Death in the wilderness

The last time I read the book of Numbers, I remarked at how discouraging it was. (To be fair, that evaluation only applies to the section from chapters 11-25 that contains the accounts of the people’s rebellion.) This time around, what struck me was the death toll. At one point in the narrative, the body count is so high that the Lord institutes a simplified purification ceremony for those who have come into contact with or have been in proximity to a dead body (recorded in chapter 19).

I pondered all that death and came to the following realisations, which are built on the premises that God of the Bible is good and that He is love. A different starting point would, naturally, yield different conclusions.

1. It wasn’t God’s will to kill

When giving certain commands, God explicitly stated that obeying them would prevent death (e.g. Numbers 4:15; 8:19, 18:7). Earlier in Israel’s history, Yahweh had established a boundary around Mt. Sinai that no one except Moses was to pass lest they died (Exodus 19). Going even further back to Exodus 12, applying the blood of the Passover lamb meant that no one in that household would die. It’s like He was going out of His way to preserve human life.

2. The death sentence wasn’t arbitrary

This is related to the point above. God wasn’t striking down people arbitrarily, He was punishing sin. He had let the people know beforehand what was and wasn’t acceptable. When they crossed the line, they received punishment.

3. The death sentence was a matter of God’s honour

Right after the 10 scouts came back with a bad report, the people rebelled. Yahweh said to Moses, “How long will this people treat me with contempt?” (Numbers 14:11, NIV 1984). For that attitude towards God, an entire generation died.

Close to 40 years later Moses struck a rock instead of speaking to it (Numbers 20:8, 11), an act which barred him entry into the land of promise. God’s charge against Moses was that he had not honoured Him as holy before the people.

[What’s the big deal about God’s honour anyway? Here’s a long answer. A shorter answer is that, even in contemporary society, we classify offenses in accordance with the status of the offended party. For example, slashing my neighbour’s tyres won’t create the same interest that slashing the tyres of an important person’s car would. Using the same reasoning, an offense against an infinite God is a serious mater indeed. (I don’t recall where I got that illustration from, it’s not original to me.)]

4. God allowed, and even invited, intercession

In Numbers 14 (which closely parallels Exodus 32), God tells Moses of His intention to wipe out the Israelites. The thing is, He didn’t have to tell Moses. Moses responds by interceding for the people, and God relents. Back in Genesis 18, God tells Abraham of His plans for Sodom and Gomorrah. There too, Abraham steps in as mediator and it is because of him that Lot and his family are saved.

Returning to Numbers, Moses intercedes at Korah’s rebellion (with Aaron, 16:20-22, 42-50) and at the outbreak of venomous snakes (21:6-7). Evidently, God was satisfied with Moses’ actions on both occasions for the dying stopped soon after.

5. The judgement marked the end of the matter

After administering the punishment, God did not revisit and rehash past sins.

So what?

An alert reader would call me out on that last point: “If God wasn’t bringing up the people’s failures, why did He have them recorded in His holy book?”

Glad you asked. I’m equally glad that I have a ready-made answer to that question, which can be found in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. The apostle Paul says that these things were written down as warnings for us so that we may not follow in the steps of those who died in the wilderness. The lessons he draws are:

  • Do not be idolaters (10:7)
  • Do not commit sexual immorality (10:8)
  • Do not test the Lord (10:9)
  • Do not grumble (10:10)

We too, like the Israelites, have instructions on how to avoid unnatural death. Though the stakes today are higher (Hebrews 10:26-31), there is yet a refuge in God from God’s wrath. All you need to do is to take a hold of the salvation offered in Christ Jesus.

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