THE CONSEQUENCES OF DISOBEDIENCE FROM GODíS COVENANT PEOPLE IN THE BOOK OF NUMBERS
As a sequel to the book of Exodus, Numbers continues with the story of the Israelites who are still encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai. It follows their wanderings through the Wilderness of Sinai for the next 40 years until they finally arrive at Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan River, ready to occupy the land of Canaan. Moses is the central character in the book, but his leadership is constantly questioned by the people. They complain regularly and bring about punishment on themselves and their children. No matter how often God reveals Himself in this book through tremendous acts of compassion, kindness, and wrath the people continue year after year in their disobedience to His laws. The Book of Numbers presents the concept of God's correcting wrath upon His own disobedient people. Through their rebellion, the Israelites had broken the covenant. Even Moses was not exempt from God's wrath when he disobeyed God.
Preparation For Entrance into the Promised Land
Beginning in Numbers 10 it seems evident that Moses is getting excited about all that the Lord has in store for them. He has seen and experienced many wonderful things by God up to this point. He and his fellow Israelites are being fed from Heaven, and God goes before them each day as a reminder that they are under His protection. The people are only about a year removed from all they saw in Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. The law has been given, and an entire administration has been set up. All that is needed is entrance into the Promised Land. Like an over-achieving veteran athlete waiting to be inducted into the Hall of Fame after a long and fruitful career, the Israelites are only days away from over 400 years of waiting. Moses knows that he is Godís chosen instrument in fulfillment of all that God promised to Abraham. A small glimpse of Mosesí excitement is given in Numbers 10:29-31 where Moses pleads with his brother-in-law, Hobab, to stay with them and experience all that God has for them. Hobab seems unwilling, but the excitement in Mosesí tone is unmistakable. They are going into the land "flowing with milk and honey." They march for three days toward the land with the Ark of God going before them. The confidence in Mosesí voice is powerful, and God is with them. Blessings and rewards are just around the corner -- if only they would believe.
Complaints Leading to Disobedience
In Numbers 11, however, the people begin to complain. They have just spent at least a year living in one place (the mountain of God), but now they have to pick up their belongings and proceed with Godís plan. This is when the grumbling begins. The first complaint by the Israelites is all their hardships. It seems that they are tired of wandering, so they begin to feel sorry for themselves. After complaining about their problems God responds. "The reference to Godís hearing them is anthropomorphic language used, no doubt, to suggest that their complaining was not inward and quiet. Indeed, it was so loud it reached the very heavens!" His response is devastating to the people because He did not listen to them with sympathy -- He heard them, and His wrath was kindled. It is not told how many died, or even if it was the ones who complained, but fire broke out on the outskirts of the camp and many died there. Obviously God was not tolerating complaints from people whom He had already given so much.
As if God had not made His point clearly enough He was put to the test once again in Numbers 11:5. The people began to complain about the food God was providing. Apparently the manna had become mundane, and they began to crave all the delicacies they had while they were slaves in Egypt. The grumbling began among the foreigners who were with them, but it soon spread to everyone in the camp. God heard this and He became angry (v. 10). After listening to Mosesí anger and frustration God provided for the desires of the Hebrew camp by sending multitudes of quail to provide for their desires. Once the people began to eat the meat, however, God sent a plague among them, and many died there because of their sin. Once again, Godís wrath was revealed due to sin and disobedience among the people.
In chapter twelve the people have moved on from the quail site and the graves which they dug there, and they are now in Hazeroth. While in Hazeroth Mosesí sister and brother, Miriam and Aaron respectively, grow tired of Mosesí leadership. They question whether or not Moses is the only one through whom God speaks, and Godís anger is stirred for the third time. God summons Miriam and Aaron, rebukes them, and then sends leprosy upon Miriam causing her to be banished from the camp for seven days. This delayed the travels of the Israelites once again because they had to wait for Miriam to be restored. Her punishment for disobedience was harsh, but it was brief. Once again, Godís point is well taken but soon forgotten.
The Israelites, despite their disobedience at this point, are still prepped to enter the land promised to their forefathers. In Numbers 13 God tells Moses to appoint twelve men to spy out the land and bring back a report to the people. Moses sends the twelve, a representative from each tribe, and they return with the report. The report from the spies is in keeping with their character of disobedience and their limited view of God. Ten of the twelve spread a pessimistic report about all that they had seen, and they caused the entire camp to rebel against God by refusing to go in and conquer the land flowing with milk and honey. Instead they began to complain to God and remind Him that He was doing them an injustice. They even went so far as to repeat Miriam and Aaronís sin by appointing another leader to lead them back to Egypt. In essence, they disobeyed God, rejected His wonderful gifts, and turned their backs on Him. "The people had a faith to apply the redemption blood and to leave Egypt, but lacked faith to enter their Canaan rest, enjoy conquest over enemies, and victorious possession of a land flowing with milk and honey. In other words, they failed to enter into spiritual conquest and victory." True to His character God punished their disobedience. The punishment for the consequences of the Israelitesí sin was realized when God told them that not one of the people who lived at that time, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, would enter the Promised Land. They had proven that they did not want to by their words and deeds, so God caused them to wander in the wilderness for thirty-eight more years until all over the age of twenty died. Only those under the age of twenty, which was the next generation, would see the Promised Land. The Levites, Moses, Joshua, and Caleb must have been devastated. They too had to suffer for the disobedient people, and they too would have to wait many more years before they could enter the land. They were so close, but now they are so far.
In order to try and make amends for their sin the Israelites immediately disobeyed God. Apparently they realized the error of their ways and decided to enter the land anyway and fight the people living there. Their problem, once again, was disobedience because God had already changed the course of their lives. Their lack of faith in Him had come to an end as far as He was concerned, and He did not go with them to fight the Canaanites and Amalekites. As expected, there was a great massacre, and disobedience to Godís command was the cause of many lives being lost there that day.
There came a time during the wanderings when, for the sixth time, Mosesí leadership was questioned. A man named Korah and a few of his followers rebelled against Moses and attempted to lead a group back to Egypt. God appeared to the assembly and confirmed His choice in the leadership of Moses by opening up the earth and killing Korah and the rebels who questioned Mosesí authority. Disobedience to Godís anointed resulted in the death of over 250 people that day. Even though the people had been prevented from entering the Promised Land they were still accountable to being obedient to God and His commands. Even the families and homes of those who disobeyed and complained against God that day died in full view of everyone in the Israelite camp. "Upset by the death of their countrymen, the rest of the Israelites Ďgrumbled against Moses and Aaroní and accused them of killing the Lordís people. Once again the Lord became angry and threatened to wipe out all of them. Quickly Moses told Aaron to take incense and fire and make atonement for the people before a plague consumed all of them. Moses obeyed, but by that time the plague had claimed 14,700 lives as the judgment of God fell."
As the Israelites approached the end of their wanderings in the wilderness it seems evident that even Moses was at the end of his patience. Back in chapter 10 he was excited and fully prepared to enter the land promised to his forefathers. Now he is a leader at the end of his rope. No doubt many and most of his friends and companions have passed away due to their sin. Miriam, his sister, is now dead as well. The Israelites, however, are at it again. They are thirsty and complaining about their hardships. They are still desiring the land of Egypt because there they had all they wanted. God, however, has greater plans for the Israelites. Though they might have been content with staying put, He had a better plan. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock so that it might give water to the Israelites. Even after years of complaining by His people God is still performing miraculous deeds for all to see. Sadly, it seems to have made no difference in the lives of the people. "Moses proceeded to disobey the Lord by striking the rock twice with his staff. Apparently his frustration with forty years of leading a rebellious nation got the better of him, and this new round of complaining angered Moses greatly." Nevertheless, God does bring forth the water from the rock, but Moses will suffer for his disobedience. It did not matter to God that Moses was tired and weary; it only mattered that he disobeyed the command of God. For this, he would not enter the Promised Land -- nor would his brother Aaron. True to His word, Aaron died shortly thereafter, and Moses soon followed.
The Israelites, nearing the end of their wanderings in Numbers 21, approached a land controlled by a Canaanite king. When the king set out to fight against them they prayed to God for His deliverance. God did deliver them and gave them victory, but shortly thereafter, they began to complain and cry out against God. They were growing impatient, and they were still complaining about the food God was providing them. It is evident that they were quite sick of the manna, and they had either forgotten what God did to them the last time they complained about His provisions or they just did not care. Nevertheless, they disobeyed God by complaining, so God sent venomous snakes to bite the people, and many died. God, in His grace, provided a way for them to live after being bitten by allowing them to look at a replica of a poisonous snake upon a pole. When the people looked at it they were healed. Once again, God punished disobedience, but He provided salvation for the repentant. Just like the times before, many died due to their sin.
Finally, even though God had rejected the present generation of Israelites He was still holding them to a standard of obedience. Those that lived the longest prior to entrance into the land experienced a handful of military victories. However, while they camped near Moab in Numbers 25, some of the men defiled themselves by taking Moabite women as wives. They even went so far as to worship the pagan gods of these women. Godís punishment for their disobedience was in keeping with His law to Moses. He commanded that the men be executed for their disobedience. Once the men had been killed for their sin Godís anger was satisfied. That day at least 24,000 people had died for blatant disobedience to the commands of God.
Godís covenant people, the children of Israel, were held to a standard of obedience that was not to be broken. God made his will very clear to these people. His love for them was, and is, never-ending. Because of His love for his chosen people He would not tolerate the sin of disobedience. Those that did disobey paid accordingly. Some of the innocent families whose male leaders sinned also paid for those sins. Those who were faithful (Caleb and Joshua) saw and experienced many great and wonderful things for their faithfulness. A lesson to be learned from the Hebrew people is to trust God, and know that He is sovereign. The penalty of disobedience has been demonstrated. Disobedience to God is perfectly illustrated by the sin of complaining about all that God gives and does not give to his people. Christian or Jew God is in control, and He demands obedience to His Word which reveals his good and perfect will.
Merrill, E., 1986. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. USA, Canada, England: Victor Books, p. 226.
Nelsonís Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1986 Ed. "The Book of Numbers," Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, p. 104.
Ungerís Bible Handbook, 1984 Ed. "Numbers." Chicago: Moody. p. 101.
Wolf, H. 1991. An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch. Chicago: Moody Press, p. 196.