PERILS FOR PILGRIMS Numbers 10–14
“How long will they refuse to believe in Me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?” (Num. 14:11)Every defeat believers experience is ultimately rooted in unbelief. In these pivotal chapters of Numbers, we learn that a lack of trust in God may be expressed in different ways.
Definition of Key Terms
Unbelief. Unbelief here is not at all a failure to believe that God exists. As James reminds us, “Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19). Rather unbelief is a failure to trust God, and is expressed in some failure to obey God’s Word.
Signs of unbelief marred the journey to Canaan. Despite careful preparations (10:1–36), the Israelites complained of hardships (11:1–3), and displayed ingratitude (vv. 4–35). Even Miriam and Aaron were jealous of Moses’ leadership (12:1–16). Israel camped on the border of Canaan, as a dozen men were sent to learn about conditions there (13:1–26). Most of the spies were terrified by the strength of Canaan’s people (vv. 27–33). The people rebelled, flatly refusing to attack Canaan, and were sentenced to wander in the desert for 40 years, until all but two of the unbelieving Exodus generation were dead.
Understanding the Text
“You will be remembered by the Lord your God” Num. 10:1–10. Josephus says that the two silver trumpets that God instructed Moses to make were about 15 inches long. Two such trumpets were taken from the temple when Jerusalem was razed inA.D 70, and are pictured on Titus’ Arch of Triumph in Rome. The trumpets were used to direct the tribes when on the march. The trumpets were also to be blown when Israel went into battle. God would “remember” His people then. Here “remember” does not mean think of, but to act on behalf of. God remembers us on our pilgrimage too. As we will see, the real question is, Will we remember to act on His Word? “You can be our eyes” Num. 10:11–36. Moses’ request that his brother-in-law, Hobab, accompany Israel did not, as some have thought, show a lack of faith. The Midianites of that era were a nomadic people familiar with lands south of Canaan. Moses followed wherever the cloud God sent led him. Hobab provided information about the area toward which they were headed. It’s wise for Christians today to seek advice from other believers. It only becomes wrong if we permit human advice to take the place of divine guidance. “The people complained about their hardships” Num. 11:1–3. The plains of Sinai are verdant compared to the desert of Et-Tih. The people felt oppressed by the desolation, and began to complain. God’s cloud had led Israel into this desert. Yet after only three days, the people focused on their “hardships” rather than fixing their hopes on the good land toward which they were journeying. God’s fire burned only “some of the outskirts” of the camp. This fire was only a warning. Moses prayed, and the fire died down. Unbelief is discouraged by every hardship. Faith focuses expectantly on the future. “If only we had meat to eat” Num. 11:4–35. The people found a new cause of complaint: a monotonous diet! Numbers says “every family” was “wailing” at the door of its tent. For a year now God had provided manna, a miraculous, perfectly balanced food that provided all the body requires for good health. Rather than be grateful, the people shouted their dissatisfaction. God gave them what they wanted—meat to eat—but with it came a plague that killed thousands. In 1 Timothy 6:8, the Apostle Paul portrays the attitude we believers are to adopt on our pilgrimage. “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” The person who truly trusts God is content with what He provides. A preoccupation with material things, whether diet or riches, is a subtle but real expression of unbelief. What about the quail? Even in the early years of this century, great flocks of quail migrated across the Sinai peninsula. About 2 million of the low-flying birds were caught in the nets of Arabs living there. So the biblical story of low-flying quail has a modern corollary. Most important in Numbers, however, is the outcome. With the meat that Israel craved came a plague that killed thousands. For most of us, the abundance we sometimes crave would be spiritually disastrous. How much wiser to thank God for what we have than express unbelief by craving what we lack. Moses too cried out. He felt crushed by the weight of leading an unresponsive people. God answered Moses by sharing His Spirit with 70 elders in Israel. Not all discontent is ungodly. When our concerns are spiritual, or our needs are real, we should never hesitate to bring them to the Lord. “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses” Num. 12:1–16. Miriam, Moses’ sister, was the leader of Israel’s spirit-filled women and a prophetess (cf. Ex. 15:20). Aaron, Moses’ brother, was high priest, Israel’s supreme religious leader. Yet these two became jealous of Moses and challenged his prophetic role as the primary person through whom God spoke to His people. God called the three to the entrance of the tabernacle. He affirmed Moses’ primacy and struck Miriam with an infectious skin disease. Aaron was spared because the disease would have disqualified him from the high priesthood, and Israel needed him to make sacrifices of atonement. The key to applying the passage lies in the description of Moses as “very humble” (v. 3). The Hebrew word, ’anaw, describes Moses’ attitude. It indicates an absence of pride or self-confidence, allowing complete dependence on God. The story pinpoints a common peril for leaders through whom God has spoken. Such leaders are susceptible to those subtle expressions of unbelief, pride, and jealousy. In contrast, humility in leaders is a sign of continuing trust in God. “Moses sent them to explore Canaan” Num. 13:1–25. Representatives of each tribe were sent to explore Canaan. Note that the Lord told Moses to send out the spies (vv. 1–24). Trying to learn as much as possible about where we’re going is not an indication of unbelief. “They reported to them and to the whole assembly” Num. 13:26–33. The spies agreed on their description of the land. It was rich and fertile. But it was populated by warlike peoples, living in walled cities. But the spies disagreed about what this meant to Israel. Ten were frightened, claiming, “We can’t attack these people; they are stronger than we are.” Two, Caleb and Joshua, disagreed. “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” Faith and unbelief are still displayed in how we interpret life’s challenges. The problem is seldom in our assembly of the facts. It is in our interpretation of them. It is spiritual disaster to forget the most important fact of all; that God can lead us to triumph. “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt” Num. 14:1–45. The Israelites accepted the 10 spies’ view and rebelled (vv. 1–4). Moses and Aaron “fell facedown” as an expression of horror at Israel’s awful sin (v. 5). When they begged the people not to rebel against God, the “whole assembly talked about stoning them.” Moses and Aaron were saved only by an appearance of the visible glory of the Lord at the tabernacle. In judgment God announced that every adult over 20, except for Caleb and Joshua, would die in the desert. For some 40 years the doomed generation would wander in circles near Kadesh Barnea until everyone had died. As for the 10 spies who spread the bad report, they were struck down immediately by a plague (v. 37). Direct disobedience is always rooted in unbelief and leads to the most severe judgments of all. “Disobeying the Lord’s command” Num. 14:39–45. After God’s judgment was announced, the people decided they would attack Canaan after all. Moses rightly identified this as further disobedience. Timing is important in a relationship with God. Acting too late is as much evidence of unbelief as original hesitation. Both lead to disaster and defeat.
Afraid to Obey? (Num. 14)
“Don’t you think four years of God making me suffer is enough?” The question came from a young woman in a Florida Sunday School class. Over several weeks her story had gradually been shared with the other women in the class. She had been engaged to a young man who made her pregnant, then broke the engagement to marry her best friend. Within a year that marriage broke up, and he returned to marry her. Now they were divorced too . . . but still living together. Gently the teacher tried to explain. “Don’t blame God for making you suffer. Most often suffering is a consequence of our own choices. If you want to avoid suffering, you have to make better choices.” This is a lesson that Israel failed to learn. Israel, like the 22-year-old in that Sunday School class, assumed that a person can believe in God and do whatever he or she chooses. Each heard God’s voice of instruction, but each had decided not to obey. In making that decision, each displayed what Scripture calls “unbelief.” In Numbers 14 we sense the anger rebellious sins arouse, and also the grace still available to the sinner. God was angry enough with Israel to put the people “to death all at one time” (v. 15). Yet Moses reminded the Lord of His earlier revelation of Himself to Moses (cf. Ex. 34:6–7; Num. 14:17–18). God is “slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion.” Yet God will “not leave the guilty unpunished.” In this passage, as in the life of the young woman in Sunday School, forgiveness and consequences are both displayed. God did not strike Israel with death “all at one time.” They lived long enough to see their children mature, and those children did gain the Promised Land. Yet as a consequence of their unbelief and rebellion they themselves could not enter the land. They suffered the very fate they feared, and died in the wilderness. Unbelief still holds us back, blocking our obedience to the Lord. Sometimes our motive is fear. We want to obey God, but we are afraid to. Sometimes our motive is selfishness. We feel that if we obey God we won’t get something we badly want. Whatever our motive, a failure to trust God enough to obey Him has consequences. Israel wandered in the wilderness. The young Florida divorcee suffers her uncertainties and pain. How much wiser to simply put ourselves completely in God’s hands, and to obey Him without holding back.
Be alert against the many forms that unbelief can take in your life.