Notes from Numbers - Chapters 31-35
E. L. Lovering, Ilfracombe
Our final paper deals with a series of miscellaneous instructions which relate to: The Avenging of Midian, ch. 31; The Allotment of Gilead, ch. 32; The Advance from Egypt, ch. 33; The Allocation of the Land, ch. 34; and The Appointment of the Cities of Refuge, ch. 35.
The Avenging of Midian, ch. 31.
Through the instigation of Balaam, the Midianite women had caused the Israelites to commit fornication and to pollute the holy seed, w. 15, 16, and in consequence judgment was dreadful and drastic, vv. 13-18. It was not Joshua who led the people into battle, as might have been expected, but Phineas, son of Eleazar the priest, and that with "holy instruments and the trumpets" v. 6. The purification of warrior, captives and spoil was not forgotten, and the fire of judgment and water of purification must be applied before any of the spoil could be accepted, vv. 19-24. Conformity to the world or participation in its practice is not part of the believer's calling, Rom. 12. 2; 1 Cor. 5. 9-13; Gal. 1.4. It might be thought that the judgment was excessively severe, but it must be remembered that there is a false pity which is the essence of cruelty, and that true love makes no compromise with evil.
The Allotment of Gilead, ch. 32. "And Moses said unto the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben, Shall your brethren go to war, and shall ye sit here?", v. 6. The tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh requested that the land of Gilead, on the east side of the Jordan, be assigned to them, on the ground that it was fertile and well adapted to their large flocks and herds. The words with which Moses addressed them indicated a spirit of self-interest on their part, leaving the conquest of the western side of the Jordan to the other tribes while they established themselves in the land already conquered. Because this was calculated to discourage and dishearten their brethren, they were strongly reproved. Although it was God's plan that the whole nation should possess the land, they were granted their request. Subsequent events proved this to be a wrong desire, and they were among the first to be taken into captivity by the king of Assyria, 1 Chron. 5. 26. "Border" Christians, with mixed principles, seriously damage the cause of Christ. No policy of compromise can ever justify a denial of the divine purpose, and failure is certain in the end.
The Advance from Egypt, ch. 33.
The journey from Egypt to the plains of Moab is here reviewed, "And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of the Lord", v. 2. In all, forty stages are enumerated, thereby expressing God's intimate knowledge and constant care for His people. The divine record was a permanent memorial of the sin and rebellion of the nation, and the faithfulness and long-suffering of the Lord in His guidance and provision over forty years. There is not a single circumstance in life but is known to our God. Two sparrows sell for a farthing, yet not a single one falls to the ground without the Father's knowledge, Matt. 10. 29. The Lord's command was to drive out all the inhabitants of the land, destroy all their images, dispossess them and divide the land by lot for an inheritance among their families. The command was clear and positive, and the consequences of disobedience equally direct, "if ye will not drive out ... those which . . . remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes and thorns in your sides and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell, Moreover ... I shall do unto you, as I thought to do unto them", Num. 33. 55, 56. To tolerate what God has condemned will only prove to be a continual source of difficulty, sorrow and suffering. He grants His blessing only to those who are obedient to His word and will.
The Allocation of the Land, ch. 34.
The ideal boundaries on the west side of Jordan are here given. Many years of warfare were ahead, and it was not until the days of David and Solomon that Israel's boundaries came near to this design, but the Lord will yet accomplish what He had promised, the whole land of Canaan for a possession. The borders were defined, and the land divided by lot and by divine command, v. 13. God used Eleazar the priest and Joshua with the princes of the tribes as human instruments to carry out His plans, vv. 17, 18. Why the exception of Caleb, the names of the princes selected are not mentioned elsewhere, but Caleb reaped the reward because he "wholly followed the Lord", Deut. 1. 36. For the two and a half tribes there was no inheritance in the land because they had received their portion, Num. 34. 14, 15, by their own choice. Self-will always robs us of the divine intention for our lives, since God's will is at all times "good, and perfect and acceptable", Rom. 12. 2.
The Appointment of the Cities of Refuge, ch. 35. "Ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge", v. 11. Since the tribe of Levi received no part of the land as their inheritance, 18. 20-24; 26. 62, they received by way of compensation tithes for their support, 18. 21. It was further provided that forty-eight cities with their suburbs be allotted to them out of the inheritance of the other tribes, for the maintenance of themselves and their herds. The carrying out of this injunction is recorded in Joshua 21, where it is noted that the priests, the sons of Aaron, received thirteen of these cities, v. 4. The people as well as the priests and Levites benefited by this arrangement, for the latter being dispersed throughout the land were able to instruct the people in the law and worship of Jehovah, Lev. 10. 11; Deut. 17.8, 9; 33. 10; 2 Chron. 19. 8-10. It was the privilege of the tribes to give according to their ability and inheritance to those who had willingly devoted themselves to the Lord's service, Num. 35. 7, 8. Those who minister to the Lord's people should receive the support of those to whom they minister, 1 Cor. 9. 13, 14; 1 Tim. 5. 17, 18.
Of the Levitical cities, six were marked out as cities of refuge to which a manslayer might flee and be safe from the avenger of blood, Num. 35. 11, 22-25. This did not apply to wilful murder for which there was no escape from the death penalty, vv. 16-21. Three cities were on the west and three on the east of Jordan, so that all would be within thirty miles of the nearest city of refuge. The principal roads leading to these cities were kept open so that the innocent fugitive might have every facility for reaching the place of sanctuary, Deut. 19. 3. Here the manslayer could find refuge until complete remission of punishment on the death of the high priest, Num. 35. 25. In the case of the sinner who finds refuge in Christ, there are perhaps points of contrast rather than of similarity. The manslayer was not exempt from judgment, Josh. 20. 6, but since Christ has himself borne the judgment, the sinner is eternally safe. The amnesty declared to the manslayer on the death of the high priest marked the close of one period and the beginning of a new; in like manner the redemption wrought by Christ imparts a new life of liberty into which those who put their trust in Him may enter. "That ... we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope ... as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec", Heb. 6. 18-20.
As we conclude our study of the book of Numbers, we remind ourselves that it is essentially a book of the wilderness, in which is recorded the failure of a nation and the patience and faithfulness of Jehovah. The book is the obverse of Exodus, in which we have the actings of God, His redemption of the people, the declaration of His will and the setting up of the tabernacle in their midst. In Numbers we have the side of the people, with their perverseness, God's chastisements upon them, and His provision for them in grace. We remind ourselves that "whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope", Rom. 15. 4.