Israel’s Wilderness Testing of Jehovah
“YOU must not put Jehovah your God to the test.” (Deut. 6:16) Those words were spoken by Moses to his people at the end of their forty-year stay in the wilderness. The seriousness of that warning becomes very clear when we consider how often Israel did put Jehovah to the test during their trek from Mount Sinai to the plains of Moab, as recorded for us in the book of Numbers. Christians today can benefit from reviewing this record, for which reason, in fact, these things were written down.—Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11.
The book of Numbers receives its name from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures by way of the Latin Vulgate. It is based on the fact that in Numbers, chapters one to four and twenty-six, are found censuses of the people of Israel. More fitting, however, is one of the names that the Jews gave it, namely, “in the wilderness,” based on the fourth word of the opening chapter, in Hebrew.
Who wrote the book of Numbers? There is abundant evidence within the book and from the rest of the Scriptures testifying to Moses as being the writer. From ancient times it has been attributed to him both by Jews and, later, by the early Christians.
WHILE AT MOUNT SINAI
Israel had been at the base of Mount Sinai about a year when Moses took a census of the fighting strength of Israel. The count was 603,550, indicating that the nation’s total population was about three million. Moses assigned the various tribes certain locations in the camp, with the tribe of Levi and the tabernacle in the center. He also gave instructions as to the line of march, and it is indeed of interest in view of Israel’s later history, that the tribe of Judah was the most populous and took the lead.
At God’s command Moses gave explicit instructions as to the duties of the various divisions of the tribe of Levi. This tribe Jehovah God took in exchange for the firstborn who were his property by reason of his having spared them when he executed the firstborn of Egypt.*
Moses also received instructions regarding the pitching and the breaking of camp and other organizational matters. Interspersed are laws governing cases of jealousy as to wifely faithfulness and those relating to the Nazirite vows, which involved letting one’s hair grow and not eating and/or drinking products of the vine. Included also is the record of the gifts made by the chieftains of the various tribes at the completion of the tabernacle, which listing gives us some idea of the affluence of these chieftains.
In this first part of the book is found the well-known blessing that Jehovah God commanded Moses to pronounce upon his people: “May Jehovah bless you and keep you. May Jehovah make his face shine toward you, and may he favor you. May Jehovah lift up his face toward you and assign peace to you.”—Num. 6:24-26.
ISRAEL’S WILDERNESS JOURNEYINGS
It was on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year after leaving Egypt that the cloud resting above the tabernacle began to move, indicating that Israel was to go on the march. At night it was a pillar of fire that rested over the tabernacle and guided them. When Israel broke camp, Moses would say: “Do arise, O Jehovah, and let your enemies be scattered; and let those who intensely hate you flee from before you.” And when the cloud came to rest, Moses would say: “Do return, O Jehovah, to the myriads of thousands of Israel.”—Num. 10:35, 36.
Right at the beginning of the wilderness trek the Israelites had brought home to them the seriousness of putting Jehovah to the test. How so? For no sooner had they broken camp than the people became as “men having something evil to complain about in the ears of Jehovah.” (Num. 11:1) This so displeased him that he sent a fire, which began consuming some of the Israelites in the outskirts of the camp. Moses made supplication, and Jehovah heard and caused the fire to die down.—Num. 11:2.
Seemingly, right after this the mixed crowd that came out of Egypt with the Israelites put Jehovah to the test. In what way? By grumbling and complaining because of not having meat, fish, and vegetables such as cucumbers, leeks, onions and garlic to eat, but having to subsist on manna, a sweet cereal-like food miraculously provided every day except on the Sabbath. This so greatly distressed Moses that he complained to Jehovah: “Have I myself conceived all this people . . . so that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom?’” In reply, Jehovah assured Moses that he would supply the Israelites with meat. Moses questioned how that could be possible, causing Jehovah to respond: “The hand of Jehovah is cut short, is it?” Well, it was not cut short, for Jehovah provided a tremendous flock of quail. However, due to their grumbling and greediness, Jehovah sent a plague upon them resulting in “a very great slaughter.” Again they had impressed upon them the seriousness of putting Jehovah to the test.—Num. 11:4-33.
Next, it was none other than Moses’ brother Aaron and his sister Miriam that put Jehovah to the test by complaining about Moses’ authority. This so greatly displeased Jehovah that he pointed to the unique, favored position that Moses occupied with him, but struck Miriam with leprosy. Moses interceded on behalf of his sister and so God limited the period of her quarantine to seven days.—Num. 12:1-15.
Evidently curious as to what the Promised Land was like, his people persuaded Moses to send twelve men, one from each of the twelve tribes, to spy out the land. (Deut. 1:22, 23) They returned after forty days with luscious fruits, bearing witness that the Promised Land was indeed “flowing with milk and honey.” (Num. 13:23-27) But ten of the spies made so much of the size of its people and of how fortified the cities were that they discouraged the Israelites to the point of their wanting to go back to Egypt. In vain did the two faithful spies, Joshua and Caleb, remonstrate with them and urge them to have faith in Jehovah. However, when the people talked of stoning Moses, Aaron and the two faithful spies, Jehovah God stepped in and announced his inclination to destroy the entire nation and produce a new one through Moses. But even as he did once before, Moses interceded in behalf of his people, reminding Jehovah that his name and fame were involved in the destiny of the Israelites. Jehovah relented but decreed that the people would wander in the wilderness for forty years, a year for each day that the spies had searched out the land, until all those twenty years of age and older died. Exceptions were Joshua and Caleb and the tribe of Levi who were not involved in the rebellion. Still failing to learn the lesson not to put Jehovah to the test the Israelites tried to invade the Promised Land in spite of Moses’ command not to do so. They suffered a disheartening defeat.—Num. 14:39-45.
After recording certain details in regard to Israel’s formal worship, Moses tells of certain Israelites—Korah, Dathan and Abiram—putting Jehovah to the test by rebelling against Moses. Jehovah destroyed Korah by means of fire and the others by having the earth open up, swallowing these rebels together with their families and all their possessions.
Far from learning anything from this awesome display of Jehovah’s judgment, the Israelites murmured and complained about them. For thus further putting Jehovah to the test he sent a plague that killed 14,700 Israelites. Then, to settle once and for all time that Jehovah had indeed chosen the tribe of Levi as represented by Moses and Aaron, Jehovah had each of the tribal chieftains bring a rod to the tabernacle to be presented before Jehovah. The next day Jehovah indicated which tribe he had chosen by having Aaron’s rod bring forth buds, blossoms and even ripe almonds.—Num. 16:1–17:11.
After recording Jehovah’s instructions regarding priestly duties and their means of support and about the provisions for cleansing the people from defilement, Moses tells of still another instance where Israel put Jehovah to the test. This time they murmured and complained because of a lack of water. Miraculously Jehovah provided water. But because Moses lost his temper and failed to give the credit for supplying the water to Jehovah, God decreed that Moses and Aaron would not live to enter the Promised Land. What a tragedy!—Num. 20:1-13.
Pulling away from Kadesh, Israel arrived at Mount Hor, where Aaron died and his son Eleazar was installed as high priest. As the Israelites continued their wandering they again complained about the weariness of their journeyings and about the manna on which they had to subsist. This time Jehovah punished them by sending a plague of deadly serpents. The people repented. Moses interceded, and Jehovah instructed Moses to make a copper serpent and set it upon a pole. All those bitten by a serpent who looked upon the pole were cured instead of dying.—Num. 21:4-9.
ON THE PLAINS OF MOAB
After further journeyings as well as the defeating of two kings that came up against them in war, Sihon and Og, Israel arrived at the plains of Moab. Being in great fear of Israel, the king of Moab, Balak, tried repeatedly, but in vain, to cause the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. (Num. 22:1–24:25) However, from Numbers 31:15, 16 we learn that Balaam was instrumental in causing the Israelites to be seduced by Baal-worshiping women to engage in fornication and idolatry. For Israel’s testing him in this way, the Most High God destroyed twenty-four thousand of them before Phinehas, the son of high priest Eleazar, stopped the plague by his executing an Israelite man together with the Midianite woman with whom he was having relations.—Num. 25:1-18.
After taking another census of the men of Israel and establishing a precedent as to inheritance rights of daughters, Moses was privileged to view the Promised Land from Mount Abarim. Then, at God’s command, Moses commissioned Joshua as his successor. (Num. 27:1-23) After giving many details regarding the kind of offerings Jehovah required, daily, weekly, monthly and yearly, and instructing with regard to the making of vows, Moses records Israel’s taking vengeance on Midian for their part in causing Israel to sin against Jehovah.—Num. 28:1–31:54.
The time was getting close for Israel to cross the Jordan and take possession of the Promised Land. However, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh asked to be permitted to settle on the east side of the Jordan. Why? Because they had large herds, and this land was ideal grazing ground. This was granted on the condition that they help the other nine and a half tribes to conquer the land on the west side of the Jordan.
How many times did Israel move from one place to another during those forty years? Some forty times. (Num. 33:1-49) As the book draws to a close, it tells of Jehovah’s commands to wipe out all false worship from the land of Canaan; also, his delineating the boundaries of the Promised Land and his appointing of a chieftain from each tribe to assist Joshua and Eleazar the high priest in apportioning the land among the various tribes. Furthermore, instructions are given regarding the forty cities to be given to the Levites, since they had no inheritance in the land, and the six Levite cities that are to be cities of refuge for unintentional manslayers. Jehovah’s laws governing willful murder and unintentional manslaying are spelled out. The book ends with rules governing the marriage of heiresses.
Truly the book of Numbers underscores the seriousness of putting Jehovah to the test. Though the nation of Israel entered the Promised Land, in fulfillment of Jehovah’s promise, none of those who left Israel and rebelled did. Well does the apostle Paul warn Christians against following the example of those Israelites. (1 Cor. 10:8-11) Even as a “mixed crowd” joined the Israelites in leaving Egypt and eventually entering the Promised Land, so it is today. A “great crowd” with earthly hopes have come out of modern Egypt, this present world, and have joined the spiritual Israelites, the anointed footstep followers of Jesus Christ in their trek to the new system of things. (Rev. 7:9-14; 11:8; John 15:19) If we would fondly hope to survive the destruction of this present wicked system of things in the coming great tribulation, we will need to exercise care that we never, no never, faithlessly put Jehovah God to the test.—Zeph. 2:3.
So that there would still be twelve tribes the tribe of Joseph was divided into the tribes of his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh.