Depressing and hopeful
The book of Numbers would be an incredibly depressing book if not for the thrilling notes of grace and mercy woven within and throughout it. Numbers follows the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, a forty year trek that would test their dependence and trust in the God who had broken their chains of slavery in Egypt and miraculously delivered them through water to freedom. Spoiler alert: They fail this test. Repeatedly.
Despite their inclination towards wandering (both literally and metaphorically), God shows up again and again, telling his own story of his love, his justice, his mercy, and — if you look hard enough — glimpses of his future one-and-done act of chain breaking deliverance that would happen through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is all over the Old Testament, and the book of Numbers is no exception. From Exodus through Deuteronomy, we see Moses (the man God chose to lead the Israelites from bondage in Egypt to the promised land of milk and honey in Canaan) standing as an intercessor between God and the sinful Israelites. In Numbers, we see the group set out from Sinai (ch. 10), where they received the law, and literally one chapter later they begin to complain about the journey. God’s anger is kindled, and Moses steps in, prays for them, and turns God’s wrath away. We see this again and again, to the point where Moses was overwhelmed with his calling and cries out to God that the burden of carrying the cries of the Israelites is too much for him (11:14). We see him pray for the very people that are actively working against God’s great work in verses like 12:13, 14:5, and 16:22.
In Moses’s continual acts of intercession, we see a beautiful picture of Jesus’s greater act of intercession for all people, not just the Israelites. In chapter 20, however, we see where the life and intercession of Moses gives way, moving God’s story forward to the need for a greater intercessor. The people are grumbling, again, because they are running out of water. God tells Moses to take his staff and tell the rock that was near them to yield water for his people. In his anger and impatience, Moses yells at the Israelites, striking the rock with his staff twice. The very man who carried the law down the mountain crumbled under the weight of it. Because of this act, God tells him that he would not be the one to lead the Israelites into the promised land. It would be Caleb and Joshua, his assistant that trusted God in a time of uncertainty (13:30), that would bring the people into Canaan. The Apostle Paul tells us that the rock that Moses struck was Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 10:4), and it would be Jesus who would do the great and final act of intercession for us. Whereas Moses carried the law down the mountain, Jesus would carry it back up in the form of the cross where he would die a terrible death, irrevocably and unequivocally ending the curse that had burdened his people since humanity’s expulsion from the garden of Eden. Whereas Moses was overwhelmed with the burden of this one group of people, Jesus takes the burden of all people onto his shoulders alone on the cross. He bore the full brunt of our sinful lives, absorbing the wrath that Moses plead for God to turn away. Whereas Moses, and the law he represented, was not able to lead the Israelites into the promised land, Jesus leads us triumphantly into our promised land, our eternity with him.
To kill or be killed? Both!
We see a glimpse of the brutality of this act in Numbers as well, in the odd and ruthless story of Phineas and the spear in 25:1-9. The people had rebelled against God again, offering sacrifices to the Moab god Baal and marrying their women. God’s anger was kindled, and a plague began to ravage the Israelites. God had told Moses to, in no uncertain terms, end this by killing the men “who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.” One man stood in front of Moses, weeping, with a Midianite woman standing behind him, no doubt begging to avoid this. Phineas, who was a son of Aaron and therefore a priest of the Tabernacle, saw this and “took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel in the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly.” The plague stopped after this all took place.
In Jesus, we have a high priest that deals the final blow to sin to stop our plague of death with a thrust of a spear. Yet Jesus is also the one that takes that final death blow, a spear to the side while hanging on the cross. Though he is the only innocent one, it is his untimely and gruesome death that turns God’s wrath away once for all.
The gospel beforehand
Numbers is ripe with glimpses of the gospel, if only you look for it. I encourage you to read (or re-read) this beautiful book with it in mind, seeing yourself, as I do, in the annoyingly wayward Israelites, but also seeing the beautiful movements and whispers of grace, trustworthiness, and love that God breathes out again and again, first through his servant Moses, but ultimately through his Son Jesus Christ.
LAURA RINAS / GUEST CONTRIBUTOR