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Preparation for Conquest

We are now entering into the final section of the book of Numbers. In this part of the book, Israel will get into a few battles and make the final preparations needed for the conquest of Canaan, which will begin when Joshua succeeds Moses as leader of Israel, as is described in the book of Joshua.

The shift toward conquest begins in chapter 21 when the Israelites defeat the Canaanite king Arad in the town of Hormah. You may recall that this is the same town that the Israelites ran to after they were defeated, back when Moses warned them not to attack the high country because God had forbidden them to go into the Promised Land.

This shift indicates that the forty years in the wilderness was drawing to a close. Those who had wandered with the camp were largely dead by this point, and the new generation that was going to enter into the Promised Land was beginning to take charge. But even though it was a new generation, the same grumbling was manifest. We read:
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food” (Numbers 21:4-5).
Faced with the same complaints, it is no surprise that God acted in a similar manner as before. This time, instead of a plague, he sent fiery serpents among the people. The people repented and acknowledged their sin, and when Moses prayed the LORD responded: “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (verse 8b).

Moses made the serpent out of bronze and set it in the camp. Those who were bitten and looked at the serpent survived. This story gives us another example of intercession on the part of Moses, and those of us familiar with the rest of the Bible also know that the serpent created by Moses will play a part in the future of Israel (at one point, they worshiped the serpent as an idol) as well as imagery indicating the death of Christ on a cross. We will discuss those in more detail when we get to those parts of the Scripture.

After this, Israel continued to march until they reached the kingdom of Sihon, king of the Amorites. They asked to pass through the lands, promising not to eat any food or drink any water, but Sihon refused to allow them in. Instead, he gathered his army and went to the town of Jahaz to fight (verse 23).

Israel was victorious and took over all the land and lived there (verse 31). Moses then turned toward the town of Bashan, ruled by Og. God told Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people, and his land. And you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon” (verse 34b). And once again, Israel was victorious in battle.

Before we continue, we should perhaps ask the question: what does this teach us about God? Up until now, Israel had not fought very much. When Egypt pursued them, God destroyed the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. When they fought the Canaanites the first time, they were defeated because God was not with them. But here, God specifically says that He is giving over the enemy to Israel.

This shows another aspect of God’s sovereignty. There is plainly a difference between God working directly to destroy the Egyptian army and God working indirectly through Israel by giving Israel victory. The battle was no less given by God than it was when Egypt was destroyed, yet God also moved through secondary sources rather than through direct action. Thus, God’s sovereignty in determining outcomes is seen to be compatible with the choices and actions of mankind here.

To say it another way, there is no indication from the text that God gave any specific battle plan to Moses, or in any way told any of the warriors exactly where they should go or what they should do. Nevertheless, it is plain that God is who gave the Israelites victory here. This is not simply a matter of God saying, “You will have success if you go forth” because that could be accomplished simply by God knowing what the future is. God does not say that they will have success, however; He says “I have given him into your hand.” Thus, God must actually be making a difference in the battle, such that the course of the battle can be described as God having given the victory to Moses.

Of course, we could conclude that God determined the course of the battle and that human actions are not in view at all. And at this point, it is logically consistent to say that people had no choices. That would not contradict anything in the text at this point. Yet because there is no indication that people had no choice involved, and given other texts, I think it is safe to assume that no one felt like they were being forced into any particular actions on the battlefield and that it is therefore compatibilism in play. Still, the most common opponent to compatibilism is one who holds to libertarian free will, not determinists, and it is clear that LFW has no refuge in this text.

However, I think that we can contrast the above with what follows next to see what happens when there is a strict deterministic aspect in play, as opposed to one of compatibilism, because the next several chapters deal with Balaam. (Balaam is perhaps less famous than his donkey.) To set the stage here, Balak was king of Moab (Numbers 22:4), which you may recall from when we looked through Genesis was the nation descended from the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter. Moab was terrified of Israel. So Balak got together with the elders of Midian and contacted Balaam, a pagan prophet, and asked him: “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me” (verse 6a).

So the elders of Midian delivered the message to Balaam. After he told them to rest for the night, he went to sleep and had a vision of God. When God asked what he was doing, Balaam said he was being paid to curse Israel. And we read: “God said to Balaam, ‘You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed’” (verse 12).

So when he woke, he told the elders of Midian that he would not go with them. They informed Balak, who responded by sending princes, “more in number and more honorable” than the elders of Midian (verse 15).

Balaam refused to change his mind, saying “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more” (verse 18b). Therefore, in his dream that night, God told him to go with the men but warned Balaam to only do what God told him to do (verse 20).

What is interesting is that while Balaam here called the LORD his God, it is clear from the context (as well as other passages of Scripture, such as 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 11) that Balaam was really a false prophet. Furthermore, while God did tell him to go on the journey, it is clear that he still went with the princes of Moab intending to curse Israel for financial gain.

We know that because the anger of the LORD burned against him (verse 22) and the angel of the LORD stood ready to kill him. But, as most of us know, the donkey Balaam was riding saw the angel and ran off the road into the field. This angered Balaam, and he struck the donkey repeatedly.

As he moved to a new location, the angel of the LORD stood in the way once again. This time, there was a wall on either side so the donkey could not escape (verse 24). The donkey pressed against the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot, and he beat the donkey once again.

Finally, the angel of the LORD moved to a location where there was no room for the donkey to move at all. This time, the donkey lay down under Balaam (verse 27).

Furious now, Balaam began to beat the donkey with his staff. “Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’” (verse 28).

Now, I don’t know about you, but if a donkey suddenly, out of the blue, began to talk to me, I would say something like, “How is it that you can talk?” Instead, Balaam actually answered the donkey: “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you” (verse 29).

Have you ever been so angry that, in your anger, you overlook a miracle just to vent your spleen? If so, then perhaps you can understand Balaam here!

After the donkey pointed out that she had never treated Balaam poorly before, God opened Balaam’s eyes so that he saw the angel of the LORD with sword drawn. The angel told Balaam, “If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live” (verse 33).

At this, Balaam realized his sin and said that he would turn back. The angel once again told him to go with the men of Moab, “but speak only the word that I tell you” (verse 35).

Consequently, when Balaam appeared before Balak, he told the king “Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak” (verse 38).

The result is found in chapter 23. When Balaam gives his first oracle, he states “How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?” (Numbers 23:8). And by the end of the oracle, Balak is so frustrated he says, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have done nothing but bless them” (verse 11). Again, Balaam points out that he can only speak what God tells him to speak.

So Balak had Balaam prepare a second oracle. There, Balaam said: “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (verse 19).

That such words would come from the mouth of a pagan prophet is astonishing, and it confirms part of the nature of God for us. God does not lie. When He gives His word, He fulfills it. This is something we have seen in how God rescued Israel already, because He had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But here we see that even the pagans knew that God was truthful.

Contrast those attributes with man. The truthfulness of God stands in stark contrast with the lies that nearly everyone repeatedly states. Such is the folly of sin.

After Balaam blessed Israel, Balak asked him to neither curse nor bless Israel, but once again Balaam said he had to speak what God told him to do. So Balak took him to yet another place in the hope, “Perhaps it will please God that you may curse them for me there” (verse 27). Some people apparently never learn.

In chapter 24, we hear Balaam’s third oracle, which once again blesses Israel. At this, Balak was furious and ordered Balaam to flee to his own home. Balaam pointed out that he had said he could only speak what the LORD commanded, even if Balak were to give his whole house of gold and silver, and so he departed.

On the way, he gave a final oracle regarding Israel, once again blessing them. In it, Balaam says that Israel will “crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth” (verse 17b). He also said Israel would conquer Edom, Amalek, and Kenite, amongst other places. Of interest, Balaam also said “Kain shall be burned when Asshur takes you away captive” (verse 22). The reason this is interesting is that while Asshur, which was where the Assyrians originated, was a military power at the time, their conquests that made them famous in history were still several centuries off. This is akin to someone saying in the late 1700s, when the United States was a weak power just barely out from under the thumb of British rule, that one day they would conquer Germany and Japan. Such a feat would have been unthinkable at the time. And likewise, at the time Balaam spoke this oracle, none would have considered it possible that the Assyrians would have become so powerful as to destroy towns as far away as Palestine.

So why do I say that this shows a difference to how God works in compatibilism? Let us begin by asking a simple question: Did Balaam have free will? That is, could he have prophesied anything other than the exact thing God wanted him to prophesy? Clearly, the answer is no, because he was facing the threat of death if he did not prophesy exactly what God wanted.

In fact, if some Libertarian Free Will philosophers still insist that Balaam could have exercised his free will and chosen to die at this point, then I have to insist in return that under LFW there is no such thing as coercion at all, because this clearly was a case of God coercing Balaam into blessing Israel.

So Balaam acted here without freedom, because he realistically could not have chosen any other path. But this type of language is precisely what is missing from the countless times I have mentioned that seem to be representing compatibilism. Abraham’s servant finding Rebekah, again, is one such instance where God clearly determined the outcome and yet at no point does the Angel of the LORD, or even a talking donkey, arrive on the scene.

When compatibilism happens, it is under the radar. It is subtle. You don’t notice it precisely because it is not God’s determinism in conflict with man’s freedom, but it is instead God’s determinism compatible with man’s freedom. Even if I have yet to convince you on this issue, I hope that it is clear that the way in which God interacted with Balaam is vastly different form the way He interacted with others so far, and that Balaam clearly did not have his free will respected by God here.

Moving on, you might think that it would have been smooth sailing for Israel now that God had blessed them in battle. But chapter 25 begins ominously:
While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel (Numbers 25:1-3).
So despite the blessing of the pagan prophet indicating that God was in favor of Israel, Israel was turning away from Him and pursuing Baal. As is typical through Israeli history, their downfall began when the men of Israel intermarried with the daughters of the pagans. The result was that soon they would begin to worship the false gods too.

Moses gathered the judges of Israel together and ordered them to kill everyone who had “yoked themselves to Baal of Peor” (verse 5) because they were now facing another plague. It happened that one of the men of Israel arrived with a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses. At that point, Phinehas (the son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron) arose from the congregation and took a spear and ran it through both of them simultaneously. Immediately, the plague was stopped (verse 8). Still, twenty-four thousand had died. It was also noted that the man who had brought the Midianite wife into camp was from the tribe of Simeon.

Because of the zeal of Phinehas, God blessed him and said: “Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel” (verse 12-13).

Now as you have noticed, there have been quite a few deaths due to plagues. As a result of this, plus the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, God instructed a new census to be taken, and that appears in Numbers 26. The total number was 601,730. This is nearly two thousand fewer fighting men than had been in the first census. Of note, we see that Reuben’s numbers had mostly recovered from the events of Korah’s rebellion. (Furthermore, this is where we see in verse 11 that Korah’s sons had not been killed in that rebellion.)

The tribe that declined the most was the tribe of Simeon. It went from nearly 60,000 people to just over 22,000. The fact that it was a Simeonite who had been killed by Phinehas may indicate that the tribe of Simeon was who had been most seduced by the Moabite women. In addition, when we look back to Genesis 49 when Jacob blessed his sons, he noted that it was Semeon and Levi who murdered the entire town after their sister had been raped, and as a result were told “I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.”

The end result of that prophecy, which we will see partially fulfilled in Numbers 26:53-56, is that when the Promised Land was allotted to Israel it was according to the number of people in each tribe. In the end, when the land was actually proportioned in the book of Joshua (Joshua 19:1-9), neither Simeon nor Levi received any land—Levi because the Levites were priests, and Simeon was so small as to only gain a few cities throughout the territory of Judah.

On the topic of land, Numbers 27 begins with the daughter of Zelophehad petitioning Moses because their father had died in the wilderness. They asked, “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers” (Numbers 27:4).

Moses inquired of the LORD, who informed him that the women were correct (verse 7). Thus, women were allowed to inherit land in Israel when the father died without any sons. This was in stark contrast with the rest of the people in the ANE, who typically oppressed women completely. Women had more rights in Israel, even though those rights were still fewer than they have today in Western societies.

The end of the chapter describes how Moses was to climb the mountain of Abarim to see the Promised Land. He was told “When you have seen it, you also will be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was, because you rebelled against my word in the wilderness of Zin” (verse 13-14a).

Moses, knowing his time was short, asked God to appoint a successor. And God said, “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. Make him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight” (verse 18-19).

Thus Joshua was selected to succeed Moses. Despite Joshua being selected here as the successor, the book of Numbers does not actually contain anything about Moses’s death. Indeed, he will play some more parts in upcoming chapters. First, in chapters 28 and 29, God gives Moses instructions on how offerings are to be made. Chapter 30 deals with vows, both for men and for women. But chapter 31 details how God had Moses avenge the people of Israel for what the Midianites had done, in tempting them to worship Baal.

As the Bible comes full circle, we discover that it was none other than Balaam who provoked this idolatry to happen (yet another reason why we know Balaam was a false prophet), for while the army had killed all the men of Midian they let the women live, and Moses angrily said, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD” (Numbers 31:15b-16). Therefore, Moses had them kill all the male children and every women “who has known a man by lying with him” (verse 17). But they kept the virgins as wives.

This passage can be quite difficult for modern Christians to read. We prefer children not being executed. Furthermore, the fact that the virgin girls are kept alive as wives seems more akin to sexual slavery than to righteous behavior.

Regarding the latter point, part of what we must keep in mind is the context of the day. Virgins would have been very young, and therefore would not have been entrenched in the idolatry that caused so many issues. With all the men in the country dead, the women and children would have been easy prey for the other evil countries in the surrounding area. By keeping the virgin girls alive, they at least would become full citizens of Israel upon marriage. This, of course, doesn’t change the fact that the male children and the women who were not virgins were killed, and we will return to this topic in just a bit below.

In Numbers 32, the tribes of Reuben and Gad asked to settle in the land of Gilead and not cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land. Moses said to them, “Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here? Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the LORD has given them?” (Numbers 32:6b-7). The people of Gad and Reuben promised: “We will not return to our homes until each of the people of Israel has gained his inheritance” (verse 18).

So Moses responded that if they did that, they would be free of obligation to the LORD and to Israel (verse 22), and “this land shall be your possession before the LORD”. But he warned that if they did not help fight, “you have sinned against the LORD, and be sure your sin will find you out” (verse 23).

Numbers 33 then gives us a summary of the events from the Exodus up to Israel being on the border of the Promised Land. At the end of the summary, God commands: “When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places” (Numbers 33:51b-52). God then warns: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them” (verse 55-56).

This last sentence is rather haunting. But it shows the gravity of the situation. It also shows part of the reason why God instructed for all the women and children of Moab to be killed too, for those who were not destroyed would become a thorn in the side of Israel. And, those of us who have “read ahead” know that because Israel did not fulfill this command from God, events happened exactly as God said. The remaining peoples in the land were a constant problem, and constantly lead Israel astray, and in the end God did do to Israel what He had said Israel should do to the others.

The book of Numbers thus ends with three more chapters. Chapter 34 describes the boundaries of the Promised Land and gives a list of the tribal chiefs. Chapter 35 tells what cities the Levites would own, as well as setting up cities of refuge for those who accidentally killed another person. Finally, chapter 36 gives rules on the marriage of female heirs to the land. The book then ends: “These are the commandments and the rules that the LORD commanded through Moses to the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho” (Numbers 36:13).

So what are we to make of this book? We have learned a few more things about God. We learned that He is not a man that He should lie. We learned that He is sovereign over the speech of animals, and can even use false prophets to prophecy blessings to Israel.

We have also learned that God is sovereign over who will win and lose battles. We have seen how seriously He takes His commandments. We have seen that He can cause the man He chooses to come to Him, and He can display His wrath justly upon the Earth.

Thus, we have seen that God is both merciful and just, that sin has consequences. Yet God is not absurd. He reasons with individuals, and will often allow people to do things that are less than what He would offer them (such as when Gad and Reuben decided to settle on the other side of the Jordan River instead of crossing into the Promised Land).

We have learned that mankind is fickle, impatient, and grumbles constantly. Men would grumble five seconds after having received a miraculous blessing from God. Indeed, we would grumble because the miracle wasn’t up to our liking.

Further, we see that it really is true that man’s inclination is toward evil continually, that every thought from youth on is an evil thought. For we alive today do no better than ancient Israel did in terms of following God’s commandments. To be sure, we have our share of Phinehas’s in modern Christianity too; we should not put the matter too starkly. But if we imagine, say, the entire American Church transplanted back to the Sinai wilderness, it certainly seems to me that the outcome would have been the same as it was for Israel. So we must not get too caught up in thinking that we are better than they were, or that we are not just as stubborn as Israel was.

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