things in NUMBERS you will soon need.” Here are a couple of first impressions.
First, I immediately conclude that following God is not for the fainthearted! Deliverance from slavery and death is a cause for celebration (Exo 15), but liberation creates radical change. Former dependencies are gone. New responsibilities must be assumed.
Following God involves some degree of separation from the familiar and the comfortable; new levels of sacrifice and danger are inevitable; an almost certain desert experience awaits; a detachment of affections from things left behind will be a challenge; a new lifestyle begins to develop which is quite frankly impossible apart from God’s continual presence, leadership, protection and power.
QUESTIONS: Under the New Covenant, the Jesus decision appears to be an ALL IN or ALL OUT choice. The Hebrews couldn’t make up their minds. Neither can many of us. Do we want to be free, or do we prefer the slavery and death of our pre-Christian lives? The Hebrews’ indecision cost them their future and their very lives.
What about me? Am I ready to go ALL IN with Jesus? Or like the ancient Hebrews I am sometimes IN and sometimes OUT? Do I find myself at times thinking fondly of life apart from a deep commitment to Jesus? Will things turn out differently for me if I end up living life ‘in the middle’?
Second, the unmistakable message of NUMBERS 1 -6 is that God has designed life with His Presence at the center. The cloud, the pillar of fire, the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant formed the center of life, worship and community. Under the New covenant, the Father, Son and Spirit rightly form the center of life, worship and community.
For Jesus came to ‘tabernacle’ with us! And following, His Spirit has come to ‘tabernacle’ with us. But there is an astonishing upgrade from NUMBERS where God is the external center; now the Spirit of Jesus comes to inhabit each of us who have been born-again. And the Spirit come to inhabit the community of believers corporately. God has become much more than our physical center. Paul says it this way, “…Christ who is your life….”
QUESTIONS: Is Jesus my LIFE? Or is he just a PART of my life? Or simply a RESOURCE for my life? Or a mere FUNCTION in my life? What is my relationship with Jesus? Who is He to me? Is his presence as real and essential to me as it was to the life of Israel? Is His presence even MORE essential to me than to them?
NEXT TIME: NUMBERS 1 – 6 (continued)