Jason L. Kortering is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Grandville, Michigan.
We are in the midst of outlining the section of the Book of Numbers that covers the second numbering of the people and related events (beginning at chapter 30). Moses reminds the heads of each tribe that if a man vow or swear an oath, he must do as he has vowed, for the Lord’s honor is at stake (Num. 30:1-3). The same holds true for a woman, only her father or husband had the right to disallow the carrying out of the vow (Num. 30:4-8). The same thing applied to a widowed or divorced woman (Num. 30:9-16). We now have the record of the vengeance that Israel was instructed by the Lord to place. upon Moab. See Numbers 25:16-18. Moses instructed the people to produce 1,000 armed men from each tribe, a total of 12,000. Phinehas was to lead this conquest. Upon divine instruction, all the males were killed, the women and children were taken captive. They burned all the cities and castles, but took as spoil all the cattle, flocks, and goods (Num. 31:1-12). Upon their return, Moses expressed anger at the captivity of the women, since they had caused Israel to commit fornication. He instructed them to kill all the married women as well as young sons. After this slaughter, they had to remain outside the camp seven days for purification (Num. 31:13-20). All metals that could be purified by fire had to be placed in the fire and all the rest of the spoil had to be washed in purification (Num. 31:21-24). The spoils had to be divided along, these lines: half given to the men who fought, half to the congregation. Of the half given to the soldiers, one of every 500 captives and animals had to be given to Eleazer for a heave offering to the Lord. Of the half given to the congregation, one of every 50 captives and animals had to be given to the Levites for their portion. The numbers then are given, indicating a tremendous booty, e.g. 675,000 sheep alone. There were 32,000 women taken captive (Num. 31:25-47). The officers over the army of Israel came to Moses and offered on behalf of the soldiers an oblation unto the Lord for their safety in battle. Not one was killed. They returned unto Jehovah of the booty they had taken 16,750 shekels of jewels. These were brought to the tabernacle as a memorial (Num. 31:48-54).
3. The land east of the Jordan was distributed among the tribes (Num. 32:1-42). The children of Reuben and Gad had much cattle and they took note that the land of Gilead was suitable for cattle. They requested of Moses that that land be their inheritance (Num. 32:1-5). Moses reminded them that their fathers were among those who discouraged Israel from taking the land the first time and as a result spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness until all died except Joshua and Caleb. Were they refusing to help Israel take the land? (Num. 32:6-15) Their answer was that they would secure their cattle and families, but the men would help fight and take the land west of Jordan (Num. 32:16-19). This proposition was acceptable to Moses as long as Reuben and Gad would swear unto the Lord to fulfill this promise (Num. 32:20-33). Subsequently, Reuben, Gad, and some of Manasseh built cities for their families and folds for their sheep and cattle (Num. 32:34-42).
4. We have inserted here, a summary of the journey that Israel took from Egypt to Canaan (Num. 33:1-56). Mention is made of the departure from Rameses in Egypt, Succoth, Etham, all the way to Sinai (Num. 33:1-15). This is followed by mention of cities from Sinai to Kadesh (Num. 33:16, 17). The record of the cities visited and places in which they stayed during the 40 years in the wilderness is given (Num. 33:18-36). This is followed by the record of cities visited from Kadesh to the Plain of Moab (Num. 33:37-49). Listed are many cities not mentioned, anywhere else and consequently unknown. The chapter closes with extensive instruction given to drive out all the inhabitants from the land of Canaan and utterly destroy all that pertain to their idol worship. Their individual portion of land shall be determined by lot, based upon the size of the tribes. If they fail to drive out the people, they shall be as pricks in their eyes and thorns in their sides to vex them (Num. 33:50-56).
5. General instructions are given as to their conduct upon entering the land of Canaan to possess it (Num. 34:1-36:13). A general description of the land of Canaan is given, from the southern border from Edom, near the, Salt Sea, northward toward Mount Her with the Great Sea on the west and the Jordan River on the east. The eastern part of the Jordan was to be possessed by Reuben, Gad, and half tribe of Manasseh (Num. 34:1-15). The land was to be divided by Eleazar and Joshua along with princes from each tribe (Num. 34:16-29). The Levites were assigned special cities among all the tribes, a total of 48 cities. They were instructed to live in them with their families, and a measured portion on the outskirts was for their animals (Num. 35:1-8). Among these Levitical cities, six were to be designated “cities of refuge”. If anyone accidentally killed another person, they could flee to them for safety and a fair trial. Some instruction is given to help determine who should be judged a murderer, worthy of death. They also served as a place of dwelling for the stranger and sojourner. Three of them were to be on the east side of Jordan, three on the west (Num. 35:9-34). Specific request is made by the tribe of Manasseh that upon the instruction given that the daughters of Zelophehad would inherit the land since there was no male heir, if they should marry, they should marry within their own tribe (Num. 36:1-4). Moses approved this request that if they marry it should be within the tribe in order to preserve the land within the tribe. This the daughters of Zelophehad had done (Num. 36:5-13)
Two thoughts stand out in our mind as worthy of emphasis as we summarize this marvelous book.
First, God is uncompromising in His holiness. By holiness we mean that God is consecrated to Himself as the highest and only good. His glory is of prime consideration in all things. Anyone or anything that would presume to stand in the way of God realizing His purpose with His people will be destroyed. The history recorded in the Book of Numbers demonstrates this both in the area of God’s dealings with His enemies which are without (complete destruction of nations, men, women, and children; for they curse God by their idol worship), but also consider the enemies within (plagues that came upon the congregation and repeatedly killed tens of thousands). It is a fearful thing to stand in the presence of the holy God.
Second, one cannot study the Book of Numbers without identifying personally with the children of Israel in their wilderness sojourn. The spiritual symbolism of this history is directly related to the exodus from Egypt. As Israel was delivered from the house of bondage by a mighty hand of God, so we are delivered from the dominion of sin by the blood and Spirit of Christ Jesus. Between Egypt and Canaan however, lies the wilderness. During the forty years of sojourn, Israel demonstrated one thing, loud and clear, they were not worthy of entrance into Canaan. If they would ever arrive, it would be the sheer grace of God, which is His unmerited favor upon His people in Christ. His favor is evident so abundantly. He provided for all their natural needs (imagine two million people spending forty years in a wilderness and having all their natural needs supplied). That alone is a wonder of sovereign power. More so, however is the measure of His love for such an undeserving people. It is a wonder they were not all destroyed for their complaints and rebellion. Only in Christ is there any hope. The same is true for us. We must not point the finger too quickly at Israel without examining our lives carefully. We too conclude: saved by free and sovereign grace alone!
1. How was the numbering of the people of Israel before and after the wilderness sojourn different from David’s numbering the people (II Samuel 24)?
2. Page through the outline (or better still the Book of Numbers itself) and cite examples of Christ’s presence in the midst of Israel during their wilderness sojourn. How can we apply this to our life?
3. How can we explain the survival of so many people during the wilderness sojourn of forty years? Give examples that God miraculously provided for them. What can we learn from this?
4. Here follow a few thought-provoking questions. The people of Israel numbered 603,550 males over 21 years of age at the beginning. At the end they numbered 601,730. How many men died on an average every day during the 40 years? Could so many men die and yet produce so many sons to replace them? What does this say to us in our lives?
5. How do we explain the seeming brutality of killing whole nations, including women and children? In some instances women and children were taken captive and divided among the families of Israel. Wasn’t this cruel? May we do anything like this today as we deal with our enemies?
6. Reflect upon the history of the church and cite instances of unfaithfulness and rebellion, much like Israel in the wilderness. You may desire to do this in your own family or personal life. Why is it important to be specific?
7. The covering for sin is treated throughout the book of Numbers. Give a few examples and show that the spiritual principle is true for us as well.
8. Do you think that the majority of the congregation of Israel was ungodly? Is there any proof one way or the other? What does this have to say about the church today?