10:11-13 The momentous day finally arrived when God determined that it was time for his people to collapse their tents, dismantle the tabernacle, and make tracks for the promised land. They had been parked at Sinai for almost a year. So when the time came, God announced the message by lifting the cloud that was above the tabernacle (10:11). The cloud’s first stop en route to Canaan was in the Wilderness of Paran (10:12), a long stretch of barren land.
15:32-36 To drive home the point of 15:30-31 in a way the whole nation witnessed and probably never forgot, mention is made of a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day (15:32)—in a blatant and defiant violation of a clear command. Those who found him brought him to Moses (15:33). The Lord himself pronounced the sentence: The man is to be put to death. The entire community is to stone him outside the camp (15:35-36). It isn’t hard to imagine the fear of God this execution instilled in the participants.
Defiant sin is no laughing matter. Sometimes the judgment it brings is immediate physical death (see Acts 5:1-11). And without the perpetrator placing faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ before he or she passes, it will bring God’s eternal judgment.
15:37-41 The final instruction of the chapter was particularly appropriate after what had just happened. It was a practical way to help the Israelites remember and obey God’s holy commandments (15:40). They were to make tassels for the corners of their garments, and put a blue cord on the tassel at each corner (15:38). These embellishments were to serve as visible reminders of the people’s covenant God, so that they would obey him.
16:1-2 Notably, the two hundred and fifty rebels who caused trouble at this point in the narrative weren’t the “riffraff” who had previously complained about food (11:4). They were prominent Israelite men who were leaders of the community and representatives in the assembly (16:2). Korah was a son of Levi (16:1), meaning he was one of the Levites set apart to serve the Lord at the tabernacle. In other words, these men already held positions of great honor when they decided to make a play for further power. This story is a reminder that sin doesn’t play favorites; it infects us all—the riffraff and the prominent.
16:3 The men came en masse with their charge (16:3), which brings to my mind the way Miriam and Aaron made complaint against Moses earlier (12:2). Korah and his followers claimed to be as holy as Moses and Aaron. Then he delivered this arrogant question: Why then do you exalt yourselves above the Lord’s assembly? (16:3). The obvious answer was that Moses and Aaron hadn’t exalted themselves at all. They had been called and appointed by the Lord.
After all that has happened to this point, one has to wonder if Korah and his followers had been paying any attention at all. Where were they when the people complained against Moses, cried for meat, stuffed themselves on quail, and then died when God struck them with the food still in their mouths in chapter 11? Were they sleeping when Miriam and Aaron challenged Moses’s authority and God struck her with leprosy in chapter 12? Were they ill in their beds when the ten spies and the people defied the Lord, refused to take the promised land, and were banished to the wilderness for forty years in chapters 13 and 14? It is mind-blowing that they thought they could pull off a successful rebellion against Moses. Not one of these previous incidents or God’s responses, however, penetrated the hard hearts of Korah and his followers. Their accusation even included Aaron, the high priest, suggesting that they were challenging both the religious and governmental leadership of God’s kingdom structure.
16:4-7 When Moses heard this charge, he knew that, ultimately, Korah and crew were not sinning against him but against the Lord. So he fell facedown in worship and prayer before God (16:4). He must have been there long enough to get instructions from God for the event that would take place the next day at the entrance to the tabernacle. The terms were simple. Korah and his followers were to take firepans and place fire in them and put incense on them before the Lord. Then the man the Lord [chose would] be the one . . . set apart (16:6-7).
16:8-11 Clearly, Moses understood Korah’s real motive in making the charges. He wasn’t content to serve God by taking care of the tabernacle as a Levite. He wanted to usurp the role of a priest, even though God had given that ministry to Aaron and his family alone among the descendants of Levi (16:9-10). God had brought [Korah] near (16:10) by sanctifying him for ministry, but that wasn’t good enough for him. He wanted the priesthood as well, and that meant that Korah and his friends were conspiring against the Lord in trying to get it (16:11).
16:12-14 Dathan and Abiram, two of the other prominent leaders who had joined forces with Korah, were so mad at Moses that they refused to answer his call to the meeting (16:12). Their claim was outrageous. In their minds, Egypt—the land in which they had been enslaved—was a land flowing with milk and honey (16:13). So not only had Moses yanked them out of their “paradise” in Egypt, he had failed to give them the land that had been promised. They felt Moses had so deceived the people that the only way he could hide his true intention to kill everyone in the wilderness was to gouge out the eyes of the rebels who knew the real truth (16:13-14). In a word, they were delusional.
16:15-17 Such nonsense filled Moses with righteous indignation. Everything Dathan and Abiram said was a lie; he had never wronged any Israelite (16:15); the opposite, in fact, was true: he had cared for and interceded for them. The time for talk was over. Aaron, Korah, and all of Korah’s followers were each to present their firepans before the Lord the next day (16:16-17).
16:18-22 Korah’s prominence within the camp is on display here because he was able to assemble the whole community against Moses and Aaron at the entrance to the tent of meeting (16:19). Yet his popularity did not mean his heart was right or that he was worth following. God was so angry with his faithless people at this point that he threatened once again to rid the earth of them. And he would have done so had not Moses and Aaron fallen facedown in intercession again (16:22).
16:18-30 God spared the community, but there would be no reprieve for Korah and his fellow rebels. The community at least had enough sense to listen to Moses when he warned them to get away from the dwellings of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (16:23-27). Moses then announced to everyone how they would know that the Lord had called him to lead the people (16:28). If the rebels died a natural death, then Moses was an imposter (16:29). But if the ground [opened] its mouth and [swallowed] them, it would be an unmistakable sign that Korah had led a rebellion against God (16:30).
16:31-40 What followed was a terrifying scene of judgment. As Moses predicted and through the supernatural work of God, the earth consumed all Korah’s people (16:32). Then it closed over them, and they vanished from the assembly (16:33). As for the other troublesome men, fire from the Lord consumed them (16:35). The people of Israel were horrified (16:34). The men’s firepans were made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar, both because they were holy and as a reminder . . . that no unauthorized person outside the lineage of Aaron should approach to offer incense before the Lord lest he become like Korah and his followers (16:38-40).
16:41-45 That should have been the end of the story. But the next day the entire Israelite community complained about Moses and Aaron, accusing them of killing the Lord’s people! (16:41). This outrageous claim serves as witness that humans can be tenacious in their willingness to deny the truth and believe a lie—no matter how obviously the facts are presented to them. God was again angry enough to destroy the nation, but Moses and Aaron fell facedown yet one more time, asking God to spare the people (16:45).
16:46-50 God did spare the Israelites to a degree, but sin always has consequences. God sent a plague among the accusers. Moses saw it beginning, and sent Aaron with a firepan full of incense out into the camp to make atonement for the people (16:46). He knew it wouldn’t be stopped until God’s holy wrath was satisfied. Aaron did as he was ordered and the plague was halted, but not before 14,700 more rebels had died (16:47-49).
This fresh revelation of God’s fierce holiness no doubt put reverential fear in the hearts of the remaining Israelites, so that they might not sin against the Lord. It should have a similar impact on us. The Lord is a holy God. The worst thing you can do in life is fail to take him seriously.
17:1-5 Since Aaron’s authority as priest had been challenged, God took a decisive step to make it clear that he had invested only Aaron’s family with the priesthood. A leader from each tribe was to bring a staff forward. There would be one for each ancestral tribe, twelve staffs from all the leaders of their tribes (17:2). Each tribal leader’s name was then written on his staff, with Aaron’s name on Levi’s staff (17:3). Then all the staffs were placed in the tabernacle in front of the testimony (17:4). The wooden staff of God’s chosen priest would supernaturally sprout (17:5).
17:6-11 Moses did as instructed. When he entered the tabernacle the next day, Aaron’s staff . . . had sprouted, formed buds, blossomed, and produced almonds (17:8). God told Moses to put the rod back in the tabernacle (see Heb 9:4) as a sign and a warning to the rebels to think twice before they challenged God’s leaders again—lest they die (17:10).
17:12-13 It seems that the people finally got the point. They were so afraid to approach God after this incident that they wailed to Moses: We’re all lost! . . . Anyone who comes near the Lord’s tabernacle will die. Will we all perish? (17:12-13). It’s interesting that we get no mention of Moses trying to soothe their fears. He was probably glad to see the fear of God finally grip their hearts.
18:1 The instructions of this chapter serve as an appropriate follow-up to the sin and judgment of chapter 16. The opening verse was a solemn reminder to Aaron, his sons and his ancestral family that they carried an awesome responsibility as priests, because they would be responsible for iniquity against the sanctuary and iniquity involving the priesthood. To carry out their duties in any way other than the prescribed manner would invite God’s wrath and the penalty of death.
18:2-7 But the Lord reminded Aaron that he had graciously given the Levites to the priests so that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by their duties. The Levites were responsible for caring for and transporting the tabernacle and all its furnishings (18:2-3; see 4:1-33). The Levites were God’s gift to the priests, while the priesthood itself was his gift to Aaron and his descendants (18:6-7).
18:8-20 The Old Testament priesthood was a full-time ministry, so God provided for Aaron and his sons to be supported from the contributions . . . all the holy offerings of the Israelites (18:8). Since their daily labor revolved around the tabernacle, the priests and their families were to receive provision for daily life through the offerings made by their fellow Israelites. This included portions of the meat from the sin . . . guilt and presentation offerings, as well as all the best of the fresh oil, new wine, and grain, which the Israelites give to the Lord as their firstfruits (18:9-12). Everything in Israel . . . permanently dedicated to the Lord belonged to them (18:14). They were to receive no inheritance of land, for the Lord was their portion (18:20).
In the New Testament era, Paul recognized a ministry principle here that applies today. Ministers of the gospel have a legitimate right to make a living from their work on behalf of the gospel—even though Paul, a tentmaker by trade, had declined to use that right himself. He said to the Corinthians, “Don’t you know that those who perform the temple services eat the food from the temple? . . . In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should earn their living by the gospel” (1 Cor 9:13-14).
18:21-31 The Levites were also provided for from the Israelites’ offerings (18:21-30). God set aside a tenth of the Israelites’ offerings for the Levites to live on, since they also would not receive an inheritance among the Israelites (18:21, 23). But unlike the priests, the Levites had to tithe back to God on their tithe from the people as an offering to the Lord—a tenth of the tenth (18:26). And because it was a consecrated offering to God, it was to be the best part of the tenth (18:29). Once that was done, the Levites could eat of their offerings as their wage in return for [their] work at the tent of meeting (18:30-31).
19:1-2 There were many things in the life of the Israelites that had religious symbolism, and death was high on the list. It brought to mind the pervasiveness of sin and its corruption. That’s why provision had to be made to cleanse the camp from the contamination that resulted from contact with a human corpse. This entire chapter is devoted to the rituals for cleansing the unclean person and even the priest who officiated at his cleansing ceremony. The priest’s ritual uncleanness is just one element that made everything about this ceremony of the red cow sacrifice (19:2) different than any other sacrifice God prescribed.
19:3-8 The cow was brought outside the camp and slaughtered; notice this did not happen at the altar (19:3). And instead of its parts being separated, the sacrifice was burned intact, along with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson yarn (19:5-6). The priest then had to wash his clothes and bathe his body in water before he could re-enter the camp, but even then he was ceremonially unclean until evening, and the one who burned the cow had to do the same thing and also remain unclean until evening (19:7-8). Every step of this cleansing ritual underscored that death is the ultimate symbol of sin; it cannot remain in God’s presence. It must, by God’s prescription, be washed away.
19:9-10 The elaborate process continued. Someone who was clean was sent to gather up the cow’s ashes and deposit them outside the camp in a ceremonially clean place, where they were stored until they would be mixed with water to remove impurity (19:9). Then the one who did this had to go through the same ritual and evening of uncleanness as the priest and the person who burned the cow (19:10).
19:11-13 These procedures were necessary to cleanse anyone who came into contact with a human corpse, whatever the reason. That person would be unclean for seven days (19:11). He was instructed to wash on the third day and the seventh day to be clean again (19:12). And to remind Moses, Aaron, and the entire congregation that these were not just ceremonial regulations with little spiritual ramification, God commanded that anyone who touched a corpse and failed to purify himself would defile the tabernacle. That person was to be cut off from Israel (19:13).
19:14-18 The practicality of these rules can be seen in the case of someone who died in a tent or came upon a dead body in the open field (19:14, 16), two places where a nomadic group would spend their time. Some of the ashes of the red cow that had been stored were put . . . in a jar with fresh water added to them (19:17). A person who was clean would take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle every item of furniture and everyone in the tent where someone had died, along with anyone who had touched any part of a corpse in the open field (19:18).
19:19-22 After the sprinkling, the person was to wash his clothes and bathe in water, and he [would] be clean by evening (19:19). The chapter closes with a timeless spiritual principle that we need to take to heart today: Anything the unclean person touches will become unclean, and anyone who touches it will be unclean (19:22). In other words, sin that isn’t dealt with contaminates that which is holy; this is a principle to remember.
20:1 There’s no indication of it in this verse, but the first month referred to here is actually in the fortieth year of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. This means the sentence God pronounced on Moses’s generation had been served. We can date this confidently because Numbers 33:38 says Aaron died in that fortieth year, and his death is recorded in 20:22-27.
God had said no one from that generation, save the two faithful spies Joshua and Caleb, would enter Canaan. Sadly, that would include Aaron, Miriam, and even Moses. The nation was back in Kadesh where they had rebelled against the Lord and refused to take the promised land. Miriam died and was buried there.
Interestingly, we don’t know what happened between the second and fortieth year of Israel’s wandering. Those years aren’t discussed in Scripture.
20:2-13 What we do know is that, unfortunately, the nation’s tendency to grumble hadn’t changed much during the nearly four decades preceding this written entry. And once again, when there was no water for the community, . . . they assembled against Moses and Aaron (20:2). The people’s complaint was the same as before. They said in effect, “Why have you brought us out here to die?” (20:3-5). So Aaron and Moses took this concern to the Lord (20:6). In response, God commanded Moses to take his staff, gather the people, and speak to the rock (20:8). But at this point, Moses lost his temper. It doesn’t appear that his anger was directed at God, the faithful Provider. He was frustrated with the people and said, Must we bring water out of this rock for you? (20:10). Then he raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff (20:11).
Don’t miss what might at first seem to be only a minor breach of obedience here. Moses totally failed to obey the Lord, striking the rock instead of speaking to it. And equally jarring are his words. He publicly attributed to his own efforts the authority that should have belonged to God alone. The result would be disastrous for God’s servant. Particularly because of his high spiritual position, the consequences of his sin would be grave indeed.
The people got their requested refreshment (20:11), but Moses and Aaron lost their opportunity to enter the promised land. God’s indictment and sentence must have been painful to hear. He said, Because you did not trust me to demonstrate my holiness in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly into the land I have given them (20:12). The failure of Moses and Aaron to honor the Lord in word and deed meant that they, like the rest of the assembly, would die before the younger generation could possess the land they’d heard such good things about. This judgment once again directed attention to the Lord’s holiness, which the pair had failed to honor. The scene closes with another place along the Israelites’ travel route being named because of Israel’s sin: the Waters of Meribah means “the Waters of Quarreling” (20:13).
20:14-17 In spite of his failure, Moses would remain Israel’s leader for the rest of his life, and he knew the nation needed to press on toward Canaan. Moses hoped for passage through the land of Edom. He sent an appeal to Edom’s king, essentially signing the spoken query with the name “your brother Israel” (20:14), since the Edomites were the descendants of Israelite patriarch Jacob’s (that is, Israel’s) brother Esau. The two people groups shared common ancestors in Abraham and Isaac. Moses rehearsed the story of Israel from the captivity in Egypt all the way down to the present day (20:15-16). He then humbly asked for permission to go through Edom, promising not to leave the path or even touch any of the Edomites’ food or water (20:17).
20:18-21 In spite of Moses’s entreaty, the Edomite king turned Moses down cold, even threatening military action if Israel entered his land (20:18). Moses pled with the ruler again, this time offering to pay for any water the millions of people or animals in his company drank while passing through, but the king said no again. Worse, he came out with such a large army to underscore his refusal that the Israelites had no choice but to turn away (20:19-21). (So much for that plea to brotherhood Moses had been counting on.)
20:22-29 The next event of import occurred at Mount Hor on the border of the land of Edom (20:23). Aaron and Moses heard Aaron’s own death announcement from the Lord. He was to die because both he and Moses rebelled against [God’s] command at the Waters of Meribah (20:24). It must have been hard for Aaron’s son Eleazar to take part in Aaron’s burial preparations even before he had died, but that was God’s command (20:25-26). The entire nation, in fact, watched as Aaron’s priestly garments were removed and put on Eleazar (20:28). Then when Aaron died, Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, and the entire house of Israel mourned . . . thirty days (20:28-29). The first generation out of Egypt was rapidly coming to an end: Aaron and Miriam were both gone. Only Moses remained.
21:1-3 The next challenge on the journey was from the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, the desert region in the south of what is now called Israel. Instead of letting the Israelites pass, he attacked them and captured some prisoners (21:1). Israel, understandably piqued, pledged to completely destroy their attacker’s cities if God gave them victory over this people (21:2). So God made Israel victorious, and they named the place Hormah, “Destruction,” to commemorate it (21:3).
21:4-6 Moses saw that he could not deliver the people to the edge of the promised land by going straight up from the south after what had happened with Arad and with Edom. So he set out on a longer route, skirting around Edom to the east (21:4). But this arduous journey (unsurprisingly) frustrated the Israelites, who resorted to their favorite complaint against God and Moses: Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? (21:5). Now, the Lord had mercifully preserved them in the wilderness for forty years. To assume the worst of him at this point was scandalous. So, since they were determined to complain about dying, God gave them something to actually complain about. He sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died (21:6).
21:7-9 When the people confessed their sin, Moses interceded for them (21:7). The Lord told him to make a snake image and mount it on a pole so that anyone who had been bitten could look at it and recover (21:8). Moses obeyed, and thus anyone who looked at the bronze snake in faith that God would heal them as promised recovered (21:9). Much later in history, Jesus compared the lifting up of the bronze snake to his being lifted up on the cross as an antidote for the world’s sin problem. It’s a wonderful illustration of the necessity of looking to the Lord in faith to be saved (see John 3:14-15).
21:10-20 These verses include a listing of places along the Israelites’ journey. Beer means “well”; it was there where God told Moses to dig a well (21:16). Given the constant lack of water along the way, the people must have found it a joyous moment to have an ongoing water source at their disposal. They were so happy they sang a song (21:17-18). Then Israel came to the Pisgah highlands that overlook the wasteland (21:20). The name “Pisgah” would later have great importance as the place where God would take Moses to view the promised land before his death (see Deut 34:1).
21:21-23 Before long, two more formidable enemies stood in Israel’s way, beginning with King Sihon of the Amorites (21:21). As Moses had done with the Edomites (20:14-21), Israel asked for permission to travel through Sihon’s land rather than just setting out across it, vowing not to take anything from his fields or vineyards or drinking any well water (21:22). But, just like Edom’s king, Sihon refused and gathered his whole army and fought against Israel (21:23). This was a foolish move.
21:24-32 When attacked, Israel didn’t turn away and go quietly. Israel struck Sihon and took possession of his land from the Arnon River to the Jabbok River (21:24). They even took the city of King Sihon (21:26). Don’t miss the poem here. It is an ancient Amorite poem of Sihon’s conquest of the Moabites (21:21-30). It’s included because what Sihon had taken from Moab, Israel wrenched away from Sihon (21:31). (Talk about poetic justice.)
21:33-35 The other king Israel had to confront was King Og of Bashan, who also came out against [Israel] with his whole army (21:33). Og was another Amorite king who presented no threat to Israel because the Lord had already given him and his land into Israel’s hands. Og’s defeat was a foregone conclusion before he even put on his armor. After the battle, Israel also took possession of his land (21:35).