2 Mar 2017

Reading Numbers: Life AFTER Grace … Following God’s Cloud in the Wilderness

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, Exegesis, Faith, Grace, Journey, Numbers, Precision Obedience, Salvation

Fox’s translation is a work of art. He makes us work with the text.


Those who are reading the Bible through this year (2017) have recently finished the Book of Numbers and are in Deuteronomy. I have been reading these holy texts in Everett Fox’s wonderful translation, The Books of Moses.

These first five books of the Bible are called variously “The Torah,” “Pentateuch,” ie sometimes “the Law of Moses.” These books are the bedrock foundation of the entire Bible and everything in the Bible.  Regardless of what we call these books they are fundamentally a Story, a narrative from Creation to Promised Land.  It is in a sense Paradise-Paradise Lost-Paradise Regained, or “Presence-Exile-Presence Regained.”

We can separate Genesis from Exodus from Leviticus from Numbers from Deuteronomy but that is really artificial.  There is only one Story and it runs thru these five books. Yet sometimes it is helpful to look at a portion of the Story but we need to remember the big picture.  So since we just finished Numbers, and it often horribly caricatured, I thought I would take a moment to offer some reading hints for Numbers.  It is a powerful book and offers profound guidance for God’s People to this day. It is my prayer that we will not only read it more but prayerfully with deeper appreciation of its powerful word.

Orientation to “In the Wilderness.”

English speaking disciples are done no favors by the tradition of calling this book “Numbers.” The usual caricature is that this book is endless genealogies.  I always know when some one has not read the book when they claim they were stumped in Numbers because of the numbers and names. Indeed “numbers” are a very small portion of the content of fourth book of Torah.

But the name of fourth book of Moses is not Numbers in Hebrew, its name is “In the Wilderness.” As with so many cases in the Bible this word, “wilderness” carries deep meaning. It is a description of the literal location of the people of God but also a wry comment on the condition of the people themselves. And this second notion profoundly speaks to modern disciples as well.  God’s people are “in the wilderness.”

“Numbers” is part of the Story of Paradise lost to Paradise regained. It cannot be separated from, nor even properly understood, apart from the larger story of Genesis to Deuteronomy. Numbers is about life between salvation event and destination of salvation realized. “We” are no longer in Egypt but have we arrived at the destination of our journey, this remains true today as Christians we exist between the Cross of Christ and the Resurrection at the end. We are “between the times.”

Therefore, I call Numbers “Life After Grace.” But what grace? What Grace! Only Gentiles would ask such a question! The Story of Genesis-Leviticus (the story thus far) is pure grace.  This grace:

A) Grace: God created all that is out of infinite love
B) Grace: When all creation was lost God elected a pagan, Abram, to bless the whole of creation
C) Grace: Yahweh’s Mighty wonders in defeating the gods – including “God” incarnate, Pharaoh
D) Grace: The crossing of the Red Sea and the defeat of the greatest army in the world without an ounce of Israelite work
E) Grace: Being carried on Eagles wings to Sinai and witnessing the revelation of God
F) Grace: Immanuel in our midst – God living with (in the very center!, Tabernacle, Lev 26.11-13) his people and walking among them just as in the Garden thru the Tabernacle
G) Grace: Being chosen to be God’s unique possession in all creation as his kingdom of priests

Ohhhh Yes the Fourth Book of Moses is Life After Grace! It is only after the grace of being engrafted as members of the covenant of love community, after passing thru the Sea, after having God’s indwelling Presence among us that we are marked as God’s People. And it is only then that we can move forward … this is our Story.

This is the Story of the People of God in every generation not just 3500 years ago. This is not just an ethnically Jewish story. It is the people of God story.  The apostle Paul certainly did not believe that “Numbers” was nailed to the cross. When teaching sound doctrine to the former pagans in Corinth (some seem like they are still pagans!) he teaches those Gentile believers to look at the generation “in the wilderness” as their own spiritual ancestors.  They are not “my” (Paul’s) ancestors but “our ancestors” (1 Cor 10.1).  Paul closes the historical gap between the Corinthian Church and the believers in the wilderness. He dares to claim that the wilderness generation were “baptized into Moses” (Paul uses the word “eis” here! 10.2) that they “ate the same Spiritual food and drank the same Spiritual drink” and that it was the Messiah that was in the wilderness (10.4).

The Corinthian believers are part of the same Story as the those in the wilderness. It is not a different Story. In fact they are the same “people.” The first century people of God were to be shaped and molded and indeed learn what it means to be the people of God from that ancient generation in the wilderness.  I suspect that Paul would say the same to the 21st century people of God too.

Our “book” can be organized in the following fashion as we try to, as Paul instructs us, understand this magnificent word from God’s Spirit. The book has the following narrative flow into three movements or parts.

1) At Sinai: Numbering and Organizing the Army of God, ch’s 1-10
2) Army of Rebellion and Death, ch’s 11-25
3) Generation of New Life, ch’s 26-36

The Army of God (Num 1-10)

Numbering, and organizing, the Army of the Lord of Hosts is the thrust of chapters 1-10. God’s redeemed from the death of slavery holy nation is transformed into the Army of the Lord while at the foot of Mount Sinai. The sense we get in reading is an overwhelming “how can we be defeated!?” We are God’s Army!! More than Conquerors.

With six hundred thousand fighting men, the army of God literally dwarfs even the greatest armies of the world (for comparison in the modern world the USA invaded Iraq with 148,000 troops). The first ten chapters almost lull us into a feeling of faithfulness, power, invincibility.

The narrative points inexorably to 10.11-13 which, for the narrator is the most exciting event (perhaps like the lunar launch!). The army of God is finally on the way to the Promised Land, with Yahweh as our Protector and our Guide dwelling in our midst. Israel is prepared to go forth as a “living doxology” to the God of all grace.

In the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, THE CLOUD LIFTED from over the tabernacle of the covenant. Then the Israelites set out by states from the wilderness of Sinai, and the cloud settled down in the wilderness of Paran. They set out for the first time a the command of Yahweh by Moses.

But notice Israel celebrates the Passover before they march. Worship, the response to the God of All Grace, grounds all life (ch 9) note the grace extended to the unclean and the aliens among “us” (9.1-14).  The image is of this massive redeemed nation, with a colossal army, with a God that has already defeated the greatest army in the world, is finally organized, finally delighting in God, ready to take on anything that can be thrown at them. Who can challenge the Army of the Lord??

So much so that Moses bursts into worship to conclude the section in 10. 35-36.

Arise, O Yahweh, let your enemies be scattered,
and your foes flee before you.

“Wilderness” is both a state and a place

The Army of Rebellion and Defeat, ch’s 11-25.

The reader of Numbers is jarred with the unbelievable shocking contrast between the ending of ch.10 and the opening of 11. Indeed 11.1-3 set the tone for the degenerated “mob” that was just presented as the invincible army of the Lord.

Now the people complained in the hearing of Yahweh about their misfortunes …”

Here we are introduced, for the first time, “In the Wilderness” to the notion that God’s People are not just simply out in the boonies but that their hearts are no where near God. Interestingly enough the narrative plays on this by saying that the fire of the Lord  “consumed some of the outlying parts of the camp” (11.1). The “outlying parts” are those areas that are the farthest from the Presence of the Lord. Another wry comment that carries more meaning than simple literal distance. The people are far from the One who has redeemed them in love and married them making them his “treasured possession.”

That God’s people are far from him is manifested in that they complain, grumble, and live in constant rebellion. They are IN the Wilderness. Wilderness is not simply a place of geography but a STATE in which the faithless people of God are so frequently in – even today. Now this mumbling is all the more disturbing because Story to this point has been one of God’s Salvation, God’s Redemption, God’s setting the captives free, God living among them! They are cared for, they are organized into the greatest Army on earth.  Yet they complained about “their misfortunes.”  But it only just begins.

After attacking Moses in chapter 12, the narrator tells us of the gigantic army’s abysmal failure in the face of insignificant odds. The report of the spies (ch 13) must be read against the back drop of the Exodus and the census of the warriors in the first 10 chapters. Yahweh did not need a single Israelite soldier to bring the Egyptian Empire to its knees (a prayerful reading of Exodus 14 is in order)! In fact all Israel did was grumble and whine even then.

But Yahweh created for himself the largest fighting force the world had ever seen. No force in Canaan could hope to challenge the 600,000 man army of God! Yet the People of God saw themselves as mere “grasshoppers!!” Perhaps an echo of “who told you you are naked” (13.33) is going on here. What should have been the D-Day of Israel turned into a stunning moment of self-defeat. This is stunning UNfaith just as at the Red Sea. Israel is indeed “in the wilderness.”

They (we!) are so faithless that they want to undo Yahweh’s grace, they deny it. We need to grasp the shocking nature of Num 14! They want to hire an Anti-Moses – an Anti-Redeemer – the first Anti-Christ!!! and go BACK to Egypt (14.4). This is tantamount to telling Jesus we would rather he did not die on the Cross because we want to go back to slavery. Perhaps the text that sums up the whole book is the lamentation of Yahweh …

How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (14.11).

In a wonderful episode, Yahweh decides to eradicate such a perverse generation. They were beyond hope! or so it seems. So the text tells us that Yahweh will punish the people and fulfill his promises to Abraham using Moses himself (v.12). But Moses appeals to the Story.  Israel has already proved faithless from the very moment of salvation in the Golden Calf while the “vows” of the marriage were being signed. And Yahweh revealed the great John 3.16 moment of the Bible in Exodus 34.6-7.  Now Israel is guilty of rejecting the whole Exodus work of God. We should meditate on the significance of what is going on.  This is no mere failure of Precision Obedience on Israel’s part.  It is a rejection of the entire salvation narrative: plagues, deliverance thru the sea, divine indwelling, the manifestation of God himself. It is difficult to exaggerate the level of spitting in the face of God in Numbers 14. This is outright rebellion.  The Army of God has become the Army of Rebellion.

But Moses appeals to Yahweh’s own testimony that he forgives “wickedness, REBELLION, and sin.”  So the text says, and we the people of God need to hear this.

Now, therefore, let the POWER of Yahweh be great IN THE WAY that you promised when you spoke, saying,

‘Yahweh is slow to anger,
and abounding in HESED,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
to the third and fourth generation’

Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the GREATNESS of your HESED just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt until now” (Numbers 14.17-19)

The “God Creed” of Ex 34.6-7 is the foundation of Israel’s hope and the core claim of the Hebrew Bible

Even the much maligned words about children Moses understood that as good news.  And if we pay attention to the narrative of “in the Wilderness,” the children of the Army of Rebellion were not punished. The children would become the Generation of Life in the wilderness as we will see below.  The self-declaration of Yahweh, appealed to by Moses “in the Wilderness” is the very truth that keeps God’s people alive.  Amazing grace delivered Israel from Slavery.  Amazing grace kept Israel as God’s people in the face not of mere sin but outright rebellion (see Psalm 121 on the “Keeper of Israel”). Paul did not invent the truth of “where sin increased grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5.20).

Faith is the Victory, and that truth is the core of the Torah in the Hebrew Bible … in the Law of Moses itself. The rest of the narrative of the Army of Rebellion to chapter 25, is one sad episode after another that culminates in yet another “Golden Calf” type episode in Numbers 25. The Generation that was to be the Army of God ends in utter shame as the Army of Rebellion.

Have God’s People ever left the Wilderness? Look at the history of the church. But the grace that is present on each page of the “Book of Numbers” is that even in their faithlessness, even in their disobedient state, even as pathetic as they were … God never once abandoned his people, he never left them, he never stopped giving them the food of angels, though punished he never ceased showering them with his Hesed ... He never cast off his people in the wilderness. Even in discipline and punishment for rejection of the Gospel of God’s grace, Yahweh is true to who God is.  Why is it that we are so frequently blind to the astonishing grace of God when it is penned in neon lights by Moses!?

The Renewed Generation of Life, ch’s 26-36.

A new generation, raised “in the Wilderness,” is numbered.  But it is not numbered this time for an army but for distribution of the land, exists by a double grace. They inherit the Exodus and are preserved by Yahweh to show up the faithlessness of the parents. You can read thru these 10 chapters and almost miss how it changes. There is no more rebellion (not even a hint), there is not a single Israelite death recorded in these chapters and the whole focus of the book becomes future oriented to Life in the land of Grace. Thus the door of hope is open for God’s People … they do not have to be in the Wilderness.

In the narrative the present readers of the book belong to the Generation of Life, not the Army of Rebellion. It is where we are in the Story. What an encouraging word. The Story does not end in Rebellion but in Grace fueled Hope.

We need to see “Numbers,” like all of the Torah as a unified narrative as already stated. Leviticus and Numbers do not, and never have, existed “alone.” They are part of the Story. All the “laws” given are embedded in, and as part of, the Story of Redemption. They do not have life apart from the Story of Grace. To put it another way, the law of God does not function separate and apart from the Story of the Grace of God.

Faithfulness and Faithlessness

As a whole, “Numbers” proclaims loudly that God’s People are always on a journey in various stages of faithfulness and faithlessness. We never arrive at the destination of perfection. This “pattern” is embedded also in the Psalter. Note for example the historical Psalms 105, 106 and 107. God’s faithfulness is ingrained in the worship of Israel relating how God stuck with and loved Israel in Ps 105 (recounting the events of the book of Exodus).

The amazing Hesed of the Lord is exalted in Ps 106, following the narrative structure of God’s people “in the wilderness” even as we descended into gross sin (read Psalm 106 with Numbers). But true to his nature, Yahweh is Hesed after all!, this Psalm is bracketed by 107 which exalts the matchless hesed of God for the very ones who find themselves in various states of Wilderness. It concludes with the exhortation “Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the HESED of the LORD” (107.43). The Generation of Life has life solely because Yahweh is in fact the God of all steadfast love and grace.

Psalm 105, 106, and 107 is the worship re-enactment of the narrative the Books of Exodus and Numbers. What the people of God are supposed to get out of this Book of Torah is that God loves us in spite of our sin and we constantly throw ourselves at his feet for mercy. We need to pay attention to the Pattern. Numbers motivates grateful repentance and faithful devotion to our Lord, Redeemer and Husband.

Numbers 22-24

God’s Faithful Hesed Highlighted

The story of Shrek breaks out “In the Wilderness” (Num 22-24), a talking ass uttering words of wisdom is surely hilarious … and I think it is supposed to be memorably humorous.

When we read this episode “in the Wilderness,” we need to realize that in the narrative no one, not even Moses, is aware of what is going on. Balaam is summoned to curse the mass of unfaithful, ungrateful members of the Army of Rebellion.

But Yahweh refuses to allow this to happen. Even now they remain his treasured possession. We learn from this that Yahweh is constantly fighting our battles for us even when we have no clue what the principalities and powers have in store for us. The people of God do not even pray for protection against Balaam, they are unaware. Yahweh’s grace is upon even those who constantly are living in faithlessness. Paul did not invent the truth of “if God is for us then who can be against us?” What utter grace shown by God in being our Shield and Defender as we sing in the Psalms.

There is no one that is immersed, in the “Story” of God’s People, “in the Wilderness” that has any delusion that these people are God’s People except upon the basis of Yahweh’s own mercy. They want to go back to Egypt.   Yet he still chooses to live among them. God’s people will never be his people because we somehow get everything precisely right. We are his because even in our failures, he steps in the gap as in Numbers 22-24.  Hesed says I will not give up on you. And the God of the Bible never did give up on Israel … even in death he did not give up on Israel.

The Book of Numbers is the backdrop for the most quoted verse in the “New Testament,” John 3.16.  Jesus points to Numbers 21 in John 3.14f. The Rebellious Army, ever faithless, grumbles at the very gifts of God’s grace in Numbers 21.4-9. What is so amazing about the Shrek story is that it tells the story of God protecting these ungrateful whining people. The Shrek story is about Yahweh protecting the “Army of Rebellion.”

Final Words

These are things Moses, Jesus and the Holy Spirit wished New Testament Christians understood about a book, though holy to the Lord, is rarely even opened by restoration Christians today. The great book called “In the Wilderness” is … where we learn that God’s people have less than zero claim to righteousness and yet God in a stunning act of Grace lives with sinful humans because he loves them. It is a book that shows us not only where God’s people were centuries ago but where his people have been since. We are routinely faithless, thankless, and ungrateful in the face of earth shattering grace.  We often run from the vision of being God’s victorious Army to be living if fear and defeat.

No wonder Paul pointed the church of God in Corinth to the people of God “in the Wilderness.” Numbers is Life AFTER Grace.  Will we live victoriously or will we live in fear and defeat.


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