One of the funniest, and oddest, perspectives is the bird’s eye view. I personally don’t like getting to that perspective—shooting down the runaway until it almost ends, catapulting into the air, and praying that nothing happens. But the perspective is extremely helpful—in criminal cases, for example.
You know, there goes the criminal, driving down the road and slamming into a telephone pole. Out he comes, running; between garbage cans, through a yard with a barking dog, over another fence. He really thinks he can get away!
Except we’re seeing all of this from the vantage point of a police chopper that has the entire view of the man’s progress and end where the cops have set up their net. If the criminal had this view he’d probably not run as hard to escape. And the cops, oh the cops with the benefit of that point of view do their work confidently.
Let’s take off then, shooting down the runaway of the text and getting some details as we take off and see this perspective.
Note the repeated rebellions by the Israelites (Numbers 11, 12,13, 17, etc) culminating in a rebellion by Moses and Aaron themselves as they failed to properly represent God (Num 20). True, they did their act in the midst of the grumbling of the people (Num 20:1-3)—but they laid a charge against the people which God didn’t.
Now, we’re reaching an altitude where we note that first generation that refused to go into Canaan, is almost all gone. Indeed, we’ve already witnessed the loss of Miriam and Aaron (Num 20), but countless others have also already died in the wilderness. From this height we can also see that the Israelites are still walking in the wilderness but making their way steadily back North, towards the Promised Land.
We therefore know where they’ve been and where they’re going but our bird’s eye isn’t merely to view the general geography. So let’s continue soaring to see their situation.
From here, we can see their grumbling at Zin and the rebellion of Moses and Aaron at Meribah (Numbers 20); their rebellion at or around Mount Hor due to more complaining (Numbers 21:4-8) and this time the people are afflicted by fiery serpents; and a major rebellion (Numers 25:1-3) where the people commit sexual immorality with the daughters of Moab and join themselves to Baal-peor. So not only are the leaders misrepresenting God, but the people continued to complain about their food and add insult to injury by breaking the very commandments they agreed to on the outset of the trip.
This is not good. From a Human point-of-view, noting that these events are scattered across several chapters, we would think that God has every right, if he so wishes, in casting these people off. They say they’re dependant on him but they complain about the food (again. Number 21:5); they say they have no other gods beside him and yet their they go joining to some other gods.
Well, let’s keep up our bird eye view. In Numbers 20:14-20 we see the children of Israel writing permission to cross across Edom’s country—a shortcut to go up North. Edom rejects them and threatens them by coming out in force against them. Israel marches around and heads up the road towards Mount Hor. In Numbers 21:1-3 we see that the Canaanite King of Arad, the one who lives in the Negev, hears about Israel coming and approaches along the road to fight Israel and take some of them prisoner. In Numbers 21:21-35 we see King Sihon of the Amorites receiving a note from the Israelites asking for safe passage on his King’s Highway, and he refuses and fights Israel at Jahaz. In the very large section of Numbers 22-25 we see a concerted effort on the part of the Moabites and eventually the Midianites to curse Israel. The Moabites (Mich 6:5) hire a sorcerer seer (Josh 13:22) to curse Israel (Deut 23:4,5; Josh 24:9-10; Neh 13:2) and eventually the seer contrives a plan that successfully results in the people abominating themselves (Numbers 31:16).
So we’ve got to say that this looks awful. Where ever the Israelites seem to be going, they are meeting opposition, having to meet sword equipped enemies, getting captured, getting sorcerers against them without knowing it, and even fall in some of their enemies’ traps. This is not good news at all. What about the promises of God? What about their covenant? It just all seems to be slamming into the garbage cans of sin and life.
In Numbers 21:4-8, God makes provision for the people so that they are not altogether wiped out. Those who were poisoned, who felt the poison coursing through their bodies and refused to end merely looking at their own pitiful situation but instead turned their eyes onto the Lord’s provision in the form of a raised brazen Serpent, would be given life—cured of the poison. In Numbers 21:1-3, Israel makes a vow to the Lord to wipe those Canaanites out of that patch of land if God delivers them into their hands and they do and name the place Hormah—if you recall, the distance they had fled when they were repulsed from Canaan some 38 years before. In Numbers 21:21-35, King Sihon winds up biting off more than he could chew as the Israelites repulse his attack, go on the offensive, and take over all the cities in that area. In Numbers 23-24 we see the diviner going off to curse Israel some four times, and each time he utters a blessing on Israel—the last containing a curse against the very Moabites that hired him. As if that weren’t enough, the Lord forces the diviner to speak and announce things that occur in some far off distant future explaining just how far the Lord has planned for Israel, even despite their troubles.
So that even when we see the story of the failure of the Israelites in Numbers 25, a successful thrust by Israel’s enemies, we see the plague coming to a stop by the quick activity of the Son of the High Priest and a mandate by God to curse those who cursed Israel with that Peor business (Num 25:16) .
Our bird’s eye view is showing us the very real providence and plans of God, even if the people aren’t aware of all the ramifications of what’s going on. It’s not like the people knew that King Balak was hiring a sorcerer to curse them—they just knew that they had won a fierce battle and were settling into some sort of normality before pushing Northwards. God was working in their situation, even as they suffered failure or success—God was working.
This bird’s eye view allows me to reflect on another promise that I see in the New Testament and how it correlates with all of this.
Romans 8:31 What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
“Well, how is that possible?”, someone might ask. “Can’t situations come up that would cause things to go poorly. What if it got so bad that God up and decided ‘enough is enough’—wouldn’t we be cast off as the crass sinners we are?”
Ah, but just as Israel was foreknown by God and Balaam proceeded to perform the blessings of God (some of which were repetitions of blessings made by God years before in Genesis) we see that God knew about our failures and situation beforehand.
Romans 8:28-30 And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified.
God knows our frame, planned for our situation, established a plan resulting in an end goal were those who he saw beforehand are eventually glorified and conformed to the very image of his Son. This same God who didn’t spare his Son but gave him up for us all, how much more would he save us based on the resurrection of His Son? Situations would arise, dangers would come, sin will happen, faults will be performed, death will occur—but nothing will ever separate us from the love of God and his promises of being altogether on our side.
Which makes me thankful for Israel’s experience. God didn’t drop the ball on the promises to them in their situation in Numbers, or even in their subsequent failure at refusing to acknowledge the Messiah. Oh they stumbled, notes Paul, but there is a day coming when the promises to Israel will be realized by Israel and the nations will flourish in that expectancy. As it is, we already have seen some of that overflowing blessings being outpoured—imagine the wonder of it when this rebellious nation finally submits.
Ah, thank the Lord for it. If he can be faithful to a people like that he can surely be faithful to a people he has atoned for, placed under the name of his Son, and resurrected them with the intent of reforming them in His image. That sort of view, that above view offered in the text, really empowers one to walk confidently in the here and now.