The Results and Lessons of Obedience in Numbers Following in the footsteps of Caleb and Joshua


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I have discovered in life that obedience is a difficult trait to engender in myself. On my own I am far too headstrong and wilful to be overly impressed with the idea of being obedient to anyone. This is enough of a problem in everyday adult life all on its own, but as a Christian it’s not only expected of me as an adult, it’s commanded of me by God.

The Israelites (and therefore us, as well) were regularly commanded to obedience: The Lord said to all the Israelites, “Now if you will listen to Me and carefully keep My covenant, you will be My own possession out of all the peoples, although all the earth is Mine, and you will be My kingdom of priests and My holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6) “Only carefully obey the command and instruction that Moses the Lord’s servant gave you,” Joshua told the Israelites: “to love the Lord your God, walk in all His ways, keep His commands, remain faithful to Him, and serve Him with all your heart and all your soul.” (Joshua 22:5) Jesus was even more succinct: “If you love Me, you will keep My commands.” (John 14:15)

Importantly, the Bible is not simply a list of commands. Rather, it also demonstrates those commands. A third of the way through the book of Numbers we are presented with just such a demonstration of God’s command to obedience. Over three chapters we see what happens when we reach for something beyond what God has set for us, what happens when we disobey, what happens when we lead others to disobey, and what happens when we obey.

Reaching

In Numbers 12 we see Moses’ older brother and sister, Miriam and Aaron, criticise him for marrying a Cushite woman. However, as Ronald B. Allen rightly points out that through Miriam and Aaron’s questioning of their younger brother, “we discover amid these questions the real issue: Why was Moses God’s favourite?”[1] It seems that Miriam and Aaron wanted a little more of the limelight than they were currently getting. God had spoken through both Miriam and Aaron previously, but it seems they weren’t happy with being second-fiddle to their younger brother.

God, unsurprisingly, was less than pleased with their behaviour. Why it was only Miriam that received the full brunt of God’s displeasure is not made clear – though Aaron had already been set apart as the high priest, so that could have been the reason he was spared. Nevertheless, God afflicted Miriam with leprosy, and she was forced to be “confined outside the camp for seven days” before she was healed and allowed to be brought back into the company of Israel. (Numbers 12:15)

Disobedience

The following chapter of Numbers sees the first exploration of Canaan, God’s promised land, by the Israelites. God instructs Moses to send twelve men to scout out the land God was giving them, to assess the quality of the land, its people, and its defences. Unfortunately, as we will see in a moment, only two of those sent out came back still believing God would give them the land He had promised them. The other ten scouts reported back to the people that “the people living in the land are strong, and the cities are large and fortified. (…) We can’t go up against the people because they are stronger than we are.” (Numbers 13:28, 31) The damage was done, for “the whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night” (Numbers 14:1), complaining again that Moses and Aaron had brought them out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness. The people of God refused to enter into Canaan, and as a result God forbade all who were 20 years of age and older from ever entering the land. Only Caleb and Joshua were spared. The rest of Israel’s adult population would be forced to wander in the desert for 40 years, and die in the desert, as punishment for disobeying God.

Ironically, though disastrously, when the Israelites began to realise the enormity of their mistake, they tried to enter Canaan anyway, without the Lord’s permission or His presence. As a result they were attacked and driven back. (Numbers 14:29-45)

Misleading Others

The ten scouts who brought back the negative report of Canaan and who convinced the people that it was a lost cause — subsequently leading them into disobedience — were more harshly reprimanded than the rest of Israel. The people had already been severely punished, but for leading God’s people away from His will, “those men who spread the negative report about the land were struck down by the Lord.” (Numbers 14:37)

The Bible is very clear on what happens to those who lead God’s children astray. James says that “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgement” (James 3:1). The prophets who were deceiving the captive Israelites in Jeremiah’s time were to be punished for prophesying falsely and leading the people into false hopes (Jeremiah 29:8-9, 30-32). And again, Jesus was nothing short of clear about the matter: “But whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea!” (Matthew 18:6)

Obedience

Through all of the book of Numbers there are two shining lights demonstrating obedience and faith in God. Caleb and Joshua have, for all my life, been my Biblical heroes. When everyone else around them was scared and afraid, they alone held to God’s promises. They both tried to convince the people of Israel that God would deliver Canaan into their hands, as He had promised: “The land we passed through and explored is an extremely good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into this land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and give it to us.” (Numbers 14:7-8)

Though no one listened, they still obeyed God.

What is most interesting is that, though Caleb and Joshua both obeyed the Lord, they were not materially rewarded immediately. Each was promised that he would enter Canaan, but that would not be for another forty years. Further, when we read the book of Joshua we see that their reward was postponed even further until the cessation of fighting, when they were each able to finally benefit from the rest and land the Lord had promised them.

It is an interesting series of events, and quite clearly demonstrates the folly of ignoring God’s commands and disobeying Him. Further, however, as Caleb and Joshua found out, our rewards for obedience are not necessarily immediate or blatantly obvious. They will not always be as we imagine or when we want. But both Caleb and Joshua remained faithful to the Lord, and both were equally rewarded.

Let us live like Caleb and Joshua, fearlessly confident in God’s promises, and obedient to His commands.

[1] Numbers, Ronald B. Allen, p. 198 (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary)

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