Now, it’s important to remember that the journey back to Canaan was not a classic journey from A to B. God had a lot he wanted to teach them on that journey.
One of the first things that God wanted to show Israel was how he wanted to make them lots of promises as a nation, as well as what he expected from them.
This agreement made between God and the people was called a covenant, it was made at the foot of a mountain called Sinai.
Now,at this point Moses—the leader at this time—he was up on top the mountain, speaking directly with God… in fact God even carved what he wanted them to do into two tablets of stone.
However, whilst Moses was up on the mountain, the people lost their way in major way. They ended up reverting to some of the practices that they’d picked up from the nations around them—whether it was Egypt or other nations we don’t know—but they had this idea in their heads that the best way of worshipping the God—or the gods—who had rescued them from Egypt would be to make a big gold statue of a cow and to worship with the aidof that big monument. And they persuaded Aaron’s brother that this was a good idea. And Aaron gave in!
And that is actually what happened! The people worshipped a statue of a cow!
Moses deals with the situation and eventually goes back up the mountain… Two more tablets are made, and he also gets given plans from God for something called a tabernacle which really is the climax of the book of Exodus. The tabernacle is a big tent in which God says he will livein a special way—sure, he’s everywhere, but God says he will especially be present in this tabernacle.
The people of Israel spend a year in all at the foot of Mount Sinai. With Moses relaying all that God has said to him to them, with the plans for the Tabernacle being made, with the Tabernacle itself actually being made, and all the stuff that goes wrong in-between—it’s a good twelve months.
They are about to head out on the next leg of the journey to Canaan… And really that’s what the book of Numbers is all about, the journey through the desert back to the homeland.
Now, sadly, the book being called “Numbers” often puts people off it. In the Hebrew Bible the book is called In the Wilderness which I think is a far better name. However, the title Numbers isjustified because the book does start with a census. But there are also a good few laws about the arrangement of the tribes around the Tabernacle, and a series of purity and holiness laws which grow out of that Tabernacle… God’s people are now living in a place that has the presence of God in it, so they’re going to have to live a bit differently when it comes to hygiene, and ceremony, and day to day living… we’ll come on to that.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud…
God’s presence is visually represented to the people with a huge cloud in the daytime and a huge block of fire at night time. And—at this point in the story, where we are this morning—this pillar is resting on the Tabernacle. The pillar has been with them since they left Egypt, and it has moved with the people as they’ve travelled—in fact whenever the pillar moves, the people follow it, God was leading them to the promise land on his timetable, on his route.
And just before the section in Numbers that we’re going to be concentrating on this morning, the cloud lifts, they’re on their way, all twelve tribes start filing out, off to the promise land!
They’re on their way…
But just three days in, things start to go wrong again… In chapter 11 of Numbers, the people start complaining, they’re craving food apparently. Now realise… they do have food. They have bread from heaven. God had already sent this amazing stuff they ended up calling manna which used to grow on the ground every morning.
But we can at least empathise with the people, sure they look utterly ridiculous from our perspective, but some of us complain if we have to eat the same meal just two nightsin a row, not to mention basically the same food for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. They want meat! And we can understand that—it doesn’t make it right—but we can understand it.
But yes… it was wrong for the Israelites to be so ungrateful and so we read that ‘the Lord’s anger was kindled against them.’ Fire comes down! And some of the camp burstsinto flames!
But the people cry out to Moses for help, and Moses prays to the Lord and the fire dies down.
And yet, what seems immediately after that, the people start complaining again! And God—showing mercy that I don’t think any of us would dream of showing—God does eventually give them some meat to eat, in the shape of some delicious birds that are easy to hunt called quail.