"Judgments of a Loving God" - Chapter 17





Chapter 17: The Judgments of Numbers (1)

a) Casual Sabbath Disobedience b) Grumblings about Hardships c) Miriam's Leprosy d) The Rejection of Canaan



Chapter 17 Contents


17.1 Introduction

17.2 Casual Sabbath Disobedience

17.3 Grumblings about Hardships

17.4 Miriam's Leprosy

17.5 The Rejection of Canaan

17.6 And so….



17.1 Introduction


A Recap

Perhaps it would be useful to have an overview. Judgments, we have seen, come in all different forms. In our studies so far we have considered the judgments of:

  • banishment from a land,
  • banishment from a community,
  • a widespread flood,*
  • a man cursed,
  • a people scattered with different languages,
  • tumours and illness ,
  • complete destruction of two cities and of a hesitant woman, *
  • the death of a bad man,
  • the death of a man who refused to honour their family,
  • ten plagues on a pharaoh, *
  • execution of some 4000 idolaters, *
  • fire consuming two casual priests,
  • the executions of a blasphemer,
  • the execution of a Sabbath breaker,

Of the total list of the fourteen judgments we have observed so far (excluding the famine which was not necessarily seen as a judgment)

  • Five of that list (the ones italicised) did not result in death, and
  • of the nine that did involve death,
    • five of the that number involved individual deaths, and
    • four of them involved many deaths (*).

In every case others learned by what happened and obviously in the case of the five where death did not follow, those closest involved, learnt. Now let's start to consider the nine matters in Numbers that require our attention.



17.2 Casual Sabbath Disobedience


A Trivial Judgment?

Num 15:32-35    While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, "The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp."


We will in the next section consider the collective ‘grumblings in the desert' but before we do that we deal with this one-off judgment which fits better with the ones we have just previously been considering.


Again from our perspective in the twenty-first century, killing a man for gathering fuel on a Saturday seems wildly extreme to say the least. What it speaks to are the things that are under threat at this time in the life of Israel .


The Context of the Ten Commandments

Most of us are probably aware that the first laws given by God at Sinai were the Ten Commandments. Remember these are laws given to this particular people who

  • have been miraculously delivered out of slavery in Egypt and
  • who have been invited by God to enter into a covenant-based relationship with Him.


That covenant was initially very simple: “if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” (Ex 19:5)

•  What ‘treasured possession' meant wasn't spelled out but if you had a treasured possession, you would think very highly of it and take great care of it.

•  In the case of a people with God it would mean He would lead and guide and provide for and protect them.

•  If you read the blessings of obedience in Deut 28 you see promises of great provision and at the beginning of that chapter the overall promise: “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth.” (Deut 28:1)


Now from Israel's side we have seen twice it was to “fully obey” God. The reward for that would be that they would be elevated above all other nations. The peak of this in the period of the kings was clearly in Solomon's reign and that is born out at the Queen of Sheba's visit (see 1 Kings 10). Prosperity and abundance abounded.


Now come back to the Ten Commandments and we have ten instructions that could apply to any people anywhere on the globe, apart from the fact that they are given to Israel in the context of being God's people who have known His miraculous deliverance.


Ways of Honouring (and revealing) God

The first four of those ten commands are about honouring God – having no other gods, never making idols for worship, never taking God's name in vain and always remembering Him once a week at least on this day referred to as the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Ex 20:8-11)


The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word, shabat , meaning ‘to rest'. It was thus a day of rest on which you would remember that God is the almighty Creator God who made all things for us.


We might note in passing that they were to be used in the ways He prescribed, for failure to do that means self-destruction, e.g. over eating = gluttony = health breakdown; over drinking alcohol = addiction and health breakdown; sexual promiscuity = unfaithfulness, relational breakdown, unwanted pregnancy, and sexual diseases. It is quite obvious that abuse or misuse of any of the good things God has given for our enjoyment, results in heath or social breakdown.


When it comes to the Sabbath rest, we may not see the sense in it (although health professionals have accepted the wisdom of not working more than six days at a stretch, and social workers might accept the wisdom of creating family time every seven days, and so on) but God knows how He has designed us to work and if He says work six days and then stop, that is wisdom we ignore at our peril.


At the end of all this, the big question is will we accept that God knows best. A study of the laws given through Moses shows a large number of them are for regulating life within the community to ensure peace and order and blessing.


To keep Israel on track we thus find that there are at least twenty laws requiring the death penalty and, although our present perspective will almost certainly struggle with this, it does show the importance that the Lord gave to each of the issues to which the death penalty was applied. So, although collecting sticks does appear a trivial offence to our eyes today, at that point in time it was a direct challenge to the covenant which agreed to abide by all the laws God gave them – including resting on the Sabbath (our Saturday). It ultimately was an act of rebellion that said, I don't care about God or His rules or us supposedly being a special people.


Holding to a standard

Again to consider the aspect we have spoken of before, it is worth considering what would be the effect of this act going on without any response? One has to say that it would create the impression that these laws don't really matter and so if you can disregard this one you can disregard others and therefore do your own thing, and that will create a self-centred community – just the same as any other nation – which can be led astray into pagan practices observed in other nations and abhorred by civilized peoples.


Again, shocking but necessary. Remembering what we said about a parent bringing sharp discipline: you do it once and it doesn't need doing again. The fact that these laws were clearly being upheld by the Pharisees, at least, in Jesus' day, indicates that although there were occasional lapses, in general they were upheld throughout that nation's history – at least when the nation was seeking to be right with God.



17.3 Grumblings about Hardships


Sin & Judgment: Part 1

Num 11:1-3 Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the LORD and the fire died down. So that place was called Taberah, because fire from the LORD had burned among them.


Recent observations

We have in recent pages reflected on

  • Aaron's casual sons,
  • the man in a temper blaspheming and
  • the man collecting sticks on the Sabbath.


Now we lumped those three together because they were all examples of people who were blatantly disregarding the Law. We now move on to consider the judgments that fell on Israel in their time between Sinai and the Promised Land. In the trek from Egypt to Sinai, we noted that although Israel grumbled again and again, the Lord did not bring any form of judgment on them. That now changes considerably and one of the questions we must ask, is why did it change?


What has changed?

Note what took place here at this time: “Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD, and when he heard them his anger was aroused.” (v.1) They have been travelling a mere three days (10:33) This echoes what happened on the first trek when three days into their exit from Egypt they started grumbling because of lack of clean water (Ex 15:22-25).


This reminds us that we saw Israel grumbling on that first trek (between Pharaoh coming after them and the Amalekites attacking) three times – about unclean water, about lack of food and about lack of water. On each occasion the Lord simply provided for them – and that was just a year back.


In that intervening time they

  • came to Sinai, saw the signs of God's presence on the mountain,
  • over seventy of them had actually had a vision of the Lord,
  • they have gone through the Golden Calf incident and a number had died as a result of it.

You would have thought that they might have learned something of the Lord by now – that He was a miraculous deliverer, that He was a miraculous provider, and that He was holy and held sinners accountable.


The Lord's anger at their complaining is an indication that He expected them to have learned to trust Him in the light of all that He has done for them in these past couple of years. They are complaining about their “hardships”; simply they don't like trekking through the desert, but the Lord expects better of them.


The nature of the judgment (i)

With that expectation comes accountability, He is a God who continues to teach His people and so the judgment that we see occurring is “fire from the LORD” which “burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp.” (v.2) But note that there is no record of anyone being killed, simply that fire came to the outer regions of the camp presumably destroying tents etc. It is a clear and obvious lesson and the result is that the people cry out, Moses prays and God stops the fire.


Sin & Judgment: Part 2

But then it happens yet again and we read, “The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, "If only we had meat to eat!” (v.4) Now some suggest that “the rabble” refers to hangers-on who came out of Egypt with them but there is no indication that this was so and anyway it is the Israelites who now start wailing.

They remember back to what it had been like in Egypt: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost--also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.” (v.5) and they completely forget that they had been slaves! Indeed now they are even fed up with God's miraculous provision, the manna: “But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!" (v.6)


A negative attitude soon loses perspective and the truth soon leaves. The fact is that they should only be in this desert a short time before they get to their destination, the Promised Land. In the previous verses we saw that the Lord's anger “was aroused” which suggests it was slowly stirring, but now we read, “The LORD became exceedingly angry.” It seems a competition to see how fast they can forget what has gone before! But it should not be like this! This is just the sin of mankind bursting to the surface yet again.


Now in what follows we find Moses complaining to the Lord that the job is too hard and instead of rebuking him, the Lord says he is to gather seventy leading elders and He will place His spirit on them to share the load (11:11-17). But what about the meat problem? Very well, says the Lord, you want meat? I'll give you meat and you can have it for the next month until you are fed up with it (11:19,20)


The nature of the judgment (ii)

This happens but we find, “But while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the LORD burned against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague.” (11:33) Now the volume of the quail falling on the camp was so great they were three foot deep all around and the people “spread them out all around the camp.” (v.32)

It is probable that there was so much dead meat lying around that it soon went off and it was probably through this that the ‘plague' came. What we find therefore is judgment through abundance. The Lord gave them what they wanted – in abundance but abundance, in the hot climate, caused a problem, and they thus suffered for it.


But back to our earlier question: why did God judge them now when he had not done it on the first trek? The answer comes with something Jesus said: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Lk 12:48) In other words if you have been given much revelation – as Israel had in these last two years – much more is expected of you, and accountability involves correction, discipline and even judgment. Israel are a different people than from say three years ago. Now they are a people who know and have experienced the Lord. They have no excuses for their bad responses.



17.4 Miriam's Leprosy


The Judgment


Num 12:9-11 The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them. When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam--leprous, like snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had leprosy; and he said to Moses, "Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed.


It's Cause


So now we come to another of God's judgments that did not involve death but which obviously came as a sharp lesson in discipline. The story starts as follows: “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.” (Num 12:1) The apparent cause of their criticism was the fact that Moses had a wife from an area in the southern Nile valley in Egypt. Moses first wife Zipporah had been a Midianite and so presumably after she died he took another wife (who may have been one of those who had come out of Egypt with Israel, an Egyptian who later history shows us would be now considered part of Israel).

But that isn't their only criticism for they continue: “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?" they asked. "Hasn't he also spoken through us?" (Num 12:2) For some reason they allow the enemy (we suggest) to nudge them in this temptation to challenge Moses' leadership. They are basically saying, ‘Aren't we as good as Moses, shouldn't we be seen as main leaders as well?'


The folly of this, of course, is that Moses was very obviously God's chosen servant (Ex 3 & 4) and even though he initially used Aaron as a mouthpiece in confronting Pharaoh, there was no doubt that, observing all the happenings at Sinai, Moses was THE number one leader of this people.


But then we read, “And the LORD heard this.” (v.2c) Of course He did, He hears everything, but it simply means He took note of what they were saying. Note carefully what follows: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (v.3) The implication is that Moses did not respond – but the Lord did! “At once the LORD said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, "Come out to the Tent of Meeting, all three of you.” (v.4) The Lord does not delay but somehow communicates (possibly through Moses) His desire to meet with them at the Tent of Meeting outside the camp. There He explains that mostly He reveals Himself to His people through dreams and visions but that is not so with Moses: “But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD.” (7,8) In other words He makes very clear to them His thinking. Moses is special and they are foolish not to realise this.


Then we see, “The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them. When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam--leprous, like snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had leprosy;” (v.9,10) The Lord's anger is an indication of their wrongness. The leprosy is a result of His judgment.

What is interesting is that it is only Miriam and not Aaron who is afflicted. He is the high priest and he has got to just carry on and perform his priestly daily duties while being aware of the state of his sister and we see “he said to Moses, "Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother's womb with its flesh half eaten away.” (v.11,12) Thus Moses cries to the Lord on her behalf and he is told to have her put outside the camp for seven days and Israel 's progress is halted while they wait for her to be cleansed – which happens. Thus we find this is a temporary judgment, a strong act of discipline.


So what was so wrong in this situation. Essentially Aaron and Miriam are challenging Moses' authority and in so doing they are challenging God. Moses is God's man and, as we've noted, everything about his recent few years shouts that. The testimony of the Bible is that God stands up for His servants' they are special and those who stand against them have God to answer to.



17.5 The Rejection of Canaan


Grumbling again


Num 14:1-4 That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, "If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt ?" And they said to each other, "We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt."


The Background


God's plan for Israel which was declared over four hundred years back was that they should take and clear the land of Canaan and make it their own home. As they approach the boundaries, the Lord tells Moses to send in twelve spies, one from each tribe to check that the land is as God described it (Num 13:1,2). When they return they acknowledge that it is as good as God had said but ten of them focus on the people there who create fear in them (Num 13:27-29) but one of them, Caleb, silences the others with the declaration that they can do it. Nevertheless the majority persist and the result is that they undermine the confidence of the people and, as we see above, they grumble again against Moses and Aaron and refuse to go in.


The Judgment

Although we believe the Lord's response was to test Moses, nevertheless it was a fair response: “The LORD said to Moses, "How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they.” (Num 14:11,12) Indeed as we noted in the previous study the people of Israel have seen so much of the Lord's activity that they should now have confidence in Him.


Moses rightly pleads for them and so we then see, “The LORD replied, "I have forgiven them, as you asked. Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the LORD fills the whole earth, not one of the men who saw my glory and the miraculous signs I performed in Egypt and in the desert but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times-- not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it.” (Num 14:20-23)

His judgment is that this present generation (which would have been counted as all those over the age of twenty – see Num 32:11,12), with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, will not enter the land but die in the desert. The ten men who brought a bad report and undermined Israel died of plague (Num 14:36-38).


To keep the story short, the people then appeared to repent and decided they would go in and take the land but when they tried they were fiercely repulsed (Num 14:39-45); the Lord did not fight for them and enable them to enter. The die had been cast and His judgment on them remained. Thus over the next forty years all those over the age of twenty at the beginning of that period died off in their travels around the desert.


As a form of judgment, although frustrating perhaps, at least Israel were not slaves and they still had God's provision which kept them throughout the forty year period of waiting so that the next generation was preserved. During that time many children would have been born and a complete new generation who had never known the experience of Egypt raised up, but all they knew was that they were God's people waiting for the appropriate time to take the Promised Land.

The youngest of those destined not to enter, would have been 21 at the start and would have died off before reaching sixty. The oldest of the younger generation were 20 at the start and would have been sixty at the time of entering the land. Thus most of those who could be considered warriors would have been younger at the start or were those born in the desert. It was in many ways ‘starting with a clean slate'.


Considering the overall history of Israel, each of these current judgments are clearly designed to motivate the present and future generations and act as a brake on their sin and unbelief. Every additional judgment was an additional experience of the Lord. This may appear a very negative time for Israel but hanging over them as a future reward is the anticipation of taking this land that is flowing with milk and honey. As we said just now, there must have been a sense of frustration at having to wait but as every year passed there was an increased anticipation that it is getting nearer and nearer.



17.6 And so….


Let's summarise the judgments we have observed in this chapter:


Person involved

Their sin

The judgment

An Israelite

Disregarding the Sabbath laws

Death by stoning

The people generally

Complaining against God

Fire around the outskirts, plague from birds

Aaron and Miriam

Complaining about Moses

Miriam has leprosy

The people generally

Refusing to enter the Land

Die in the desert over next 40 years


The first of these, the casual disregarding of the Sabbath laws by going out and picking up sticks, we noted appears at first sight serious overkill for a mundane disregard for the Law, but when we think about it we see that the Law underpinned the whole of the relationship between Israel and God and to have done nothing about it would have encouraged what would turn out to be a complete breakdown of the life of Israel as God's special people who were to reveal Him to the rest of the world. The seriousness of it, threatening the very future of Israel and their task before God, was accentuated by the means of the individual being executed by stoning by the people.


The second of these, the people complaining against God, produces a very mild response, the fire around the outskirts with no one actually being recorded as dying. It is therefore a mere warning from God, almost like God clearing His throat to draw their attention to their drifting off track! But then this was a double sin plus judgment for the people carried on complaining and when they persisted, demanding meat, the Lord gave it to them in abundance, so much so that they were not able to consume it all, some of it went off and caused a plague.


The third of these again does not involve death but bring a short sharp shock to Aaron and Miriam. Again it is almost as if God was clearing His throat in a threatening way but without going the whole way. The fact is that the two of them had challenged not only their brother Moses but God's choice of leader. The fact also was that Miriam was clear of the leprosy and had to suffer seven days of disgrace outside the camp while the whole nation no doubt gossiped about it! Yet it was a remarkably restrained act of discipline.


The fourth of these, the refusal to enter the Promised Land, is both remarkably restrained and yet incredibly serious. The sin is blatant refusal to obey God and threatened he entire future of Israel. The judgment is simply that this present generations over the age of twenty will live out their lives in the desert regions until they have all died off naturally.


We cannot emphasise enough that all of these judgments we have seen in Numbers, and the remaining ones we will see in the next chapter, are all about issues that go to the root of the very existence of Israel. Three things stand out in this respect:


1. Israel were chosen by God to be a special people

•  To live by the Law demonstrating God's alternative, better way

•  To demonstrate God's goodness

2. To do those things

•  obedience was essential and

•  the reward was God's blessing, His decree of goodness on every aspect of their lives

3. Living like that was supposed to reveal God's love and goodness to the rest of the world


Furthermore, if we really understand these things, we will see why the ‘infractions' were so important and needed dealing with to ensure, as far as is possible with people with free will, that they will not be repeated.


We need also to add that the human race with its propensity to be self-centred and godless (the thing the Bible calls ‘Sin' resulting from ‘The Fall') also suffers from

  • Lapses of memory, and therefore within a generation can easily forget, although God clearly does everything He can to remind us, and
  • Every generation needs to learn these things for themselves which makes the need to pass on the revelation from generation to generation so important and each generation is accountable for their own failures and only their own failures (see Ezek 18:3-).


We now need to move on to see the other failures and judgments in the rest of Numbers.



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