Having left Egypt, the story of God’s people was not nearly finished. God had already promised Abraham and his descendants a new land. They would leave slavery and enter into a land flowing with milk and honey.
The time from the former to the latter could’ve been shorter, but the people feared more than they trusted. Moving into the promised land would not be easy for their were enemies of God in the land and they were strong. This created doubt and fear and people even wished they could turn back. This reluctance to follow where God would lead–even though he had just given them freedom from and victory over the great power of Egypt–led to a time of wandering. Forty years passed before they entered the promised land. It was a place of grace, for they reaped the harvest of another’s work. They did not earn or deserve the blessing. It is just as we receive the blessings of Jesus, one who has done all the work for us.
We have skipped over some books and about forty years and find ourselves reading the first chapters of Deuteronomy. But don’t think you’ll be in the dark. Moses here does a great job of recapping where they have been and what God has been up to. They left the mountain and wandered for forty years because of their lack of trust in God and now as they have endured God’s discipline, they stand at the threshold of the promised land. Israel is again given the opportunity to walk in faith into the land that God has prepared for them.
But not before a real hard look at themselves in the mirror, courtesy of Moses.
I hope you’ve been enjoying the readings this week as we have read the words Moses has chosen to leave Israel with as they prepare themselves to enter the promised land. I imagine it must have been a trying experience for Moses and his role as a leader of the people. He has to deliver words to people who will be entering a land that he will not be able to see. Moses also must pass on warnings and remind them of the promises of God, knowing that the people will never cease to turn toward false gods and false worship (as we still do today). He urges them to faithful to a God who has always been faithful to us, even though we do not deserve it, nor do the people deserve the land they are about to inhabit.
Next week we’ll finally transfer our attention from Moses, whom we met back in Exodus, as Joshua will take over.
In Acts we continue to see just how the Spirit is building up this church and doing so by spreading the boundaries out far and wide. Disciples are voyaging around the Mediterranean, going to both Jews and Gentiles. We read about the council where it was decided more clearly how to bring the Gentiles into the fold and what was (and really what wasn’t) required of them. This good news is brought to the churches and Paul puts himself in harms way to do such work, getting himself arrested.
Deuteronomy is the fifth and final book the Pentateuch, so well done at making it this far. As you begin reading it, I thought I’d give you a bit of background.
Deuteronomy tells us in the opening line of its author, Moses. These first books are commonly called the Law of Moses and are attributed to him (eg. Matthew 19:7-8, Acts 3:22-23), but there is debate as to what exactly this includes. Due to some of the literary formatting and content such as an account of Moses’ own death, it is thought there is additional help from editors or authors to take the words of Moses and fit them into a greater narrative.
The book begins where the previous left off, and ends there as well, on the plains of Moab (Dt. 34). It is a time for Israel to prepare itself for what will come in Joshua, the delayed conquest of the land that God had promised them, and for Moses to transfer leadership and give his parting words. We find in Deuteronomy another instance of the Ten Commandments and a renewal of the covenant with God.
Think about the overall story we’ve seen so far. God has made a world for us to live in and it was good. But we sinned. We disobeyed and turned from God, bringing sin into creation. Having been cast out of the garden, you’d think the people would be alone. Yet God does not forget humanity. He chooses for himself a people and calls Abraham out to be the father of many nations. As we read, it isn’t because he was a perfect man–nor was Isaac or Jacob, or the other so-called patriarchs. God chose us and he remains perfectly faithful as we are too often faithless.
God promises a land to his people, but there is an interlude in Egypt during which the Israelites are slaves. By God’s strong hand he delivers them from bondage, showing his might to Israel’s enemies. He guides them out of oppression toward a promise of a land to call their own. All along the way the people grumble and complain, looking back favorably on Egypt. Working through his servant, Moses, God disciplines his people, but never leaves us. He gives us laws to guide us and sets up camp right in the midst of the people.
He actively guides them to the doorstep of the promised land, a land the scouts see is full of milk and honey, but also of formidable enemies. So even though God has been with them from the time of Abraham and literally camps with them in the tabernacle, their fear overwhelms them and they reject God’s will. So the promised land remains for God’s people a promise, but for a new generation. They wander one year for every day the scouts were in Canaan. For forty years they continue in the wilderness until, at the end of Numbers, their great numbers camp again at the doorstep.
Moses knows he will not enter with them, only Joshua and Caleb have that privilege from the generation that disobeyed. Deuteronomy is the book that further sets the scene for the final transition that began with Abraham and will come to fruition with Joshua. Israel are a people of the promise. God told Abraham to leave the land he knew and follow, and the people have been following with the hope of a land to call their own. And now in Deuteronomy, they are almost there.
In Numbers the people rebel against God’s plan to lead them into the promised land because of the report brought back to them by the twelve spies. On the one hand it is a land said to be flowing with milk and honey, but it is also a land whose occupants make the Israelites fearful. They say that they were like grasshoppers compared to the inhabitants.
What follows is not unusual for God’s people when facing adversity: grumbling and rosy descriptions of slavery in Egypt. They are angered that their God–who has done great and marvelous things for them–has led them to such a great and marvelous land. Well, that’s not how they said it. They’re upset that God’s plan doesn’t appear easy. The people are afraid of the inhabitants and do not trust that God will continue to lead them, be with them, and deliver them.
They have a new plan, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” After all, they had fish in Egypt. (Num 11:5).
When Caleb and Joshua, two of the twelve spies, try to dissuade them the people are so angered that they intend to stone them. They won’t hear any challenge to their cowardice. Not until God comes to speak to them. Because of their disobedience God pronounces judgment. The promised land is still promised for the people of God, but it is not to be seen by the current generation. None of the men but Caleb and Joshua may enter. Instead of God delivering this land to his people, the people will die wandering in the wilderness, spending one year for each day the spies were in the land, until the next generation is ready to enter.
I wonder what blessings of God we miss out on because of our disobedience. I wonder what God wants to give to his people that he might reserve for another generation. This is not just a selfish consideration, but look at how Caleb and Joshua, who acted righteously, still felt some of the consequences. How might our sins bring collateral damage on those around us or how might our sins limit other’s reception of God’s blessing?
God is never through with his people, not here in Numbers and not ever. But there still is discipline for his children. I hope our trust can overcome our fear when God calls us to follow him.