PROMISES TO PILGRIMS Numbers 31–36
“Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess” (Num. 33:53).Israel reached the border of the Promised Land. Everything in these last chapters can be taken as a firm promise that God will give His people victory and peace.
Israel crushed the Midianites (31:1–54), and 2 of the 12 tribes were granted their lands (32:1–42). Moses reviewed Israel’s journey (33:1–49). He charged the people to utterly destroy the Canaanites (vv. 50–56), fixed the boundaries of the Promised Land (34:1–29), and reminded Israel to set aside towns for the Levites and as cities of refuge (35:1–34). He also commanded that women who inherit land must marry within their own tribe (36:1–13).
Understanding the Text
“Take vengeance on the Midianites” Num. 31:1–24. The Midianites had not only opposed the Israelites, but had carried out Balaam’s strategy and turned many Israelites to idolatry. The complete destruction of Midian was a divine judgment on this sin and on idolatry itself. Often God uses human beings as instruments to punish sin. “Not one is missing” Num. 31:25–54. The strength of the enemy is suggested by the 808,000 animals and 32,000 virgins taken as spoil. In Bible times girls married in their early teens, so the 32,000 represent a small percentage of the total population. When roll was called by the Israelite commanders, they discovered that this total victory had been won without the loss of a single man! The victory over Midian was a preview and promise of the success God would bring His people if they continued to trust Him. This time Israel responded appropriately. They donated all the gold they had acquired as a gift to the Lord. God’s people had at last learned to be thankful. “Let this land be given . . . as our possession” Num. 32:1–42. At first Moses took the request of the Reubenites and Gadites for the land of the Midianites as a failure to follow God wholeheartedly. The promise of these tribes to join in the battle for Canaan showed they remained committed to the Lord. We need to measure others by their commitment to God, not whether they agree with us completely. “Here are the stages” Num. 33:1–49. Commentators have come up with a variety of creative theories about the significance of the 42 stops mentioned here. Yet one thing is very clear. God had brought His people from Egypt to the very border of Canaan. Despite Israel’s sins and failures, despite desolate and waterless wastes, despite enemy armies, God had been faithful. Looking back at each stage of the journey, Israel could see in what had happened a preview of the future. The God who had kept them safe would surely fight for them when they at last invaded the Promised Land. Looking back can have similar value for us. Yes, we’ll find many examples of personal failure. We’ll recall times when life seemed desolate and empty. But we will also realize that God has brought us through those times, has guided, strengthened, and brought us safely to the present moment. Remembering God’s faithfulness helps us to move ahead confidently as we take our next step toward the Promised Land. “Drive out all the inhabitants of the land” Num. 33:50–56. Moses repeated God’s command to expel all the Canaanites from the Promised Land. Too-intimate association with pagan peoples would corrupt Israel. God’s people were to remain separate and pure. The New Testament reflects this thought, with a significant modification. Paul notes that the only way we could avoid contact with pagans and their practices would be to “leave this world” (1 Cor. 5:10). So we are simply to avoid being “yoked together” with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14). We are to identify with our fellow believers, not with the unsaved. If our hearts belong to the Lord alone, and our most intimate values are shaped within a Christian community, then we will remain both separate and pure, able to represent Jesus to the people of this world. “Give the Levites towns” Num. 35:1–5. Towns for the Levites were scattered through the territory of the other tribes. In this way the Levites, who with the priests were to teach God’s Law to Israel, would be available. We can’t influence those with whom we have no contact. “Cities of refuge” Num. 35:6–34. Old Testament Law makes a clear distinction between premeditated murder and accidental homicide. Specific situations are included as cases from which precedents can be drawn. No national or local police force existed in Israel. The people of each community were responsible to enforce God’s laws, after a jury of local elders determined the facts of each case. In the event of a killing, it was the responsibility of a near relative of the victim, called the “avenger of blood,” to execute the murderer. The law is very strict in its treatment of premeditated murder. “Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it.” God would provide the land for His people. They were responsible to maintain its purity. Cities of refuge were located so that anyone who killed another person accidentally would be within a day’s journey of safety. God, who judges the guilty, is quick to safeguard the innocent. “Marry within the tribal clan” Num. 36:1–13. The Promised Land was to be divided among the tribes of Israel. Each tribe, and each family within the tribe, was to hold the plot of land it was given perpetually, as a permanent heritage from the Lord. While the daughters of Zelophehad were guaranteed land, they were told to marry within their tribe in order to preserve that tribe’s heritage. What God gives us is not to be lightly transferred to others.
It’s Their Choice (Num. 32)
Many years ago I was best man at a friend’s wedding. Jack was a young flier whom our pastor was convinced should go to the mission field as a Missionary Aviation Fellowship pilot. I remember how upset the pastor was when Jack announced he was getting married and staying with his airline. Pastor was convinced that Jack had chosen something less than God’s best. Moses would have understood our pastor’s reaction. He was just as upset when the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh petitioned him to give them the Trans-Jordan region they had taken from the Midianites. The problem was that this territory lay outside Canaan, the land that God had promised to Abraham. Was their request wise, or even right? The text gives no clear answer, though at first glance settling outside the Promised Land would seem to be an outright rejection of God’s stated purpose and promises. Yet two things suggest that the request was not motivated by a lack of commitment or of faith. The petitioning tribes promised to “cross over to fight” in the battle for Canaan. The Hebrew here is impressive. It actually says “hurrying before the Israelites” (v. 17). The tribes of Reuben and Gad demonstrated their commitment by their willingness to lead Israel into battle and bear the brunt of the attack. They showed their trust in God by a readiness to leave their families and herds unprotected while the fighting men went off to the war. Moses accepted these conditions and granted Rueben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh vast lands east of the Jordan River. It is a good thing to remember when you or I are tempted to stand in judgment over another person’s decision. Moses may not have liked the decision Reuben and Gad made. But, convinced of their commitment and trust in God, Moses granted them the freedom to make it. You and I can’t really say what God’s best for another person is. And our view isn’t really important. What counts is still his or her commitment to, and active trust in, God. Each person must have the freedom to follow where God leads.
The most important advice we can give another person is, Trust the Lord, and follow wherever He leads.