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In the Wilderness

By Don Ruhl

If God appeared right now and spoke to us, how would we react? We would have great fear, trembling, respect, and awe for what He said. What if He simply spoke to us the words of the Book of Numbers? What if He had someone write down those words, and then God left, how would we think of what He had recorded?

That is precisely what happened with the Book of Numbers. He used Moses to write down the words of this Book, and He has preserved it for every generation of man. Should we not reverence these words as if God Himself were present here today reading the Book?

Is the Book of Numbers God speaking? Hear the opening words, “Now the LORD spoke to Moses…” (Num 1.1a). Hear the closing words, “These are the commandments and the judgments which the LORD commanded…” (Num 36.13a).

Since the Book of Numbers is the word of God, Psalm 119.161 declares the attitude of the psalmist, and let it declare our attitude also, “My heart stands in awe of Your word” (Psa 119.161b). Is there a Bible Book that the psalmist did not mean to include? He included every Book written up to that time, and after including the Book of Numbers.

What you have always heard about Israel in the wilderness comes primarily out of the Book of Numbers, and for that reason it is not called the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible, but “In the wilderness,” which comes from the opening verse, “Now the LORD spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai…” (Num 1.1). Chapters 1–3 and 26 record the census, but the rest of the Book records the activities of Israel in the wilderness, and some of the commands that the Lord gave Israel. We would also do well to call it the Book of Murmuring or Complaining.

In the Old Testament the Lord reminded Israel constantly of their deliverance from Egypt, but He also reminded later generations of the Wilderness Wanderings, and He even reminds Christians of that time period, because The life of an Israelite then parallels the life of a Christian now. Even as an Israelite was in bondage in Egypt, so a Christian was in bondage to sin. An Israelite escaped the bondage by passing through the Red Sea, and by doing that, he was baptized into Moses. A Christian escapes the bondage of sin by passing through the water of baptism, and by doing that, he is baptized into Christ. An Israelite had to live in the wilderness before entering Canaan. A Christian has to live in the world before entering heaven. An Israelite crossed the Jordan to leave the wilderness and enter Canaan. A Christian has to pass through death to leave the world before entering heaven. 

This means that the Book of Numbers holds a foundational place in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, and that Christians cannot know and appreciate the biblical message without knowing the Book of the Wilderness Wanderings.

In the Wilderness 

In these thirty-six chapters, 1,288 verses, we learn of the Nazarite vow, the quail God sent into the camp, the rebellion of Miriam and Aaron, the spies and their report on the Land of Canaan, the rebellion of Korah, the budding of Aaron’s rod, the disobedience of Moses when he struck the rock, and Balaam and his talking donkey, et al.

Where the Book of Exodus ends, the Book of Numbers continues the story, picking up the story in the second month of the second year, and it ends with Israel ready to enter the Land of Canaan after forty years in the wilderness.

The Foundational Place of Numbers 

It shows the development of the promise to Abraham, which was or is for the world. “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12.3). This is not about Israel only, but God made a promise to Abraham for the world, and God would use Israel as His vehicle to bring that promise to the world. The Book of Numbers shows God keeping His promise, of which we enjoy the fulfillment. Therefore, Christians knowing the Book of Numbers is like Americans knowing the early history of the United States. To fulfill the promise made to Abraham, God needed a nation through whom He would use prophets to show why the world needed the promised blessing to Abraham. Then we can understand the countless Old and New Testament references to the wilderness wanderings. 

For example, the Book of Jude makes three references to the Book of Numbers without elaborating on the stories, but Jude fully expected members of the New Testament Church to know what he meant by these references, that is, to be biblically literate, “But I want to remind you, though you once knew this, that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 5). “Woe to them! For they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah” (Jude 11). Exodus shows the Lord leading Israel out of Egypt, but Numbers shows that He destroyed unbelievers among them, and what they did not believe. Genesis shows the way of Cain, but the Book of Numbers shows the error of Balaam for profit and the rebellion of Korah. However, Jude said little about each one. He just expects us to know what he means. He expects us to be biblically literate. What do you think of an illiterate person who does not want to learn? What does the Lord think of us when we are content to be biblically illiterate? Do you know to what Jude referred in verses 5 and 11? If not, find out so that you will not remain biblically illiterate.

Many times the New Testament uses the Book of Numbers to teach us. In John 3, Jesus spoke one of the most beloved verses in all the Bible, but did you know the Book of Numbers provides the story that led to the Golden Text of the Bible? “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3.16). When you read that verse, ask yourself why it begins with the word “for.” John 3.16 explains what Jesus had said in verses 13–15, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.13–15). Jesus, who spoke this, and John who wrote it without explanation, both expected us to be biblically literate, to know the meaning of Moses lifting up the serpent. Jesus referred to Numbers 21 when the Israelites let their discouragement lead them to question God for delivering them, and to complain about the food. He sent fiery serpents among the people, bitting them, causing many of them to die. They confessed their sin and asked for deliverance from the serpents, “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived” (Num 21.8, 9). Like the uplifted serpent on a pole, so Jesus would be lifted up on a cross, and even as the Israelites could be saved by looking at the bronze serpent, so, anyone who looks to Jesus, believing that He is the Son of God can be saved. 

In First Corinthians 10, Paul used the Book of Numbers several times to teach Christians to use the Wilderness Wanderings as examples of what we should not do, “But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness” (1Co 10.5). See the picture Paul painted. Imagine this huge wilderness and several million people wandering in it for forty years. Everyone 20 years old and older, who came out of Egypt, died, and you can just see the dead bodies all over the place. The Lord said it like this, as recorded by Moses in Numbers 14, “The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above” (Num 14.29). Numbers 1 gives us an idea of the amount of people, “So all who were numbered of the children of Israel, by their fathers’ houses, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war in Israel—all who were numbered were six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty” (Num 1.45, 46). That number excluded the tribe of Levi and the women. Therefore, we are talking about 2 or 3 times that amount whose bodies were scattered in the wilderness, because of their unbelief. There is more from First Corinthians 10, and from the Book of Numbers that we need to know to be faithful Christians, which I will cover at another time. 

Roughly 3,500 years ago, the Lord used the nation of Israel as they journeyed to the Land of Canaan to teach us valuable lessons about our salvation. Clear back then, He was working to bring what we enjoy today. Clear back then, He was setting up examples from which we can learn. Therefore, He wants us to read and to learn from the Book of Numbers. He included it in the Bible for Christians and the church.

What have we seen in the Book of Numbers today? God takes our salvation seriously. God commands us to follow His leadership, if we hope to reach our Land of Canaan, but He shows in the New Testament that we can fall as the Israelites did in the wilderness, and we will not enter God’s rest even as Israel did not enter God’s rest.

Individual Israelites and the nation are types of Christians and the church. Our lives in this world after our baptisms parallel Israel’s deliverance from Egypt through the Red Sea and their wilderness wanderings. They were headed for the Land of Canaan, we are headed for our Land of Canaan known as heaven, but even as they had to follow the Lord faithfully, so we have to follow the Lord faithfully all our days, and even as they had to cross the Jordan River to enter the Land of Canaan, so we have to cross death on our way to heaven.

Therefore, this whole life we prepare for our crossing of the Jordan. Even as Israel was baptized into Moses, so we must be baptized into Christ, and then follow Him wherever He goes, which is what the Israelites were supposed to do, because First Corinthians 10 refers to Jesus as being with Israel in the wilderness. If we follow Jesus wherever He leads us, we know we shall be where He is now, and as it is written in Revelation 14 when John saw people in heaven, and he explained to us, “These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (14.4).

Do not resist Him as the Israelites resisted Moses when he first went to Egypt. When they finally believed that God had sent him, they followed Moses until they arrived at the Red Sea, then they feared, even as many people believe that God sent Jesus, but they are unsure about making the commitment to Him by going through the water of baptism.

It will be okay. Go with Him through water and even as He takes you through the water of baptism, so He will be with you through the Jordan of death, and you shall enter the heavenly Canaan.