Learning to Trust God

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, and get from them staffs, one for each fathers’ house, from all their chiefs according to their fathers’ houses, twelve staffs. Write each man’s name on his staff, and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi. For there shall be one staff for the head of each fathers’ house. Then you shall deposit them in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you. And the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout. Thus I will make to cease from me the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against you.” Moses spoke to the people of Israel. And all their chiefs gave him staffs, one for each chief, according to their fathers’ houses, twelve staffs. And the staff of Aaron was among their staffs. And Moses deposited the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the testimony.

On the next day Moses went into the tent of the testimony, and behold, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds. Then Moses brought out all the staffs from before the Lord to all the people of Israel. And they looked, and each man took his staff. 10 And the Lord said to Moses, “Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die.” 11 Thus did Moses; as the Lord commanded him, so he did.

12 And the people of Israel said to Moses, “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. 13 Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord, shall die. Are we all to perish?” Numbers 17:1-13 ESV

The Israelites had become first-class, professional whiners. They could grumble with the best of them. Over and over again, since the day they left Egypt, they had found reasons to complain – about everything from the food to the leadership of Moses. Most recently, it had been God’s decision to have only the Levites serve as priests in the tabernacle. God had given them the responsibility that was supposed to belong to the first-born males of every tribe. The Levites had been divinely chosen to serve as substitutes.

But the people had decided they didn’t like this plan. Under the leadership of Korah and a few other leaders, the people had risen up against Moses and Aaron, demanding their version of equality and inclusion. But their demands were met with the discipline of God. He destroyed all those who instigated the rebellion against Moses and Aaron and then brought a plague against those who blamed Moses and Aaron for the deaths of their friends. Only the quick action of Aaron, who offered an atoning sacrifice for the people, spared even more from death that day.

In light of all the complaining, God came up with a plan to bring it to a close once and for all. He knew the people were far from done. It was just a matter of time before they found something else to stir them up and cause them to lash out at God and His chosen leaders. So God instructed Moses to have each tribe select a branch from an almond tree and inscribe on it the name of the prince or head of their tribe. These 12 rods were then to be placed in the tabernacle before the Lord.

The next day Moses went in and discovered that the rod bearing Aaron’s name had budded, blossomed, and bore fruit. Miraculously, it had gone through an entire growing season in one evening. Devoid of water and the benefits of the tree from which it had been taken, Aaron’s rod evidenced a supernatural capacity for fruitfulness. This amazing visual display was intended to show the people that God had selected Aaron and his sons to serve Him as priests. Case closed! There was no more reason for the people to question or complain. God had settled the dispute once and for all.

Or maybe not. Because immediately after this, the people crank up their complaining once again. This time it was about their physical well-being. They said, “We are as good as dead. Everyone who even comes close to the Tabernacle of the LORD dies. We are all doomed!” (Numbers 17:12-13 NLT). Instead of praising God for what He had done with the almond rod, they focused their attention on their own well-being. They were so busy pitying themselves, they had no time to think about God’s miraculous demonstration of power and His clear endorsement of Aaron and his sons.

God’s divine display had been intended to settle the dispute about leadership. He had unquestionably reaffirmed His selection of the Aaronic priesthood. He even commanded that the rod be placed alongside the Ark of the Covenant. It was to serve as a perpetual reminder that God had spoken and the matter was settled. His will was not up for debate and He expected His commands to be obeyed at all times.

But the people saw His actions as a statement of judgment and feared further retribution from God. They had just witnessed the earth open up and swallow the families of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Then they stood back and watched as the fire of the Lord consumed the 250 leaders who had joined in the rebellion. Finally, they had seen 14,700 of their fellow Israelites die from the plague that God had sent upon them.

So, they viewed the budding of Aaron’s rod as a further indictment of their guilt and reacted with fear.

“Look, we are doomed! We are dead! We are ruined! Everyone who even comes close to the Tabernacle of the Lord dies. Are we all doomed to die?” – Numbers 17:12-13 NLT

Rather than glorying in the greatness of God, they cowered in fear. Instead of repenting for their rebellion against Him, they accused Him of being a vengeful, bloodthirsty deity. They display no remorse. They exhibit no signs of sorrow for their sins. They simply express their fear of God’s judgment and wrath. After all the time they had spent in His presence and enjoyed His power and provision, they still had no idea who He was and how they were to respond to Him.

But isn’t that what we do? We can get so consumed with our dissatisfaction with our lot in life that we fail to see the miracles of God taking place all around us. We whine and moan, and spend all our time grumbling to God that we never see all that He is doing around us. Yet God patiently endures our rejection of Him. He continues to shower us with His grace and unmerited favor.

We turn our backs on Him, but He never abandons us. He disciplines us, but He never stops loving us. He is faithful, even when we are unfaithful. He provides us with leadership, direction, sustenance, and everything we need to survive in this hostile environment. Yet we continually turn our backs on Him. Or worse yet, we end up fearing Him rather than basking in the love He pours out on us. Like the Israelites, we live as if God is out to get us, not to bless us. We view Him as a cosmic killjoy, not a loving Father who wants to meet our every need in Christ.

Sin is ultimately self-centered. It always has been. It ends up being all about me. And when I focus on myself, I lose sight of Him.

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 Fire of Cleansing

36 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 37 “Tell Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest to take up the censers out of the blaze. Then scatter the fire far and wide, for they have become holy. 38 As for the censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, let them be made into hammered plates as a covering for the altar, for they offered them before the Lord, and they became holy. Thus they shall be a sign to the people of Israel.” 39 So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers, which those who were burned had offered, and they were hammered out as a covering for the altar, 40 to be a reminder to the people of Israel, so that no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, should draw near to burn incense before the Lord, lest he become like Korah and his company—as the Lord said to him through Moses.

41 But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the Lord.” 42 And when the congregation had assembled against Moses and against Aaron, they turned toward the tent of meeting. And behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord appeared. 43 And Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, 44 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” And they fell on their faces. 46 And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.” 47 So Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the midst of the assembly. And behold, the plague had already begun among the people. And he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. 48 And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped. 49 Now those who died in the plague were 14,700, besides those who died in the affair of Korah. 50 And Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the tent of meeting, when the plague was stopped.  Numbers 16:36-50 ESV

God cleaned house. He purged the wickedness from the midst of the camp of Israel by swallowing the households of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Then He consumed the 250 co-conspirators with fire as they attempted to offer unacceptable sacrifices to Him. And when the smoke had lifted, all that was left were their bronze censers lying among the ashes with their charred bones.

This macabre scene was the result of a test that Moses had arranged to determine who among the Israelites was truly holy to the Lord.

“Korah, you and all your followers must prepare your incense burners. Light fires in them tomorrow, and burn incense before the Lord. Then we will see whom the Lord chooses as his holy one.” – Numbers 16:6-7 NLT

And God had declared the outcome of the test in no uncertain terms. The guilty and unholy had been punished. Yet, their destruction produced a rather strange result. The incense burners these rebels had been carrying at the time of their destruction had been purified in the process. The Lord ordered Moses to have them gathered and hammered into a covering for the altar.

“Tell Eleazar son of Aaron the priest to pull all the incense burners from the fire, for they are holy. Also tell him to scatter the burning coals. Take the incense burners of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and hammer the metal into a thin sheet to overlay the altar. Since these burners were used in the Lord’s presence, they have become holy. Let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel.” – Numbers 16:37-38 NLT

Those men had presented their censers and burning incense to the Lord, but He had consumed them with flames because they were guilty of rebellion against Him. But because their incense burners had been presented to God, they had become holy or set apart for His use.

“As we think about the notion of the ‘holy,’ we recognize that things are made holy in Scripture, not because people are holy, but because the things are presented to the Lord, who is holy. Since these wicked men presented their censers to the Lord, the censers are holy, despite the men’s own wickedness.” – Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers.” In Genesis—Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

This entire story provides a powerful reminder of the ever-present danger of doubt in the life of the follower of God. Doubt has a way of turning into disobedience, and disobedience against God is nothing more than rebellion against His Word and His will. In chapter eight of Numbers, this pattern was lived out in the lives of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On. These men were descendants of Levi and, as such, they were responsible for the care and upkeep of the tabernacle of God. God had set them apart as His servants and their jobs were essential to the spiritual well-being of the people of Israel. But they were dissatisfied with things as God had planned them. They wanted more responsibility. They wanted a greater role. They doubted God’s order of things and demanded a restructuring of responsibilities and duties. They pointed their fingers at Aaron and Moses, exclaiming, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3 ESV). Like Miriam in chapter 12, these men expressed their doubt in God’s preordained order of things and it led to their open disobedience and rebellion.

As a holy, righteous King, God was unwilling to tolerate the open rebellion of these men. While the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram was more pronounced and obvious, the reality was that the entire congregation was guilty of turning against God. But Moses and Aaron had interceded and begged God to spare the congregation and punish the ring leaders. God would not tolerate rebellion among His people. He knew it to be like cancer that, if left unchecked, would spread among the people. So He eradicated it in a powerful way. But, according to Moses’ request, He spared the people.

And yet, amazingly, we read, “on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, ‘You have killed the people of the Lord’” (Numbers 16:41 ESV). Once again, they expressed doubt that what had happened had been God’s will, and they openly rebelled against God’s representatives. So, as before, God warned Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the people because He was about to destroy them. But Moses interceded yet again, telling Aaron to take his censer and “carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun” (Numbers 16:36 ESV).

God was bringing judgment on the people, and Moses’ quick thinking and Aarons’ immediate response spared the lives of many. In spite of their efforts, 14,700 people died that day – at the hand of God. Yet, there would have been even more, had they not interceded. The rebellion of the people had been a sin against God, and only the atoning work of Aaron, the high priest, had been able to satisfy the righteous judgment of God against them. Doubt is inevitable and, if left unchecked, it will always result in disobedience and rebellion against God. Mankind is prone to unfaithfulness, even those who call themselves followers of God. Disobedience is in our nature. The risk of rebellion is a constant reality for each of us.

In the gospel of Luke, there is another story of the people of God rebelling against the will of God. He had sent His Son as the Savior of the world. But Jesus didn’t come in the form they had anticipated. He failed to meet their expectations. Rather than a conquering king on a white horse leading a powerful army, He had shown up as a carpenter from the small hamlet of Nazareth and accompanied by a rag-tag group of disciples. Instead of revering Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah, the religious leaders responded with revulsion. They longed to rid themselves of His presence. They had Him arrested and dragged before Pilate, the governor, for trial and, ultimately, execution. Even Pilate found Jesus to be innocent of any wrongdoing. He tried repeatedly to release Him, but the people demanded His crucifixion, and they got their wish.

Their doubt led to disobedience, which resulted in rebellion and led to the death of the One whom God had sent. They doubted God’s Word and rejected His will. Writing more than 750 years before the events of the crucifixion, the prophet Isaiah predicted, “But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed” (Isaiah 53:5 NLT).

God sent His Son to deal with our rebellion. But rather than snuff us out, He provided a means by which we could be healed and made whole. He paid the debt we owed, He suffered the death that was meant for us. He took on the penalty for our rebellion against God.

And it’s interesting to note that Aaron had been able to atone for the sins of the people by taking fire from the altar of God and using it to ignite incense in a censer. The same fire that had consumed the 250 leaders who had rejected God’s will was used to atone for and spare the rebellious Israelites. An incense burner in the hand of God’s anointed was the means by which God redeemed the unholy and undeserving. The all-consuming fire of God actually averted the deaths of tens of thousands of Israelites who had been deserving of God’s judgment. The plague was averted and the people were spared.

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 Danger With Discontentment

1 Now Korah the son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men. And they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, 250 chiefs of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men. They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” When Moses heard it, he fell on his face, and he said to Korah and all his company, “In the morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one whom he chooses he will bring near to him. Do this: take censers, Korah and all his company; put fire in them and put incense on them before the Lord tomorrow, and the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” And Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the Lord and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, 10 and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you? And would you seek the priesthood also? 11 Therefore it is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?”

12 And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and they said, “We will not come up. 13 Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? 14 Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” Numbers 16:1-14 ESV

The story of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness is a fascinating one, filled with plenty of twists and turns, plot changes and story lines. It is easy to read this chronicle of the lives of the people of God and wonder how they could be so slow to learn. How could they refuse to obey God after all He had done for them? Why would they continue to whine, complain, and moan about their lot in life when the God of the universe was leading them, providing for them, and revealing Himself to them day after day? But the truth is, as believers, we have the Spirit of God living within us and the Word of God made available to us and yet we still struggle with obedience and belief. So, we probably shouldn’t be too quick to harshly judge the Israelites.

Yet in today’s story from chapter 16 we have another occurrence of jealousy and rebellion. It seems that Korah, a grandson of Kohath, and a member of the tribe of Levi, decided that he wanted to be free to take part in the priestly responsibilities. As a Kohathite, he was part of the clan responsible for the transportation and care of all the vessels and utensils of the Tabernacle. They had been assigned that role by God.

“The duties of the Kohathites at the Tabernacle will relate to the most sacred objects.” – Numbers 4:4 NLT

According to God’s instructions, the Kohathites had a very specific role to play. And in order for them to do that job, Aaron, the high priest, and his sons had to prepare all the sacred objects for transport.

“When the camp moves, Aaron and his sons must enter the Tabernacle first to take down the inner curtain and cover the Ark of the Covenant with it. Then they must cover the inner curtain with fine goatskin leather and spread over that a single piece of blue cloth. Finally, they must put the carrying poles of the Ark in place.” – Numbers 4:5-6 NLT

Every item had to be carefully prepared according to God’s painstaking instructions. If Aaron and his sons failed to do everything just as God had commanded, it would have devastating consequences for Korah and the rest of his clan.

“The camp will be ready to move when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the sacred articles. The Kohathites will come and carry these things to the next destination. But they must not touch the sacred objects, or they will die.” – Numbers 4:15 NLT

“Do not let the Kohathite clans be destroyed from among the Levites! This is what you must do so they will live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects. Aaron and his sons must always go in with them and assign a specific duty or load to each person. The Kohathites must never enter the sanctuary to look at the sacred objects for even a moment, or they will die.” – Numbers 4:18-20 NLT

All the holy objects were to be covered with cloths to prevent the Kohathites from inadvertently touching them. And the larger items had poles inserted into the specially crafted rings that allowed them to be carried safely and securely without risk of death. It should have been considered an honor to carry these priceless objects that were essential for the worship of Yahweh. Yet, we learn that Korah was not content with the God-ordained role he and his clan had been assigned. He wanted more.

Driven by jealousy and a desire for greater prominence, he enlisted the support of others and, together, they incited a rebellion against Moses, along with 250 other leaders of the community, all prominent members of the assembly” (Numbers 4:2 NLT). It was a coup.

Korah appealed to other men in the camp to join him in his rebellion. He stirred up men from the tribe of Reuben by getting them to see that Moses had taken away the right of the firstborn of every tribe to serve God by replacing them with the sons of Levi. His argument was that every single Israelite was holy; not just Moses, Aaron, and the Levites.

He accused Moses of exalting himself above everyone else. He and his compatriots went to Moses and said, “You have gone too far! Everyone in Israel has been set apart by the LORD, and he is with all of us. What right do you have to act as though you are greater than anyone else among all these people of the LORD?” (Numbers 16:3 NLT).

Although Korah was from the tribe of Levi, he and his clan were not allowed to serve as priests, and he found this slight to be unacceptable. He viewed their role as “moving men” to be less-than-acceptable and more than a bit demeaning.

In his defense, Korah was basing his argument on a statement given by God when the people of Israel were still in Egypt.

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

But what Korah failed to remember was that the entire nation had done irreparable damage to their holy status when they had been encamped at Mount Sinai. While Moses had been up on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people had decided to turn their back on God and worship a newly constructed golden calf (Exodus 32). And as punishment for their sin, God had given Moses orders to execute all those who had taken part in the idolatrous festivities.

So he stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, “All of you who are on the Lord’s side, come here and join me.” And all the Levites gathered around him.

Moses told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone—even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day. – Exodus 32:26-28 NLT

It had been the Levites who stood by Moses’ side and carried out God’s orders. As a result, Moses rewarded them for their show of faithfulness and obedience.

“Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Today you have earned a blessing.” – Exodus 32:29 NLT

But Korah wasn’t satisfied with God’s will. He demanded that a new plan be put in place. Yet, Moses attempted to reason with his disgruntled kinsman.

“Does it seem insignificant to you that the God of Israel has chosen you from among all the community of Israel to be near him so you can serve in the Lord’s Tabernacle and stand before the people to minister to them? Korah, he has already given this special ministry to you and your fellow Levites. Are you now demanding the priesthood as well?” – Numbers 16:9-10 NLT

Moses couldn’t understand why Korah considered himself and his clansmen as second-class citizens. Why was he unable to view their God-ordained role as vital and worthy of their best efforts? And Moses tried to warn them that their complaint was really with God, not himself or Aaron.

The Lord is the one you and your followers are really revolting against! For who is Aaron that you are complaining about him?” – Numbers 16:11 NLT

Korah was walking on thin ice. He was venturing into uncharted waters that would not bring him to a far-from-pleasant destination. And Moses attempted to reason with Korah’s compatriots, but they refused to listen to what he had to say.

“We refuse to come before you! Isn’t it enough that you brought us out of Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us here in this wilderness, and that you now treat us like your subjects? What’s more, you haven’t brought us into another land flowing with milk and honey. You haven’t given us a new homeland with fields and vineyards. Are you trying to fool these men? We will not come.” – Numbers 16:12-14 NLT

The stage was set. The lines were drawn. Korah and his disenchanted companions stood their ground and refused to heed the warnings of Moses. They were done taking orders from Moses and Aaron. As far as they were concerned, it was their time to shine and they would not be satisfied until they were the ones calling the shots.

But they failed to recognize that their complaints had reached the ears of God. He had been listening to their arrogant demands and knew that their discontentment was ultimately directed at Him. And it’s interesting to note that the very people who were responsible for transporting the holy objects from the tabernacle were carrying resentment for the very one for whom the tabernacle had been constructed.

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.

 

Mistakes Will Happen

22 “But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses, 23 all that the Lord has commanded you by Moses, from the day that the Lord gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations, 24 then if it was done unintentionally without the knowledge of the congregation, all the congregation shall offer one bull from the herd for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the rule, and one male goat for a sin offering. 25 And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven, because it was a mistake, and they have brought their offering, a food offering to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord for their mistake. 26 And all the congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger who sojourns among them, because the whole population was involved in the mistake.

27 “If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. 28 And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. 29 You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. 30 But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” 

32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. Numbers 15:22-36 ESV

The people of Israel were guilty of having committed the sin of rebellion. They had purposefully rejected His command to enter the land of Canaan, because they doubted His ability to give them victory over its current occupants. According to the assessment of the ten spies, the pagan nations that populated the promised land were too powerful and the odds of failure were insurmountable. There was no way a rag-tag militia comprised of former slaves, shepherds, and farmers were going to defeat the well-armed and highly-trained armies of the Canaanites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites. So, they had decided to disobey God’s will, dismiss His appointed leaders, and return to Egypt.

But rather than reining down judgment and wiping them off the face of the earth, God sentenced them to a lifetime of meaningless wandering in the wilderness – until the last of that generation had died off. They would pay for their sin by experiencing a permanent ban from entering the land of promise or ever enjoying the promise of God’s rest.

Their sin had been deliberate and premeditated. They had intentionally rejected God’s will and would have to suffer the consequences. But in verses 22-26, God graciously made provision for unintentional sin. He knew there would be occasions when His children sinned “by mistake.” In other words, they would accidentally or unintentionally violate His commands without knowing they had done so. And God made provision for those inevitable occasions.

God provided Moses with a hypothetical, “what-if” scenario that was designed to eliminate the guilt that came from inadvertently violating His commands. He made a provision for man’s built-in propensity for committing sin. And this special dispensation was to be a long-standing and applicable to every successive generation.

And suppose your descendants in the future fail to do everything the Lord has commanded through Moses. If the mistake was made unintentionally, and the community was unaware of it, the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” – Numbers 15:23-24 NLT

The kind of sacrifices referred to in these verses were meant to cover sins of commission as well as omission. Whether the guilty party simply forgot to keep a command (omission) or unknowingly violated a command (commission), as long as they had done so by mistake, they could receive forgiveness. But it was to be a community-wide affair. Once they discovered the presence of sin in the camp, the entire nation was to take a part in making atonement for the  offense.

“…the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. It must be offered along with its prescribed grain offering and liquid offering and with one male goat for a sin offering.” – Numbers 15:24 NLT

Sin is sin, and its impact is universal. No one sins alone. The nature of sin is that it is highly contagious and infectious. It can spread like yeast in a lump of dough or like cancer cells in the human body. And it doesn’t matter whether the sin was committed intentionally or not. Any violation of God’s law requires confession and restitution. The sin must be atoned for and that atonement required a sacrifice.

And God knew that anyone was capable of committing unintentional sin, including the high priest.

“If the high priest sins, bringing guilt upon the entire community, he must give a sin offering for the sin he has committed. – Leviticus 4:3 NLT

And the price for his atonement was an unblemished young bull. And if the entire community happened to commit corporate sin without realizing it, they were also required a young bull. If one of the nation’s leaders committed an unintentional sin, he was required to offer an unblemished goat as payment. And in all three cases the blood of the sacrificed animal was to be placed on the horns of the altar within the tabernacle. The Leviticus passage makes it clear that even sins committed by mistake would render the individual, leader, or community as guilty before God. And, unless atonement was made, that guilt would lead to condemnation.

Yet, when the sin was exposed, the guilt was admitted, and the proper sacrifice was made, the individual could expect to receive the forgiveness of God.

“With it the priest will purify the whole community of Israel, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven.” – Numbers 15:25 NLT

But what about those who knowingly and deliberately violated one of God’s commands? What hope did they have of receiving God’s forgiveness?

But those who brazenly violate the Lord’s will, whether native-born Israelites or foreigners, have blasphemed the Lord, and they must be cut off from the community.” – Numbers 15:30 NLT

The language suggests that this individual has boldly and unapologetically chosen to disobey the revealed will of God. There is no sense of remorse or regret. No confession is forthcoming and no repentance is displayed. Even when the sin is exposed, this individual persists in justifying and continuing his rebellions ways – with impunity. And the result is drastic: “they must be cut off from the community.”

This is not suggesting their dismissal from the camp or some kind of public ostracization. No, this is a reference to death. The guilty party is to be cut off by virtue of their public execution. What God seems to have in mind here are sins that are committed against Him. This would include the worship of false gods, the fabricating of idols, taking His name in vain, or failing to honor the Sabbath. These violations would incur God’s wrath and demand the death of the perpetrator.

The book of Leviticus indicates that willful sins committed against another individual were to be treated differently. While all violations of God’s laws are ultimately sins against Him, He made special provisions for sins committed against a neighbor.

“Suppose one of you sins against your associate and is unfaithful to the Lord. Suppose you cheat in a deal involving a security deposit, or you steal or commit fraud, or you find lost property and lie about it, or you lie while swearing to tell the truth, or you commit any other such sin. If you have sinned in any of these ways, you are guilty. – Leviticus 6:2-4 NLT

Repentance and restitution were required. Amends must be made. But not only that, a guilt offering was demanded to restore the sinner’s relationship with God.

“As a guilt offering to the Lord, you must bring to the priest your own ram with no defects, or you may buy one of equal value. Through this process, the priest will purify you before the Lord, making you right with him, and you will be forgiven for any of these sins you have committed.” – Leviticus 6:6-7 NLT

And, as if to give a concrete example of a non-repentant and brazenly defiant sin against God, Moses includes the story of a Sabbath breaker. The man was discovered collecting firewood on the Sabbath, in direct violation of the fourth commandment. Evidently, he knew exactly what he was doing and was defiant in doing so. And the penalty for his blatant display of disobedience was death.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must be put to death! The whole community must stone him outside the camp.” So the whole community took the man outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:35-36 NLT

Mistakes were inevitable and unavoidable. Everyone would sin at some point. They important distinction was whether that sin was intentional or not. Secondly, it was important to differentiate between horizontal and vertical sin. A sin committed against a brother could be atoned for and forgiven. But any willful and unrepentant violation of one of the first four commandments would bring down the full wrath of God. Mistakes would happen and were redeemable through God’s grace. But brazen sins against God were unforgivable and deserving of His righteous indignation and full justice.

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.

 

God Will Be Faithful

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you, and you offer to the Lord from the herd or from the flock a food offering or a burnt offering or a sacrifice, to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering or at your appointed feasts, to make a pleasing aroma to the Lord, then he who brings his offering shall offer to the Lord a grain offering of a tenth of an ephah of fine flour, mixed with a quarter of a hin of oil; and you shall offer with the burnt offering, or for the sacrifice, a quarter of a hin of wine for the drink offering for each lamb. Or for a ram, you shall offer for a grain offering two tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with a third of a hin of oil. And for the drink offering you shall offer a third of a hin of wine, a pleasing aroma to the Lord. And when you offer a bull as a burnt offering or sacrifice, to fulfill a vow or for peace offerings to the Lord, then one shall offer with the bull a grain offering of three tenths of an ephah of fine flour, mixed with half a hin of oil. 10 And you shall offer for the drink offering half a hin of wine, as a food offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord.

11 “Thus it shall be done for each bull or ram, or for each lamb or young goat. 12 As many as you offer, so shall you do with each one, as many as there are. 13 Every native Israelite shall do these things in this way, in offering a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. 14 And if a stranger is sojourning with you, or anyone is living permanently among you, and he wishes to offer a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord, he shall do as you do. 15 For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the Lord. 16 One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you.”

17 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 18 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land to which I bring you 19 and when you eat of the bread of the land, you shall present a contribution to the Lord. 20 Of the first of your dough you shall present a loaf as a contribution; like a contribution from the threshing floor, so shall you present it. 21 Some of the first of your dough you shall give to the Lord as a contribution throughout your generations. Numbers 15:1-21 ESV

Even though God had condemned an entire generation of Israelites to wander in the wilderness for 40 years as punishment for their rebellion, He would not abandon them. The Lord would continue to guide them, provide for and protect them, and even give them further instructions regarding their eventual occupation of the land of Canaan. While that generation would never experience the joy of crossing over the Jordan and experiencing God’s rest, their children would. And God used the four-decade-long detour through the wilderness as a training opportunity for the next generation of Israelites, providing them with detailed instructions for their eventual entrance into the land of promise.

Though the adult population had allowed the fear-laden advice of the ten spies to deter them from keeping God’s command to enter and conquer the land of Canaan, God refused to renege on His promise. He remained committed to the covenant He had made with Abraham and assured Moses that the offspring of the rebellious generation would inherit the land.

God had made it perfectly clear that the adults in the room had blown their chance.

“…not one of these people will ever enter that land. They have all seen my glorious presence and the miraculous signs I performed both in Egypt and in the wilderness, but again and again they have tested me by refusing to listen to my voice. They will never even see the land I swore to give their ancestors. None of those who have treated me with contempt will ever see it.” – Numbers 14:22-23 NLT

Yet, despite their blatant display of disobedience, He would not hold the children responsible for the sins of their parents. During the 40-year delay, things would continue just as they had since the Israelites departed Egypt. The tabernacle would remain in the center of the camp with the Shekinah glory of God located above the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. The sacrificial system would continue just as God had prescribed it on Mount Sinai. Sacrifices would be offered and sins atoned for. Life would go on as it had before. And each year, children would be born into the Israelite community and members of the older generation would die off. There would be a slow but steady changing of the guard as the infants grew into adolescents who eventually became adults.

And God provided Moses with the assurance that a new group of Israelites would eventually enter the land.

“Give the following instructions to the people of Israel.

“When you finally settle in the land I am giving you, you will offer special gifts as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. – Numbers 15:2-3 NLT

The faces and names of the people would change, but the covenant would be fulfilled. And this message from God must have been a painful reminder to the older generation that their disobedience had been costly. They would never have the joy of crossing the Jordan River into the land of promise with their children and grandchildren. Their lives would end in death in the wilderness. They were close but yet so far. Canaan was within reach but completely off limits because of their refusal to obey God.

This chapter contains additional instructions regarding the sacrificial system and it focuses on the changes God would require once they entered the new land. It is interesting to note that this addendum includes additional sacrifices involving grain, oil, and wine. When the people arrive in the land, they will be required to supplement their meat offerings with “a grain offering of two quarts of choice flour mixed with one quart of olive oil” (Numbers 15:4 NLT). And for each lamb offered, they would add “one quart of wine as a liquid offering” (Numbers 15:5 NLT).

This appears to be a reference to the fruitfulness of the land of Canaan. When the spies had returned from their expedition within the borders of Canaan, they reported that it was “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27 NLT). It was rich and bountiful. In fact, they had brought back “a single cluster of grapes so large that it took two of them to carry it on a pole between them! They also brought back samples of the pomegranates and figs” (Numbers 13:23 NLT).

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses describes just how bountiful the land of promise will be.

“The LORD your God will soon bring you into the land he swore to give you when he made a vow to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a land with large, prosperous cities that you did not build. The houses will be richly stocked with goods you did not produce. You will draw water from cisterns you did not dig, and you will eat from vineyards and olive trees you did not plant.” – Deuteronomy 6:10-11 NLT

For people who were living in the wilderness, surviving off of manna and quail, this description must have been highly attractive. The prospect of enjoying the comforts of a real house over the cramped confines of a tent would have been difficult to imagine. Ever since leaving Egypt, they had eaten no fruit, raised no crops, baked no bread, or enjoyed any of the comforts of “home.” They were nomads wandering through a godforsaken wilderness.

But God assured them that upon entering the land of promise, all that would change. They would have plenty of grain, oil, and wine. So much so, that these bountiful resources would become a part of the sacrificial system. According to the book of Exodus, the Israelites had left Egypt with “great flocks and herds of livestock” (Exodus 12:38 NLT). So, animal sacrifices had always been plentiful, even in the wilderness. But they had no access to grain, oil, and wine. The only bread they had to eat was in the form of the manna which God miraculously provided. Since there were few olive trees or vineyards in the wilderness, oil and wine were in short supply. But things would be different in Canaan.

This entire passage is meant to emphasize God’s faithfulness and to assure the Israelites of His unfailing commitment to providing for all their needs. And their response to His faithfulness was to be one of gratitude, expressed through the offering of meat, grain, oil, and wine. These gifts were intended to honor God for His goodness and grace – “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Numbers 15:3) for all that He had done.

It’s important to remember that these instructions were given long before the people entered the land and long before they had access to the oil, grain, and wine. But God was assuring them that the day would come when the bounty of the land would become readily available. In fact, He was guaranteeing its availability.

“When you arrive in the land where I am taking you, and you eat the crops that grow there, you must set some aside as a sacred offering to the Lord. Present a cake from the first of the flour you grind, and set it aside as a sacred offering, as you do with the first grain from the threshing floor. Throughout the generations to come, you are to present a sacred offering to the Lord each year from the first of your ground flour.” – Numbers 15:18-21 NLT

To the rebellious generation who had decided that the conquest of Canaan was impossible, this word from God must have been difficult to hear. They must have been filled with regret when they considered all that they had sacrificed when they made their fateful decision to disobey God. Not only would they fail to enter the land, but they would never enjoy its fruit or experience the joy of standing alongside their children and grandchildren as they offered God gifts of gratitude for its bounty.

But God underscores His own faithfulness when He states that these offerings will take place “throughout the generations to come” (Numbers 15:21 NLT). The next generation will conquer and occupy the land. The land will provide for all their needs. And the people will be expected to offer up their thanks to God for His goodness and graciousness – for generations to come.

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.

 

No Rest for the Wicked

26 And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 27 “How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me. 28 Say to them, ‘As I live, declares the Lord, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: 29 your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, 30 not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. 31 But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected. 32 But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. 33 And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. 34 According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.’ 35 I, the Lord, have spoken. Surely this will I do to all this wicked congregation who are gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.”

36 And the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned and made all the congregation grumble against him by bringing up a bad report about the land— 37 the men who brought up a bad report of the land—died by plague before the Lord. 38 Of those men who went to spy out the land, only Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh remained alive.

39 When Moses told these words to all the people of Israel, the people mourned greatly. 40 And they rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, “Here we are. We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned.” 41 But Moses said, “Why now are you transgressing the command of the Lord, when that will not succeed? 42 Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies. 43 For there the Amalekites and the Canaanites are facing you, and you shall fall by the sword. Because you have turned back from following the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.” 44 But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, although neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses departed out of the camp. 45 Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them and pursued them, even to Hormah.  Numbers 14:26-45 ESV

God essentially told the Israelites that the worse-case-scenario they had conjured up in their minds was going to take place. Their greatest fears were going to become reality. In an attempt to rationalize their rebellion against Moses’ leadership, they had predicted a foreboding future if they stayed where they were.

“Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. – Numbers 14:2-3 ESV

And God let them know that their projections of doom and gloom would come true.

“As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very things I heard you say. You will all drop dead in this wilderness! Because you complained against me, every one of you who is twenty years old or older and was included in the registration will die. You will not enter and occupy the land I swore to give you. – Numbers 14:28-30 NLT

As punishment for their rebellion, God revealed their fate. They would not be returning to Egypt and they would never enter the land of Canaan. Instead, they could die in the wilderness. They wouldn’t have to worry about dying in battle because they would never make it to the promised land. No, their deaths would be from old age as they spent the next 40 years wandering in the wilderness; a year for every day the spies had spent in Canaan.

There would be no supernatural cosmological display of fire and brimstone to consume the wicked. The ground wouldn’t open up and swallow all those who were guilty. In fact, for the next 40 years, God would continue to provide for their physical needs; providing them with manna, quail, and fresh drinking water. They would continue to live, raise their children, and live out their days in relative peace and security. But they would never enter the land that God had promised as their inheritance.

“Not one of you from this wicked generation will live to see the good land I swore to give your ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 1:25 NLT

Canaan was to have been their final destination. It was a rich and fertile land, just as the spies had discovered. And even before God had leveled a single plague against Egypt, He had promised to lead the descendants of Jacob to their new homeland.

“I have promised to rescue you from your oppression in Egypt. I will lead you to a land flowing with milk and honey—the land where the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live.” – Exodus 3:17 NLT

But as a result of their stubborn refusal to trust God, they would spend 40 years wandering on the wrong side of the border of Canaan. In time, one by one, they would succumb to old age and die, and their bodies would be buried in the wilderness. And the author of Hebrews uses their rebellion and punishment as a warning to a new generation of Jews who had been offered another promise of future inheritance by God.

“Today when you hear his voice,
    don’t harden your hearts
as Israel did when they rebelled,
    when they tested me in the wilderness.
There your ancestors tested and tried my patience,
    even though they saw my miracles for forty years.
So I was angry with them, and I said,
‘Their hearts always turn away from me.
    They refuse to do what I tell them.’
So in my anger I took an oath:
    ‘They will never enter my place of rest.’” – Hebrews 3:7-11 NLT

Canaan was to have been their place of rest. That doesn’t mean Canaan was going to be a stress-free environment, devoid of difficulties. There actually were enemies in the land and the Israelites would have to do battle with each of them in order to make the land their own. But God had promised them victory. He was going to use them to purge the land of all the wickedness, immorality, and godlessness that had filled it since their departure more than 430 years earlier.

Yet, rather than obeying God and doing battle with those who opposed Him and had desecrated the land He had given them, the Israelites ended up having God for an enemy.

“Because your men explored the land for forty days, you must wander in the wilderness for forty years—a year for each day, suffering the consequences of your sins. Then you will discover what it is like to have me for an enemy.” – Numbers 14:34 NLT

What makes this story so painful and impactful is that it involved the people of God. These were His chosen ones. He had redeemed them out of slavery in Egypt. He had graciously offered them freedom and a permament home of their own where they could enjoy His presence, power, and provision. Yet, because the conquest of the land appeared to be more difficult than they had imagined, they turned their back on God’s gracious offer. And the author of Hebrews emphasizes the disbelieving nature of God’s chosen people.

And who was it who rebelled against God, even though they heard his voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? And who made God angry for forty years? Wasn’t it the people who sinned, whose corpses lay in the wilderness? And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest. – Hebrews 3:16-19 NLT

And he warns his fellow Jews to learn from their ancestors’ mistakes.

Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. – Hebrews 3:12 NLT

For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. – Hebrews 3:14 NLT

God’s promise of rest required obedience. The land was theirs, but they were going to have to do battle in order to take full possession of it. They would have to cleanse the land from all its impurities, and that would require hard work and faith. Any effort they put forth would have to be based on their faith that God would go before them and provide them with victory. But for the Israelites, a long march back to Egypt and the promise of certain enslavement were more appealing than doing the will of God. And, as a result, they would never enter His rest.

And, as for the ten spies, they would face a more immediate and unpleasant end for their leadership in the rebellion.

The ten men Moses had sent to explore the land—the ones who incited rebellion against the Lord with their bad report—were struck dead with a plague before the Lord. – Numbers 14:36-37 NLT

God had not changed His mind. His promise of providing an inheritance for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob remained just as firm as ever. But there would be some who would never get to enjoy it. They had forfeited that right.

But when the people heard the news of God’s judgment against them, they were grieved and attempted to repent for their rebellion.

“We realize that we have sinned, but now we are ready to enter the land the Lord has promised us.” – Numbers 14:40 NLT

But it was too little, too late. Moses even warned them that they were only making matters worse by attempting to escape God’s judgment through further rebellion. They were suggesting immediate entrance into the land, even though that is not what God had ordered. They thought a show of enthusiasm might temper God’s anger. But Moses warned them against making such a dangerous and ill-fated decision.

“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 stubborn as always, the people rejected Moses’ counsel and attempted to enter Canaan – without God’s approval or help – and they failed miserably. They had forfeited their right to the inheritance. The land would never be theirs and they would never enjoy the rest that God had promised. And the apostle Paul provides a powerful application of this story for those who long to enter the eternal rest that comes through faith in Christ.

I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. All of them ate the same spiritual food, and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did. – 1 Corinthians 10:1-7 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.

Close, But Yet So Far

13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’ 17 And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”

20 Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. 21 But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, 22 none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it. 24 But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. 25 Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.” Numbers 14:13-25 ESV

God was angry. He had deemed the ungrateful and disobedient response of the people to His leadership as unacceptable and worthy of judgment.

“How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” – Numbers 14:11-12 ESV

But this was not the first time that God had grown impatient with His chosen people. When they had been camped at the base of Mount Sinai, He had reached a similar conclusion because of their blatant display of rebellion. While Moses had been on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people had decided to fashion and worship a golden calf. To make matters worse, the Israelites were crediting their new idol with their recent deliverance from Egypt. So, God told Moses:

“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” – Exodus 32:9-10 ESV

In both cases, God declared His intent to destroy the people of Israel and start from scratch. But notice that in neither scenario would His destruction have included Moses and his family. God was willing to spare His chosen leader and start the process of building a great nation all over again. He had started the original plan with Abraham, and there was nothing to prevent Him from doing so with Moses. Except for Moses.

On both occasions, one person stood in the way of God carrying out His plan to completely destroy His rebellious people. Moses intervened. He interceded on behalf of his fellow Israelites. Despite the fact that these very same people had repeatedly questioned his leadership and had even attempted to replace him, he boldly defended them.  In Exodus, we read that “Moses implored the Lord his God…” (Exodus 32:11 ESV). And in Numbers, it states that “Moses said to the Lord…” (Numbers 14:13 ESV).

This beleaguered and often discredited man stood by his fellow Israelites and begged God to consider the impact His destruction would have on His reputation. At Sinai, Moses had raised the prospect of the Egyptians gloating over the annihilation of the Jewish people by their own God.

“Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’?” – Exodus 32:12 ESV

Moses appealed to God’s sense of honor and reminded Him of the covenant commitment He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

“Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” – Exodus 32:13 ESV

As a result, “the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Exodus 32:14 ESV).

In the wilderness of Paran, Moses employed a similar tactic with God, arguing that news of His destruction of the people would get back to the Egyptians and they would spread rumors among the Canaanites about His unfaithfulness.

“Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land…” – Numbers 14:13-14 ESV

Moses reminded God that the nations that occupied Canaan had already heard of His presence among the people of Israel.

“They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.” – Numbers 14:14 ESV

News of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt had already reached Canaan. They had heard about God’s power and the devastating plagues He had poured out on the Egyptians. Rumors concerning this massive host of people traveling through the wilderness had made their way to the Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites. Reports of Israel’s God going before them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night had reached their ears and left them shaking in terror.

But Moses warns God that if He follows through with His plan to wipe out the Israelites, it could do irreparable damage to His reputation among the Canaanites. They will go from fearing Him to feeling sorry for Him.

“Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’” – Numbers 14:15-16 ESV

So, Moses appeals to God’s love, patience, and faithfulness.

“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.” – Numbers 14:18 ESV

Moses was not denying the guilt of the people; he was simply calling on God to only punish those who were responsible for the rebellion. He pleaded with God to “pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love” (Numbers 14:19 ESV). From Moses’ perspective, the people had been misled and negatively influenced by the report of the ten spies. These men had coerced the people into rejecting God’s command to enter the land of Canaan. Moses believed the spies were deserving of God’s judgment but the people deserved God’s forgiveness. And God agreed. He pardoned the people but declared His intent to punish the ten spies.

“…none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.” – Numbers 14:22-23 ESV

But what Moses failed to understand was the deep-rooted rebellion among that generation of Israelites. The problem was greater than Moses realized. And while God was willing to pardon the nation as a whole, He would not forgive those who had questioned His integrity and rejected His command to enter the land. The ten spies would suffer immediate death as a result of a God-ordained plague (Numbers 14:36-38). But the rest of that generation would be spared. Yet, as the following verses reveal, they would ultimately die of natural causes in the wilderness (Numbers 14:32-33).

They had listened to the report of the spies and refused to obey God’s command to enter the land of promise. In doing so, they were denying God’s power to give them victory over their enemies. They were discrediting God’s promises, inferring that He was incapable of doing what He had said He would do. And they were displaying their ingratitude for all that He had done on their behalf. God would remain faithful. He would continue to display His steadfast love and extend His grace and mercy. But that generation would pay dearly for their refusal to do His will. He had wanted to bless them but they had forfeited that right through their stubborn disobedience.

God would not destroy them, but they would never set foot in Canaan. They had been delivered by God but would never experience the joy of entering into His rest.

“…when your fathers put me to the test
    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
    and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
    “They shall not enter my rest.” – Psalm 90:9-11 ESV

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 Case of Worst-Case Scenario

Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the people of Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” 10 Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones. But the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel.

11 And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? 12 I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” – Numbers 14:5-12 ESV

We all suffer from it on occasion – worst-case-scenario syndrome. The symptoms are easily recognizable: fear, doubt, a growing sense of panic, and visions of all kinds of disasters happening – one bad thing leading to another. Usually, it starts with a fairly pedestrian situation, one that is negative, but not catastrophic. But before we know it, we’ve conjured up images of mishap and mayhem. Our minds begin to play tricks on us, causing us to imagine all kinds of negative outcomes as we conjecture what is going to happen next. We start playing out a variety of circumstances in our heads, wondering what will happen if…

That’s exactly what the Israelites suffered from in this story – as they stood on the edge of the promised land, weighing out the two disparate reports given by the 12 spies. When these men had returned from their investigatory trek through Canaan, they had delivered a report that was equal parts good news and bad news. The land was wildly abundant and fertile, and they had even brought back samples as proof. But while Canaan was bountiful and rich, it was also filled with “giants” who would surely pose a formidable threat to the Israelites. This land that God had promised to Israel as an inheritance was already occupied and its current residents would be far from pushovers. They were powerful, plentiful, well-armed, and well-protected in their fortified cities.  And that part of the report was all the people of Israel heard.

Ten of the spies were convinced that any attempt to conquer the land of Canaan would end in disaster, so they launched a campaign of misinformation, blowing the negative elements of their report out of proportion and drawing conclusions that were NOT based on fact. Instead of trusting God, they decided to trust their very fertile imaginations. They stirred up the people with outlandish claims and false accusations against God Himself.

“Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” – Numbers 14:3 NLT

In a matter of minutes, these people had turned a bit of bad news into a forecast of complete disaster. And they had actually accused God of attempted murder. These men had whipped themselves into a frenzy of fright and faithlessness and infected the entire community. Suddenly, the God who had freed them from slavery in Egypt through a series of miraculous plagues, and who had cared for them all throughout their journey to the promised land, was too weak to take care of them anymore. Their troubles were greater than their God. And the symptoms of worst-case-scenario syndrome began to appear throughout the camp.

Yet, Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua begged the people to trust God and not rebel against Him.

“The land we traveled through and explored is a wonderful land! And if the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us safely into that land and give it to us. It is a rich land flowing with milk and honey. Do not rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. They are only helpless prey to us! They have no protection, but the Lord is with us! Don’t be afraid of them!” – Numbers 14:7-9 NLT

But the people continued to respond with fear and anger, even threatening to stone Moses, his brother, and the two spies. Consumed by their lurid visions of wanton destruction, they refused to listen to what Moses and the others had to say. So, God intervened.

Then the glorious presence of the Lord appeared to all the Israelites at the Tabernacle. – Numbers 14:10 NLT

God showed up in all His glory, and He was far from pleased. He informed Moses that He was determined to wipe out the entire nation and start all over again. Despite all He had done for them, they had dared to treat Him with contempt. They had hurled accusations against Him, declaring Him to be uncaring and unsympathetic to their plight. They had displayed a staggering degree of ingratitude for all His past mercies and miracles.

“How long will these people treat me with contempt? Will they never believe me, even after all the miraculous signs I have done among them? I will disown them and destroy them with a plague. Then I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they are!” – Numbers 14:11-12 NLT

God had run out of patience with these ungrateful and disobedient people. So, He vowed to destroy them and start all over again with Moses. He would simply make for Himself a new nation. And He would have been perfectly just and right in doing so. After all, He had been the one who had chosen them in the first place. They had done nothing to earn His favor or to deserve His affections. God had set them apart as His people, not because they were a great and powerful nation, but because He was a covenant-keeping God. According to Moses, their unique relationship with God was totally undeserved and fully God’s doing.

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His prized possession out of all peoples on the face of the earth.

The LORD did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than the other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But because the LORD loved you and kept the oath He swore to your fathers, He brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 BSB

God had miraculously delivered them from their bondage in Egypt. He had led them across the wilderness and brought them safely to the shores of the Jordan River. He had kept their sandals from wearing out. He had supplied them with water, manna, and quail to eat. He had guided and protected them along the way. But now that it was time for them to do their part of entering and conquering the land, they had reneged on their end of the agreement. Moses had made their God-ordained instructions perfectly clear.

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to possess, and He drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you – and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you to defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.  – Deuteronomy 7:1-2 BSB

But they had decided to reject God’s command and go with their guts. They had determined that they knew better than God and believed a return to Egypt was preferable to a certain defeat in Canaan.

When we face difficult times, it is easy to succumb to worst-case-scenario syndrome. It’s almost natural. We begin to doubt and fear. We blow things out of proportion. Our vision gets blurry. Our memory gets sketchy. We tend to forget things – like God’s history of goodness in our lives. We become weak and prone to fear, instead of faith. Worry replaces worship. Even little things get blown out of proportion. And the usual result is rebellion.

We refuse to believe, trust and obey God, and so we fail to experience His power in our lives. We miss out on the blessings. Like the Israelites, we stand on the edge of the promises of God but never get to enjoy them. But there is a cure for worst-case-scenario syndrome. It’s called trust. Trust is putting our belief into action. It is stepping out and relying on God’s goodness. It is resting on His power even in the presence of problems. God doesn’t promise us a life free from problems. But He does promise to see us through them. He promises us strength. He promises us joy and contentment. He promises us His presence. He will see us through.

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.

I’ve Got Good News and Bad News

25 At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. 26 And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.”

30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 31 Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” 32 So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Numbers 13:25-14:4 ESV

For 40 days, the people of Israel anxiously awaited the return of the 12 men who had been sent to reconnoiter the land of Canaan. And each passing day must have fueled their growing doubts and concerns. The longer the delay, the more they must have wondered whether the spies had met an untimely demise at the hands of the land’s current occupants. Had they been captured and enslaved? Worse yet, had they been tortured and forced to disclose the location of Israel’s camp in the wilderness of Paran? Was a heavily armed force headed their way with plans to annihilate the rest of the Israelites before they could cross the Jordan River?

But much to the relief of the Israelites, the spies eventually returned, bearing news and “the fruit they had taken from the land” (Numbers 13:26 NLT). Rumors of their return spread quickly through the camp and soon everyone had gathered to hear their long-anticipated report. And as the people stood in breathless silence, they heard the spies deliver their findings.

“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. – Numbers 13:27 NLT

The spies had not returned empty handed. According to verse 23, they had gathered tangible evidence of the land’s fruitfulness and now used these props as a kind of show-and-tell.

When they came to the valley of Eshcol, they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes so large that it took two of them to carry it on a pole between them! They also brought back samples of the pomegranates and figs. – Numbers 13:23 NLT

It was as if the spies knew that their words would not be enough. Any attempts they made to describe the land’s abundance would fall short and be met with skeptical ears. So, they brought proof. And it was like nothing the Israelites had ever seen before. A single cluster of grapes had to be carried on a pole between two men. This land was super-abundant and more than adequate for meeting the physical needs of the Israelites. It’s interesting to remember that, just recently, the Israelites had been reminiscing about the wonderful cuisine they had enjoyed in Egypt.

“We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted. But now our appetites are gone. All we ever see is this manna!” – Numbers 11:5-6 NLT

While their memories of the food they enjoyed in Egypt were probably a bit cloudy and far-from-accurate, they couldn’t argue with the evidence right before their eyes. Canaan was a virtual cornucopia of culinary delights. And it was just across the river Jordan.

But before the Israelites had time to take in the wonderful news about the fruitful land of Canaan, the spies poured a bit of cold water on their enthusiasm. They delivered the bad news.

“But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! The Amalekites live in the Negev, and the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country. The Canaanites live along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and along the Jordan Valley.” – Numbers 13:28-29 NLT

If the size of the grapes had been enough to make their mouths water, this news must have made them sick to their stomachs. It was the last thing they wanted to hear. After all, what good was a fruitful and abundant land if it was filled with frightful and dominant enemies?

As soon as the Israelites heard the downside of the spies’ report, they went into a panic. And Caleb, one of the 12 men who had seen the land with his own eyes, tried to calm them down. He didn’t attempt to dismiss or discredit the presence of enemies in the land. He didn’t refute their existence or diminish the report of their superior power. Instead, he simply encouraged the people to do what God had commanded them to do.

“Let’s go at once to take the land,” he said. “We can certainly conquer it!” – Numbers 13:30 NLT

The spies had done exactly what Moses had instructed them to do.

“Go north through the Negev into the hill country. See what the land is like, and find out whether the people living there are strong or weak, few or many. See what kind of land they live in. Is it good or bad? Do their towns have walls, or are they unprotected like open camps? Is the soil fertile or poor? Are there many trees? Do your best to bring back samples of the crops you see.” (It happened to be the season for harvesting the first ripe grapes.) – Numbers 13:18-20 NLT

They had returned with a report and samples. But at no point were their findings intended to play a role in whether or not the Israelites entered the land. Their mission had been a fact-finding one. And when their report turned out to be a combination of good news and bad news, it should have had no bearing on God’s plans for Israel. It provided proof that the land was fruitful. But it was also provided evidence that the land was already occupied. While the first fact was encouraging, the second was disheartening. But both were intended to remind the people that God was their provider. Not only had He given them a land, but He would also give them victory over its more formidable occupants.

But for ten of the spies, the thought of the Israelites defeating the Canaanites was a pipe dream. There was no way a rag-tag army of former shepherds and slaves was going to conquer a land filled with “giants.” The Israelites would find themselves up against Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites. They would be out-numbered and under-equipped for the task. And the ten spies made their views plainly known.

“We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!” – Numbers 13:31 NLT

These men were more than scared. They were absolutely petrified and determined to convince the people to disobey God’s command to enter the land of Canaan.

“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 13:32-33 NLT

Notice how they conveniently leave God out of the picture. It was all “us-versus-them.” It was giants against grasshoppers, the powerful against the weak. The odds were completely lopsided and any hope of victory was wishful thinking.

And their words had the desired effect. The people were devastated and demoralized. They wept and mourned. They regretted ever having left Egypt. And any encouragement they may have received from the sight of oversized fruit was crushed by the prospect of annihilation at the hands of their enemies.

Fueled by the disheartening rhetoric of the ten spies, the people railed against Moses and Aaron, questioning why they had ever left the land of Egypt in the first place.

“If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!” they complained. “Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” – Numbers 14:2-3 NLT

They had regrets. And they suffered from a severe case of good-old-days syndrome. When confronted with the less-than-ideal option of entering the land of Canaan, they began to long for their days back in Egypt. They preferred slavery to possible slaughter at the hands of the Canaanites. Their view of the promised land was anything but promising. Filled with pessimism and fueled by fear, they lashed out at Moses and Aaron. And then, anxious to derail any plans these two men may have had to lead them into Canaan, the people began to plot their overthrow.

“Let’s choose a new leader and go back to Egypt!” – Numbers 14:4 NLT

Little did they know that they were thumbing their noses in the face of God Almighty. They were rejecting the gift of an inheritance that He had promised to Abraham. The land was theirs by right. But now, they were declaring their intention to return to slavery rather than obey the word of their gracious deliverer. They were rejecting the will of the One who had redeemed them from captivity and refusing to believe that He could provide them with victory over their enemies. And they were about to learn just how deadly their decision would be.

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 Painful Price of Pride

1 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed.

10 When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. 11 And Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. 12 Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.” 13 And Moses cried to the Lord, “O God, please heal her—please.” 14 But the Lord said to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut outside the camp seven days, and after that she may be brought in again.” 15 So Miriam was shut outside the camp seven days, and the people did not set out on the march till Miriam was brought in again. 16 After that the people set out from Hazeroth, and camped in the wilderness of Paran. Numbers 12:1-16 ESV

Moses was the God-appointed leader of the nation Israel and Aaron, his brother, had been set apart by God to serve as the high priest. And even when God had agreed to provide His chosen leader with administrative assistance, God poured out His Spirit on 70 men who would serve directly under Moses. They were not to replace him or to assume they served on an equal standing with him. These men were supposed to assist Moses in his oversight of the nation, wisely administering justice and handling disputes among the people so that Moses would not become overwhelmed.

Yet, this chapter introduces a new form of leadership struggle that rose among the people and it started with those who were closest to Moses – his own family. It seems that his brother and sister took issue with a marriage arrangement he had agreed to with a Cushite woman. There is some debate as to the identity of this woman, but it would appear that she was of a foreigner of Ethiopian descent. It could be that Moses’ first wife, Zipporah, had died some time during the last year, and he then married this Ethiopian woman. But whatever the circumstances, Miriam and Aaron took issue with the marriage and used it as an excuse to question Moses’ qualifications to lead the nation.

They saw the marriage as evidence of Moses’ lack of discernment and questioned whether he was really hearing from God. In fact, they claimed to be on an equal standing with Moses when it came to divine insight.

“Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” – Numbers 12:2 NLT

Miriam was older than Moses and had been the one who helped secure his safety when Pharaoh had ordered the murder all the male babies born among the Israelites living in Egypt (Exodus 1:15-16). Miriam had arranged with the daughter of Pharaoh to have the infant, Moses, nursed by one of the Hebrew women, who just happened to be her own mother (Exodus 2:7-9). Exodus 15:20 refers to Miriam as a prophetess of God, and Micah 6:4 lists her as one of the three individuals whom God appointed to lead the nation of Israel from Egypt to the land of Canaan.

“For I brought you up from the land of Egypt
    and redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses,
    Aaron, and Miriam.” – Micah 6:4 ESV

But in Numbers 12, Miriam attempted to convince her brother, Aaron, to join her in staging a coup against Moses. It seems rather odd that she would target Aaron for participation in this little insurrection because he was already second-in-command and served as the high priest of the people. Even before Moses had successfully led the people of Israel out of Egypt, Aaron had served as his second-hand man. God had appointed him as Moses’ mouthpiece.

“What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he speaks well. And look! He is on his way to meet you now. He will be delighted to see you. Talk to him, and put the words in his mouth. I will be with both of you as you speak, and I will instruct you both in what to do. Aaron will be your spokesman to the people. He will be your mouthpiece, and you will stand in the place of God for him, telling him what to say.” – Exodus 4:14-16 NLT

But Miriam and Aaron had decided that they were just as qualified as their brother to serve as the de facto leaders of Israel. After all, they too had been born into the tribe of Levi and had every right to serve in a leadership capacity. And it didn’t help that Moses was a very humble individual who had no desire for the limelight. Of his own admission, he was far from charismatic or overly eloquent.

“O Lord, I’m not very good with words. I never have been, and I’m not now, even though you have spoken to me. I get tongue-tied, and my words get tangled.” – Exodus 4:10 NLT

His lack of self-esteem made him an easy target for Miriam’s attacks. She believed that Moses had been a poor choice by God and the Cushite marriage agreement had proven Moses’ lack of discernment. But God disagreed with their assessment and ordered the three siblings to meet Him at the tent of meeting, located just outside the camp.

And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words…” – Numbers 12:5-6 ESV

God wanted a word with these dissatisfied siblings and, when He was done, they were going to wish they had never opened their mouths against Moses. The first thing God cleared up was His divine right to choose whomever He wanted as His leader. Miriam may have been a prophetess of God, but that did not put her on equal footing with Moses. In fact, God seems to be taking a dig at Miriam’s prophetess status when He states, “If there were prophets among you, I, the Lord, would reveal myself in visions. I would speak to them in dreams” (Numbers 12:6 NLT).

Miriam had experienced no dreams or visions from God. Her demand for equal status was a figment of her own overactive imagination and over-inflated sense of self-worth. And to make sure she understood the vast difference between His relationship with her and the one He shared with Moses, God declared:

“Of all my house, he is the one I trust. I speak to him face to face, clearly, and not in riddles! He sees the Lord as he is.” – Numbers 12:7-8 NLT

That had to have hit Miriam like a brick to the forehead. God’s words stung and burst the bubble of her own sense of self-importance. And, to make matters worse, God demanded to know why she had shown no fear to criticize Moses. Who did she think she was?

Having stated His case against Miriam and Aaron, God departed from them. But He left an unsettling reminder of His displeasure. When Aaron turned to look at Miriam, he was shocked to discover that her entire body was covered with leprosy. And fearing that he was next, he called out to Moses to intervene on their behalf.

“Oh, my master! Please don’t punish us for this sin we have so foolishly committed.” – Numbers 12:11 NLT

The sudden and unexpected sight of his sister covered with leprosy must have reminded Aaron of another day when something similar had happened to Moses. Back when God had called Moses to be the chosen deliverer of the people of Israel, He had given him a series of signs that were intended to prove to the people of Israel that Yahweh had sent him.

“Put your hand inside your cloak.” And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. Then God said, “Put your hand back inside your cloak.” So he put his hand back inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. – Exodus 4:6-7 ESV

Now, more than a year later, Moses and Aaron were staring at their sister, Miriam, whose entire body was covered with this hideous disease. But this time, there was no quick fix. Moses desperately pleaded for her immediate healing.

O God, please heal her—please.” – Numbers 12:13 ESV

But God refused to grant his request. Instead, He graciously announced that her punishment would not match the gravity of her crime.

“If her father had done nothing more than spit in her face, wouldn’t she be defiled for seven days? So keep her outside the camp for seven days, and after that she may be accepted back.” – Numbers 12:14 NLT

In essence, God is declaring that Miriam had defiled herself through her actions. And while God could have left her to suffer from the hideous effects of leprosy for a lifetime, He mercifully restricted her period of suffering to only seven days. But she would be required to spend the entire time on the outskirts of the camp, suffering the indignity of the disease and the social stigmatization of ceremonial impurity. She was to be treated as unclean and unwelcome among the people of God – until God had healed her. And during the seven days of her punishment, the entire nation of Israel was forced to delay their journey to the land of promise. Everything came to a halt because Miriam had decided to question the will of God and the authority of His chosen leader. And this painful punishment from God should have served as a powerful reminder to the entire nation that no one was immune to God’s discipline against disobedience. Even the sister of Moses.

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.