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Grumblings and RebellionAs we’ve already seen in both Exodus and Leviticus, the people were quick to grumble, and Numbers 11 likewise opens this way:
And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, and when the LORD heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. Then the people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down. So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the LORD burned among them” (Numbers 11:1-3).So here we see another instance of Moses interceding on behalf of Israel. But at the same time, we notice that God’s reaction to the complaining of His people was to burn up part of the camp—a reaction that most of us find shocking in light of what we know of God’s character in the New Testament. It is a good thing to intellectually wrestle with this, however. God is not a different God in the Old Testament than He is in the New Testament. In fact, we will see that He is immutable (i.e., unchangeable) in His nature and character. So the same God who burned up a portion of Israel because they were complaining is also sent His Son to die for the sins of those very people who are so quick to complain against Him! He did not change His nature between those time periods, and that can be difficult to comprehend. From the perspective of our hypothetical time traveler, this is a paradox we have to hold in tension until more of the Scriptures are revealed.
After having a portion of the camp consumed by flames, you would think that the people would have learned not to complain. However, they immediately began to complain that they had no meat to eat, only manna (verse 4). This so exasperated Moses that this time it was he who got upset:
Moses said to the LORD, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness” (Numbers 11:11-15).At first glance it appears Moses is not actually behaving any differently than the people he was complaining about. The Israelites had complained that it would have been better if they had just died in Egypt, and here Moses begs of God, “Kill me at once” because of how bad things had gotten for him. Both views seem a bit extreme, or at least overly dramatic. But instead of burning him up in fire like He had done with portions of the camp previously, God gives Moses help:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone” (Numbers 11:16-17).Just as God had provided Aaron to help Moses, now He provides seventy elders. And they help by getting the same Spirit that Moses had. One reason why this happens is because ministry is not supposed to be borne alone. Ministers need support. They will not function very well if they are mavericks, and God never in Scripture presents it as ideal for a person to “go it alone” apart from the community of believers.
Once the immediate problem is addressed, God then turns to the complaint of Israel:
“And say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat, for you have wept in the hearing of the LORD, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore the LORD will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the LORD who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”’” (Numbers 11:18-20).When Moses asks God how they should slaughter enough animals for six hundred thousand men to eat meat for a whole month, God responds: “Is the LORD’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not” (verse 23). Again, God’s sovereignty is displayed. He certainly has the power to do anything that He promises to do!
Likewise, we can now see the difference between Moses’s complaint and the complaint of the children of Israel. Moses complained to God because he was overwhelmed with the amount of work the people were causing him. The people complained because they did not find satisfaction in God and were, in fact, longing after the old gods of Egypt. This is a vastly different motivation than Moses’s complaint about having too much on his plate.
God gave the Israelites what they wanted, but to such an extent that it would become loathsome to them. In this manner, we could very well be getting an indication of what Hell itself is like, where sinners could indeed get everything they want only to find that it becomes loathsome. But of course that is speculation here, and I won’t push it too far.
Before we see God fulfill His promise to provide meat, something else happened in the camp. First, Moses went and gathered the men as God told him to do. God then gave some of the Spirit that was on Moses onto seventy elders. As soon as the Spirit was on them, they prophesied. However, “they did not continue doing it” (verse 25b).
Now, there were two men named Eldad and Medad who remained in the camp. When they prophesied, “a young man ran and told Moses” (verse 27). Joshua, the son of Nun, who we learn was “the assistant of Moses from his youth” (verse 28) told Moses to stop Eldad and Medad. Moses’s response is quite astonishing: “But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!’” (verse 29).
Moses did not seek to keep the Spirit solely for himself, which would be a natural human tendency, but instead wished the LORD would give the Spirit to all. This is the true heart of one who has been touched by God, for he has opposed his natural selfish tendencies and does not care if it would make him somehow “less special” than others if the Holy Spirit were given to everyone.
After this interlude, God then moves to fulfill His promise of meat for the Israelites. He does so by sending a wind that brought quail from the sea (verse 31). There was so much quail that verse 32 says, “Those who gathered least gathered ten homers” (a homer was about 220 liters in size). But we learn: “While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck down the people with a very great plague” (Numbers 11:33).
The picture we see of God here is not a very pretty one for those of us who have been raised solely in the texts of the New Testament. He seems to be acting almost out of rage. But we can tell how sinful the children of Israel were by the reaction God has toward them. We must bear in mind that His wrath is always a righteous and holy wrath. He never punishes people for sins they did not commit, and He never punishes further than the offense warrants. After all, God is the one who came up with “an eye for an eye” as the means of ensuring the punishment would fit the crime; He is not going to change from that path when He deals out punishment Himself.
Thus, while it may be uncomfortable, it is also something that we must recognize is both real and righteous. God’s wrath is a genuine thing, just as genuine as His love is, and we do an injustice to Scripture if we try to sugar-coat it.
And in case you were thinking this was the end of His wrath, we reach chapter twelve. The chapter begins with Miriam and Aaron complaining against Moses because Moses had married a Cushite woman (Numbers 12:1). While it is possible this refers to Zipporah the Midianite (see Exodus 2:16ff), it is more likely that Zipporah had died and Moses had remarried (there is no indication that Moses ever practiced polygamy). But the second verse of chapter twelve indicates that Moses’s wife was but a pretext for their genuine complaint: “And they said, ‘Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”
Thus the real motivation was the very jealousy of Moses’s close relationship with God that Joshua had also been concerned about previously. Now that the Spirit had fallen upon seventy elders, Moses’s position seemed to be less unique than it had been previously. Moses himself did not defend himself, for we read “Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth” (verse 3). As a result, the LORD called out Moses, Aaron, and Miriam and appeared before them in the pillar of cloud. Then, God called Aaron and Miriam forward and said:
“Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed (Numbers 12:6-9).So we see that Moses still retained a unique position before God even when the Spirit was poured out more liberally. And although it appears that Aaron and Miriam were speaking truthfully when they claimed God had spoken through them as well as Moses, the LORD is quick to point out that Moses has a special relationship. Only Moses is spoken to mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles. Only Moses has seen the very form of God.
To confirm this message was sound, after the LORD left Miriam was leprous. Aaron asked of Moses, “Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned” (verse 11). Moses asked the LORD to heal Miriam, but God responded “Let her be shut outside the camp seven days, and after that she may be brought in again” (verse 14).
God’s punishment, therefore, was not lasting, but Miriam was an outcast for that week. We might ask, “Why did God punish Miriam and not Aaron.” The truth was that Aaron was punished in the sense that he was as humiliated in the sight of the people as Miriam had been, since both of them had made the same claims about being equal to Moses and clearly they were not. But one major difference was that Aaron was the High Priest, and that office needed to be maintained. That is most likely the reason he did not become leprous too.
Despite all this, the grumbling would only get worse. In Numbers 13, spies were sent into the Promised Land to see if it was good for them to enter in. There were twelve men in total, including the same Joshua, the son of Nun, from before, and another man named Caleb, the son of Jephunneh. After spying out the land, the twelve returned. The other ten spies said the enemy was too strong to attack. But Caleb, with Joshua’s support, said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:31). But the ten overruled Joshua and Caleb, too afraid of the forces in the Promised Land.
The result is that chapter 14 begins with the familiar refrain:
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:1-4).Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes in emphasis and tried to calm the fears of the people. “If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us” (verse 8a). They then beseeched the crowd: “Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them” (verse 9).
At this, the crowd sought to stone Joshua and Caleb, but they were stopped when the glory of the LORD appeared. And He said to Moses: “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they” (verse 11-12).
Once again, Moses interceded on behalf of Israel. As before, he pointed out that the Egyptians would hear of it, as would the other nations. Moses ends by saying, “Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now” (verse 19).
God agreed to pardon them, but this time there would be other consequences. “But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land I swore to give to their fathers” (verse 21-23). Only Joshua and Caleb would be spared this fate, because they knew God was handing over the Promised Land to them and did not doubt His power.
Since the Israelites were now close to the Amalekites and Canaanites, God sent Israel into the wilderness toward the Red Sea, lest they be defeated militarily while waiting for those who had seen the signs and not believed to die off. Thus, the LORD set in place a forty-year ban on entering the Promised Land, until all of the elder generation died. Furthermore, we read in verse 36-37 that the ten spies who had given the negative report soon died of a plague.
As a final measure, and to seal for Israel the fact that they were indeed doomed to wander in the wilderness, the people of Israel attempted to take the heights of the hill country. Moses refused to go with them, and ordered them not to make the attempt because “the LORD is not among you” (verse 42). But the people tried to attack the heights anyway, and as a result the Amalekites and Canaanites defeated them handily and drove them away from the area all the way to the town of Hormah (verse 45).
There is now a bit of an interlude in Numbers. In chapter fifteen, the book goes over laws regarding sacrifices when Israel reaches the Promised Land, as well as what to do if there is unintentional sin—sins committed both by the entire community and on an individual basis. Since we’ve already covered those aspects in previous parts of this work, we will skip over them here.
The chapter ends with two things we haven’t yet looked at. First, we read verse 32-36:
While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses.Once again, this is a passage that strikes us as being overly harsh. All a man did was to gather sticks on a Saturday, and for that he was executed. How is that just of God? Indeed, does this not contradict God’s Law that says not to murder?
To answer the latter question, it does not contradict the commandment because murder is the taking of innocent human life without proper justification. We know there are times when deaths are not murder, such as during warfare or when you have to take a life in legitimate self-defense. Yet God does not owe anyone life at all, and He can end a human life whenever He wants to do so, because of our sins. Sin, as you may recall, is the other side of the coin with death. While God will quite often delay the enforcement of the punishment, He does not have to do so, and therefore if He kills a human being He is justified in doing so, because the penalty for our sins is death.
The fact that God overlooks some sins and is merciful does not mean that we can take mercy for granted. And if God chooses not to overlook certain commands, it would probably do us good to examine why. The Sabbath was extremely important to God, and He demanded strict adherence to it. It was for reasons such as this example that Pharisees would later create their intricate rules about what was permitted and not permitted on the Sabbath. Despite the fact that they were legalistic and hypocrites, all too often Christians today are overly harsh toward the Pharisees for this. It would behoove us to remember from time to time that their intentions were genuinely good—to ensure that people did not inadvertently break the Law and suffer death for it.
The second new aspect we find in chapter fifteen is the command God gives to make tassels on the corners of everyone’s garments. God had a specific reason for this:
And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD your God” (Numbers 15:39-41).So we see here that God is working to give the Israelites something tangible they can hold on to to remind themselves of the Laws, lest they die like the Sabbath-breaker did. This was necessary because, as He said, they were inclined to whore after the desires of their own heart and eyes. And if that is not enough, He also grounds this command on the simple fact that He is the LORD and thus can give those commands.
Thus, with this passage we see further evidence of what Moses has already written several times regarding the nature of man, that he is wicked from youth and that his default desires are evil. In the midst of looking at the rebellion of Israel, we must keep in mind that we are not any better than the Israelites were. It is all too easy for us to look down on them and condemn them for constantly falling into wickedness—and it is true that they are blameworthy for their choices and actions. Yet, it would be a mistake for us to think that we would have behaved any better in those circumstances.
With that in mind, we turn to chapter sixteen to read of Korah’s Rebellion. Korah’s Rebellion is actually a bit of a misnomer, since there were really two groups of rebels who joined forces, and to make matters even worse at the end there was yet a third rebellion of the people. The two factions were lead by a Levite named Korah on the one hand, and on the other hand by three Reubenites named Dathan, Abiram, and On. They gathered 250 chiefs, who we are told in verse 2 were all “well-known men” and set them in opposition to Moses. Their complaint was similar to what Miriam and Aaron had said before God struck Miriam with leprosy:
They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?”Just as Miriam and Aaron claimed to be on equal footing with Moses, here the two factions claim to be on equal footing with Moses. Moses could have responded in any number of different ways. He could have reminded them of what happened to Miriam. He could have pointed to the dozens of other times they had grumbled against God and what had happened to them. But the way Moses responded here is quite telling. Instead of all that, he said: “In the morning the LORD will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one whom he chooses he will bring near to him” (Numbers 16:5b).
Moses appealed directly to God. But I find this particular passage to be revealing a deeper truth. Note the logic of what Moses says here. He begins by saying that God “will show who is his, and who is holy” and He will do so by “bring[ing] him near to him.” Now at this point, we might be tempted to say that the one who is His and who is holy is the one who has chosen to follow God. But while Moses does say there is a choice involved, the choice actually goes the other way: “The one whom [God] chooses he will bring near to him.”
We have already seen that God chooses specific individuals throughout the Old Testament. He chose Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob. He chose the people of Israel instead of the Egyptians. And we know He chose Moses. Here, Moses is also saying that God also chooses who is holy by bringing them near to Himself.
This interaction is important to get correct, so I will be a little repetitive once more for emphasis. God chooses who are His, and then He brings those near to Himself. It is not the people choosing God who then decide to go near to Him, but it is God choosing who to bring near to Himself. This theme will come up often, especially when we investigate soteriology, so it is important that we grasp it. God is the active party, and His choice is what drives other people to Him.
We soon see the result too. After saying this, Moses dealt with the two groups. To the Levites, he said:
“[I]s it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the LORD and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you? And would you seek the priesthood also? Therefore it is against the LORD that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?” (Numbers 16:9-11).Moses makes his appeal by addressing the fact that the sons of Korah are already priests and separated from the other Israelites unto service to God. This should have been more than sufficient for them, but instead they were jealous. Apparently, their jealousy extended not just to Moses but also to Aaron, who was the high priest at the time.
In addition to this, Moses also tried to reason with the Reubenites, but they refused to leave their tents to meet with him (verse 12-14). In the process, they accused Moses of actually harming them and intending to kill them in the wilderness (a common motif amongst the complaints). As a result, Moses prayed that God would ignore their offerings, and the implication is that God did, indeed, do so.
The stage was now set to see who God had chosen. The Levites appeared with censers of incense, all 250 of them, and Aaron had one as well. They met at the entrance of the tent of meeting the next morning. The LORD appeared and informed Moses that He was about to destroy the congregation (verse 21), and once more Moses (this time joined by Aaron) interceded (verse 22). God told them to get away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.
Then Moses said:
“Hereby you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. If these men die as all men die, or if they are visited by the fate of all mankind, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the LORD” (Numbers 16:28-30).Sure enough, the instant he was finished speaking the ground opened up and swallowed all of the men in their tents, along with their families. While not stated in Numbers 16, we know from Numbers 26:11 that the sons of Korah were not killed by this event, but the entirety of the families of the Reubenites were. Additionally, “fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men offering the incense” (verse 35).
Despite all this, we read: “But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, ‘You have killed the people of the LORD’” (verse 41). Once again, God told Moses to depart from the crowd so He could destroy the people, this time with a plague. Once again Moses interceded by directing Aaron to make atonement for the people and to stop the plague. Aaron then “stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped” (verse 48). Ultimately, an additional 14,700 people died from the plague before it was stopped (verse 49).
At this point (chapter 17), God decided to give another sign that He had chosen Moses and Aaron. He ordered all the fathers of the tribes to put their staffs together, each with their name written on it, with Aaron having the staff for the tribe of Levi. And God said, “The staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout. Thus I will make to cease from me the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against you” (Numbers 17:5).
So they gathered the staffs and God caused Aaron’s staff to sprout, bearing ripe almonds (verse 8). In this manner, Aaron was confirmed as the high priest and the people had a sign they could point to. In the face of this, their reaction was one of fear: “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the LORD, shall die. Are we all to perish?” (Verse 12b-13).
Now before we continue on, it is useful to note what we have learned in greater detail. Not only were the people extremely wicked even in the face of miracles, but Moses showed incredible patience and love in continually interceding on their behalf. Our hypothetical time traveler would not understand from the passages we read that God, too, loved the people of Israel even more than Moses did. Instead, they would have viewed Him as judgmental and full of wrath.
We note again that God was fully within His rights to destroy the people at any point. We know from other texts in Scripture that God really had no desire to destroy the people, and that He had brought up Moses specifically so Moses would intercede. The intention all along was to demonstrate their need for salvation so that they could be saved spiritually, not just physically.
We often lose track of just what we are saved from when we are saved. Many people assume we are just saved from Hell, but they picture Hell as a place where Satan runs amok and does as he pleases. The reality, as typified by Moses, is that when we are saved we are saved from God. It is His wrath that we are saved from. Wrath that is completely just must condemn our sins completely too.
The reality is that God could have destroyed Israel. By all accounts, He should have done just that. Instead, He relented. He was merciful. And He worked through Moses so that we would know and fully grasp that He was in His rights to destroy Israel and chose not to do so. We shall see more of this as the rest of the Bible unfolds, of course, and most Christians already understand the loving aspects of God. Nevertheless, try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has only read Job and these first four books of the Old Testament. They would have seen a God who was much more fearsome than we picture Him.
The point is, their picture, while incomplete, is not wrong. God’s wrath is genuine. Only the fact that we have an intercessor even greater than Moses spares us from our own righteous destruction.
The next few chapters of Numbers deal with the duties of the priests and other Levites, as well as giving laws for purification. We will pass over them for now and look at Chapter 20.
Chapter 20 begins with the death of Miriam. No details are given as to how she died, but we know that despite her sin which ended up making her leprous for a week, she was still a Godly woman and one who we will meet in Heaven, I have no doubt.
In verse two, we read that there was no water where they were camped, and once again the people quarreled with Moses, asking why they had been sent to die in the wilderness. Moses spoke to God and God said: “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle” (Numbers 20:8).
But now things would take a tragic turn for Moses. Instead of obeying God in calling out to the rock, we read: “And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock” (verse 11). This may not seem like a big deal, but God was angered. He said, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (verse 12b).
Because God said that Moses striking the rock was equivalent to “you did not believe in me”, then it seems clear that Moses had a temporary lack of faith. For whatever reason, he did not believe that speaking to the rock would have caused water to flow.
This shows us that even the most righteous of us can stumble and fall. If a man who talked face-to-face with God was unable to live a perfect and holy life, without any errors at all, what hope have we? Ultimately, none of us deserves to see the Promised Land—not even the best of us.
But I suspect that there is even more to this. God had overlooked many sins before; why did He not overlook this one? I believe it is likely due to the fact that because God gave the Law through Moses, Moses became associated with the Law. We will also learn through other passages that the Promised Land was viewed as a shadow (using typological terminology) of heaven, and we cannot get into heaven through the Law. The Law is able to condemn us, but never to save us. It is potentially for that reason that God chosen not to forgive Moses here, so that he would stand as an object lesson to us that it is only by grace that we can be saved.
The chapter ends very similarly to how it began with the death of Moses’s other sibling, Aaron. There, Aaron and his son Eleazar are brought to the top of Mount Hor. Aaron is apparently already on his deathbed, but we are also told “he shall not enter the land that I have given to the people of Israel, because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah” (verse 24). Consequently, Aaron was stripped of his priestly garments and they were given to Eleazar, and then Aaron died (verse 28). And thus, the price for rebellion was made clear to the children of Israel once again.