Surveying the Text: Numbers


The dates for Numbers encompass the entire 40 years in the wilderness, following the Exodus in 1440 B.C.—and it extends throughout that 40 year period. The name of the book comes from the fact that it contains the results of two censuses.

To the modern reader, the book can seem like something of a jumble. There are narrative sections, there are random laws, there are census lists, there is the prophetic word given by the pagan prophet Balaam, and though he was a true prophet, he was not a true man. But there is a structure to the whole thing.

The Text:

“And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Num. 21:5–9).

Summary of the Text:

The two census lists are given prior to two invasions, one abortive and one more effectual. The results of the censuses are roughly the same—around 600,000 fighting men. The people traveled first from Egypt to Sinai, and from Sinai to Kadesh. To invade Canaan from the south would be more natural, and Kadesh was that place. But the people gave way to fear in response to the negative report of the ten spies, and then when they attempted to invade, they were ignominiously defeated. But by the end of the book, they are poised to invade Canaan from the east, across the Jordan, from the plains of Moab. The first travel narrative is found in 9:15-14:45 and the second is found in 20:1-22.


One theme of this book has to do with leadership, and challenges to that leadership that arose. You would think that someone who had wrecked Egypt, divided the Red Sea, and drowned Pharaoh, would have a secure spot as a leader. But not so with Moses (16-17). Selfish ambition always blindly takes what the grace of God has given as a starting point.

While Korah’s rebellion was a big deal, there were also challenges to the leadership of Moses that were a little closer to home. Numbers 12 tells us that Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of a “Cushite woman” he had married. This is a bit obscure, but Josephus tells us the back story, and it might even be true. When Moses was still a prince of Egypt, he once besieged a city in Ethiopia named Saba. The queen of that city fell in love with Moses from the city wall, and offered to surrender the city if he married her, which he did. If that were the case, and this woman belatedly showed up in the Israelite camp in the wilderness one day, one can easily imagine how it would disrupt the organizational flow chart, and not to Miriam’s liking.

To Live and Die as Christians

We gather at this Table weekly. As we do, we should remember that there are three elements to what we do. The first is invocation. We acknowledge God’s presence here with us, and indeed, we invite it. We call upon Him. Second, we rejoice before Him with thanksgiving. This is a Table of thanksgiving and gratitude. And third, there is an element of binding ourselves with an oath.

We are renewing covenant with God here, but not because our covenant with Him was set to expire, like a lease. Rather, we renew our vows before Him, acknowledging to Him, with solemn and deep joy, our intention to live and die as Christians. This is a deep oath, solemn and glad, and so we return to it weekly.

This is not because the oath is weak, and needs shoring up weekly. Rather, it is because we are weak, and we need to be reminded. This is our life. This is our song. This is our connection to all our brothers and sisters throughout the world, and throughout history, who have loved the name of Jesus. This is the body of Jesus, and this is the blood of Jesus. This is our creed, an edible creed. This is our oath, and in gladness we drink all of it.

The Furniture of God

When God has His people undertake a building, it is not so that He might have an empty box dedicated to Him. Under the older covenant, even the holiest place of all contained furniture—the ark of the covenant with two great cherubim overarching the mercy seat. And the placement of that furniture meant a great deal—in that Holy of Holies, the law of God was kept inside the ark, but under the mercy seat. And so that is how we treasure our commitment to the law—under the mercy.

In the new covenant, the house of God contains three great items of furniture, and all three of them are gathering points for the people of God. The building itself is where the church, the ecclesia, the called out ones, gather or assemble. We are an assembly, but we are an assembly that has gathered in accordance with Scripture. We as God’s people are the church, but the furniture represents the reason for the church.

500 in the Boot

A story is told of a fellow who was mugged in an alley by a band of thugs, and he put up a ferocious fight. After about fifteen minutes, they got him down on the ground, and found just two dollars in his wallet. “Two dollars?” one of them said. “You put up that fight for two dollars?”

“Well, no, actually. I thought you were after the $500 in my boot.”

One of the most precious possessions a government has is its moral legitimacy. When they have it, taxes are paid, for the most part, voluntarily. Any society requires force for the outliers, but is not held together at the center by force. When the ruling elites start to opt out of this societal bond — “laws are for the little people” — there is usually a time lag, but the “little people” do catch on. When they catch on, the whole thing spirals down into chaos.

One of the central techniques that is used by despots for divesting themselves of moral legitimacy is the technique of governing through arbitrary administrative law. A free people live under laws passed by legislatures in which they have freely chosen representatives. The prerogative of passing such laws may not be transferred. So if you chafe under rules and regs that spew forth from all the alphabet agencies, then you are not free. It doesn’t matter that you are currently not being harassed. No despot can torment all his slaves simultaneously.

Now when you find yourself in this situation — as we do — there are two aspects to it, represented in this situation by the two dollars in your wallet and the five hundred in your boot. When a government has lost its moral legitimacy, the fact that you actually do pay your taxes on the two dollars (which comes to three dollars) needs to be understood as principled acquiesence, and not as a statement on your part that what they are doing is legit. It is not.

At the same time, there are those who have studied these things in depth, and who have seventeen reasons for denying the legitimacy of the IRS, and nine of them are pretty good. They live in a cabin high in the mountains of western Montana, where they study Blackstone by candlelight, late into the evenings. These are the fellows who tell the thugs in single-spaced typewritten letters that they have no right to the five hundred in their boot.

The Crown of Grace

“To think that having ‘all grace’ except for persevering grace is somehow reassuring is to have a wildly skewed sense of priorities. ‘Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?’ How is God’s withholding of perseverance not a refusal of grace? If we say that the grace was forfeited by those who subjectively resisted his work in their lives ‘too much,’ then why did God withhold from them the gift of ‘not resisting too much?’” (Against the Church, p. 187).

When St. Paul Was Fourth and Long

Before getting into the appropriate Christian response to the tyrannies of the arbitrary administrative state, we have to set aside a particular objection that can be marshaled from the Bible. Not only can it be marshaled, let us acknowledge that it frequently is.

When I say that Christians should stand for liberty, and I do, and I say that they should work and pray for it, and that preachers should preach with this in mind, the objection comes back that this is not what Jesus did, and this is not what the apostles did.

What I want to do here is highlight what this objection is actually doing, which is ignoring the cumulative flow of history. It is treating the strategies employed by God, Jesus, and the apostles as a fixed constant, when it is their faith and demeanor that is actually the fixed constant. If we lock down on the strategies, we will refuse to alter anything based on where we are in history. But this is like insisting on punting because St. Paul was fourth and long. Yes, I might reply, but we are third and inches.

I don’t really care that the early church punted a lot.

So it is quite true, and perfectly obvious, that Paul never organized a political party, never wrote a letter to the editor decrying the Stamp Act, never picketed a slave market in Charleston, never opened a crisis pregnancy center, and so on. But the fact that he never did such things does not mean that we shouldn’t. Neither does it preclude our obedience to his teaching requiring us to do things he never did.

St Anne’s Pub Reboot

I trust that a number of you remember the audio publication St. Anne’s Pub. Well, their reboot now has liftoff, to mix a metaphor, and this edition in on Legacy — an interview with me, my father, and my son. It was a fun business. If you want it, and why wouldn’t you?, you can go here or click the image.

St Anne Pub Legacy