When looking at the book of Numbers we might notice how the first half of the book is primarily concerned with (the very good) preparation of the Israelites for their journey. The second half of the book, we all know, strikes a darker chord as we witness rebellion, after rebellion, after rebellion. But what are these rebellion stories doing? Why record so many of them? Why record the ones we have?
Well, we all know that there are several ways to learn. One way is to learn about things via didactic teaching. Falls can hurt you, says a book, dogs will bite you says the teacher, diseases can infect you says the Doctor.
Another way to learn these things is to experience them for yourself…and a very painful route that is. Imagine, having to find out that falls hurt, that dogs bite, and that diseases infect because you personally have all those things happen to you. Of course, some people need to learn things this way, but we call this “learning things the hard way”.
There is a third way to learn
I recall one day my brother over at a friend’s house playing basketball in the backyard. Our friend wasn’t home but their dog was; a fairly amicable Siberian husky whenever his owner was home especially behind the confines of a very large fence. The basketball would hit the backboard and the ball would fly over the fence and this one kid (not my brother) would go into the fence and…the dog would stare. Not a twitch of the ear. Not a blink of the eye. Not a raising of the head. Not even a wag of the tail. Just staring.
The ball fell over several times and each time the kid got the ball just fine. But one time he stopped, in his stupid confidence he turned towards the dog, reached out his arms and went to pet it.
In Numbers 11-14 we have three well known stories that underscore three testimonies of unbelief culminating, finally, in a lesson for future generations.
In story one, (Numbers 11) we witness the unbelief of the people as they grumble about the menu, which is God’s provision, reflecting a tremendous flaw in their spiritual maturity. In that story God goes about providing Spirit approved leaders and a change of diet; which wound up being for the worst since the stuff rotted before they finished it.
In story two, (Numbers 12) we witness the complaining of jealous leaders, Miriam and Aaron. Wanting a position, perhaps like those spirit filled elders, Miriam starts gossiping about Moses’ dark wife and Aaron wonders why he can’t deal with God directly—after all, has God only spoken through Moses and not through them as well? God, hearing their rebellion and gossip responds saying how Moses is different from other prophets. Those prophets hear from God through visions, or in riddles—but Moses, well Moses hears from God directly ; how dare they speak against him? And with that Miriam is struck white as snow (ironic in that she was complaining about Moses’ dark wife) and Aaron is left not asking God for help, but asking Moses to intercede on their behalf before God. They had, in their pride, seen themselves as more blessed and empowered than the apostle and high priest of their confession and dared to take on accolades that didn’t belong to them.
In story three, (Numbers 13-14) we witness the well known. Spies, chosen to check out the Promised Land, find the place to be wonderful and bountiful indeed. They witness the fruition of the promises of God. They partake of that blessing. They taste it and enjoy it then bring it back to the congregation. And when they report it to the congregation, they poison the retelling. They don’t focus on how God says the land belongs to them but rather focus on the insurmountable odds: the fortifications, the head-count, the sheer size of them; veritable giants of old! Caleb and Joshua don’t go down that route. The people wail believing mere men over the God who had rescued them and they cry out wondering why Moses brought them so far to die? Why couldn’t they just die in the wilderness instead of dying at the hands of their mythical enemies? God speaks to Moses, ready to wipe them all out and start afresh with Moses but Moses, once again, intercedes on their behalf. God, says he, the world around has heard of your activity—think of your name if you don’t bring your promises about to the people whom you promised them to!
And with that God decides to give the Israelites what they want. Their kids will get into the Promised Land but they, well, they’ll drop dead in the desert.
The story would have had a bad ending as it was. But adding insult to injury the people reject God’s words again, form a fighting party and charge Canaan aiming to wrest those promises out of the closed fist of God. And now, the thing ends pitiably: the Israelites, rescued from Egypt to enter into their Promised Land, now running—running as fast as their hary legs can carry them away from the Land, chased by enemies, as they head towards the wilderness where they would indeed drop dead.
Three lessons, all reflecting unbelief. Unbelief of the people against the provision of God. Unbelief of the Leadership against the Apostle and High Priest of their calling, assuming they had authority that they didn’t. Unbelief of the congregation as they rejected the very purpose of their calling by first refusing to enter into the Land and then trying to get in when God said “have it your way.”
The writer to the Hebrews (Heb 3), looking back at another event by citing Psalm 95 (while keeping with the theme of unbelief), says be careful Christians. Don’t reject God’s provision. Listen to your leader! Jesus is the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, and though Moses was faithful, he wasn’t ultimately the builder: that is Christ’s purview. Christ was faithful to the uttermost and he stands over his house, which we’re part of. Careful, says the writer, that you do not prove yourself to be an unbeliever—falling away from belief in the living God.
Encourage one another, says the writer, in the present so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Notice that we are partakers of Christ when we confess him. We’re not over him. We don’t call the shots. Don’t harden your hearts against him, says the writer. The corpses of those people keeled over in the wilderness because of their unbelief—so fear, says the writer, if you have not yet entered into God’s promised rest. (Heb 4:1).
That neighbor boy of mine, as he went to pet the Siberian husky behind the tall fence felt teeth tear into his flesh, was held down on the floor, was pulled across the concrete, as he swung at the dog hitting the thing on the muzzle. The boy didn’t win, not by a stretch, but the dog decided to let him go as it sat back down and closed it’s eyes wiping some blood off its muzzle. The boy was rushed to the hospital, and he survived—he was that lucky—but he bore the marks of that attack all the days of his life.
These lessons you can’t learn by mere recorded didactic facts. These lessons you don’t want to learn by experience. These lessons are those that have occurred to others and sound a serious warning.
So now we have these things recorded for us, confessing believers. Surely this doesn’t mean us, right? We believe! We’ve confessed!
Says Paul, writing to confessing believers: “examine yourself to see if you are of the faith” (2 Cor 13:5). It sounds a very real warning that should rightly shake us. These previous people failed in the face of miracles, finally reflecting their unbelief! Test yourselves: do you trust Christ?
Heed the lesson, says the writer to the Hebrews. Heed the lesson says the writer of Numbers; and yet, without saying it.