1. A time of transitions.
Numbers 22-36 portrays a time of transitions. First, Israel transitions from traveling to a more settled existence in preparation to enter the Land of Canaan. In Numbers 22:1, Israel arrives on the plains of Moab near the Jordan. They will not leave the Plains of Moab again until they prepare to cross the Jordan River (Joshua 3:1-2). Israel’s wilderness wanderings are over. More than thirty-eight years have passed since Israel sinned at Kadesh Barnea (see Deut. 2:14). God uses the last remaining months of the forty years to prepare Israel’s second generation to enter the Promised Land. Look for some of these final instructions in Numbers’ closing chapters.
A second transition is from the generation that came out of Egypt to the generation that will conquer Canaan. Numbers 22-25 recounts two final incidents in the transition from the first to the second generation: God’s turning of Balaam’s curse to blessing, and Israel’s fall into immorality at Baal Peor. But by the time of the second census in Numbers 26 (the first was in Numbers 1), not a man counted in the first census is still alive, other than Joshua and Caleb (26:64).
A final transition is the commissioning of Joshua to be Moses’ successor (Num. 27:12-23). In less than a year, Joshua will be Israel’s leader.
2. A opportunity for review.
The Plains of Moab also becomes an opportunity for review. Moses’ review in Deuteronomy 1-10 intermingles Israel’s recent history (see especially chs. 1-3) with lessons they should have learned from these experiences (see chs. 4, 8-9) and reminders of the basic regulations God had given Israel at Mount Sinai forty years earlier (see chs. 5-7, 10). The Plains of Moab becomes almost a second Mount Sinai—a second giving of the law (“Deuteronomy”). Moses’ recital of these things, however, is neither rote nor dispassionate but rather an ardent preaching of them with the intent of motivating Israel to obey.
3. A call to careful conformity to the divine will.
Moses, through his preaching, wants to prevent a second Kadesh. Moses fears this in Numbers 32, when Reuben and Gad approach him to ask whether they can receive their inheritance to the east of the Jordan (vv. 6-8). His concern is not just that Israel might not enter the land but that they might not be able to stay in the land (33:5-6). Just as sin kept them away from the land for a generation, sin will catapult a future generation out of the land, if they fail to heed God’s instructions (Deut. 8:19-20).
Israel, in fact, must give careful heed. As you read through Deuteronomy, look for words like “take heed,” “take good heed,” “take care,” “be careful,” “carefully,” or “observe”—all ways of appealing for careful conformity to the divine will. No book in the Old Testament urges Israel to careful obedience more than Deuteronomy. Moses knows Israel needs urging. They, like us, are prone to wander from the Lord. Moses is not exaggerating when, in the midst of a litany of Israel’s many disobediences, he says, “You have been rebellious against the Lord since the day I have known you” (9:24).
4. A God who faithfully loves Israel and is to be wholeheartedly loved by them.
Israel should practice careful conformity to the divine will of God because He has loved them and their fathers enough to give them the Promised Land. Earlier books in the Pentateuch imply God’s love for Israel but Deuteronomy makes it explicit (7:7-8; 10:15). His undeserved love is reason enough to give Yahweh the obedience, reverence, and worship He deserves.
An even greater reason is who Yahweh is. In and of themselves, Israel is nothing great. They are not powerful or many. They are not pious or godly. What makes Israel great is Israel’s God and the revelation of Himself that He has privileged them with. He is Israel’s praise (10:21). “For what nation has a God near to it like Yahweh our God whenever we call upon Him. And what great nation has statutes and righteous judgments like all this law that I am setting before you today?” (4:7-8). The God who has attached Himself to Israel is unique. “There is none besides Him” (4:35). He is God of gods and Lord of lords—the God who is great, mighty, and awesome (10:17).
Perhaps no verse says it better than what the Jews call the shema: “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh our God is one Yahweh” (6:4). The God who is Israel’s . . . He alone is Yahweh. His uniqueness demands Israel’s total devotion, as the shema goes on to prescribe. “Therefore, you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (v. 5).
Moses’ call for Israel to love their God like this is not idealistic hyperbole. It is the key to their survival as a nation in the land to which God is about to give to them.