The book of Numbers often gets a bad rap because of the inclusion of long lists of census information that is almost insufferable to the modern reader. But interspersed between these lists the book of Numbers features some of the strangest and most interesting narratives in the whole Old Testament. There is the story of the 12 spies who go to scope out the land of Canaan and return with a report of giants living in the land; a scouting report that causes the people to lose their nerve. Then, after getting scolded for chickening out and, thereby, expressing a less than lively confidence in God, they are sentenced to 38 more years wandering in the wilderness, until this chicken-generation of Israelites dies off and their kids can go in and complete the work. Not wanting to have to wait 38 more years the people change their minds and decide they’ll give it a go. But Moses says, ‘too late.’ They go anyway; get the pants beat off of them and retreat into the consequences of their cowardice. The book of Numbers also features several scenes of active rebellion on Israel’s part, undoubtedly fueled by frustration. They try to overthrow Moses. In the most dramatic of these scenes a bunch of rebels are swallowed up by the earth that opens beneath their feet. And then, near the book’s end, the new generation, just about ready to go up and to make good on the conquest that their forefathers lacked the courage to complete, stumbles badly in the narrative that features amongst other things a talking donkey and more than a little bit of humor. Again, summing up so many magnificent tales is no easy task. And probably the Sunday School teacher will want to focus on one or maybe two of those narratives and use these to exemplify the main theme of the book of Numbers–the time it takes to fulfill one’s destiny.
Israel, after 2 years of camping and traveling through the wilderness the people of Israel, this band of expelled slaves, were anxious to go up and get settled in their new homes; the land that God had promised them–the land of Canaan. But they were a cowardly lot. God had done much to support and defend them. But the old mind-set of the slave, as a beaten man, persisted. This was scary.
So, hedging their bets, the people decided to send scouts out into the land to which they were headed to see how the road before them looked. 12 spies were selected, one from each tribe. And they went. When they returned the spies offered a mixed report. “The land looks good,” they said, “but it is inhabited by giants.”
“Giants,” the people gasped!?
“Yes, giants,” 2 of the spies said. “But we can take them. Giants are notoriously slow and stupid. Anyway, God is on our side.”
“I don’t know,” the other 10 spies said. “It looks pretty dicy.”
The people said, “Maybe we’ll wait.”
At this, Moses got mad. “You bunch of chickens! Hasn’t God showed you enough evidence that he’s on your team and given you confidence? That’s it,” Moses continued, “because you guys are so scared we’re going to have to wait another 38 years. We’ll camp the fear out of you. It looks like what this is going to take is for all of you scaredy-cats to pass away and to let your kids step in and step up to finish the job.”
The people got shook up at this. They said, “We don’t know if we can handle camping out in the wilderness another 38 years. We changed our minds. We’ll face the giants.”
Moses told them that it was too late. But, once again, they wouldn’t listen. The people were often not very cooperative with Moses as their leader. They often thought that they knew better. The people charged into battle and got their butts kicked. Then they limped back to camp. “I guess we’d better settle in and get ready to spend another 38 years in this barren land. And so that’s what they did.
38 years of camping can make people get pretty irritable. On more than one occasion, fed up with the wait, different groups of people tried to run Moses out of office. But, again and again, God showed unwavering support of Moses. One time God even opened up the ground like a monster’s gaping jaws and swallowed a whole bunch of these rebels. God stuck firmly with Moses.
On another occasion even Moses’ own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, made a little stink and insisted that they were equals to their little brother. But, once more, God backed Moses up all of the way.
Keeping the people together and keeping them from not tearing each other apart was a huge task. When things don’t go right or don’t go easy for people they are prone to turn on each other. But God, through Moses, held the people together (not without some major hiccoughs). And what came out of that experience was a people who had been forged together through hardships. The troublemakers were removed and finally God had a people who were ready and courageous enough to take a hold of the promise that God had made to them. The people of Israel became an unstoppable army. You could think of those 38 years as a period of military training. It took that long to get them ready for the job that lay before them.
The fourth commandment (Honor your father and mother–and, by extension, all authorities over you) is put in place not to oppress us but to prepare us. Good order in our homes and churches and communities provides us with the necessary discipline to be able to reach our destiny, which is not protracted slavery, but for freedom. Children are to respect and honor their parents so that they can one day be completely free and responsible as adults themselves. Parents and authorities who keep those over whom they have been given authority in a permanent state of subjection are not doing their jobs right. Freedom is the goal toward which law and order are intended. Honoring authorities also carries with it the implicit instruction not to over inflate or elevate the authority’s proper place and role. Honor authorities, but don’t mistake them for divine or flawless. Obey them for the time of your training under them, but understand that a state of permanent enslavement is not the purpose for which authorities have been established. The hard part for both parents and children; leaders and subjects; is to navigate this transition from obedience to freedom. How and when and how much do you let go? When is the trainee ready to fly on his own? When does the authority give to the one under him room to fail without intervening and immediately fixing everything for her or him? God, as a loving Father, does not wish either to be a permanent fixture of force and discipline. He wants free and willing people who choose the best by themselves.