Preparation to Enter the Promised Land
When we come to the Book of Numbers, we have to address the issue of the theme of the book. This is a bewildering task since there does not seem to be any one theme which encompasses the entire book. The book contains 2 major censuses which serve as bookends to the book. It contains some more laws regulating the moral conduct of the nation. Finally, it also relates the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert for 39 years until God had destroyed the entire generation which left Egypt (20 years and up).
The ancient versions of the OTt also indicate that the theme of the book was a problem with the ancient Jews since they were unable to settle definitely upon one name for the book. For example, the Hebrew version of this book is called Thus spoke the Lord, named after the opening words of the book (a common practice for the Hebrews). The only problem is that whereas much of the book does contain verbal revelations from the Lord, the same title could be applied to every other book in the entire Bible. The Greek translation of the OT (the Septuagint) named it Arithimatoi which the Latin translator Jerome translated it as Numeri; the English translators which used both the Latin and Greek versions correctly interpreted these 2 titles as Numbers. Still yet, other Jewish documents show that the Jews also titled this book In the Desert since it depicts the 39 years the Israelites wandered in the desert.
A closer look at these 3 ancient titles helps us understand the purpose of the book. The title Thus Spoke the Lord and In the Desert indicate that during the 39 years the Israelites were in the wilderness, God was removing one generation in order to prepare the next generation to enter the Promised Land. Moreover, the 2 censuses indicate another aspect of the book. The first census was one of the people God first intended to enter the Promised Land, whereas the second census is of their children, the ones standing on the banks of the Jordan River looking over into Canaan. The generation of the first census failed to enter because of their disobedience. The generation of the second census now faces a challenge—will they exercise faith and follow God into the Promised Land, or will they be like their forefathers and shrink back in fear and disobedience and fail to take the inheritance God has prepared for them? It is a question each generation faces. Because some previous generations have refused to follow God does not mean that succeeding generations have to make the same decision. They can break the cycle and begin a new cycle of obedience and trust in God. Moreover, because previous generations followed God does not necessarily mean that succeeding ones will either. Previous generations in this church have responded by faith and taken hold of the future God had in store for this church. Because previous generations responded in faith does not mean that present generation will respond in faith. It too must decide how it is going to respond where God is leading this church. Since Numbers points to the 2 censuses in the book and since the 2 censuses help us to understand the purpose of the book, it remains an appropriate title for the book.
THE FIRST CENSUS (1:4-46)
At the beginning of Numbers, God instructs Moses to take a census of the nation. God limits this census, though, to just a certain group within the nation—those men 20 years of age and older. Why just the men? Because every man 20 years of age and older was eligible to serve in the army. By ascertaining the correct number (which God already knew), He is helping the people discover the strength of their army so that they may have confidence when He orders them to conquer Canaan.
Now Moses does not do the numbering himself but rather assigns the responsibility to representatives from each of the 12 tribes. The tribes themselves will conduct their census. By taking this approach, Moses is protecting himself against any charge of partiality or discrimination. Instead, he trusts that he people themselves will honorably execute the function. Why is this important? Because once the census has been conducted, the tribes will then have the responsibility to muster that number of men during times of war. If the count was too high, the tribe in no way would have been able to produce that many men, and suspicion would have fallen upon the tribe if the nation suffered defeat. The guilt of praise for conducting a false or accurate census then will fall upon the people. Moses is treating them like adults.
A casual look at the census reveals (1) a seemingly needless repetition of a formula in reporting the findings of the census. Each time Moses writes down the numbers, he uses the formula "Of the sons of Judah" (etc.), their genealogical registration by their families, etc. Why this repetition? If you read the passage slowly, you will se that there is a certain solemnity attached with the reporting of the numbers. It is as if Moses is in complete awe of the findings. Judah alone mustered 74,600 men. When it was all said and done, the nation numbered six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty men. It's almost as if the findings were too good to be true. When you reflect on these numbers, you are also struck by the fact that they do not include the women, children, and men under 20 years of age. If you add in the probable number of women, children, and younger men not included in the census, you are looking at a nation numbering easily 2.4 million and most likely 3-4 million.
Now most OT scholars are skeptical of these numbers. They maintain that in no way was the nation this large at that time. The land would not have been able to support them; moreover, the land of Goshen in Egypt would not have been able to support them 30 years earlier. One conservative OT scholar (he is a Christian and he is conservative) claims that he numbers have been exaggerated in order to impress upon the reader how large the nation was. There are 2 problems with this. If the nation was large but not that large, why not just report he accurate number? We still would have been impressed with, say, 200,000 or even 100,000 for a total of 1-2 million people. Second, who am I who live 3300 years after the event to question what could or could not be true at that time? It is sheer arrogance to take what I know about life and claim that all of history must be measured by it. This, however, is exactly what most modern NT and OT critics do. It is sheer arrogance. Rather, the size of the army indicated that God had put together a powerful force which was about to invade Canaan and take hold of the inheritance God had promised His people.
More is probably operating here though. Remember that Numbers is part of the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the OT written by Moses. Taken in context, it appears that this census is also informing the reader that God is being faithful to His promise to Abraham. Throughout Abraham's life God had promised him if if he followed God, then God would make of him a great nation. His descendants would number as the sand of the seashore. They would be as numerous as the stars in heaven which Abraham would be unable to count (Gen. 12:2; 15:5; 17:6). This census shows that God was being faithful to His promise. Although God would fulfill this promise in a deeper way with the coming of Christ and the multitudes of the church (who are true spiritual descendants of Abraham), we see it also being really fulfilled in the growth of the Israelite nation.
THE ORGANIZATION OF THE CAMP (2:1-31)
The next section in the book concerns the organization of the nation. God was not going to lead a motley crew into the Promised Land; He was going to lead a well-organized nation. God organizes the nation around the tabernacle. To the east He positions the prominent tribes. East, not north, was prominent in the ancient world because the sun rose in the east. For example, even today when we talk about getting oriented, we are harking back to the ancient days when directions revolved around the rising of the sun in the east and not the North Star. To the east of the Tabernacle encamped the tribe of Judah (the primary tribe). Judah in this early date has already taken the preeminent position among the tribes. Upon Jacob's deathbed, he had said prophesied that Judah (the fourth son) would be preeminent because of the sins of the 3 older sons (Reuben, Simeon, and Levi). Along with Judah (and under Judah's direction) were the tribes of Issachar and Zebulun. When the nation broke camp to march, Judah led the way.
To the south camped the tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Gad. Since they camped on Judah's right, they were considered second in-command. These tribes followed Judah when the nation broke camp and began to march. Moreover, they followed Judah in war.
The next section of the nation to break camp and join in the march was the tribe of Levi which cared for the tabernacle. The tabernacle came right in the middle first because God wanted everything to center around His place of worship. In order to get from one tribe to the next, an Israelite always had to maneuver around the tabernacle. By placing His place of worship in the center, God was communicating to the Israelites that H e was going to be the center of the nation. God refused to be an attachment to the nation and refuses to be excess baggage in our lives today. He demands the central spot in our lives.
Second, God placed the tabernacle in the center in order to protect it. Whenever one nation attacked another, one of the most devastating things it could do was to plunder the other nation's religious sanctuary (ies). By plundering them, the conquering nation was able to show that its god was superior to that of the nation's they had defeated. Whenever foreign powers attacked Israel and stole away the Ark of the Covenant, the Israelites would fall into severe depression. In fact, Eli the high priest fell over and died when he received such news. God was going to prevent this from happening. Third, God placed the tabernacle in the center in order to prevent foreigners from being able to get near it in times of peace—either during the march or when they had made camp. In fact, the other tribes had to position themselves at a distance from the tabernacle. Only the Levites themselves could enter the tabernacle. God was holy and demanded to be treated as such. Finally, to the west camped the tribes of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin (the children of Rachel), and to the north camped the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali.
Why such attention to organization? This organization communicated to the tribes that each tribe and each person had their own specific place in the nation. Each tribe and each person made up an integral part of the nation. Each person was necessary for the well-being of the nation, and each person was important because s/he was a part of the nation. The Israelite always knew where his place was in the nation.
This principle applies to us who make up the church as well. Although many churches resemble an organizational mess, the truth is that God loves organization and order within His church. In fact, one of the images He uses to describe the church is that of the body. People from the eyes, ears, nose, hands, tongues, feet, legs, etc. Each one is important for the body to be fully functioning and my part in that body is determined by the spiritual gift God has assigned to me. The natural gifts and talents God has given to me, the spiritual gifts He has given me at the point of salvation give me a definite place in His body and point to the purpose God has for me in life to help promote His kingdom through the church.
FOLLOWING THE CLOUD (9:15-23)
Finally, the conclusion of this section deals with God's instructions concerning the movement of the cloud. When Israel began her exodus from Egypt, God led the way by moving in a cloud directly over them. The cloud protected them from the sun by day and gave them warmth at night since it changed into a pillar of fire, but also pointed the direction the Israelites were to go. Whenever the cloud remained upon the tabernacle, God wanted the people to remain where they were encamped. If the cloud ascended, the people were to break camp immediately and follow God wherever the cloud led them. Sometimes the cloud would remain upon the tabernacle for a day, several days, a month, even a year or more. It did not matter how long. As long as it stayed on the tabernacle, the people were not to move. Once it lifted up from the tabernacle, they were to break camp and follow God's cloud.
Although we no longer have a visible cloud to direct us, we still have directions from God. God directs us through His Holy Spirit who lives in us. At times I think I would prefer to have a cloud to direct me rather than the Holy Spirit because I think that here would be no mistaking where the cloud was going whereas sometimes I am not sure where the Spirit is leading me. The truth, though, is that the Spirit as a guide is far superior to this cloud. The cloud can only communicate directions and nothing more. The Spirit through the Bible, prayer circumstances, and godly people can actually impress upon my heart specific instructions if I will obey those instructions. The operative word here is obey. God is not interested in communicating His will to me if I am going to debate whether or not I am going to obey it.
Another advantage of having the Holy Spirit as opposed to having just the cloud is that the Spirit lives in us whereas the cloud is external to us. Moreover, since the Spirit lives in us, He can give us the power to follow God's will, whereas the cloud cannot. This is not a minor distinction but an important one. Throughout Israel's history, she disobeyed God's commands. The reason is that whereas Israel had God's commands, she did not have the internal power to obey them.
Following the cloud precisely was essential to Israel's well-being. At one critical juncture in the wilderness, the Israelites refused to follow the cloud—it resulted in disaster. Later, Israel decided to plunge right on ahead even though the cloud decided not to go that direction. Again, it resulted in disaster. Too many Christians are being shipwrecked in the storms of life because they refuse to follow their cloud, God. Their families end up a disaster; work caves in on them; their health sharply declines, and they respond by going to counseling, getting a better degree, and taking medicine, when all along their first response should have been to get right with God and start following Him wherever He desired to lead them.