May 9, 2012

In the Wilderness

 A hushed silence hung like a soft woolen blanket over the encampment. Young Nathaniel had squeezed past the crowd to catch a glimpse of the outer courtyard of the tabernacle, where most of the action seemed to be taking place. That morning Aaron and his sons had entered the newly constructed sanctuary. They had undressed, and Moses, the great leader, had washed them as they stood before the congregation. Nathaniel did not like baths and washing his face—so he felt with the men as they stood half-naked before everyone.
Following the washing Moses had dressed them with their recently finished priestly garments. Nathaniel was intrigued to see the intricately made clothing items.
Next came the anointing. The crowd caught a whiff of the expensive special-formula anointing oil as it was sprinkled and daubed on the tabernacle, the altar,  and—finally—the priests. “They must all smell the same now,” whispered Nathaniel to his neighbor, who happened to be Uncle Benjamin.
“Sshh,” said the uncle with a stern face, but Nathaniel did not hear it anymore—he saw only how Aaron and his sons put their hands solemnly upon the head of a huge bull.

2012 1513 page20Nobody spoke, nobody whispered, nobody seemed to even breathe. As Moses slaughtered the bull and caught some of its blood, Nathaniel looked up questioningly to his uncle. “This is the sin offering that will be burnt completely,” breathed the uncle softly. Aaron and his sons just stood there—silent and solemn—as they watched Moses cut up the bull.
Nathaniel knew Aaron. He loved to listen to the silver-haired man’s stories. But today Aaron and his sons looked so different. “Are they now priests?” wondered Nathaniel aloud as the fire began to consume the parts of the bull. “No, not yet,” he heard Uncle Benjamin whisper. “This will go on for seven days,” his uncle continued. “It must be strange to live somewhere in between Aaron the grandfatherly storyteller and Aaron the high priest, ordained by Yahweh,” mused Nathaniel.
In Between
Somewhere in between—that was Israel in the wilderness. Runaway slaves, saved by God’s amazing grace and powerful outstretched hand, and yet, they had not arrived. The Promised Land stretched out hundreds of miles to the north, somewhat hidden behind the dust, grime, and routine of the wilderness.
They had seen God’s mighty hand up close and very personal: a sea divided (Ex. 14:13-22), an entire Egyptian army destroyed (verses 23-28), miraculous food deliveries (Ex. 16), water out of a rock (Ex. 17). Then they had heard God’s presence from the top of the mountain that formed the focal point of their current camp. Moses had not only received detailed instructions about the way their life was to differ from the life (and culture) of other tribes and people, barefoot and hid in a cleft of a rock, he had heard the name of Yahweh, and it had sounded like compassion, grace, abounding love, and utter faithfulness (Ex. 33:12-34:8).
They had received the blueprint of God’s character, the 10 words spoken by Yahweh to His creation, and had also heard the instruction to build a special meeting place where salvation would become tangible and God’s presence would be palpable. Thirteen months after the exodus we find Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai (Num. 1:1)—in the wilderness.
Numbers and the Wilderness
The book of Numbers lives a quiet life in biblical studies. Preachers seldom visit it as they feed and challenge the flock (and if so, they often limit themselves to a couple of the better-known stories). Commentators prefer the grand vistas of Genesis or Exodus’ nail-biting narrative of liberation—but Numbers, with its seemingly unrelated bits and pieces of information and different literary styles? Who likes census lists, itineraries, complex legal texts, ritual texts, itineraries again, some narratives, and all of this sprinkled with bits of poetry? “The wilderness,” which is the Hebrew title of the book [bemidbar], is not a place we like to frequent. It is dry. It is dusty. It is dreary. It is discouraging.
Between Numbers 1:1 and 33:38 lie roughly 38 years of wilderness living. Thirty-eight years of living in tents. Thirty-eight years of food worries and water concerns. Thirty-eight years of constant threats from surrounding tribes and people whose territory had to be crossed on the way to the Promised Land.
Thirty-eight years is a long time. Thirty-eight years ago the United States was a different country. The average cost of a new home was $34,900, and a gallon of gas cost 55 cents. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 616 in 1974. Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate affair, and an oil-shock-related global recession had the world in its grip.2
In a world of tweets and information overload 1974 seems to be like living on a different planet and definitely represents a different generation. The hairdos looked atrocious, and the cars were huge and guzzled infinite amounts of gasoline. Two generations is precisely one of the key structural elements of the book of Numbers. Thirty-eight years—two generations. While chapters 1-25 tell about the failures of the first generation, beginning with chapter 26 until the end, Numbers tells us the story of a new generation. Old Testament scholar Dennis Olson has noted this marked parallel story, distinguishing between the old generation of rebellion and the new generation of hope in a landmark 1985 monograph.3 Most noteworthy, the two generations share parallel events. For example, both generations experience a divinely appointed census (Num. 1; 26); both sections of Numbers report a more specialized census of the Levites (Num. 3; 26); we also find specific legal texts involving women (Num. 5; 27); laws governing vows (Num. 6; 30); as well as narratives and ordinances linked to the celebration of the Passover (Num. 9; 28)—the list goes on and on.
The new generation and its experiences highlight a crucial element of the larger biblical metanarrative: God is a God of second chances, something already hinted at in the Fall narrative of Genesis 3. The story of Israel in Numbers somehow fleshes out the more theoretical description of God in Exodus 34:6 as “abounding in steadfast love” (ESV)4 or “abounding in lovingkindness” (NASB).5
Between Salvation and Sanctification
Somewhere in between Egypt and Canaan we find a people that bear a remarkable resemblance to us. It is an unsteady group of people, quickly moved by events or charismatic leaders, shifting loyalties, and often suffering from selective memory. Their complaints and murmurings are plentiful and involve food, water, leadership, and theology. That’s the kind of people God has saved.
Pointers to divine holiness are all around them—at the mountain, in the Tabernacle, in the very specific layout and order of the camp, and even in the clothing  they are to wear. Hang on, you may say. What has clothing to do with holy thinking and holy living?
The prescription of the tassels on the garments in Numbers 15:37-41 follows a short but crucial narrative that deals with Sabbath holiness (verses 32-36). An Israelite was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Since this appeared to have been a “first,” he is brought before Israel’s leadership. God’s verdict is quick and specific. The man is to be stoned—case closed. Since this narrative appears right after instructions regarding defiant sins (verses 15:30, 31), some have thought that it is just an illustration of this kind of sin. However, one wonders, why the Sabbath? Why not idolatry or blatant adultery? Mathilde Frey argued in her recently completed Ph.D. dissertation that the Sabbath is not accidental in the story. Since it is a sign of redemption and freedom from slavery (see Deut. 5), it is an integral part of the binding agreement between Israel and Yahweh.6 In other words, gathering wood on the Sabbath is in explicit opposition to the covenant between the people and the Lord, affects the entire congregation (as will become even more significant in some of the other murmurings and rebellions), and requires a response from a holy God.
The following section, introducing the new line of divinely approved apparel, is God’s divine response that seeks to “vaccinate” future generations from breaking the covenant. Numbers 15:39–41 provide us with a clue as to the function of the tassels: “remember,” which appears twice in three verses (verses 39 and 40), echoes the similar language of the Ten Commandments, and, more specifically, the fourth commandment. God’s holiness is reflected by the holiness of His people in the wilderness—part and parcel of the larger issue of the great controversy, where God’s character and justice is on public display. And it all gets expressed in some tassels.
Lessons From the Wilderness
I am sure that as you think about Numbers and Israel’s experience some of your own wilderness episodes will come to mind. Here are some of the lessons I have discovered as I have read and reread Numbers over the past months.
1 Wilderness wanderings require finding our own rhythm. While we walk in community, I need to keep eye-contact with Jesus, I need to know the soft and gentle voice of the Shepherd, I need to pay attention to the do’s and don’ts of the wilderness.
2 Remembrance is an important element of wilderness wanderings. The new generation was to remember—by any means, including tassels—God’s redemptive acts and His dreams for His people. These dreams involved not only land flowing with milk and honey but being a blessing (Gen. 12:1-3) to the widow, orphan, and foreigner, and being a light to the nations (Isa. 42:6).
3 Furthermore, wilderness wanderings are mostly done by divine instruction. Israel did not choose its way to liberty. They followed the cloud during the day and the fiery cloud at night. True, God never had 38 years in mind when He led Israel on that way. However, it was His GPS that brought Israel to the borders of the Promised Land, where their faith was to be tested. Fifteen hundred years later Someone else was led by the same Spirit into the wilderness, but not for 40 years—40 days sufficed to stare down the tempter.
Here is the good news: the Promised Land is just around the corner. In our waiting for Jesus’ return Paul’s reading of Exodus and Numbers in 1 Corinthians 10:6 is significant: “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.” Or, as The Message paraphrase puts it: “The same thing could happen to us. We must be on guard so that we never get caught up in wanting our own way as they did.”7
I love the way poet and songwriter Michael Card describes these wilderness wanderings. “In the wilderness we’re wondering for a way to understand; in the wilderness there’s not a way, for the ways become a man, and the man’s become the exodus, the way to holy ground; wandering in the wilderness is the best way to be found.”8
This is the first installment of a series of articles focusing upon the book of Numbers, a book that should be basic reading for a people waiting to enter the (real) Promised Land.
1 This is a reimagining of some of the story of the priestly ordination ritual in Leviticus 8.
2 See more at
3 See Dennis T. Olson, The Death of the Old and the Birth of the New. The Framework of the Book of Numbers and the Pentateuch, Brown Judaic Studies (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1985), vol. 71.
4 Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
5 Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
6 Mathilde Frey, “The Sabbath in the Pentateuch: An Exegetical and Theological Study” (Ph.D. diss., Andrews University, 2011), p. 119.
7  Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
8 Michael Card, “In the Wilderness,” accessed at

Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review who enjoys wilderness wanderings with a backpack and sufficient water. This article was published May 10, 2012.