Thursday, March 3, 2011

Accounting for Numbers

As we approach the end of the Book of Numbers, I thought it might be helpful to offer a summary of the major themes of the book (since I didn't provide an introduction before we started Numbers). The Book of Numbers was given its name in reference to the numbering of the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai and on the plains of Moab.The content of the Book of Numbers must be understood within the larger narrative framework of the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the bible).

First, there are several parallels between Numbers and Exodus. For example, the stories recounting the manna from heaven and the water from the rock are found in both Number and Exodus. Also, the theme of the people complaining and grumbling against Moses is found in both books (some things never change!).

However, the Book of Numbers moves the story of Israel forward by focusing on the "promised land," the land that had been promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people of Israel are preparing to enter and conquer the land, but due to their disobedience, the entry into the promised land has been delayed. After leaving Mount Sinai, the Israelites make their way through the Sinai wilderness led by the fire of God's presence. They actually reach the southern border of the land and send spies to investigate (chapter 13). The spies return and report that there are Nephilim (giants) in the land and the Israelites, due to their fear and lack of faith, rebell against God and threaten to return to Egypt. In a climatic and dramatic exchange, Moses intercedes on behalf of the people and pleads for mercy and forgiveness. God responds by pardoning the people of Israel, but not without judgment - the Israelites will remain in the Sinai wilderness forty years (chapter 14).

The remainder of the book recounts the forty years of "wandering" in the wilderness. Ultimately, at the conclusion of Numbers, the people of Israel arrive at the eastern border of the promised land, marked by the Jordon River. The season of "wandering" is characterized by continual struggle between the Israelites and their leaders (Moses and Aaron) as well as between the Israelites and the Lord. However, in the midst of struggle and disobedience, God remains faithful to his covenant with the people of Israel. Repeatedly, the Lord says to the Israelites, "You shall be my people, and I will be your God." We see God's faithfulness manifested in his continual presence among his people, especially in the midst of crisis or a time of need.

So, as we near the end of the Book of Numbers, let us reflect on these two major themes: 1) the preparation of the Israelites to enter and possess the promised land and 2) the strenthening of the covenant relationship between God and his people.

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