The Book of Numbers, סֵפֶר בְּמִדְבַּר/Sefer Bemidbar, is noticeably different from the other books of the Torah, as it focuses on life in the wilderness camp. Opening with chapters of accounting, positioning, and assignments, it seems a bit dry. The English title of the book, “Numbers,” perhaps influences this perspective; but once the book begins to unfold, we discover something different.
In the thirty-six chapters of this book, we see signs, wonders, and the miraculous provision of the covenant Lord. Yet, we also find chapter after chapter of the good, the bad, and the ugly reality of human life. These are the messy details that we assume would not happen in covenant community, but alas, they do.
The wilderness experience is part of the life of faith. The narrow way that we follow in Messiah is often set in the wilderness – the wild places in creation (Matt. 7:13-14). As many of you know, I spend a lot of time in the wild places, those wilderness places where so many people fear the wild things walking just out of sight, mixed with a fear of being lost. Still, biblically, the wilderness is for something else entirely. Numbers shows us how the Lord uses the messy details of the wilderness to set us along the narrow way.
The census opening the Book of Numbers, סֵפֶר בְּמִדְבַּר/Sefer Bemidbar, teaches us a simple, yet profound lesson: we all count. No matter how rich or poor, all of us are special to Him, we are all unique. In our uniqueness to Him, He knows how to do His work of renewal in us as He conforms us to Yeshua/Jesus (Ro. 8:28-29). That pressure of formation, the application of the Potter’s hands upon the clay in the turning of the Potter’s wheel is often set in the wilderness places of life.
How we fear those wilderness places. Those scary places of uncertainty and danger. Those wild places where animals or bandits can get you. Despite our trepidation, the Lord is still working in those narrow, pressing wild places; and Numbers tells us how.
As Numbers opens we find the Lord numbering His people, establishing order of the camp, assigning the Levites their duties, the priests are anointed, along with the redemption of the firstborn of man and beast. Rather quickly the wilderness becomes a place of order; and in fact, this is the Hebraic understanding of “wilderness” or מִדְבַּר.
בְּמִדְבַּר comes from the root דָבָר, frequently translated as “speak,” or to “order” or “arrange. Speech is an order to words expressing intelligible ideas. מִדְבַּר then, according to Hebraic understanding, is a place existing in its order (Gen. 1).
As we make our way in life, through the narrowing wilderness seemingly overrun by uncertainty, wickedness, vanity, and extreme harsh realities, we must remember that faith in the covenant Lord accounts for the harsh reality of obeying His call. In those harsh realities we find the pressure necessary to force out those fears of the wild things, and press in an enduring faith in the Author and Finisher of faith itself: Yeshua (Heb. 12:2).
The wilderness is where He manifests His assuring presence, as the covenant community walks in the grace of His calling, even in the midst of terrible circumstances. He will work all that has, will, and is going wrong together for your good, because you were called in Yeshua/Jesus; and you are presently being conformed to His image. Does it hurt? YES! Does it wear us out? YES! Is it emotionally exhausting? YES! A million times a million times: YES! But what a treasure He is working in you: Jesus.
How does Paul encourage us? “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Ro. 8:18).
The wilderness can be dirty, wet, muddy, dangerous, buggy, confusing, and exhausting, but we never compare the destination to the difficulty of the trail leading us there. Hold on … but God.
As you read and study Numbers, it will reveal His glory in the midst of our mess, and how He makes the mess into His message, as we love each other, even as He has loved us.
Be well. Shalom.