5 things I have learnt from the book of Numbers

As a part of my Bible reading throughout 2020, I am highlighting 5 things from the books of the Bible that have stood out to me and taught me.

Here are 5 things I have learnt from the book of Numbers.

The Power of God’s Blessing

It is often too easy when reading the books of the law, the Torah, to see God as harsh and strict. God spends a lot of time giving laws and detailing the consequences for the Israelites’ transgressions. We can be fooled into thinking that God is, by nature, restrictive and miserly.

Yet, this could not be further from the truth. Whilst God does give His law as a reflection of His character, it is not the only thing that He gives to the Israelite nation: He also takes time to bless them. It is not that God first blesses Israel in the book of Numbers, as He bestows a number of blessings on the fathers of Israel, but Numbers contains two important blessings.

The first is the Aaronic blessing, found in Numbers 6:24 – 26:

“The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you
and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and
give you his peace.”

This was God’s word of blessing on His people. His desire is to show Israel grace, support, peace, and the blessing of His very presence. It is a sign of God’s favour and of His loving and kind disposition towards His people. This blessing, of course, was offered by God to Israel in the full knowledge of Israel’s hearts towards Him. No – one reading the Old Testament can ever suppose Israel as being worthy of such a blessing, yet it is God’s earnest command for Aaron and his sons to bless Israel in this way.

In fact, wherever we are called ‘blessed’ in the Bible (e.g. “blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked” – Psalm 1:1), this passage helps explain what the ‘blessing’ means. It is the archetypal blessing. The blessing of God is His face, turned to shine upon us and keep us in His grace and peace.

The second is Balaam’s blessing. In the famous story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22 – 24, Israel are passing through the lands of Moab. The king of Moab at the time, Balak, summons Balaam and instructs him to curse the Israelites as they pass through the land of Moab (Numbers 22:17). Yet, under God’s direction, when Balaam tries to curse the Israelites, he ends up blessing them three times.

Whilst Balaam is blessing Israel in the triumph of the Israelite nation, he makes it clear that those against God’s people cannot undo the blessing that has been placed upon them. For example, in his first blessing, Balaam says “how can I curse whom God has not cursed?” (Numbers 23:8), in his second blessing “He has bless, and I cannot revoke it” (Numbers 23:20) and, in his third blessing “blessed are those who bless you and cursed are those who curse you.“ (Numbers 24:9). God’s blessing is final and absolute. If God has blesses, who can curse? God’s blessings are His alone to give and His alone to revoke.

God’s Immutability

Within Balaam’s second blessing of Israel as they pass through the plains of Moab, he makes a quite profound statement that reveals to us something of the nature of God.

“God is not a man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change is mind.
He has said and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it? (Numbers 23:19)

This is an amazing revelation of the nature of God. In stark contrast to the man – made idols of the ancient near East culture, God is not a man. He does not have the same failings as men, like the propensity to lie. Moreover, He does not even change His mind. In other words, what God says is a) true and b) final. What He says, as Balaam goes on to say, will be carried out. What He speaks will come true.

This reveals to us one of the most treasured and comforting attributes of God: His ‘unchangableness’ or His ‘immutability’. God, both in His will and His nature, cannot change. He cannot go back on His word; He cannot deceive by saying one thing and doing another. He cannot change what He has willed or who He is.

All these things men and women do all the time, but God is not like us. We fluctuate between one thing another. We lie and go back on our word. We say will do something but we do not follow through. We change our minds many times a day. Yet, who God is and what God has willed has never changed throughout all eternity and nor shall it change.

If this were not true, we could never trust His promises. What if God were to change His mind on the last day and revoke His promise of salvation to those who trust in the name of Christ? With a changeable God, this is a possibility. If He were fickle, we could have no genuine hope for salvation or reconciliation with God. But He is unchanging and His word is sure and so we can place our trust in His promises because He can never not be who He is, and He can never go back on His word!

God’s Power to Speak

One of the more awe-inspiring moments in the book of Numbers is the curious moment in Numbers 22 when Balaam’s donkey begins to speak. Of course, through the mere laws of nature, this is impossible. However, a talking donkey is hardly a challenging prospect for the Almighty God of the Universe.

In this peculiar episode, God supernaturally gives Balaam’s donkey an ability to rebuke his master for beating him with his staff (Numbers 22:28 – 30). God uses this encounter to reveal Balaam’s own sin to him (Numbers 22:34). But one other lesson to learn from this confrontation is that God’s power in speaking is not dependent of the vessel of His word.

This is of specific solace to me as someone who occasionally shares God’s word publically, but it is also equally applicable to whenever and wherever the Gospel is shared. The power of God’s word does not lie in the eloquence, or otherwise, of the speaker. If God can make His word known through a donkey, He can use the imperfect human vessels of His Church.

God’s Grace in Salvation

One of the most remarkably prophetic incidents in the whole of the Old Testament occurs when Israel are the wilderness. Rather unremarkably, the people Israel were complaining to Moses again about being brought out of Egypt (Numbers 21:4- 5). However, after God sends serpents among the people of Israel as a judgement for speaking against God, Israel are repentant of their sin (Numbers 21:6 – 7). God provides for Moses a bronze serpent to hold over the people, and commanded everyone bitten in Israel to look upon it in order to live (Numbers 21:8 – 9).

Two main things are striking here. First, is the incredible act of grace that God provides for His sinful and rebellious people. Though it seems to us, desensitised to sin as we are, that God’s judgement of serpents was excessive, their sin warranted judgement. They continued to attack the goodness of God’s rescue of them in their freedom from slavery and continual disbelief in His provision for them in the wilderness. Yet God is gracious, and provides a way of salvation for His people. The people of Israel in no way deserved a way to be spared the judgement of the snakes, but God out of nothing but sheer grace gave them a way of salvation, entirely unmerited by Israel.

Secondly, although God provides an incredible cure to save the Israelites from the bites of the snakes in the wilderness, John makes it very clear in John 3:14 – 15 that God has provided an even greater solution to an even deadlier disease:

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

The incident of the bronze snake in the wilderness is merely a shadow of the greatest act of salvation provided by God: the lifting up of the Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross. If we look to Him, we have life. Not merely life cured from a snake bite, but eternal life cured from sin.

The Importance of Vows

There are a number of vows that the book of Numbers talks about that the people of Israel could make to God. One particularly important one was the Nazerite vow (Numbers 6) which is the vow that both Samson (Judges 13:7) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11) take to consecrate themselves for a special service to God.

Yet the Nazerite vow was not intended to be taken by every Israelite. There was, however, guidance given about vows made generally in Numbers 30. There is no room for someone to go back on a vow made to the Lord. He is considered ‘bound’ by his pledge. The word of an Israelite was to be rock solid and trustworthy.

God reflects His own character and His own faithfulness of His vows and promises by requiring that to be reflected in His people. By teaching His people about the importance of keeping vows, both special and ordinary, He is teaching His people to be able to trust the promises that He makes to them.

This particular command will be a very real problem for the nation of Israel to come, and perhaps some of the greatest ‘falls from grace’ in the rest of the Old Testament occur when people break or forget the promises made to God. Others make hasty vows, without considering the consequences of what would happen once they had to carry out what they had vowed.

However, as Christians living in the light of the New Testament, we know that God has fulfilled and kept every promise He has ever made and we can rest assured in the firm knowledge that His promises endure forever. His promise was not made hastily, but decided in eternity past. There is no doubt of the validity of His vows, for He does not break His word.

Of course, there is much more to the book of Numbers than just these 5 points, but they are the ones that stood out to me as I read through Numbers in 2020. Enjoy reading it for yourself!