“Are we there yet?”
How many parents have heard their kids voice this complaint from the backseat of a car? Sympathetic parents understand their child’s impatience. They, too, are eager to arrive at the vacation destination. Creative parents prepare for the long journey with games like I Spy, Car Bingo, and Spot the Object First. Others sing songs and tell stories. If none of that works to quell munchkin’s murmuring, mom pulls out the Quiet Game. It might work for the next ten miles, and then comes, “I’m thirsty” or “I need to go potty!” Sound familiar?
But what happens when God’s people start grumbling about life’s journey? “Lord, are we there yet?” “Lord, when will you get me out of this mess?”
Welcome to the Old Testament book of Numbers, the fourth book in the Pentateuch, which is sometimes called the book of murmurings or the book of forty years. Numbers advances God’s redemption story while telling the sad tale of the generation of Hebrews who died in the wilderness having never reached the Promised Land. Poised to enter Canaan, the children of Israel fell into unbelief soon after they came out of Egypt.
An eighteenth-century hymn writer named Robert Briscoe summed up the children of Israel, perhaps our experience too, when he wrote these words: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” Someone noted that it took about forty hours to get Israel out of Egypt and forty years to get Egypt out of Israel.
Whereas in Leviticus, the children of Israel remain at Sinai, in Numbers, they are on the move for nearly four decades. The old generation traveled from Sinai to Kadesh Barnea and then wandered aimlessly in the wilderness until they died. That is when God called forth the next generation of Israelites. They returned to Kadesh Barnea and journeyed to Moab before entering the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership.
According to Hebrews 3, the generation that came out of Egypt died in the wilderness because they hardened their hearts and fell into unbelief. When reading the Bible, it is important to remember that Canaan, a real place on earth, is not a picture of heaven; rather, it symbolizes the abundant Christian life Jesus spoke about in John 15. Those who died in the wilderness did not lose their salvation. On the contrary, they all came out of Egypt and “passed through the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1). However, from that generation, only Joshua and Caleb made it to the Promised Land. In fact, neither Moses nor Aaron entered Canaan. Sadly, they also died in the wilderness because they acted in unbelief.
Let us remember the words of Jesus, who said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). As you read the book of Numbers, consider the abundant life God desires for you. He wants to give you exceedingly more than you could ever imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
Is it possible to possess eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ and completely miss the abundant life? Absolutely. Just ask the generation of Israelites who died in the wilderness. Does our unbelief ultimately thwart God’s purposes or negate His promises? Absolutely not. Consider Joshua, Caleb, and the new generation of Hebrews who joyously crossed the Jordan River and triumphantly took possession of the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God’s ways are best for us. But we acquire His richest blessings the same way we receive eternal life: by grace and through faith.
Thus, the big theological idea in Numbers is this: God’s best and most abundant life for us comes by faith. Conversely, unbelief always hinders us from experiencing the blessings of the Promised Land.
Let’s dig deeper. The book of Numbers gets its name from two censuses taken during the forty years Israel spent in the wilderness. The first census numbered the generation that came out of Egypt (1-4). Most estimate that number to have been between two and three million people. The second census numbered the next generation that eventually enters Canaan (26-27). Besides for the purpose of military readiness, why did God instruct Moses to count the people? At the risk of sounding like a cliché, God counts people because people count. The numbering of the Israelites is just one example of how God cares enough to keep meticulous records. Every person matters in His sight, including you.
Consider the words of Jesus: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7).[i]
In addition to numbering the people, God ordered their encampment into a quadrangular formation, demonstrating that He is a God of order, not chaos. The Lord took more than two million people and divided them into twelve tribes of Israel plus the Levites. With the Tabernacle at the center of the formation, He instructed Moses to position three tribes to the north, south, east, and west of the worship facility.
Picture a military formation in the desert that was twelve miles square! No wonder Israel’s enemies grew concerned. God also directed their movements with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night that hovered over the Tabernacle (13:21-22). Day or night, if the pillar moved, the people moved. If the pillar remained in place, the people stayed put. God blessed His chosen people with His presence and gave order and direction to their lives.
Also, God carefully positioned the children of Israel at the edge of the Promised Land. They had never been closer to seizing their destiny. Two years earlier, they were slaves in Egypt. Now, they had every reason to count their blessings and rejoice in what God had done for them. But then, everything fell apart. After God numbered, ordered, and instructed the children of Israel, the people started grumbling. An unholy complaint arose in their spirits against God and Moses. I call it “The Grumble in the Jungle.”
On October 20, 1974, a boxing match took place in Kinshasa, Zaire, between George Foreman, the undefeated world heavyweight champion, and challenger Muhammad Ali. Sixty thousand people attended the historical event, dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Many centuries earlier, “The Grumble in the Jungle” took place before an audience of one, the God of Israel, starting in a place called Taberah, which means “burning” (11:1-3).
Not only did the Lord’s anger burn because Israel complained, but God literally lit their camp on fire. Do you blame Him? There is nothing worse than the nagging complaint of ungrateful people. Like Jesus, who prays for us, Moses interceded for the people, and the Lord mercifully quelled His anger. But the grumbling continued. This time a lusty, disorderly mob rose up and complained about the bland food in the wilderness (11:4-10).
Numbers 11:4 reads, “Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, ‘Oh that we had meat to eat!’” The mob full of rabble-rousers grew tired of eating manna burgers every day. They lusted loudly for their former life in Egypt. The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Peterson, reads, “Moses heard the whining, all those families whining in front of their tents. God’s anger blazed up. Moses saw that things were in a bad way” (11:10).
The mob became too much for Moses. Their constant complaining crushed his spirit so much that he began complaining to the Lord about the complainers. Moses cried to the Lord, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? … I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me” (11:11-14). Moses had given up and was ready to quit! He even asked God to take his life. That’s when the Lord told Moses to appoint seventy men from the elders of Israel to assist him, and he did. But even the elders could not silence the mob.
Eventually, the Lord gave the rabble what they demanded. He appointed a wind to bring quail from the sea. The birds fell to the ground in plenty for the people to eat. Like ravenous wolves, they stuffed themselves full of meat until it came out of their nostrils, just as the Lord said it would (11:19-20). They ate until they loathed what they lusted. Then the Lord sent a great plague to strike the people down. Many from that old generation died in the wilderness with quail meat between their teeth. God named the place Kibroth-hattaavah, which means “graves of craving” because the people lusted after their former life in Egypt and died.
Moses’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day got worse. Next, he faced an uprising from his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam (12:1-16). Thirsty for power, they challenged his leadership. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” they asked presumptuously. The Lord heard them and unleashed His anger. God protected Moses, His divinely chosen leader, by taking Aaron and Miriam out to the woodshed. Miriam’s skin turned leprous, and Aaron quickly got the message: Don’t mess with Moses! When you mess with Moses, you mess with Me.
Tragically, there is more to The Grumble in the Jungle. What happened next sealed an entire generation’s fate. Numbers 13 begins, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel.’” One spy from each of the twelve tribes of Israel joined the reconnaissance mission. For forty days, they traveled deep into the region and brought back evidence of a land flowing with milk and honey. It was everything God told them it would be. When they returned, they told Moses, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large” (13:27-28).
Everything was going in the right direction until they dropped the word “however” into the intelligence report. Then came the negativity. Ten of the spies spoke with fear in their hearts as they emphasized the strong people and the fortified cities. Caleb tried to spin the report in a positive direction, but he and Joshua were eventually overcome by the majority voices, who said, “And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (11:33).
How could they see themselves as small, like grasshoppers, when they served such a big God? How quickly they had forgotten the big things God had already done for them, like parting the Red Sea and feeding them daily bread from heaven. One word describes their point of view: unbelief. Conversely, faith in God always reaches forward to what lies ahead, no matter the obstacles.[ii]
Mark it down in your memory bank. Write it on the tablets of your heart. Israel was neither a mobocracy (mob rule) nor a democracy (majority rule); it was a theocracy with God alone as their ruler and king, and Moses was His representative.
Overall, what can we learn from Numbers? Fortunately, the New Testament reflects upon this part of God’s story frequently and yields the following lessons: Do not harden your heart (Hebrews 3:7-19), avoid presumption (1 Corinthians 10:1-12), and look in faith to the lifted-up Jesus (Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-15).
This blog submission is from Route 66: The Ultimate Road Trip Through the Bible, an eBook written by Dr. Ron Jones. Download the complete eBook based on Road Trip 1, the Books of the Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy) in our Store.
[i] See also Psalm 56:8, Psalm 139:16, John 10:14, Matthew 12:36, Revelation 20:15, Luke 10:20 and Philippians 4:3 for other ways God shows that He cares by keeping careful records of our lives.
[ii] Time and space do not permit a full discussion of Korah’s rebellion (16:1-10) and what happened at the Waters of Meribah (20:2-13). But those tragic stories are worth reading carefully because they also contribute to The Grumble in the Jungle.