Help, I’m Reading Numbers!

With its stories of rebellion in the ranks, attempted coups, early battles, and even international espionage, Numbers is quite the page turner…Still, Numbers is not without its challenges.

Ed. Note: I recently shared some ideas on how to read through Leviticus with more appreciation than we often tend to have, if we’re honest about it. Numbers being next in line, this post follows in what I guess is going to be a series. – AR

With its stories of rebellion in the ranks, attempted coups, early battles, and international espionage, Numbers is quite the page turner. For that reason, it’s less daunting reading than Leviticus. Still, Numbers is not without its challenges.

Contextually, the new nation of Israel is still learning to relate to and serve under the Lord. And so, reading through Numbers we come to passages where action is replaced by instruction and drama is replaced by historical record keeping.

With its stories of rebellion in the ranks, attempted coups, early battles, and even international espionage, Numbers is quite the page turner.

Like I said about reading Leviticus, it is all God’s Word, all holy, and all useful for our instruction, so we would be foolish to skip over any of it. Here are three reminders I wrote down as I reread Numbers. Hopefully they help you, too.

1. Numbers Reminds Me How Holy God Is

God is holy. Holiness (separate-ness, distinction) isn’t an add-on trait to God, like a crown on a king’s head. God is holy. Holiness is an essential attribute of His being.

The Lord is unapproachably holy. For sinful men to approach him they must be made pure or they will die. Nothing imperfect can be before him. Not imperfect men marred by physical deformities or internal sin. Not imperfect sacrifices. Animals scarified to the Lord had to be, “without blemish.” And even then, speaking of those sacrifices the writer of Hebrews would later say they could never, “make perfect those who draw near…for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:1,4).

Even some clans within the priestly Levites would die if they looked at the tools and instruments of the tabernacle they were charged with carrying after Aaron and his sons covered them (Num 4:15-19). (And He is so holy those instruments aren’t allowed to be carted but must be carried by hand with poles.)

God is holy, Holy, HOLY.

2. Numbers Reminds Me How Sinful I Am

I see me, my sin, in everything Israel does. Their constant grumblings remind me of my own. Their complaining against God’s wisdom reminds me of mine when I don’t like how God chooses to lead me. Time and again the Israelites thought they knew better, and that hits close to home.

Aaron’s and Miriam’s rebellion and later Korah’s rebellion gut me. Their rebellions were there attempts at overthrowing not just Moses, as God’s representative, but God himself. Thousands of people died in their sin as punishment. The ground literally opened up and ate them alive, or they died of plague or fire broke out from their incense censers. They suffered the wrath of God for their rebellion.

By the way, we might think that was the end of it, right? Surely no one would be stupid enough to complain after witnessing that terrible scene! Guess again. In that same chapter (16), look at 16:41, “But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron…” (emphasis added). The next day!

I’m honest when I read Numbers, every page exposes my heart’s attempts to overthrow God every single day.

And, if I’m honest when I read Numbers, every page exposes my heart’s attempts to overthrow God every single day. Don’t believe me? Who of us love our trials? Some days by his grace I persevere and other days fall so short in bearing up under them well. Those are the days I hate the difficult circumstances I have been in for months and the other circumstances that have lasted decades.

And if you’re honest when you read through Numbers, it exposes the same sins in your life. If Numbers was the end of it, we would have plenty of reason to despair over our sin. But being convicted about our sin is a mercy from God. Which brings us to our third and final reminder…

3. Numbers Reminds Me of Christ

He is on every page. He is in the holiness of God and the promised future atonement for sinful men. For over a thousand years animals would be sacrificed, butchered, and burned on the altar for the sins of individuals and for the nation.

The author of Hebrews would eventually sum up this epoch of blood and fire and ashes to us, “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Heb 10:11). That is, until the Lamb the Lord himself would offer up. “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…” (Heb 10:12).

Jesus is the great future perfect fulfillment. The tabernacle (and later the Temple) and the sacrifices were awesome-but-imperfect shadows. Jesus is the reason you and I are not blotted out a hundred million times over for our sins, as theologian RC Sproul famously called sin against God, “cosmic treason.” Jesus bore my punishment (and yours if you are in Christ today).

I want you to know, brothers, that our others were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all dark the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.

1 Corinthians 10:1-4

These three reminders changed how I read and understand the Book of Numbers. Now I read every story differently. What used to be black-and-white and fuzzy now has crystal clear 4K Ultra HD picture quality. What I struggled to see as applying to me personally makes perfect sense now. In the story of the rebellion of the sons of Korah, God punished the Korahite clan and they died. In the story of the rebellion of Anthony, God the Father punished Jesus and he died.

In the story of the rebellion of the sons of Korah, God punished the Korahite clan and they died. In the story of the rebellion of Anthony, God the Father punished Jesus and he died.

Don’t let someone tell you the Old Testament is irrelevant, even if that liar is standing behind a pulpit. The Holy Spirit can use Numbers to humble us, expose our sins, and, by grace, not destroy us, but lead us repentance and forgiveness that is now freely available through Christ.

[Reading Leviticus] The Drama of Aaron’s Sacrifice

Do you struggle to pay attention reading through Leviticus? Last week I posted about how we can do more than simply “get through” it. Today I want to share an Aha! moment I had reading through Leviticus again last week. For all the times I’ve read Leviticus over the years, I never noticed the drama in the story Aaron’s first official sacrifice as Israel’s high priest.

In my ESV Bible the heading for Leviticus chapter 9 says, “The LORD Accepts Aaron’s Offering.” Straight-forward enough, right? Not exactly. Two events occur, one before and one after the sacrifice, that make the events of chapter 9 so astonishing.

The Drama Before

In Exodus 24:9-11 we read,

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ent up, and they saw the God of Israel. There were under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness…they beheld God, and ate and drank.

Keep this mind as we go.

In Exodus 32, before Aaron and his sons are officially installed as Israel’s first priests, Moses was atop Mt Sinai with the Lord, leaving Aaron to mind the store, overseeing the Israelites. In a move that even Barney Fife, on his worst day while Andy was away, wouldn’t have the audacity to do, Aaron gives in to the whims of the Israelites and creates the golden calf. And with it declares, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

This is the man who saw the Lord, who ate with Him on the mountain, who was used by God as Moses’ right-hand man during the encounters with Pharaoh leading up to the Exodus. And then, turning his back and his conscience on all of that, sets up Israel’s first (and sadly, not its last) national idol.

It is a miracle itself that God did not wipe him out right there. Which brings us to…

The Drama After

We’re not given a timeframe from Leviticus 9 to Leviticus 10. It could’ve been days, weeks, or months. Regardless, not long after the Lord accepts their initial priestly sacrifices, God kills Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu.

The details of the incident are divinely sketchy in the text, but we know they offered profane incense before the Lord, unauthorized or “strange” fire. In irony and contrast, the Lord immediately consumed them in his holy and vengeful fire.

Here again, we have to go back and reread Exodus 24:9-11. Right there in the text we see these two men were also on the mountain seeing the Lord and eating there with their father Aaron, their uncle Moses, and seventy elders of Israel!

And still they would go on to profane the worship of the Lord and suffer the terrible consequences.

The Drama in the Middle

Knowing all of this makes the drama of what took place in Leviticus 9 even more amazing, doesn’t it?

It is a wonder and a mercy that God even condescends to acknowledge our sinful race, much less bid us draw near in reconciliation.

It is also stunning to think God didn’t disqualify Aaron from ministry (or just kill him) after the golden calf incident, which from our human perspective seems as-bad or worse than his sons’ sinful perversion of God’s instructions for worshipping him.

Instead God appoints him to the greatest honor, to become the first high priest to the Lord. And on that inauguration day the Lord was pleased to receive the sacrifices on behalf of the priests and the people.

Thirdly, it’s mind-boggling to think that God allowed Nadab and Abihu to serve in ministry knowing full well what would later do.

Reminds me of how the Lord called and welcomed Judas into the fold, giving no indication whatsoever of his future betrayal. Jesus was so kind to him that not only did he let him hold the money bag while knowing he was stealing from it. Which is why in the upper room at the last supper when he announced one of them would betray him, the other disciples had no clue who it might be.

The Drama of Redemption

Ultimately, what we have to marvel at is the drama of redemption itself. What happened in Leviticus 9 not only foreshadows a better, eternal Priest, Jesus, who would offer the greatest sacrifice for sin, himself.

Leviticus 9, as with all of Leviticus and the whole Old Testament for that matter, reminds us in pictures of the depths of our sin and idols of the heart, Christ’s future perfect atoning sacrifice where by God accepts and reconciles us to himself, through no merit of our own. Our sins atoned and forgiven, we are restored and commissioned into service for our God.

Astonishing. And to think–how often have we grumbled that Leviticus is boring. God forgive us!

Help, I’m Reading Leviticus!

Have you ever said that? I’ll admit, I have. After the fast paced excitement of Genesis and the first half of Exodus, the narrative in the Pentateuch slows down as the Lord instructs Israel about building the tabernacle and its instruments, creating the priestly garments, consecrating the priests, and then (in Leviticus) the laws themselves. It’s tempting to skip over those seemingly irrelevant passages (and, later, the genealogies), but that’s not wise. All of God’s inspired Word is, “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV). So, how can we be faithful to the Lord and his Word? As I was recently struggling again with this myself, I have some ideas.

Remember the Three C’s

[Ed. Note: About five or six years ago I wrote the below essay. It’s included in my book. (Would it be wrong to link to it here? I don’t know. I don’t want to be annoyingly self-promoting. Tell you what…I mention it on the Our Story page and there’s a link there, if you like.) Anyway, here are some thoughts and then below this I’ll post some further thoughts I’ve had since I first wrote this.]

Some Christians avoid the Old Testament. They feel as lost in the Bible as I did in the North Georgia Mountains. For them it is unfamiliar territory. When I talk to some people about reading the Bible, one response I get is that the person started reading in Genesis, but gave up by Leviticus, only two books later. I’m reading Leviticus now in my own Bible reading plan, so I think about those folks as I make my way through it. It can be a bewildering landscape if you have no idea what you are reading, or why it is in the Bible. There are three ideas I keep in mind when I read Leviticus:

CONTEXT

Consider the context of the book. Here are over a million people who, until recently, were slaves in Egypt for over four hundred years. God delivered the Israelites out of Pharaoh’s cruel Egypt with his mighty Hand. Famously safe on the other side of the Red Sea, God leads them into the Sinai wilderness, en-route to the Promised Land. The children of Israel are learning to live not just on their own, but as new nation literally and miraculously birthed out of another and specially chosen to live as God’s chosen people. Leviticus is a book of laying down crucial ground rules and learning to follow the Lord.

CONSECRATION

The rules and regulations presented to the priests and the people signify something more: Being wholly devoted to the Lord. The word “holy” literally means, “to be set apart, consecrated.” Every other nation around them was steeped in pagan idolatry. Every other nation on earth veered hard away from God (really ever since Genesis chapter three). But God was doing a work, a much bigger work than they knew. They were to be wholly devoted to him. Impurity, idolatry, and iniquity were not going to be tolerated. Israel was to be wholly holy. They were to be the special, chosen, representative people of Yahweh. Yet, God knew they would sin. In his mercy he prescribed the means to seek forgiveness for their sins, which brings us to…

CHRIST

In Leviticus chapter 9 we see the first animal slaughtered for the sins of the people under these new rules of priestly intervention and atonement (hence the term “Levitical priesthood”). Over the next thousand-plus years millions of animals would be slaughtered to atone for the sins of the people. Yet none of those sacrifices, individually or all together, could truly take away the sins of the people. To use the question from the old hymn, “What can wash away my sin?”

The answer in the song is the answer of the Scriptures: Nothing but the blood of Jesus. All the sacrifices pointed in vivid picture form to the one great sacrifice that would one day come. Jesus, the Lord himself, as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” would be the perfect one- for-all sacrifice for sin for those who would be saved from their just punishment.

R.C. Sproul tells the story of when he first started teaching the Bible as a college professor. Students would say to him, “Oh, Professor Sproul, you make the Bible come alive for me!” Aware that they were trying to compliment him, he refuted their words. “Look, I can’t make the Bible come alive, because I can’t make anything come alive that already isalive!” He said to them, “There’s nothing wrong with sacred Scripture. What you’re noticing with my animation and my excitement is my response to the Scriptures… The Bible makes me come alive, rather than my making the Bible come alive!”4

That is a great testimony to the value of studying the Bible. Regular Bible reading and study literally is walking alongside God. The Holy Spirit knows the way and delights to lead us. When we follow him he points out all the beauty and truth along the way.

My 2019 Thoughts

I still agree with the above. I’d also add a briefs Do’s and Dont’s:

Do

  1. Remember the burden it was on every Israelite to try and keep these laws
  2. Remember Lev 20:7-8 as the theme verses of the book; all of this was for God’s people to be holy (separated) to him.
  3. Remember that over and over again, in detailing the necessary sacrifices for sin, the lesson is the same: The wages of sin is death (Rom 3:23). Sin has consequences, and they are always awful.
  4. Remember that Jesus, who did the impossible, fulfilled these laws for us, most ultimately in becoming the perfect and final sacrifice for sins
  5. Thank and praise God you and I are no longer under the weight of these impossible laws

Don’t

  1. Skip over Leviticus. Don’t skip over the dry passages of Scripture. In his wisdom the Lord chose to put them in there for his good reasons. Trust him about that. Obediently do your part and read them.
  2. Take audio version shortcut. If you can read it, read it. Don’t take the shortcut of listening to the audio version. Saints of God have been both challenged and blessed by reading it for literal millennia. Submit under the opportunity to be sanctified by doing the hard things. In this Christian life reading through Leviticus will probably be the least difficult thing the Lord will require of you in your sanctification, trust me.
  3. Zone out with a “does not apply to me” attitude. I’m not saying you need to memorize which sacrifice goes with which occasion, but don’t just let your eyes scan the page and move on. Use the Do list above to help you engage thoughtfully with the text.
  4. Don’t forget that every paragraph, every sacrifice, every command to be pure and perfect…all of it points to Jesus. All of it glorifies him. He is the great fulfillment, the pure and perfect hero Lamb of God, and Prophet, Priest, and King.

Have ideas on how to more enjoy reading Leviticus? Share in a comment below.