In many ways the book of Numbers can be thought of as the second story in a classic epic trilogy. Here’s how the classic trilogy works. In episode 1 the good guys are the underdogs that are being oppressed by an evil regime. Through extraordinary acts of courage, and against all odds, the underdogs break free of the evil regime and celebrate a great victory. Then in episode 2 there is a tragic reversal. The newly formed band of underdogs faces internal struggle, being threatened with implosion, while the recently defeated evil regime regroups and launches a counterattack to reclaim their losses and seek retribution. At the end of episode 2 things look bleak for the heroes and it seems that all may be lost. Then, in a grand climax, episode 3 shows a cleansing and resurgence of clarity, unity, and determination in the hero camp as they rally together to defeat the evil regime and establish true victory.
Sound familiar? For you science fiction fans you were probably thinking of the classic Star Wars trilogy of the 70’s and 80’s. In many ways the book of Exodus was episode 1 (or 4 for those who are technically aware!). The Israelites are miraculously delivered from the evil regime of Egypt and the darkness of sin and slavery. Unfortunately, Numbers is like the “Empire Strikes Back.” It’s not that Egypt came out after the Israelites. Actually there is a deeper and more sinister evil regime that was the master behind the puppet state of Egypt. The evil regime is Evil itself; it is the darkness of sin and isolation from God. It is the slavery of self-worship and bondage to sin.
In the book of Numbers we see the newly freed slaves move away from Mt. Sinai and head toward the Promised Land. As they move along, the fabric of the community begins to unravel. In this story we will see envy and mutiny. We will see political scheming and self ambition threaten to destroy the people of God. In the end, a whole generation suffers for their sin. Be forewarned; while interspersed amongst the counting sections (which are tedious) there is an interesting and difficult story; it is a discouraging one because we see the people move from bad to worse. As you read this, pray that God would open your heart to hear what He wants to teach you through this story of defeat.
It is easy for us to sit in judgment over the Israelites and say, “how could they be so ignorant? How could they rebel against God when they saw his presence and experienced his miracles?” Rather than read in judgment, ask God to open your eyes to see how much we tend to behave just like them. May the reading of Numbers serve to be a time of cleansing and renewal in your heart as you glean from the negative example of the Israelites wandering through the wilderness, rebelling against God, yet being cared for through the whole process.
This video from The Bible Project does a nice job of summarizing Numbers:
Outline of Numbers
There are three major sections to the book of Numbers:
Part 1: Preparing to Move: Preparing to Claim the Promised Land. Numbers 1-10
In this section the Lord instructs Moses to prepare the nation to move away from Mt. Sinai by counting the people, organizing the placement of each tribe in the marching order, and giving final directions for purity.
Part 2: Failing to Believe: Lack of Faith earns a 40 year walk in the desert. Numbers 10-25
In 10:11 the cloud finally lifts and begins leading the people toward their promised destination — the land of Canaan. In these 15 chapters we read a narrative that describes…
- people complaining and God sending fire
- Miriam the rebellious people
- a big battle with Sihon and Og and Aaron rebelling against Moses
- 12 spies scouting the land and 10 saying, “We can’t do it.”
- The generation being cut off from the land and forced to wander for 40 years
- a rebellion against Moses swallowed up in the Earth
- Moses’ and Aaron dishonor God and are denied entrance into the land
- a plague of serpents to punish
- The blessings of Balaam
- immorality in Moab
Part 3: Trying Again: Preparing the Next Generation to Claim the Promised Land. Numbers 26-36
In chapter 26 it is as if the book of Numbers starts over. The rebellious generation has died off, just as God promised they would. It is now 40 years later and the next generation is standing in front of a very old Moses, waiting to receive instructions before they invade Canaan.
Two important things happen:
- Joshua is appointed as the new leader to replace Moses.
- Moses reconnects the people to the basics of the Law and instructs them on what to do with the land once they take possession of it.