Learn By Numbers

  • Steve Hatter

Fear has gripped our nation, state, and city. We’re now over four months into responding to a mysterious virus that arrived unexpectedly and continues to profoundly impact everything. And, as of now, there is no reliable sense of when the threat, and the turmoil it brings, will end. Nor is there any sense of agreement or unity as to how we should respond individually or corporately going forward. What could be an opportunity to draw people together against a common foe, is exploding even lifelong friendships and blood family relationships. While we must “mask up” in public, the virus is at the same time unmasking our hearts. People’s true character is getting exposed as they’re asked to not just consider, but to declare, what really matters to them. Circumstances have ruled silence or passivity on the great questions of life no longer an option. We are now forced into declarations on those uncomfortable “politics and religion” questions that have heretofore been deemed socially unsafe to talk about in polite company.

To say that I am constantly thinking about what God may now be doing as Sovereign over all, which means the virus too, is an understatement. I think about the life-and-death importance of noble Christian testimony in crisis, and I want to get it right. I pray for our church, and its array of ministries, to respond well, and I want to please God with my personal witness. In my contemplations, I found help in an unlikely place this week—the Old Testament Book of Numbers. Let me walk you through some of this profound recounting of Israel’s history and show you what I mean.

Numbers chronicled Israel’s answer to Yahweh’s miraculous presence with them, His legislation and holiness standards, and His mission for them to travel to Canaan and conquer the promised land. Tragically, the first generation’s story—the very generation of Hebrews rescued from Egypt, and therefore eye-witnesses to the utterly miraculous deliverance—was one of fear, faithlessness, disobedience, and associated punishment. A disastrous relational digression between Israel and God marked the chosen nation’s geographic progression from Sinai to Canaan. They descended from harmony with Yahweh as they prepared to march, into progressing degrees of disobedience while moving “en masse” toward Canaan, culminating with Yahweh’s judgment of discipline by death for the entire first generation—save Caleb and Joshua—for their rebellion at a place called Kadesh-barnea.

Obedience at the Base of Sinai (1:1–10:36)

The first ten chapters of Numbers communicated a tone of harmony as Yahweh prepared Israel to leave Sinai. Moses identified and counted warriors from the twelve tribes. Yahweh prescribed mass movement instructions with detailed setup, carry, and takedown instructions for the tabernacle and holy ceremonial items. Yahweh designated specific tribes for specific duties, the order of march for movement, and the tribal placements for encampment (2–4). He added sundry purity legislations and ceremonial ordinances (3–10:19). Chapter ten ended with Israel’s inaugural march wherein Yahweh miraculously led them, provided for them, and protected them because they trusted and obeyed.

Relational Digression (11:1–14:23)

Israel’s slide—from complaining to weeping to murmuring to grumbling to outright rebellion—viewed by Yahweh as spurning Him—was abrupt. Chapter eleven began with the people complaining and a resulting punishment from Yahweh. His anger kindled, He sent a fire that burned the outskirts of the encampment (11:1). Moses interceded for the people—a pattern repeated again and again—but they soon began weeping over the monotony of Yahweh’s miraculous manna provisions. They whined for meat while pressuring their leaders (11:2–9).

Moses begged Yahweh for help. He responded with seventy elders to share the leadership burden and then supplied quail—in overwhelming amounts—giving Israel their wish, but in volumes reflecting His displeasure. Then when the quail was gathered and the meat “still between their teeth,” Yahweh punished with a fatal plague. The “greedy” among them were buried there at in the wilderness (11:16–35).

Chapter twelve, narrated sin-infected family. Aaron and Miriam’s jealousies toward Moses, manifested in murmuring, angered Yahweh and brought swift accountability—leprosy for Miriam. Moses cried out to Yahweh to heal her, and He did, but only after she suffered seven days of misery outside the camp (12:1–16).

The downward spiral of disobedience accelerated upon the return of the spies to their camp within the wilderness of Paran. When these leaders, directed by Yahweh to “spy out the land of Canaan, which I am going to give to the sons of Israel,” reported fortified cities and giants, the sons of Israel shrank in fear and unbelief (13:1–14:1). Moreover, they grumbled to Moses and Aaron, accusing Yahweh of bringing them to the land for their destruction. Ultimately, they plotted among themselves to abandon Moses and seek a new leader to bring them back to Egypt (14:1–10). These choices were rebellion received as “spurning,” and Yahweh’s emotion was palpable in His response: “How long will this people spurn Me (14:11)?”

Spurn in English describes scorn, contempt, disdain, and rejection. Yahweh’s consequences for them reflected His assessment of their hearts toward Him: “Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who spurned Me see it (14:22–23).” Israel’s first generation would perish in the wilderness.

Yahweh’s Responses (Numbers 11:1–36)

Obedience then and now is a choice emanating from a heart of faith. Abraham modeled faith-fueled obedience when he raised his knife over Isaac, and God counted this faith as righteousness (Gen 15:6). Faith that produced trust and obedience was the formula for success consistently communicated in the Torah. For Israel in Numbers, faith meant trusting Yahweh no matter the circumstances of the journey or mission. Israel had witnessed Yahweh’s unmatched power in numerous settings. Yet, when conditions squeezed them, they chose to reject Yahweh and seek a better leader (14:4; 16:1–3), or ultimately a better god (25:1–3). God’s just character demanded proportional punishment.

Yahweh did punish swiftly and harshly. However, the wisdom of Numbers is found not in the punishments, but in Yahweh’s integrity—His heart, patience, and faithfulness. Despite the egregiousness of Israel’s progressive sin, Yahweh proved slow to anger. His penalties were graduated. He kept faith with them, continually reiterating and keeping His promises, even as they descended in treachery. His heart and His hurt—He was a personal God that they could intimately grieve—were evident in His words: “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who are grumbling against Me (14:27)?” Yet, Yahweh proved a covenant-keeping God by looking to Israel’s second generation to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant. Numbers 26-36 narrated the rise of a generation of hope after 40 years of pause. Balaam’s oracles marked the prophecy. Yahweh’s purposes were not frustrated (23:5–24:24).

So, what does this story have to do with Coronavirus? Well, it certainly describes a path we should avoid in our time of crisis, most especially because we know so much more of God’s faithfulness in achieving His plan of redemption through Christ than Israel’s first generation could have known. So, we should believe what Romans 15:4 tells us about why Israel’s story is meaningful to us:

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)

Numbers paints a picture of stark contrast between a selfish, faithless, fearful, and betraying generation of people and a mighty, purposeful, patient, just, covenant-keeping Yahweh. In Yahweh’s sovereign design and unwavering purposes, He rewarded obedience and severely punished disobedience. Yahweh’s specific responses comprised of anger, graduated punishments, emotional-filled dialogue, and judgment—even for Aaron and Moses—revealed God’s high character in stark contrast to man’s treachery. Finally, Yahweh’s unwavering faithfulness to the Abrahamic Covenant found in His investment in Israel’s second-generation (14:24; 30–32).

Am I fearful of Covid-19? Yes, I am. I fear it personally, and I fear its comprehensive effects on family, church, city, state, and nation. I am tempted at times to choose low character responses like Israel’s first generation. However, I fear to disobey—and therefore displease—my good and gracious God more. What cross is Jesus, who is Yahweh in Trinitarian glory, asking of me in our present age? I’m not sure yet, but my prayer is to be counted faithful on the day of my judgment. John Henry Sammis’ hymn from 1887 perhaps most elegantly evokes the primary lesson from Numbers:

“trust and obey, for there’s no other way.”