Desert Wanderings (Numbers 33)
My parents loved to travel. Before they died, they had been to all 48 of the lower states in our country. They had at least passed through all 48 states. I’m going to go one up on them; I want to spend the night in all 50 states, do something enjoyable, something unique in all 50 states. I’m going to take Rachel to an art museum or an art gallery in all 50 states. Rachel and I have done that in 21 states so we’re not quite halfway through.
A few years before my parents divorced, they traveled out west. They made the “big trip out west” that so many people want to make, visiting lots of different states. My mom was supposed to have taken pictures and video of that trip. When mom passed away, I found a lot of Hi-8 video tapes, about 4-5 of them and I was excited. One or two had labels on them that identified them as their trip out west. I was excited. I mailed all those tapes off to a company in TN, this was after we moved here to SC. Spent $100 getting those tapes transferred to DVDs. I got the DVDs back and I was excited to start watching videos of my parents enjoying each other before they divorced and before they died.
But my mom never - my entire life - never knew how to take pictures. Invariably when mom took our picture, we were either off-centered or our heads were cut off. I got those videos back - $100 worth - and most of them were blank. Most were blank. Some were out the window at the scenery but it was not very picturesque. A lot of video was just of the dashboard of the car! If you were to condense those 40-50 hours of video down to actual video footage worth seeing, it was about 15 minutes and not much of that was interesting.
I don’t know where mom and dad had traveled during their lifetime together - 38 years. I don’t know what all they saw. I don’t remember where all Rachel and I have been, except the specific states and I certainly don’t remember what all we have seen.
Numbers 33 is the travel itinerary of the nation of Israel from the time they left Egypt until they arrived on the banks of the Jordan River forty years later. These sites and villages seem to be all the places where Israel passed through. These are the major sites and the places where they spent some length of time; the verb to set up “camp” is found forty-two times through verse 49. This itinerary traces the travels of Israel from the time, right down to the month and day, that they left Egypt until they reached the plains of Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan River where Moses will give them the speeches / sermons that compose the book of Deuteronomy.
While reading the travel itinerary of the ancient Hebrews would be about as interesting as watching other peoples’ home videos, there are some important points, four points, that we can draw for living our lives for Christ today. One morning this last week, at breakfast, I commented that I was preaching from Numbers 33 Sunday night. Ana raised her eyebrows. I said, “It lists all the places where Israel stayed when they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.” Ana gave me that “deer in the headlight” look. I’ll ask her on the way home if it was interesting! We will not read all 56 verses, just the relevant ones.
WE LIVE BY THE COMMAND (“MOUTH”) OF THE LORD - 33:2, 38:
Verse 2 informs us that God commanded Moses to write down this history. That written history fulfills several goals: it establishes the truth of the history; it preserves the memorial of God’s intervention on behalf of His people, it confirms their faith in the promises of God for a bountiful future in the promised land.
Actually, this word in Hebrew is not “command” but “mouth.” Literally, Moses recorded their camp sites by the “mouth” of the Lord. That argues strongly for the concept of verbal inspiration, that is, that God spoke the words to Moses and he wrote them down. Moses could have kept a journal and wrote down all the places they visited within that forty-year travel but this verse shows that what Moses wrote, he wrote from the mouth of Jehovah God.
The same idea is found in verse 38. Moses refers to the death of Aaron, which we’ll discuss in just a moment. Aaron went up on top of Mount Hor at the command, literally “mouth,” of the Lord. There he died in the fortieth year after the Israelites left Egypt.
Moses will make a famous statement just a few pages over into Deuteronomy, in 8:3. Referring to these same 40 years traveling in the wilderness, “He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” That verse, of course, is famous because Jesus quotes that verse in His temptations with Satan in Matthew 4:4. Someone took that verse and turned it into a song which we sing from time to time.
Moses tells Israel that they traveled by the “mouth of the Lord,” that is, by His commandments. Jesus tells us - you and I need to live by the “mouth of the Lord.” How could we emphasize any more strongly how important it is to make sure we have God’s authority for what we do in worship and in our lives, even in what we believe? If we want to please God, we need to ask, “Where am I authorized to do that in the Word of God?” Has the “mouth of the Lord” spoken about that? If so, that is the end of the matter. There is no debate if God has spoken.
Let us “live by the command of the Lord.”
GOD JUDGES THE “GODS” OF THE LAND - 33:4, 50-53:
Verse 4 - The exodus is defined as God’s judgment on the gods of the Egyptians. In verses 10-11, we have reference to the Red Sea which was another judgment on the Pharaoh and his armies as they all drowned in the Red Sea.
This view is consistent with what Moses and God had spoken earlier about the exodus and the plagues brought on Egypt: Exodus 12:12 and in 10:2, Moses writes that God was making a mockery of Egypt through the plagues. In Exodus 15:3, in the oldest song in the Bible, Moses identifies God as a “warrior.” But it was not just against the Egyptian army that God fought but against Egypt’s gods.
For example, the first plague turned the Nile into blood (7:15-25). The Nile River was the life of Egypt; its waters provided for Egypt’s food, water, and commerce. The Egyptians believed the Nile was the physical embodiment of their god Hapi. That is how the Nile is identified in the Egyptian text called the Pyramid Texts. The Nile River, or Hapi, kept Egypt alive.
With all the water turned into blood, Egyptians could not drink the water. Blood itself was viewed by the Egyptians as a creative power so that when Jehovah God, the God of the Israelites, turned the Nile into blood, it showed Jehovah God’s creative power. When the Nile turned to blood, the fish, of course, would have died. Fish were a staple of the Egyptian diet. The Egyptians had a goddess named Hat-mehit, which was pictured as a woman with a fish on her head.
The second plague of frogs (8:1-6) pitted Jehovah God against Hekhet, a fertility goddess depicted as a human female with a frog’s head. Hekhet was the spouse of the creator god Khnum, breathing life into the humans that Khnum created. Hekhet also controlled the number of frogs by protecting crocodiles which eat frogs. But Jehovah God stepped in and destroyed this balance. He multiplied frogs and caused them to become a curse on Egypt. “The theme is the sovereignty of God over fertility, over Egypt, over her deities, and over all things” (Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament, 110).
The third and fourth plagues (8:16-24) involve flying insects. The third were gnats or lice. The fourth plague was stinging flies or, perhaps, mosquitos. There might be a connection here with the Egyptian god of resurrection, Kheprer, who was symbolized as a flying beetle.
The fifth plague (9:1-7) struck the domesticated animals. Almost all ANE religions worshiped the bull and that, of course, is what Israel made at the foot of Mount Sinai. Bulls represented fertility and Egyptians had several gods symbolized by bulls: Apis, Hermonthis, and Heliopolis. Greater, stronger gods of Egypt were also symbolized by bulls: Ptah and Re. Goddesses were depicted as livestock animals as well: Isis (queen of the gods) had cows’ horns on her head. Hathor, who protected the king, had a bovine head. These animals were destroyed in this plague which hit Egypt not only theologically but practically, as they lost a source of food, milk, and clothing, as well as transportation.
The plague of boils (Exo. 9:8-17) is believed to be a judgment against Sekhmet, a lion-headed deity. Sekhmet had the power to heal of pestilence. Egypt had another god of healing as well, Amon-Re.
The plague of hail (Exo. 9:18-26) made a mockery of the Egyptians’ deification of the heavenly bodies: Nut (the female representative of the sky and the personification of the vault of heaven), Shu (who holds up the heavens), and Tefnut (the goddess of moisture).
For protection against locusts (Exo. 10:1-20), Egyptians worshiped the god Senehem. Amon-Re was the Egyptians’ chief deity, the personification of the sun. When Amon-Re rose in the east, he symbolized new life and resurrection. When Amon-Re set in the west, he symbolized death and the underworld. When Jehovah God brought darkness over the land of Egypt (10:21-29), He showed His power over Amon-Re. Of course, it would also be easy to see the death of the first born as a judgment against Amon-Re, the god of resurrection, of new life.
But, primarily, the last plague (11:1-10) was directed against Pharaoh himself, as a god of Egypt and the whole dynasty, the line of succession. I wish to bring out one last point in this regard. In Exodus 11:7, God writes that a “dog” will not sharpen its tongue. The Egyptians had a god named Anubis, in the form of a canine. He was the god of the dead and embalming. The point is that Jehovah God would and did protect Israel from the gods of Israel.
Part of the reason why God, through Moses, reminds Israel that they had conquered the gods of Egypt is because they are on the verge of entering into Canaan and they will be confronted with even more gods - Baal, Chemosh, Milcom, and others. If God defeated the gods of the Egyptians, Israel should not be afraid of the gods of the Canaanites. Let us read 33:50-56.
Verse 52 - “figured stones” probably refers to stone obelisks which were used in worshipping idols (cf. Lev. 26:1). All of these images are to be destroyed so that Israel will not be tempted to follow after their neighbors in what they are doing religiously. God judged Egypt and God will judge the Canaanites. Israel does not need to trust the Canaanites and follow their example because God is going to judge the Canaanites as well.
Here’s an application to us today — we are surrounded by lots of religions and lots of churches. Some of those churches seem to be on the cutting edge of technology and advancement, growing by leaps and bounds. In a society where it seems like few people are really interested in spiritual matters, there are churches who are breaking the mold and growing and reaching people with some kind of message. We even have some of our own brethren who say, “If the church of Christ doesn’t change, it will die.”
I know that is not true. I accept by faith that that is not true because passages like Numbers 33 tell me that I need to live by the mouth of God and God is going to judge the “gods” of the land, man-made religions in the land. Jesus, Himself, said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matt. 15:13-14).
If we claim to be faithful to God, we need to stay faithful to God’s word and not trust that just because someone next door seems to be prospering in our eyes, it means they have God’s blessings. We need to stay faithful to His word because (and this is our third point…)
GOD PROVIDES FOR HIS FAITHFUL - 33:14:
Verse 1 - Israel came out of Egypt “by their armies.” God blessed Israel while they were in Egypt and God blessed Israel, despite their wickedness, in the wandering in the wilderness.
Let’s look at some “numbers” since this book is called Numbers. We actually begin by referring to Genesis 46:27 where Moses tells us that the number of people from Abraham’s family who moved to Egypt to escape the famine in the days of Joseph were 70. Now we jump to the beginning of the book of Numbers where, just as Israel was leaving Mount Sinai God commands Moses to take a count of the nation of Israel and 1:46 summarizes that there were 603,550. These were just men, twenty-years old and above, who were able to go to war. It is easy to imagine that Israel, with women and children, numbered two million or more.
It is Numbers 13-14 when Israel chose to rebel against God and not invade the land of Canaan. So, God punished them by making them wander around in the wilderness for one year for every day the spies had been in the land, which equaled 40 years. During those 40 years, in the book of Numbers, we see Israelites over and over again who disobeyed God and God killed the Israelites by the tens of thousands! The men who were 20 years old and above who could have gone into Canaan to wage war would all die in the wilderness. Every single man except Joshua and Caleb.
And yet, after all that forty years of dying, we see that God commanded Moses to number the Israelites again after the forty years and in Numbers 26:51, the fighting men numbered 601,730. In other words, during those forty years of disobedience and rebellion, the total number of fighting men twenty-years old and above only dropped by 1,820. On average, God killed 45 people a year. That’s one every 8 days. When men and women walked with God in integrity, with their hearts, God provided for them.
There are several sites here that you and I are familiar with because we read their stories in Exodus and Numbers. For example, verse 14 mentions Rephidim. The story of Rephidim is told in Exodus 17 and two major events happen at Rephidim. It was there that God told Moses to strike the rock and water poured out to quench the thirst of Israel. It was also at Rephidim where the Israelites, under the leadership of Joshua (the first time Joshua is mentioned in the biblical text) the Israelites fight against the Amalekites. It was on that occasion, you remember, that Moses sat on a stone on a hill overlooking Joshua waging battle. As long as Moses held his hand up with the rod, Joshua was successful. When Moses’ hand got tired, he lowered it and Joshua started losing. So, Aaron and Hur got on each side of Moses and they helped hold Moses’ hand up so that Joshua could win that battle. I do not know of any reason why God would do that, perhaps you do, except to encourage us to work together in our service to God. You make up for my weaknesses and I make up for your weaknesses.
God still provides for His faithful. The teachings of Jesus emphasize over and over again and so do His apostles that God provides for His faithful children. The famous part of the sermon on the mount in Matthew 6 teaches us not to worry about the basic necessities of life. If we seek God first and His kingdom, all the necessities of life will be provided for us.
GOD JUDGES HIS OWN - 33:38, 54-56:
Finally, we have the occasion referenced here that God will judge HIs own. God treats everyone fairly but God does not treat everyone equally. The Egyptians were pagans and disobedient and refused to humble their hearts to God’s message through Aaron and Moses. So, God destroyed the Egyptians.
But, there is one occasion where Aaron himself was not faithful either. So, God punished Aaron, but not like He punished the Egyptians. Aaron was a child of God and mostly tried to stay faithful to God. But there was one occasion where Aaron, and Moses himself, disobeyed God, took honor to themselves, and were punished by God by not being able to enter the Promised Land to which they had been hiking for 40 years.
That story is told in Numbers 20. The Israelites are camped at Meribah and they have no water. We read the story at 20:8-13 and then Aaron dies and is buried at Mount Her in 20:23-29.
Because God is holy, He does not tolerate sin in His own people. He cannot. So, God must discipline us in order to conform us into the image of Jesus Christ, His holy Son. If we listen to God’s discipline, we will repent and enjoy God’s blessings. If we do not listen to God’s discipline, we refuse to repent, we’ll miss God’s blessings and we might even miss out on heaven. Disobedience is simply not something to take lightly. God judges His own, just like Ananias and Sapphira.
Take home message: Let us live by the “mouth of the Lord,” not the “gods of the land,” staying faithful to God so we’ll be blessed by Him rather than judged.