These chapters act as a travelogue that records Israel’s travels from Mount Sinai to the Transjordan area just east of the Promised Land. As they travel from place to place, what happens in those different places reflects where the people of Israel are in their spiritual journey.
As you read these chapters, track the different places in Israel’s travels where significant events occur. Ask yourself whether you are in a place like that right now in your spiritual journey.
Numbers 1-10 begins at Mount Sinai. Essentially no time has passed since Exodus 40, when Moses set up the tabernacle on the first day of the first month at the beginning of Israel’s second year out of Egypt (compare Numbers 7:1 with Exodus 40:2, 17). Fifty days after Moses set up the tabernacle, Israel will leave Mount Sinai. Numbers 1-10 record the events of those fifty days—a census, offerings for the altar, organization of the camp, consecration and duties of the Levites, instructions for marching, and first official commemoration of the Passover.
When, in Numbers 10:11, the cloud lifts off from above the tabernacle for the first time, the excitement in the camp must have been electric. We are bound for the Promised Land!
But each place to which they then journey begins to show the true spiritual state of Israel. Numbers 11 records two places, and the name of each memorializes what happened: Taberah (“blaze”), where the Lord’s anger blazed against Israel for their complaining, and Kibroth-hattaavah (“graves of craving”), where Israel buried the people who had sinfully craved meat from the Lord. At Hazeroth (ch. 12), Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses. All of this is a prelude to the watershed event at Kadesh Barnea (chs. 13-14), where Israel forfeits the privilege of entering the Promised Land and is sentenced to 40 years of wandering until an entire generation dies off. Kadesh Barnea has come to be synonymous with an appalling lack of faith in the God who, to this point in Israel’s experience, had done everything He had promised. Yet a hint of God’s grace peeks through in Numbers 15:2: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘when you enter into the land that you will inhabit, which I am giving to you . . .’” That proclaims hope for the future: God may be writing off the first generation, but He is not turning from His promises.
As you read Numbers 15-19, note the significant lack of place names. Places do not matter too much at this point since they have gotten off track from God’s intended plan for them. However, it seems like wherever they go, rebellion characterizes them (Numb. 16-17).
Numbers 20 finds them back at Kadesh, but almost forty years have passed—“the first month” of Numbers 20:1 is the first month of the fortieth year! Here again, in Numbers 20-21, we encounter places of failure and death: Meribah, where Moses and Aaron do not honor God in front of the Israelites (20:1-13); Mount Hor, where Aaron dies (20:22-29); and an unknown area east of Edom, where God provided a bronze serpent (21:4-9). But, encouragingly, Numbers 1-21 ends on a victorious note. God may have decreed the death of the first generation but He was very much present to help the second generation move toward and (ultimately) into the Promised Land. Hormah (“destruction”) becomes a place where Israel’s enemies at Arad are defeated (21:1-3). Heshbon and Bashan both become Israel’s as they soundly defeat and annihilate the kings living there (21:21-35). The first generation’s catastrophic loss due to sin is not the last word; grace is, if the second generation will learn to trust and obey.
So at what place are you in your spiritual journey? Is it a place of preparation and anticipation (like Mount Sinai)? Complaining (Taberah)? Criticism (Hazeroth)? Unbelief (Kadesh)? Or the cusp of victory (Hormah)?
God in His grace, if you will allow Him, will meet you where you are and take you where should be!