Numbers 21-22: Blessing from an Unexpected Direction
March 9, 2020
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Numbers 21-22, Psalm 56, Matthew 24:1-14, Romans 6:15-23
Israel continues to journey and is first opposed in their movements by the Canaanites. When they promise to “devote their cities to destruction,” God guarantees that they will be victorious. Again, we must remember that the Old Testament people of God were a theocracy, a divine agent of justice and judgment against the people of the day whose wickedness had become infamous at that time. Do we complain when a law court sentences a murderer to jail? God’s people here were fulfilling God’s justice. If we want fairness then we want justice, and if we want justice, then we want a judge. And whose justice is it that we are going to have? Who is to decide what is just? We know that God’s justice is perfect, and in the last day there will be just judgment delivered. This should cause us to flee to Christ for mercy—for we are all sinners, and all deserve condemnation, but now there is a righteousness from God for all who believe in Jesus.
The people then get “impatient” again. At this point in the narrative you start to wonder whether they will ever gain any kind of spiritual maturity—but then as soon as the sigh from your lips is uttered at this yet further evidence of their complaining, you wonder whether you yourself follow God’s providence in your life without complaint. The recompense is first judgment—note that God does not play “favorites” and Israel is also liable to God’s judgment.
But there is recourse to God’s mercy, through the lifting up of the snake in the desert, an instant made famous by Jesus’ use of the story to point to himself in John chapter 3 verse 14. This lifting up of the serpent was intended to teach Israel, once again, that atonement must be made for their sins, and that atonement we know is finally fulfilled in the lifting up of Christ on the cross. Praise God! There is recourse for sinners in the blood of Jesus.
For a season now Israel seems to be behaving better. They sing songs of celebration, if not gratitude, and go about their task of trusting God through daily labors and hard battle and seem to pass the next few tests with good grades. In the background, however, little known to them, trouble is brewing.
Balak is frightened of Israel. Perhaps he discerns that their success must have supernatural origins, and so he does what a man of superstition does in such circumstances; he hires a “diviner” to curse his opponents. Balaam is a strange figure. Who is he? Where does he come from? Why does he use the honored name of the “Lord,” and why does he apparently obey God in not cursing God’s people, and yet also come within a hair’s breadth (or a donkey’s width) of being put to death for disobedience? Peter has very little good to say about Balaam (2 Peter 2:15-16), because he was evidently someone who had decided that a good way to make a living was to be a “gun for hire,” to say what people wanted him to say. What then we seem to be reading about in this account is someone who has purloined his spiritual gifts out to the highest bidder, and is not ashamed to do their will—as long as he gets away with it before God. He tries to find the best way to make the most money, while still somewhat (at least occasionally) acknowledging that God’s way is the way he must follow.
It is easy to make a caricature of Balaam, especially the marvelous instance of him being rebuked by a donkey! God does speak blessing through Balaam, but in the context of the narrative this is no great honor to Balaam as God evidently can also speak through a donkey! We are to learn, as those who teach the Bible, not to be greedy for gain and thus more likely to say what the world around us wants us to say. What a temptation this is—to change the message that God has given us, just a little bit, in order to make sure that we can still get the resources and finances we need. What pressure points do we face today to compromise on our faith (or our morals) in order to make a living? These are not easy questions, but we are to be those who, unlike the Pharisees, fear God, not man.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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