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God’s Word for You

Numbers 1:1 In the Wilderness

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, May 17, 2021

Preparing for the Promised Land

The First Census of Israel

1 The Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt. He said, (EHV)

Genesis is the story of God’s saving work among the ancient Patriarchs. Exodus is the account of the road out of Egypt and the beginning of the giving of the law to God’s people at Mount Sinai. Leviticus continues the presentation of the law, especially regarding the sacrifices and worship life of Israel. Now in Numbers, Moses continues what we could call the story part of the exodus account, beginning thirteen months after the exodus from Egypt. It was now May, 1545 BC.

The Tent of Meeting here and other places is the term for the tabernacle. Moses, a Levite, was permitted to enter the Tent and he spoke to God there, but only Aaron the High Priest could enter into the Most Holy Place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.

An intriguing outline of the text of Numbers is given in the United Bible Society’s translation manual on the book (a translators’ handbook, not a commentary):

  I, Orientation (1:1 – 10:10)
  II, Disorientation (10:11 – 21:35)
  III, New Orientation (22:1 – 36:13)

The middle section would be easier to understand if not as elegantly labeled if we change it to “Rebellion.” We will of course see it in great detail when we arrive at that part of the book. Because of the length and importance of the Balaam incident after Aaron’s death, I think that those chapters deserve some emphasis in an outline. But whether we focus on the geography of the journey (stages from this place to that place) or the development, errors, and instruction of the people, the basic structure will be similar:

I, Orientation (census, commands about purity) (1:1 – 10:10)
II, Rebellion (Grumbling, rebellion, sin, and adultery) (10:11 – 21:9)
III, Victories and Setback (Balaam’s oracles) (21:10 – 25:18)
IV, Re-Orientation (census, war, and arrival) (26:1 – 36:13)

Numbers is a remarkable book, rich in doctrine and theology, with story after story of a time 3,466 years in the past (this month), when God was bringing his people at last into the promised land. The problem of sin clouded the whole expedition. God intentionally had the fighting men counted, and more than half a million warriors were available to take the land of Canaan. It was after this census that God gave them orders to explore, just explore, the land. If his own divine and Almighty presence didn’t give them enough confidence, then surely the vast numbers of their army should have bolstered up the timid. Nevertheless, the people doubted whether they had the strength to do it, even with God as their vanguard. So now the question would be: Would God reject his people even as they rejected him? Of the twelve spies, ten gave in to doubt. Only two, Caleb and Joshua, stood up for the Lord’s will (the Holy Spirit gives us a little “ten tribes vs. two tribes” foreshadowing here, but long before the division of the kingdom under Solomon’s foolish son). It would finally be a theological rival who would be the screen upon which God would project his grace. After Aaron’s death, a famous pagan prophet, Balaam, was hired to curse Israel. Balaam and the men who were paying him believed in a kind of voodoo theology where a curse and a scowl would be enough to frighten off visiting godlings and demons. But Balaam had never encountered the true God before. Each time he opened his mouth to curse, blessings came out. If God could permit Balaam’s donkey to speak, he could direct the words of a pagan witch doctor for hire. To top it all off, one of Balaam’s seven oracles was even about the coming of the Savior. That’s what all of this was leading up to: the fulfilling of the promise to rescue mankind from the captivity of sin. God didn’t need armies to do it, but he knows that sometimes mankind needs encouragement, and that enemies sometimes need more than a little intimidation.

The Hebrew title of the book comes from the opening phrase, “In the Wilderness.” This is man’s place since the Fall. We were driven out, but God’s desire is to lead us back to him. The elements of the book point to Christ as our Savior. He is the victor over seemingly insurmountable enemies. He is our personal champion at all times. He stands vindicated when he is opposed or disbelieved. He is the budding of Aaron’s staff, the one raised up on the pole when the serpents bite the nation. He is greater than Moses; greater than Joshua. He is greater by far even than the promised land. He is the One, the Only, the Savior, the Christ. We put our trust in him, and we adore him for the lessons he gives us along the way, while we journey through the wilderness. Here in the wilderness, he coaxes us and calls us to trust only in him.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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