God’s Divine Exit Plan

3The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” 34 So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders. 35 The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. 36 And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.

37 And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. 38 A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds. 39 And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.

40 The time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years. 41 At the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. 42 It was a night of watching by the Lord, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the Lord by all the people of Israel throughout their generations. – Exodus 12:33-42 ESV

Everything was happening according to God’s meticulous and well-timed plan. Every plague had come at just the right moment bringing with it the exact measure of God’s judgment upon the people of Egypt. Their cumulative effect finally brought Pharaoh to his knees when the final plague brought death to his doorstep. Having lost his firstborn son, Pharaoh hastily agreed to all the Israelites to temporarily leave the borders of Egypt to worship their all-powerful and death-delivering God. He was taking no more chances. This battle with Israel’s God had gotten personal and he had been on the losing end. So, he acquiesced and gave his permission for Moses to take the Israelites on their three-day journey into the wilderness to worship their God.

And his decision was met with the full approval of his citizens because they had also suffered great loss during the final plague. Moses states that “there was not a house where someone was not dead” (Exodus 12:30 ESV). This was a national disaster of epic proportions. With the dead bodies of their loved ones still lying in their homes, the Egyptians begged the Israelites to leave, lest there be more casualties in this battle of the wills between Pharaoh and Yahweh.

And the Israelites, having followed God’s instructions, were prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.

The Israelites took their bread dough before yeast was added. They wrapped their kneading boards in their cloaks and carried them on their shoulders. – Exodus 12:34 ESV

The night before, God had instituted the Passover meal, instructing His people to prepare the unblemished lamb and to consume it “with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord‘s Passover” (Exodus 12:11 ESV). Now, the meal having been eaten, and the blood of the lamb having been sprinkled on the doorways of their homes, the Israelites celebrated while the Egyptians mourned. The firstborns were alive and well in Goshen. The death angel had “passed over” their homes. Now, they were prepared to leave. So, they grabbed their kneading bowls and the unleavened dough they had prepared in advance, and they got ready to leave Egypt. But there was one last thing they had to do.

God had told Moses that the day would come when the people would be able to ask their Egyptian overlords for a handout and they would receive it.

“I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go. And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, but each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and any woman who lives in her house, for silver and gold jewelry, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.” – Exodus 3:19-22 ESV

What makes this prophecy so compelling is that its fulfillment came after the Egyptians had suffered the catastrophic losses of their loved ones. Even as the Egyptians were reeling from the devastating consequences of the last plague, they still were willing to turn over their valuables to the Israelites. In another demonstration of God’s sovereign will, the Israelites “asked the Egyptians for clothing and articles of silver and gold” (Exodus 12:35 NLT).

After all that had happened to them, it seems that the Egyptians would have been in no mood to play along with this seemingly ill-timed and ludicrous request. But Moses matter-of-factly states, “The Lord caused the Egyptians to look favorably on the Israelites, and they gave the Israelites whatever they asked for. So they stripped the Egyptians of their wealth!” (Exodus 12:36 NLT).  It was all part of His divine plan.

Moses then states that the number of Israelites who prepared to leave Egypt was “about 600,000 men, plus all the women and children.” (Exodus 12:37 NLT). Scholars have long attempted to calculate the total number of Israelites who exited Egypt on that fateful day. Assuming that many of the 600,000 men were married with children, some have speculated that the total number of Israelites was well over 1 million. And if you add in the “rabble of non-Israelites” (Exodus 12:38 NLT) who went with them, the number could have been as high as 2 million. But when considering the logistical problems associated with a group of this size, many scholars have tried to come up with ways to arrive at a much lower and more reasonable number.

For many, the idea of one to two million Israelites trying to navigate their way from Egypt to Canaan is not only improbable but simply impossible. How would Moses feed so many people? Imagine how long it would take for that many people to pass through the Red Sea when Moses parted its waters. Because of the difficulty posed in trying to reconcile such a staggering number of people, many scholars have come up with novel ways to determine a more manageable and believable interpretation of this passage. But, this entire story has been full of improbable and impossible scenarios that defy explanation.

When Jacob had begun his journey from Canaan to Egypt in order to escape the famine and reunite with his long-lost son, Joseph, God visited him at Beersheba and gave him the following promise:

“I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation.” – Genesis 46:3 ESV

More than 400 years later, Jacob’s descendants were preparing to leave Egypt and they had greatly increased in number, just as God had promised. In fact, the book of Exodus opened with the statement, “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7 ESV).

And their fruitfulness had gotten the attention of the Pharaoh. He couldn’t help but notice that this motley group of 70 Hebrews who had entered the land four centuries earlier, had greatly increased in number; to the degree that he was forced to admit, “the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us” (Exodus 1:9 ESV).

While we may balk at the idea of 1 million or more Israelites marching out of Egypt under the direction of Moses, it is readily apparent that God had done something miraculous with His chosen people. He had greatly blessed them and fulfilled His original promise to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2 ESV).

And now, this mighty host was making its grand exit from the land of Egypt. Moses puts it this way:

At the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. – Exodus 12:41 ESV

This raises a second point of contention among many commentators and biblical scholars. Just exactly how long were the Israelites in Egypt? Was it 400 years or 430 years? Some believe that the Bible contradicts itself in regard to this matter.

Centuries earlier, God had told Abraham that his descendants would find themselves living in a foreign land for a period of 400 years.

“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.” – Genesis 15:13 ESV

But Moses clearly indicates that the people left Egypt after 430 years. In fact, he states that their exit took place “on that very day” (Exodus 12:41 ESV). This 430-year period is probably calculated from the day that Jacob and the 70 members of his family first entered Egypt.

All the persons belonging to Jacob who came into Egypt, who were his own descendants, not including Jacob’s sons’ wives, were sixty-six persons in all. And the sons of Joseph, who were born to him in Egypt, were two. All the persons of the house of Jacob who came into Egypt were seventy. – Genesis 46:26-27 NLT

The rag-tag group that entered the land was only 70 in number, but 430 years later, when they left, they had grown into a great host. In the book of Acts, Luke records that God eventually delivered this great host into the land of Canaan, some 450 years after Jacob and his small clan had first arrived.

And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. All this took about 450 years. – Acts 13:19 ESV

His calculation would seem to include the 40-plus years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness. But however the calculations are made, whether dealing with the number of Israelites or the total number of years they spent in Egypt, it is clear that God performed a great miracle for His chosen people. More than four centuries earlier, Joseph had told his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors” (Genesis 45:7 ESV). Now, those “many survivors” were lined up with their kneading bowls, unleavened dough, gold, and silver, ready to begin the long journey to the land of promise.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Plague Number Seven

13 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. 14 For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth. 15 For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. 16 But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. 17 You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go. 18 Behold, about this time tomorrow I will cause very heavy hail to fall, such as never has been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. 19 Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them.”’” 20 Then whoever feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh hurried his slaves and his livestock into the houses, 21 but whoever did not pay attention to the word of the Lord left his slaves and his livestock in the field.

22 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, so that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt, on man and beast and every plant of the field, in the land of Egypt.” 23 Then Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven, and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down to the earth. And the Lord rained hail upon the land of Egypt. 24 There was hail and fire flashing continually in the midst of the hail, very heavy hail, such as had never been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. 25 The hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land of Egypt, both man and beast. And the hail struck down every plant of the field and broke every tree of the field. 26 Only in the land of Goshen, where the people of Israel were, was there no hail.

27 Then Pharaoh sent and called Moses and Aaron and said to them, “This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. 28 Plead with the Lord, for there has been enough of God’s thunder and hail. I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer.” 29 Moses said to him, “As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord. The thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s. 30 But as for you and your servants, I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God.” 31 (The flax and the barley were struck down, for the barley was in the ear and the flax was in bud. 32 But the wheat and the emmer were not struck down, for they are late in coming up.) 33 So Moses went out of the city from Pharaoh and stretched out his hands to the Lord, and the thunder and the hail ceased, and the rain no longer poured upon the earth. 34 But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. 35 So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses. – Exodus 9:13-35 ESV

In his written chronicle of these events, Moses provides no timeline, so it is difficult to know if there was any delay between the various plagues. The sixth plague, which featured anthrax-like skin lesions, must have eventually come to an end but Moses provides no details. And it is impossible to tell whether any time was given for the Egyptians to heal before the next plague began. Moses simply states that God told him to “Get up early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh” (Exodus 9:13 NLT). This could have been the very next day after his last conversation with Pharaoh or it could have been months later. But whatever the case, God sent Moses and Aaron back to Pharaoh with the very same request they had repeatedly made.

Let my people go, so they can worship me. – Exodus 9:13 NLT

And, this time, God provided Moses with an important addendum to His original request.

“If you don’t, I will send more plagues on you and your officials and your people. Then you will know that there is no one like me in all the earth.” – Exodus 9:13 NLT

God wanted Pharaoh to know that the worse was yet to come. If the king continued to resist God’s request, the people of Egypt would suffer even greater distress and, this time, God let Pharaoh know that their very existence was in His hands.

“By now I could have lifted my hand and struck you and your people with a plague to wipe you off the face of the earth. But I have spared you for a purpose—to show you my power and to spread my fame throughout the earth. But you still lord it over my people and refuse to let them go.” – Exodus 9:15-17 NLT

In a display of divine mercy, God informed Pharaoh of the exact nature of the next plague. He was going to send a hail storm so intense that if the Egyptians did not provide shelter for their livestock and servants, they would be pummelled to death. Anyone or anything that remained outdoors would die as a result of this supernatural storm. This message seems to have been directed to Pharaoh and his court officials. These would have been some of the wealthiest men in Egypt and they would have had possessed large land holdings where they grew crops and grazed their livestock. Moses indicates that some of these men took seriously the warning passed on to them from Moses and did as he had suggested. But others scoffed at the words of Moses and his God.

At the Lord’s command, Moses lifted his staff in the air and, immediately, the storm began, and it was like nothing the Egyptians had ever seen before. This was no ordinary hail storm. It was a divinely ordained, supernatural display of God’s power over all creation. And it was yet another direct attack on the gods of Egypt. Moses leaves nothing to the imagination when it comes to the destructive power of this storm.

The Lord sent a tremendous hailstorm against all the land of Egypt. Never in all the history of Egypt had there been a storm like that, with such devastating hail and continuous lightning. It left all of Egypt in ruins. The hail struck down everything in the open field—people, animals, and plants alike. Even the trees were destroyed. – Exodus 9:23-25 NLT

The Egyptian gods responsible for the care and well-being of livestock were powerless to do their jobs. Any animals left in the fields were destroyed by the massive hailstones that fell from the sky. Others were struck down by the lightning bolts that emanated from the dark storm clouds. Crops were completely destroyed. Trees were stripped of their limbs, leaves, and fruit. It was if the Egyptian gods were doing battle with one another.

The goddess, Nut, was believed to be responsible for holding up the sky and was often portrayed as a woman arched over the earth. Underneath her body lay her brother, Geb, the earth god. Together, these two gods, along with Shu, the god of the air, held the world together. The heavens, sky, and earth were protected by this trinity of Egyptian gods. But, on this occasion, they failed to do their jobs. From the domain of Shu came devastating hail that damaged the realm of Geb. To the Egyptians, it appeared as if Shu’s sister, Tefnut, the goddess of moisture, was playing a role by sending torrential rains along with the hail. And the violent nature of the storm did not seem to fit their understanding of Shu, who was associated with dry air and calm, and was supposed to provide a cooling and calming influence over the world. In a land where rain was sporadic at best, this storm was unsettling and anything but calming in its influence. For the Egyptians, it was as if all their gods were at war with one another.

“What would the worshippers of Nut have thought when they looked skyward not to see the blessings of the sun and warmth, but the tragedy of storm and violence. Nut was the sky goddess. It was from her domain that this tragedy originated. One reflects upon the responsibilities of both Isis and Seth who also had responsibilities relating to agricultural crops. The black and burned fields of flax were a silent testimony to the impotence and incapability of wooden and stone deities.” – John Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt

But it was all the work of Jehovah, the God of the Israelites, and the one true God was doing what the gods of the Egyptians were powerless to do: Providing His chosen people with divine protection.

The only place without hail was the region of Goshen, where the people of Israel lived. – Exodus 9:26 NLT

It was as if a celestial dome had been erected over the land of Goshen, preventing the hail and lightning from reaching the Israelites and their property. They were completely safe. But the Egyptians suffered greatly. Their losses were catastrophic. And it appears as if this plague got Pharaoh’s attention.

“This time I have sinned,” he confessed. “The Lord is the righteous one, and my people and I are wrong. Please beg the Lord to end this terrifying thunder and hail. We’ve had enough. I will let you go; you don’t need to stay any longer.” – Exodus 9:27-28 NLT

But Pharaoh’s rather convincing display of remorse didn’t fool anyone. Moses was well aware that this was yet another ploy to buy Pharaoh time. He had no intention of letting the Israelites go but simply wanted the storm to end. So, Moses offered to intercede with God on behalf of the Egyptians, but he also informed Pharaoh that he knew he was lying.

“As soon as I leave the city, I will lift my hands and pray to the Lord. Then the thunder and hail will stop, and you will know that the earth belongs to the Lord. But I know that you and your officials still do not fear the Lord God.” – Exodus 9:29-30 NLT

Despite the devastating damage done by the storm, Pharaoh once again hardened his heart and refused to keep his word. He had lived to resist another day. His kingdom lay in ruins. All crops were destroyed. Fruit-bearing trees were shorn of their produce. Tens of thousands of sheep, goats, cattle, camels, and donkeys lay lifeless in the fields. And it is likely that many of the poorer Egyptians were struck down by the plague as they attempted to save their livestock as the hail rained down.

With this plague, death becomes a dark reality in God’s intensifying display of divine judgment. No longer will discomfort and inconvenience be the sole outcomes of His wrath. Now the lives of the Egyptians themselves will be susceptible to God’s righteous indignation. No one and nothing was outside His reach or protected from His judgment. Not even Pharaoh.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The High Cost of Commitment

24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

27 The Lord said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went and met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. 28 And Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which he had sent him to speak, and all the signs that he had commanded him to do. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel. 30 Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people. 31 And the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped. – Exodus 4:24-31 ESV

Having received his final instructions from God, Moses set off for Egypt with his wife Zipporah, and two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. Gershom, whose name means “sojourner there,” is mentioned in chapter two, but Eliezer’s name does not appear until chapter 18, and his name means “my God is helper.”

The long journey back to Egypt required many stops along the way so that Zipporah and their young boys could rest. On one of those occasions, Moses received another visit from Jehovah that would prove to be far from pleasant. Recording the details of that fateful evening, he records that they had stopped for the night, and “the Lord met Moses and sought to kill him” (Exodus 4:24 NLT). 

This statement is meant to shock the reader. It comes completely out of nowhere and provides no rationale or context for its existence. The reader is left to wonder why God would want to kill the very man He has called to be the deliverer of His chosen people. It makes no sense. It seems pointless and out of character for God. But there is a powerful lesson contained in this seemingly out-of-place sentence.

Moses had finally given in and obeyed God’s commission to return to Egypt as His deliverer, but he was doing so in a state of disobedience. Moses had failed to keep one of the most important commands that God had ever given His people. More than half a century earlier, God had visited Moses’ forefather, Abraham, and reiterated His promise to provide Abraham with a multitude of descendants. But as part of his covenant commitment, Abraham and his heirs were ordered to practice the rite of circumcision.

Then God said to Abraham, “Your responsibility is to obey the terms of the covenant. You and all your descendants have this continual responsibility. This is the covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised. You must cut off the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of the covenant between me and you. From generation to generation, every male child must be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. This applies not only to members of your family but also to the servants born in your household and the foreign-born servants whom you have purchased. All must be circumcised. Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant. Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant.” – Genesis 17:9-14 NLT

The penalty for not carrying out this sacred rite was death. That is what God meant when He said, “any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off” (Exodus 17:14 NLT). This rather humorless wordplay was meant to convey the seriousness of the command. It was non-optional and binding on all generations of Abraham’s descendants.

Yet, Moses had failed to keep this command. It becomes readily apparent from the text that Gershom, Moses’ firstborn son, remained uncircumcised. We are given no reason for this oversight on Moses’ part, but the penalty for his failure to keep the covenant command was clear. Yet, rather than order the death of Gershom, God declares His intent to kill Moses.

It is no coincidence that this death sentence for Moses comes immediately after the record of God’s final words to Moses before he left Midian.

“…you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” – Exodus 4:22-23 ESV

If Pharaoh refused to obey God, the life of his firstborn son would be forfeited. But because Moses refused to obey God and circumcise Gershom, it would be Moses who died and not his firstborn son. God was holding Moses personally responsible for this blatant violation of His covenant command.

In a desperate attempt to spare her husband’s life, Zipporah took matters into her own hands and immediately carried out the circumcision of Gershom. Then, in a rather strange display of frustration and disappointment, she took “her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it” ( Exodus 4:25 ESV). In a sense, she was laying the blame at the feet of her husband. He had failed to lead his family well and, in doing so, had put them all at risk. Moses’ refusal to circumcise Gershom had placed a target on the young boy’s back because he would spend his life as a covenant violator who was worthy of death. He would also spend his life as an outsider, separated from fellowship with God’s covenant people.

Zipporah’s actions reflect her frustration with Moses, and she gives full vent to her anger when she tells her husband, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” (Exodus 4:25 ESV). In his commentary on the book of Exodus, the Italian Rabbi, U. Cassutto provides the following translation of Zipporah’s statement:

“I have delivered you from death, and your return to life makes you my bridegroom a second time, this time my blood bridegroom, a bridegroom acquired through blood”

In a sense, she has paid the bridegroom price. She has sacrificed the blood of their firstborn son in order to save the life of her disobedient husband. And, in doing so, she spared the life of Gershom as well. He would no longer live under the condemnation of death for his uncircumcised state.

And what makes this scene so important is that it emphasizes just how seriously God takes sin in the life of His chosen people. Moses had finally chosen to obey God and take up the mantle as His deliverer, but he was doing so in a state of disobedience. The one whom God chose to lead the circumcised sons of Abraham out of their bondage in Egypt, was leading an uncircumcised son into Egypt. This was unacceptable, and God was willing to kill the messenger rather than allow him to tarnish the entire mission with his own disobedience. Moses needed to be in a right relationship with God if he was going to serve as a messenger from God. What God had demanded of Abraham was true of Moses as well.

“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless…” – Genesis 17:1 ESV

There could be no hidden areas in Moses’ life. He could not afford to have any undisclosed indiscretions or secret sins. He was to stand before Pharaoh as God’s representative. When he spoke, he was to speak on behalf of God. So, his character would be integral to the carrying out of his commission.

As all this was going on, God was working behind the scenes to keep His promise to enlist Aaron, Moses’ brother, as his assistant. When Moses had expressed his reticence to act as God’s mouthpiece, God offered to let Aaron take up that responsibility.

“You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. And take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs.” – Exodus 4:15-17 ESV

So, God arranged for the two to meet on the outskirts of Egypt, where Moses brought his brother up to speed on all that God had said and done back at Mount Horeb. We are given no insight as to how Aaron received all this news from his brother. But it must have been like drinking from a firehose. Aaron didn’t have the benefit of seeing the burning bush or hearing the voice of God. He simply had to take all that his brother said at face value and trust that this was a divinely ordained mission. And, by all indications, he heard his brother out and decided to join him in this rather Quixote-lie quest.

They eventually arrived in Egypt, made their way to the land of Goshen, and gathered all the elders of the people of Israel.

Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people. – Exodus 4:30 ESV

This God-ordained tag team went right to work, carrying out the commands of God and launching the providential plan that He had ordained. And probably much to Moses’ surprise, “the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped” (Exodus 4:31 ESV).

Early on, Moses had questioned the feasibility of this plan. He wondered whether the people of Israel would even remember the name of Jehovah, let alone accept the far-fetched idea of Him orchestrating their deliverance from Egypt. But when he and Aaron faithfully did what God had told them to do, the people believed. They were desperate for someone to deliver them from their suffering and when they discovered that Jehovah had heard their pleas for help, they responded in worship. Suddenly, the gods of Egypt were out of sight, out of mind. Jehovah, the God of Israel, had returned and they were ready to give Him the glory and reverence He deserved. But their newfound faith was about to be severely tested.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Unfolding Plan of God

11 One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. 12 He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, “Why do you strike your companion?” 14 He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. And he sat down by a well.

16 Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock. 18 When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come home so soon today?” 19 They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds and even drew water for us and watered the flock.” 20 He said to his daughters, “Then where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.” 21 And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. 22 She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.”

23 During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25 God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. – Exodus 2:11-25 ESV

Moses fast-forwards this section of his biography by skipping from his infancy to his young adulthood as a member of Pharaoh’s household. As the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses enjoyed the privileges and prerogatives that came as a grandson of the most powerful man in the land of Egypt. He was raised in an atmosphere of opulence and wealth. He would have received a first-class education and had access to all the trappings that come with his royal rank.

But while it appears that Moses grew up in relative isolation as a member of the royal family, he was not ignorant of his Hebrew heritage. His mother had played a role in the early years of his life, acting as his nursemaid on behalf of Pharaoh’s daughter. It seems likely that Moses continued to have contact with his parents, Amram and Jochabed, as well as his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron. This means he would have been aware of his heritage and the conditions under which his fellow Hebrews were living as a result of his adopted grandfather’s policies.

So, Moses relates a day came when he ventured outside the walls of the royal palace in order to observe the situation among his people, the Hebrews. It is not clear if this was a first for Moses or whether he made these excursions on a regular basis. But on this particular occasion, he witnessed “an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people” (Exodus 2:11 ESV). Perhaps Moses had seen this kind of harsh treatment before and chosen to ignore it. But in this instance, he decided to take matters into his own hands and teach the offending Egyptian a lesson he would not soon forget.

Moses killed the man and buried his body in the sand, and the only witness was the Hebrew whose life he had protected. But somehow, word got out. The very next day, Moses attempted to insert himself in the middle of a confrontation between two Hebrews, but they did not appreciate his interference in their affair.

“Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Are you planning to kill me like you killed that Egyptian?” – Exodus 2:14 NLT

Suddenly, Moses realized that his little secret from the day before was anything but secret. This thought petrified and rightfully so, because Pharaoh got wind of Moses’ little stunt playing judge, jury, and executioner and was livid. His grandfather had no love affair with the Hebrews and when he heard that his adopted Hebrew grandson had taken the life of an Egyptian, he was livid. So much so, that he put a bounty on Moses’ head.

So Moses fled from Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midian, and he settled by a certain well. – Exodus 2:15 NLT

Moses fled for his life. It appears that he took no time to say goodbye to his adoptive mother or his biological parents and siblings. He simply ran and he didn’t stop until he got all the way to Midian. This proved to be quite a trek and it covered territory that would become very familiar to Moses in the days ahead. To get to Midian, Moses had to cross the Sinai Peninsula, a path that would take him through the wilderness of Shur, Paran, and, possibly Sin. It would have been a long and arduous journey, made even more difficult by the knowledge that Pharaoh could have sent a posse in hot pursuit of his runaway grandson/murderer.

At this point in the narrative, it is important to consider how the author of the book of Hebrews describes Moses’ flight to Midian. In chapter 11 of his book, the author includes Moses in his “hall of faith,” a compilation of Old Testament characters whose lives exhibited faith in God. Of Moses, he writes:

By faith, when he grew up, Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be ill-treated with the people of God than to enjoy sin’s fleeting pleasure. He regarded abuse suffered for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for his eyes were fixed on the reward. By faith he left Egypt without fearing the king’s anger, for he persevered as though he could see the one who is invisible. – Hebrews 11:24-27 NLT

This gives a whole new perspective on what was going on behind the scenes and within Moses’ heart during this critical period of his young life. According to the author of Hebrews, Moses had long ago made the conscious decision to reject his royal status and embrace his true ethnic roots. He had heard about Jehovah, the God of his people, from his mother, and he had embraced the promises of God that made been passed down from Abraham all the way to Jacob. The author of Hebrews suggests that Moses knew about all the promises concerning the land of Canaan. He knew that Egypt was just a temporary holding place for the people of Israel, the descendants of Jacob. Moses was aware of the promise that Jehovah had made to Abraham.

“You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. – Genesis 15:13-14 NLT

And Moses had been willing to jeopardize his standing in the royal court in order to align himself with the much-maligned and hated Hebrews. They were his people and he was willing to give up his status, wealth, and life of privilege in order to secure the better future God had in store for them. It even states that he “left Egypt without fearing the king’s anger” (Hebrews 11:17 NLT). He didn’t leave Egypt in a state of fear, but in a state of hopeful anticipation that God was going to do something for his people. He had no idea what the future had in store, but he was willing to give up all he had to be part of whatever God was going to do.

Moses eventually arrived in Midian, where he came into contact with seven daughters of the priest of Midian. These people were descendants of Abraham through Keturah, the wife he took after the death of Sarah. So, they were blood relatives of Moses. And in this distant land, Moses would meet his wife and settle down to a much different life than the one he led back in Egypt.

God was preparing Moses for something significant, but this young exile from Egypt was unaware of all that God had in store for him in the days ahead. And while Moses was settling into his new life in Midian, God was busy orchestrating things back in Egypt.

During that long period of time the king of Egypt died, and the Israelites groaned because of the slave labor. They cried out, and their desperate cry because of their slave labor went up to God. God heard their groaning; God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the Israelites, and God understood. – Exodus 2:23-25 NLT

Moses was living in relative peace and security, oblivious to the conditions his family back in Egypt was having to endure. The persecution of the Hebrews had only increased in intensity. A new Pharaoh on the throne did not bring about any change in their conditions. Moses could not hear their cries, but God was listening and watching, and He had a plan in place that was going to radically alter their lives forever.  And soon, Moses would know the role he was going play in God’s grand redemptive plan for the people of Israel.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

A Vision of Two Valleys

1 “And you, son of man, prophesy against Gog and say, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. And I will turn you about and drive you forward, and bring you up from the uttermost parts of the north, and lead you against the mountains of Israel. Then I will strike your bow from your left hand, and will make your arrows drop out of your right hand. You shall fall on the mountains of Israel, you and all your hordes and the peoples who are with you. I will give you to birds of prey of every sort and to the beasts of the field to be devoured. You shall fall in the open field, for I have spoken, declares the Lord God. I will send fire on Magog and on those who dwell securely in the coastlands, and they shall know that I am the Lord.

“And my holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel, and I will not let my holy name be profaned anymore. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One in Israel. Behold, it is coming and it will be brought about, declares the Lord God. That is the day of which I have spoken.

“Then those who dwell in the cities of Israel will go out and make fires of the weapons and burn them, shields and bucklers, bow and arrows, clubs and spears; and they will make fires of them for seven years, 10 so that they will not need to take wood out of the field or cut down any out of the forests, for they will make their fires of the weapons. They will seize the spoil of those who despoiled them, and plunder those who plundered them, declares the Lord God.

11 “On that day I will give to Gog a place for burial in Israel, the Valley of the Travelers, east of the sea. It will block the travelers, for there Gog and all his multitude will be buried. It will be called the Valley of Hamon-gog. 12 For seven months the house of Israel will be burying them, in order to cleanse the land. 13 All the people of the land will bury them, and it will bring them renown on the day that I show my glory, declares the Lord God. 14 They will set apart men to travel through the land regularly and bury those travelers remaining on the face of the land, so as to cleanse it. At the end of seven months they will make their search. 15 And when these travel through the land and anyone sees a human bone, then he shall set up a sign by it, till the buriers have buried it in the Valley of Hamon-gog. 16 (Hamonah is also the name of the city.) Thus shall they cleanse the land.

17 “As for you, son of man, thus says the Lord God: Speak to the birds of every sort and to all beasts of the field: ‘Assemble and come, gather from all around to the sacrificial feast that I am preparing for you, a great sacrificial feast on the mountains of Israel, and you shall eat flesh and drink blood. 18 You shall eat the flesh of the mighty, and drink the blood of the princes of the earth—of rams, of lambs, and of he-goats, of bulls, all of them fat beasts of Bashan. 19 And you shall eat fat till you are filled, and drink blood till you are drunk, at the sacrificial feast that I am preparing for you. 20 And you shall be filled at my table with horses and charioteers, with mighty men and all kinds of warriors,’ declares the Lord God.

21 “And I will set my glory among the nations, and all the nations shall see my judgment that I have executed, and my hand that I have laid on them. 22 The house of Israel shall know that I am the Lord their God, from that day forward. 23 And the nations shall know that the house of Israel went into captivity for their iniquity, because they dealt so treacherously with me that I hid my face from them and gave them into the hand of their adversaries, and they all fell by the sword. 24 I dealt with them according to their uncleanness and their transgressions, and hid my face from them. Ezekiel 39:1-24 ESV

Gog, this future world leader, who will form an alliance of nations to attack the reestablished nation of Israel, will find himself with a very powerful enemy: God Himself. So, God has Ezekiel write down a message for this as-yet-to-be-born, self-appointed conqueror of Israel.

I am your enemy, O Gog, ruler of the nations of Meshech and Tubal. I will turn you around and drive you toward the mountains of Israel, bringing you from the distant north. – Ezekiel 39:2-3 NLT

From this point forward, God makes it clear that everything Gog does will be according to His plan. Repeatedly, God states, “I will…,” declaring His sovereign plan to use Gog as a means of accomplishing His preferred and predetermined end. Having Ezekiel record this message in written form ensures that it will last long after the prophet’s death. As a divinely inspired portion of Scripture, the message is eternal as well as reliable. What God has said will actually happen. And whether this man, Gog, ever receives this message from God, all those who read it over the centuries will know that both his ambition and ultimate annihilation are the work of God.

God will be the driving force behind this entire end times event. The participants will not be unthinking pawns in His hands, operating like automatons or robots. They will be acting out their own selfish desires and operating according to what they believe is their own free will. But God will be using them to accomplish His predetermined will. When Gog and his allies make the fateful decision to come against the defenseless people of Israel, they will find themselves in a battle with God Almighty.

I will knock the bow from your left hand and the arrows from your right hand, and I will leave you helpless. You and your army and your allies will all die on the mountains. I will feed you to the vultures and wild animals. You will fall in the open fields, for I have spoken, says the Sovereign Lord. And I will rain down fire on Magog and on all your allies who live safely on the coasts. Then they will know that I am the Lord. – Ezekiel 39:3-6 NLT

This will be a lopsided battle ending in the total annihilation of the enemy’s army and the divine destruction of their homeland. This day of judgment will deliver a powerful message to every person who happens to be alive at the time. Even at this late date in human history, the world will be filled with idolatrous and unrighteous people who have refused to acknowledge Yahweh as the one true god. The apostle Paul provided Timothy with a description of the spiritual climate in those days.

…in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. – 2 Timothy 3:1-5 NLT

But with His utter destruction of Gog and Magog, God will send a message to the world.

I will make known my holy name among my people of Israel. I will not let anyone bring shame on it. And the nations, too, will know that I am the Lord, the Holy One of Israel. – Ezekiel 39:7 NLT

It will be painfully clear that this display of supernatural destruction is the work of God, just like the judgments of the seven trumpets and seven bowls recorded in the book of Revelation. No one will be able to miss the message God is sending. He is God alone and no one can resist His sovereign will.

In verses 9-16, Ezekiel records the horrific aftermath of this one-sided battle. The bodies of the slain will cover the ground as far as the eye can see, and it will take seven months to bury all the dead. The size of Gog’s fallen army is so great that the Israelites will be able to use the wood from their shields, spears, bows, and arrows as fuel for a period of seven years. The valley in which the bodies of the fallen will be buried will be called, “The Valley of the Multitude of Gog.” And for seven months after the last body has been interred, a special team of men will scour the land looking for any last bones that may have been missed, marking their location so the burial detail can complete their grisly work.

This imagery stands in stark contrast to that found in Ezekiel 37. There Ezekiel describes his vision of the valley of dry bones. He sees a landscape covered in dry, scattered bones that are intended to represent the spiritual state of God’s people. But in this case, rather than burial, the bones are miraculously rejoined together.

The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies… – Ezekiel 37:7-8 NLT

Then Ezekiel watched as God breathed new life into the newly formed bodies of His people.

breath came into their bodies. They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army. – Ezekiel 37:10 NLT

What a glaring contrast between these two scenes. One is a prediction of a literal event that will take place in human history. The other is a vision of a spiritual transformation that will take place among God’s chosen people. Both are real and guaranteed to take place. But where Gog and his allies will suffer defeat, death, and the dishonor of burial in a mass grave, the people of Israel will enjoy the blessings of a revitalized relationship with Yahweh made possible by His gracious transformation of their hearts.

God reveals the details of this end times event to His prophet so that he can share it with the exiled people of Judah. This entire section of Ezekiel’s book was meant to provide the helpless and hopeless people of God with encouragement by reminding them that He had not forgotten or forsaken them. God assures them, “I will demonstrate my glory to the nations. Everyone will see the punishment I have inflicted on them and the power of my fist when I strike. And from that time on the people of Israel will know that I am the Lord their God” (Ezekiel 39:21-22 NLT).

Yes, they had been punished for their sin. Their status as exiles was proof of that fact. But God wanted them to remember that He was not yet done. Their judgment would be followed by their justification. He would one day redeem and restore them, cleansing them from all their impurities and providing them with new hearts that will allow them to worship Him alone.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

A Life-Changing Look at the Law

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. – 1 Timothy 2:8-11 ESV

Paul has warned Timothy about a certain group of individuals who had infiltrated the church in Ephesus and were declaring themselves to be experts on the Mosaic Law. These self-proclaimed teachers of the law were creating confusion among the converts to Christianity, propagating a range of dangerous doctrines based on their misguided interpretation and application of the Jewish legal code. Yet Paul flatly debunks their expertise.

…they do not understand what they are saying or the things they insist on so confidently. – 1 Timothy 1:7 NET

On Paul’s third missionary journey, he made a stop in the city of Ephesus where he found a small contingent of newly converted believers. Paul took these 12 men under his wing, baptizing them and laying hands on them so that they might receive the Holy Spirit. And Paul also spent time in the local synagogue, witnessing to his fellow Jews.

Paul went to the synagogue and preached boldly for the next three months, arguing persuasively about the Kingdom of God. Acts 19:8 NLT

But the reception Paul received from the Jews living in Ephesus was far from warm.

…some became stubborn, rejecting his message and publicly speaking against the Way. So Paul left the synagogue and took the believers with him. Then he held daily discussions at the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for the next two years, so that people throughout the province of Asia—both Jews and Greeks—heard the word of the Lord. – Acts 19:9-10 NLT

Paul had been undeterred by the stubbornness of the Jews and continued to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to any who would listen. It is likely that some of the Jewish converts were among those who were trying to use their knowledge of the Mosaic Law to promote a form of legalism among the Gentile members of the congregation. But Paul insisted that these people, while well-intentioned, failed to understand the purpose of the law.

As a former Pharisee, Paul was an expert in the law of Moses. He had studied it extensively and could probably recite much of it from memory. Unlike the wanna-be teachers of the law in Ephesus, Paul had the credentials and curricula vitae to back up his opinions concerning the law.

I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. – Philippians 3:5-6 NLT

But Paul’s understanding of the law had been radically transformed by his encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. Since becoming a follower of Christ, Paul had developed a whole new perspective on the law. No longer was the law to be seen as a set of rules to keep in order to have a right relationship with God. That is exactly what he told the believers in Rome.

Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:19-20 NLT

What these so-called experts in the law were teaching was a form of legalism. There were promoting a need to keep the law in order to be truly saved. In their minds, the idea of faith alone in Christ alone was not enough. As far as they were concerned, the Gentile converts to Christianity were required to keep the laws given to Moses and practice all the rites and rituals associated with Judaism. But Paul knew this to be a dangerous lie that destroyed the whole idea of salvation by faith.

Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. – Romans 3:27-28 NLT

In the letter he wrote to the church in Ephesus, Paul reminded them of the incredible nature of God’s grace.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

This problem of legalism creeping into the church was pervasive. It seems that Paul encountered it in every city where the gospel gained a foothold. As soon as people began to place their faith in Christ, the legalists would appear on the scene, promoting their false doctrine of faith plus works. These Judaizers, as they came to be known, were adamant in their belief that obedience to the Mosaic Law was a non-negotiable requirement for salvation. Yet, Paul vehemently disagreed with their assertion.

…those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law.” So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” This way of faith is very different from the way of law, which says, “It is through obeying the law that a person has life.” – Galatians 3:10-12 NLT

Paul went on to explain to the Galatian believers the true purpose of the law.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

The law was never meant to save anyone. In the law, God revealed the righteous requirements He ordained for His people, but He knew that they would fail to live up to His exacting standards. That’s why He gave them the sacrificial system. Their inability to live up to the stringent moral and ethical code He established would leave them in a constant state of sin. So, the sacrificial system provided a means of receiving atonement and forgiveness.

The author of the book of Hebrews reminds us that the sacrificial system was never intended to permanently irradicate sin and eliminate guilt. In a sense, it was a bandaid approach to a much more serious problem.

The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared.

But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. – Hebrews 10:1-4 NLT

And Paul emphasizes that this understanding of the law’s role does not in any way diminish its value.

Is there a conflict, then, between God’s law and God’s promises? Absolutely not! If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it. But the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin, so we receive God’s promise of freedom only by believing in Jesus Christ. – Galatians 3:21-22 NLT

The law was always intended to be a temporary solution to the problem of sin and it was only provided to the people of Israel. God had given His law to His chosen people and it had been meant to be a way of setting them apart from all the other nations on earth. God had given them His code of conduct and demanded that they obey it to the letter. But He had known they would fail. Even as the set-apart people of God and equipped with the law of God, they were unable to live up to His righteous standard. And Paul told the Galatians that the law had always been intended to function as a short-term fix to the eternal problem of sin.

Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed.

Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian. – Galatians 3:23-25 NLT

And Paul wanted Timothy to combat the lies of the legalists who were infiltrating the church in Ephesus. It was essential that Timothy shut down any talk of law-keeping as a requirement for salvation. According to Paul, faith in Christ provides freedom from the requirements of the law.

Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. – Galatians 5:1 NLT

For Paul, the law was for the unbelieving and unrepentant. It was for all those who had not yet been set free from sin by placing their faith in Christ. And he makes that point perfectly clear to Timothy.

The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practice homosexuality, or are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts the wholesome teaching that comes from the glorious Good News entrusted to me by our blessed God. – 1 Timothy 1:10-11 NLT

It was Jesus who predicted the sin-defeating and life-liberating nature of His death, burial, and resurrection. Faith in Christ provides freedom from sin and liberation from a life of legalism and law-keeping.

“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. – John 8:34-36 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

A Place of Refuge and Atonement

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. 12 The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. 13 And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14 You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. 15 These six cities shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills any person without intent may flee there.

16 “But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death. 17 And if he struck him down with a stone tool that could cause death, and he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death. 18 Or if he struck him down with a wooden tool that could cause death, and he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death. 19 The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. 20 And if he pushed him out of hatred or hurled something at him, lying in wait, so that he died, 21 or in enmity struck him down with his hand, so that he died, then he who struck the blow shall be put to death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.

22 “But if he pushed him suddenly without enmity, or hurled anything on him without lying in wait 23 or used a stone that could cause death, and without seeing him dropped it on him, so that he died, though he was not his enemy and did not seek his harm, 24 then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these rules. 25 And the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. 26 But if the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the boundaries of his city of refuge to which he fled, 27 and the avenger of blood finds him outside the boundaries of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood. 28 For he must remain in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest, but after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession. 29 And these things shall be for a statute and rule for you throughout your generations in all your dwelling places.

30 “If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. 31 Moreover, you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death. 32 And you shall accept no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the high priest. 33 You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. 34 You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.”  Numbers 35:9-34 ESV

The cities of refuge. God instructed Moses to set aside six different cities, located throughout the land of Canaan, and designate them as cities of refuge. Occupied by Levites, these cities were strategically placed and easily accessible from all parts of the land. Their purpose was to provide a safe haven to anyone who had committed unpremeditated murder.  If an Israelite inadvertently and unintentionally caused the death of a fellow Israelite, he could flee to one of these cities and seek refuge from the avenger.

In that cultural context, It was up to the relatives of a murder victim to seek vengeance. This “blood avenger” (Numbers 35:19) was not just free to kill the murdered, he was obligated to do so (Numbers 35:19, 21). It was his duty. He was called the “avenger of blood.”

But in order to prevent the blood avenger from taking the life of an innocent individual, the cities of refuge were established. If an Israelite accidentally killed someone else, he could run to one of these cities and seek refuge. As long as he remained there, he would be protected from the blood avenger. It was up to the residents of the city (Levites) to help determine the guilt of innocence of the accused. If it was determined that his actions were premeditated and intentional, he was to be handed over to the blood avenger for retribution. But if he was deemed innocent of having committed voluntary manslaughter, he would be allowed to remain in the city of refuge until the high priest died. In essence, the city became his prison. If he ever left, he would be guilty of violating his sentence and the blood avenger could seek his death.

All of this sounds very barbaric to us, but you have to remember that Israel had no police force for enforcing laws or dispensing justice. According to the Mosaic Law, murder was a crime worthy of death. The guilty must be punished. But involuntary manslaughter was to be dealt with in a different manner. That is why the cities were established. God was protecting the innocent.

God dwelt among His people, and His very presence demanded that they live set-apart lives. His holiness and righteousness required that they live differently and distinctively, abiding by a stringent set of rules and regulations that governed their behavior and interactions with one another. And yet God knew their weaknesses and fully understood their incapacity to live up to His exacting standards. The entire sacrificial system was designed to deal with their ongoing struggle with sin.

To unjustly execute the innocent would have been as evil in God’s sight as to excuse the guilty. So He provided those who had committed involuntary manslaughter a means for finding justice. They could live in the city of refuge and enjoy permanent protection from the “blood avenger.” They were still guilty of murder, but their lives were spared. The city of refuge became their prison until the day that the high priest died. Then his death would serve as an atonement for their sin, providing them with release from their guilt and the right to live among their kinsmen again – innocent and free.

The ongoing presence of God was constantly in jeopardy due to the sinfulness of men. Yet He provided them with countless means by which they could receive restoration and assure His continued existence among them. It was God who set them apart. Without them, they would have been nothing. His presence provided them their distinctiveness. And it was their sin that threatened their uniqueness as His chosen people.

From the day that Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, God has been actively and aggressively seeking to restore order to the chaos created by their actions. Their sin brought disorder, disobedience, and, ultimately, death into the world. It wasn’t long after Eve listened to the lies of the enemy and convinced her husband to join her in rejecting God’s word, that murder showed up on the scene. One of Eve’s own sons killed his brother. Death entered the scene. And disease would not be far behind it. Their bodies would undergo the inevitable effects of aging. Sin would increase. Rebellion against God would run rampant. And yet God continued to reach out to mankind, offering a form of refuge from the consequences of sin.

In a real sense, God’s choosing of Abraham made him and his descendants a “city of refuge” for mankind. The people of Israel would become a single source of God’s abiding presence and divine protection from the guilt and condemnation of sin. It was among the children of God that men could find access to their Creator. It was through the law of God that men could learn of the divine requirements and expectations of a holy God. It was through the sacrificial system instituted by God that men could find atonement for their sins and freedom from the penalty of death they so justly deserved. God had provided a city of refuge among the sons of men. And eventually, God would send His own Son as the ultimate and final means of refuge and escape from sin’s destructive power and God’s righteous judgment.

The Scriptures make it painfully clear that all men are guilty of sin.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.– Romans 3:23 ESV

Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV

Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?” – Proverbs 20:9 ESV

We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT

The law of God was given to reveal to men the reality and gravity of their sins. Like a speed limit sign on the side of the freeway, the law provided a constant reminder of man’s proclivity for disobedience and rebellion. Our guilt is unquestionable and undeniable. Sinful humanity stands condemned before a holy and righteous God due to the sinful nature passed down to them from Adam and Eve. All are guilty and all stand condemned. And the very presence of disease and death in our world is an outward reminder of the reality of sin’s devastating consequences.

In the case of someone seeking refuge in one of these cities, if they remained there until the high priest died, their sin was forgiven. They walked away free and clear. The death of the high priest had atoning value just as Jesus’ death for us atones for our sins. No one could accuse this person once the high priest had died. And we stand as unaccused and uncondemned because of what Christ has done for us.

Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? Will God? No! He is the one who has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? Will Christ Jesus? No, for he is the one who died for us and was raised to life for us and is sitting at the place of highest honor next to God, pleading for us. – Romans 8:33-34 NLT

We can take refuge in Christ. He is our high priest and He has died for us. His death has set us free once and for all.

God also bound himself with an oath, so that those who received the promise could be perfectly sure that he would never change his mind. So God has given us both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can take new courage, for we can hold on to his promise with confidence. This confidence is like a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain of heaven into God’s inner sanctuary. Jesus has already gone in there for us. He has become our eternal High Priest in the line of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 6:17-20 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The High Cost of Atonement

16 “On the fourteenth day of the first month is the Lord‘s Passover, 17 and on the fifteenth day of this month is a feast. Seven days shall unleavened bread be eaten. 18 On the first day there shall be a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work, 19 but offer a food offering, a burnt offering to the Lord: two bulls from the herd, one ram, and seven male lambs a year old; see that they are without blemish; 20 also their grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil; three tenths of an ephah shall you offer for a bull, and two tenths for a ram; 21 a tenth shall you offer for each of the seven lambs; 22 also one male goat for a sin offering, to make atonement for you. 23 You shall offer these besides the burnt offering of the morning, which is for a regular burnt offering. 24 In the same way you shall offer daily, for seven days, the food of a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. It shall be offered besides the regular burnt offering and its drink offering. 25 And on the seventh day you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work.

26 “On the day of the firstfruits, when you offer a grain offering of new grain to the Lord at your Feast of Weeks, you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work, 27 but offer a burnt offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord: two bulls from the herd, one ram, seven male lambs a year old; 28 also their grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, three tenths of an ephah for each bull, two tenths for one ram, 29 a tenth for each of the seven lambs; 30 with one male goat, to make atonement for you. 31 Besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering, you shall offer them and their drink offering. See that they are without blemish.  Numbers 28:16-31 ESV

The next major event God reminded the Israelites to keep was the annual feast of unleavened bread. It took place in the first month of the year, the month of Nisan (March/April), in conjunction with the celebration of Passover. This week-long feast was the first of seven Jewish feasts or festivals each year, and as part of the celebration, the Israelites were prohibited from eating bread baked with yeast. This was to commemorate their hasty departure from Egypt during the Exodus.

“For seven days the bread you eat must be made without yeast. On the first day of the festival, remove every trace of yeast from your homes. Anyone who eats bread made with yeast during the seven days of the festival will be cut off from the community of Israel. On the first day of the festival and again on the seventh day, all the people must observe an official day for holy assembly. No work of any kind may be done on these days except in the preparation of food.” – Exodus 12:15-16 NLT

God declared that this feast would be celebrated for perpetuity, throughout all generations.

“Celebrate this Festival of Unleavened Bread, for it will remind you that I brought your forces out of the land of Egypt on this very day. This festival will be a permanent law for you; celebrate this day from generation to generation. – Exodus 12:17 NLT

Now, four decades later, the descendants of those original Israelites who had lived through the first Passover and escaped the judgment of the death angel, were standing on the banks of the Jordan River waiting to enter Canaan. And God wanted them to remember His miraculous deliverance of their forefathers.

Along with the unleavened bread, the Israelites were to present a special offering on the seventh and final day of the festival.

“As a special gift you must present a burnt offering to the Lord—two young bulls, one ram, and seven one-year-old male lambs, all with no defects.” – Numbers 28:19 NLT

These unblemished animals were first sacrificed, their blood poured out, and then their bodies were burned so that they might be a pleasing aroma to God. They became symbolic of the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross for the sins of mankind. Paul would later write to the believers in Ephesus and encourage them to follow the example of Christ.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 NLT

The author of Hebrews uses the imagery of the sacrificed animals to point out the superior nature of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross for the sins of man.

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared.

But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world, he said to God,

“You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings.
But you have given me a body to offer.
You were not pleased with burnt offerings
or other offerings for sin.
Then I said, ‘Look, I have come to do your will, O God—
as is written about me in the Scriptures.’” – Hebrews 10:1-7 NLT

But while the sacrifices associated with the feast of unleavened bread could not fully alleviate mankind’s sin debt, God still wanted the Israelites to follow His commands to the letter. As the author of Hebrews points out, the sacrifices were meant to remind the Israelites of their sin and their constant need for cleansing.

There was one offering that was to stand out among them all.

“You must also offer a male goat as a sin offering to purify yourselves and make yourselves right with the Lord.” – Numbers 28:22 NLT

The sacrifice of this animal was intended to provide justification. Its death would not only cleanse the Israelites from sin but reestablish their relationship with God. It would restore fellowship between sinful humanity and a holy God. And that restored relationship would be essential for the ongoing well-being of the people of God. Without it, they stood condemned and alienated from a holy and righteous God who is obligated to punish sin.

It was essential that the Israelites follow all the prescribed procedures associated with the seven days of the festival. Nothing could be left out or altered in any way. To do so would jeopardize their relationship with God and that would have devastating results.

The Festival of Harvest, also known as the Feast of Firstfruits, was next on the Jewish calendar. This feast occurred at the beginning of the harvest and was intended to celebrate God’s gracious provision for all their needs. They were commanded to bring the first fruits of their harvest to the tabernacle and present them as an offering to God, declaring their intention to return to God a portion of what He had given them.

“I have brought you the first portion of the harvest you have given me from the ground.” – Deuteronomy 26: 10 NLT

Then they were to place the produce before the Lord and bow to the ground in worship before Him. This offering was to be followed by a community-wide celebration.

“Afterward you may go and celebrate because of all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.” – Deuteronomy 26:11 NLT

The Feast of Harvests, like the Feast of Unleavened Bread, was also accompanied by the sacrifice of unblemished animals. These flawless creatures would have been of great value as breeding stock, yet the Israelites were to offer them up willingly and gladly as expressions of gratitude to God and as payment for their sins. That’s why God commanded, “Be sure that all the animals you sacrifice have no defects” (Numbers 28:31 NLT). God would not accept damaged goods or allow the Israelites to offer sacrifices that did not cost them something. Their desire for a restored relationship with Him was to be worth the cost and any sacrifice they might have to make. After all, the unblemished and undeserving animals became substitutes for the sins of the people. They died so the people could live. And eventually, Jesus would become the final sacrifice for all sin.

Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. There he waits until his enemies are humbled and made a footstool under his feet. For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. – Hebrews 10:11-14 NLT 

Earlier in his letter, the author of Hebrews declared the reality of the Jewish sacrificial system: “For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT). And Jesus came to shed His blood for the sins of men so that they might receive forgiveness and have their severed relationship with God restored for all eternity.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Taking Sin Seriously

1 While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”

And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

10 And the Lord said to Moses, 11 “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, 13 and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”

14 The name of the slain man of Israel, who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, chief of a father’s house belonging to the Simeonites. 15 And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the tribal head of a father’s house in Midian.

16 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, 18 for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.” Numbers 25:1-18 ESV

There is no way to escape the fact that this is a graphic and disturbing text. And its close proximity to the oracles of blessing pronounced by God through Balaam makes it all the more difficult to reconcile. In what appears to be a relatively short period of time, King Balak’s hopes of placing Israel under a curse seem to take place without the help of Balaam or any other seer or sage. And the amazing thing is, the Israelites bring it on themselves.

Moses describes the situation in less-than-flattering terms: “ the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab” (Numbers 25:1 ESV). It seems that the residents of Moab had done what their king had not been able to do. They had managed to find a chink in the armor of God’s chosen people, and it involved the two evils of immorality and idolatry. While Balaam had been unsuccessful in pronouncing a curse on the people of God, the citizens of Moab had come up with an ingenious plan for destroying the Israelites from within.

While the Israelites were encamped in the plains of Moab, waiting for the next phase of their conquest of Canaan, the men became distracted by and attracted to the women of Moab. And before long, “the men defiled themselves by having sexual relations with local Moabite women” (Numbers 25:1 NLT).

Concessions were made, compromises were considered, and in no time the set-apart status of the Israelites was eventually jeopardized. What began as illicit sexual encounters between the men of Israel and the women of Moab turned into spiritual adultery and apostasy.

These women invited them to attend sacrifices to their gods, so the Israelites feasted with them and worshiped the gods of Moab. – Numbers 25:2 NLT

Uncontrolled sexual desires led to compromised convictions. Suddenly, the Israelites’ physical allure for the Moabite women created a spiritual attraction for their rogues’ gallery of deities. Forbidden fruit created an insatiable appetite for false gods.

What makes this whole affair so egregious is that it comes fresh on the heels of God’s promise to bless the people of Israel.

No curse can touch Jacob;
    no magic has any power against Israel.
For now it will be said of Jacob,
    ‘What wonders God has done for Israel!’” – Numbers 23:23 NLT

Balaam had not been allowed to curse them. His “magic” had proven unsuccessful. But the women of Moab had managed to cast a spell on the unsuspecting men of Israel. They simply used their feminine wiles to bewitch the hapless Israelites and cause them to turn their backs on Jehovah. And because men were responsible for the spiritual oversight of their households, it wasn’t long before the apostasy spread throughout the camp.

Israel joined in the worship of Baal of Peor, causing the Lord’s anger to blaze against his people. – Numbers 25:3 NLT

The fallout from this act of unfaithfulness was immediate and widespread. But God quickly intervened, ordering Moses to take immediate action.

“Seize all the ringleaders and execute them before the Lord in broad daylight, so his fierce anger will turn away from the people of Israel.” – Numbers 25:4 NLT

There would be no compromise on God’s part. He would not tolerate sin in the camp of Israel, especially that involving immorality and idolatry. The guilty were to be made examples of, delivering a sobering warning to the rest of the nation of Israel. And Moses was quick to follow God’s instructions, calling on the judges of the tribes of Israel to carry out the executions of all those who had taken part in this act of rebellion against God.

And this is where the story earns its NC-17 rating. What happens next is both shocking and unimaginable. As a result of this corporate act of sin and God’s prescribed solution, the people had been called to gather before the tabernacle. Moses describes the tone as sorrowful, likely because of sorrow for the deaths of some of their sons, fathers, and husbands. Yet as the people wept over their sin and the loss of their loved ones, one of the guilty men did something that is difficult to believe. He brazenly took a Moabite woman into his tent, in full view of Moses and the rest of the assembly. He exhibits no shame and, completely controlled by his sexual desires, he displays no self-control.

He does the unthinkable. Either he was flaunting his personal preferences in the face of Moses and God, or he was so consumed by his physical appetites that he could no longer control himself. The apostle Paul describes such people in condemning terms: “Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth” (Philippians 3:19 NLT).

As Moses and the rest of the people looked on in shock, this moral reprobate flaunted his disdain for the holiness of God and rejected his own personal guilt. He shows no regret, remorse, or repentance. But his unprecedented display of disrespect for God got the attention of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar the high priest. This young man was the grandson of Aaron the former high priest and he took his role as servant of God seriously. Unwilling to stand back and watch this affront to God’s holiness take place, he took matters into his own hands – literally. 

he jumped up and left the assembly. He took a spear and rushed after the man into his tent. Phinehas thrust the spear all the way through the man’s body and into the woman’s stomach. – Numbers 25:7-8 NLT

The actions of this man were more than an uncontrolled sexual encounter with a pagan woman. They were engaged in an act of worship associated with Baal, the false god of the Moabites. Sexual promiscuity was a regular feature in the rites and rituals associated with this pagan deity. But Phinehas refused to turn a blind eye to their immorality and idolatry, executing the guilty couple on the spot. And Moses indicates that the quick action of Phinehas brought an end to a plague that had already ravaged the lives of 24,000 Israelites.

And due to his actions, Phinehas received a covenant promise from God.

“Phinehas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron the priest has turned my anger away from the Israelites by being as zealous among them as I was. So I stopped destroying all Israel as I had intended to do in my zealous anger. Now tell him that I am making my special covenant of peace with him. In this covenant, I give him and his descendants a permanent right to the priesthood, for in his zeal for me, his God, he purified the people of Israel, making them right with me.” – Numbers 25:11-13 NLT

Phinehas was rewarded for his efforts. This young man had executed the righteous judgment of God but, in so doing, had spared the nation from further deaths. God’s anger was satisfied and the sins of the nation were atoned for. But God was not done carrying out His judgment. Because the woman found in the tent was of Midianite extraction, God ordered that the Midianites be completely destroyed for the role they played in Israel’s rebellion against Him.

“Attack the Midianites and destroy them, because they assaulted you with deceit and tricked you into worshiping Baal of Peor, and because of Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, who was killed at the time of the plague because of what happened at Peor.” – Numbers 25:17-18 NLT

In a sense, Cozbi had accomplished what Balaam had failed to do. She and the other Midianite and Moabite women had successfully cursed a portion of the Israelite camp by luring them into immorality and idolatry. And while this resulted in the deaths of 24,000 Israelites, it did nothing to thwart God’s plans to bless them and provide them with the inheritance He had promised to them. It would be the Moabites and Midianites who suffered the greatest losses due to this fateful event. But God would prove faithful to His covenant promises to Israel.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Faith Is the Victory

1 When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction.” And the Lord heeded the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah.

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. Numbers 21:1-9 ESV

One of the things the Israelites seemed to quickly forget was that their presence in the wilderness was their own fault. God had led them from Egypt to the edge of the land of promise 40 years earlier, but they had decided that entrance into the land was way too risky. The 12 spies they had in to reconnoiter the land had returned with a conflicting report concerning conditions in Canaan.

“We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! – Numbers 13:27-28 ESV

The second half of their report left the Israelites dejected and demoralized. Despite the news that this land was fertile and filled with abundant fruit, the presence of “giants” was too much for the Israelites. And the spies fed their doubts and anxieties by confirming their worst fears.

“We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!” So they spread this bad report about the land among the Israelites: “The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!” – Numbers 13:31-33 ESV

These rumors succeeded in convincing the Israelites that God’s promise of victory over their enemies was impossible. Rather than enter the land and risk certain death, they decided it would make more sense to return to Egypt. This bit of twisted logic earned them the wrath of God. He made the fateful decision to allow that entire generation to spend the rest of their lives wandering aimlessly in the wilderness until none of them was left. They would not be allowed to enter Canaan or return to Egypt. Instead, they would spend the remaining days of their lives in a kind of existential limbo that lasted four decades.

During that time, both Miriam and Aaron died. Many of their friends and family members succumbed to the effects of old age and illness. And they all discovered that life in the wilderness was no picnic. Their persistent presence near the borders of Canaan had attracted the attention of the land’s occupants. These nations had heard the rumors about this massive host of people who had escaped from Egypt and were headed their way. It is likely that they knew the Israelites to be the descendants of Jacob and were afraid that they would be looking to find a place to live. This was a migrant problem of epic proportions. The thought of two million-plus Israelites invading their borders caused these nations to react with fear and brute force.

The last chapter revealed that the Edomites sent a large army to dissuade the Israelites from attempting to pass through their land. They wanted nothing to do with them. And now, “The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that the Israelites were approaching on the road through Atharim. So he attacked the Israelites and took some of them as prisoners” (Numbers 21:2 NLT). Nothing was going well for the Israelites. As a nation, they were persona non grata. They had no home and were finding the nations outside the borders of Canaan to be just as dangerous as the “giants“ they had refused to confront. Their refusal to enter the land had come with serious repercussions.

Yet, there is one glimmer of hope in this dark period of Israel’s existence. Their self-inflicted troubles caused them to call out to God. When some of their people were captured by the forces of the king of Arad, the Israelites begged God to come to their aid. And what’s interesting to note is that these very same people who had seen the odds in Canaan as insurmountable were suddenly ready to take on all comers. They even made a vow to completely annihilate the opposition if God would come to their aid.

“If you will hand these people over to us, we will completely destroy all their towns.” – Numbers 21:2 NLT

What makes this even more fascinating is that the Israelites had been here before. Thirty-eight years earlier, after having refused to enter the land of Canaan the first time, God had sentenced them to their life of wandering in the wilderness. In response to this death sentence from God, they quickly changed their minds and decided to enter the land after all. But Moses warned them that it was too late.

“Why are you now disobeying the Lord’s orders to return to the wilderness? It won’t work. Do not go up into the land now. You will only be crushed by your enemies because the Lord is not with you. When you face the Amalekites and Canaanites in battle, you will be slaughtered. The Lord will abandon you because you have abandoned the Lord.” – Numbers 14:41-43 NLT

But the people refused to listen, and “defiantly pushed ahead toward the hill country, even though neither Moses nor the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant left the camp” (Numbers 14:44 NLT). The result was a rout. The Israelites were soundly defeated because they attempted to take on their enemies without God’s permission or help.

Now, 38 years later, they decided to seek God’s assistance, and He “heard the Israelites’ request and gave them victory over the Canaanites. The Israelites completely destroyed them and their towns” (Numbers 22:3 NLT). Amazingly, what they had feared was impossible four decades earlier, was actually quite easy when they did it God’s way. Their victory was assured when they chose to seek God’s permission and assistance.

But even after that exhilarating display of God’s power, they quickly reverted to their old habit of complaining about their lot in life. While they had enjoyed a great victory, they were not allowed to occupy the towns they had conquered. Instead, they had to backtrack to Mount Hor and then travel further south and east in order to skirt the borders of Edom. They had gotten a taste of success, but still found themselves cursed to wander through the wilderness. Those conquered cities and villages were not theirs to occupy.

And as the people made the long trek around Edom, the thrill of victory soon gave way to the agony of defeat and despair.

…the people grew impatient with the long journey, and they began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!” – Numbers 21:4-5 NLT

The incessant wandering they had brought on themselves soon led to discontentment and dissidence with God’s will. They were not happy with the way things were going and they let Moses know. And God let them have it. He sent a plague of poisonous snakes among them, and soon the bodies of the dead began to pile up. And suddenly, the people were singing a different tune.

“We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” – Numbers 21:7 NLT

God’s judgment produced a confession. The people repented of their sin and begged Moses to intercede on their behalf and ask God to remove the curse of the snakes. And when Moses sought God, he was given the following instructions.

“Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” – Numbers 21:8 NLT

This rather strange command makes it appear as if God was asking Moses to make an idol. But the serpent on a stick was not meant to be worshiped. It was intended to be a test of their faith.

God did not answer their request to remove the snakes. In fact, He indicated that the snakes would continue to do what He had sent them to do. They would keep inflicting pain, suffering, and death upon the Israelites as punishment for their ingratitude and dishonor of His holiness. What God did was create a rather bizarre plan for receiving deliverance over certain death. When bitten, all the people had to do was look at the serpent on the pole and they would be healed. But that simple glance would require faith.

God did not remove the penalty for their sins. They would still be bitten by the snakes. But now they had a means of receiving life rather than death. The bite of the snake would no longer prove deadly. But the secret to receiving life rather than death was faith – the belief that God could and would heal. And that faith required the one who had been bitten to look their death sentence in the face. They had to turn their eyes to the pole and see their condemnation on public display. And if they refused, they would die.

And the apostle John would later record the words of Jesus where He stated that this entire scene in the wilderness was meant to foreshadow His coming and His substitutionary death on the cross.

…the Son of Man has come down from heaven. And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. – John 3:13-15 NLT

When a sinner looks at the cross, he sees the wrath of God poured out on the sins of mankind. Jesus was not the cause of our death but the means of our victory over it. He bore our sins so that we might not have to pay for them with our own lives. And that is exactly what the apostle Paul told the believers in Corinth.

God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 BSB

And Peter would state the same blessed hope.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 ESV

And the key to victory over death is faith. One must “believe in Him” to be saved. The Israelites had only to look at the serpent on the pole to be saved from death. And all those under the death sentence that comes as a result of sin need only look at the cross of Christ to receive life everlasting.

It should be noted that this entire scene began with the people complaining about the manna that God had graciously given as a source of life. Their ingratitude was met with God’s judgment. They had refused His offer of the bread of life and faced the sting of death. And the only means of salvation would be faith in His mercy and grace.

“The bread is a picture of Jesus; as the Bread of Heaven he is the proper nourisher of his people. The bronze snake is a picture of Jesus, who became sin for us as he hung on that awful tree. The manna had to be eaten. The snake had to be seen. The commands of Scripture are for doing. The manna was no good if left to rot. The metal snake would not avail if none looked at it. The manna and the snake are twin aspects of the grace of God.” – Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers.” In Genesis—Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.