If you think you’ve kind of got the idea having read Leviticus, I should begin with Numbers around chapters 9 or 10, as the first section is really more of the same, with various laws and regulations, some censuses of the population (which is where the name of the book comes form), a long list of the offerings at the dedication of the tabernacle, and how to tell if your wife has been unfaithful. However there are a couple of important nuggets even in these uninspiring chapters: the lovely priestly blessing in 6:22-27, and the section on Nazarites at the beginning of the same chapter: this is going to become important later in the OT.
But the more exciting narrative section begins at 10:11 where the cloud over the tabernacle lifts, signalling that it is time for the Israelites to move on from the foot on Mt Sinai where they have presumably been since Exodus 19. What we have in these chapters is a miserable account of fallen human nature, with its fear, lack of vision, conservatism, backward-lookingness, and general moaning. It takes less than two years to get from Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land, but when they get there and send in 12 spies they are too scared to go on in, and so comes one of the saddest verses of the whole Bible in 14:25 ‘Turn back tomorrow and set out towards … the Red Sea’. You’ve said so many times that you want to go back to Egypt, so off you go! The rest of the book is about those years of wandering, with various interactions with neighbouring peoples, and it ends with the people on the edge of the Promised Land, having been told by God that none of that faithless generation would make it in, including Moses who has led them on the journey.
As a church leader, now working at Diocesan level, I find this an incredibly powerful book which could have been written yesterday. It is a study in unredeemed human nature and in the leadership of such people, and I have long admired Moses as my own model for leadership. I love his glorious political incorrectness: his calling from God was to get the people to the Promised Land, by hook or by crook, whether they wanted to go or not. Democracy doesn’t get a look in: if it did they’d have been back in Egyptian slavery in a trice. And yet we see also in Moses a heart of compassion, a mighty ministry of intercession, and some of the real emotional struggles of a leader working among people who just don’t get it. Shining out like two diamonds among the dust are Joshua and Caleb, who symbolise the small number of people one usually finds among the faithless crowd, who really are on message, can see God’s opportunities rather than human problems, but whose voices are so often drowned out by the crowd.
Numbers is a depressing book, and one which we would do well to look into as one might a mirror. It can show us our fears, intransigence and conservatism, our reluctance to enter into the new things which God may be trying to lead us to, and it can give us a glimpse of the agonies we sometimes put our leaders through. It can remind us also, though, of the mercy and patience of God, who does in the end get the people to the edge of the Land. They have severely delayed his purposes, and caused themselves great hardship in the meantime, but they have not ultimately thwarted them.