I have to admit that Numbers is not a book that I rush toward. The main reason for this is that I have not studied it in depth and so should probably preach it in order to develop my appreciation. Nonetheless, here are three thoughts from reading it through these last few days.
1. Faith does not automatically flow from the miraculous. Many people assume that if we could just see something miraculous, then we’d believe. After all, if we could just see God doing wonders in our midst then the culture would come flocking. Numbers again underlines that even God’s people don’t automatically respond in faith to observed wonders, so assuming others will is presumptuous. Water from a rock, a budding staff, the ground swallowing rebels, and consequently that generation were a people of faith? Not quite. The issue is not what we see, but how our hearts perceive what we see. If we don’t want to believe, no amount of miraculous intervention will guarantee true faith.
2. The Law’s community function did not generate faith. The nation that had started with one man, become twelve men, then seventy, then hundreds of thousands needed to be constrained and ordered. Their sin and rebellion had led to a growing statute book and legal code. By the time we get to Numbers we might assume that being a people with well defined laws meant they were ready to believe and trust God. Caleb and Joshua are the glorious exceptions. The ten spies didn’t. The people didn’t. Even Moses didn’t. In fact, rather than getting caught up in what Moses actually did wrong in chapter 20, perhaps the writer is vague on the errant action to point us to underlying faith issues. The great leader under the Law who disobeys God through lack of faith (Num.20:12) seems to contrast with the great man of faith before Law who kept God’s commands (compare and contrast Gen.26:5).
3. God’s promise plan is not thwarted even when the faithless miss out. It is important to help listeners know that Numbers sits in the flow of the Pentateuch, rather than as a stand-alone collection of stories. God’s plan to bless the world back in the beginning of Genesis was articulated clearly in his promise to Abram. By the end of Genesis the seed promise has grown into an extended family, with blessing to all families reiterated in the blessing of Judah by Jacob. That nation through which the blessing would come is born in Exodus despite the three-fold attempt by Pharoah to curse the “too numerous people.” At the other end of the wilderness sojourn we see another king seeking three times to curse a “too numerous” Israel. Again, the attempts to curse God’s nation lead only to their blessing. Thus the promise to Abraham marches on, with just Deuteronomy left: a sermonic call for circumcised hearts and love for God from the new generation heading into the dangerous place of security and peace.