Understanding the Old Testament - Lesson 9


In this lesson on the Book of Numbers, you will learn the historical and theological significance of this text. The book recounts Israel's 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, emphasizing God's faithfulness contrasted with the Israelites' rebellion. Through censuses, transitions between generations, and key events like the 12 spies and Moses striking the rock, the narrative highlights themes of obedience, faith, and consequences. The disobedience of the first generation leads to their death in the wilderness, while Moses' failure to uphold God's holiness results in his exclusion from the promised land. The lesson draws parallels between the Old Testament events and Christ's fulfillment in the New Testament, emphasizing Jesus as the true Israel and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers. 

Miles Van Pelt
Understanding the Old Testament
Lesson 9
Watching Now

I. Introduction to the Book of Numbers

A. Hebrew Name and Meaning

B. Purpose and Overview

C. Basic Geography and Timeline

II. Themes and Purpose of Numbers

A. Faithfulness of God vs. Faithlessness of Israelites

B. Consequences of Disobedience

C. Divine Presence and Holiness

III. Structure and Contents of Numbers

A. First Section: Chapters 1:1 - 10:10

1. Preparation for Journey from Sinai

2. Census of Men of War

B. Second Section: Chapters 10:11 - 20:13

1. Journey from Sinai to Kadesh

2. Events including Quail, 12 Spies, Rebellion, and Moses' Failure

C. Third Section: Chapters 20:14 - 25:18

1. Journey from Kadesh to Moab

2. Events including Aaron's Death, Bronze Serpent, and Balak-Balaam Series

D. Fourth Section: Chapters 25:19 - 36:13

1. Preparation to Enter the Land

2. Second Census, Appointment of Joshua, Additional Rules, War against Midian

IV. Significant Events and Texts in Numbers

A. The 12 Spies (Numbers 13-14)

1. Report and Rebellion

2. Consequences and Delay in Entering Promised Land

B. Moses' Disobedience at Meribah (Numbers 20:1-13)

1. Act of Striking the Rock

2. Yahweh's Judgment and Moses' Ineligibility to Enter the Land

V. Theological Insights and Connections

A. Jesus as the True and Better Israel

B. Transformation of Divine Presence from Tabernacle to Believers

VI. Reflections and Applications

A. Seriousness of Sin and Its Consequences

B. Importance of Upholding God's Holiness

C. Lessons for Leaders and Teachers

D. Prayer and Perception of God's Presence

VII. Conclusion and Discussion

A. Summary of Key Points

B. Addressing Questions and Further Considerations

C. Final Thoughts on the Book of Numbers

  • Engage with the Old Testament to grasp its Gospel-centered nature. From Genesis to Ecclesiastes and Psalms, discover foundational truths, wisdom, and insights on suffering. Strengthen your faith and find enduring hope in God's Word.
  • Gain insight into the Old Testament's theological core, centering on Jesus Christ. Explore its diverse genres, languages, and authors, unified by Jesus as its focal point. Understand how biblical evidence supports Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, shaping interpretation.
  • In this lesson, Dr. Miles Van Pelt provides the thematic framework for the Old Testament. The Old Testament's thematic core is the Kingdom of God. Through this lesson, you'll understand its covenantal nature, from pre-temporal arrangements to various administrations like redemption, works, and grace, unveiling God's salvation plan in Christ.
  • Discover the intricate covenantal structure of the Bible, revealing its theological depth and unity, from the division of the Hebrew Bible to its mirroring in the New Testament, all centered around Jesus Christ.
  • Gain insight into the Pentateuch's covenantal structure, Moses' authorship debate, and evidence supporting it. Understand its significance as the foundation of Israel's relationship with God and its relevance for biblical theology.
  • Through this lesson, you will understand the theological, structural, and thematic intricacies of the book of Genesis. You'll grasp its role as a foundational text in both the Old and New Testaments, exploring themes of covenant, creation, fall, redemption, and the fulfillment of promises. You'll gain insights into the genealogical structure of Genesis, its portrayal of key biblical figures like Adam, Noah, and Abraham, and its connection to the overarching narrative of the gospel.
  • Exodus reveals Yahweh's promise—"I will be with you"—unfolding divine presence and covenant. It anticipates Jesus as fulfillment—a better Moses and Tabernacle—ushering in God's eternal presence among humanity.
  • Studying Leviticus unveils the intricate system of laws and rituals at Mount Sinai. It explains sacrificial atonement, priestly consecration, purity laws, and the theme of holiness, prefiguring Jesus as the ultimate priest, sacrifice, and source of holiness.
  • Discover the Book of Numbers' insights on Israel's journey, God's faithfulness, consequences of disobedience, and parallels to Christ, cautioning against questioning God's holiness and emphasizing His desire to dwell among His people through the Holy Spirit.
  • Gain insight into Deuteronomy's covenant renewal for Israel entering Canaan, emphasizing obedience, typology, and its relevance for Christian living.
  • Gain deep insight into the former prophets, exploring themes of Yahweh's faithfulness, Israel's unfaithfulness, and the typological significance of the Mosaic covenant. Understand its relation to the Abrahamic covenant and its fulfillment in the New Covenant under Jesus, revealing God's plan for restoration.
  • Joshua unveils Joshua's leadership, divine promise fulfillment in Canaan, obedience's significance, and Jesus as the ultimate fulfiller of God's promises.
  • Discover the Book of Judges, detailing Israel's history and faith journey. Learn about judges as deliverers from oppression and idolatry, portraying parallels with Christ's ministry. Uncover a pattern of uncreation due to idolatry, emphasizing the need for an eternal judge—Jesus Christ—to save from corruption.
  • In this lesson, Dr. Miles Van Pelt provides insights into the book of Samuel, exploring its characters, themes, and the transition from judgeship to kingship in Israel. Learn of the significance of the Davidic covenant, culminating in Jesus as the ultimate King of Kings.
  • Gain insights into the Book of Kings, revealing its historical and theological significance. Discover the fulfillment of Davidic covenant, reasons for Israel's exile, and anticipation of the new covenant. Recognize Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of its promises.
  • This lesson reviews latter prophets' insights into Israel's exile for breaking the Mosaic Covenant, the prophetic office's nature, diverse prophecy genres, and the execution of covenant lawsuits, all pointing to God's judgment and hope for restoration.
  • Explore Isaiah's profound prophetic themes, from redemption to impending judgment. Unravel his life and ministry's context, review the debate around authorship, and learn essential tools for study.
  • Enjoy this lesson on Jeremiah, a second Moses figure, and his prophetic message of repentance, redemption, and a new covenant. Explore the book's chiastic structure, historical context, and theological significance, offering hope amidst Judah's fall.
  • Studying Ezekiel reveals its focus on the glory of the Lord and the temple. You learn of Ezekiel's exile, his visions, and themes like covenant theology, creation, and apocalyptic elements, offering profound insights into hope amidst crisis.
  • Discover insights into the minor prophets' diverse genres and themes, from covenant infidelity to divine restoration. Witness Jonah's repentance narrative and prophetic visions culminating in Christ's fulfillment. Embrace Yahweh's justice and compassion, urging Israel's return, leading to Jesus as the ultimate authority.
  • Understand the structure and themes of the Hebrew Bible's writings section. Explore diverse literary forms, intentional divisions mirroring prophets, and the overarching theme of exile and return, illuminating Israel's covenant journey.
  • Discover the depth of the Book of Psalms: 150 songs divided into 5 books, expressing diverse emotions and worship forms. Explore themes, structure, and practical applications for personal devotion and prayer.
  • Gain insights into human suffering and theodicy through Job's trials. Explore themes of faith, resilience, and God's sovereignty amidst adversity. Discover hope in God's incomprehensible sovereignty amid life's trials.
  • Proverbs is a book of timeless wisdom from Solomon, who was gifted by God. By studying this book, you can learn to navigate life with righteousness and discernment, rooted in the fear of the Lord.
  • Journey through Ruth, where redemption, loyalty, and divine providence intertwine. Ruth, a symbol of strength, aligns with Boaz, embodying ancient customs. Their union shapes history, reflecting the enduring legacy of faith amidst life's complexities.
  • Explore the Song of Songs for insights into marriage and intimacy. It navigates the tension between true love and temptation, advocating for unwavering commitment and passionate intimacy, reflecting God's desired relationship. Discover timeless wisdom for modern-day love and marriage.
  • Ecclesiastes reveals life's futility without God, emphasizing the necessity of fearing Him. Through Solomon's wisdom, it prompts reflection on divine purpose amid existential questions.
  • In Lamentations, mourn the fall of Jerusalem and exile, finding hope in God's sovereignty.
  • The book of Esthers contains themes of providence, hiddenness of God, and faithfulness in exile. You will uncover the intricacies of Esther and Mordecai's roles in the deliverance of the Jewish people, as well as the establishment of the festival of Purim. This study will equip you with insights into how God's providence operates amidst human events, even when His presence may seem concealed, and how faithfulness in exile can lead to unexpected outcomes of deliverance and restoration.
  • Through this lesson on the book of Daniel, you'll gain insights into its structure, themes of faithfulness in exile, comparisons with Joseph, and its significance for understanding apocalyptic literature, providing a comprehensive understanding of God's sovereignty and care for His people.
  • Explore Ezra and Nehemiah for insights into post-exilic restoration, intertwining faith, governance, and cultural renewal. These books point towards a deeper longing for true and lasting restoration and echo themes found in apocalyptic literature such as the book of Revelation.
  • The Book of Chronicles traces Israel's history, emphasizing kingship, priesthood, and divine selection. It anticipates restoration, pointing to Jesus as the ultimate priest-king who fulfills God's promises.

Understanding the Old Testament 
Dr. Miles Van Pelt
Lesson Transcript

We've now come to the Book of Numbers in our lectures in our survey of the Old Testament. Numbers is the fourth book in the Pentateuch or the Law of God. Its Hebrew name is Bamidbar, which is translated as in the wilderness, but this time it's the fifth Hebrew word in the first verse of the book.  The opening words are, and Yahweh spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai in the tent of meeting. The Hebrew name captures well the events recorded in it. The book records Israel's 40 years of wandering in the wilderness before entering into the promised land after the death of Moses. The book explains why the Israelites had to spend 40 years in the wilderness. The book also describes the transition from the first generation who left Egypt to the second generation who will enter the promised land. That first generation will perish in the wilderness.

In terms of basic geography, at the beginning of the book, Israel is camped at Sinai. They've been there for about a year beginning back in Exodus 19. This encampment continues through Numbers 10 verse 10 where we read in verse 11, in the second year, in the second month, on the 20th day of the month, the cloud lifted from over the tabernacle of testimony and the people of Israel set out by stages from the wilderness of Sinai and the cloud settled down in the wilderness of Peron. They set out for the first time at the command of Yahweh by Moses. 

The purpose of Numbers is to contrast the faithfulness of God with the faithlessness and the rebellion of the Israelites. The former is seen in God's keeping his covenant promise to make Israel a numerous people as shown by the census in the book, the two censuses. The latter is attested by the record of Israel's grumbling about living conditions, rebelling against God's leadership, and refusal to enter the promised land. Thus, the people tested Yahweh at every level, even while God is providing their every need in this book. 

The English name Numbers likely comes from the two censuses taken in the book in chapters 1 and 26. The first counts the men who left Egypt and the second counts the generation now the offspring of the Exodus generation. The two censuses, or better military registrations, mark important transitions in the book and a major theme, the shift from the first generation to the second generation. Thus, Numbers 1 through 25 the failure of the first generation, and Numbers 26 to 36, the hope of the second generation is one way to outline the book.

So you think about numbers because they numbered the people in these two sections. In terms of the divine presence, the book of Exodus laid the foundation for the biblical theme, divine presence. The book of Leviticus provides the system that allows for a holy God to dwell among an unholy people, priestly mediation, and sacrifice.

The book of Numbers sets forth the consequences for living in God's presence without faith or obedience to his covenant word, which is failure to enter into God's rest and death in the wilderness. In terms of genre, like Exodus and Leviticus, Numbers continues the theological history of the wanderings in the wilderness in combination with law or legal material. Date and authorship we covered in our introduction, Moses 1446 to 1406, were probably ultimately revised by someone like Ezra a thousand years later.

Outline and contents, here we go. In the first 10 chapters or chapters 1:1 through 10:10, Israel prepares for the journey from Sinai. In the census of the men of war, you have 603,550 men of warrior age 20 and older. The largest tribe is Judah, which points to its upcoming prominence in the book of Samuel and Kings. The smallest is Manasseh, and you have in this particular section the separation of the Levites and the purity of the camp. In the second section, we have Numbers 10, 11 through chapter 20, where we have the journey from Sinai to the new location Kadesh.

Here we have God provides quail, the 12 spies, the rebellion of the people, 40 years of wandering, more rebellion, and then Moses' failure at Meribah to honor the Lord's name, and therefore he's kept out of the promised land. We have the second journey in Numbers 20 to 25, where you have the journey from Kadesh to Moab, where Israel will be on the precipice of entering into the land of Canaan. Here we have Aaron dying, the bronze serpent episode, the defeat of Sihon and Og, and we have the whole Balak and Balaam series, where Balak is going to hire Balaam to curse Israel, and he ends up blessing Israel.

Finally, in the last section, 26 to 36, that is chapters 26 to 36 in Numbers, we have Israel preparing to enter the land, where we have the second census of the men of war. Judah is still the largest. Joshua is chosen to succeed Moses as the leader. There are a few more rules on offerings and feasts. There's the war against Midian, and then there are the tribes that don't cross the Jordan to have their inheritance but have their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan, and that's Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. They'll live not on the west of the Jordan River, but on the east of the Jordan River. We call those the Transjordanian tribes, or the tribes that live on the other side of the Transjordan, and we saw how back in Genesis when we considered the 12 patriarchs, and then where they'll end up living, we saw that those tribes lived on the east side of the Jordan River, so we've already covered that to some extent. 

Specific texts and issues in the Book of Numbers that are important are the 12 spies being sent to scout the land. We have the fact that Moses and Aaron will not enter the of what they did in Numbers 20, and then we have a few minor things to consider.

So let's consider first the whole issue of the 12 tribes. When Israel sets out in Numbers chapter 10, verse 11, to move into the promised land, Moses commissions 12 spies to go spy out the land, and because this wilderness experience is designated a time of testing. Moses wants to know, or the Lord wants to know through Moses, will they be faithful and enter the land? First, we're going to deal with Numbers 13 to 14, and the 12 spies, who spend 40 days in the land spying it out and bringing back a report. If you've read it, you'll recall that Moses sends out 12 spies, they spend 40 days in the land to come back, and 10 of the spies come back and give a bad report. The people are too big, too mighty, too numerous, we're never going to make it. Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, come back and say, yes, they're big, but Yahweh is with us, we can do it. Kind of the whole spirit of David in first Samuel 17. Here's the report of Joshua and Caleb, just by way of summary. In Numbers 14:6 and following, "And Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who spied out the land, tore their clothes at the report of the 10 spies, and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, the land which we pass through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into the land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord and do not fear the people of the land. They are bred for us, their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them."

But we know that the people rebelled against Moses and the Lord and refused to enter the land, and we have this report in Numbers 14:21, where God judges them and says this, "But truly as I live and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these 10 times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give their fathers, and none of those who despise me shall see it. Verse 33, and your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness 40 years and shall suffer for your faithlessness until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness, according to the number of days in which you spied out the land, 40 days, a day for each year. You shall bear your iniquity for 40 years and you shall know my displeasure."

So here we have a delay in Israel's entering into the promised land. Later in the book, at the end of the book here and in Deuteronomy, we'll learn that the trip from Kadesh to the promised land is 11 days and it's going to take them 40 years to get there, 40 years because of their disobedience. They spied out the land for 40 days and brought back a faithless report, and those 40 days resulted in 40 years of wilderness wanderings.

Now the purpose of the census in that first chapter is to show us what all that generation will perish in that particular context, and in terms of just the men who were part of that census, what was the number there? That was, you know, 603,550 men, not including the women of that same generation. That's over half a million people who will perish in the next 40 years because of their disobedience in the wilderness. 

The second event is similar to the first event, and it occurs in Numbers 20 verses 1 through 13, and this is where we rediscover why Moses and Aaron did not enter the land, and why Moses and Aaron were so similar. We have here kind of a rehash of Exodus 17, the Masa and Meribah event, where the Lord provides water from the rock to a grumbling people. The same thing is happening in Numbers 28 when it's, and the Lord responds like this, the people are grumbling, Moses prays to the Lord, and the Lord says, take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron, your brothers, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water, so you should bring out water from the rock and give drink to the congregation and their cattle. So you'll remember from Exodus 17, if you've read it, that Moses was to strike the rock and the water would flow out from it.

In this instance, God says the rock's already been struck, you don't need to strike it again, just speak to it, pray, and it will happen, and here's what they did. "Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock and said to them, hear now you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock? Shall we bring water for you out of this rock? And Moses lifted up his hand and then struck the rock with his staff a second time, and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank and their livestock." Yahweh responds to this act of disobedience in this way, in Numbers 20:12, "And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, because you did not believe in me to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. Verse 13, these are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy." Now remember that whole word holy, both here and previously, where we have to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people, is the very point. By Moses having to strike the rock again, he was having to re-enter into that act of judgment of Exodus 17. That judgment being a once-for-all judgment, now you just have to speak to the rock because Yahweh is dedicated or devoted to his people. But by having to strike the rock a second time, Moses is showing the people that God may not be fully committed to his people and needs to be struck again. And that violates that whole nature of intimate holiness that God dedicated to his people.

When you question the presence of God or question his holiness to his people, you impugn his holiness, and that's at the core of his being and who he is, and so the people who do that suffer. This event is recorded in Deuteronomy 3:23 to 27, where Moses pleads with the Lord to reverse the decision. And he said, "I pleaded with Yahweh at that time saying, O Yahweh, O Lord, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what God is there in heaven and earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country in Lebanon. But the Lord was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the Lord said to me, Enough from you. Do not speak to me of this matter again." So Moses, the intimate prophetic covenant mediator with the Lord, who spoke to God face to face amid the cloud, could not get out of this violation of impugning God's holiness before the tribes of Israel. 

How therefore is the book of Numbers something like the gospel promised beforehand? If we're thinking about Paul's language in Romans 1:1 to 3, here we have a couple of things to offer you.

Number one, Jesus is ultimately the true and better Israel who passed the test in the wilderness. 40 days and 40 nights without food and water. Israel has manna, quail, and water from a rock and cannot do it. Jesus has no manna, no quail, and no water and passes the test in the wilderness. He is the true and better Israel. 

The presence of God is no longer smoke and fire in, on, and above the Tabernacle. Now it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in every believer. After Pentecost, with the sending of the Spirit, every individual believer is now a mini-tabernacle. 1 Corinthians 6:19 says, "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own." So one of the things that we learn is that because of the work of Christ on our behalf in the personal work of Jesus in the gospels, we now are a permanent temple or tabernacle that houses God's presence by His Spirit and no longer can be kicked out of His presence.

And that's something that the Book of Numbers teaches us. The book of Numbers, the fourth book in the Pentateuch or the book of the law there, talks about Israel's disobedience and Yahweh's faithfulness, the seriousness of sin and its consequences, and the desire for God to dwell among His people. 


I'm sorry, but it just seems like you make one mistake and you get just knocked down.

That's true. I mean, that seemed, it always just seemed to be harsh. Yeah, and it's because it is a harsh judgment because of the nature of what's going on there. It's because Moses has seen from the beginning, from the burning bush, the nature of God's holiness. He was the one to whom God revealed His name. He was the one who spent 40 days on Sinai with His presence. He was the one who saw His glory and heard that sermon preached. He's the one who's mediated all these things and spoken to God face to face. The prophet, you know, unparalleled prophet. He should never have, of course, impugned God's holiness or questioned God's holiness at that moment in front of all His people. And the consequences are severe. I totally and completely agree because the wages of sin is death. Now again, here's the thing. Moses' death was not the final death. It wasn't the second death. It was just the death of this life. And Moses will, we will indeed see Moses in the new heavens and new earth. He wasn't kept out of the true promised land. Does that make sense? But his death does serve as a warning, especially maybe for people in leadership who impugn God's holiness before God's people in other ways. So it's a warning about teachers and preachers and the nature of the truth and not impugning God's holiness. Yeah. It's interesting.

I hear this prayer all the time. Lord, please be with someone. Lord, please be with someone or something during this time.And in some sense, that's doing the same thing because it's not true that He is with us. And so you can't pray, God, please be with, you have to pray, God, may this or that person feel your presence in a real way during the midst of suffering or tragedy and stuff like that. And so we still in our minds question whether God is with us at the very fundamental level, especially in suffering or maybe in prosperity or affluence even more. And so it's, that's, it's very serious, it's a very serious thing.