The Book of Numbers is the fourth in a series of five books which God directed Moses, through the Holy Spirit, to write while leading the children of Israel in the wilderness. Fourteen months earlier God’s chosen people had been called out of Egypt by God’s mighty hand. They had witnessed ten powerful plagues that He had imposed upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. To conclude it all, they had traveled through the Red Sea upon dry ground and turned and watched Pharaoh’s powerful army drown as the Red Sea came back together. Their journey had brought them to Sinai where God met them. At this point Moses began the Book of Numbers. The people had remained at Sinai for eleven months. One might ask, “Why had they been so long in one place?” When the companion books of Exodus and Leviticus are read, we discover that important work had to be done, directions had to be followed, and tasks had to be completed. This was a new and exciting time for God’s new people. It was a time of beginnings. Some of these beginnings will be the focus of this introductory lesson on the Book of Numbers.
I. A new people:
The identity of Israel as God’s promised people was yet to be established. One can recall from earlier Old Testament passages that God had made a promise to Abraham concerning his offspring (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:5-21). The concept of God having a people for Himself was to be handed down from generation to generation by oral tradition until God chose to permanently record His promises and blessings concerning His people. For example, Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham, was preserved in Egypt through God’s providence, and he seemed to understand God’s purposes for His people. Joseph said, “And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance” (Genesis 45:7). Abraham’s offspring entered into a period of oppression and slavery after Joseph died in harmony with the prediction God had made (Genesis 15:13). Generations later, when Moses, God’s chosen deliverer, came upon the scene, he reminded the people of God’s promise to Abraham (Exodus 3:16-18). The people had, over time, become practically nameless as slaves to the Egyptians. Now, at Sinai, they were to be God’s chosen people (Deuteronomy 4:20; Exodus 6:7). Whenever Moses writes concerning them, he refers to a particular name: “the children of Israel” or “the Israelites.” This name gave them a new sense of heritage and inheritance. They were now identified as a nation of people. It was a name, when understood, that could be worn with dignity and meaning because it belonged to a rich heritage and history.
As God’s people of this generation, we have been given the same sense of belonging. Peter reminds us of a parallel to the nation of Israel as he says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9, 10). Jesus had made a similar statement in His discourse on being a good shepherd. Look in John 10:3 “…”. Would you like to have been reared in a large family with several children and simply been referred to by your parents as “No. 4”? Being just a number leaves one feeling unloved and unwanted. It does nothing for one’s sense of value and self-worth. We are all blessed by having personal names attached to our family heritage. The same is true in our relationship to God today. We have been given a name that identifies us with God and our relationship with Him. Paul declares: “He predestined us to adoption, as sons, through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (Ephesians 1:5; emphasis mine). The new name which we gratefully wear the name “Christian.” It is a name that even the world uses to identify God’s chosen people: “ and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26).
II. A new relationship
Israel had to learn the identity of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “Jehovah” was to be His personal name. We also recall, that for four hundred years, Israel had not been allowed to assemble for worship, and the only religion they had witnessed, during this time, was the idolatry of the Egyptians. Therefore, when Moses came to deliver the people from their slavery, he was given God’s personal name, to carry back to Israel, to identify who was freeing them (Exodus 3:13, 14). Exodus reveals Israel’s immaturity, in the Sinai experience, with the golden calf. The people were not used to dealing with the invisible God of the universe. His manifest presence at Sinai (accompanied by smoke, fire, thunder, and an earthquake) was to demonstrate His power. Israel was to learn of His holiness and respect His laws and directions.
Most of us have come from a Judeo-Christian background and have never confronted paganism as Israel did. Their experience is not totally parallel to our relationship with God. However, in today’s society, many “gods” seek to be enthroned in our lives. The god of self has been placed in the center of most hearts today. We are urged to worship ourselves. Selfishness and self-centeredness have received much attention in our lives. Just as Israel had to be taught, by God, to remove the thoughts and mental images of idolatry from their hearts, we, too, must remove self and enthrone Christ as Lord of our lives. Our daily goal must be to please God. Paul said, in Colossians 1:10 “…”
III. A new law
Israel, while in Egypt, had lived under the law of the whip. They had constantly been watched, beaten, and overworked. In many ways, they had developed, over the years, a deep resentment of authority. They were stubborn and had a tendency toward rebellion. But God gave them laws and ordinances to keep. The ultimate end of the Law of Moses was for God to be able to fulfill His promise to their father Abraham in bringing forth the Messiah through them (Galatians 3:24). The immediate effect of the law was to keep them from being destroyed like the sinful nations around them that God wanted driven out. Yet, Israel had to learn some costly lessons, regarding obedience, from the testing which God gave them while in the wilderness (14:22, 23). God was merciful, patient, and kind to Israel during this time. Through His law, a national Day of Atonement was given to Israel, so that each year, Israel could have a new beginning.
Our independent American spirit often instills within us a sense of much pride and independence. We fuss over having restrictions and we will test the limits of those restrictions. If we see a “Wet Paint” sign, for example, we will touch the paint to see if it is wet! In Christ, we have come under the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8-10). Yet, we are not to become anti-law. Paul said, in Romans 6:1,2 “…” We need to continue to be thankful for God’s mercy and patience with us, as we grow toward maturity. When we sin, our prayers for forgiveness, coupled with the promise of God to cleanse us, gives us, like Israel, a new beginning with God, whether it be once a day or ten times a day (1 John 1:7, 8).
IV. A new opportunity for service
The people of Israel had to learn new goals, values, and directions. Their former lives had consisted only of making a precise number of bricks per day. They had lived in slavery. Mt. Sinai was to give them a new beginning. The Book of Numbers will show us four new beginnings for Israel:
Like Israel of old, Christians are called to new beginnings in Christ. Each day we can meet God in prayer and renew our relationship with Him. We can determine to overcome sin and temptation from Satan each day. We can use each day for new opportunities of service and blessing to others as God guides us toward His Promised Land. Are you willing to face the challenges of new beginnings that God desires to share with you?