This article is part of the Why Study the Book? series.
It is one of the great ironies of Scripture that the generation that saw God’s works most vividly became the epitome of those who refuse to believe him.
The generation of the Exodus saw the plagues of God against Egypt. They directly experienced his wonders that broke pharaoh’s oppression and by which they were redeemed from bondage. Notwithstanding this amazing, firsthand experience of God, the adjectives repeatedly attached to that generation throughout the Bible include “unbelieving,” “stubborn,” and “stiff-necked.” The story of that generation’s remarkable faithlessness is especially highlighted in the first half of the book of Numbers.
Their unbelief reached its tipping point as they reached the border of the Promised Land, where they refused to trust God and go into it (Num. 14:1–4). For this reason, the Lord said of them, “[They] have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice” (Num. 14:22). Because of their persistent unbelief, the exodus generation was required to wander in the wilderness the rest of their days (Num. 14:22–23).
But here is another remarkable twist in the story. The subsequent generation which grew up in the wilderness became the epitome of faith and obedience! The children of the wilderness did not directly witness the great plagues against Egypt. They were born in the rugged wanderings of their parents’ rebellion. Yet, the book of Numbers reveals that this next generation learned a different heart. For their faithfulness, the new generation would receive the Promised Land that their parents had failed to attain on account of their unbelief.
A Turning Point
The book of Numbers is the story of these two generations: the generation that left Egypt yet increased in rebellion, and the generation that arrived at the Promised Land and embraced God’s Word. In fact, the book is traditionally called Numbers because it is divided into parts around the two censuses (“numberings”) of these two generations. The first part of the book begins with a census of the first generation (Num. 1:1–46) and tells the stories of their rebellions. Then the book turns a corner with the new generation’s census (Num. 26:1–65) and the stories of their faithfulness.
Numbers teaches the emerging generation to learn from the faithlessness of the previous generation, but to do so with understanding and without a judgmental attitude.
Numbers is at once a convicting and an encouraging book. And it is especially instructive for Christian young people contemplating their emergence into leadership in an era of theological barrenness and ecclesial confusion. For example, the book of Numbers teaches the emerging generation to learn from the faithlessness of the previous generation, but to do so with understanding and without a judgmental attitude.
The first story that the book of Numbers recounts after the new generation assumes responsibility is the story of efforts to honor the heritage of their parents. The daughters of Zelophehad acknowledged that their father had died as a participant in the sins of his generation (Num. 27:3), but they nonetheless sought to honor their parental heritage and were commended by God for doing so (Num. 27:1–11).
Furthermore, the new generation is shown to fail God’s instructions in sins remarkably similar to those of their parents. They are not that different from the previous generation. But their response when confronted with their sin is different. For example, the new leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad lay claim to lands east of the Jordan River, purposing to stay behind rather than helping their kindred fight inside the land of Canaan (Num. 32:1–5). This was a sinful proposal that Moses angrily confronted, frustrated that the new generation was repeating the same failure of their parents. “Behold,” Moses warned, “you have risen in your father’s place, a brood of sinful men, to increase still more the fierce anger of the LORD against Israel!” (Num. 32:14). But something remarkable followed Moses’s confrontation.
The previous generation had been prone to stiffen their necks whenever confronted, but the new generation repented! The new leaders of Reuben and Gad did not grow stubborn. Instead, they embraced Moses’s chastening and came back with a revised proposal, promising not only to support their kindred in the battles ahead but to take the most dangerous role in leading their advance into the land (Num. 32:16–42)! In such ways, the new generation is introduced as those who learned from the failures of their forefathers without berating them and without supposing themselves to be better. The new generation learned faithfulness.
Why Numbers Matters Today
The stories of the two generations provided in the book of Numbers reveal countless practical lessons on faith and faithfulness. And most importantly, the book offers a powerful testimony of God’s patience and grace through both the rebellious and the obedient generations of his people. God disciplines the stubborn, but he does not abandon his covenant. And he honors the obedient, but he pours out blessings far beyond what is deserved.
The book of Numbers is a testimony to the steadfast love of God for his people in both discipline and blessing. It offers spiritual help for every generation of his church to grow in faithfulness to him. But in a day like today, when the church is marked by confusion, division, and widespread spiritual apathy, Numbers has a special message of inspiration for Christian young people of the emerging generation. It is a timely study for those who would learn faithfulness and foster renewal among the people of God.
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