The Bible in a Year, Week 6: Numbers
This is the sixth weekly reading in the plan for reading your Bible in one year. The assignment for this week is the book of Numbers. It should only take about 10-15 minutes a day, or about five chapters a day to complete the assignment.
Here are some comments to help you grow in knowledge and faith as you read Numbers:
Numbers 1-9: Whereas God established guidelines and rules for the spiritual lives of the Israelites in the book of Leviticus, God gives rules and regulations for the civil and political organization of the people in the book of Numbers. This was a vast army of people to organize very carefully! We are told in 1:3 that a census was to be taken of all men over the age of 20. In 2:32-33 we find out that this number was over 600,000. Including the Levites, women, and children, the total number of Israelites would have been around two million! The book gets its name from this census that takes place in the first chapter. The whole book of Numbers covers almost 40 years, from the second year of wandering in the wilderness right up to the time they were at the doorstep of the promised land of Canaan.
In chapter two they are given instructions on how they were to camp. See a diagram of the camp here. The Levites were to serve as priests and spiritual leaders in Israel. They were divided into three groups by each of the sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. They were also given specific and special duties. The Gershonites were to carry the coverings and hangings of the tabernacle. The Kohathites were to take care of the ark of the covenant and the sacred vessels of the tabernacle. Moses and Aaron were Kohathites, and Aaron and his sons were specifically to handle the sacred vessels. The Merarites were to take care of the framework of the tabernacle.
In chapter 5 God provides rules for keeping the Israelite camp chaste and pure. This included a special trial or test for unfaithful women which God himself would give direct judgment in. It would seem unusual–even “unfair”– to us today, but we remember that God was directly governing the people at this time.
In chapter 6 the Nazirite vow is introduced, a voluntary vow of dedication to the Lord. (Note: These were not necessarily people from Nazareth!) Those following the vow would abstain from alcohol, let their hair grow, approach no dead person, and more. Usually it was a temporal vow. However, Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist were life-long Nazirites.
A very special conclusion to chapter six is the Aaronic, or Priestly, Blessing. It was a special blessing given to the priests to say to the people. It is very much so a trinitarian blessing–highlighting our 3-in-1 God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of course the blessing has three parts to it, which is our first clue. But each part also speaks to the primary work of each person of the Trinity. The first part speaks of the blessing and preservation of God, a role primarily ascribed to the Father. The second part speaks of God’s grace, which is evidenced most clearly in our Savior Jesus Christ. The third part speaks of peace, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit (who is also called the Comforter). This Aaronic Blessing is still used in many churches in worship today!
God gives further instructions to the Israelites in chapters 7-9. After we read about dedicatory gifts given at the completion of the tabernacle, God directs his people on how that tabernacle should be set up. After the first celebration of the Passover in the wilderness, the command is given to continue to celebrate this feast in remembrance of what God had done for them in Egypt.
Numbers 10-21: In the first 10 chapters the Israelites are organized for mobilization. In the following chapters they set out toward the promised land of Canaan.
It didn’t take long for the Israelites to begin sinning and rebelling against the Lord. They first complained that they were sick of the manna that God was giving them to eat. Because of their complaints God promised to send quail “until it comes out of your nostrils” (11:20). Even Moses doubted if this was possible for two million people! So the Lord responds in a very memorable way: “Is the Lord’s arm too short?” The obvious answer is “NO!” God can do anything he wants–and did!
Next, the sinful complaints and discord reach the leading family of these Israelites. Even Moses’s own siblings, Aaron and Miriam, question his authority.
One of the greater sins of the people, which had great consequences, is found in chapters 13-14. Moses sent out 12 spies to explore the promised land of Canaan. While they all found the land to be beautiful and flowing “with milk and honey,” 10 of them stirred up the crowd with doubt as they described the strength of the Canaanites and their fortified cities. This caused the people to rebel. Thus the Lord punished the Israelites severely. Not one of the adult generation was going to see the promised land which God had promised–let alone Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who trusted the Lord. Instead, the people would have to wander in that wilderness for 40 more years and the adult generation would all die.
Chapter 16 records the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Korah was of the same family lineage as Moses. God punished these rebels severely by opening up the earth which swallowed them and their possessions! However, God graciously preserved some from the clan of Korah. We know that the prophet Samuel was from the line of Korah. Also, the “sons of Korah” wrote a number of Psalms.
In chapters 17-19 God reinforces and reestablishes Aaron as high priest in Israel. Following that, we read of more rules for priests and for purification.
The next two chapters contain several important events. First in chapter 20 we read about Moses’ rebellion and sin. While it may seem like an “insignificant” sin, we quickly realize that no sin is such. Every sin is a missing of the mark and an infraction of God’s holy will. Every sin identifies us as being different than God. Every sin separates us from God. Every sin brings the curse of death–both physical and eternal. Even the man who could be considered the greatest leader of the Old Testament was not free of the consequences for sin. Further, it could be said that as the leader who saw the glory of the Lord that he was held to a higher standard. Thus, Moses was only allowed to see, but not enter, the promised land of Canaan.
In 20:14-21 the Israelites are denied a shortcut by the people of Edom (the descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau). This was just one of many sins against Israel that Edom was guilty of, and for which God destroyed them (read the book of Obadiah). Finally, Aaron dies at the end of the chapter and walks off into the sunset, so to speak.
Another famous story of rebellion occurs in chapter 21. As a result, God sent venomous snakes to poison the Israelites. However, anyone who looked up to a bronze snake which Moses raised on a pole would live. This bronze snake is a type of Christ, a picture of Jesus to come who would be lifted up on a cross to save all people. Jesus himself makes this comparison with Nicodemus.
Numbers 22-36: The concluding chapters of Numbers describe the times during which the Israelites were in the plains of Moab east of the Jordan River and were preparing to conquer Canaan. A famous story occurs in Numbers 22-24 when Balak the king of Moab contracted with Balaam the false prophet to curse the people of Israel. However, upon divine intervention (and God’s use of Balaam’s donkey) Balaam ended up blessing the people instead! Peter refers to and applies this story in the New Testament.
Chapter 25 highlights sins that became ongoing vices to the people. Not only did they commit adultery with heathen women, but those women led them to worship their false gods. Adultery combined with idolatry became a constant theme in the history of the Israelite people, working its way all the way to the top with king Solomon as a prime example (see 1 Kings 11).
Note that the offerings outlined in chapters 28-29 are similar to the way they are outlined in Leviticus 23. The difference is that here the quantities of the sacrifices for each occasion is specified.
The closing chapters of Numbers relate the way the Israelites continued to conquer the peoples around the land of Canaan, establishing themselves along the way.
Other things to note about the book of Numbers would be that Joshua, one of the 12 spies, was chosen to lead the people upon the death of Moses. We read more about that in the book of Joshua. Also, we see the continual emphasis of the divine inspiration in writing Numbers as the phrase “the Lord spoke to Moses” occurs 80 times in Numbers! Surely this is the Word of God!
Finally, as we read about this journey of the Israelites through the wilderness and to the promised land, we note the striking similarities to our own lives! In much the same way we are now on a journey. We are on a journey to a land that it is not our own, to a home which we do not yet inhabit. We, too, sin in many and varied ways against our holy God. Yet his rich grace and mercy bring us also forgiveness through his Son Jesus, who was lifted up on the cross. Through our faith and trust in him the gifts of forgiveness and salvation are granted and freely given. Thus, we too will also soon enter a promised land, the Promised Land of heaven! God grant us safe passage to our glorious home of grace!
Next week’s readings (starting 2/14/10): Deuteronomy
To view or download and print the One Year Bible Reading Schedule, click here.