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Prepared for War
To set the stage for Numbers, we must mention briefly what transpired directly after Israel left Egypt. In leaving the land of Egypt, God immediately made known His leadership over and in front of His people. The Bible tells us in Exodus 13:17-22 that God led the people by day in a cloud and surrounded them in a pillar of fire by night. The authority of the Lord, like a nursing mother in tender embrace, surrounded this company of people in loving power, protection, and provision.
They needed this assurance. One can only imagine what would have been in the people’s minds as they left Egypt. First of all, picture the multitude. For example, just two years later, at the beginning of Numbers, the company of men who are listed in Numbers 1 with the ability to fight are alone 603,550. Numbering the women and children would prove to put the number of such a group well over 2 million people at the very least. Though at the time of the exodus this number was less intimidating to a slight degree, a group of this size must have traveled around dumbfounded, delivered, and delighted in what had just happened. Nonetheless this new reality must have felt surreal and overwhelming. It would make sense that the reality of all of what had happened would come screaming to a halt in one loud resounding question; “What are we going to do now?”
The nights were fast and immediate, and they needed shelter, they needed food, and they needed direction. They needed guidance and provisions for an inevitably long and strenuous journey toward wherever it was they thought they were headed. Soon the questions came pouring in. The doubts came flooding in. Two million people who had known nothing but slavery were now looking around and wondering “what are we going to do with all these people?” There was no longer a government in place, there were no laws, and seemingly, though these people were following God’s pillar of fire in the sky, they must have still been wondering how this was all going to hold together. Out of Egypt came all of these people following in Moses’ train; a people who had, for the longest time, fallen prey to self-protection and survival. They were following God, but still looking out for themselves.
Because God as a good Shepherd is always fully aware of His people’s pain and perspective, God quickly dealt directly with many of the questions arising in their minds. In real and tangible ways, beginning with their miraculous deliverance from the bondage of slavery, God begins the journey of building Israel’s faith in Him. His intention was to continue this restoration process in addressing some of His people’s fast approaching and anticipated stressors.
First, by way of a pastoral and pictorial parable, God led His people to a stream of bitter water, which He intended to be a proper place in which to speak with His people. As the people came to the water and found it to be bitter, He explained the stream’s meaning and how it represented the bitterness they harbored for all that had happened to them in Egypt. God assured them that He knew of their hurt and that He was committed to their healing. Through a miracle, God made the spring sweet before their eyes in order to communicate to them that He was going to get rid of their bitterness, and in Exodus 15:26 He voiced His promise to them as they surrounded the freshly healed water: “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in His eyes, and give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer.”
Shortly after this, God again and again proved His loving loyalty to His children. He did so by giving them miraculous food from heaven to eat called manna (Ex. 16), He provided them water from a rock (Ex.17:1-7), and He even fought for and amongst them against the Amalekites, which is the first hostile tribe they encountered on their way out of Egypt. The Lord solved any issues the people had with proper management, governance, and oversight when He organized them for civil, social and financial accountability (Ex. 18), and in a protective miracle from God’s hand—when Israel was once again pursued by Pharaoh who had bitterly changed his mind about Israel—God completed His people’s deliverance.
As Pharaoh rushed Israel and pinned them against the Red Sea waters, God raised up a great tempest swell to part the Red Sea and lead His people to safety. God purged the earth of Pharaoh’s pride when Pharaoh and his pursuant army drowned as the Red Sea waves came crashing in on their heads. In Exodus 14:30-31 it says that this final act of God birthed in the people of Israel a genuine heart response. They “saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses.” The people’s trust and affections had been won over afresh by the hand of God’s power and might.
Their traverse continued to the base of Mount Sinai where in Exodus 20–24 we are given the account of how God visited His people through Moses at the location of a mysterious mountain. The people camped at the base of this mountain and began the process of complete restoration. Even though Israel had come a long way since their deliverance a short time ago, their faith was still new and based off a set of experiences they had had during their salvation event. It is only fair to say that much of their ideology and theology was still grounded in the false duplicitous foundation that they had embraced while living in Egypt. God fully knew that their faith was not yet grounded in the truth. He had to move them to a place of believing and trusting in who He was and is, rather than only trusting in the miracles that He had performed.
God wanted Israel here, to know His thoughts, know His ways, and know the culture of His love. As He gathered them at the base of Mt. Sinai, it was there that He spoke into Israel’s calloused, syncretistic, pluralistic, and idolatrous mindset to reiterate and communicate to them the law of His love through the 10 Commandments.
The revealing of God’s law produced a diverse response in the Israelites. Their time at the base of Mt. Sinai revealed a great amount of truth from the heart of God to His people, but it also surfaced an idolatrous, immoral, and a still rebellious response that sprung from the still immature and broken hearts of the people. The season spent at the base of Mt. Sinai was crucial. God spent time exposing His people to His ethic and teaching them His ways and revealing how much their thinking had been swayed and perverted during their 400-year enslavement. God’s law only seemed to amplify their slave mentality and unveil it. Rather than responding to the Lord in love, they had lost the ability to feel any sort of bond or love toward an authority. As a result, they reverted back to old patterns of religious ritual, rule-keeping, and works-based worship.
Against the backdrop of the Exodus the book of Numbers is framed. After the Mt. Sinai law was read, sent out, and implemented in decree, God began to prepare His people to move out of the wilderness of Sinai and on into the Promised Land. What had happened amongst God’s people in totality up until this point was God’s Deliverance and God’s instruction of them. He had gathered Israel completely under His wing, and He had fully instructed her in the ways in which she should depend on Him, organize under Him, and believe in Him. But Israel’s understanding of the full breadth of all that had happened, and their application of the ramifications of all that they had been taught, remained to be seen. The journey toward the Promised Land would be to unearth the very real and broken foundations that still lay hidden in Israel’s thinking.
We now arrive in our context in Numbers 1 as God once again numbered His people before ordering them to get up and move out from the base of Mt. Sinai. Although this is not the first numbering of the people, the reason for this second numbering was to ready God’s people to remove themselves from the Sinai wilderness and begin their treacherous journey toward the Promised Land. God makes no apologies in what He does in this numbering, nor does He keep secret what is about to happen to Israel in their journey. God began in setting the people’s expectations rightly for their journey, in that He began ordering them for war.
In Numbers 1:1-16 God speaks to Moses and tells him to take a census of the people. The purpose of this numbering was to assemble all the fathers, the clan leaders, and the heads of families together to record the amount of men that were among them that were capable to lead and capable to fight. This allocation was necessary, but most importantly it was ordered by the foresight of the Lord.
The first instance of prayer in the book of Numbers shows up right in Numbers 1:1. God “speaks” to Moses and orders the census. God meets Moses in the temple on a specific day, in a specific place, and at specific time to interact with His child Moses. Moses positions himself before the Lord by obediently giving his schedule and time to the interaction, and out of a relationship between God, Moses arrives at the specifics that are pertinent for the next phase of Israel’s journey. The authority of God...