I don’t think there’s a piece of Biblical text that gets such short shrift as the Book of Numbers.
Some say it’s just a bunch of complaining by an ungrateful people. Others only look at the surface and see ugliness, and wonder how in the world can this be the word of God. I want to suggest that the book deserves better.
In Numbers, (B’Midbar, in Hebrew), we find ourselves in the wilderness, physically and spiritually. We’ve been to the mountain, experienced Divine revelation, and entered into a covenant with God. But now we’re away from the mountain; we’re in the real world and on the ground.
It’s not that God is unavailable here. God is indeed near, with us, as the text says, by day and by night. But, we see ourselves as alone and anxious and independent, and, as John Milton wrote, we then tend to “trespass, Authors to ourselves.”
Last week we saw how a people can go astray, beginning with contention from the “outskirts,” that extends through the riffraff and infects the whole community.
This week we learn how leaders can be so short of spirit they can push a whole community – weak in itself – into faithlessness and an abandonment of God’s path.
We would do well first to understand that we moderns are not exempt from such weakness and that God intends this text to instruct us, too. Waywardness was not practiced only by the ancients. It’s also our problem, and this text reveals solutions that are as valuable for us as they were for our ancestors.
We see remarkable examples of God-fearing people such as Caleb and Joshua and learn from their exemplary faith and action.
We continue to learn from Moses’ courage, steadfastness, love, and instruction.
We see and learn from God’s reactions to our waywardness. God may impose consequences, but God always seeks our return, always shows paths back, and always provides tools for us to stay in community with each other and covenant with the Divine.
We learn how to build up in strength from weakness, how to deepen our faith, how to shore up our courage, and how to live, though anxious and tempted, in ways that are both true to God’s expectations and good for us. That this book teaches us so astutely about the deepest sources of our weakness and models for us ways to become strong in its wake – this is more than enough reason for giving Numbers a much deeper look.