In turning to the narrative parts of Numbers, we move from the divine word to human deeds – from what the people should do to what they did do. It is a sad and sordid story. The wilderness becomes a testing ground for them. They are out of Egypt but not in the Promised Land, and this limbo existence is very hard for them to endure.
We need to remember that the people are now in a covenant relationship with God. He has bound himself to them. He will bless their obedience and punish their disobedience. The same acts of sin are committed in Exodus 16–19 as in Numbers 10–14, but only in Numbers is the law violated, so only in Numbers do the sanctions apply.
God’s law can help you see what is right (and wrong), but it cannot help you do what is right. The law did not change their behavior: it brought guilt, condemnation and punishment. This is why the law given on the first Pentecost day was inadequate and later needed the Spirit to be given on that same day. Without supernatural help we would never be able to keep the law.
We will look first at the leaders of the nation and see how they tried and failed to live up to the law. They are all from one family, two brothers and a sister – Moses, Aaron and Miriam (the Hebrew version of the name Mary). We are told their good points and their strengths of character as well as their weaknesses.
Moses is the dominant figure throughout the book. In many respects he was a prophet, a priest and a king.
We have seen already how other prophets were given visions and dreams, but Moses spoke face to face with God in the tabernacle. He was even allowed to see a part of God – he saw his ‘back’.
He also acted in the role of priest. There are five occasions when he interceded with God. Indeed, on occasions he was quite bold in the way he prayed for the people and urged God to be true to himself.
He was never called ‘king’, and of course this was some centuries before the monarchy was established, but he led the people into battle and ruled over them, and so functioned as a king, even if the title was not used.
One of the most notable things about Moses was that when he was criticized, badly treated or betrayed he never tried to defend himself. Writing about himself, he says he was the meekest of all the men on the earth – a hard thing to say if you want it to remain true! Of course, Moses was saying no more than Jesus when he said we should learn from him for he was meek and humble. Moses let the Lord defend him. Meekness is not weakness, but it does mean not trying to defend yourself.
Aaron was Moses’ brother, assigned to Moses as his ‘spokesman’ when Moses had to face the Pharaoh in Egypt. He too was a prophet. He was also designated to be a priest, the chief priest. The Aaronic priesthood became the heart of the worship and ritual of the ancient people of God.
Miriam was Moses’ and Aaron’s sister. She was known as a prophetess. She sang and danced with joy when the Egyptians were drowned in the sea.
So we have Moses as prophet, priest and king, Aaron as prophet and priest, and Miriam as prophetess. Note that the gifts are shared and that prophecy is a ministry for women as well as for men. Miriam’s particular prophetic gift was expressed in song. There is a very direct link between prophecy and music. In later years King David chose choirmasters who were also prophets, and Elisha would often request music as a preparation for his prophesying. It seems that there is something about the right kind of music which releases the prophetic spirit.
Despite their strengths and gifts, however, each of these leaders failed in some way. It is instructive for us to examine their failings in detail.
Miriam’s problem was jealousy: she desired honour for herself. She wanted to speak with God as Moses did. In addition she was critical of his choice of wife. Miriam was punished with ‘leprosy’ for seven days until she repented. She was among those who died at Kadesh.
The next to drop out of the leadership picture was Aaron. Once again his problem was jealousy and desire for honour. Miriam and Aaron were together in criticizing Moses. Their excuse was that Moses had married someone of whom they did not approve (he married a Kushite woman who had come out of Egypt with them and who was not even a Hebrew). God did not criticize him for doing that, but Miriam and Aaron did.
Aaron thus died at Mount Hor, a little further on from Kadesh, when he was over 100 years old. Soon after they expressed jealousy and desire for honour, both Aaron and Miriam died.
Even Moses failed. He became very impatient with the people. The New Testament tells us that he put up with the people for 40 years in the wilderness. It was an amazing task of leadership to deal with over 2 million people who were always grumbling, complaining and having arguments that needed to be settled.
His big mistake came when he disobeyed God’s instructions concerning the provision of water. Moses had provided water for the people by striking the rock with his rod. The limestone of the Sinai Desert has the peculiar property of holding reservoirs of water within itself. There are huge reserves of water in the Sinai Desert, but they are usually surrounded by rock and contained within the rock. Moses had released those reservoirs of water just by touching the rock with his rod.
On this second occasion when they were short of water God told Moses not to strike the rock but just to speak to it. A word would be sufficient to release the water in the rock. But Moses was so impatient with the people that he did not listen to God carefully and he struck the rock twice. God told Moses that because he was disobedient, he would not put a foot in the Promised Land. This is a poignant reminder of how important it is for a leader to listen carefully to God. Moses died at Mount Nebo in sight of the Promised Land, but unable to enter it.
Numbers tells us that it is a big responsibility to lead God’s people. It must be done correctly and it must be done God’s way.
There were a number of individuals who let God down throughout the book of Numbers. The most outstanding was a man called Korah. We find Korah leading a rebellion because he was angry that the priesthood should be exclusively the right of Aaron and his family. Others joined him in this subversion, and soon there were 250 gathered together, challenging the authority of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron. The rebels said they could not believe that God had chosen Moses and Aaron and were critical of their failure to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.
Then with great drama, Moses told the people to keep away from all the rebels’ tents. Fire came down from heaven, struck their tents and destroyed them all. Korah saw it coming and ran away with a few of his followers, but they were swallowed up on some mud flats. (In the Sinai Desert there are mud flats which have a very hard crust but are very soft underneath, like thin ice on a pond. They are like a treacherous swamp or quicksand.)
Despite all this, some of the psalms are written by the sons of Korah. This man’s family did not follow him in his rebellion, and his children later became singers in the temple. We do not need to follow our parents when they do evil.
Korah is mentioned in the book of Jude in the New Testament as a warning to Christians not to question God’s appointments and become jealous.
Moses then announced that they needed to test whether God had chosen him and his brother for these positions. He told the leaders of the twelve tribes to get hold of twigs from the scrub bushes in the desert. They were to lay these twigs in the holy place before the Lord all night. In the morning Aaron’s stick had blossomed with leaves, flowers and budding fruit. The other twigs were dead. From then on they put Aaron’s rod inside the ark of the covenant as God’s proof that Aaron was his choice and not self-appointed.