Numbers 20 is a rather harsh chapter. Moses and Aaron have led the people into the wilderness of Zin, and “Miriam died there and was buried there”. That had to be a difficult thing for Moses as his wife is put to rest. But the people are focused on a different issue – they have no water. So Moses doesn’t really have much time to mourn his loss. “There was no water for the congregation….the people quarreled with Moses”. Here we go again. This people has been in difficult situations before, and God has always provided, but once again they lose sight of that history.
God gives Moses some very clear instruction on how to address this problem, which actually seems quite overwhelming on the surface, that is until you realize that God has all power in His hands. “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water”. Seems like a pretty simple solution. Get everyone together and tell the rock to give some water. Why didn’t I think of that? The truth that we see over and over in scripture is that God will provide whatever is needed to accomplish His will. There is never a shortage.
It seems pretty clear what Moses is to do here. “Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock”. On the surface the problem was solved. Water came out abundantly. But there is a problem. Moses did not obey God. Rather than speaking to the rock, he struck it twice. Water was released but God was not pleased. “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them”.
That is a severe penalty for disobedience. Moses has led the people for decades and now he is being banned from ever entering the Promised Land because of this one act of disobedience. God takes obedience seriously – far more than we tend to believe I think. God moves more quickly with punishing Aaron. He tells Moses to “strip Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son. And Aaron shall be gathered to his people and shall die there”. The power of the priesthood is passed from Aaron to his son and Aaron dies right there on the mountain. God is serious about obedience. Are you walking in obedience to the things you know He expects from you?
Numbers 19 has a couple of important topics that Moses and Aaron had to communicate to the people of Israel. The first was a law that God told them about. “Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come”. So why the detail here? Well, it all has significance:
- Red — signifies the bloody nature of sin, and the blood of Christ which is required to pay for it
- No blemish — the very nature of Christ.
- Upon which never came yoke —Christ was not forced to carry our burden of the penalty of sin but did so of His own choice. There was nothing that held Him to that but His own love for us
Eleazar is the priest that is tasked with the red heifer sacrifice. Why? He was the second in command as priest which made him something like the main assistant. It was a task assigned him rather than Aaron because it made him unclean for a while. Aaron, as high priest, needed to be kept clean from defilement so he could handle the tasks in the temple. So Eleazar was selected as the one who would minister this particular offering knowing that for a period of time he would not be able to assist in any of the holy things.
There are a couple laws provided around people who were dead:
- “Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days
- This is the law when someone dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is in the tent shall be unclean seven days”
There was a complete set of steps a person had to go through to be restored in these cases. It took a week, but God is clear that we are to be separated from death.
“If the man who is unclean does not cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, since he has defiled the sanctuary of the Lord”. The penalty for not dealing with this was to be cut off and potentially put to death. We know that the wages of sin is death. We have to cleanse ourselves from the price sin carries – because if we don’t address it we will die spiritually and be separated eternally from God. We have to get right by confessing our sin, turning from it, and running to the saving grace of Jesus on the Cross. Are you cleansed from the penalty of sin in your life?
Numbers 18 has God speaking to Aaron about the work of the Levites. He and his sons are to lead this set of priests and tabernacle workers. “They shall keep guard over you and over the whole tent, but shall not come near to the vessels of the sanctuary or to the altar lest they, and you, die”. God takes this work seriously. God has called them to keep the Holy Place holy. “I have taken your brothers the Levites from among the people of Israel. They are a gift to you, given to the Lord, to do the service of the tent of meeting”.
God expects the tabernacle to be kept holy. Regular people were not allowed in it or even near it. “I give your priesthood as a gift, and any outsider who comes near shall be put to death”. God expects Aaron and his boys to man the shop and keep it protected. He also has “given you charge of the contributions made to me”. Aaron and the Levites are responsible for all the offerings and tithes that were to be given. They were to gather them as the Lord commanded the people.
God tells Aaron that they are to not only collect, but also take care of these offerings:
- “every offering of theirs
- every grain offering
- every sin offering
- every guilt offering
- the contribution of their gift
- all the wave offerings
- the best of the oil
- the best of the wine and of the grain
- the firstfruits of what they give to the Lord
- The first ripe fruits
- All the holy contributions that the people of Israel present to the Lord I give to you”
There is a tradeoff for this. The Levites are the only tribe that does not have any land of their own. “You shall have no inheritance in their land”. Their needs were met through the tithes and offerings of the people, but they were not given any land. God says “I am your portion and your inheritance….I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do”. God is enough. They don’t need anything else. God does not exempt them from tithing though interestingly. “When you take from the people of Israel the tithe that I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present a contribution from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe”. They too were expected to tithe that which they had.
Numbers 17 has God making it even more obvious what His plan is for the leadership of His people. God tells Moses to get a staff from the chief of each tribe – twelve staffs in all. “Write each man’s name on his staff, and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi”. Remember that one of the twelve tribes had split in half so there are 12+the priestly tribe of Levi. Moses collects the thirteen staffs and does as God instructs – “deposit them in the tent of meeting before the testimony”.
So Moses has thirteen staffs – or basically sticks that he takes to the tabernacle. God says “the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout”. Seems like a pretty clear outcome if one of the staffs sprouts. God tells Moses that this is His plan to “make to cease from me the grumblings of the people”. God is tired of the whining and complaining. He is going to show them who he has selected to lead His people. “Moses deposited the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the testimony” and left them overnight.
The next day Moses returns to the tent and “the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds”. This is more than just a sprouting staff. Overnight it sprouts, buds, blossoms and even bears fruit. God really makes it obvious that Aaron is His chosen leader to serve alongside Moses. Moses brings the 13 staffs back to all the people to see. The chiefs took their staff and examined it, but they all see that only Aaron’s staff sprouted.
God makes it clear that Moses was to “put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die”. God wants to save His people from themselves. He has Moses put the staff up as a sign for those who might forget who God’s selected leaders are. God does have a plan. He selected Moses and Aaron long before to lead His people. But as is often the case, the people seem to miss that fact and want to do things their way. God isn’t humored by that choice. We need to understand God’s leadership plan and make sure we follow those He puts in place!
Numbers 16 has a leadership crisis going on for Moses and Aaron. If they were on a boat you’d call it a mutiny. Korah and some other thugs decide to challenge Moses and Aaron as leaders. They gather 250 of the chiefs and come after Moses. “They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far….Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord”? Moses was ticked off. He tells Korah and the rest that “In the morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one whom he chooses he will bring near to him”.
Moses can’t figure out what their issue really is. “Is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the Lord and to stand before the congregation to minister to them….it is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered together”. Moses has led the people well. God has shown Himself to be leading Moses and the people since they left Egypt.
“Moses was very angry and said to the Lord, “Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed one of them”. Moses takes his frustration to God. And he challenges Korah to a duel basically. He tells him to show up with the rest of his crew and let God decide who should be leading the people. “Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation”. This guy obviously thought he was going to come out the winner because he gathered everyone to watch. But he didn’t really think clearly or take history into account. God has been with Moses, His chosen leader, for many years.
Moses tells the people that God will decide who should lead. But he doesn’t want God to do it just by killing the adversaries in a normal way. Moses asks God to take them out by swallowing up them and their families. “And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods”. God wipes out the enemy. Moses is validated as leader. Moses didn’t take the battle on himself. He let God make it obvious he was the leader.
Amazingly though, the people don’t get it. “On the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the Lord”. One day after God made it very clear that Moses was His leader, these people go off the reservation again. God is planning to wipe the people out but Moses intercedes again. “Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the midst of the assembly” but God had already began to kill people and “those who died in the plague were 14,700”. God takes leadership seriously. He stands with Moses and Aaron and removes those who try and undermine their mission to lead the People to the Promised Land.
Numbers 15 shows us just how important obedience is in God’s eyes. He begins by talking with Moses about how the people are to act when they enter their new land. The spies may have been unsure of their ability to enter, but God certainly isn’t. Twice He says “When you come into the land you are to inhabit”. In God’s eyes, it has already happened – it is a done deal – and they are moving into a new home. God defines how they are to sacrifice and honor Him when they come to their new home. And he makes it clear that this applies to everyone. “You and the sojourner shall be alike before the Lord. One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you”.
There is a discussion with Moses about how to address “unintentional sin” for those who “do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses”. The bottom line is that we can certainly miss the mark unintentionally according to this passage. We fail to follow God’s direction or do it incorrectly. The law applies to everyone and God is clear that all are under it. “You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally”. God doesn’t expect just obedience from His people, but all equally and all fall under the same punishment if they fail to obey.
Here is where the attitude changes. God addresses those who intentionally sin and do what they want. They choose to disobey. “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people”. If you make an intentional choice to obey God, the stakes go up considerably. “Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him”. The penalty goes from requiring a sacrifice and some intervention from the priest if you disobey unintentionally to being cut off and punished if you disobey God with intent.
To that end, “they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day”. Sounds pretty innocent doesn’t it? But it is a direct violation of God’s law of the Sabbath. And the punishment is severe. “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp”. Sin carries a big price tag. We often tend to downplay it, but God doesn’t see sin that way. Our disobedience is serious business which is why He sent Jesus to the Cross for us.
So God instructs the people to find a way to remember just how important sin is in His eyes. “Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner”. We need a reminder to keep us aware of our sin problem. God gives them a way – “it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes”. We tend to be just like the people of Israel – short memory when it comes to obeying what God has said. We are charged with the same command – to obey God. “So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord your God”. Are you obeying God? Are you aware of His commandments and direction in your life? It’s serious business!
Numbers 14 demonstrates just how stubborn and stupid people can be. Yes, it is easy to read the story and have 20/20 hindsight, but let’s face it, this people really didn’t understand what was happening. “Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night”. They had just heard the report of the spies who went to check out the promised land. 10 of them gave a bad report which the people believed, and “all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron”. This didn’t work out well last time, so what do they do but grumble again. No memory of the last time they did it.
But it went even further. “Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt”? You have to be crazy. They want to “choose a leader and go back to Egypt”. Hello – you just fled there after being enslaved for many years. It was terrible, and now you want to return? The two spies who saw things God’s way tried to even the playing field by telling them again that “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. 8 If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey”. There is some reason to the people.
They give a very different outlook and report. “Do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them”. Caleb and Joshua know that God is with them. The response? The people want to stone them, and would have if God had showed up. “The glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel”. God is fed up and threatens to kill off the whole bunch for their unbelief. But Moses once again intercedes.
He reminds God that “The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” and begs for God to “Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love”. God offers to let them live, but there is a very stiff price for their disobedience as God says “none of the men who have seen my glory….and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers….except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun”.
The price for that disobedience was severe as God tells them “your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness”. Talk about a legacy with a price. These people sin against God and now their children will be shepherding in the wildnerness for 40 years while the entire bunch of them die off. As for those “who returned and made all the congregation grumble…. They died by plague before the Lord”.