What can we learn from Numbers?

Numbers was written for the Jews in order that later generations might learn to fear God. It was, therefore, written for Christians too, so that we might learn from their failures. We have seen already how Paul told the Corinthians that these events were recorded as ‘examples’, warning us not to live as the Israelites did. We can also fail to arrive, just as they did. The Bible is a mirror in which we see ourselves, according to James. We can live and die in the wilderness; we can look back on the ‘pleasures of sin’ but be unable to look forward to ‘God’s rest’ in the Promised Land.

We can learn more about the character of God from Numbers, and the twin themes of kindness and sternness are taken up again at various times in the New Testament, in Romans, Hebrews, Jude and 2 Peter.

Jude also mentions both Korah and Balaam. Grumbling was as big a problem in the early Church as it was in Israel. When people grumble and complain it is called a ‘bitter root’ which can grow inside a fellowship and cause trouble.

In the New Testament we are reminded that we are names, not numbers. Even the hairs of our head are numbered. Our names are in the ‘book of life’, but there is also evidence that our names can be erased.

What Numbers says about God

In Numbers we are told very clearly that there are two sides to God’s character. The apostle Paul draws them out when he says, ‘Consider then the kindness and sternness of God.

  1. On the one hand we see his provision of food, drink, clothes and shoes. We see God providing his people with protection from their enemies, greater than them in size and number. We see his preservation of the nation despite their sinfulness.
  2. On the other hand we see his justice. He is faithful to his covenant promises, punishing the people when they sin. This involves discipline, and ultimately disinheritance if they refuse to go on and follow his will. We deal with the same God. He is holy and we must fear him.

What Numbers says about Jesus

  1. As Israel went through the wilderness, so Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted.
  2. John 3:16 is well known, but the verse before it less so: ‘…as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up.’
  3. John also asserts that Jesus is the ‘manna’, the ‘bread from heaven’.
  4. Astonishingly, the apostle Paul speaks of the water being struck from the rock in the wilderness, suggesting that the rock was none other than Christ.
  5. Hebrews says that if the ashes of a heifer could bring forgiveness, how much more will the blood of Christ achieve the same thing.
  6. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Balaam, the false prophet, actually made a true prophecy about Jesus! ‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.’ From that time on, every devout Jew looked for the star of the king to come, and that is what led the wise men to Bethlehem.

Blessings of fellowship with God

Perhaps the best-known verse in Numbers is 6:24: ‘The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face towards you and give you peace.’

This was the blessing that God gave Aaron to give to the people when they set off from camp on the next part of their journey. It has every mark of direct inspiration from God because it is mathematically perfect. Whenever God speaks, his language is mathematically perfect. In the Hebrew there are three lines in the blessing:

The LORD bless you and keep you

The LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you

The LORD turn his face towards you and give you peace

In the Hebrew, there are 3 words in the first sentence, 5 in the second, and 7 in the third. There are 15 letters in the first, 20 in the second, and 25 in the third. There are 12 syllables in the first, 14 in the second, and 16 in the third. If you take the word ‘LORD’ out, you are left with 12 Hebrew words. We are left with the Lord and the 12 tribes of Israel! It is mathematically perfect. Even in English it builds up – there is a kind of crescendo through the lines. Each line has two verbs, and the second expands the first.

The blessing applies to Christians today, for the two things the blessing offers are grace and peace. This is the Christian blessing given in the epistles in the New Testament: ‘Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’ We too can receive the blessings of fellowship with God that Israel enjoyed – if we heed the lessons of Numbers.