The book of Numbers kicks off about a year after the Israelites were liberated from Egyptian bondage, about a year after the Lord sent the people the 10 Commandments (which formed them into a nation).
The next step for the nation of Israel was to form their military. The Lord decreed that a census be taken, in order to discover the number of men available for military service in each of the 12 tribes. At this time they were also given their assigned places in the camp setup. Every time the cloud or fire of the Lord that hovered over the tabernacle indicated that it was time to stop, the tribes were to form a rectangular shape, with the tabernacle in the center. And actually, there were 13 tribes, but the tribe of Levi had been set aside as the priesthood. The Levites were in charge of the tabernacle; all the tedious setting-up and taking-down of the place with every change of campsite. They were in charge of making offerings, and had a gajillion specific things to do to properly prepare. There were tens of thousands of Levites, and all the guys were numbered off to take their turn in the tabernacle. Being born as a Levite meant lifetime of preparing for entering the presence of the Lord. To do so in that time without proper preparation would result in immediate death, so it was a rather hazardous career.
One especially interesting chapter was Numbers 5, which is subtitled in my Bible as the "Adultery Test." It was decreed that if a "spirit of jealousy" were to come over a man regarding whether his wife might have committed adultery, he could take her to the priest for the adultery test. The woman would have to stand before the presence of the Lord with her hair let down and holding a grain offering, and the priest would have the woman swear an oath. If she had not committed adultery, she would be free to conceive children. If she was guilty, she would be cursed with a swollen abdomen and her thigh would waste away. I'm still reading and re-reading this chapter to try and sort it out. I have questions. One is, why single out the women? Dudes were much more likely to have relations with another woman/wife than women were to go looking for a man to cheat with. Another question is, um, wouldn't a pregnant belly look like a "swollen abdomen?" Say the wife was innocent and resumed her life, only when she conceived and her womb began to grow, how were people to know whether she was living the curse of the swollen belly or simply with child? I can't imagine that they would go peeking around under the girls' dresses, checking for that whole wasted thigh thing. Or who knows...maybe they did. This perplexes me. And it certainly seems to me like such a provision in the culture would give rise to paranoid husbands.
Another Numbers chapter that sparked questions within me was Numbers 12. Miriam and Aaron were super duper important to Moses. However, apparently they had let their importance to him go to their heads because suddenly they were criticizing his choice of a wife and became greedy for the power he had. They grumbled and whined and complained, and even argued with Moses to his face. They made a critical mistake, and certainly deserved punishment. Numbers 12:9-15 tells us that the anger of the Lord burned against them, and "their" punishment was that Miriam was stricken with leprosy and shut outside the camp for 7 days. Uh, what about Aaron? I haven't been able to find what his punishment was, though it's possible that I've missed it.
Also as part of their first anniversary of their exodus from Egypt, the people observed the Passover. Instructions were given for this, as well as descriptions of the various types of offerings to be given and their purposes.
Enter Caleb. He was a good chap, and one of the only 2 who left Egypt as an adult who would actually enter the promised land. Caleb was part of the group of spies sent on a recon mission in Israel's first approach to the land that God had promised them, and one of the only team members who didn't return with exaggerative statements about how gigantic the people were and how they were like grasshoppers in comparison.
And oh my word, these Israelites were some whiney hineys in Numbers. They whined about the food (apparently their miracle manna was sub-par to their spoiled little taste buds), about Moses's leadership, about not having any meat, about the land, etc. They even try to stone old Moses before this book is up! God got a wee bit angry with them, and threatened to "smite them with pestilence," and Moses pleaded on their behalf. God spared them, but decrees that the whiney hineys shall not be entering the promised land. Which meant the nation of Israel then had to wander around for about 40 years, until the generation of losers died off. Gracious, this challenged me so much! I do not want to be the stumbling block that prevents my children from receiving blessings from the Lord.
Chapter 15 goes into great length about the laws for atoning for unintentional sin. This was a good reminder for me that the Bible is clear: even unintentional sin is still sin. Chapter 16 is wildly dramatic, when another dumb gang of rebel leaders starts verbally condemning the leadership of Moses, and they come to a strange demise when the ground opens up and swallows them whole.
And it is in chapter 20 that Moses makes a critical error. God was using him in yet another miracle, which of course had become routine for Moses. Only Moses made the mistake of stating that "we bring forth water for you out of this rock." Oooh, Moses. It makes me cringe. The Lord's response was something like, "Uh, excuse Me?! NO PROMISED LAND FOR YOU!"
A note I had previously written in my Bible beside this passage was "May we never attempt to share in God's glory." For Moses, this cost him his entrance to the promised land. For us, this is costly as well. I can't imagine how much Moses would have grieved this punishment. But if he was half the man I think he was, he would have understood the justice of it.
The end of Numbers is filled with brief but important milestones for Israel. There's this dude named Balaam who had a rather interesting encounter with a talking donkey. The army that assembled at the beginning of this book eventually began to take action going about the physical conquering of the promised land. There was a second census, which proved that the generation of whiney hineys were gone. Joshua was named as Moses's successor as leader of the Israelites. Inheritance guidelines were set in place.
The nation of Israel was beginning to prepare for their promised land.