III. Israel on the Edge of the Promised Land (Numbers 22:1–36:13)

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.

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.

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).

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).

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