6.1 Origins

Part 6: The Struggle for Canaan

Meditating on the Judgements of God:  

6.1 Origins

Gen 15:16   In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.

Of all the questions I have been asked about God, the one that comes most is why did God instruct Israel to wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan? Not only is that perception inaccurate but the understanding of all that went on is complex because it is covered over quite a wide area of the early books of the Bible. Nevertheless, dealing with the Canaanites, one way or another, was clearly on God’s agenda and if it did involve their destruction – or even some other act – then it could constitute a judgement and we need to consider it here.

Our starting point must be to consider ‘the Promised Land’ in a wider context. Our starting place must be with Abram’s family: Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.” (Gen 11:31) Although the patriarch, Terah, seems to have led the family to leave their home in the area of Mesopotamia, we find that the motivator to do it came from Abram for, “The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Gen 12:1) So Abram and his family (less his father who had died in Haran) end up in the land of Canaan.

Later on in his story we find, “The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.” (Gen 13:14,15) Hence we refer to it as ‘the Promised Land’. God promised Abram that this would be his land and the land of his descendants. Later the Lord reiterates this: “He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” (Gen 15:7) It is as they act out a covenant procedure that our verses above appear.

The name Amorites appears to have been used to cover all the inhabitants. As one dictionary says of the state of Canaan 400 years later, “Just how sinful many Canaanite religious practices were is now known from archaeological artefacts and from their own epic literature, discovered at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) on the north Syrian coast beginning in 1929. Their “worship” was polytheistic and included child sacrifice, idolatry, religious prostitution and divination.” They had seriously strayed from God’s design for human beings!

So to summarise so far: God took Abram and his family to this land where he lived alongside the other people groups there. Isaac was born there, as was Jacob and although Jacob left there, fleeing from Esau’s wrath, he did finally come back and settle there, only to leave and settle for his final years in Egypt when a famine struck forcing them to go to Egypt for food provided by Joseph. (We considered the Lord using famines in an earlier study). There they stayed until some four hundred years had passed and Israel developed into probably well over a million people who were forced into slavery by the Egyptians.  In the mean time the state of Canaan was getting progressively worse. In fact it would seem that God waited for that people grouping to get so bad that His judgement was essential, and Israel to get so desperate that they would do anything to escape from Egypt.

The entry into Canaan had been postponed for forty years when Israel refused to enter the land initially in a crisis of confidence when the twelve spies returned with their reports of what they found there. Now the forty years has passed and the previous generation (all those over the age of twenty except Caleb and Joshua) had died off. The next generation are now ready to enter the land and so before we see them doing that we will (1) consider the instructions the Lord gave them, (which many people are confused about), and then (2) see how they progressed from their desert wanderings to arrive at the border of the land, before (3) we will finally see how they got on with the task of clearing the land that the Lord had given them. These will make up the next meditations.

There are two issues to be considered in what follows: judgment on the pagan practices in Canaan, and then providing a home for the nation of Israel. Before we finish this one let us note God’s purpose declared again and again. At the burning bush, the Lord said to Moses, “So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey–the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. (Ex 3:8) 

 Later he instructs him to tell the elders of this:  Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, `The LORD, the God of your fathers–the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob– appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites–a land flowing with milk and honey.’” (Ex 3:16,17).

Finally before the plagues start He reiterates this: “God also said to Moses, “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they lived as aliens,” (Ex 6:2-4)before saying what He will do with the Egyptians but ending yet again with the promise: “And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.’ ” (v.8)

The scene is well and truly set. God’s intentions are clearly stated. In the next meditation we will see how He intended to do that.

5.9 The Folly with Moab

Meditating on the Judgements of God:  

5.9 The Folly with Moab

Num 25:1-3  While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD’s anger burned against them.

There is no doubt that from today’s perspective there are some things in the Bible that make us pause up and question and require us to take hold of specific truths to come to understanding about things which otherwise seem pretty horrendous! In what follows the verses above, this is so.

First of all there is God’s command: The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the LORD’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.” (v.4) Now although it is not mentioned early in the account, it becomes obvious that the Lord sent a plague for later we read, “Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.” (v.8,9)

But as well as His direct action the Lord has required there to be executions within the ranks of the pagan worshippers: “So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your men who have joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor.” (v.5) And yet the folly of these Israelites, which we shall consider further in a moment, becomes absolutely blatant: “Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting,” (v.6) and it is left to a zealous priest to do something about it: “When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them–through the Israelite and into the woman’s body.” (v.7,8) It is in response to that that we read, “Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.” (v.8,9)

To understand the extent of the folly and the extent or severity of the judgement, we need to remind ourselves of certain facts concerning this people.

First they were a people who had whole-heartedly entered into a covenant with the Lord at Sinai. They had witnessed His wonderful deliverance of them as a nation from the slavery of Egypt, they had witnessed the wonder of His gracious provision for them in their travelling across the desert to Sinai. They were what they were – freed slaves – because of Him and they knew His ongoing provision.

Thus they had entered into a binding agreement with Him that they would obey Him and He would bless them and give them a land of their own. But then there had come the fiasco of the Gold Calf and deaths that followed that. Then there had come the travels through the desert to the Promised Land, involving a number of instances of their grumbling rebellion and various types of corrective judgement. This had been followed by their refusal to enter the Promised Land and the judgment of being kept in the desert until the entire generation over the age of twenty had died off – which had taken forty years.

They are now at the end of that forty years and it is the new younger generation that is being prepared to enter the Land. Already they have already had victory over Canaanites at Hormah (Num 21:3), they had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites (Num 21:23-26) and also Og king of Bashan (Num 21:33-35). What takes place next we see as “the Israelites travelled to the plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho.” (Num 22:1) There the king of Moab gets nervous of their intentions and hires Balak to curse then – which he refuses to do (Num 22-24) but he did apparently counsel the king to turn Israel from the Lord by the use of their women (see Num 31:16). Thus what happens in our verses above appears to be a specific enemy ploy to bring down the people of God – sending their women to seduce the Israelite men (in need of comfort after their hard desert wanderings and battles!!!) and then lead them to worship their idols.

There are a number of times in the Old Testament when the very future of Israel is in doubt and this could have been one of those. We are talking about a special people with a special calling and part of that calling is not to blend in with other people but to remain pure and unique. Only in such a way can they remain true to the Lord.

Because it is such a critical situation we find this double judgment – plague from God and executions of those who have gone over to the Midianites. Now of course those men could have fled Israel and avoided death but the key point is that having abandoned the Lord they have forsaken the covenant and are no longer part of Israel. The case of the Israelite bringing in a Midianite woman to have sex with her in his tent – right in front of the repenting people at the Tabernacle – is the most blatant act of rebellion against God, Moses and indeed faithful Israel and although the action against him and the woman is shocking, it is nevertheless deserved in the circumstances.

Failure to take action to stop this behaviour would indeed have been opening a door to allow anything to happen and for the whole of the enterprise of taking the Land to fall apart. In a military as well as spiritual sense it is likely to bring the downfall and end of Israel. The Lord’s action deals with the sinners but leaves the majority to ponder on these things and ensure they are not repeated. There seems little alternative to what happened in these embryonic days of this new nation, especially as it is a new generation who now stand before the Lord and will be taken into the Land by Him.

It is easy for us to stand at this distance in history and decry what went on until we really and fully understand the crucial issue at stake here – the very future of Israel and all that that meant. No Israel means no further revelation of God, no further relationship with the Lord, no nation into which He will bring His Son to die for the world.

(This is the last of the judgments in Numbers. There is the case of the chastising by Moses of the soldiers for not entirely wiping out their Midianite enemy but that is more a war strategy thing than a judgment of God and we will therefore not cover it here.)

5.8 Judgement of Snakes

Meditating on the Judgements of God:  

5.8 Judgement of Snakes

Num 21:4-6  They travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”  Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.

Today if we eat too much we become obese. If we drink too much alcohol we get drunk and may suffer liver damage. If we have sex outside marriage contrary to God’s design then we create unfaithfulness and a whole host of other repercussions. Although most people are blind to this in their sin and under the dominion of Satan, nevertheless God has so made us that living contrary to the way He has designed us to live means that we ‘break down’. For Israel the Lord made this very plain through the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 27 and 28 and the clear implication is that when they obeyed Him and lived according to His design He would bless them and make sure everything went well for them, but if they disobeyed Him, and rejected His design for them, He would ensure things went badly.

In doing this He accentuated the whole design feature of His world. In its simplest terms, to use a very common example, if you buy a car you get a manufacturer’s handbook which tells you when to have it serviced and so on. You are not surprised (or shouldn’t be) if you fail to have it serviced and it eventually breaks down. That is true of a lot of things in life from the looking after plants to the care of  anything live or mechanical or electronic. We expect things to work in a specific way and when we do not use them in the proper manner we are not surprised when they break down. Sometimes that breakdown is gradual and as it starts to function less well, that should be a wakeup call to us that something is wrong and we need to reconsider how we are using it.

Now our verses above are all the more surprising because in the three verses before, the Lord had given their enemies into their hands. Now whether it was battle fatigue or something else, we come to this amazing condemnation of Israel: “the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses.”  The new generation (the older generation having gradually died off in the desert) are impatient to move into the Promised Land and rashly speak against the Lord (presumably for keeping them there for so long) and against Moses as His representative. They complain about lack of provisions and have clearly grown fed up with the manna; they are ready to go in but their attitude is not what it should be.

They have lost the sense of the Lord’s holiness and probably forty years have dulled their memories or the memories of the stories told them by their parents, of the things that happened in Egypt, on their travels to Sinai, the events at Sinai, and their failure to enter the land forty years back. All this seems to have been lost in the mists of forty years and so they now speak out rashly – but they are still God’s people and He does not abandon them. At this point, think what you would do with this people to stop their total collapse. What would you do in these circumstances – come on a serious question!

In the earlier paragraphs I spoke about blessings and curses and the way we are made to ‘work’ and the things God sometimes does and the way a machine gradually breaking down is telling us we are using it wrongly. Now there is a sense with some of God’s judgments that they come slowly  or at least give warning before having ultimate devastating effect. Snakes would be natural to the desert but when they start increasing in number and actually becoming a cause for concern, that is a time to think about the situation. The arrival of snakes is one thing, the fact that they bite people is another, and the fact that many people are dying from snake bite is yet a further indicator that Israel should be looking to themselves and what they are doing. This happens: “The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” (Num 21:7) Repentance is always the first stage of turning back and true repentance always acknowledges the specific sin, and Israel do this now.

But what to do to change the situation. The people ask Moses to pray and seek the Lord- a good move! – which he does. The Lord’s strategy was one that necessitate faith: “The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.” (v.8,9) Anyone bitten by a snake had to believe that going and looking at this bronze snake on a pole would heal them. Of course they would only be healed because the Lord healed them; the snake had no power in itself. Note it was a snake on a pole, not any representation of the Lord. You might expect them to have to come to the Tabernacle and bow before the Lord but the Lord wanted them to have a faith focus that was on the cause of their plight, and when they did that He would heal them.

Many years later Jesus used this illustration: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:14) Believing in Jesus lifted up on the Cross, lifted up in resurrection, and lifted up back to heavenly rule are the fundamental beliefs for the new believer. The initial lifting on the Cross is probably the feature that nearest matches the snake on the pole. Jesus hanging on the Cross carrying our sins is what we have to come to and believe in. That is the doorway for our salvation.

But there in the desert, God’s judgment was one that came gradually but obviously and brought repentance and then the means for healing. God was not wiping out His people but using a means to bring them back as a people to himself.

5.7 Grumblings get to Moses

Meditating on the Judgements of God:  

5.7 Grumblings gets to Moses

Num 20:2-5  Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They quarrelled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD! Why did you bring the LORD’s community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!”

We come now to an incident where we might expect judgement but there isn’t but then a further incident where we perhaps would not expect judgment but there is. Remember from early on, we defined a judgment as God’s assessment of a situation where He concludes with negative action. So the people of Israel in their wanderings arrive in the Desert of Zin and stayed at Kadesh (v.1)  but unfortunately there is no water for them there.

Now you might have expected, after all their previous encounters with the Lord, that they might have learned by now and might simply say to Moses, “Will you talk to the Lord because we seem to have a problem and He’s good at overcoming problems,” but they didn’t. Instead they had a go at Moses and Aaron and really wound themselves up to have a rant about the negatives of living in the desert (forgetting that it is their own fault that they are still there!) It is at this point that you might expect judgement to fall on this foolish people who are grumbling yet again and yet again criticising Moses’ leadership. But nothing like that happens.

So why did it happen like it did? The answer, very simply, is that there is indeed a need of water supply and so it is legitimate to ask the Lord for that. The way they went about it was bad and that might be the cause of disciplinary action, but instead the Lord tells Moses to simply take his staff (as a sign of authority) and simply speak to the rock and water will come forth. End of story.

Now we don’t know why Moses acted like he did. Previously he’s been described as the meekest man on the earth and we have seen him time and time again fall on his face before the Lord, seeking the Lord’s mercy. Now whether he’s just feeling low or he’s just had enough we don’t know but he fails to act with the grace he is called to have leading this groups of failures. Instead we find, So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.” (Num 20:9-11) “You rebels”? Well yes they are but he’s not called to call them names. “Must we bring water out of this rock?”  Woah!  Moses it’s God’s job not your power! He strikes the rock twice. Hold on, you were only told to speak to it and so it would be clearly seen to be a miracle, but now the people might think his act of hitting it split it and released the water. Woops! In three ways Moses blows it! It’s the first and only time he lets go, but he is held to a very high level of accountability.

And so we see God’s judgment: “But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honour me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” (v.12)  This was fulfilled (Deut 34:1-8). Moses saw the land from the mountainside but never actually went into the land. Why was the Lord so hard on him?

Well first we have to say that as God’s representative he should never fail to accurately represent God – without rebuke. The people had to see that he was always spot on when it came to his leading and so the one time when he departed from that, it meant he would be held to account and, most importantly, they would see and know. All future leaders would know (or should know) that they were accountable to the Lord for the way they led His people.

We might note, second, that he was now 120 which is a good old age and probably not the best age to lead a people into battle. To be called home at that age is really no great disgrace, but it does still send the message, “Leaders, be careful, you are accountable to God for the way you represent Him!”  Thank goodness for the Cross!

5.5 Korah’s Rebellion

Meditating on the Judgements of God:  

5.5  Korah’s Rebellion

Num 16:1-3  Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites–Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth–became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?”

There are times when you read the history of Israel that you wonder about either the level of communication or their memories – until we look at ourselves and realise that it is so easy to receive encouragement and blessing from the Lord one month and then a month later be feeling low and under pressure and negative. Nevertheless the charge to us is to remain faithful whatever we are feeling.

I mention the matter of communication because you wonder had Korah and company heard about what happened to Miriam when she and Aaron had moved against Moses previously, yet the truth is that the whole camp had come to a standstill for a week while she was outside the camp in shame and waiting for cleansing. You would have thought that they would remember what had happened to Miriam – and why – and that would have made them hesitate before acting in this manner. However sin is deceptive and makes fools of all of us and so presumably they worked themselves up in such a manner that they thought their complaint was just, forgetting all that has gone before.

Korah is a Levite and as such is a worker involved with the Tabernacle. He seems to want more and so, together with three other men, stirs up 250 community leaders to all band together against Moses. When it was just Aaron and Miriam, Miriam suffered leprosy for a week, but this is almost a corporate rebellion against Moses’ leadership. In the Aaron and Miriam case the Lord had pointed out that He spoke with prophets through dreams and visions etc., but with Moses He spoke face to face (Num 12:7,8).  One might have thought that this had been conveyed to the wider people but if it has then Korah and company have forgotten it.  Nevertheless it has been said and the Lord has already publicly defended Moses so these men should know the truth and therefore they have no excuse for their behaviour.

Moses’ response is to pray (v.5) and having prayed he has heard God’s instructions. He points out their folly: He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too. It is against the LORD that you and all your followers have banded together. Who is Aaron that you should grumble against him?” (v.10,11) There is still time to repent. They were Levites but only Aaron’s household could be priest – that is just how God has laid it down so this is ultimately a rebellion against God.  Moses then summons two of the ring leaders but they refuse to come (v.12-14). So Moses turns to Korah and basically says, “Very well, you want to be priests; turn up here tomorrow morning with censers and incense and we’ll see whose the Lord will accept.” (v.16,17). Thus next morning they are all there and God’s glory appears and He speaks to Moses about destroying all these rebellious men (v.18-21).

But grace appears and Moses pleads for the Lord to spare the wider group and only deal with the ringleaders who led the rest astray (v.22). The Lord tells Moses to get the people to move away form the tents of the three main ringleaders (v.23-27). Moses catches a sense of what is about to happen and makes clear the possibilities – they are spared, in which case Moses is a false leader, or the ground will swallow them up and he will be justified (v.28-30). As soon as he finishes saying this there appears a massive cracking of the ground and the three ring leaders are consumed alive and all who belonged to them (v.31-34) Moreover fire came from heaven and burned up the 250 others who dared to offer unholy incense (v.35). Despite Moses’ earlier pleading for them God decreed that nevertheless they had rebelled and as leaders they were held accountable.

By the end of the day you would have thought that there would have been an awesome sense of the holiness of God among the people. Think again. See the next meditation.

5.4 Canaan Rejected

Meditating on the Judgements of God:  

5.4  Canaan Rejected

Num 14:1-4  That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

God’s plan for Israel which was declared over four hundred years back was that they should take and clear the land of Canaan and make it their own home. As they approach the boundaries, the Lord tells Moses to send in twelve spies, one from each tribe to check that the land is as God described it (Num 13:1,2). When they return they acknowledge that it is as good as God had said but ten of them focus on the people there who create fear in them (Num 13:27-29) but one of them, Caleb, silences the others with the declaration that they can do it. Nevertheless the majority persist and the result is that they undermine the confidence of the people and, as we see above,  they grumble again against Moses and Aaron and refuse to go in.

Although we believe the Lord’s response was to test Moses, nevertheless it was a fair response: The LORD said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they.” (Num 14:11,12)  Indeed as we noted in the previous study the people of Israel have seen so much of the Lord’s activity that they should now have confidence in Him.

Moses rightly pleads for them and so we then see, “The LORD replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked. Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the LORD fills the whole earth, not one of the men who saw my glory and the miraculous signs I performed in Egypt and in the desert but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times– not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it.” (Num 14:20-23)  His judgment is that this present generation (which would have been counted as all those over the age of twenty – see Num 32:11,12), with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, will not enter the land but die in the desert. The ten men who brought a bad report and undermined Israel died of plague (Num 14:36-38).

To keep the story short, the people then appeared to repent and decided they would go in and take the land but when they tried they were fiercely repulsed (Num 14:39-45); the Lord did not fight for them and enable them to enter. The die had been cast and His judgment on them remained. Thus over the next forty years all those over the age of twenty at the beginning of that period died off in their travels around.

As a form of judgment, although frustrating perhaps, at least Israel were not slaves and they still had God’s provision which kept them throughout the forty year period of waiting so that the next generation was preserved. During that time many children would have been born and a complete new generation who had never known the experience of Egypt, but all they knew was that they were God’s people waiting for the appropriate time to take the Promised Land.  The youngest of those destined not to enter, would have been 21 at the start and would have died off before reaching sixty. The oldest of the younger generation were 20 at the start and would have been sixty at the time of entering the land. Thus most of those who could be considered warriors would have been younger at the start or were those born in the desert. It was in many ways ‘starting with a clean slate’.

Considering the overall history of Israel, each of these current judgments are clearly designed to motivate the present and future generations and act as a brake on their sin and unbelief. Every additional judgment was an additional experience of the Lord. This may appear a very negative time for Israel but hanging over them as a future reward is the anticipation of taking this land that is flowing with milk and honey.  As we said just now, there must have been a sense of frustration at having to wait but as every year passed there was an increased anticipation that it is getting nearer and nearer.

5.3 Miriam’s Leprosy

Meditating on the Judgements of God:  

5.3  Miriam’s Leprosy

Num 12:9-11  The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them. When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam–leprous, like snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had leprosy; and he said to Moses, “Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed.

Judgements, we have seen, come in all different forms. In our studies so far we have considered the judgments of

  • banishment from a land,
  • banishment from a community,
  • a widespread flood,
  • a man cursed,
  • a people scattered with different languages,
  • tumours and illness,
  • complete destruction of two cities and of a hesitant woman,
  • the death of a bad man,
  • the death of a man who refused to honour their family,
  • a famine,
  • ten plagues on a pharaoh,
  • execution of some 4000 idolaters,
  • fire consuming two casual priests,
  • the executions of a blasphemer
  • the execution of a Sabbath breaker,
  • fire breaking out because of grumblings,
  • and finally plague coming because of further grumblings.

Seven of that list (the ones italicised) did not result in death, Seven of them involved individual deaths, and five of them involved many deaths. In every case others learned by what happened and obviously in the case of the seven where death did not follow, those closest involved learnt.

So now we come to another of God’s judgments that did not involve death but which obviously came as a sharp lesson in discipline. The story starts as follows: Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.” (Num 12:1)  The apparent cause of their criticism was the fact that Moses had a wife from an area in the southern Nile valley in Egypt.  Moses first wife Zipporah had been a Midianite and so presumably after she died he took another wife (who may have been one of those who had come out of Egypt with Israel, an Egyptian who later history shows us would be now considered part of Israel). But that isn’t their only criticism for they continue: Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (Num 12:2) For some reason they allow the enemy (we suggest) to nudge them in this temptation to challenge Moses’ leadership.  They are basically saying, ‘Aren’t we as good as Moses, shouldn’t we be seen as main leaders as well?’

The folly of this, of course, is that Moses was very obviously God’s chosen servant (Ex 3 & 4) and even though he initially used Aaron as a mouthpiece in confronting Pharaoh, there was no doubt that, observing all the happenings at Sinai, Moses was THE number on leader of this people.

But then we read, “And the LORD heard this.” (v.2c) Of course He did, He hears everything, but it simply means He took note of what they were saying. Note carefully what follows: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (v.3) The implication is that Moses did not respond – but the Lord did! “At once the LORD said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “Come out to the Tent of Meeting, all three of you.” (v.4) The Lord does not delay but somehow communicates (possibly through Moses) His desire to meet with them at the Tent of Meeting outside the camp. There He explains that mostly He reveals Himself to His people through  dreams and visions but that is not so with Moses: “But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD.” (7,8) In other words He makes very clear to them His thinking. Moses is special and they are foolish not to realise this.

Then we see, “The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them. When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam–leprous, like snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had leprosy;” (v.9,10)  The Lord’s anger is an indication of their wrongness. The leprosy is a result of His judgment. What is interesting is that it is only Miriam and not Aaron who is afflicted. He is the high priest and he has got to just carry on and perform his priestly daily duties while being aware of the state of his sister and we see “he said to Moses, “Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother’s womb with its flesh half eaten away.” (v.11,12) Thus Moses cries to the Lord on her behalf and he is told to have her put outside the camp for seven days and Israel’s progress is halted while they wait for her to be cleansed – which happens. Thus we find this is a temporary judgment, a strong act of discipline.

So what was so wrong in this situation. Essentially Aaron and Miriam are challenging Moses’ authority and in so doing they are challenging God. Moses is God’s man and, as we’ve noted, everything about his recent few years shouts that. The testimony of the Bible is that God stands up for His servants’ they are special and those who stand against them have God to answer to.

5.2 Grumblings about Hardships

Meditating on the Judgements of God:  

5.2  Grumblings about Hardships

Num 11:1-3  Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the LORD and the fire died down. So that place was called Taberah, because fire from the LORD had burned among them.

We have in the last three meditations reflected on Aaron’s casual sons, the man in a temper blaspheming and the man collecting sticks on the Sabbath. Now we lumped those three together because they were all examples of people who were blatantly disregarding the Law. We now move on to consider the judgments that fell on Israel in their time between Sinai and the Promised Land. In the trek from Egypt to Sinai, we noted that although Israel grumbled again and again, the Lord did not bring any form of judgment on them. That now changes considerably and one of the questions we must ask, is why did it change?

Note  what took place here at this time: “Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD, and when he heard them his anger was aroused.”  They have been traveling a mere three days (10:33) This echoes what happened on the first trek when three days into their exit from Egypt they started grumbling because of lack of clean water (Ex 15:22-25).

This reminds us that we saw Israel grumbling on that first trek (between Pharaoh coming after them and the Amalekites attacking) three times – about unclean water, about lack of food and about lack of water. On each occasion the Lord simply provided for them – and that was just a year back. In that intervening time they came to Sinai, saw the signs of God’s presence on the mountain, over seventy of them had actually had a vision of the Lord, they have gone through the Golden Calf incident and a number had died as a result of it.  You would have thought that they might have learned something of the Lord by now – that He was a miraculous deliverer, that He was a miraculous provider, and that He was holy and held sinners accountable.

The Lord’s anger at their complaining is an indication that He expected them to have learned to trust Him in the light of all that He has done for them in these past couple of years. They are complaining about their “hardships”; simply they don’t like trekking through the desert, but the Lord expects better of them. With that expectation comes accountability, He is a God who continues to teach His people and so the judgment that we see occurring is “fire from the LORD” which “burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp.” But note that there is no record of anyone being killed, simply that fire came to the outer regions of the camp presumably destroying tents etc. It is a clear and obvious lesson and the result is that the people cry out, Moses prays and God stops the fire.

But then it happens yet again and we read, “The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat!” (v.4) Now some suggest that “the rabble” refers to hangers-on who came out of Egypt with them but there is no indication that this was so and anyway it is the Israelites who now start wailing. They remember back to what it had been like in Egypt: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost–also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.” (v.5) and they completely forget that they had been slaves! Indeed now they are even fed up with God’s miraculous provision, the manna: “But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (v.6) A negative attitude soon loses perspective and the truth soon leaves. The fact is that they should only be in this desert a short time before they get to their destination, the Promised Land. In the previous verses we saw that the Lord’s anger “was aroused” which suggests it was slowly stirring, but now we read, “The LORD became exceedingly angry.” It seems a competition to see how fast they can forget what has gone before! But it should not be like this!  This is just the sin of mankind bursting to the surface yet again.

Now in what follows we find Moses complaining to the Lord that the job is too hard and instead of rebuking him, the Lord says he is to gather seventy leading elders and He will place His spirit on them to share the load (11:11-17). But what about the meat problem? Very well, says the Lord, you want meat? I’ll give you meat and you can have it for the next month until you are fed up with it (11:19,20)

This happens but we find, “But while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the LORD burned against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague.” (11:33)  Now the volume of the quail falling on the camp was so great they were three foot deep all around and the people “spread them out all around the camp.” (v.32)  It is probable that there was so much dead meat lying around that it soon went off and it was probably through this that the ‘plague’ came. What we find therefore is judgment through abundance. The Lord gave them what they wanted – in abundance but abundance, in the hot climate, caused a problem, and they thus suffered for it.

But back to our earlier question: why did God judge them now when he had not done it on the first trek? The answer comes with something Jesus said: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Lk 12:48) In other words if you have been given much revelation – as Israel had in these last two years – much more is expected of you, and accountability involves correction, discipline and even judgment. Israel are a different people than from say five years ago. Now they are a people who know and have experienced the Lord. They have no excuses for their bad responses.

5.1 Casual Sabbath Disobedience

Part 5: Judgements in Numbers

Meditating on the Judgements of God:   

5.1 Casual Sabbath Disobedience

Num 15:32-35  While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.”

We will in the next study consider the collective ‘grumblings in the desert’ but before we do that we deal with this one-off judgement which fits better with the ones we have just previously been considering.

Again from our perspective in the twenty first century, killing a man for gathering fuel on a Saturday seems wildly extreme to say the least. What it speaks to are the things that are under threat at this time in the life of Israel. Most of us are probably aware that the first laws given by God at Sinai were the Ten Commandments. Remember these are laws given to this particular people who have been miraculously delivered out of slavery in Egypt and who have been invited by God to enter into a covenant-based relationship with Him. That covenant was initially very simple: if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” (Ex 19:5) What ‘treasured possession’ meant wasn’t spelled out but if you had a treasured possession, you would think very highly of it and take great care of it. In the case of a people with God it would mean He would lead and guide and provide for and protect them. If you read the blessings of obedience in Deut 28 you see promises of great provision and at the beginning of that chapter the overall promise: “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth.” (Deut 28:1)

Now from Israel’s side we have seen twice it was to “fully obey” God. The reward for that would be that they would be elevated above all other nations. The peak of this in the period of the kings was clearly in Solomon’s reign and that is born out at the Queen of Sheba’s visit (see 1 Kings 10). Prosperity and abundance abounded.

Now come back to the Ten Commandments and we have ten instructions that could apply to any people anywhere on the globe, apart from the fact that they are given to Israel in the context of being God’s people who have known His miraculous deliverance. The first four of those ten commands are about honouring God – having no other gods, never making idols for worship, never taking God’s name in vain and always remembering Him once a week at least on this day referred to as the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Ex 20:8-11) The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word, shabat, meaning ‘to rest’. It was thus a day of rest on which you would remember that God is the almighty Creator God who made all things for us, but to be used in the ways He prescribed, for failure to do that means self-destruction, e.g. over eating = gluttony = health breakdown; over drinking alcohol = addiction and health breakdown; sexual promiscuity = unfaithfulness, relational breakdown, unwanted pregnancy, and sexual diseases.

When it comes to the Sabbath rest, we may not see the sense in it (although health professionals have accepted the wisdom of not working more than six days at a stretch, and social workers might accept the wisdom of creating family time every seven days, and so on) but God knows how He has designed us to work and if He says work six days and then stop, that is wisdom we ignore at our peril.

At the end of all this, the big question is will we accept that God knows best. A study of the laws given through Moses shows a large number of them are for regulating life within the community to ensure peace and order and blessing. To keep Israel on track we thus find that there are at least twenty laws requiring the death penalty and although our present perspective  will almost certainly struggle with this, it does show the importance that the Lord gave to each of the issues to which the death penalty was applied. So, although collecting sticks does appear a trivial offence to our eyes today, at that point in time it was a direct challenge to the covenant which agree to abide by all the laws God gave them – including resting on the Sabbath. It ultimately was an act of rebellion that said, I don’t care about God or His rules or us supposedly being a special people.

Again to consider the aspect we have spoken of before, it is worth considering what would be the effect of this act going on without any response? One has to say that it would create the impression that these laws don’t really matter and so if you can disregard this one you can disregard others and therefore do your own thing, and that will create a self-centred community – just the same as any other nation – which can be led astray into pagan practices observed in other nations and abhorred by civilized peoples. Again, shocking but necessary. Remembering what we said about a parent bringing sharp discipline: you do it once and it doesn’t need doing again. The fact that these laws were clearly being upheld by the Pharisees, at least, in Jesus’ day, indicates that although there were occasional lapses, in general they were upheld throughout the nation’s history – at least when the nation was seeking to be right with God.

4.5 Casual Blasphemy

Meditating on the Judgements of God:  

4.5 Casual Blasphemy

Lev 24:13,14   Then the LORD said to Moses: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him.

From our ‘superior’ position in the twenty-first century (as we so often see it) the laws of Moses requiring the death penalty seem particularly harsh, especially as we have done away with the death penalty, but here we have this instance in Leviticus where specific lawbreaking resulted in death by stoning. Let’s look at the details.

In the Ten Commandments we find, You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (Ex 20:7) As we read through the Pentateuch one thing you notice is that there is a focus on God’s name, e.g.  “Sacrifice as the Passover to the LORD your God an animal from your flock or herd at the place the LORD will choose as a dwelling for his Name…..  You must not sacrifice the Passover in any town the LORD your God gives you except in the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name.”  (Deut 16:2,5,5)

THE name of course, which is what the capital letters spelling LORD in your Old Testament refer to, comes from Exodus 3:14 “God said to Moses I AM WHO I AM” or “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE” but then carries on “This is what you are to say to the Israelites: `I AM has sent me to you.’ “ and you will find a note saying, “The Hebrew for LORD sounds like and may be derived from the Hebrew for I AM in verse 14.”

This name of God who has simply described Himself as, “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” (Ex 3:6) is “the I AM”. Wherever He appears in time-space history He is “I AM” or, to put it another way, ‘the Eternal One’. He is always ‘I AM’ and in that He is unique, there is no other like Him. Now remember what we have said a number of times about Israel’s role in revealing the Lord, especially in that study on The Glory of God,  and therefore any descriptions of God and, even more, any names given to Him, are vitally important.

Again and again in the laws, the big issue is the name of the Lord, a name which must be represented accurately, a name that must not be associated in any way with the gods or idols of the world,  hence,  “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.” (Lev 18:21). Indeed His name is the vital link to all the laws of Moses; they mean nothing without being linked to who He is. For instance the Ten Commandments start with, “I am the LORD (the I AM)  your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Ex 20:2)  They have encountered Him in this most incredible of experiences and all His instructions to them (the laws) are to be seen in that context. He, the lawgiver, is the one who has delivered them from slavery and shown Himself to be the all-powerful Lord. Likewise later on we find this same thing reiterated: “Keep my commands and follow them. I am the LORD. Do not profane my holy name. I must be acknowledged as holy by the Israelites. I am the LORD, who makes you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the LORD.” (Lev 22:31-33)

Thus when the priesthood ministers they are to be representatives of this holy One who is unique: “Priests must not shave their heads or shave off the edges of their beards or cut their bodies. They must be holy to their God and must not profane the name of their God. Because they present the offerings made to the LORD by fire, the food of their God, they are to be holy.” (Lev 21:5,6) No wonder, as we saw in the previous study that Aaron’s two sons ended up dying. Thus likewise we find, “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.” (Lev 19:12)

Which finally brings us to this historical incident where, in the heat of a fight and argument, one of the combatants we might say, ‘looses his cool’ or ‘blows his top’ and in so doing abuses the name of God. Now in the twenty first century we have so much blasphemy or negative use of God’s name on films and on TV that, sadly, we have almost grown accustomed to it, but that merely says something about how low we have fallen. The period of time we are considering is Israel in embryonic stage and therefore it is vital that they do not cross any wrong boundaries and portray God exactly as He is, the unique One, the holy One, the One who is like no other and against whom no other can be compared, the Creator of all things who is perfect. In conveying this, ‘the Name’ was all important.

Now this was not a judgment of God sovereignly but was an execution to be carried out by the people in the most gruesome of manners. Each person was to take a pile of stones and throw them at the man who will appear first bloody, then tottering, then falling but still moving until those closest aim for his head and there is no doubt left, he is dead.  The one thing I know about that is that many of you are going to have bad dreams for a long time. There will be an awful sense of quietness around the community: “We have decimated this man’s body; we have taken his life.”  But there’s also something else I know about it, and that is that every one involved in it will go away saying to themselves, “I will never do that again, we must never let that happen again, we must ensure these laws are never again broken,” and they will become the most law-abiding people on earth, holding firmly to these rules that we have described as God’s laws to comply with how He has designed us to work best.

We have so blurred the boundaries today between what is right and what is wrong that these things no doubt shock us, but they were so effective that it was only the passing of time blurring memories or another generation coming along for whom it was no longer vivid, that permitted any breakdown. This was a community that had entered into a covenant with God – obedience will bring blessing, disobedience will bring curse – and who thus should have been portraying the wonderful possibilities of a glorious relationship with Him to the world.  Failure to uphold these things at this stage would have undermined the whole basis of the Law of Moses and Israel would have slipped (even faster) into becoming the same of as pagan nations with their terrible practices. Each of these incidents acts as a brake on that happening and allows more time for Israel to reveal the glory of the Lord to the world. Terrible certainly, but tragically necessary.