Journey In The Wilderness Pt.2 (Numbers 9-18)

Part 2 of the overview of Numbers with commentary featuring chapters 9-18.

Numbers Chapter 9:
In the first month of the second year, God told Moses that Israel was to prepare for the observance of Passover (Pesach) at dusk on the 14th day of that month. Moses told the Israelites to get ready, however, some of the Israelites were ritually impure on that day because of encounters with corpses, so they couldn’t participate. Moses asked God what to do about it and God said that if an Israelite is unclean on the 14th day or is out of the country, then they can observe it on the 14th day of the next month. Anyone who doesn’t fit into one of those two categories is required to observe Passover, and if they don’t, they will be cut off from the community. If a foreigner wants to observe he must follow the same regulations as everyone else (and males must be circumcised).

God’s presence appeared as a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. His precense covered the Tabernacle when they stopped to camp, but when it was time to leave God would lift it up, so they could disassemble the Tabernacle. Sometimes God had them camp for a few days, sometimes it was just for one day. If the cloud was over the Tabernacle for a month or a year the Israelites would stay put until God’s presence lifted up as a sign to move.

Numbers Chapter 10:
God told Moses to make two trumpets made from hammered silver. They will be blown to assemble the people of Israel and signal the break of camp. If both horns are sounded then the whole community is to gather before the Tabernacle, but if it is only one that sounds then only leaders are to assemble. The first alarm will signal the east squad to get moving. The second alarm for the south. The short blast will be used for the call to break up camp and get moving, but long sounds will be used for assembly. Only Aaron’s descendants will sound the trumpets. When they take the land, the alarm will also be sounded when they are being attacked by an enemy. They also will blow the trumpets during annual festivals and new month festivals (Rosh-Hodesh) over their burnt and peace offerings and this will remind them of God’s covenant.

On the 20th day of the second month (end of the alternative Passover), the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, and the Israelites moved out from Mt. Sinai to the wilderness of Paran. 

The east squad led by Judah went first, headed by Nahshon son of Amminadab, and their squad included the tribes of Issachar and Zebulun led by Nethanel son of Zuar, and Eliab son of Helon respectively. The Tabernacle was taken down and the Gershonite and Merarite clans of Levi carried its building materials. 

Next, the south squad, made of the tribes of Rueben, Simeon, and Gad. They were led by Elizur son of Shedeur, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai, and Eliasaph son of Deuel respectively. Then the Kohathite clan of Levi carried the Ark and all the sacred objects of the Tabernacle. The Kohathite clan came after the other Levi clans so that they could set up the Tabernacle before the Kohathites got there with the Ark and sacred objects. 

Next, the west squad, made of the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. They were led by Elishama son of Ammihud, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur, and Abidan son of Gideoni respectively. 

Lastly, the northern squad is made of the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali. They were led by Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai, Pagiel son of Ocran, and Ahira son of Enan respectively.

Moses asked his brother-in-law Hobab son of Reuel, to come with them on their journey to Canaan because he was familiar with the territory. Hobab refused at first and just wanted to go home, but Moses convinced him by saying that God’s blessing on the Israelites will extend to him if he does go, and he changed his mind. They journeyed in the desert for three days, looking for where God would have them stop and rest each day. God’s presence hovered above them as they carried Ark. Whenever the Ark set out, Moses would shout, “Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered! Let them flee before you!” And when the Ark was set down, he would say, “Return, O Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel!”

Numbers Chapter 11:
The Israelites started complaining about being in the desert and God’s caused a fire to break out and some people on the outskirts of the camp died. The people called on Moses to help and Moses prayed to God for mercy and the fire went out. That place was called Taberah (“the place of burning”) because of judgment by fire. Next, the foreigners among them started complaining about the foods they missed from Egypt, and the Israelites soon followed. They wish they had the fish of Egypt for meat that they got for free working as slaves, as well as the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. Then they complained about the manna and how sick of it they were. The manna looked like small coriander seeds, and it was pale yellow like gum resin. It came down on the camp with the dew during the night and the people would go out and gather it every morning. They made flour by grinding it with hand mills and mortars. Then they boiled it in a pot and made it into flat cakes. These cakes tasted like pastries baked with olive oil.

Moses and God were both annoyed by their groveling. Moses went to God and asked why he has to put up with these people. Moses said they are not his offspring and this responsibility is too great. Moses even asks to die now if this is what his life is going to be like moving forward. God had Moses bring 70 of Israel’s leaders to the Tabernacle so that he could anoint them with the same spirit Moses has, that way Moses didn’t have to bear this burden alone. God said he would give them a lot of meat continuously for a whole month to the point they would be sick of it, because of their disrespectful complaining and talk of returning to Egypt after he rescued them. Moses had some doubts that God could feed 600,000 men, let alone their families. He says that neither slaughtering all of their livestock nor catching all of the fish in the sea would be enough to feed everyone. God’s response was “Has my arm lost its power?”, and promised to show him what he could do.

Moses did what God said and God anointed the 70 leaders and they even prophesied by his Spirit, but only that one time. There were two men in the camp named Eldad and Medad who were supposed to go before the Tabernacle but didn’t, yet the Spirit came upon them and even they started prophesying. When this was reported to Moses, Joshua, son of Nun, (who was Moses’ assistant this whole time) asked Moses to make them stop. Moses told Joshua that there was no need to be jealous for his sake. Moses even said wished all of Israel could prophesy.

After the prophesying was over, a strong wind blew a bunch of quail into the camp, and the entire community was surrounded by it. It took the people days to gather it all up and everyone had at least 50 bushels worth of it. As they were gorging on the meat many people died of a plague and since then that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah (“graves of gluttony”). This was God’s response to their gluttonous desires to eat meat in reminiscence of their past time in Egypt. From there the Israelites traveled to Hazeroth and camped there for some time.

Comment: Quail specifically can cause a sickness that we see in Numbers 11:31-34 called coturnism. This sickens became so widespread throughout the Mediterranean that the Roman Empire officially banned the eating of quail in the 1st Century CE. It is said that quails are not always poisonous and this toxicity may come from something Quails eat, possible candidates being hemlock, Hellebore, or woundwort. Quail is kosher since it is not mentioned in Leviticus 11, and it was already given by God as food in Exodus 16, so cleanliness wasn’t an issue. Typically poisonous or venomous creatures are in the category of unclean. The poisoning is limited to Numbers 11, and the bible says this is because of the Israelites’ sinful attitude towards God, so this is a unique event and the Israelites called the place of the poising Kibroth-hattaavah (graves of the gluttons). Since only a remnant died it is possible the people that died in that moment were especially gluttonous. Another possibility could be that their quail wasn’t cooked right (because those people rushed it), or those people simply ate too much of it causing toxicity and coturnism. Also, it is possible a flock of toxic quail joined the flock of safe quail and those wicked people simply got the bad ones. Either way, God spared the righteous and therefore there must have been a distinction among the quail or a distinction between how the people prepared/ate it.

Numbers Chapter 12:
Miriam and Aaron started bad-mouthing Moses’ new Cushite (Ethiopian) wife. Furthermore, they started to critique Moses’ leadership and Moses heard them but stayed humble. In response, God called all three of them to the Tabernacle. God scolded Aaron and Miriam for their conduct. He said that when Israel gets a prophet God will speak to them, but in the meantime, Moses is the only righteous one amongst the Israelites and God speaks to him face to face, therefore they should have some respect for God’s anointed one. Then God smote Miriam with a skin disease giving her white skin, and Aaron pleaded with Moses to forgive them. Moses went to God to ask for mercy on Miriam and God said she will stay unclean for a week and must be quarantined, afterward, when she is examined and confirmed healed she will be allowed to return. After a week, Miriam was allowed back into camp and God led them forward from Hazeroth to the wilderness of Paran.

Comment: Moses’ first wife was Zipporah the daughter of the Midianite priest Reuel/Jethro, so she was not a Cushite (Ethiopian). That means Moses took a second wife around the time of Numbers 12, either in a polygamous marriage or after becoming a widower. I think widower is most likely since Zipporah has not been mentioned since Exodus 18 when they first came to Sinai. In addition, her death may have brought her  brother Hobab to the camp who agreed to travel with them in Numbers 10:29.

Numbers Chapter 13:
God had Moses send out 12 scouts, one from each non-Levite tribe, to scout out the land of Canaan. Moses sent out: Shammua the son of Zaccur (Reuben), Shaphat son of Hori (Simeon), Caleb son of Jephunneh (Judah), Igal the son of Joseph (Issachar), Hoshea [Joshua] son of Nun (Ephraim son of Joseph), Palti the son of Raphu (Benjamin), Gaddiel the son of Sodi (Zebulun), Gaddi the son of Susi (Manasseh son of Joseph), Ammiel the son of Gemalli (Dan), Sethur the son of Michael (Asher), Nahbi the son of Vophsi (Naphtali), and Geuel the son of Maki (Gad).

Joshua son of Nun was originally named Hoshea but Moses changed his name. Moses sent out the 12 scouts to investigate the land from the hills in the Negev. They were to inspect the cities and farmland, the crop yield and fertility of the ground, and the people and their military strength. They were also asked to bring back some fruit since it was the harvest season for grapes. They went up and explored the land from the wilderness of Zin as far as Rehob, near Lebo-Hamath. They went north through the Negev to Hebron. This is where the Anakites lived and it was founded seven years before the Egyptian city of Zoan. They cut some huge grapes from a vine to bring back with them and that place was later called the valley of Eshcol (“cluster”) because that is where they first cut a cluster of grapes from Canaan. They carried the grapes on a pole held by two men and they grabbed some pomegranates and figs as they left.

After 40 of exploration, the scouts returned to give a report to the Israelites who were waiting in Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran. They brought back fruit from the land and told everyone what they saw. They confirmed that the land is good and flowing with “milk and honey” but they were afraid that the people in the land were too strong since they had such fortified cities. They feared the might of the Anakites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and the Canaanites on the coast. However, Caleb suggested that they go and take the land because he believed that they could conquer it. The other spies objected and said that the people are too strong, and they even have Giants (Nephilim) on their side, that descend from Anak, Those scouts felt the Israelites were grasshoppers in comparison and the conquest would be a failure.

Numbers Chapter 14:
The people of Israel wept in despair at the news from the scouts all night. They complained to Moses and Aaron that God had brought them out here to die in a battle in Canaan, and they were better off dying in the desert or staying in Egypt. They decided to get a new leader and go back to Egypt for fear of being beaten by the Canaanites and having their wives and children taken as captives. Moses and Aaron bowed down in repentance to God, along with the two scouts Joshua and Caleb. Joshua and Caleb said that the land was good and that if God is for them then they will be successful at taking it. They pleaded with the people to not sin against God by rebelling and to trust him to give them success. The people talked of stoning Moses, Joshua, Caleb, and Aaron, but then God’s glory was shown from the Tabernacle and he called them out for doubting him and treating him with contempt, despite all the things he has done for them. God says they deserve destruction and threatened to restart with Moses, Joshua, Caleb, and Aaron. Moses pleaded with God not to do that for the sake of his covenant, as well as his reputation since the gentile nations would find out and claim “their God couldn’t fulfill his promise so he gave up and killed them”. Moses reminded him of his pledge to be slow to anger, compassionate, and merciful, but not exonerating the guilty and allowing the effects of their sins to follow down to the third and fourth generation.

God forgave the people but promised that none of them except for Caleb and Joshua will enter the promised land, so their possession of it will be delayed until this generation dies out. Then he told them to go back to the Red Sea. No one who was counted in the census age 20 and up will make it into the promised land and they will die in the wilderness as the Israelites wander for 40 years. The scouts that gave the bad report died from a plague, meanwhile, Joshua and Caleb were spared. The next day Moses told the Israelites what God said and what happened to the scouts and the Israelites repented. The people decided to attempt to undo their mistake by challenging the Canaanites now, but Moses warned that God had already decreed that they would not inherit it for 40 years and they should go back to the Red Sea. If they fight the Canaanites in the hills and the Amalekites now they will lose because God is not with them. The people attempted anyway and were defeated like Moses said, and chased to Hormah.

Comment: This is a similar scenario to the golden calf incident in Exodus 32. God threatened to wipe them out but Moses pleaded not to break the covenant and for his reputation. Moses even reminds God of his pledge to be slow to anger and compassionate and merciful from Exodus 34. While God had every right to “divorce” and destroy them for breaking the covenant, God remained faithful to his promise even though they were unfaithful. It’s clear that God did not actually intend to kill them all off and start over with Moses, but rather he led Moses into a dialogue that would reveal that he would not break his promise to Israel (Jacob). This conversation was a device he used to show that he is trustworthy despite how he feels when we fail and what we deserve as sinful people. In Hosea chapters 1-3, God has Hosea marry a prostitute named Gomer, and she cheats by prostituting herself, then another man pimps her out. Divorcing her is his legal right because of her adultery, however, God tells him to buy her back from her lover and reconcile with her. This ends up becoming a metaphor for what God will do with Israel after the exile, despite their idolatry. When we are unfaithful he will remain faithful (2 Tim 2:13). Sometimes God leads people into a dialogue about keeping his promises, to remind us of his intent to keep his promises.

Numbers Chapter 15:
God gave Moses instructions on how the Israelites are to give offerings when they get into the land. All animal sacrifices whether it be offerings for vows, voluntary gifts, burnt offerings, or festival offerings, whether it be from a herd or flock must come with a grain offering. The grain offering that comes with each lamb for burnt offering or special sacrifice must be 2.2 liters of choice flour mixed with one liter of olive oil, along with one liter of wine. For a ram, one must bring 4.4 liters of flour mixed with 1.3 liters of olive oil, and 1.3 liters quarts of wine. For a bull bring 6.6 liters of flour mixed with 2.2 liters of olive oil, and 2.2 liters of wine. They must follow these grain offering instructions for each animal they sacrifice, according to the type of animal, no matter how many they bring. Both foreigners and Israelites must follow these protocols. When they get into the land. God is supposed to get the first portion of all the bread produced. Just like he gets the first portion of grain set aside for him on the threshing floor, they are to set aside a cake from the first batch of bread made and continue this tradition into future generations.

If a person unintentionally fails to keep these instructions, that person is to bring a one-year-old female goat as a sin offering. They will be forgiven afterward whether they are a foreigner or an Israelite. This applies to an unintentional sin committed among the people. However, a person who intentionally disrespects God’s laws will be cut off from his people for blasphemy.

While in the Sinai desert, a man was caught gathering wood on Sabbath. They set him aside for judgment with Moses and Aaron until they heard from God on what to do. God told them to stone him to death for violating the Sabbath. So the community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death.

The Israelites are told to make tassels (tzitzit) for the hem of their clothing and attach them with blue chords. This will function as a visible reminder of God’s laws, so they won’t forget his commands and follow their sinful nature, but instead remember his teachings. He reminds them that he is the God who brought them out of Egypt.

Numbers Chapter 16:
One day Korah son of Izhar, a member of Kohathites, conspired with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth, from the tribe of Reuben and 250 other men from amongst Israel’s leaders, to rebel against Moses. They believe Moses has become power-hungry every since the 10 scouts died, and he can’t lead anymore since he failed to bring them into the promised land. Moses responded to Korah and his followers, to bring incense burners tomorrow to the Tabernacle and burn incense in God’s presence and God will reveal to everyone who should be a leader. He then reminds them that they are Levites and are taking for granted that they are set apart to serve with the priest and be closer to God’s presence than other people of Israel. However, they clearly have gotten power hungry and want to have the same privileges as the priests. Therefore it is God whom they are actually rebelling against not Moses and the priesthood. Moses called for Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, but they refused to come. They called Moses a failure for not bringing them into the promised land and is say he is just playing dictator. Moses asked God not to even acknowledge their grain offerings because of their disrespect. Moses reminded Korah and his 250 followers to present themselves before God to be judged tomorrow morning.

The next day Korah and his followers prepared their incense and burned it at the Tabernacle entrance. Korah stirred up the whole community to come and witness this event to get more support for his cause. God’s presence came down and warned Moses and Aaron to get out of the way as he was about to destroy these people for their rebellion. Moses and Aaron bowed and pleaded with God to spare the innocent. God says to warn everyone to get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Moses warned everyone to get away from their tents and not to touch anything that belongs to them or else they will die with these rebels. The people fled and Dathan, and Abiram came out of their tents and looked on from the entrance. Moses said that if these men die of natural causes God is for them, but if they die from an unusual miracle then God is against them and for Moses. Moses gives an example of the earth swallowing them up as an unusual miracle and as soon as he finished speaking that is what happened. The ground opened up around the tents of Dathan, and Abiram and swallowed them and their families and closed up behind them and the Israelites were terrified. Meanwhile, Korah and his 250 rebels who were holding burning incense were hit by fire from heaven and burned up.

Moses had Eleazar collect the firepans and scatter the coals, the firepans were not holy, because the men holding them were smitten by God. Moses said to hammer the firepans in sheets that will cover the bronze altar, and this will be a reminder to Israel that only the priest (descendants of Aaron) are to burn incense in God’s presence, no one else not even the other Levites. This will keep rebels from trying to usurp the priesthood in the future, and remind Israel that Moses did not make up any of these rules and that violating them will cost people their lives. The next day more people grumbled that Moses was a murderous zealot but then God’s presence appeared and he threatened to kill them with a plague. Moses had Aaron grab a fire pan and burn incense with coals from the altar in order to atone for the people, meanwhile, the plague started killing people. Aaron brought the burning incense to the midst of the people and the plague stopped. However there were 14,700 deaths before the plague ended, Aaron returned to Moses at the Tabernacle.

Numbers Chapter 17:
God told Moses to collect the staff of each of Israel’s leaders representing the 12 non-Levite tribes. Each person’s staff was to have their name on it and Aaron’s name would be on his staff representing the tribe of Levi. The staffs were to be placed in the Tabernacle in front of the Ark. The staff of God’s chosen tribe will sprout buds to confirm his choice of the leader tribe. The next day Aaron’s staff was the one that budded with flowers and almonds. God said to put Aaron’s staff back in the Tabernacle as a reminder to any rebels that Aaron’s line is the priesthood and only they deal with God directly, this will prevent future deaths. The people groaned that were all unworthy and doomed to die when coming to the Tabernacle. 

Numbers Chapter 18:
God tells Aaron that he, his descendants, and his Levite relatives are responsible for managing the sanctuary and Tabernacle, but only Aaron and his sons will be responsible for the operations of the priesthood. Levites are assigned to help Aaron and the priest. They are to help out with moving the Tabernacle and disposal of unclean things, but they can’t go near the holy things in the Tabernacle or the altar, or else both the priest and they will die. Only Levites can help out in this way, other unauthorized people will die if they come too close to the duties of the priest, and only the Levites are set apart. Only the priest can handle the holy things in the Tabernacle. If they keep God’s instructions and keep the priest and Levites in their proper roles, everyone will be safe from the consequences of defiling God’s holiness.

God gives Aaron instructions on receiving gifts and offerings from the Israelites. A portion of all the gifts that are not burned up on the altar belongs to Aaron and his descendants. That means they get a portion of the sin offering, grain offering, and guilt offering. Basically everything except the burnt offering, although they can keep th hides of a burnt offering if they want (Lev 7:8). Every male descendant of Aaron may eat their priestly portion of an offering in a holy place. In addition, the priests get a portion of the waved offerings and the best of the olive oil, wine, and grain, and the first portion of the crops. All ceremonially clean family members can eat these waved offerings and first fruit gifts.

Everything in Israel that has been consecrated to God belongs to the priesthood. All firstborn males will go to the priest as a sacrifice, but the humans and unclean animals must be redeemed. The redemption price for humans is five shekels of silver and they are to be redeemed when they are at least a month old. Unclean animals must be replaced by clean ones or be killed outside the camp. Clean animals like cattle, sheep, and goats are not to be redeemed and must be sacrificed and have their blood splashed on and their fat burned on the altar. Portions of the meat of these offerings will belong to the priest just like the breast and the right thigh of the waved offerings. These portions will belong to the priest and their family to eat in future generations.

The Levites will not have a land allotment, instead, God gives them a tithe (10%) of everything the rest of Israel produces. This is their payment for serving in the Tabernacle. From now on the Tabernacle is off-limits to every non-Levite. This way only the Levites are responsible for mistakes. The tithe is their inheritance so they will never get a land allotment. God also instructed the non-priest Levites to give a tenth of their tithe inheritance to the priests. It counts as if it were a hypothetical tithe from their own harvest of grain and wine from their own hypothetical land allotment. They should give the best portions of their collected tithe as their tenth portion to the priest. The tithe the Levites receive can be eaten anywhere they wish because it is their pay for their service in the Tabernacle.  As long as the Levites set aside the best portion for the priest as their own tithes, they will be blessed, but if they treat the tithe from Israel carelessly they will die.

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