II. Israel on the Journey to the Promised Land (Numbers 10:11–21:35)


II. Israel on the Journey to the Promised Land (10:11–21:35)

A. Traveling from Sinai to Kadesh (10:11–15:41)

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.

10:14-17 The order of their march followed the earlier organization (2:3-31), with the tribe of Judah leading the way, followed by the tribes of Issachar and Zebulun. With the east side of the camp now open to accommodate the Israelites’ further movement, the tabernacle was then taken down, and the Gershonites and the Merarites set out, transporting the tabernacle (10:17).

10:18-21 The second of the four divisions (10:18) of Israel’s tribes then marched out with its three tribes—Reuben, Simeon, and Gad—followed by the Levite clan of the Kohathites, who were transporting the holy objects; the tabernacle was to be set up before their arrival. Thus, when the ark of the covenant, the altars, and the holy utensils used in worship arrived at the stopping point, the tabernacle would already be ready to house these holy objects.

10:22-28 With all three of the Levite clans on their way with the tabernacle and its furnishings, the final two divisions of the tribes were ready to march. The tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin set out (10:22-24). Then the final tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali brought up the rear, serving as the rear guard (10:25-28). Moses summarized what must have been an awe-inspiring sight: This was the order of march for the Israelites by their military divisions (10:28).

10:29-32 Moses invited Hobab, his relative by marriage, to come with the Israelites on their journey and to share in their blessings (10:29). To Moses’s disappointment, Hobab preferred to return to his home (10:30). Nevertheless, Moses urged him to come since Hobab knew the region and Moses was hoping to draw on his knowledge for the best routes through a harsh and dangerous land (10:31-32).

10:33-34 The Israelites thus began a three-day journey with the ark of the Lord’s covenant traveling ahead of them . . . to seek a resting place for them (10:33). The presence of the ark must have been a tremendous comfort to Moses and all Israel, for it was to serve as the Lord’s throne among his people; he dwelled above it, between its decorative cherubim (see 1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; Ps 80:1; 99:1; Is 37:16). Moreover, the Lord showed his presence and guidance through the cloud that was over them by day when they set out from the camp (10:34).

10:35 Whenever the ark set out, Moses would raise what was essentially a war cry calling on the Lord to scatter his enemies and cause those who hated him to flee from his presence. These words were a reminder to the people of Israel that war laid ahead. They would eventually encounter hostile forces that despised the Lord and, therefore, despised his people. I see here another reminder for Christians: we should not expect acceptance from a world that rejects God. Jesus articulated this to his disciples: “If the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18).

10:36 When the ark came to rest, Moses called to God to return . . . to the countless thousands of Israel, essentially making a request for his comforting presence and protection over the people.

11:1-3 Sadly, it didn’t take long for the Israelites to forget God’s miraculous deliverance and merciful covenant and start complaining openly . . . about hardship. They didn’t even bother pretending to hide their gripes from him. As a result, God’s anger burned. He became, literally, as mad as a fire is hot. In fact, he sent fire that blazed among them and consumed the outskirts of the camp (11:1). Once again, Moses interceded for his wayward Israelite brothers, praying for grace from their holy God. And so, the fire died down (11:2). They named the place Taberah, which means, “Blaze” (11:3). (This wouldn’t be the last time that a location was named as a result of Israel’s rebelliousness.)

11:4-9 The fire had hardly burned out when the riffraff among them began complaining about their craving for other food (11:4). God had graciously and supernaturally provided manna —bread from heaven—for them (11:7-9). But these complainers no longer had an appetite for it and couldn’t stand to even look at it (11:6). They were tired of the Lord’s menu. Shockingly, they preferred the free fish . . . cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic they had back in Egypt (11:5).

11:10-15 Family after family was weeping like children whining about what they had to eat for dinner. So God was very angry, and Moses was provoked (11:10). Moses’s prayer here shows his tremendous frustration with the people at this point in the journey (11:11-15). He basically said, “Lord, what did I do to make you so mad at me that you loaded me down with this nation of gripers and crybabies?” The people wanted meat, but Moses couldn’t give it to them (11:12-13). If dealing with this rabble was to be his lot in life, in fact, Moses no longer wanted the job. He preferred that the Lord simply kill him (11:15).

This brings us to an important aside. Moses wouldn’t be the last ministry leader to be overwhelmed by the spiritual immaturity of those under his care. But he had forgotten one thing: shepherding Israel was God’s project, not his. Those who lead and feed God’s people are under-shepherds; the chief Shepherd is the One who’s really in charge (see 1 Pet 5:1-4). And not only is he able to supply his under-shepherds with the resources they need to do the work he has called them to do, but he will reward them for their faithfulness.

11:16-17 Once again, God responded to Moses with grace and mercy. He neither killed Moses (as requested) nor relieved him of leadership. Instead, he did something far better: he provided Moses with help by appointing seventy . . . elders and officers to share the leadership load (11:16). They needed to be competent and trustworthy men, but they also needed something even more impor-tant: the Holy Spirit. God said he would take some of the Spirit who was on Moses and put the Spirit on the seventy elders, so that they would be fully equipped to help him bear the burden of the people (11:17).

11:18-20 God also took action to deal with those who clamored for meat to eat—but not in the way they would have liked. He told them to consecrate themselves in readi-ness for the next day. They had complained, “Who will feed us meat? We were better off in Egypt” (11:18). In response, the Lord was going to give it to them. He intended to feed them meat for a whole month until it was coming out of their nostrils; it would literally make them ill. Why? Because they had rejected the Lord (11:20). Notice, however, that the Israelites never claimed that they were rejecting the Lord. Rather, they complained about God’s provision. That’s rejecting the Lord.

11:21-23 Moses was so frustrated at this point that even he doubted God’s ability to provide a source of meat for so many for so long. Moses was tired, exasperated, and at the end of his rope (11:21-22). His attitude was essentially this: “Lord, these people are such a mess I don’t even think you can do anything for them!” But God rebuked his prophet in no uncertain terms. The all-powerful Creator is not weak. If he promised it, he will do it (11:23).

11:24-30 Moses carried out the consecration service for the seventy elders whom God told him to select (11:24). As God promised, He took some of the Spirit that was on Moses and placed the Spirit on the seventy elders. These men prophesied, but only on this occasion (11:25). Then Joshua learned that two other men—who had remained in the camp—were prophesying. He reported this to Moses and urged him to stop them (11:26-28). But Moses responded by asking a question and shifting his focus. He said, Are you jealous on my account? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets and the Lord would place his Spirit on them! (11:29).

Joshua had sought to protect Moses from any challenge to his leadership. But Moses demonstrated why God’s Word calls him, “a very humble man” (12:3). God provided an answer to Moses’s ministry leadership problem, and he didn’t miss it. Rather than seeing the men as somehow stealing his glory, Moses saw them as God’s blessing intended to bring more glory to God. The more people who know, obey, and teach God’s Word, the more the church is edified and God is glorified.

11:31-35 As promised (11:18-20), God’s meat delivery service rolled up to the camp right on time. Quail started showing up in droves (11:31). The people were up all that day and night and all the next day gathering the birds (11:32). (It was grilling time!) Yet while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the Lord’s anger burned against the people, and the Lord struck them with a very severe plague (11:33). God was still providing for his people. But he also brought down his judgment on those who had craved meat and whined about what they felt was a lousy menu (11:34; see 11:4-6). The ingrates had craved their way to the grave, so the survivors called the place Kibroth-hattaavah, which means “Graves of Craving” (11:34).

12:1 Unfortunately, the criticisms of Moses didn’t end with the deaths of the cravers. Things really got ugly when Miriam and Aaron, his older siblings, criticized Moses because of the Cushite woman he married. Likely this challenge to his legitimate authority was prompted by his marriage to a woman from a region called Cush, which today is Ethiopia. This means the woman that this Jewish forefather married was of African descent; she was a descendant of Noah’s son Ham, through Cush (see Gen 10:6). God soundly rejected Miriam and Aaron’s reproof by bringing upon Miriam a leprous state, which lasted for seven days to serve as a reminder of her sin. There is no place for racial hatred and division among God’s people (Num 12:9-15).

Moses’s wife, like her husband, had embraced faith in the One True God (see commentary on Exod 4:24-26). The couple serves as a reminder to us that when it comes to entering the marriage covenant, Christians are to marry “in the Lord”—that is, we are to marry others who share the same faith in God through Jesus Christ that we do (see 1 Cor 7:39). Marriage is to be faith-based—not race-based.

12:2 Apparently Moses had entered what some today would call an interracial marriage, and Miriam and Aaron didn’t like it. Maybe they were jealous that their baby brother had been appointed leader of Israel over them. Perhaps they wanted more influential leadership roles. Regardless of what motivated their attack, they used his marriage as an illegitimate means to challenge his authority. They found his wife’s ethnic origin to be unacceptable.

12:3-8 The Lord heard what the sister and brother had said about Moses—the man whom God claimed was more humble than anyone on the face of the earth (12:3). So he called all three of them to meet him at the tent of meeting (12:4). This event was a rough equivalent to what people used to call “a trip to the woodshed.” Somebody was in trouble. When the siblings arrived, God told Aaron and Miriam to step out front and center so he could brag on Moses (12:4-8).

The thing that distinguished Moses in his leadership was his ability and willingness to submit himself to the will of God. In a word, Moses was faithful. Therefore, the Lord had great confidence in his servant (12:7) and granted him an intimate relationship (12:8). God spoke with Moses face to face. Jesus promised that those who are faithful in history with the responsibilities God has given them will one day hear their Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things” (Matt 25:21).

12:9-10 Given God’s high opinion of Moses, combined with Miriam and Aaron’s criticism of their brother, God was understandably angry with his prophet’s persecutors (12:9). His punishment was swift. Since Miriam was the leader of the rebellion—a fact which we can assume because she was named first in the passage, which would not have been the natural order; see 12:1), her skin suddenly became diseased—white as snow (12:10). Don’t miss the appropriateness of the punishment. Miriam had condemned Moses because of the color of his wife’s skin. The penalty fit her crime.

12:11-16 Aaron pled with Moses for Miriam’s healing, and Moses pled with God, who answered his prayer (12:10-14). After seven days of exile from the camp, Miriam returned (12:15). But an important lesson had been driven home.

This lesson remains important in our own divided culture. Racism in any form is a sin, whether it is based on ethnic origin or the color of one’s skin. To judge people on the basis of so-called race is to reject the truth that all human beings are created in God’s image. We are all descendants of Adam and Eve.

The cross of Jesus Christ is the answer to hate rooted in perceived differences. The atoning death of Christ tears down the illegitimate divisions that separate humanity. This doesn’t mean that the gospel obliterates distinctions like race and ethnicity. Rather, it means that the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit enable us as believers—no matter where we come from or what we look like—to embrace differences because we share a common commitment to God. Because we have peace with God through Christ, we can have peace with one another and become a part of a whole new race made up of members from every tribe, language, and nation. I’m talking about heaven’s new community, the church (see Eph 2:11-17).

13:1-16 Numbers 13 and 14 are two pivotal chapters in the history of God’s people. They also provide modern believers with a profound illustration of the consequences of unbelief. In 1 Corinthians 10:6-10, the apostle Paul warned the Corinthians to consider the unfaithfulness of the wilderness generation of Israelites and exhorted them, “These things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our instruction.” And the same can be said for other Old Testament books. They are not mere history books; they are historically true spiritual instruction manuals for God’s people in all times and places. By reading and heeding them, we can avert God’s judgment and enjoy his blessings.

Now that Israel was on the edge of the promised land, God instructed Moses to send men to scout out the land of Canaan [he was] giving to the Israelites. Moses was to send one man . . . from each of their ancestral tribes (13:2). These twelve scouts or spies (13:4-15) included Caleb and Hoshea, who would become two great heroes in Israel’s history (16:6, 8). Bible readers know Hoshea better as Joshua (13:16); he would one day fight the battle of Jericho and succeed Moses to lead Israel.

Interestingly, Joshua hailed from the tribe that descended from Ephraim, one of two sons of Joseph and his Egyptian wife (13:8; see Gen 41:50-52). The people of Egypt were descended from Noah’s son Ham and his grandson Mizraim. This means the Egyptians were a Hamitic, and thus an African people (see commentary on Gen 9:18-29). Caleb was the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite (13:6; see Josh 14:6); the Kenizzites were a part of the Canaanite tribes and also descendants of Ham. Moreover, Caleb also came from the tribe of Judah. Judah, the progenitor of the tribe, fathered twin sons by Tamar, who was a Hamitic descendent (see Gen 38). Thus, Hamitic (that is, dark-skinned) peoples were crucial to the program of God throughout Old Testament history.

13:17-27 Moses’s instructions to the scouts contained a number of questions he wanted answered (13:17-20). What was the condition of the land? What were the inhabitants like? How fortified were their cities? The spies did their recon work and brought back the answers, both verbally and visually, supplying a single cluster of grapes, along with some pomegranates and figs harvested during the forty days they were gone (13:23-25). They reported that the land was awesome, figuratively flowing with milk and honey (13:27)—just as God had promised (see Exod 3:8, 17).

13:28-33 Nevertheless, all was not well. Though Caleb and Joshua were confident that God could deliver them the land (13:30; 14:6-9, 24, 30, 38), the other ten scouts caved in to fear (13:28-29). After seeing the size of Canaan’s tall inhabitants and towering, walled cities (13:28-29), they gave a negative report to the Israelites and declared, We can’t attack . . . because they are stronger than we are (13:31-32). In spite of Caleb’s attempt to quiet the crowd and rally them in favor of taking the land (13:30), the other scouts planted a defeatist mentality in the people’s minds (13:33).

It’s interesting that when Moses retold the story forty years later, he provided additional information on this scene that we don’t have in Numbers. He said to the Israelites, “Then all of you approached me and said, ‘Let’s send men ahead of us, so that they may explore the land for us and bring us back a report about the route we should go up and the cities we will come to.’ The plan seemed good to me, so I selected twelve men from among you, one man for each tribe” (Deut 1:22-23). In other words, this was Israel’s idea, which the Lord obviously endorsed (see Num 13:1). This also tells us that initially the Israelites weren’t afraid to enter the land; they only wanted to know which way to go and how to deal with the enemies they would encounter. It was only after the scouts, their “brave” leaders, wimped out on them that the people wanted to turn tail and cower in the desert. This is why God dealt with these ten men so severely (see 14:37).

14:1-2 Once the ten scouts gave a fearful report about the land, the negative thinking multiplied rapidly. The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night (14:1). But these were illegitimate and completely unwarranted tears, because they were crying due to unbelief. These wailing people don’t deserve our sympathy. The Israelites were crying because of their refusal to move forward in the will of God. They literally preferred death in the land of slavery or death in the wilderness to trusting in God’s promises (14:2).

14:3-4 The people sealed their doom by going so far as to accuse God of dragging them out of their comfortable slavery to let them die in the desert (14:3). They cried out, Let’s appoint a leader and go back to Egypt (14:4). In other words, they had rejected God’s deliverance, God’s leader, and God’s provision. They were cutting themselves off from their only legitimate source.

14:5-10 Moses and Aaron, as well as Joshua and Caleb, tried to stop the madness (14:5-6). The latter two even made an impassioned plea for the Israelites to forget their rebellion and take the promised land God had given them (14:7-8). Though Canaan’s inhabitants looked impressive, the Lord had removed their protection (14:9). The God who had rained down plagues on the Egyptians and destroyed Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea was the same God who would lead the Israelites to victory over the Canaanites. But even as they spoke, the whole community threatened to stone them. They were actually ready to put God’s leaders to death! That’s when the glory of the Lord appeared to all the Israelites (14:10). God had had enough of the nonsense.

14:11-16 Once again, God threatened judgment on Israel for their rebellion. As he had done before (see Exod 32:7-10), God vowed to destroy them and make Moses into an even mightier nation (14:11-12). But, as before, Moses interceded for the people. He didn’t try to excuse Israel’s sin, though. Instead, Moses prayed for God to spare them so that he might preserve the glory of his great fame among the nations (14:13-16).

14:17-19 The Lord had previously displayed his glory to Moses and declared the essence of his character (see Exod 34:5-7). Here Moses quoted the Lord’s own words back to him: The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in faithful love, forgiving iniquity and rebellion. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished (14:18). Pointing to the truth of God’s character, Moses pleaded with him to pardon them in keeping with the greatness of [his] faithful love (14:19).

I find it helpful to remember that Moses was a human being just like the rest of us. If you wonder why his prayers were answered while yours often are not, you may need to look no further than your desires (that is, what you pray for) and your motives (why you pray). Moses prayed for things consistent with God’s character; he was deeply concerned that God be glorified. We are wise to follow his example.

14:20-25 God’s Word affirms that “the prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect” (Jas 5:16). We see that in action here as once more, God responded positively to the great intercessory prayer of Moses and pardoned Israel (14:20). He would not forsake the nation. Nevertheless, he swore that he would “not leave the guilty unpunished,” which is a move consistent with his character (14:18): None of the men who have seen my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tested me these ten times and did not obey me, will ever see the land, God said (14:22-23). Because of their loyalty to God, Caleb and Joshua were exceptions to this (14:24; see 13:30; 14:6-9, 30, 38). But the rest of the Israelites were sentenced to die in the wilderness without ever entering the promised land.

14:26-38 God’s verdict provides a beautiful example of poetic justice. In reality, the Israelites had sentenced themselves. In their complaining, they had lamented, “If only we had died in this wilderness!” (14:2). So God said, “You want to perish in this desert you’re wandering in? You got it” (14:28-29). And to make sure they wouldn’t fail to remember their part in their own demise, the length of time they and their children would still have to wander in the wilderness before that first generation had died off was determined by the length of time the rebels had spent scouting out the land. God said, You will bear the consequences of your iniquities forty years based on the number of the forty days that you scouted the land, a year for each day (14:34).

The ten faithless scouts who spread the negative report didn’t even last that long. They were struck down by the Lord (14:37). Only Joshua . . . and Caleb . . . remained (14:38).

14:39-43 Once Moses read God’s sentence to the people, their response was typical of those who get caught doing wrong and are suddenly “repentant,” wanting everything to go back to the way it was before judgment fell, essentially trying to carry on with life as if nothing had happened (14:39-40). They were like children who realized they were in trouble and were now ready to obey to avoid punishment: “Okay, okay. We’ll do what you asked us to do. Just don’t ground us!” They vowed to attack the inhabitants of the land (14:40). But Moses warned them: Don’t go, because the Lord is not among you (14:42). This brings up an important principle: Just as you can’t be defeated with the Lord at your side, you can’t be victorious without him.

14:44-45 Regardless of the warning, the people dared to enter the land, even though the ark . . . and Moses were not with them (14:44). They had become too spiritually dull to understand the foolishness of such an action. And as a result, the Amalekites and Canaanites thrashed them (14:45).

15:1-16 Once again, God proved gracious to his people in spite of themselves. Though the Israelite generation that had left Egypt would not enter the promised land, their children would. So God provided instructions about making offerings to those who would enter the land that he was giving them (15:2). The offerings described in 15:3-16 were not for sin or guilt, but were to be presented as voluntary sacrifices of praise, thanksgiving, and fellowship. They were designed to show the Lord how much the people valued his covenant faithfulness. Whether it was a burnt offering or a sacrifice, to fulfill a vow, or as a freewill offering, or at [their] appointed festivals (15:3), these offerings of grain and animals were to be presented precisely as described (15:4-16), so that they would produce a pleasing aroma for the Lord (15:3).

15:17-21 The next set of regulations had to do with planting crops and enjoying harvests in the promised land. This was the principle of the firstfruits: offer a contribution to the Lord when you eat from the food of the land (15:19). In this case, the offering was a loaf from your first batch of dough as a lasting ordinance throughout Israel’s generations (15:20-21).

15:22-31 Next came the regulations for sin offerings covering disobedience to God’s commands done unintentionally (15:22-29). These seem to be sins of omission that the entire community could be guilty of without even being aware of it, which nevertheless required atonement so that the people might be forgiven (15:24-25). Except for offering a goat instead of a bull as a sin offering, an individual who sinned unintentionally followed the same procedure to receive forgiveness as the willful sinner did (15:27-28). The importance of the unintentional nature of sin that God would forgive was driven home by the repetition of this word in various forms seven times in these verses. In stark contrast, anyone who sins defiantly . . . blasphemes the Lord. Such a person is to be cut off from his people. His guilt remains (15:30-31).

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.

B. God’s Discipline of the People (16:1–20:13)

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).

C. Traveling from Kadesh to Moab (20:14–21:35)

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).