Then there are the venomous snakes in chapter 21. The snakes were sent because the people were grumbling again. Poisonous snakes were such a persistent and serious threat to people in the ancient world that special magic rituals and incantations were created in an effort to counter the effects of the venom. What is interesting to note in Numbers is that God’s solution focused on faith and not ritual. All one had to do was believe His promise that, by repenting of their sin and looking at the symbol of their suffering lifted high on a pole, they would be protected from the poison. They would still have the pain of the bite but they would escape the pain of death. God, not their magic arts, had the power over the snake.
In John 3:14, 15 Jesus spoke of this moment. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness [so that the people would find life], so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” If you take the time to ponder this, remember to include the next verse (John 3:16) for it has a connection to this story as well.
While there is much we could say about dear Balaam, his talking donkey, and the place of divination / sorcery in the ancient world, I want to simply let you know that, in Balaam, we find a non-Israelite Old Testament figure who was so famous that he appears in an extra-biblical source. In 1967, archaeologists found a fragment of a story that began, “The misfortunes of the Book of Balaam, son of Beor. A divine seer was he.” Though this inscription does not mention the story in Numbers, it does show that Balaam was a well known figure and so it is no surprise that a king would seek his help.
Finally, I think you will find the story of Zelophehad’s daughters to be interesting (Numbers 27:1-11). As the Israelites talked about who would get what land when they entered Canaan, these daughters realized that there would be no land for their father, since he died without having any sons. Without sons and without land, his name would be forgotten and the balance of tribal land-allotments would be disturbed. This was something that just wasn’t right. His family should receive land too!
To make it right, God appointed that Zelophehad’s daughters would receive land and thus retain the estate until one of them could bear a son who could receive it. Implied in the text is that these daughters were to marry within their tribe (Manasseh) so that their sons would receive the land and the land would stay in Manasseh’s control.
Rather than get bogged down in ancient inheritance and levirate marriage laws, I want to mention two things. First, up to this point the pattern has been for people with a concern to complain to one another first before they take it to Moses and the Lord. Yet, rather than grumble to their friends and cause unrest in the camp, the daughters went directly to Moses who then stated their case to the Lord. They brought the facts but did not pass along the fear-driven interpretation of those facts. I wonder how this practice would have benefited other wilderness scenarios. Did the daughters learn from their past experiences?
Second, I find it interesting to see how the Lord was willing to bend what might be expected in order to give them a just ruling. Did they expect such a result? I don’t know but I do know that through these sisters came a lasting legal requirement that would be applied throughout the nation. I wonder if they realized the importance of what they were doing when they simply went to Moses out of concern for their father’s name. For me, their example speaks about my own response to “bumps” I hit while relating to the people and processes of my own church and community.
This book is not just dusty history. As we journey through its pages I encourage you to pause from time to time and prayerfully ask the Lord what He would like you to know from this reading. Every now and then, take a few moments to read 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. If these things were written down as an example and warning for us, what example or what warning might the Lord have for you?
Keeping my eyes and heart open with you,