When I open my Jewish Bible up to the book we English-speaking Christians know as Numbers, I turn to Bamidbar, which means “In the Wilderness” or “In the Desert” in Hebrew. We call this book Numbers, because it begins with a census. For most of us that alone is enough to put us to sleep and off the book for good. If we make it through this first census, though, we find a dramatic travel narrative in five parts. It’s a journey that could take as little as two weeks on foot. Instead, it takes the Israelites forty years!
Numbers is the story of the Israelites’ road trip through the desert wilderness. It really begins back at the Exodus from Egypt, and they end up in the Promised Land. In some ways, Exodus and Numbers together is a bit like The Grapes of Wrath. Both these two biblical books and The Grapes of Wrath start at a place of great hardship and hope for a better life. Both take us through a long journey in a desert wilderness. Many mistakes, hardships, and blessings happen along the way. For both, a climatic resolution in a hoped for promised land is not really what happens for the characters at the beginning of the stories.
The journey in Numbers begins at Mount Sinai. This is, of course, the same Mount Sinai where Moses brought Israel her law. They built the tabernacle here in the wilderness at Mount Sinai. By now, the Israelites have been here for a full year. Like all road trips, this one begins with everyone getting organized. Yes, there is a census. The people also get their marching orders that let them know where everyone and everything should go. In this, the LORD and His holiness is the centerpiece of their organization. Literally everything finds it place around that centerpiece. Once everything is organized, they are ready to set off.
Except unlike our road trip stories, in this one the LORD is literally in the driver’s seat. When the cloud of God’s presence moves, the people move, following the LORD. When the LORD’s presence stops to settle, the people stop and settle. Sometimes, the stay is brief, and sometimes it’s a lot longer. Throughout it all, there is no doubt about who is and who is not in charge.
Except that after only three days into this road trip, the people already start grumbling and questioning God’s direction. The people have no problem expressing their thoughts and feelings about this road trip. They complain that they are hungry and thirsty. Moses’ siblings start putting Moses down in front of everyone. In this sense, the book of Numbers here is more like the Griswold family’s road trip in the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation than a more legendary road trip book like On the Road or movie like Easy Rider. In many ways, this part of the road trip story also mirrors the experience of family road trips with children. Parents may plan, organize, and behave as though they are in control, moving the family from one place to another. They quickly realize, however, that their children and transportation have a whole lot of input into how long or how enjoyable this road trip will turn out to be.
Unlike a determined parent who will not stop for yet another bathroom break or play yet another Veggie Tales album, the LORD genuinely and fully respects the choices and decisions that people make. He does not force us to obey when we choose to disobey. We see this on display already during this first of the two traveling sections of Numbers, but it is really obvious during the second part of the journey.
This is probably the most well-known section of Numbers. Here the twelve spies go out into the Promised Land of Canaan. Two of them report back about all of the huge bounty and blessing to be found there. The other ten tell tales about all of the huge people and trouble to be found there. This presents the central question of Numbers to us. Do we trust the LORD to deliver us as He sees fit, or do we trust in ourselves and anything but God to lead us? God has His redemption plan. Do we choose to get on board with Him without first counting the cost?
At Paran, we see what happens when the people of God disobey. The ten spies rally the people around a new leader. They reject Moses, the LORD’s appointed leader. They form a mutiny against Him and His leadership of the journey and Israel’s mission. Again, unlike what would happen in the family road trip analogy, the LORD respects their mutinous decision, allowing them to walk away from His redemption plan. These mutineers refused to go on into the Promised Land, and so the LORD says that indeed they will not enter the Promised Land. They will now wander in the wilderness for forty years and die. Their children will enter into Canaan, but they will not.
This story is remembered throughout the rest of the Bible. Disobedience is to wander away from life towards death. Obedience is to trust wholeheartedly in the promises of the LORD that lead to blessing and life. The LORD respects the decisions of people about whether or not to follow His plan for redemption. The LORD honors the choices we make, and that makes those decisions matter.
On the road from Paran to Moab even Moses himself chooses disobedience at Meribah. It is good to remind ourselves here that the Bible is not about human heroes, and certainly not about heroes who are good enough to earn the favor of God. What is Moses’s act of disobedience at Meribah that keeps him wandering just outside of the Promised Land? This is another echo of the central theme of faith in Numbers.
Moses did not trust in the LORD to deliver as He said He would. Remember Moses’s encounter with the LORD at the burning bush, when the LORD told Moses to speak to Pharaoh. Remember that Moses was so distrustful of his own ability to speak well, and that the LORD appointed Aaron to go with and speak for him. Here, unlike with so many prior miracles, the LORD commands Moses to speak. Moses, distrustful of his own voice and apparently also of the LORD’s power, acts instead with his staff.
I have found that where we are often most distrustful of the LORD’s promises is where we tend to feel the most need for them. Do we trust the LORD to deliver us as He sees fit? This God who spoke the cosmos into being and who spoke with him face to face commanded Moses to speak water out of a rock. If our own self-doubts are so great that we lose faith in our ability to follow the LORD’s commands, then we not only do not believe in ourselves. We also do not believe in the LORD.
In spite of all of this rebellion and disobedience, the LORD continues to provide. He rains down manna, brings forth water, and provides quail. He forgives and He provides. The people, who do not see life through the eyes of faith, see only hardship and fear. Would I have seen things any differently? How long would it take me before I started to complain? How long until I too wanted to go back to Egypt?
This final section of Numbers is one of the most revealing parts of the Bible. While the people see life through eyes of hunger and want, the LORD is working through the evil intentions of the king of Moab to bring blessing to His people. The Moabite king’s pagan wizard Balaam prays to the LORD for curses to rain down on Israel. Amazingly, while His people grumble and disobey, the LORD turns that evil from the Moabites into blessing for His people. Most amazingly, the final word of Balaam is a prophecy about a great king who would come out of Israel and deliver on the LORD’s promise to Abraham to bless all nations through this family. The LORD really is in the driver’s seat on this road trip even though we sometimes forget that.
The ending of Numbers is about this new generation of Israel getting organized to enter into the Promised Land. People and things are arranged. A new census is taken here in Moab across the Jordan River from Canaan. As they are about to finish their road trip and leave that old generation with Moses behind, Moses delivers one final speech to them. That final speech on the edge of the Promised Land is Deuteronomy. We read Deuteronomy then with the central question from Numbers in mind. Do we trust in the LORD to deliver us as He sees fit?