Numbers picks up the Israelite story where Exodus left off. It's just a hunch but I think I know where the title "Numbers" comes from: In Chapter 1 Moses takes a census (the "Desert of Sinai" census) and then he takes another in Chapter 26 after the 40 years of wandering (the "plains of Moab" census).
"These [Israelites] are the ones counted by Moses and Eleazar the priest when they counted the Israelites on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho. Not one of them was among those counted by Moses and Aaron the priest when they counted the Israelites in the Desert of Sinai. For the Lord had told those Israelites they would surely die in the desert, and not one of them was left except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun." (26.63-65)
After the first census, we're whisked into what became a 40-year journey to the promised land. Each chapter is a new story: quail from the Lord, Miriam & Aaron oppose Moses, 12 spies explore Canaan, the rebellion begins, Korah & his followers are swallowed up by the earth, Aaron's staff buds & produces almonds, water came from a rock, Balaam's donkey speaks, more laws & directions for living, and in Chapter 33 an entire recap of their desert journey.
Numbers is packed with stories. Far too many to comment on in one blog entry! Here are four that spoke to me as I was reading through:
"'The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.' So they [the priests] will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them." (6.24-27) What a beautiful picture: to bless someone with this prayer is to put the Lord's name on them. I remember my mother prayed this prayer over me and my siblings. I plan to pray it for my children.
"(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)" (12.3) Note: those parentheses are from the original text and I think I remember that Moses wrote the books of Numbers. If I let my imagination run wild for a moment, I imagine that Moses did not pen that sentence about himself. So I picture someone sneaking into Moses' tent just before the parchment was published, slipping that sentence in the middle of a story, and laughing quietly to himself as he left. And God smiled because we now know a little more about this amazing man named Moses. I can't fathom that level of humility.
I'm terrified of the Israelites in the "Korah & friends" story - terrified because I'm afraid I see myself in them. Short version: Korah, Dathan, & Abiram say "Moses & Aaron, you should not set yourselves above us; we are just as holy as you"; Moses is appalled and falls facedown; God says he will destroy the entire nation; Moses & Aaron pray for those not involved; and then God causes the earth to open up & swallow Korah, his followers, and their entire families. This all happens in chapter 16, verses 1-40. And THEN in verse 41: "The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 'You have killed the Lord's people,' they said." The next day! I can hardly believe it. You would think they would not quickly forget the earth-splitting and 3 entire families disappearing! Yet, how quickly do I forget what God has done in my life....whether blessings or discipline. Let this be a reminder to me!
The final chapter of Numbers tells the story of five sisters: Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah. Since they had no brothers, eventually their family would lose their tribal inheritance. In this story, I love the fact that God cared enough about these women and their family line to provide a way out for them: "'They may marry anyone they please as long as they marry within the tribal clan of their father . . .' They married within the clans of the descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in their father's clan and tribe." (36.6, 12) A small story to display the detail of this book and also God's concern.
The Israelite journey continues . . . Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus.
And now Numbers.
With all of the nitty-gritty detail of an historical account.
I love how this gives a portrait of God.
He is a God of journeys; is He not?
The larger picture journey - His plan for the universe.
And the small picture journey of our lives.