If you have been following our story this summer, then it’s becoming very clear. The Israelites are a handful! Moses is finding that it’s like herding cats.
Oh yes, they are the chosen people, but Moses is more like their manager than their leader, because the Lord God is their leader. It’s God who got them all out of Egypt. It’s God who organized the whole congregation of Israel according to their tribes, directing where and how they could camp, where and how they would organize to travel. It’s God who gave them His Law to shape Israel as a holy nation. It’s God who has been feeding them with the bread of heaven. Israel very literally lived and moved and had their being in God!
You would think, then, that it would be the best of possible worlds! A holy nation, led and fed by God. You would think…but you would be wrong. Nothing but headaches and heartaches!
Numbers 14:1, “Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron.” Okay…so what is it this time?!
Well…in the previous chapter Israel stood outside the Promised Land. Already! Only about 3 years after leaving Egypt. Moses had sent 12 spies into the land of Canaan to check it out. The spies were gone for 40 days and 40 nights.
And it was just like the little song the kids sing in VBS: “12 men went to spy out Canaan. 10 were bad and 2 were good. What did they see when they spied out Canaan? 10 were bad and 2 were good. Some saw giants big and tall. Some saw grapes in clusters fall. Some saw the Lord was in it all. 10 were bad and 2 were good.”
The 2 good spies, Joshua and Caleb, came back and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” The other 10 said, “The land flows with milk and honey…however, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large…the land devours its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are of great height… we seemed like grasshoppers.” Guess which report Israel listened to?
V2, “The whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’”
Immediately, v5, Moses and Aaron go into damage control, assisted by the 2 faithful spies, Joshua and Caleb, who remind the people, v7, “‘The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, He will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land. …the Lord is with us; do not fear them.’”
But the people are already persuaded by the majority report. They are terrified. And fear does not make good decisions. V10, they take up stones to kill Moses and Aaron, Joshua and Caleb. And they would have succeeded, too! But God steps in.
And isn’t that always the heart of the Gospel. “God steps in!” St. Paul rejoices to say, “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare to die—but God shows His love for us in that while were still sinners, Christ died for us… [and] if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.”
God steps into our rebellion—into our freaking out about God, our turning against Him, our doubts that He knows what He’s doing—He steps in with Jesus and saves us from ourselves! That’s good news! But…that’s not what’s happening here.
V11, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise Me? And how long will they not believe Me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.’”
Just like back at the golden calf episode. God is fed up. He’s going to wipe them all out and start over with Moses. And once again it is Moses who does the Jesus thing. Moses puts himself between this angry God and a rebellious people.
Again, v13, Moses uses the argument that it won’t play well in the Egyptian press if God wipes Israel out. He says, “They have heard that You, O Lord, are in the midst of this people.”
V15, “Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard Your fame will say, “It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that He swore to give them that He has killed them in the wilderness.”’”
Moses is suggesting to God that if God does not keep His promise to bring Israel to the Promised Land, it will be seen as a sign that God is unable to keep His promise…or any promise. It’s justifiable from God’s point of view to kill them…but harder to pardon and save. Moses is gutsy to say this to God…but he is also very insightful! And yet how can God be both just and forgiving?
It is this very thing which is revealed in the Gospel—how God can be both just and forgiving. As St. Paul writes famously, “All have sinned [all have rebelled] and fall short of the glory of God.” All! But…[all] are justified by His grace as a gift.” Forgiveness is a gift. Free. Undeserved. “…through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It’s a gift because of Jesus’ act on the cross. “Whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood to be received in faith.”
“Propitiation.” That’s the fancy word which means that someone has to pay the price of rebellion. Someone must be hanged or God is not just. The logical someone here is Israel…or us. But instead, Jesus gets hanged. And we get pardoned. And as St. Paul writes, “This was to show God’s righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Because of Jesus, God is both just and forgiving. But without Jesus…without faith in Jesus…the alternative is what we have here in Numbers.
V20, “Then the Lord said [to Moses], ‘I have pardoned, according to your word. But…truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, none of the men who have seen My glory and My signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put Me to the test these ten times…”
God is keeping count! With Jesus there may be forgiveness 70 times 7, but without Jesus, God does keep score! 10 times! The first time was at the Red Sea. The people freaked because of the Egyptians and turned against God. On the other side, they ran out of water and rebelled against God. Then there were the two occasions with the manna, when they grumbled. And even with the manna, God had told them to collect only what they needed, but some Israelites gathered more and it turned to worms. God told them to collect double on the 6th day because there would be no manna on the Sabbath. But sure enough, some Israelites were out there with their buckets looking for manna on the Sabbath! Then there was the golden calf thing, followed by another episode of thirst. 10 times the Israelites turned against God! “[They] have not obeyed My voice, [none] shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers.”
God declares, “OK…Israel will get to the Promised Land as I promised. But none of you adults will live to see that day.” He forgives…but He is severely just. V28, “As I live, declares the Lord, what you have said in My hearing I will do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in the wilderness, and of all your number… from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against Me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell.”
V33, “And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lie in the wilderness.” And now God will lead Israel around and around the block of the wilderness for 40 years, to make sure that everyone, except the children, except Joshua and Caleb, that everyone else is dead before Israel comes back again to the door of the Promised Land.
The severity of God’s mercy…apart from the redemption that comes by Jesus Christ. With Jesus, it is as God said to Moses. He did in fact start over. But not with Moses. There is no remedy for sin with Moses and the Law. There is only punishment and fear with Moses. So God started over with what only God can do, a new creation.
He acted in Jesus to take this whole business of getting to the Promised Land out of our hands. Neither our own rebelliousness nor our own obedience, neither our morality nor our immorality, neither our holiness nor our unholiness—none of it matters a bit for getting to the Promised Land. What matters is a new creation.
And for that new creation, Moses will not do at all. Only Jesus. Jesus for you. The Man who welcomes rebellious sinners and eats with them. The Man who does not leave our bodies to fall in the wilderness. Through faith He puts off the old self in us, with all of its rebellious practices, and puts on in us the new self, which is being renewed day by day in the image of Christ.
Oh, indeed, Moses can show us that God is just…fearfully just. Only the crucified and risen Jesus can show us that God is both just and yet entirely merciful. And as we shall see in the closing weeks this summer…even Moses must die in the wilderness. It is Joshua, Yeshua, Jesus, who takes Israel by the hand and leads us into the Promised Land.