III. Israel on the Edge of the Promised Land (Numbers 22:1–36:13)
III. Israel on the Edge of the Promised Land (22:1–36:13)
A. God’s Faithfulness and Israel’s Unfaithfulness (22:1–25:18)
22:1 Finally, the Israelites arrived near the Jordan River across from the city of Jericho. This is where the book of Deuteronomy opens, as well as the book of Joshua. But the next several chapters of Numbers follow the actions of two men named Balak and Balaam rather than covering the more famous events that were to come.
22:2-6 Balak son of Zippor was Moab’s king (22:4). He had seen what happened to the Amorites, and his people were terrified of the Israelites (22:2-3). Therefore, the king decided to hire Balaam son of Beor to come and curse the people of Israel, so that Moab could defeat them (22:6). Balaam was essentially a prophet-for-hire in an area where the false god Baal was worshiped. So Balak sent messengers to Balaam with a request: Please come and put a curse on these people. . . . I know that those you bless are blessed and those you curse are cursed (22:5-6).
Apparently, Balaam had a reputation for getting results through the words he spoke. But the Lord’s reputation is flawless: if he says something will happen, it will happen. This is important to understanding what happened next because God had promised Abraham many years before that he would, “make [him] into a great nation. . . . [He would] bless those who bless [Abraham], and curse anyone who treats [Abraham] with contempt” (Gen 12:2-3). These promises would extend to the Israelites, Abraham’s blood descendants. Balak’s plan, then, was failed from the start. If God is determined to bless you, no one’s words to the contrary can overrule him.
22:7-12 Balak sent elders of Moab and Midian to Balaam with fees for divination in hand (22:7). It’s interesting that although Balaam practiced God-forbidden forms of sorcery, he refused to go with these men until he had received an answer from the Lord about it (22:8). The implication seems to be that he intended to do whatever God told him to do, no matter how good the money was—which is exactly what he did at each point in the story. So that night God graciously condescended to appear to this sorcerer, who generally was not committed to living in a manner pleasing to him (see Rev 2:14), and asked, Who are these men with you? (22:9). Balaam relayed what he had been asked to do to Israel, and God warned him not to curse his people whom he had blessed (22:10-12).
22:13-20 Balaam obeyed and sent his guests away empty-handed, but Balak wouldn’t take no for an answer. He sent officials again who were more numerous and higher in rank than the others, with the promise of even greater reward if Balaam would put a curse on Israel as asked (22:15-17). But Balaam was still hesitant until he consulted with God again and was told to go with them—not to curse Israel, but to do what God told him (22:18-20).
22:21-22 It was while Balaam was on his way to meet Balak that the prophet and his donkey encountered God, who was so incensed that Balaam was going to Moab that he appeared in the road as the angel of the Lord . . . to oppose him (22:21-22). We get insight into what motivated this surprising reaction in 2 Peter 2:15. It says, “Balaam . . . loved the wages of wickedness.” So it seems that, even though Balaam claimed to follow the Lord’s instructions and even did when it suited him, he really was a mercenary prophet at heart. Though God had given Balaam permission to go with the elders from Moab, God knew that he cared nothing for Israel and that out of greedy motivation the man was prepared to curse Israel for the reward—despite God’s instructions.
22:23-30 This duplicity within the prophet led to the curious and humorous scene between an animal with keen spiritual sense and a human being who was as dumb as a rock spiritually. Balaam’s donkey saw the angel . . . standing on the path with a drawn sword in his hand and was rightly scared off the road. Balaam, eager to get to his payday, hit her to return her to the path (22:23). After this situation repeated itself twice, God—unexpectedly and supernaturally—opened the donkey’s mouth. She asked, What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times? (22:28). Don’t miss that what follows is a conversation between a faithful donkey and an unfaithful prophet (22:29-30).
22:31-35 Finally, God opened Balaam’s eyes to see the angel of the Lord who was blocking his path (22:31). As Balaam lay facedown in worship, the Lord explained to the prophet that his “dumb” donkey had saved his life (22:31-33). Chagrined, Balaam started getting his thinking straight and offered to turn around and go home (22:34). But God had determined to display his glory to the Moabites and Midianites and to bless his people through Balaam. So he told him to go with the men, but to say only what God told him to say (22:35).
22:36-41 Balak had been waiting a while for Balaam to show up. He was shaking in his sandals at the sight of the Israelite horde camped in the desert at the edge of his land, ready to devour his culture like a swarm of locusts descending on a barley crop. So he was a little edgy when Balaam finally arrived (22:36-37). Balaam, however, wasn’t ruffled by Balak’s irritation. He even warned him that he was only going to say what God put in his mouth (22:38). Balak ignored this, offered a sacrifice to his false god Baal, and hustled Balaam to a place called Bamoth-baal, “the High Places of Baal,” (22:40-41). Thus, Balak was calling on an idol to curse Israel and expected Balaam to serve as his spiritual megaphone.
23:1-3 Once they arrived, Balaam told Balak to build . . . seven altars . . . and prepare seven bulls and seven rams (23:1). And when this was done, they offered the sacrifices (23:2). Then Balaam told Balak to stay behind while he went to a barren hill to seek the message that the Lord might have him deliver (23:3). Now, this is amazing! Repeatedly Balaam pointed out that he could do nothing without the approval of God—Creator God whom the Israelites worshiped—and yet Balak never objected or complained, “What are you doing consulting with the God of the Israelites? They’re the enemies I’m paying you to curse!” Clearly he put little stock in the Lord’s say in the matter.
23:4-10 God did meet with Balaam, essentially putting a message in his mouth for Balak, who was standing there by his burnt offering with all the officials of Moab (23:4-6) waiting for the prophet to return. Then Balaam delivered the first of his four poetic messages, or oracles, of blessing on Israel. First, he rehearsed why he was there: he’d been summoned to denounce Israel (23:7). Yet he asked how anyone could curse someone God has not cursed and denounce someone the Lord has not denounced (23:7-8). Then he considered Israel’s vast numbers, a fact that was likely common knowledge, and said that even to be identified with Israel in death was a blessing (23:10).
23:11-12 Clearly, this was not what Balak had in mind when he hired Balaam to curse his enemy! He was stunned to hear what was coming out of the man’s mouth and felt betrayed. He said, I brought you to curse my enemies, but look, you have only blessed them! (23:11). To this Balaam could only reply, Shouldn’t I say exactly what the Lord puts in my mouth? (23:12). Now, that should have been the end of Balak’s bad idea, the point at which he let the matter go. But he wasn’t ready to give up. Surely the money he had promised the prophet would eventually coax him to do as requested.
23:13-17 Balak thought a change of scenery would do Balaam some good (23:13). So the Moabite king took the sorcerer to Lookout Field on top of [Mount] Pisgah, where Balak once more built seven altars, and offered a bull and a ram on each in hopes of influencing his god to curse Israel (23:14). Once again, Balaam went off alone to seek the Lord, who again put a message in his mouth (23:15-16). Surprisingly, this time Balak even asked, What did the Lord say?, when the prophet returned (23:17). (He apparently held out hope that the God of the Israelites had finally decided to curse his own people.)
23:18-20 Balaam answered with another poetic blessing on Israel that began with a personalized call that should have made the king catch his breath: Balak, get up and listen; son of Zippor, pay attention to what I say! (23:18). Then, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the idolatrous prophet uttered a glorious statement of God’s immutable nature (23:19). Because of who God is and the promises he had made, Balaam had been given a command to bless Israel. In other words, since God had decreed blessing for his people, there was nothing Balaam could do. I cannot change it, he said (23:20).
23:21-26 Balaam went on to say that since God brought Israel out of Egypt, the nation had the strength of a wild ox. She was a force against which no magic curse or divination like the kind of tricks Balak was trying to employ could work against her (23:22-23). When Balaam had finished this speech, Balak basically said to him, “Look, if you can’t say something bad about Israel, don’t say anything at all!” (23:25). But in this matter Balaam was working for a higher King (23:26).
23:27-30 It seems that Balak was either a slow learner or simply a desperate leader, because he was actually willing to give his plan a third try. He took Balaam to a third location (23:28). Maybe it will be agreeable to God that you can put a curse on them for me there, he said (23:27). In the ancient Near East where these men lived, the peoples often believed that certain gods had power over certain geographical areas. This makes it less surprising that Balak thought a new location might somehow change the results he was hearing.
24:1-4 This time Balaam changed the routine by simply looking out over Israel, which was encamped below according to the careful pattern God had laid out (24:1; see commentary on Num 1:47-50). When he saw the vast nation encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came on him (24:2). Then the prophet essentially described the Lord’s influence on him. His eyes were opened, he heard the sayings of God, he saw a vision from the Almighty, and he fell into a trance with his eyes uncovered (24:2-4). In this state Balaam uttered his third oracle, another poetic tribute to God’s hand of blessing on Israel.
24:5-7 Though looking down on Israel as a nomadic city of tents, he pictured Israel as a beautiful land of abundance and prosperity (24:6). He also referred to Israel as a kingdom (24:7), even though their first king (Saul) would not rule until hundreds of years in the future.
The mention of Agag (24:7) is curious. A future king of the Amalekites named Agag would be executed by the prophet Samuel during King Saul’s day (see 1 Sam 15). However, in the ancient Near East, kings often carried the same throne name down through the decades—as we see in the case of Egypt’s Pharaoh or Philistia’s Abimelech. So Amalek’s current king probably bore the name Agag, too. Assuming that this is so, we should consider that this wasn’t the first prophecy regarding the Amalekites. This nation had attacked Israel after the exodus (see Exod 17:8-16). So the Lord had promised at that time, “I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek under heaven” (Exod 17:14). Balaam, then, now prophesied Israel’s future dominance over the Amalekite kingdom.
24:8-9 In the rest of the oracle, Balaam emphasized God’s strength in bringing Israel out of Egypt and defeating enemy nations before them (24:8). The latter was exactly what Balak was afraid of. Balaam concluded with a chilling announcement: Those who curse [Israel] will be cursed (24:9). By seeking to curse Israel, King Balak had sealed his own fate.
24:10-14 Finally, Balak had heard enough. He became furious with Balaam and sent him home without any payment (24:10-11). Nevertheless, Balaam calmly repeated everything he had said from the beginning about his obligation to say whatever God told him to say (24:12-13). Before the two men parted, Balaam had one more oracle of blessing for Israel and a word of warning for Balak (24:14).
24:15-25 Balaam’s final oracle was the most remarkable of all, because it included a prophecy of the coming of Israel’s Messiah. Incredibly, he made predictions about the future rising of the star . . . from Jacob and a scepter . . . from Israel; these are references to the Christ, a descendant of Israel and the “morning star” of Revelation 22:16 (24:17). He also foresaw Israel’s victories over Moab (Balak’s people), the Edomites, and the Amalekites (24:17-20). Then, with his mission complete, Balaam returned home—as did Balak (24:25). The cursing of Israel had failed.
25:1-3 Balaam may have spoken the blessing of the Lord on the Israelites, but his true character surfaced afterward. Balaam was responsible for what we will see happen here in chapter 25. It seems that even though he was unable to curse Israel, Balaam still offered advice to her enemies. We read this in Numbers 31:16: “At Balaam’s advice, [the Midianite women] incited the Israelites to unfaithfulness against the Lord in the Peor incident.” And later, the risen Lord Jesus would say this about the matter, “You have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to place a stumbling block in front of the Israelites: to eat meat sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality” (Rev 2:14). So, in spite of what Balaam said in chapters 22–24, he was a wicked enemy of the true God and his people.
Don’t miss that since Israel’s enemies couldn’t get the Lord to be unfaithful to his people, they chose to lead his people to be unfaithful to him. And as a direct result of this maneuver, God’s people began to prostitute themselves with the women of Moab (25:1). The women invited them to the sacrifices for their gods, and the people ate and bowed in worship to their gods (25:2). The Lord had protected his people by refusing to let Balaam curse Israel, but now Israel was essentially cursing the Lord through actions. Therefore, God’s anger burned (25:3).
25:4-6 The Lord’s judgment was swift. He said, Kill each of the men who aligned themselves with Baal (25:5).
In light of this obviously public execution and the national weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting that it brought, it is almost beyond comprehension that an Israelite man would dare to march his Midianite girlfriend into camp and into his tent in the sight of Moses and the whole Israelite community (25:6). Yet that’s exactly what happened. Spurred on by lust, this man dared to flout God and his law in front of everyone.
25:7-13 That was too much for Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest (25:7). He was zealous for God’s holiness (25:11), so he left the service of repentance at the tabernacle, took a spear, ran into the man’s tent, and drove it through both the Israelite man and the woman. (This is a clear indication that they were having sexual relations when he found them; 25:7-8).
In verse 9 we gain an additional insight into the Lord’s wrath against Israel’s unfaithfulness. God had apparently sent a plague among the people for their sin. Phinehas’s righteous action stopped the plague, but only after twenty-four thousand Israelites died (25:8-9). God praised Phinehas for his zeal and promised a perpetual priesthood to him and his future descendants (25:12-13). This meant that the Aaronic priesthood would remain with Phinehas and his family.
25:14-15 The Israelite man whom Phinehas executed was the son of a Simeonite leader; the woman was the daughter of a tribal leader in Midian (25:14-15). If the men involved in these sins were mostly Simeonites, this could explain the drastic decrease in their number of males from the first census of “59,300” (1:23) to “22,200” (26:14). Zimri (25:14) was from a prominent family and brought great destruction on his people with his blatant sin. Thus, once again Scripture warns that our sin is never committed in a vacuum; it always affects others.
25:16-18 The Moabites and Midianites appeared together in the Balaam narratives because they lived in the same area and were both involved in hiring Balaam to curse Israel (see 22:4, 7). The Israelites didn’t attack the Moabites, who were descendants of Abraham through Lot. But the Lord commanded Israel to attack the Midianites because they had been involved in inciting the Israelites to worship Baal (25:16-18; see also 31:15-16).
B. Preparations for Entering the Promised Land (26:1–30:16)
26:1-4 By this time most of Moses’s generation had died according to God’s decree, as Israel prepared to end their wilderness wanderings and enter the promised land. So it was time to take a census of the new generation, counting males twenty years old or more who can serve in Israel’s army (26:1-2). Israelite soldiers would be needed to battle the inhabitants of Canaan. The census was taken on the east side of the Jordan River, across from Jericho (26:3). This was the first fortified city Israel would encounter in Canaan, and what happened there would mark Israel’s first victory in the long-anticipated conquest (see Josh 6:1-27).
26:5-11 The rest of the chapter is primarily a report of this new census recorded tribe by tribe and family by family. But it also contains several interesting side notes. The first concerns a family among the Reubenites that included Dathan and Abiram. These were the two men who had joined Korah’s followers in their rebellion against the Lord (26:9; see 16:1-50). The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them. Therefore, the pair serves as a warning sign (26:10). The follow-up note that the sons of Korah did not die (26:11) acknowledges that grace had been extended, allowing Korah’s family line to continue. Sons that did not follow his rebellion would have an inheritance in the promised land.
26:12-56 The census records continued until the total of fighting men was calculated: 601,730 (26:51). This figure was quite close to the original count of “603,550,” taken almost four decades earlier (1:46). So even though the exodus generation died off and Israel suffered a number of severe judgments on their way to Canaan, God prospered his people and they were ready to cross the Jordan at full strength. The census was followed by the casting of a lot to determine where each tribe’s inheritance in the promised land would be located (26:55-56). The actual dividing of the land would come later.
26:57-62 Since the Levites had no land inheritance because of their service to the Lord, they weren’t included in that census; they had their own. The three main Levite clans—Gershonite, Kohathite, and Merarite clans were counted (26:57).
Here Moses also included a note about his own family: Kohath was the ancestor of Amram. The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed, a descendant of Levi, born to Levi in Egypt. She bore to Amram: Aaron, Moses, and their sister Miriam (26:58-59). He also listed Aaron’s family and the number of Levites in the new generation who would eventually be available for service: 23,000, every male one month old or more (26:60-62).
26:63-65 Chapter 26 is a passage in which names are important. So it’s fitting that the chapter ends with two more significant names. Their significance is first enhanced by the historical note that of all those Israelites whom Moses had registered in the new census, there was not one . . . who had been registered by Moses and the priest Aaron when they registered the Israelites in the Wilderness of Sinai four decades earlier, because the Lord had said to them that they would all die (26:63-65). Only two men of Moses’s generation stood firm in faith and were still alive at the new census: Caleb and Joshua (26:65). These two, who had witnessed the plagues of Egypt and God’s every provision in the wilderness, would enter the land.
27:1-2 As the lot was cast to determine where the tribal lands would be located, a problem came up. A man named Zelophehad from the tribe of Manasseh died without a son but left behind five daughters (27:1). Under Israel’s laws of inheritance, in which property was reckoned through the male head of the family, these women were facing a bleak future when the nation divided up the promised land. So they approached Moses, the priest Eleazar, the leaders, and the entire community at the door of the tabernacle to present their case (27:2).
27:3 The girls’ mention that their father died for his own sin doesn’t necessarily mean that he did something terrible. (His daughters were careful to say he was not part of Korah’s rebellion.) More likely, they were referring to the fact that he died like most of the members of his generation had, under God’s discipline for their collective disbelief.
27:4-11 The question that Zelophehad’s daughters brought to Moses and Israel’s elders, then, was legitimate: Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan? Since he had no son, give us property among our father’s brothers, they implored (27:4). God agreed with their position, and he established a new rule of inheritance that covered this family’s dilemma and underscored his care not just for men, but women too (27:5-11).
27:12-14 Now that Israel was on the verge of crossing the Jordan and entering Canaan, it was time for God to appoint Moses’s successor. God took Moses to Mount Nebo in the Abarim range just across from Jericho where he could look out over the land that God had given the Israelites (27:12). Seeing the land from afar was the best Moses could hope for, since he and Aaron had rebelled against God at Meribah-kadesh by angrily striking the rock instead of speaking to it, thereby failing to uphold God’s holiness before the people by publicly exercising an authority that did not belong to them (27:14; see 20:1-13).
27:15-17 To Moses’s credit, he didn’t argue for a second chance or lament, “Woe is me.” Instead, his immediate thought as death neared was to make a plea that God would give his people a godly, qualified leader who would lead them with courage (27:15-16). He asked for someone to go out before them as their military commander, who would also direct them like a tender and caring shepherd (27:17).
27:18-20 God had just the man in mind, Moses’s trusted lieutenant Joshua—a man who has the Spirit in him (27:18). Certainly Joshua was already well-known and certainly well-respected among the Israelites for his close association with Moses, his record of bravery regarding Canaan years before, and his advanced age. All he lacked was the public stamp of approval from the Lord through a ceremony in which Moses would symbolically transfer his mantle of leadership. God commanded Moses to have Joshua stand before . . . the whole community for a commissioning service, so that the entire Israelite community would obey him (27:19-20).
27:21-23 From that point onward, Joshua would work hand-in-hand with the priest Eleazar, who would consult the Lord for him to determine God’s will so Joshua could carry it out (27:21). Moses did as God commanded (27:22), and Israel’s future leadership was secured.
28:1-3 Chapters 28–29 include examples of what the new generation of Israelites needed to know as they prepared to conquer Canaan and settle down in the land. These chapters outline various offerings and festivals that had been prescribed before, but needed to be reviewed and established again to ensure that Joshua’s generation knew what God expected.
One important element of these offerings was that whether they were daily, weekly (on the Sabbath), monthly, or presented for annual festivals such as Passover or Pentecost, each offering was to be made at its appointed time as a pleasing aroma to the Lord (28:2). The offering of the sacrificial animals also emphasized to the worshiper (and to those who would read about the offerings) the tremendous offense that sin is to God. Only blood can atone for it and bring the sinner into fellowship with him.
28:4-8 The first of these sacrifices were the daily burnt offerings, requiring one lamb in the morning and the other lamb at twilight, along with the specified grain and drink offerings at both times. The burnt offerings had been given to Israel at Sinai as the means by which God would come down to his people, fellowship with them, and be their God as he smelled the aroma of their pleasing sacrifices (see Exod 29:42-46).
28:9-10 Next came the regulations for the weekly Sabbath offerings (28:9-10), which involved an entirely new set of animal, grain, and drink offerings in addition to the day’s regular burnt offerings. If any Israelite thought worship was cheap or easy, or that the Lord would accept any leftover his followers tossed his way, these regulations were intended to shake him or her into reality. (Tragically, many Christians offer their leftover time, talents, and treasures to the same God who has always demanded the first and best of his people.)
28:11-15 The offerings required on the first day of each month took Israel’s worship requirements to a whole new level with the presentation of two young bulls, one ram, and seven male lambs a year old, in addition to enhanced grain and drink offerings (28:11-14). These observances became festive occasions called New Moon festivals. Provision was also made for sin with the sacrifice of one male goat as a sin offering (28:15).
28:16-25 The Passover was the holy festival that came in the first month, on the fourteenth day to commemorate Israel’s freedom from Egyptian bondage (28:16). The people were to eat unleavened bread . . . for seven days as their parents and grandparents had on the night of the first Passover so they could leave Egypt in haste. In this instance too there were substantial offerings to be made, like those on the New Moon festivals, except that they were offered every day for seven days (28:17-22, 24). And once again, all of these Passover offerings were in addition to the regular (daily) burnt offering (28:23).
28:26-31 The final instruction of this chapter concerned the feast of firstfruits or Festival of Weeks, which occurred fifty days after Passover: this is also called “Pentecost” (28:26). It was a harvest festival that required the same special offerings as a New Moon observance. And although the fact isn’t emphasized here, the people were also to bring the firstfruits of their fields to celebrate it—clearly pointing forward to the day when they would take the promised land and establish themselves there.
29:1-6 Next the Lord gave Moses instructions for offerings associated with three more holy observances: the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Shelters. The first day of the seventh month was a special day that later came to be known as Rosh Hashanah (“the head of the year”). On this date, the Jewish New Year, no daily work was allowed. A key feature of the event was the blowing of trumpets (29:1). An offering equal to the regular New Moon offerings was to be made, along with the monthly and regular burnt offerings (29:6). Notice that the requirement for acceptable worship never decreases with the addition of special days and even weeks; it always increases.
29:7-11 The Feast of Trumpets was followed by the Day of Atonement (“Yom Kippur” in Hebrew); it was and still is the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar. It was to be a day of confession and mourning for sin. It was also the one day of the year when the high priest entered the most holy place to sprinkle blood on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant to make atonement for the people (see Lev 16:1-34). It was a day of self-denial in the form of fasting (29:7). And on it, a male goat was to be sacrificed for a sin offering (29:11). Importantly, for believers in Jesus Christ, full atonement for sin was made in his substitutionary death on the cross, which is why such sacrifices as those we read about here no longer need to be offered (see Heb 9:28).
29:12-38 The remainder of the chapter deals at length with the week-long celebration of the Festival of Shelters (or “Tabernacles” or “Booths”). During it, the Israelites were to leave their homes and live in shelters of sticks and greenery as a reminder of their forebearers’ years of wilderness wanderings and as a commemoration of God’s promised deliverance out of that season. Since this festival lasted longer than most, there were specific instructions for each day’s observance. Not surprisingly, the offerings required were huge, since this festival celebrated the end of the harvest year and was designed to express thanksgiving to God.
The first day’s offerings were thirteen young bulls, two rams, and fourteen male lambs a year old, a grain offering, a male goat as a sin offering, and the daily burnt offering (29:13-16). The offerings for the second day were different in two respects, with twelve young bulls being offered instead of thirteen, and drink offerings being specified (29:17-18). This reduction in the number of bulls continued at one each day (29:20-32) until the seventh day, when seven bulls were sacrificed (29:32). The eighth day of the festival was like the first in that the Israelites were to hold a solemn assembly and refrain from work while still presenting the prescribed offerings (29:35).
29:39-40 The chapter concludes with a reminder to the people that making all these sacrifices, and keeping the festivals at [their] appointed times, was to be done in addition to the offering of any vow and freewill offerings an Israelite worshiper might feel led to bring to God out of gratitude for his goodness or in a desire to make a special promise to him (29:39).
The many offerings and sacrifices required of the Israelites were costly. But the people’s contributions to God didn’t compare with the grace the Lord had shown the nation by choosing them as his own, redeeming them from bondage, and entering into a covenant relationship with them.
30:1-2 Vows to do something or to abstain from something for the Lord’s sake were entirely voluntary. So God was entirely within his rights to demand complete faithfulness from an Israelite who made one. Such a person must not break his word (30:2). This admonition alone, in fact, should have been enough to keep people from half-heartedly making promises to the Lord. But many years later, Solomon gave this solemn advice about vows to make sure Israel didn’t take their words to God lightly: “God . . . does not delight in fools. Fulfill what you vow. Better that you do not vow than that you vow and not fulfill it” (Eccl 5:4-5).
30:3-5 At this point in the text, there’s a great example of God’s kingdom agenda for the home in operation here. The situation presented involved a woman who was living in her father’s house during her youth (30:3)—that is, she was not yet an adult and was under parental authority. If such a girl made a vow to the Lord that put her under some obligation, her father had the authority either to let the vow stand—in which case his daughter was bound to it—or to declare it void and release her from the obligation (30:4-5). What we see here, then, is a divine protection for an underage woman who spoke rashly. Her daddy got the last word. This was a loving provision. It’s also a reminder that Israelite women needed the covering of the covenant through their fathers before their release to the protection and covering of their husbands.
30:6-16 The following case (30:7-8, 10-15) also comes under the umbrella of illustrating the divinely appointed authority in the home. If an unmarried woman was bound by a vow that her father approved, she would carry that vow into her marriage, where her husband had the same choice as her father regarding whether or not she’d have to keep it from that point. If he canceled her vow, the Lord released her from it too (30:6-8). By contrast, every vow a widow or divorced woman [put] herself under [was] binding: she would make her own calls (30:9).
Interestingly, a husband had to act on the day he heard about his wife’s vow (30:12). If he delayed and then decided later that he didn’t want his wife to keep her vow, he became responsible for her commitment (30:15) because by that point the vow had been in effect for some time. This is yet another illustration of God warning his people not to make promises to him lightly.
C. Midianites Defeated and Transjordan Settled (31:1–32:42)
31:1-2 Moses’s last act as leader of the Israelites was to fulfill God’ command to execute vengeance . . . against the Midianites. When this was complete, Moses would be gathered to [his] people—that is, he would breathe his last and be buried (31:2). God’s vengeance against the Midianites was going to be fierce because of their part in seducing Israel into the degrading worship of Baal (see 25:1-18).
31:3-6 Israel, however, would need only a fraction of her troops, since God was leading this campaign in a special way. This was to be a limited war. So Moses only called for one thousand men . . . from each Israelite tribe to go against Midian (31:4-5). Each tribe had been affected by the sin of Baal worship, so each tribe would be involved in cleansing the source of this sin. Phinehas son of Eleazar the priest, who had been zealous for God’s holiness in the event to be avenged (25:6-13), accompanied the troops, bringing along the holy objects and signal trumpets (31:6).
31:7-12 The Israelites waged war against Midian, as the Lord had commanded Moses, and killed every male—that is, every soldier (31:7). One of those killed along with the soldiers and the Midianite kings was Balaam son of Beor, who suffered the consequences of his sin (31:8; see 31:16; Rom 6:23). But in spite of these victories, the Israelite troops failed to follow the Lord’s command. They took the Midianite women and their dependents captive as they destroyed the Midianites’ dwellings and took all the spoils of war (31:9-12).
31:13-18 When Moses and Eleazar and all the leaders of the community went out to meet the returning troops, Moses became furious with the officers (31:13-14). He couldn’t believe what he saw. Some of the women whom they had captured were the very ones who had incited the Israelites to unfaithfulness in the first place (31:15-16). They had lured Israelite men to commit sexual immorality in worshiping Baal, resulting in the very plague on the people that killed twenty-four thousand Israelites (see 25:1-18). So Moses gave the following command: Kill every male among the dependents and kill every woman who has gone to bed with a man (31:17). In other words, those who had not participated in the immorality of the Peor incident were permitted to live (31:18). The execution of the others was a necessary purge of evil lest the Midianites’ ways be allowed to further influence—and endanger—God’s covenant people.
31:19-24 The soldiers had become ceremonially unclean in carrying out their duties, so they and their captives had to remain outside the camp for seven days (31:19). This was necessary so that they could ritually purify themselves and their belongings (31:19-20). Items such as gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, and lead (presumably part of the soldiers’ plunder) was to pass through fire and then be purified with . . . water. Those items that could not withstand fire were to be purified with water alone (31:22-23). After a week and the washing of clothing, the soldiers could enter the camp (31:24).
31:25-30 Next came the counting and dividing of the spoil brought back from Midian. The soldiers who had fought the battle received half of all the bounty, with God requiring a tribute of one out of every five hundred people, cattle, donkeys, sheep, and goats (31:25-29). The entire community received the other half of everything, with the Lord’s tribute being one out of every fifty from the [living spoil] (31:27, 30).
31:31-47 Moses and Eleazar did as the Lord commanded, with the soldiers’ shares being described in 31:32-40. Moses also made sure to give the tribute to the priest Eleazar as a contribution for the Lord (31:41). Then came the distribution of the Israelites’ half, which is totaled up in 31:42-47.
31:48-50 The Midianite campaign had been a tremendous success. But the leaders of the troops who had fought had one more blessing to report—and a gift of thanks to offer. They informed Moses that not one of their soldiers was missing after the battle. None had been lost (31:49). They recognized how incredible this was and wanted to make a sacrificial offering of thanks to God for his divine protection. So they presented . . . an offering of the gold articles each man found—armlets, bracelets, rings, earrings, and necklaces—to make atonement for themselves (31:50).
To suffer no casualties in a battle of this size is unheard of, and these soldiers knew it. Their offering was given entirely of their own freewill, and it was over-the-top generous because they knew more than anyone else what God had done for them and their fellow troops. The “atonement” they spoke of was probably not a reference to some sin, but rather a recognition that God’s faithfulness to them was far more than they deserved.
31:51-54 Moses and . . . Eleazar received the gold—all 420 pounds of it (31:51-52). It was placed in the tent of meeting as a memorial to the Lord (31:54). Such an offering recognized that everything the Israelites possessed came from the hand of the Lord and served as a reminder that he is able to supply every need. God loves it when giving is done willingly, cheerfully, and generously (see 2 Cor 9:6-8).
32:1-5 While the Israelites were still camped on the east side of the Jordan River opposite Canaan, the tribes of Reuben and Gad looked around and saw that the region was a good one for livestock—of which they had huge numbers (32:1). The territory was firmly in Israel’s hands, so these tribes came to Moses and the other leaders with a special request: Let this land be given to your servants as a possession. Don’t make us cross the Jordan (32:5). In other words, they were happy to stay right where they were while the rest of the tribes entered promised-land proper.
32:6-7 It’s not clear whether the Gadites and Reubenites had given any thought to how their request would impact their fellow tribes who had to enter Canaan and do battle. But Moses gave them a quick dose of reality. He asked, Should your brothers go to war while you stay here? (32:6). With these words he implicitly questioned their courage. Did they really prefer the land on the east side of the Jordan? Or were they actually trying to avoid plunging into battle in support of their fellow Israelites? Moses’s words got more pointed: Why are you discouraging the Israelites from crossing into the land the Lord has given? (32:7). He wanted them to recognize that their decision would affect the rest of the nation deeply.
There is a principle here that is applicable to the church. Some people who claim to follow Christ insist that their similar actions—whether they are choosing to worship at home each Sunday when they could just as easily join a local fellowship or deciding not to serve in their churches but only to sit and soak—are not hurting anyone. But sinful choices do affect those around us—whether directly or indirectly. We must take care not to cause our fellow Christians discouragement. A discouraged Christian is an unfruitful Christian.
32:8-15 Moses used the request of the Gad-ites and Reubenites as an opportunity to offer a quick history lesson. He compared their willingness to forgo the promised land to their ancestors’ devastating failure to trust God and enter the land at Kadesh-barnea despite seeing the bounty of the land in the grapes from the Eshcol Valley (32:8-9). God’s anger burned as a result of that unfaithfulness (32:10, 13). He’d made them wander in the wilderness forty years until that entire generation died (32:13). And now it looked like their children wanted to follow in their wicked footsteps! So Moses didn’t hold back. He said, If you turn back from following [God], he will once again leave this people in the wilderness, and you will destroy all of them (32:15).
32:16-19 That led these tribal leaders to change tactics. Judging by their reaction and their offer to lead the way in battle, it does appear that they had not thought through all the implications of their plan when they’d proposed it. The leaders of Reuben and Gad asked permission to build sheep pens for their livestock and cities for [their] dependents before they, the fighting men, joined their brothers in battle across the Jordan (32:16). They would stay on the job until the promised land was secure in Israel’s hand (32:17-18). Further, they would not expect an inheritance . . . across the Jordan; they would be content with their lands in Transjordan (32:19).
32:20-24 Moses was willing to accept their terms (32:20-22), but he strictly warned them of the consequences of failing to stand by their promise. His words are chilling: If you don’t do this, you will certainly sin against the Lord; be sure your sin will catch up with you (32:23).
Sin’s consequences can’t be escaped. But through trusting in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, you will escape God’s eternal judgment, that doesn’t mean you will escape all the consequences for sin in this life. As Paul reminded the Galatians, “God is not mocked. For whatever a person sows he will also reap” (Gal 6:7).
32:25-32 The Gadites and Reubenites accepted Moses’s terms and reaffirmed their intent to leave their dependents and livestock in Gilead, cross the Jordan, and fight (32:25-27). Therefore, since Moses knew he wouldn’t still be around by the time all this took place, he instructed the priest Eleazar, Joshua . . . and the family heads to give these tribes the land on the east side of the Jordan as their possession—as long as they fulfilled their promise (32:28-29). If they failed, they were to accept land in Canaan (32:30).
32:33-42 Then, in anticipation of the fulfillment of their promises, Moses gave Gad and Reuben their inheritance—the former kingdoms of King Sihon of the Amorites and . . . King Og of Bashan. But Moses also included another Transjordan group: half the tribe of Manasseh in this allotment (32:33). Apparently, they shared a desire to dwell east of the Jordan, since they had defeated a number of enemies there and captured their land (32:39-41).
D. Exhorting a New Generation and Dividing the Land (33:1–36:13)
33:1-4 Moses kept a highly detailed travelogue of the Israelites’ journey from the time they left the land of Egypt (33:1). It began the day after the Passover when the Israelites went out defiantly in the sight of all the Egyptians as they were burying every firstborn male that God had struck (33:3-4).
33:5-36 Not long after that, Israel traveled from Pi-hahiroth and crossed through the middle of the [Red Sea] into the wilderness (33:8)—which, unfortunately, would be their home for decades to come. Moving farther down in the text, Moses noted that the Israelites camped in the Wilderness of Zin (that is, Kadesh) (33:36), which is a name that would live in infamy for Israel. It was because of their rebellion there that the nation would wander in the wilderness for forty years.
33:37-49 At Mount Hor, Moses’s brother Aaron . . . died at 123 (33:37-39). After mentioning that, Moses noted the opposition of the Canaanite king who tried to stop the people’s progress, only to be badly defeated (33:40; see Num 21:1-3). Moses also recorded the nation’s encampment in the Abarim range (33:47); there God allowed Moses to view the promised land from a distance after he was told he would not be permitted to enter (27:12-14).
33:50-52 The remainder of this chapter includes Moses’s instructions and exhortation to God’s people about entering the promised land. He emphasized the total spiritual depravity of the Canaanites they would encounter, as well as the Lord’s command concerning them. The Israelites were to drive out all the inhabitants of the land . . . destroy all their . . . images, and demolish all their high places (33:51-52). There could be no compromises. The nation had entered a covenant relationship with the Lord alone, and through their obedience he would judge the Canaanites for many years of extreme wickedness.
33:53-56 Once God’s people occupied the land, it was to be divided among them (33:54). Moses’s message from the Lord then ended with a stern warning: But if you don’t drive out the inhabitants . . . those you allow to remain will become . . . thorns for your sides; they will harass you in the land where you will live. And what I had planned to do to them, I will do to you (33:55-56). In other words, if Israel were to disobey their covenant God and fail in their assignment, those inhabitants would prove to be a snare to them. Israel would ultimately adopt their idolatrous ways and fall under God’s judgment. If Israel didn’t drive out the nations, God would drive out Israel.
Tragically, this warning would prove prophetic. The Israelites would indeed fail to fully dislodge the Canaanites and would suffer all manner of military and spiritual defeats in the centuries ahead. Eventually, after years of covenant unfaithfulness—and years of the Lord’s abundant patience—they would be cast from the land in stages.
34:1-15 Before the transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua, the Lord gave Moses essential details about dividing up the land so that there would be no confusion among the tribes. He provided precise boundaries for the land (34:1-15) and identified the leaders from the tribes who would oversee the distribution (34:16-29).
The Lord identified the southern (34:3-4), western (34:6), northern (34:7-9), and eastern (34:10-12) borders of the promised land. Each tribe was to receive a portion of the land by lot, which was a bit like drawing straws. However, this was a process for only nine and a half of the tribes (34:13). The other two and a half tribes (Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh) would receive—as they had requested—the land on the east side of the Jordan River (34:13-15; see 32:1-42).
34:16-29 Since Moses would not be there to oversee the land distribution, God reiterated that the priest Eleazar and Joshua were his chosen leaders in the matter (34:17). God gave Moses the name of one leader from each tribe to distribute the land to help them with this task and to ensure that each tribe was fairly represented (34:18-29).
35:1-5 The tribe of Levi didn’t receive a land inheritance because the Lord was their portion—that is, they had been chosen from among all the tribes to serve the Lord at the tabernacle. Nevertheless, they still needed places to live and pasture for their livestock. That’s why God instructed Moses to command the Israelites to give cities out of their hereditary property for the Le-vites to live in (35:2). Thus, the Levites were to have dwellings scattered throughout the land of Israel.
Not only did this provide practically for the Levites, but it was also spiritually strategic. If they lived in cities that were dispersed throughout the territories, the Levites were thus accessible to all the people. They were well positioned to “teach the Israelites all the statutes that the Lord [had] given” (Lev 10:11).
35:6-15 Among the forty-eight cities for the Levites, six were to be designated as cities of refuge (35:6-7). As the name implies, these were places where a person who [killed] someone unintentionally [might] flee . . . until he [stood] trial (35:11-12). These cities were to be equally divided so that those living throughout the area could access them (35:14).
35:16-29 The cities of refuge were intended to provide sanctuary for those whose actions unintentionally caused death. But there was no refuge for the person who committed premeditated murder. Fittingly, this required the death penalty (35:16). The idea behind the descriptions given here is the presence of hatred and malicious intent (35:17-21). In such cases, the avenger of blood himself [was] to kill the murderer (35:19). This individual was a family member of the victim. It was his responsibility to carry out justice.
In the case of an accidental death or an incident of manslaughter—when death was caused without hostility and without malicious intent (35:22)—the cities of refuge provided a safe haven for the guilty party until the case could be heard and emotions could cool. The assembly of the people of Israel would protect the person from the avenger and judge his case (35:24-25). The defendant, however, had to be brought to court from his city of refuge—which would expose him to the avenger temporarily. If the court ruled for the defendant, he would be safely taken back to his city of refuge, where he was required to live until the death of the high priest (35:25) after which he was free to return home. In this mention we see that there was an atoning effect in even the high priest’s death in that it signaled a cleansing and forgiveness of past sins in the nation and a fresh start for people who had accidentally taken a life. Importantly, if the person violated the terms of his house arrest by leaving his city of refuge before the high priest’s death, the avenger could kill him without guilt (35:26-28). The wise King Solomon would one day employ a similar precedent in his dealings with Shimei, who’d tried to stone his father, King David (see 1 Kgs 2:36-46).
35:30-32 Another provision to prevent miscarriages of justice was the necessity of multiple witnesses in a murder case so that no one would be put to death based on the testimony of one (35:30). Once a murder had been established and the guilty one convicted, however, no amount of money could buy him his life back. The only acceptable payment a murderer could make was to forfeit his own life for the death of his victim (35:31). And neither could a person confined to a city of refuge pay a fine to cover his penalty and go back home before the death of the high priest (35:32).
35:33-34 At the end of the chapter, we learn the bottom line reason for these ordinances: Bloodshed defiles the land. There could be no atonement to cleanse the land . . . except by the blood of the person who shed it (35:33). As with any other circumstance that resulted in uncleanness or defilement, the reason it could not be tolerated was because the Lord himself resided among the Israelites (35:34). God is holy; therefore, he requires holiness from his people.
36:1-4 In the final chapter we meet a family we have encountered before, the five daughters of Zelophehad (see 27:1-11). The first time they went to Moses, they were concerned that they would have no inheritance in Israel since their late father had no sons and they, as females, weren’t in line to receive any land. Moses had obtained a favorable ruling from God for the girls: If no male could be found, the land should be given to the nearest relatives. It was a good day for the daughters.
This time, it wasn’t Zelophehad’s girls who raised a concern but the family heads from the clan (36:1). The problem they faced was significant for a nation in which a family’s land was a sacred grant from the Lord that was never to be permanently sold. (One generation used it and then passed it along to the next, as if it were on lease to a family from God.) The male leaders of the clan to which Zelophehad’s daughters belonged realized that if the women married outside of their tribe—while owning their fathers’ land—that land would pass to other tribes (36:2-4).
36:5-13 Moses recognized that what they said was right (36:5). So he sought the Lord and returned with a ruling for this case that would become a statute for all of Israel. Zelophehad’s daughters were free to marry anyone . . . provided they marry within a clan of their ancestral tribe (36:6). Furthermore, no inheritance belonging to the Israelites [was] to transfer from tribe to tribe (36:7). That meant that Israelite daughters who owned an inheritance were to marry within their own clan (36:8). So the daughters of Zelophehad obeyed (36:10-12).
In the book of Numbers, Moses has taken readers from Sinai, where the Lord made his covenant with Israel, to the edge of the land he had sworn to give them. Though the people—including Moses—continued to fall into unfaithfulness, God remained faithful to his promises. He would preserve his people, drive out their enemies, and settle them into the land.
But, in the days to come, he would also be faithful to his greatest promise of all: “A star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel” (24:17). And sure enough, the messianic King, Jesus Christ, came to atone for sin, defeat his enemies, and give the riches of his grace to his people. “Every one of God’s promises is ‘Yes’ in him” (2 Cor 1:20).