Let’s be honest. Of all the books in the Bible, Numbers is probably not your favorite. Couldn’t the inspired authors of holy writ come up with a better title? Who wants to spend an afternoon at Starbucks reading lists of numerical data? But hold on. This often-overlooked book has much to teach us.
Numbers picks up where Exodus left off, and tells the story of their thirty-eight year journey from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land. In the Hebrew Bible, the actual title for the book is Bemidbar, which means, “in the desert.” Our English name comes from Numeroi, the title used by Jerome in the Latin Vulgate from the fourth century. He drew upon the title found in Greek Septuagint of 4th century BC, arithmoi.
In Numbers, God was organizing and positioning his chosen people to be a blessing to the world. But in the middle of this ordering process, there was constant rebellion, unbelief, grumbling, and discord. Not only in the people, but in their leaders, from Mariam, Aaron, and even Moses. But every time they failed, God remained faithful. He continued to dwell, lead, and provide, keeping the ancient promise given to Abraham.
The book is divided into three main sections based on their travels in the desert. First, Numbers 1-12 covers the journey from Sinai to Kadesh Barnea. At Kadesh the people rebelled and refused to enter the land in unbelief. As a result, God sent them back into the wilderness to wander for forty years, one year for every day they spied out the land. Chapters 13-20 cover the longest chunk of time, about 38 years. There’s not a lot of narrative content here because there’s wasn’t much happening. During this long stretch, the unbelieving generation that failed to take the land gradually died, and a new generation was raised up. The third section, chapters 21-36, focuses on the final leg, from Kadesh to the east of the Jordan River, on the plains of Moab. From there, they would take the land.
Numbers 20 falls at the very end of their wilderness journey. They are gathering to make the final push. Moses, Israel’s greatest leader, was in the winter season of his ministry years.
Numbers 20:1 sets the stage, “In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.”
As Israel prepared for the final stretch, Mariam, Moses’ oldest sister, died and was buried. Reading her name makes us think of the precocious girl standing on the bank of the Nile, as she watched her baby brother float helplessly. Quick on her feet, she made it possible for mom to nurse the boy in his formative years. She had her moments for sure, but her death was a tremendous loss for Moses and Israel, a passing of the old guard. Her death reminds us that we also will one day die.
Not only did they lose Mariam, they also lost their water supply. This unexpected water shortage disrupted and angered the people. Outraged and frustrated, they set a date, time, and location, and assembled in opposition and began to quarrel with Moses.