Sunday, February 28, 2021

Numbers. Day 81, Balaam's First Message

King Balak of Moab summoned the prophet Balaam to pronounce a curse upon Israel. But Balaam will only be able to say whatever the Lord tells him to say. Our passage is titled "Balaam's First Message" in my NIV Bible but we could more accurately title it "The Lord's First Message". The Lord has only good things to say about Israel in our text.

It is the following morning after Balaam's arrival in Moab. We concluded yesterday's passage with Balaam and King Balak standing on Bamoth Baal (a high place upon which there was likely an altar built in honor of the false god Baal) looking out over the valley toward the Israelite encampment. This is where we pick up today. "Balaam said, 'Build me seven altars here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me.' Balak did as Balaam said, and the two of them offered a bull and a ram on each altar." (Numbers 23:1-2) Bamoth Baal is a pagan place but the seven altars are built for the Lord and the bulls and rams are offered to the Lord. King Balak doesn't worship the God of Israel; he worships his own gods but he believes the God of Israel exists and that He protects the Israelites. Balak probably doesn't think the Lord is any more important than any of the heathen deities he believes in but he's willing to make offerings to Him in hopes of pleasing Him to the point of taking His protective hand off of Israel. 

I think Balaam is hoping for the same thing, not because he has anything against Israel personally but because he's only looking out for himself. He wants the fame and fortune promised to him by the king of Moab. "Then Balaam said to Balak, 'Stay here beside your offering while I go aside. Perhaps the Lord will come to meet with me. Whatever He reveals to me I will tell you.' Then he went off to a barren height." (Numbers 23:3) It's good to get alone with God to see what He has to say to us. But in Balaam's case he already knows how the Lord feels about him speaking against Israel. The Lord has already told him not to do it. Balaam is like a child who keeps asking his parent over and over for permission to do a certain thing that the parent has already forbidden. God shows up and Balaam points out the seven altars and the offerings as if this will please the Lord into doing what Balaam wants. "God met with him, and Balaam said, 'I have prepared seven altars, and on each altar I have offered a bull and a ram.'" (Numbers 23:4) Balaam says, "Have you seen what I've done? This is all for You: these seven altars and these bulls and rams! Didn't I do a good job? Wasn't it nice of me to honor You in front of those heathen Moabites? Aren't You proud that I made a pagan king help me build altars to Your name and sacrifice offerings for Your glory? Now can I have what I want?" 

Balaam is still behaving like a spoiled child whose father has already said no to something but who hopes because he's been a good boy today his father will give in. But responsible fathers don't allow their children to do harmful and disobedient things, no matter how obedient they've been in other matters. "The Lord put a word in Balaam's mouth and said, 'Go back to Balak and give him this word.' So he went back to him and found him standing beside his offering, with all the Moabite officials." (Numbers 23:5-6) It's kind of funny that this haughty king and his impressive officials haven't moved an inch from where Balaam told them to stand. They're willing to let a prophet---who isn't even from their own nation---order them around like they are servants. They so badly want harm to come to Israel that if Balaam had told them to stand on their heads beside their offering they would have done it.

I can't help wondering whether Balaam is just as surprised as Balak by what comes out of his mouth. "Then Balaam spoke his message: 'Balak brought me from Aram, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains. 'Come,' he said, 'curse Jacob for me; come, denounce Israel.' How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced? From the rocky peaks I see them, from the heights I view them. I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob or number even a fourth of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my final end be like theirs!'" (Numbers 23:7-10) 

Balaam not only finds himself unable to curse Israel but finds himself basically envying Israel instead, saying something like, "We should all be so lucky as to be like Israel! God is with Israel. God fights for Israel. Israel is like no other nation on earth. She is blessed in life because she serves the one true God and keeps herself separate from pagan nations. She is blessed in death because God's servants are rewarded forevermore in His presence when they pass out of this life. I could wish no better thing for myself than to be like the people of Israel!"

Balak is horrified when he hears Balaam's pronouncement. "Balak said to Balaam, 'What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but you have done nothing but bless them!' He answered, 'Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?'" (Numbers 23:11-12) Israel is Balak's enemy only in his own mind. The Israelites have done nothing whatsoever to threaten the Moabites. The Moabites, and their neighbors the Midianites, have made all of this up in their minds. They believe Israel intends to attack them even though this is not the case. But, as the Bible says, wicked people have a tendency to fall prey to paranoia: "The wicked flee though no one pursues". (Proverbs 28:1a) Wicked people judge others by what they themselves would do. If King Balak were the leader of Israel, and if his troops were as numerous and as powerful as Israel's troops, he would attack everyone around him and take their territory for himself. Because this is the type of person he is, he imagines the political leader of Israel is the same type of person. Because the Moabite and Midianite soldiers would love to overcome all the surrounding nations in battle, they imagine the soldiers of Israel feel the same way. All these people have judged Israel by their own standards and as a result they've unnecessarily fallen victim to fear and dread. 

If the wicked flee when no one pursues, what do the righteous do? The second half of the verse from Proverbs 28 says this: "The righteous are as bold as a lion." Why? Because God is with them! Because God fights for them! I want to close with something from a commentary by the late Matthew Henry, a famous minister and Christian writer who lived from 1662 to 1714. While King Balak conspires against Israel, and while the prophet Balaam diligently seeks to do Israel harm in exchange for financial gain, Matthew Henry says, "Neither Moses nor the elders of Israel know anything of the matter, nor are in a capacity to break the snare; but God, who keeps Israel, and neither slumbers nor sleeps, baffles the attempt, without any intercession or contrivance of theirs." Israel has no idea King Balak has made himself her enemy. Israel is unaware of the plot against her. But the God of Israel knows everything about the matter and has no intention of allowing the plot to come to fruition. 

It comforts me to think about all the times the Lord has protected us even when we didn't know we needed protecting! God protects us even when we don't know someone has made themselves our enemy. God protects us even when we don't know a plot is afoot to do us harm. Many times we didn't know we needed to pray for protection against hidden dangers but God took action on our behalf anyway. In this life we'll have some known enemies: Satan and certain human individuals who don't even try to disguise their hatred of us. But we'll have unknown enemies too. There will be people who come to us dressed in sheep's clothing but who are actually wolves on the inside. (Matthew 7:15) They'll pretend to be our friends while waiting for a chance to backstab us to gain the advantage over us at school or at work or in society. We sometimes have unknown enemies within our own bodies when cells go wrong or something starts to break down and God corrects it because it isn't our time to leave this world. We are going to be awestruck when we meet our Lord someday and find out just how many times He saved our reputations or our careers or our marriages or our health or our very lives when we didn't even know we were in danger. 

You and I have probably already been spared multiple times today---and it's only 7:44am where I live---because Satan would kill us at any moment if God would let him. Our hearts might have stopped beating already today if the Lord hadn't kept them ticking. We might have taken a bad tumble and broken our necks if the Lord hadn't held our feet steady. We might have choked to death on our breakfast if the Lord hadn't made sure our throat muscles worked exactly as He's designed them to work. But we aren't leaving this world on Satan's timetable and there's nothing he or anyone else or any disease or any accident can do against God's will. You and I are here until God calls us home. And until then we can be bold as a lion because God is looking out for us twenty-four hours a day every day of our lives.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Numbers. Day 80, The Prophet Balaam Meets With King Balak---The Man Who Wants To Hire Him To Curse Israel

The Lord has told Balaam he may go on and see King Balak of Moab but that he will only be able to say the words the Lord puts in his mouth. Today the prophet and the king meet up at Moab's border.

"When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet him at the Moabite town on the Arnon border, at the edge of his territory." (Numbers 22:36) I expect it wasn't common for kings to go running out to meet persons they summoned. It would have been far more impressive and dignified if King Balak had waited at his own home or palace, perhaps in a throne room, until Balaam arrived and then had Balaam escorted into his presence by high officials. But Balak is so impatient to get on with the cursing and driving away of Israel that he can't wait any longer. As soon as he hears Balak is on the way he gets to the border to meet him in order to prevent any further delays. This is how much Balak despises Israel even though the Israelites bear him no ill will. The Israelites are merely camping nearby, minding their own business, as they continue their march toward the promised land. The only people they've fought on the way there are people who have attacked them without cause. 

The first words out of Balak's mouth are words of rebuke that the prophet didn't get there sooner. Balak is offended that Balaam didn't rush right over the first time he was summoned and that he didn't get there faster when he did finally agree to come. "Balak said to Balaam, 'Did I not send you an urgent summons? Why didn't you come to me? Am I really not able to reward you?'" (Numbers 22:37) I feel like he's saying, "Who do you think you are to deny the request of a great king? Did you think I couldn't reward you enough for your services? Did you doubt whether I could load you down with riches and honor? Are you not interested in such things? I know you are and that's why I'm insulted that you behaved as if I couldn't pay whatever price you might name."

Balaam doesn't provide an explanation for his refusal of the first summons and the delay that occurred while answering the second summons (the delay caused by his wrong attitude and the Lord having to deal with him in the roadway). His manner is rather casual and dismissive, considering he's dealing with a king, but perhaps that's because he knows that unless the Lord allows it he won't be able to say anything against Israel. "'Well, I have come to you now,' Balaam replied. 'But I can't say whatever I please. I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.'" (Numbers 22:38) Balaam says, "Never mind why I didn't get here sooner. Let's let bygones be bygones. Besides, I'm not sure it would have mattered if I'd gotten here sooner and I'm not sure it matters that I'm here now. I may not be able to do what you want me to do. I'd like to curse Israel for you and be highly rewarded for my services, but unless the Lord allows it I cannot say anything against Israel."

It's clear Balaam wants to do what the king is asking him to do, for he tells him, "I can't say whatever I please." Does Balaam have anything against Israel personally? I doubt it. It's just that he desires fortune and fame more than he desires to do what's right. To him this is all a financial transaction and it wouldn't matter which group of people Balak wanted him to curse. If some other king offered him more than Balak is offering him, and if that king wanted him to curse Balak, then Balaam would probably curse Balak. I don't know what kind of man the prophet was in years past but at one time he must have been very close to the Lord. He must have cared very much about walking in the Lord's will and saying and doing what the Lord told him to say and do. But the love of money has taken up residence in his heart, leaving little room for the Lord. A desire to be known and honored by his fellow man has become more important to him than being known and honored by the Lord. 

King Balak knows a greedy man when he sees one. He's not concerned by Balaam's statement that he can only say what the Lord tells him to say. Balak believes if the price is right Balaam will say anything. Speaking no more of business right now, Balak treats Balaam to a feast. These two men and the various officials with them party hardy during the night to celebrate what Balak thinks is going to happen on the following day. "Then Balaam went with Balak to Kiriath Huzoth. Balak sacrificed cattle and sheep, and gave some to Balaam and the officials who were with him. The next morning Balak took Balaam up to Bamoth Baal, and from there he could see the outskirts of the Israelite camp." (Numbers 22:39-41) 

Balaam, prophet of God, is eating and drinking at a pagan party. Balak takes him to what is known as a "high place" in the Bible---a place where an altar has been built in honor of a god. King Balak doesn't serve the God of Israel and this high place wasn't built in honor of God. It was built in honor of a false deity. Balak sacrifices cattle and sheep to one of his gods and Balaam doesn't refuse to attend this idolatrous ceremony or to eat food that was offered to idols. 

No wonder King Balak thinks he has the prophet in his pocket! No wonder the king isn't concerned that Balaam might not say what he wants him to say against Israel. It's clear to him that the prophet has sold out, so I'm not at all surprised that Balak completely ignores what Balaam says about having to obey the Lord. Balaam has lost his ability to be an effective witness for the Lord. His testimony about the Lord means nothing to Balak. This is what happens when a believer lives like an unbeliever. This is why we have to be so careful where we go and what we do and what we say. If we look and talk and behave like unbelievers, our testimony loses its power. We can't lead anyone to the Lord if we're living like we don't know Him ourselves. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

Numbers. Day 79, Balaam And The Angel Of The Lord

The prophet Balaam can now see that the angel of the Lord has been blocking his path. That is why his donkey has stopped three times on the road. Realizing he's been shutting the Lord out and closing his eyes and ears to Him, Balaam bows before Him on his knees.

"The angel of the Lord asked him, 'Why have you beaten your donkey these three times?'" (Numbers 22:32a) Balaam, in his greedy desire to get to Moab quickly to receive handsome payment for his services to the king, lost his temper and beat his donkey with his staff each time the donkey refused to move forward. The Lord is displeased with cruel treatment of animals. As we said earlier in the week, the Bible makes the pronouncement that, "The righteous care for the needs of their animals." (Proverbs 12:10a) Balaam acted like an unrighteous man when he struck his donkey for stopping in the roadway. A person who belongs to the Lord ought to care about all the creatures that He made. 

The Lord points out that the donkey had more spiritual discernment than Balaam. The Lord called Balaam to be a prophet but he allowed himself to be blinded by greed. He didn't see the angel in his path. The prophet is supposed to seek and share the word of God, but it took God giving an animal the ability to speak in order to open the prophet's ears. "I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before Me. The donkey saw Me and turned away from Me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it." (Numbers 22:32b-33) This person standing in the road, with a drawn sword in His hand, is referred to as "the angel of the Lord". It's clear He speaks of Himself as if He is the Lord and I believe that's because this is one of the Old Testament appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ. 

In the Bible we find a number of angel visitations and sometimes these beings are called "an angel of the Lord" and other times "the angel of the Lord". Many Bible scholars, Christian authors, and Christian commentators feel very strongly that the person speaking with Balaam is the pre-incarnate Christ. Whenever the Old Testament records an appearance of the one known as "the angel of the Lord", we can be pretty sure we are reading about what is called a "Christophany". The person is having an encounter with Christ in a time period prior to the incarnation. I'm going to briefly discuss three important clues which indicate that a Christophany is occurring in the Old Testament. First, whenever "the angel of the Lord" shows up, He will speak with the authority of God. He will not speak in the manner of a created angel who relates a message from God; He will speak the word as though it originates from Him or from His Father. Second, He will appear in human form, just as He does in our passage today when we find Him standing in the road holding a sword in His hand. And, lastly but perhaps most importantly, He will accept worship. The angels who serve the Lord don't accept worship but will direct worship toward God alone (see Revelation 22 for examples of this) and the Bible strictly forbids the worship of angels (see Matthew 4:9-10 and Luke 4:7-8 in which the fallen angel Satan asks Jesus to worship him and Jesus replies that no one but God must be worshiped, also see Romans 1:25 and Colossians 2:18 in which the Apostle Paul states it's a sin to worship angels). 

In Numbers 22 the angel of the Lord speaks on His own authority. He appears in the form of a man. He accepts worship when Balaam bows on his knees before Him. I feel that our passage fits the requirements to be considered a Christophany. Balaam is bowing before the pre-incarnate Christ and now we find him confessing his sin to the pre-incarnate Christ. "Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, 'I have sinned. I did not realize You were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if You are displeased, I will go back.'" (Numbers 22:34) On the one hand it sounds as if Balaam has had a change of heart. On the other hand the phrasing of his confession sounds as if he's willing to turn around and go home not because he's sorry for his greed but because the Lord is blocking his path and may actually kill him if he keeps trying to go forward. Is Balaam sorry for his sin or not? I've never read a commentary or heard a message preached about Balaam in which the commentator or speaker feels he is truly repentant. They feel that his fear of the Lord is not the holy and reverent type of fear but the type of fear a person feels when his life is in danger. They could be right, for when the Apostle Peter spoke of people who were willing to sell out their faith and go against their principles for the right price, he compared them to the prophet Balaam whom he accused of leaving the right way and loving the wages of wickedness. (2 Peter 2:15)

The Lord is going to allow Balaam to go on to Moab and meet with King Balak. The Lord is going to show Balaam who is boss, and the boss isn't Balaam or Balak: it's the King of kings who is in control of this whole situation. Balaam will not be able to pronounce a curse upon Israel---the job he's being hired to perform. Balak will not get what he wants. He's used to obtaining whatever he wants once a price has been agreed upon, but it won't work this time. These two men will soon see just who they are dealing with, so the Lord tells Balaam to continue forward, but he will not be able to speak a word that the Lord has not put in his mouth. "The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, 'Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.' So Balaam went with Balak's officials." (Numbers 22:35) 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Numbers. Day 78. A Talking Donkey, Part Two

When we closed yesterday's study the donkey of Balaam had seen the angel of the Lord three times blocking the roadway. The donkey possessed the spiritual discernment to see the angel, whereas the prophet (in his greed to reach Moab and the money promised to him there) did not. Balaam beat his donkey three times for stopping on the way and the Lord gave the donkey a voice so it could ask its master, "What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?"

Balaam is behaving like an immoral, ungodly man. He's mistreating an animal and he's disrespecting the Lord, going to Moab in the wrong attitude and hoping for gains in wealth and status. He's enraged by the delays his donkey is causing. "Balaam answered the donkey, 'You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.'" (Numbers 22:29) He's embarrassed about how his donkey is behaving in front of his two servants. Perhaps the Moabite caravan is still within view, witnessing Balaam's problems with his donkey. The prophet doesn't feel he looks very masterful right now. He fears his inability to get a donkey to obey him makes him seem unable to deliver an effective curse against Israel---the curse for which the king of Moab intends to pay him handsomely. 

He accuses the donkey of making a fool of him but no one is making a fool of Balaam except Balaam. When the first dignitaries from Moab approached him about hiring him to curse Israel, as a prophet of the living God he should have immediately said no and sent them on their way. He knew God was on the side of Israel and that God blesses whoever blesses Israel and curses whoever curses Israel. (Genesis 12:3) But he was tempted by greed and honor so he invited the men to stay overnight while he consulted the Lord. Only he didn't consult the Lord; the Lord had to show up and forbid him to go to Moab and say anything against Israel. Balaam reluctantly sent the men away in the morning only to have the king of Moab send another caravan of even more impressive officials promising any amount of money and honors if Balaam would only curse Israel so the king's army can drive the Israelites away. Again the prophet didn't immediately say no, instead asking the men to stay overnight while he consulted the Lord. Again he didn't consult the Lord; the Lord came to him and said---in view of Balaam's stubborn attitude---to go on then. But the Lord warned him he would not be able to speak a word about Israel that the Lord doesn't put in his mouth. His mind on the money and prestige promised by the king of Moab, Balaam set out in the wrong spirit. The Lord has tried three times to block his path in an attempt to get him to stop and think about his wrong attitude toward Israel and toward the God who is Israel's protector and defender. You'd think these repeated obstacles might have made Balaam stop and think, "Hmm, something is going on here. When the path forward is this difficult, maybe it's the wrong path. I need to stop by the roadway for a while to pray and seek the Lord's guidance." But, as we often do when we are determined to forge ahead because it's what we want to do, Balaam keeps trying to overcome the delays. He keeps trying to move ahead no matter what.

There have been times in my life when I was on the wrong path. I knew I was on the wrong path but it was the path I wanted to travel. The Lord very clearly put obstacles in my way. Delays occurred. Difficulties arose. But I wanted to keep going forward so I pushed my way over, around, and through the obstacles in a stubborn and sinful attitude. Like Balaam, I was making a fool of myself and I had no one to blame but myself for any consequences that arose as a result of my actions.

Balaam is so far gone in the wrong attitude that he isn't even startled or frightened when his donkey speaks to him. He's been trying to block out the voice of the Lord. No doubt the Holy Spirit is shouting as loudly as He can to Balaam's spirit, telling him he must not speak a word against Israel, but Balaam has deliberately covered his spiritual ears. The only way the Lord can get through to him right now is by speaking through something that was not created with the ability to make conversation. Even then it takes the donkey speaking twice before the strange and miraculous nature of this event starts to get through to Balaam. "The donkey said to Balaam, 'Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?' 'No,' he said. Then the Lord opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown." (Numbers 22:30-31)

The Lord isn't the one who had closed Balaam's eyes; Balaam closed his own eyes, spiritually speaking. A donkey was able to see what he---a prophet of the Lord---could not see. Balaam was being deliberately blind. The Lord had to take drastic and unusual measures to get Balaam's attention and open his eyes to the truth. 

Later in the Bible, when Israel has fallen into idolatry, the Lord will use the donkey and the ox as examples of creatures who know and respect and obey their master. He will use this example as a way of declaring Israel more stubborn than the most stubborn of domesticated animals. He will say, "The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner's manger, but Israel does not know, My people do not understand." (Isaiah 1:3) The Lord could speak these same words against Balaam right now, saying, "The donkey sees Me but the prophet has shut his eyes. The donkey hears My voice but the prophet has covered his ears. A simple animal understands that it should respect and obey Me. But the man, to whom I have given great intelligence, does not understand because he doesn't want to understand."

In tomorrow's passage Balaam will repent. This is a good thing but he wouldn't have had to repent if he'd done what was right when messengers came to him from Moab. Things didn't have to go this far. He didn't have to look foolish in the sight of onlookers. He didn't have to experience the guilt and fear of knowing he'd deliberately disobeyed God. He didn't have to fall onto his knees on a dusty road and admit his sin in the presence of his servants, in the presence of the donkey he's treated woefully, and possibly in the sight of the Moabite officials whom he previously wanted to impress. All of this could have been avoided if he'd been in the right spirit in the first place. But at least he's in the right spirit now. The Lord can't use a proud and stubborn person for His work but He can use a repentant and humble person. He's going to allow Balaam to go forward now that the prophet has accepted an attitude adjustment. The Lord will use Balaam not to curse Israel, as the king of Moab wants, but to bless Israel and to bless the name of Israel's God.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Numbers. Day 77, A Talking Donkey, Part One

Have you ever wished your animals could talk? In today's passage Balaam's donkey is given a voice by the Lord to rebuke the prophet's greed. The donkey displays more spiritual discernment than its master.

Previously in our chapter the king of Moab sent messengers and money for payment to entice the prophet to pronounce a curse against Israel. The prophet was sorely tempted but said no after the Lord commanded him not to go to Moab or speak against Israel. King Balak of Moab, upon hearing Balaam's refusal, simply sent more impressive messengers back to the prophet and basically told him to name his price. Money and honors will be heaped upon him if he fulfills the king's request. Still motivated by greed and still wanting to go to Moab quite badly, Balaam puts off telling the messengers no but instead has them spend the night at his home. We don't know what Balaam said to the Lord or to himself during the night, but as we learned in our last study the Lord said something like, "Fine, go then. But you'll only be able to say what I tell you to say." 

The Lord is displeased with Balaam's attitude and today He'll rebuke him through an animal that's generally known for its stubbornness. This is because Balaam is being more stubborn than a donkey. Balaam has agreed to go to Moab and say only what the Lord tells him to say but I think he intends to say whatever King Balak tells him to say. The reason I think that is because the Lord has to create a very memorable encounter in order to put the prophet in a repentant and obedient frame of mind. 

"Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field." (Numbers 22:21-23a) The Moabite caravan must be some distance ahead of Balaam, for they are not mentioned here. They likely set out for Moab at first light, with Balaam and his servants needing to pack up what they'll need for the journey before saddling and loading their donkeys. Or perhaps Balaam only owns one donkey and his servants are walking, which would slow down the journey to Moab and cause Balaam and his two servants to fall behind the Moabites who I am sure were all riding animals or being pulled in carriages by animals. 

I've seen our passage above used to question or criticize the Lord. Some have asked, "If the Lord told Balaam to go, why is He angry with him?" But as we said a couple of days ago, Balaam wanted to go all along, even when the Lord said no. His respect for the Lord is not strong enough to keep him from being tempted to accept money and fame in exchange for doing wrong. His concern for Israel is not enough to keep him from cursing her for profit. But he said no to the first group of messengers and I think that's because they didn't quite make him a high enough offer to override his fear of the Lord. After they left he probably thought and thought about it. I think he wished he had said yes. Or it could be he suspected a higher offer would come his way after he refused the first one, and if that's the case then he was awaiting a second group of messengers with a bigger and better offer. While waiting he probably daydreamed about how much money he might receive and how many public honors the king might award him. 

A lot of the time the reason we give in to temptation is because we've spent time thinking about whatever sin we're being tempted with. We don't immediately dismiss the idea from our minds and refuse to consider it. Instead we daydream about it. We imagine what it might be like if we said yes. We commit the sin in our minds before we commit it for real. Balaam has been committing this sin in his mind ever since the first group of messengers came to him and, as we said the other day, he's like a child who keeps begging their parent to change their mind until the parent finally says, "Fine, go ahead then!", knowing the experience isn't going to be pleasurable and that it will teach the child a lesson. The Lord is about to teach Balaam a lesson which will, in turn, allow the Lord to teach King Balak and the Moabites a lesson.

Balaam does something terrible in his greed and in his impatience to get to Moab. When his donkey turns off the road, he becomes angry with it and treats it cruelly. "Balaam beat it to get it back on the road." (Numbers 22:23b) Animal cruelty is something that makes me sick. It makes the Lord sick too, for He says in His holy word, "The righteous care for the needs of their animals." (Proverbs 12:10a) This means that it's unrighteous not to care for animals and not to treat them with kindness. Balaam is behaving like an unrighteous man. Not only has he been blinded with greed to the point of not being able to see the angel of the Lord in the roadway (something a true prophet should be able to discern) but he's mistreating his animal. This is something he's never done before. We'll find out in a few moments that this is a new kind of behavior from him.

The donkey gets back on the road but the angel stands in the pathway again. "Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam's foot against it. So he beat the donkey again." (Numbers 22:24-25) Being an animal lover, I'd like to take the rod out of Balaam's hand and beat him with it for treating an innocent animal this way. His donkey has always done whatever he said but now a higher authority than Balaam is in the donkey's path and the donkey---unlike the man---fears and obeys the Lord. Balaam ought to be ashamed, both by his behavior toward an innocent animal and by his unfaithfulness toward God. Balaam's relationship with the Lord is suffering due to his greed. If Balaam hadn't fallen far enough from the Lord to fall into such strong temptation then he'd have been able to see the angel in the roadway.

The donkey has little choice but to get going again because its master's mind is still focused on fortune and fame. Balaam is determined to get to Moab to do the king's bidding. Balaam is still in the wrong spirit and soon the Lord allows him to be trapped in a tight place. I don't know about you, but the Lord has allowed me to paint myself into a corner several times in my life so that I was stuck in a tight place with nowhere to turn but to Him. "Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. Then the Lord opened the donkey's mouth, and it said to Balaam, 'What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?'" (Numbers 22:26-28)

The donkey has never been beaten before. It has never seen its master in this kind of mood before. We know this because the donkey makes reference to being beaten "these three times". It doesn't say, "Why have you always been mean to me? Why do you beat me all the time?" Balaam is behaving in an uncharacteristic manner because he's drifted away from a close relationship with his God who created the donkey. He's got nothing on his mind but what lies ahead of him in Moab: money and recognition. This is how we know he intends to say whatever the king asks him to say; surely he doesn't expect riches and honors if he doesn't do what pleases the king. Due to his greed he's completely unconcerned with pleasing the King of kings. He's treating the favor and blessings of the Lord with contempt, placing worldly wealth and human praise above the God who supplies all his needs and who has called him to the honorable office of prophet of the living God.

Balaam ought to be so ashamed of himself that he falls to his knees in the dust and cries out to the Lord for forgiveness. His donkey recognizes the Lord when Balaam does not. The donkey has an obedient spirit toward the Lord but the prophet does not. The donkey fears and honors the Lord but its owner has thrown aside his fear and respect of the Lord. The prophet---a man who has spoken for the Lord in the past---is not in a spiritual condition to speak for the Lord right now. But his donkey is. The words of the Lord are coming from an animal's lips, not from the prophet's lips. 

Have you ever had an unbeliever show you the error of your ways? Have you ever had someone who isn't close to the Lord point out that you're living in a wrong attitude toward the Lord? I have, and believe me, it really stings. There have been times when I've been operating in the wrong attitude or going down a wrong path and someone who doesn't even live for the Lord has rebuked me. Now that is truly embarrassing and humbling! It's one thing for a fellow believer to gently come to us in love and say, "I'm concerned about you. I think you may have gotten off on the wrong path and I'm afraid you're going to cause harm to yourself." But it's a far different thing when someone who doesn't serve the Lord says, "You're not behaving like Jesus." Ouch! Those words really pierce our hearts, don't they? If an unbeliever can clearly see we're in the wrong, how did we not see it? In our passage today the prophet doesn't recognize his sinful attitude. But his donkey does and his donkey says, "You're not behaving like a man of God. A man who knows and serves the Lord wouldn't be willing to sin against the Lord and against the Lord's people Israel. You don't look much like a prophet to me right now. You're not acting like a believer. You're not even acting like an unbeliever with good morals."

As much as it hurts to have someone rightfully point out our faults to us, we've never had a donkey rebuke us. Join us tomorrow as the Lord continues to give a voice to an animal He created. The Lord has more to say to Balaam through the donkey. 


Monday, February 22, 2021

Numbers. Day 76, Balak And Balaam: A King Offers Money To A Prophet To Curse Israel, Part Three

We're concluding the first section of Numbers 22 today regarding the transaction King Balak of Moab proposes to Balaam the prophet. The king sent messengers to Balaam with money and a request for him to curse Israel so the king can drive the Israelites out of the land. The king knows his troops are outnumbered by Israel's troops; he can't win a war with Israel by strength alone. He also knows that God is on Israel's side, but he thinks he can overcome Israel if a spiritual curse can be pronounced against her to cause her to sin against God enough and anger Him enough that He'll take His protective hand from her. The king is wrong, though he doesn't know it yet, because God has already promised the land of Canaan to Israel and He will not break His promise. He won't allow Balak or anyone else to drive her away from her destiny.

Balaam didn't say no to the messengers right away like he should have. Instead he invited them to spend the night at his house while he consulted the Lord. Only he didn't consult the Lord. I think he was wrestling with temptation but he was wrestling all on his own because He didn't invite the Lord into his house that night for counseling. Instead the Lord had to come to him and forbid him to say anything against Israel. The next morning Balaam regretfully sent the messengers back to Moab, saying, "The Lord has refused to let me go with you."

I can't help hearing him say this in the voice of a petulant child whose friends have come over but whose mother has told him he can't go out and play. He wants to go. He would go if the Lord said yes. His desire for money and perhaps also fame is greater than his desire to be at peace with Israel who has done him no harm. At this point we might be wondering why he doesn't just saddle up and go along with these men since he wants to so badly, but in a moment we'll see that it's simply because the fee offered to him isn't quite enough to override his fear of the Lord. King Balak is a very shrewd man and he will smell Balaam's greed and sense his weakness. He will send a more impressive entourage of dignitaries the next time with the promise that the sky is the limit in regards to payment for the prophet's services.

The messengers return to Moab and relay Balaam's answer to the king. "So the Moabite officials returned to Balak and said, 'Balaam refused to come with us.'" (Numbers 22:14) I think they are surprised and offended that Balaam would refuse their king's request. But the king is not offended or particularly surprised. He believes every man---including Balaam---has a price. Balak is likely quite used to bargaining back and forth when he works out deals for goods and services and favors and treaties. He thinks Balaam is just waiting for a better deal to be offered, and that very well may be the truth. But Balak doesn't have a lot of time to lose because in his paranoid fear of the Israelites he wants them out of his region of the country as quickly as possible. He's not interested in going back and forth with offers and counteroffers so he selects some of his top officials to return to Pethor to present Balaam with an offer he can't refuse.

"Then Balak sent other officials, more numerous and more distinguished than the first. They came to Balaam and said: 'This is what Balak son of Zippor says: Do not let anything keep you from coming to me, because I will pay you handsomely and do whatever you say. Come and put a curse on these people for me.'" (Numbers 22:15-17) The king says, "Name your price, Balaam. I'm willing to heap money and honors upon you---whatever you ask for! Only don't delay any further. I'll give you anything you want; how can you say no to an offer like that? What could possibly keep you from saying yes? Now come immediately and curse these people for me so I can drive them away." 

When Balak says, "Do not let anything keep you from coming to me," he's asking Balaam to defy the Lord. Balak doesn't worship the Lord and doesn't revere the Lord. Balaam's religion means nothing to the king and he knows he can overcome Balaam's scruples if he throws enough money at him and offers him enough honors and status. Prophets of the Lord were not always highly regarded even by the Lord's own people and it could be that Balaam desires to be a man of great power and influence. It could be he craves recognition and wants people to bow down as he passes by in a splendid carriage with dignitaries and servants of his own. Balaam listens to the king's new offer and again doesn't send the messengers away. Instead he tells them to remain overnight while he asks the Lord what to do. He doesn't refuse to accept the offer but warns the men that if he accepts the offer he will be compelled only to do and say what the Lord allows him to do and say. "But Balaam answered them, 'Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God. Now spend the night here so that I can find out what else the Lord will tell me.'" (Numbers 22:18-19)

Balaam puts on a righteous air and piously states, "I can only do what the Lord says." But the Lord has already said he must not go with the men or put a curse on Israel. Balaam already knows the Lord's answer. In his greed he wants to bargain with the Lord, to persuade the Lord to tell him to go. How do we know for sure Balaam is in the wrong spirit here? Because in tomorrow's passage we'll be told that the Lord is angry with him over the condition of his heart. 

We don't know what Balaam says to the Lord during the night or if he says anything at all. I think his mind is already pretty much made up to go. One thing is for certain: he doesn't initiate conversation with God. He doesn't get down on his knees in his room and ask God for instructions or ask God to help him resist this temptation. Just as He did on the previous occasion when men came to Balaam from Balak, God has to make the first move. And when He does He tells Balaam to go ahead and do what he really wants to do anyway. "That night God came to Balaam and said, 'Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.'" (Numbers 22:20)

Why does God do this? I'm reminded of times when I was a child and would keep begging and pleading with my parents to let me do something or have something to which they'd already said no. Sometimes they'd eventually say, "Fine, go ahead then!", knowing I wasn't going to enjoy whatever the thing was or that the thing would cause me aggravation or inconvenience. Experiencing the consequences of our foolish actions is often the best teacher. The Lord says to Balaam, "Fine, go ahead then!", but He's going to straighten out Balaam's attitude along the way and He's going to show the Moabites that no one can curse Israel against His will. God is on Israel's side and that means no king or prophet, and no amount of money in the world, will keep Israel from inheriting the land the Lord promised to her long ago---long before she even existed. Before Abraham even had a son, the Lord promised him as many descendants as the grains of sand along the seashore. The Lord kept His promise to give Abraham a son and descendants; He intends to keep His promise about the land of Canaan too. 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Numbers. Day 75, Balak And Balaam: A King Offers Money To A Prophet To Curse Israel, Part Two

Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid of the Israelites without cause. They are camping near his territory but have no intention of attacking him. Balak, however, wants to "fight them and drive them away" according to a message he sent to Balaam the prophet in yesterday's study. He wants to pay Balaam a fee in exchange for Balaam pronouncing a curse upon Israel that renders Israel unable to successfully fight back.

When the messengers and the money reach Balaam at Pethor, he hears their request. Instead of immediately refusing to curse Israel, as any prophet of God should have done without even thinking about it, he delays providing the men with an answer. "'Spend the night here,' Balaam said to them, 'and I will report back to you with the answer the Lord gives me.' So the Moabite officials stayed with him." (Numbers 22:8) Balaam is not an Israelite but he evidently knows the Lord and has served Him faithfully as a prophet in the past. We know he has a relationship with the Lord because the two of them have a conversation in the night and it's clear they are familiar with each other. What is not clear is why Balaam isn't the one who initiates the conversation. He told the men from Moab that he planned to consult the Lord overnight but instead of asking the Lord what he should do we find the Lord coming to ask him a question.

"God came to Balaam and asked, 'Who are these men with you?'" (Numbers 22:9) Of course the Lord knows exactly who the men are. The Lord isn't in need of information; Balaam is in need of confession. The Lord asks a question in order to draw Balaam into a conversation that's intended to reveal to Balaam the greed in his heart so he can repent of it. Balaam is tempted by the money. He may also be tempted to be of valuable service to the king in hopes that the king, out of gratitude once he has driven Israel away, will heap special honors and privileges upon him. Balaam is more concerned with himself than with the entire nation of Israel. The Lord knows what's in his heart and that's why the Lord poses a question: to get Balaam to admit he's harboring sin in his heart. Do you recall how that, after Adam sinned, the Lord came to the Garden of Eden and asked Adam where he was? The Lord knew Adam was hiding in the shrubbery but He was giving Adam a chance to step forward and admit his sin so it could be dealt with. Nothing is gained by hiding our sin from God. Sin can't be dealt with and resisted unless we get it out in the open before the only One who can help us with it.

"Balaam said to God, 'Balak, son of Zippor, king of Moab, sent me this message: 'A people has come out of Egypt covers the face of the land. Now come and put a curse on them for me. Perhaps then I will be able to fight them and drive them away.' But God said to Balaam, 'Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.'" (Numbers 22:10-12) Could Balaam have pronounced an effective curse upon Israel so that Israel would have been unable to defend herself against Balak's forces? No, I don't think so. God is on Israel's side and no prophet can thwart the will of God. If the Moabite army attacked Israel, God would defend Israel no matter what Balaam said. I don't think there's any danger of Israel being defeated by Moab but the danger is that Balaam will be defeated by greed. He's in danger of putting fortune and fame ahead of his relationship with God and if he does that then the Lord has the right to defrock him as a prophet. Balaam has a lot to lose and the Lord instructs him to remain at Pethor to give him a chance to think about how cheaply he's regarded his faith and his calling in life. 

Balaam seems regretful when he speaks with the Moabite messengers in the morning. But his regret stems from his inability to accompany them, not from feeling remorseful over his greed of the previous day. "The next morning Balaam got up and said to Balak's officials, 'Go back to your own country, for the Lord has refused to let me come with you.'" (Numbers 22:13) How do we know he's not in a repentant frame of mind? He doesn't admit he was wrong. He doesn't make any kind of statement about it being a sin to curse people the Lord intends to bless. He doesn't say something like, "I'm sorry I wasted your time and kept you here overnight. When you came to me yesterday I should have said no right away. I should have stood on my principles instead of letting myself be tempted to do wrong for money or recognition. I am a man of God and I didn't behave like a man of God and I owe you an apology for not behaving in a godly manner in your sight. The Lord talked with me in the night and showed me my error. I repented and made things right with Him when He reminded me that anyone who blesses Israel will be blessed and anyone who curses Israel will be cursed. That's the promise He made long ago to their forefather Abraham and God never breaks a promise. I would be fighting against the God who called me to be a prophet if I spoke a curse against Israel. I don't want to be on the wrong side of God so my answer to your king is no and this is my final answer. Please accept my apology and go your way in peace."

If Balaam had responded in this manner I think King Balak would have accepted his answer. Instead the king senses weakness. He smells greed. He believes (and rightly so) that Balaam has a price. If Balak meets the price he will have what he wants: a curse pronounced upon Israel by a prophet of Israel's God. In tomorrow's study we'll find Balak sending even more impressive officials to Balaam with an even more impressive offer.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Numbers. Day 74, Balak And Balaam: A King Offers Money To A Prophet To Curse Israel, Part One

We begin Chapter 22 today and meet two men we've never heard of before: King Balak of Moab and a prophet named Balaam.

"Then the Israelites traveled to the plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho." (Numbers 22:1) In Chapter 21 we found the Israelites conquering Amorite territory on their way to the promised land because two Amorite kings (Sihon and Og) refused them peaceful passage and engaged them in battle instead. Now the Israelites continue their journey toward the promised land and camp near the Moabites. The Moabites have heard of Israel's great military victories and their king, Balak, wrongly believes he is going to be attacked by Israel's soldiers. He thinks the Israelites are about to mount a military campaign against him, but nothing could be further from the truth because when Moses recounts in the book of Deuteronomy much of the doings of the book of Numbers he will reveal that the Lord instructed Israel not to disturb the Moabites in any way, for, "I will not give you any part of their land". (Deuteronomy 2:9)

The Moabites are the descendants of Abraham's nephew Lot. This makes them kinsmen of the Israelites, since the Israelites are descended from Abraham. We speculated that King Sihon and King Og went on the offensive against Israel due to prejudice against people of a different race and culture. We can't say the same for the Moabites because they share a genetic heritage with the Israelites, although the Moabites have fallen into idolatry by now and have stopped serving the God of their forefather Lot. Their chief god, Chemosh, is one they've adopted from the Ammonites. Very little is known about Chemosh or about Moabite religious practices. There are a few mentions of Chemosh in the Bible, such as in the book of 1 Kings in which King Solomon of Israel sinfully builds sanctuaries for pagan gods in order to please his many foreign wives. Solomon will build a sanctuary in honor of Chemosh in 1 Kings 11. 

The Moabites have fallen away from the one true God by the time Israel camps near them. In Numbers 22 the king of the Moabites fears the people whom God has given great victory in battle. Having no relationship with the Lord himself, King Balak is unaware that the Lord has commanded Israel not to do any harm to Moab. Having no relationship with the Lord himself, Balak is unnecessarily afraid of the people of the Lord, but instead of offering these kinsmen his friendship or consulting with the Lord about Israel's intentions, the king decides to bribe a prophet of God to curse Israel so Israel can be defeated in battle. Balak will state his desire to drive the Israelites from the land, indicating that he intends to go on the offensive just as King Sihon and King Og did. He intends to attack Israel even though Israel has no ill intentions toward him or his people. Not only is the king afraid of the Israelites, but in our next portion of text below we'll see that the citizens of Moab and Midian (Midian being the region where Moses lived for forty years and where he met and married his first wife) are in a panic because such a great multitude is camped near their borders. The people of Midian have a kinship with Moses by marriage but none of the Midianites send emissaries to Moses to ask his intentions or to offer a handshake of friendship. 

"Now Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites. The Moabites said to the elders of Midian, 'This horde is going to lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.' So Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor, who was at Pethor, near the Euphrates River, in his native land." (Numbers 22:2-5a) As we get further into Numbers 22 we'll see that Balaam is not a false prophet. He's no charlatan who puts on a show or makes predictions and prophecies in exchange for money. He's also no prophet for some heathen religion in which he engages in occult practices and operates under some type of demonic influence. He is a prophet of the one true God even though he is not an Israelite. He's not the first person we've met in the Bible who is not of Israel but who worships Israel's God. We don't know how or when he became familiar with the Lord but when we get into tomorrow's text it will be clear to us that he does know Him. That fact makes it an especially abominable sin when Balaam is greedily eager to take money in exchange for cursing God's people Israel.

The Moabite king sends messengers to Balaam, with money in hand, to present his request to the prophet. "Balak said: 'A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and they have settled next to me. Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.' The elders of Moab and Midian left, taking with them the fee for divination. When they came to Balaam, they told him what Balak had said." (Numbers 22:5b-7) 

In tomorrow's passage we'll find Balaam asking the messengers to stay overnight and wait while he consults the Lord. I don't think it was necessary for him to consult the Lord at all; anyone who knows the Lord knows He doesn't want anyone pronouncing a curse upon fellow believers or causing harm to come to fellow believers. But Balaam is motivated by greed and he hopes the Lord will tell him to take the money and issue the curse. When the Lord says no, Balaam will regretfully dismiss the messengers. King Balak will respond by sending more impressive messengers back with offers of enormous wealth. These messengers will basically say to Balaam, "Name your price and the king will pay it. He's willing to pay whatever it takes to put Israel under a curse." King Balak is operating under the assumption that everyone has a price and that he just has to offer the right price and the deed will get done. It's not true that everyone has a price, but Balaam does. Join us tomorrow as we find the prophet falling prey to avarice and proving that, "The love of money is the root of all evil", and that loving money too much can cause a person to wander from the faith. (1 Timothy 6:10) 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Numbers. Day 73, Israel Defeats A Giant

You'll recall from Chapter 13, when the twelve men returned from spying out the land of Canaan, that ten of the men were dismayed by the people of large stature that they saw there. We don't know how many giants were in Canaan but the ten men said that in comparison to the giants they saw themselves "as grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we seemed the same to them". (Numbers 13:33b)

Today Israel will defeat a king who is one of these giants. In yesterday's passage Sihon, king of the Amorites, attacked Israel without cause. The Lord gave Israel victory in battle and allowed Israel to inhabit Amorite territory in the Arnon River Valley. We concluded yesterday's passage with this verse, "So Israel settled in the land of the Amorites." We pick up there with Moses sending men to spy out the next Amorite city along the way to the promised land, which is Jazer. 

Israel came in peace when she asked Sihon to let her cross through the Amorite territory to get to the promised land. Sihon wickedly made war with her and now, because Israel has killed the king and defeated his soldiers at the Amorite capitol city of Heshbon, the Amorites are going to be hostile to the Israelites. Moving forward is going to require engaging Amorites in battle, so Moses sends men to check out Jazer to plan a method of taking the city. The Lord is training the Israelites for taking Canaan. Israel needs the training of fighting and winning smaller battles in order to have the experience and confidence to fight the bigger battles ahead.

"After Moses had sent spies to Jazer, the Israelites captured its surrounding settlements and drove out the Amorites who were there. Then they turned and went up along the road toward Bashan, and Og king of Bashan and his whole army marched out to meet them in battle at Edrei." (Numbers 21:32-33) Og is of Amorite heritage, which we'll discuss later by taking a verse from the book of Deuteronomy. Instead of rushing out to make peace with Israel---with the nation whose God is so mighty in war---he goes on the offensive to attack Israel. Did he think Israel was coming to attack him since her soldiers have already taken two Amorite cities: Heshbon and Jazer? It's possible he did think that, but at the same time he must have known that Sihon caused his own downfall by treating Israel poorly, and he must have known that instead of engaging Israel in battle he could have sent emissaries to make peace instead. Many kings since the creation of the world have avoided war in this manner. Og could have taken the initiative to issue an invitation to Israel to pass unmolested through his land on their way to Canaan. He could have even shown them hospitality or have given them police escorts, so to speak, to make sure that no one bothered them as they traveled through. Instead he puts himself and his men in an unwinnable position. God is on Israel's side. God will ensure Israel wins the battle.

Before the battle begins, the Lord is going to reassure the Israelites that they will be victorious. I think it's highly likely that the soldiers of Israel were vastly outnumbered by Og's soldiers. Later in today's study we'll be looking at a corresponding passage from Deuteronomy and in it we'll learn just how many cities were under Og's control. If he conscripted soldiers from that many cities then his army was large indeed. Later on we'll also learn that Og was a man of extremely tall stature, so tall that the sight of him would have been enough to intimidate anyone. "The Lord said to Moses, 'Do not be afraid of him, for I have delivered him into your hands, along with his whole army and his land. Do to him what you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon." (Numbers 21:32-33) God tells the soldiers not to be afraid and He does this because the soldiers are afraid. I can think of no other reason why He'd issue this message if not to give them some badly-needed courage. God doesn't waste time and He doesn't waste words. He wouldn't tell the men not to be afraid unless they were afraid. God is so good! He knows exactly what the soldiers need and He gives it to them. The Lord is the true general of Israel's army and like a good general He rallies the troops.

"So they struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army, leaving them no survivors. And they took possession of his land." (Numbers 21:35) The book of Deuteronomy supplies us with extra details about this battle and about the cities that had been under Og's control. "So the Lord our God also gave into our hands Og king of Bashan and all his army. We struck them down, leaving no survivors. At that time we took all his cities. There was not one of the sixty cities that we did not take from them---the whole region of Argob, Og's kingdom in Bashan. All these cities were fortified with high walls and with gates and bars, and there were also a great many unwalled villages. We completely destroyed them, as we had done with Sihon king of Heshbon, destroying every city---men, women and children. But all the livestock and the plunder from their cities we carried off for ourselves." (Deuteronomy 3:3-7) They give the Lord the credit for their victory and they supply an important item of information: there were sixty cities under Og's control. If soldiers from sixty cities came out to engage Israel in battle, no wonder Israel needed reassurance from the Lord! In addition to that, we see the Lord training them to take heavily fortified walled cities, which is something they will have to do a number of times after crossing into the promised land.

"So at that time we took from these two kings of the Amorites the territory east of the Jordan, from the Arnon Gorge as far as Mount Hermon. (Hermon is called Sirion by the Sidonians; the Amorites call it Senir.) We took all the towns on the plateau, and all Gilead, and all Bashan as far as Salekah and Edrei, towns of Og's kingdom in Bashan." (Deuteronomy 3:8-10) I mentioned earlier that Og was an Amorite. This passage from Deuteronomy is where that information comes from.

Deuteronomy tells us another bit of trivia about Og, and it's fascinating. "(Og king of Bashan was the last of the Rephaites. His bed was decorated with iron and was more than nine cubits long and four cubits wide. It is still in Rabbah of the Ammonites.)" (Deuteronomy 3:11) It's no wonder the Israelites took note of such a large bed and it's no wonder they measured it and that Moses wrote down its dimensions. This man's bed was fourteen feet long and six feet wide! When Moses wrote the book of Deuteronomy, and perhaps for a long time after that, the bed was in Rabbah. It sounds as if it was on display there and Moses appears to be inviting any doubters to go and take a look at it themselves. 

I've seen people scoff at the idea that there actually were giants in the Bible days and I honestly don't understand their doubt, considering that numerous documented cases of gigantism (with accompanying photos in some cases) exist in modern times. If you go online and look up a list of modern giants and their heights, from the late 1800s up to the present time you'll find people who measured anywhere from seven feet tall to almost nine feet tall. The world record holder in this category, an American by the name of Robert Wardlow, was 8ft 11.1 inches tall. Some years back I stood beside a statue of him in a Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum and it helped me to understand what the Israelites meant in Numbers 13 when they said they felt like grasshoppers in comparison to the giants in the promised land. I'm 5ft 5 inches tall. Robert Wardlow towered over me by about 3.5 feet, not to mention how much wider in stature he was than an average person. I felt like a grasshopper beside of his statue. Tall as he was, Robert Wardlow wouldn't have needed a bed fourteen feet long, so we can safely assume that Og king of Bashan was even taller. He might have been as much as twelve feet tall. 

There's no reason why we should doubt that Og could have been twelve feet tall, for when a cemetery in France was excavated in 1890, bone measurements of one of the cemetery's inhabitants has led archaeologists to estimate that this man stood 11ft 6 inches tall in life. There's nothing unscientific about estimating a person's living height by this method; modern forensic experts do it the same way when they find scattered skeletal remains and bone fragments. A person's height can reasonably be calculated by measuring the length of the leg bones, for example, even if the leg bones are in fragments and have to be pieced together. The measurement of the long bones of the leg, along with the sex (a man would generally be expected to be taller) and overall build of the person (a large boned person would generally be expected to be taller than a person with very petite bone structure), gives these forensic experts a close estimation of the person's height in life. When the Bible says there were giants in the land of Canaan, we can accept that information as fact. When the Bible says Og's bed was fourteen feet long, it's because Og's bed actually was fourteen feet long and it's because Og needed a bed that was fourteen feet long. 

Israel faced a giant in our text today and won with the help of the Lord. The land that was once under control of Og king of Bashan, along with the land that had been under control of King Sihon, will be parceled out to the Israelites as part of their inheritance from the Lord. This territory will belong to the Gadites, the Reubenites and the half tribe of Manasseh later in Numbers 32:33. These tribes will rebuild destroyed cities in the territory and build new settlements as well, which we'll talk about when we arrive at Numbers 32. 

No matter how many giants come against us in this life and no matter what form they take, God is greater. God can not only give us the victory, but He can assure we leave the battle with far more than we had before going into it. While we live on this earth we are, in the words of my church pastor, "living in enemy territory". Our enemy the devil attacks us whenever and however he can. Our fellow human beings sometimes make themselves our enemy through no fault of our own. Sometimes they work against us as a way of attaining an advantage over us professionally, academically, or socially. Other times their motives are more obscure. They do wicked things to us because there is something very wrong in their hearts that causes them to take satisfaction in slandering us or cheating us out of something. I've known people who would slander someone's good name simply because while telling the untrue tale they become the center of attention for a very short time. We can't always fathom the motive for evil deeds because the motive is not understandable or logical to a child of God or even to an unbeliever who lives a moral and honest life. But no matter what a person does to us or says about us, God sees their actions and He hears their words. Just as God saw and heard and judged King Sihon and King Og who made themselves Israel's enemy, God sees and hears and will judge those who make themselves our enemies. God will judge our human enemies and the greatest enemy of mankind: the devil himself. He will cast the devil into the lake of fire for all eternity in Revelation 20:10. So, to quote another favorite statement of my pastor's, "We win in the end." Victory is assured in this life and in the life to come. So no matter what giants you're facing today, the Lord says to you what He said to the Israelites through Moses in verse 34 of today's passage: "Do not be afraid". 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Numbers. Day 72, Israel Defeats Sihon, King Of The Amorites

In our text today a king hatefully refuses Israel passage through his territory, just as the king of Edom did. Unlike the king of Edom, this king will mount a preemptive attack on Israel even though Israel comes in peace. 

"Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon king of the Amorites: 'Let us pass through your country. We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink any water from any well. We will travel along the King's Highway until we have passed through your territory.'" (Numbers 21:21-22) The Amorites were descended from Noah's son Ham, through Ham's son Canaan, according to Genesis 10:15. The king of the Amorites is going to deny the Israelites' request. "But Sihon would not let Israel pass through his territory." (Numbers 21:23a)

We learned earlier in the book of Numbers that the Edomite king amassed troops at his border to deter Israel from attempting entry. Sihon goes even further; he not only amasses troops but goes on the offensive and attacks Israel. "He mustered his entire army and marched out into the wilderness against Israel. When he reached Jahaz, he fought with Israel." (Numbers 21:23b) This action is uncalled for but we'll learn in Deuteronomy that the Lord had already determined to bring defeat upon him. This king is a wicked man who has had many opportunities to repent, but instead of repenting he has continued to grow worse. The Lord has been patient with him so that He can never be accused of not giving the king chances to change his ways, but judgment is now at hand. Just like the Lord allowed evil Pharaoh's heart to grow harder and harder in the book of Exodus because it fulfilled His purpose both for Pharaoh and for Israel, we'll find out in the book of Deuteronomy that the Lord allowed the heart of Sihon to be hard against the Israelites. He allowed the king to behave in this manner as the last straw, so to speak, because He intended to accomplish the king's defeat through the soldiers of Israel. 

The Lord could have deposed the king without any human help but I believe Israel needs a military victory at this point in time. It must have been so discouraging to face a second king who, out of hateful prejudice, denied them peaceful passage. Yesterday's text ended on a spiritual high but it's common in this life to face an enemy attack right after experiencing an especially joyous time in the Lord. The people rejoiced yesterday over the good water they found and they praised the name of the Lord but today the devil tries to knock them back down so they'll fall prey to doubt and grumbling once again. But it won't work this time. The Lord is going to discipline Sihon by the sword of Israel. In allowing Israel to be a part of the king's defeat, the Lord gives Israel the faith and confidence to keep moving boldly forward toward the inheritance He promised long ago.

"Israel, however, put him to the sword and took over his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, but only as far as the Ammonites, because their border was fortified. Israel captured all the cities of the Amorites and occupied them, including Heshbon and all its surrounding settlements. Heshbon was the city of Sihon king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and had taken from him all his land as far as the Arnon." (Numbers 21:24-26) Sihon had taken this territory by force, at some time in the past, from the king of Moab. As we already know, the Moabites were related to the Israelites. The Moabites were descended from Abraham's nephew Lot and the Lord will tell the Israelites in Deuteronomy 2 not to disturb any of the Moabite settlements because, due to their kinship, the Lord does not intend to give any Moabite land to the Israelites. So we see that Sihon is a cruel and warlike man, for he made war in the past with the Moabites (the kinsmen of the Israelites) who were not at war with him but who were living peacefully in their own settlements. Now in today's passage he makes war with the Israelites who wanted nothing more than to pass through his territory without bothering anyone.  

The book of Judges speaks of our passage today, saying that Sihon "did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. He mustered all his troops and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel". (Judges 11:20) Why did the king not trust Israel? Israel hasn't bothered a soul on her way to the promised land. In fact, since the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites haven't fought anyone except the Amalekites who sneaked up and attacked them from behind at Rephidim in Exodus 17:8-16. The Lord gave Israel victory over the Amalekites in that battle, but it was a battle Israel wouldn't have had to fight if she had not been unjustly attacked. Also, even though Edom denied Israel entry and amassed troops at the border to prevent her from even thinking about using the highway through Edom, Israel accepted this decision and went around Edom; Israel did not attack Edom's soldiers. There's no basis for Sihon's fear of Israel except his own prejudices. The Israelites are different from the Amorites. The Israelites are perhaps greater in number than the Amorites at this location. But that doesn't mean they aren't peaceful. In his own mind, the king perceives them as a threat and becomes paranoid about the security of his territory and attacks them for no reason.

Numbers 21 is the end of the line for the king. Our text indicates he met his death in this chapter because it says Israel "put him to the sword". We will not find Sihon mentioned alive after this but we will find Israel's victory over him mentioned several more times in the Bible. In Psalms the king will be mentioned as one of the "mighty kings" who were "killed" by Israel, so I think we can safely conclude that this king's life ended in Numbers 21 due to his wicked prejudice and cruel treatment of Israel.

The remainder of our text contains a poem and it's not completely clear who wrote it. Some of the commentaries I consulted say it was composed by the Amorite poets. Other scholars feel the Israelite poets wrote it. Either way, this poem describes Sihon's conquest of Moab, the inability of Moab's chief god to prevent the loss of the Moabite territory in this region, and the defeat of Sihon by the Israelites. "That is why the poets say: 'Come to Heshbon and let it be rebuilt; let Sihon's city be restored. Fire went out from Heshbon, a blaze from the city of Sihon. It consumed Ar of Moab, the citizens of Arnon's heights. Woe to you, Moab! You are destroyed, people of Chemosh! He has given up his sons as fugitives and his daughters as captives to Sihon king of the Amorites. But we have overthrown them; Heshbon's dominion has been destroyed all the way to Dibon. We have demolished them as far as Nophah, which extends to Medeba.' So Israel settled in the land of the Amorites." (Numbers 21:27-31)

I personally feel our verses above are a bit difficult to follow but after much study and thought I believe the Israelite poets likely wrote it about their victory over Sihon and to explain why they inhabited the land of the Amorites and why---although the Lord will not allow the Israelites to take territory directly from the Moabites---the Israelites weren't obliged to return to the Moabites any land that Sihon took from them in the past. Throughout history, land has belonged to whoever is able to take it and hold onto it. At some point during Sihon's reign, from his capitol at Heshbon he ordered his troops to attack the Moabites at Ar. Sihon and his soldiers were exultant that Chemosh, the chief god of the Moabites, was not able to defend the Moabites from Sihon and his army and his gods. The Amorites gloated over their victory and put down the name of the Moabite god, saying this god had handed over the Moabites' sons and daughters to the enemy. So we see that this territory originally belonged to the Moabites but they lost it to the invading army of the Amorites. But Sihon and his people couldn't boast for long, for Sihon made the fatal mistake of attacking Israel---a people who were at peace with him. Neither Sihon's army nor his gods were able to keep the land from falling into the hands of the Israelites because the Lord gave Israel victory over the Amorites. This means Israel now owns the title to the land the Amorites took from the Moabites. It's the Israelites who are speaking in verse 30 of the poem, saying, "We have overthrown them (the Amorites) and "we have demolished them as far as Nophah". Verse 31 goes on to say, "So Israel settled in the land of the Amorites." 

The Lord allowed the Moabites of this region to be conquered by the Amorites. That decision appears to be irrevocable, perhaps because the Moabites quickly fell away from the religion of their forefather Lot (who worshiped the same God as his uncle Abraham) and fell into idolatry. The Lord gave the Moabite land into the hand of the Amorites for a time. But the Amorites were heathen idolaters too and their king, Sihon, was a wicked man. In time judgment fell upon Sihon and the Amorites of this region when they attacked the Israelites. Now the Israelites are the rightful owners of this territory because they took it in battle after being wrongly attacked by the Amorites. The Lord does not ask or want Israel to hand the deed to the land back to the Moabites from which it was taken some time ago. This is part of the territory the Lord promised to Israel, for He knew He intended to remove it from the hand of the cruel Sihon, and Israel is under no obligation to return it to the people who possessed it before Sihon took it from them by force. 

Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. The prophet Daniel, a man who was shown visions of kingdoms to come, said that the rising and falling of kings and kingdoms is something that is controlled by God who "deposes kings and sets up others". (Daniel 2:21) The Apostle Paul said the same thing in the New Testament, reminding the believers in Rome that all governing authority (whether those rulers are godly rulers or wicked rulers) "have been established by God". (Romans 13:1) The Lord allowed the Moabites to come to power in the region of Ar for a time, then He allowed them to be conquered by the Amorites, then He allowed the Amorites to be conquered by Israel. All this was orchestrated by God. Now, at the end of our passage today, we find Israel inhabiting the region by the will of God.

Join us tomorrow as we find Israel winning the victory in another battle, and this battle involves a king who was not only the general of a mighty army but who was also a literal giant. (Deuteronomy 3:11 says he was so tall that his bed was fourteen feet long!) This king, and perhaps some of his soldiers as well, comprise part of the giants the twelve Israelite spies saw in the land back in Numbers 13. It was these giants that caused ten of the spies to wrongly assert that Israel could not take the land. It was these giants that caused ten of the spies to stir the people up into a rebellion against Moses and against God, causing the people to doubt God's ability to give them the land. But God is bigger than any giant Israel ever faced. He's bigger than any giant you and I will ever face too. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Numbers. Day 71, The Journey To Moab And A Place Of Refreshing

The Israelites have been traveling around the territory of Edom because they were not allowed by Edom's king to pass through it. They are heading toward Moab in our text today and their spirits rise as they find a well of fresh water and as they draw ever closer to the promised land.

"The Israelites moved on and camped at Oboth." (Numbers 21:10) You'll recall that they moved when the Lord said to move and they camped when the Lord said to camp. (Exodus 40:36, Numbers 9:17)

"Then they set out from Oboth and camped in Iye Abiram, in the wilderness that faces Moab toward the sunrise. From there they moved on and camped in the Zered Valley. They set out from there and camped alongside Arnon, which is in the wilderness extending into Amorite territory. The Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites." (Numbers 21:11-13) The Arnon River lay between the settlements of the Moabites and the Amorites. The Moabites were descended from Abraham's nephew Lot and the Lord will command the Israelites not to disturb them. He is not giving any part of the Moabite territory in Canaan to the Israelites because these people are their kinsmen. The Lord will give very clear instructions about this in Deuteronomy 2 when He says to Moses, "Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any part of their land. I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as a possession." (Deuteronomy 2:9)

Ar is believed to have been a Moabite city or large settlement located in the southern part of the Arnon River Valley. An ancient book, now lost to the mists of time, made mention of this city, for Moses quotes from the book here in Numbers 21. "That is why the Book of the Wars of the Lord says: '...Zahab in Suphah and the ravines, the Arnon and the slopes of the ravines that lead to the settlement of Ar and lie along the border of Moab.'" (Numbers 21:14-15) 

By the time the book of Numbers was put together in its final form it appears that the Book of the Wars of the Lord already existed and was well known. The reader of Numbers was expected to understand the reference. Some scholars believe it was simply a record of land borders and an account of which territories the Israelites were given by the Lord and which territories they were told not to touch. Other scholars think it was a list of battles fought and a brief description of where each battle took place. Whatever this book was, we don't need to think of it as "missing" from the Bible. If the Book of the Wars of the Lord needed to be in the Bible, the Lord would have ensured that it ended up in the Bible. It may not have contained anything we would necessarily consider "inspired Scripture". On the other hand, the reason we don't have it today may be because it may have been a condensed version of information we already have in the other books which are in the Bible. The Bible is going to tell us all about the battles Israel fought for the promised land and the Bible is going to tell us which settlements the Lord told them to attack and which settlements He told them to leave untouched. If we possessed the Book of the Wars of the Lord, the information contained in it would likely be redundant because we already have the information in the form of these detailed Old Testament narratives we're studying. 

"From there they continued on to Beer, the well where the Lord said to Moses, 'Gather the people together and I will give them water.'" (Numbers 21:16) Refreshed in body by this water, and refreshed in spirit by the Lord and by their nearness to the promised land, the Israelites break into song. "Then Israel sang this song: 'Spring up, O well! Sing about it, about the well that the princes dug, that the nobles of the people sank---the nobles with scepters and staffs.'" (Numbers 21:17-18a) We don't know for certain what they mean by the "princes" and "nobles". Scholars speculate that this is a reference to the elders of Israel and not to any other princes or nobles who lived in the land. In the original language the word translated as "dug" in English can also mean to "search out". It could be that the men, under the direction of the Lord, used their staffs as dowsing rods to find a source of water in the desert so they would know where to dig for water. Whatever happened here at Beer, the people give praise to the Lord for it and are filled with the Holy Spirit in an attitude of thankfulness.

One of the ways the Holy Spirit ministers to us is as a well of living water in our hearts. When overwhelmed by thankfulness and praise, we feel this living water springing up inside us like a fountain, overflowing from us in an attitude of thankfulness. We might respond to this feeling with praise or prayer or uplifted hands or song. The Lord Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit as a well of living water, saying, "'Let anyone who is thirsty come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.' By this He meant the Spirit." (John 7:38-39a) 

The Lord knows we will go through times in this life that feel like desert places. When we must pass through dry and dusty days, He sends us the refreshment we so desperately need. If you feel in need of a drink of the living water, like I do today, call upon Him. He will give us the strength not only to continue on the journey, but to continue the journey in an attitude of praise.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Numbers. Day 70, The Bronze Serpent

In Numbers 21 we find the congregation of Israel complaining against God and against Moses. They're having to take the long way around Edom because Edom's king refused to allow them to use the wide highway through his land. The Bible told us in yesterday's study that they became impatient with this additional delay in reaching the promised land and began grumbling against the Lord and against Moses, saying they wished they'd never left Egypt, claiming that the Lord and Moses want them to die in the desert, and complaining that they are being forced to depend on the "miserable" manna day in and day out. Yesterday we talked about how no group of people would have done any better than Israel did in the wilderness, but at the same time we talked about the awesome privilege granted to Israel in having God interact with her in ways He'd never interacted with any other nation. We talked about how "to whom much is given, much is required" and discussed why the Lord is so grieved by the repeated incidents of grumbling and unfaithfulness among the congregation. 

The congregation at this point in the Bible consists mainly of people who were under the age of twenty or who were not born yet when the Israelites were rescued by the Lord from Egypt. The Lord stated, following the rebellion of Chapter 14, that no one over the age of twenty who witnessed His miracles in Egypt and in the wilderness would enter the promised land except for Joshua and Caleb. The rebellion is the reason why the Israelites have been in the desert for almost forty years; the older generation must die out before the Lord brings Israel into the promised land. They are now closer to the promised land than they've ever been, but in yesterday's passage they sinned against God with their words and attitudes, so the Lord sent venomous snakes among them. 

We were told, "They bit the people and many Israelites died." I tend to believe the Israelites who perished from the snake bites were from the generation who were aged twenty or older when the Lord brought them out of Egypt, but the Bible doesn't specifically say. Suffering under the Lord's discipline, the survivors apologized to Moses, admitted they'd sinned against the Lord, and begged Moses to intercede for them. Moses, in a Christlike spirit, prayed for the people who so recently made themselves his enemies. The Lord is going to answer Moses' prayer today and our passage is going to contain what is---if you don't mind me saying so---one of the weirdest stories in the Bible.

"The Lord said to Moses, 'Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.' So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived." (Numbers 21:8-9) If you're not familiar with this story you're probably thinking, "What on earth?!" Even if you are familiar with this story, you may think it strange that the Lord would have Moses fashion an object depicting a serpent (a symbol of evil and sin) and that the Lord would ask the people to look at the object in order to receive healing. 

If today's passage isn't already bizarre enough, consider this: this story symbolizes Christ and His redemptive death on the cross. How can we be sure of that? Because Christ took this passage from Numbers 21 and applied it to Himself, saying, "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him." (John 3:14) The Lord was speaking of the day in which He would be lifted up on a pole (nailed to the cross). When speaking of His impending crucifixion on the night of the Last Supper, the Lord said to His disciples, "'And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself.' He said this to show the kind of death He was going to die." (John 12:32-33) 

Why does Jesus compare His perfect self hanging on the cross to the image from Numbers 21 in which an ugly serpent made of bronze is affixed to a pole? I've had a hard time with our text today. I've consulted a number of commentaries and concordances and Bible verses. I didn't feel completely satisfied with any of the answers until I prayed for the Lord to help me. The remainder of our study today is what I believe the Lord said to me through the Holy Spirit. I don't think any human being is capable of fully understanding the enormity of what is being represented in our text from Numbers 21 but I feel satisfied with what I believe the Lord said to me and I hope the following explanation is as beneficial to you as it was to me.

The Lord instructed Moses to fashion a serpent. Serpents are usually considered a symbol of evil and sin, for it was a serpent that enticed Adam and Eve to sin against the Lord. So the Lord tells Moses to fashion a serpent (a symbol of sin) because it is sin that has brought the current distress upon the people. The serpent is to be affixed to a pole and Moses is to hold the pole high and the people are to look upon this object for healing. How does this heal them? By faith. Are they healed by having faith in Moses or in the serpent? No. Their faith is in the Lord; they believe if they do what the Lord told them to do they will be healed. Does Moses or the serpent heal them? No. The Lord heals them.

How exactly does gazing upon the serpent---nailed to a pole---do anything to relieve them of their torment? It relieves them of the torment their sin has caused by believing on faith that their sin (symbolized by the serpent) is nailed to a pole and lifted up between earth and heaven, just as Christ (who became sin for us, according to 2 Corinthians 5:21) was nailed to a pole and lifted up between earth and heaven. Moses, the mediator of the Old Covenant, is interceding in Numbers 21 for the people with God when he holds the pole up between earth and heaven. The people are to gaze upon the pole and the sin that's symbolically nailed to it and be healed and be reconciled to God. In this same way, ever since Christ gave His life for us as the mediator of the New Covenant, we can be healed and reconciled to God by gazing upon what Christ did for us when He nailed sin to the tree in His own body on the cross, in faith believing that, "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed." (1 Peter 2:24) 

Sin is ugly. The bronze serpent, fashioned by Moses, was no doubt ugly. It was nailed to a pole and lifted up in the sight of the people so they could look upon it while believing in faith that God was able to heal them of their ugly sin and remove the curse of their sin from them. In this same way, the agonizing death of Christ was ugly. He was not beautiful as He hung on a pole between heaven and earth, at least not beautiful in the way human beings perceive beauty, for the prophet Isaiah said when he foresaw the death of Christ, "There were many who were appalled at Him---His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and His form marred beyond human likeness...He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him." (Isaiah 52:14, Isaiah 53:52) Christ bore the curse of sin for us when He hung on the cross---while He literally became sin for us. We look in faith upon what He did for us and by faith we are saved. By faith we are healed of the curse of our sin, just as by faith the Israelites of Numbers 21 were healed of their afflictions. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Numbers. Day 69, Faithless Grumblings And A Plague Of Snakes

The Israelites are closer to the promised land than ever before. The Lord swore in Chapter 14 that no one aged twenty and up, who had witnessed His great works in Egypt and in the wilderness, would enter the promised land---with the exception of Joshua and Caleb. This was due to the refusal of the people to move on into Canaan to begin taking the land upon command of the Lord. Because of their refusal, they've remained in the wilderness for an additional thirty-eight years (having already been free of Egypt for two years when the Lord told them it was time to move ahead into the promised land) while the faithless generation dies out. Here in Numbers 21 the majority of the people are of the newer generation but still we find them making the same complaints against the Lord that the older generation made. 

"They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom." (Numbers 21:4a) You'll recall that the king of Edom refused to allow them to use the quicker route through his territory. This forced them to take the long way. Impatient with the delay, they begin to grumble in the same way the older generation did. "But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and Moses and said, 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!'" (Numbers 21:4b-5) They accuse the Lord and Moses of having bad intentions toward them (bringing them into the wilderness to die) and they murmur about the manna (a nutritionally complete food provided freely by the Lord) that they are still eating day in and day out. On the one hand we can understand that the manna has become monotonous; human beings crave variety and new experiences. However, they could have been enjoying the good foods of the rich land of Canaan for thirty-eight years now if their elders hadn't sinned against the Lord. The days of eating manna would by this time have been only a distant memory if their elders had had the faith to go up and take the land. 

For the record, I believe no other group of people on the earth would have done any better in the wilderness than the Israelites. I can't point a finger at them and think that I (a Gentile) or my ancestors or our current generation would have behaved any differently. In fact, I feel that the pagan tribes of the earth would have fared far worse in the wilderness than Israel did because the pagans served gods who didn't exist and who were incapable of performing signs and wonders, much less of providing manna to sustain them. Any other group would likely have perished long before Numbers 21, either by starvation or by turning on each other or by being attacked by enemy tribes. The Lord was Israel's protector and provider in the wilderness; no heathen peoples could have said the same. 

Because the Lord has been Israel's protector and provider, He finds the ongoing complaints and assaults against His character very grievous. The Israelites of our current chapter have had the privilege of witnessing things no other people had ever witnessed. God has interacted with them in ways He had never interacted with anyone else. He has proven He is a personal God who cares about them individually and as a group. He has manifested His power and glory in their sight time and time again. You and I have never seen the cloud of His glory come down and rest on Mount Sinai or on the tabernacle and you and I have never heard His voice that is so thunderous that it shakes the ground. We haven't been led across the wilderness by a pillar of cloud in the daytime and by a pillar of fire at night. We can't say we've ever witnessed Him parting the Red Sea. We can't say we have been provided with free manna that just appears on the ground each morning. But the Israelites could say those things. This is why their complaints in the wilderness are more grievous to the heart of God than the complaints you and I make in our daily lives. Don't get me wrong; complaining against the Lord in any era is a sin of ungratefulness. But we need to stop and consider why the Lord dealt so harshly with Israel's complaints. It's because they saw and heard and experienced the Lord in ways which no other people ever saw and heard and experienced. As the Lord Jesus pointed out many centuries later, a person who knows little about the Lord can only be expected to live by what little they know. But a person who knows a lot about the Lord is expected to live by higher standards. The one who knows a lot about the Lord should trust the Lord a lot and should obey the Lord a lot. "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48b) This verse is often summed up as, "To whom much is given, much is required." The Lord has given much of Himself to the Israelites by this point in the Old Testament. They ought to automatically trust and obey Him by now. 

The Lord could have sentenced the new generation to another forty years in the wilderness and another forty years of eating daily manna. Instead He gets the attention of the entire group by sending something into their midst which causes intense physical discomfort. Nothing gets our attention quicker than bodily suffering. "Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died." (Numbers 21:6) Many scholars over the ages have debated what type of snakes these were. They've debated whether they were literal snakes at all. We won't delve into any of that at this time. Our focus will be upon the reason the snakes came and the effect the snakes had on the people.

The snakes came as discipline for faithlessness and ungratefulness. The snakes also came as a method of removing from the community more of the elders who rebelled against the Lord in Chapter 14. He said the faithless generation would not enter the promised land, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb. We are told "many Israelites died" from the snake bites and I feel that many or all who died were of the faithless generation.

What effect does this have on the survivors? They humble themselves and come to to Moses (whom they've maligned with their words) for help. In doing this they're admitting that they wronged Moses and that they need Moses to act as an intercessor for them with the Lord. Also they confess their sin and repent of it. In doing this they're admitting that the Lord cares about them and does have their best interests at heart. They're admitting that they need Him and that He is the source of all things good, including their healing. "The people came to Moses and said, 'We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.'" (Numbers 21:7a)

"So Moses prayed for the people." (Numbers 21:7b) Moses isn't a perfect man. He's made mistakes along the way, and one mistake in particular in Numbers 20 that will keep him from the promised land. But Moses displays a heart like Christ's every time he prays for the people. Ever since Moses led them out of Egypt they've complained against him and accused him of wanting them to die. They've questioned whether he was really called by God to lead them or whether he promoted himself to this office. They've even---on at least one occasion for certain---wanted to stone him to death. But time and time again Moses obeys these words which Christ will speak approximately 1400 to 1500 years later: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be the children of your father in heaven." (Matthew 5:44-45a) 

In tomorrow's passage the Lord tells Moses what he and the people must do to put an end to the current distress. It will take more time than we have in today's study to discuss the object known as the bronze snake and its significance and its later destruction.