Snakebitten: Numbers 21


Today’s reading: Numbers 21-22.

Something is bugging you. Would you rather get a treatment to ease the problem, or get rid of the problem itself? No question that you’d vote for eliminating the problem, but sometimes that isn’t an option.

As the Israelites make their first forays into enemy territory they win a battle, but once again fail to win the fight against their own ingratitude and discontent. God disciplines them by sending poisonous snakes into their camp.

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. Numbers 21:4-9

This episode foreshadows Christ’s crucifixion. Jesus made the comparison himself. Anyone, anywhere, with any severity of poisonous bite/sin can look to the snake/Jesus and by faith receive healing/forgiveness/life.

But as I read the story today, what strikes me most is this: God did not take away the snakes. The snakes are still loose in the camp. God could have destroyed them, but he didn’t. The people prayed that God would take them away, but he didn’t. The snakes continue to slither and strike even though the people admitted their sin. I don’t know how long the snakebites continued; the Bible doesn’t say. But it does say that the bronze snake was still around in King Hezekiah’s reign, some 600 years later. I suspect that the snakes plagued the Israelites far longer than the few verses in Numbers suggest.

And so it goes with sin. “Sin will take you further than you want to go; cost you more than you want to pay; and keep you longer than you want to stay.” We may stop sinning, but the consequences continue. God taught the Israelites a lesson about the results of sin by leaving the snakes in the camp. We need to keep learning the same lesson. Some people say live and learn. I say, learn and live. Learn to keep the snakes away by not sinning in the first place.

You’re probably thinking, “easier said than done.” You’d be right. Jesus wouldn’t have gone to the cross if there was an easy solution for sin. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it can’t be done. The Old Covenant with its laws didn’t solve the problem. The New Covenant put the desire to obey God in our hearts, and finally there is a possibility that we can keep the snakes at bay. As for me, I’m glad Jesus let himself be lifted up so that I could look to him, believe in him, and receive the cure for my snakebitten soul.

”Young man, you look very miserable” (said the preacher).

Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued,

”and you always will be miserable–miserable in life, and miserable in death,–if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.”

Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist could do,

”Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.”

I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said,–I did not take much notice of it — I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, ”Look!” what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and simple faith which looks alone to Him. Oh, that somebody had told me this before, ”Trust Christ, and you shall be saved.” Spurgeon’s salvation testimony

Image by Lawrence OP on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

Broken against the rock: Numbers 20


Today’s reading: Numbers 18-20.

Moses’ signal shortcoming tells us more about God than about Israel’s leader. Moses isn’t defined by this one moment: he is still the friend of God, the man of God, the most humble man, obedient, and a man of great faith. Even after the failing at Kadesh he remains true to his calling to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.

It’s the beginning of the fortieth year of the wilderness journey, thirty-eight years after the people failed to invade Canaan because of their fear. They are back at Kadesh, and once again complaining. One thing has changed, however. The older generation is dying out. Numbers tells us that Miriam dies as a way of reminding us that all those that rejected God are passing away.

The multitude, now mostly of the younger generation, need water. At the beginning of their journey the people received water from a rock. Then God told Moses to strike the rock, and he obeyed. Now, God tells Moses to take his staff and speak to the rock. But Moses, tired of putting up with endless complaints, breaks down in anger.

So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” Numbers 20:9-12

Look how the shortcoming of one person leads to problems for another. The people are complaining. Moses gets caught up in their emotion and fails to obey God. Moses’ failure in turn draws in Aaron who, almost as a bystander, follows Moses and ends up dishonoring God. Here’s how the Psalm writer saw it:

By the waters of Meribah they angered the LORD, and trouble came to Moses because of them; for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips. Psalm 106:32-33

So what did God see in Moses’ actions that displeased him so much that he decided he could not lead the people all the way into the Promised Land?

  • He failed to give God the glory for releasing the water, instead claiming that he and Aaron were giving it.
  • He spoke angrily to the people, when God expressed no anger towards them.
  • He disobeyed God, not releasing the water by the word of his mouth but by striking the rock.

I think Moses was experiencing caregiver burnout, and God mercifully prepared for his retirement. Even so, God could not overlook Moses’ failure to honor him and obey his word. God places a very high premium on these actions in those who are closest to him.

Paul had something to say about the rock that broke Moses:

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. I Corinthians 10:1-4

Jesus Christ is the living water. He is the cornerstone. He is also the stumbling stone upon which we must all be broken (Matthew 21:44) and over which we will all fall if we depend upon our own actions rather than our faith (Romans 9:32). Moses acted in his own strength and stumbled. To his credit, he picked himself up and once again followed the LORD.

Image by John Spooner on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

Between life and death: Numbers 16


Today’s reading: Numbers 16-17.

Aaron’s life in the exodus and the wilderness journey passes through many ups and downs, but today it reaches a high water mark. Instead of the repetitive and mostly routine services in the tabernacle, he finds himself in a life and death struggle for the children of Israel. By standing in the gap for them, he turns God’s judgement to mercy in a very Christ-like fashion.

His heroic intervention resulted from another foolish and prideful rebellion by a faction of dissatisfied Levites. Led by Korah, 250 Levites challenged Moses’ leadership and demanded change. They probably felt they should be given priestly duties along with Aaron’s family. God proved they were wrong to rebel by destroying Korah and his 250 followers with fire, then swallowed their families in a giant hole in the ground. At this point, you would expect the people of Israel to run from further confrontation. Instead they complained about what happened (sound familiar?) and caused God to send a deadly plague against them. If someone didn’t act quickly to avert God’s wrath, the entire nation of Israel would die.

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with fire from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the LORD; the plague has started.” So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. Numbers 16:46-48

I’m not sure the words do justice to Aaron’s heroism. He was rushing into the midst of the most deadly and rapid plague ever seen. Over 14,000 people died in moments. His offering for atonement was no proven recipe; it was a spur-of-the-moment see-if-it-works hope-Moses-is-right effort. Death and the plague were in front of him, the target of God’s wrath was behind him. He stood between the living and the dead, and death turned away. He became more like Christ in that moment than during any of his prescribed priestly sacrifices.

Why did God have mercy on Aaron? I don’t think it was because of the coals and incense in the censer, though I could be wrong. I think it was because Aaron, as High Priest, was doing exactly what God had raised him up to do, to stand between God and man, bringing offering for guilt from man, and bringing forgiveness from God.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:14-16

Image by Jaci XIII on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0.

Faithless: Numbers 14


Today’s reading: Numbers 14-15.

Twelve men make a secret exploration of the Promised Land, and return with glowing reports of its fruitfulness. At the same time, ten of the twelve are convinced that they cannot invade the land because of the strength and fortifications of its people. Only Joshua and Caleb press the case for entering Canaan. They are soon shouted down, and threatened with death, by the fearful and faithless Israelites.

The LORD said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?” Numbers 14:11

As a result of their faithlessness, God condemns all the adult Israelites except Joshua and Caleb to wander in the desert until they die. Their faithless wandering is a major theme of the book. It will take 38 years until their generation is gone, and only then will their children be ready to claim the promised inheritance.

Look at the reasons for the Israelites lack of faith:

  • they focused on the visible (appearance of their adversaries) rather than the spiritual
  • they listened to tradition (stories of Anak and the Nephilim) rather than God’s word
  • they gave more weight to their own (lack of) power rather than God’s power
  • they gave in to what others said rather than thinking for themselves
  • they magnified their fears and diminished God’s promise

Joshua and Caleb provided the counterpoint:

  • they knew that obedience and faith are necessary to please God
  • they saw the spiritual reality that God had disarmed their enemies
  • they had no fear since the LORD was with them

We all face giants, whether real or imagined. When in their country we must not fix our eyes on the giants but on the LORD who towers over all, and who has promised, “fear not, I am with you wherever you go.”

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Hebrews 11:1

True faith bids eternal truth to become present reality. Manley Beasley

Faith is acting as if it is so, when it isn’t so, in order for it to be so, because God says it is so. Manley Beasley

Image by Robert Körner on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0.

The anger of the LORD: Numbers 11-12


Today’s reading: Numbers 11-13.

“The Old Testament God is an angry God.” True? Numbers gives some serious credence to that claim. If it is true, then it’s important to understand why, and to learn what it teaches us about God’s character.

Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. Numbers 11:1

The Israelites angered God with their complaining, and his anger burned hot against them with literal fire.

Now a wind went out from the LORD and drove quail in from the sea. It brought them down all around the camp to about three feet above the ground, as far as a day’s walk in any direction. All that day and night and all the next day the people went out and gathered quail. No one gathered less than ten homers. Then they spread them out all around the camp. But while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the LORD burned against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague. Numbers 11:31-33

The people complained about eating only manna, and God responded by sending them a surplus of quail. But even as they ate the meat, his anger boiled over and struck them with sickness.

      Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” And the LORD heard this … “When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them. When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam–leprous, like snow. Numbers 12:1-2, 6-10

Moses’ brother and sister were envious of his status, and openly criticized him, and in his anger God made Miriam leprous. In a short span of time the people kindled God’s wrath three times with devastating results. I’m not sure which was more predictable: God’s anger or the foolishness of the people who kept on provoking him. In thinking about the situation, I’m impressed by the following:

  • God and the Israelites now lived side by side, and interactions were immediate
  • The people were greatly accountable for they had been eye-witnesses of God’s repeated miracles, deliverance, and presence in the tabernacle
  • They had been promised great reward in the near future, with every reason to trust God’s promise based on his past performance

God’s anger was repeatedly stoked by their complaints. They complained about hardships, the lack of meat in their diet, and, in Miriam’s case, about Moses’ special status. The common theme was dissatisfaction; the people were unhappy and ungrateful with God’s provision. They said, in essence, “God, you are not enough.”

I have to ask myself at this point why God’s patience failed, for longsuffering is another hallmark of God’s character. But here all is feverish anger. To understand why, consider John Piper’s mantra: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” If God is most exalted, pleased, or praised when I most desire and enjoy him, then will the opposite also be true? Is God most dishonored when I am most critical, unhappy, and dissatisfied with him? And what if the ones who are most critical of God are also the ones who are closest to him, both physically and spiritually? Now I begin to understand the depth of God’s anger.  “To whom much is given, much is required.” The people who walked most closely with God complained most about him, and learned at great expense that God will be glorified, not dishonored.

Although believers by nature, are far from God, and children of wrath, even as others, yet it is amazing to think how nigh they are brought to him again by the blood of Jesus Christ. George Whitefield

Image by Uncle Jerry on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

How do I know God’s will? Numbers 9


Today’s reading: Numbers 8-10.

It seems that the Israelites had everything we long for in knowing God’s will.

…whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out. Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. At the LORD’s command they encamped, and at the LORD’s command they set out. Numbers 9:21-23

There was no questioning when to pack up, or when to settle down. The answer always blazed before them, big as a cloud and impossible to miss. And now, after a year of camping out near Mt. Sinai, they were on their way to the Promised Land. Sometimes they moved daily. Sometimes they sat for days. But there was no doubting about when God said to go.

Now I’m not saying they didn’t grumble about God’s will. I’m sure there were days when someone said, “but we just got here.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Moses didn’t scratch his head at times and wonder, “but God, it’s perfect weather for traveling.” I’m just saying they had a clarity about God’s will that you and I dream about. Which makes me ask, what can I learn from this cloud about God’s will? Because, if you’re like most folks, his will is often more cloudy than clear.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say this cloud teaches us more about how not to determine God’s will. For example:

  • Someone will say, “I’m not moving until God makes it clear to me what I’m supposed to do.” Then you may wait for a long time. God has made his will perfectly clear, in the Bible, on the moral issues that we all face. He has made it abundantly clear that we are to lead holy lives by obeying his word. But there are countless non-moral decisions that each of us must make with no specific directive from God. If you wait for God to give you a clear answer on one of these decisions, you may never get started. For the best discussion of this problem, read Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung. See my earlier post for more on his book and the answer to this problem.
  • Someone will say, “I will only do what the Holy Spirit tells me to do.” Fine. Now tell me how you can know when the Holy Spirit is talking and not just your own desires or feelings. I believe the Spirit guides us, but only in concert with God’s word, circumstances, and the counsel of wise believers.

One thing I do know: when God says go, we’ve got to move. There are plenty of times when we see clearly what God expects us to do because he told us in his word. “Be holy, as I am holy.” “As you go, make disciples of all men.” “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” “Be thankful in all circumstances.” “Pray without ceasing.” If we keep doing the things we already know we should do, there won’t be much time to sit around wondering about the things that are cloudy.

Image by Oberazzi on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0.

The Nazirite vow: Numbers 6


Samson was raised as a Nazirite from birth. The book of Judges tells his story, but Numbers lays out the specifics of the Nazirite vow. Understanding it now will make the source of Samson’s power more clear when we come to his story.

What set the Nazirite apart?

  • their hair was left uncut
  • they could not eat or drink any product of grapes, including juice, wine, raisins, or fresh grapes
  • they had to stay away from dead bodies, even when it involved the death of family
  • the vow could be any length, from weeks to years, or even for a lifetime. If interrupted, the person could shave their head and begin the vow again.
  • they would make an expensive offering and shave off their hair at the end of the vow

Nazirite comes from the Hebrew word for separation or consecration. It’s not a place but a way of life (no connection to Nazareth or Nazarene). There is a connection with the grape-vine that goes unpruned every seventh year (Sabbath year) according to God’s command (Leviticus 25:5). The Sabbath year grape-vine was separated from common use and consecrated to God. In a similar fashion the man or woman who took a Nazirite vow was separated from the usual actions of his companions and consecrated to God. The unpruned grape-vine and the uncut hair of the Nazirite were both visual signs of their consecration.

In addition to Samson, Samuel lived partially as a Nazirite. John the Baptist appears to have been a Nazirite. Some people became Nazirites by their own choice, in order to strengthen their devotion to God. Others were devoted before birth and raised as Nazirites. The command to leave the hair uncut provided a visible sign of their devotion. Avoiding grape products served as a form of self-denial, much as we might give up a favorite food during Lent. The Nazirite avoided dead bodies because of the association between death, sin, and uncleanness.

God calls people to a closer walk with him. Some answer the call, and the Nazirite vow was one way that people in former times could live out a life of deeper devotion. You and I can follow a similar path by:

  • living holy lives by avoiding sin
  • living set-apart lives by controlling our appetite for worldly pleasures
  • showing visible evidence of the inner change in our hearts by the outward expression of joy, peace, contentment, and courage that comes from trusting God

Our devotion waxes and wanes, but times of deeper devotion, even if temporary like a Nazirite vow, can show us the power and possibility of a heart given wholly to God.

Image by dklimke on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0