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Numbers 33:1-56

Remember, Israel is now encamped on the Plains of Moab, awaiting Moses’ death and the command to advance into the Promised Land. These final chapters in Numbers wrap up the preparations for the Conquest. The chapter we are about to read concludes with some specific instructions for Israel once she has entered Canaan. But first we are treated to a step by step review of the itinerary Israel followed from Egypt to the Plains of Moab, the stages of a journey that took the people of God forty years.

There are certain questions raised by the itinerary. It is selective. The list of 42 stops omits some others, even some mentioned in Numbers (e.g. Taberah [11:3]) and includes a number of places mentioned nowhere else (e.g. Dophkah in v. 13 and a long succession from v. 19-29). People through the ages have searched for clues as to why these 42 are mentioned. For example, some patristic commentators pointed out that there are 42 place names in the itinerary and 42 generations listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. But what would be the significance of that? More plausibly others have proposed that the 42 should be understood as 6 sections of 7. As it were, Israel had worked through her week and was now poised to enter her day of rest. That then would be another encouragement to the people as they contemplate the prospect of entering Canaan. The real work, the hard work had been done and now the rest of the Promised Land awaited them. Remember how in Hebrews 4 the Promised Land is also understood as an image of eternal rest. Perhaps the 42 stages is an emblem of 6 days of work and one of rest, but one can hardly be sure. Origen, the great patristic commentator, interpreted the forty-two stopping places as an allegory of the 42 “stages of growth in the spiritual life,” from the soul’s bondage in death at the beginning (Egypt) to its being ready for death (poised to cross the river Jordan). Origen knew of those, in the early 3rd century who doubted this chapter’s value. They read it and couldn’t figure out what good this particular chapter was to anyone. Origen’s allegorical approach is highly doubtful but surely he was right to say:

“…we cannot say of the Holy Spirit’s writings that there is anything useless or unnecessary in them… We ought rather to…turn the eyes of our mind to him who ordered this to be written and to ask of him their meaning.” [Cited in Brown, 289]

Accordingly, modern evangelical scholars have studied the list searching for significant numbers or patterns trying to figure out if there is some particular purpose or meaning to this itinerary that has so far escaped us.  Much of this seems to me to be little more than guesswork. But some things seem clear.

Here virtually at the end of the book the itinerary serves to summarize the main themes of the books of Exodus and Numbers, the books that record the history of Israel’s journey through the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land. It serves as a reminder of the great difficulties that Yahweh enabled Israel to surmount and that would certainly serve as an important reminder for Israel as she readies herself to enter the Promised Land. The Lord, who brought her safely through the wilderness, will certainly not fail to grant her the inheritance in Canaan that he promised. Some of the place names also serve as a reminder of the sins that Israel committed there, the sins that so troubled and delayed her passage to the Promised Land. Obviously, as she begins this new chapter of her history, it is important to be reminded of how costly her unfaithfulness to God proved to be.

Another interesting feature of this itinerary is its resemblance to ANE records of military campaigns, a point that scholars have pointed out for some time. From the 19th century B.C. into the first millennium B.C. we have similar itineraries in which the army is said to have moved from this point to the next, then from that point to the next, and so on. The sense seems to be that Israel too, as indicated at the beginning of Numbers with the first census, was an army on the march, the hosts of the Lord under his leadership and following his direction. That, too, would be a great encouragement to the people as they ready themselves to enter the Promised Land. They are the Lord’s host, his divisions, and they have been marching to this conclusion all this while. This form of reporting may explain why Moses did not record other data, such as the date Israel moved in each case or the distance she traveled from place to place. [Cf. Milgrom, 278 and Appendix 71, pp. 497-498] This was the way military itineraries were written in those days.

It should be said that while the maps at the back of our Bibles often give the impression that we know by what route Israel made her way through the wilderness, the fact is much remains very uncertain. The traditional site of Mt. Sinai, the mountain Jebel Musa near the bottom of Sinai, is nowadays widely rejected by evangelical biblical scholars as the mostly likely site of Israel’s receiving the law from God and many of the place names given in this itinerary are completely unidentified. We do not know where Israel crossed the Yam Suph, the Sea of Reeds, often translated Red Sea in our Bibles. We don’t know where she received the law. From the entire Exodus/Numbers narrative we know that there were four major sections of Israel’s journey, though they vary greatly in distance and duration. First she traveled from Goshen in Egypt to the Sea. Then once through the Sea she traveled to Mt. Sinai. From Sinai she traveled to Kadesh and from Kadesh she traveled to the Plains of Moab. The route of the first and last of the four stages may be traced, at least in large part, with some confidence, but that of the two stages from the Yam Suph to Sinai and from Sinai to Kadesh remains uncertain. No one can say for sure what Israel’s route through the wilderness actually was.

Text Comment

v.1       As many of Moses’ great achievements (and to a lesser extent those of Aaron) are brought to mind by the mention of certain places where Israel encamped, certain places mentioned in this itinerary, this serves as a kind of obituary for the two men and especially for Moses. [cf. Wenham, 217]

v.2       Whatever else we might say about the itinerary, it was provided by Moses himself at the Lord’s direct command so obviously there is some importance here for us.

v.4       Israel is reminded at the outset that it was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt by his mighty hand; that they had him to thank for their freedom and that the false gods of paganism were of no consequence when the Lord chose to act on his people’s behalf.

v.9       Marah, remember, is where the bitter water was made sweet. One feature of modern Israel that is striking to first time visitors, as Florence and I were just recently, is how you can find in what seems to be an absolutely waterless waste, a large grove of palm trees. Green amidst the light brown of the desert. Most of the palm trees are not the result of an oasis being there. The Israelis have with great ingenuity brought water to the area, but things will grow if there is water and there was water at Elim.

v.14     Rephidim is where water was brought out of the rock by striking it.

v.16     There the people rebelled and the Lord provided them quail, more than they wanted.

v.17     Hazeroth is where Miriam and Aaron rebelled against Moses and his rule.

Most of the next 10 verses are place names otherwise utterly unknown from the narrative of the wilderness. I am going to go down to v. 50.

v.52     The command to annihilate the Canaanites and to destroy their places of worship is a frequent theme of the Pentateuch (cf. Ex. 23:23ff; Deut. 7). We have had occasion to discuss the ethics of this policy several times in our studies in Numbers.

v.54     These verses repeat instructions already given in 26:52-56.

v.56     Here is the rationale for the draconian policy Israel was to follow toward the Canaanites. It is the Canaanites or Israel, one or the other who will survive. They will be Israel’s death if allowed to remain in the land. There is a lesson here as Christian preachers have often pointed out. The same is true of our temptations because the Canaanites were Israel’s temptations. Allow them free access to our hearts and we will eventually be enslaved by them. They must be driven out, every effort must be made to destroy them, no matter the cost, and particularly to destroy them when you have the opportunity to destroy them, or they will have their way with us eventually. Every temptation is ultimately designed to destroy your heart and life. Temptations never accept defeat, never surrender. And in the case of the Canaanites, their ways, as we have had occasion to point out, were genuinely detestable. Permitting them to remain was, in effect, to pollute Israel and Israel’s new land with the most toxic influences imaginable: from an utterly corrupt worship of false gods to ritual murder and adultery. At the end of Joshua, we read Joshua citing this same text at the end of Numbers 33 to warn Israel of the great danger posed by the Canaanite survivors and what is likely to come of their influence if the Israelites did not destroy them: “you will perish from the good land the Lord your God has given you.”

I am sure there were some who thought and who said, “Can’t we all just get along? Can’t we live together? Can’t we bring the Canaanites into our fellowship and raise them up?” The answer is no, you cannot. You can kill them or you can be killed by them. That is the single alternative. People almost never take seriously the need to take draconian steps to ensure a people’s ethical life until it has become clear that the people are being ruined and the nation’s welfare imperiled. By that time it is always too late. Remember John Owen’s timeless advice on dealing with temptations: “venture all on the first attempt!” Kill it when you can or it will conquer you.

Now, let’s face facts. This list isn’t all that interesting to us. We don’t find a long list of unfamiliar place names all that interesting or useful. It may be fascinating to a certain sort of biblical scholar, to the biblical archaeologist or historian, who wishes to use it to create a more accurate or complete account of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness, but it is just a list of obscure names to us. But it would not have been so to the Israelites themselves. Every one of those names would have evoked memories in the minds and hearts of those who had been young adults or children when Israel reached or left that place. Once again, as the itinerary was read, they would have recalled the parted waters of the sea, the bitter water made sweet at Marah, the water gushing from the rock at Rephidim, the quail at Kibroth Hattaavah, Miriam’s leprosy at Hazeroth, the victory in battle over the king of Arad, and on and on. The people’s sins and rebellion and the consequences of them, the Lord’s merciful provision of the people’s needs, the great events of redemption and covenant making, of covenant breaking and God’s merciful forgiveness, all of this is evoked in this list of names. This itinerary functions as a kind of Ebenezer, the stone memorial Samuel set up at Mizpah to commemorate and to fix in the people’s memory the Lord’s faithfulness to Israel and his power to deliver her from her enemies. [Duguid, 346]

It was interesting to me, in reading Martin Gilbert’s history of modern Israel, that throughout the story of the formation of the state, its struggles, its wars, its political history, we find interspersed the account of the establishment of various kibbutzim and mashovim (the two types of settlements differ principally in whether the land is communally owned or privately owned) that were created here and there across the land. They were created by this particular group of settlers and that particular group of immigrants and all through the years of Israel’s life, first as a state to be and then as a modern nation, one kibbutz after another, one mashov after another was created by this particular group of people in this particular place. Many of these place names are deeply fixed in the self-identity of the modern Israeli. Their national history is, in a way, also a history of various places on a map. Here a new kind of farming was introduced that made Israel the envy of the Middle East. There heroic resistance to the Arabs was maintained throughout the War of Independence at great cost and in the face of terrible odds. Here a group of settlers, by creating a kibbutz where they did, claimed another part of the Sinai for Israel, and so on. Everyone of those names is a part of the story of their people and their nation.

But there is something more and perhaps here is the more significant part of the itinerary as an example for us. While some of the places mentioned as stages on Israel’s journey are noteworthy for the extraordinary things that happened there: from the exodus, to the crossing of the sea, to the water from the rock, to the judgment of the people at Kadesh, and so on, others are not. Many other place names listed here have no such history associated with them. Indeed this is true of most of the names. In fact, a good number of the names in this list are never anywhere else even so much as mentioned in the history of the wilderness. We don’t know where they were or what, if anything, happened there.

The significance of this too is not so difficult to grasp. Life is like that, is it not? A Christian life is always like this, a Christian pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world. Every one of us can recall times of the Lord’s drawing near, of great discoveries, of leaps forward in faith and obedience. We remember these crises, these great times in our lives: when we were converted; when we met the man or woman who was to become our husband or wife; when we sinned in some shameful way or capitulated to some temptation; when we experienced the nearness and grace and power of God in some great measure; when we were overcome by joy; when we succeeded in doing something difficult for the Lord.

But as soon as we look back upon those shining moments or those particularly shameful ones that are indelibly inscribed in our memory, we realize that the rest of our past is mostly a blur. We cannot summon it up so well. Our past is punctuated by these noteworthy moments — whether powerful experiences of our sin and God’s grace, of joy and peace, of the conquest of sin, or of a dawning understanding of some teaching of Holy Scripture – but those appear in our memory only as events separated from one another by periods of time, time during which nothing happened that we can remember nearly so clearly or distinctly. Most of our life is not a mountain top; nor is it a deep valley. It is neither euphoria nor despair, neither great leaps forward or fallings back, not great crises of joy or illumination or repentance or faith, but simply the living of days, days during which nothing terribly significant seems to happen.

A friend of mine from seminary days was in this sanctuary last Lord’s Day morning. I hadn’t seen him in some months, perhaps a year or two – he lives and worships in Kent – but there he was, suddenly in front of me in the communion line. We spoke after the service and I discovered for the first time that a month ago on a Sunday evening, as they drove to the evening service of their church, a drunk driver, traveling some 80 miles per hour in a pickup truck struck Doug’s car on the passenger side, instantly killing his wife who was sitting there. A terrible moment in time and utterly life-changing. Just one moment of one single day but into that moment compressed so much of this good man’s life, of his faith, of his past and his future. We can hardly imagine. But will there be a day in the rest of this man’s life in which he does not remember that day, that moment, what the Lord had given and what he took away? His life will be shaped by those few minutes until its end.

But, of course, Doug and Karen had driven to church of a Sunday evening innumerable times before that and never gave another thought to those daysand to those trips in thecar.

I still remember, as if it were yesterday, driving from Colorado to St. Louis some years ago. We had left Colorado Springs the previous night because we needed, or at least wanted, to get to St. Louis the next afternoon. We were tired when we set out and it was stupid – really stupid – to do what we did and you must not do it yourself. It was early morning in western Kansas and I was driving along the interstate and the next thing I knew the car was heading down an embankment off the interstate at 60 or 70 miles per hour. In the providence of God there was nothing in front of me but a gentle grassy slope: no bridge abutment, no steep incline, no fence, no tree. I slowed the car down and returned to the highway without even stopping. How different it might have been; it so easily might have been; some or all of my family dead by the roadside. I have remembered that moment ever since. It stands out to me as a remarkable instance of the Lord’s providential care of my life and the life of my family.

But, of course, we are driving all the time. There are drunk drivers and sleepy drivers all over our roads. And day after day and week after week and year after year we get where we are going with nary a thought of the hand of God or the angels of the Lord who encamp around the righteous.

And so it is with everything else. We remember occasions of great sin and a sense of the Lord’s forgiveness that came to us in our time of trouble. But, of course, we are consuming fifty-five gallon barrels of the Lord’s mercy and grace every day of our lives. We remember his answering our prayer to give us that good job, but, of course, he has provided for us what we need for life and happiness every day of our lives. Great victories over temptation stay with us; but, of course, the Lord is keeping us faithful to him by the work of his Holy Spirit every day we live as his people in this world.

The crossing of the sea, the water from the rock, the quail for the complaining people, the victory over the King of Arad, these simply illustrate in memorable ways what is always happening and what is always true in the life of God’s people. We are not capable of remembering every day and every event of every day. So the Lord gives us a Rephidim in the middle of all the Rithmahs and Rissahs of our lives.

I’m not sure precisely why these 42 place names made the list and why some others did not. But I think it is beyond doubt that the list itself was composed for the sake of Israel’s collective memory. We tend to think of memory as a power that some people have more of than others. We talk about people with a steel-trap memory and we complain because our own memory seems so unreliable. We marvel at feats of memory that some are able to perform and wonder what is wrong with us that can’t remember a person’s name five minutes after we were introduced. But in the Bible memory is a spiritual duty and forgetfulness is a principle sin of God’s people. You see, no one is going to behave the same way, think the same way, pray the same way, love the same way, fight the same way, who has an active memory of Pi Hahiroth, or Marah, or Rephidim, or Kibroth Hattaavah or Hazeroth. In Psalm 78 we read that Israel went astray and lost the message and her faith because she forgot what Yahweh had done, the wonders he had shown them. [78:11] And in the same way, you are not going to behave the same way, or believe the same way, or love the same way or fight the same way or persevere the same way if you have an active recollection of those times of the Lord’s great work in your life. You must remember
what the Lord has done for you, call it to mind: it is how faith is kept fresh and powerful in the heart.

Alexander Whyte is writing especially to young seminarians, but the point he makes is of universal relevance. It concerns all Christians.

“…one of our divinity students will be sitting with his feet on the fender [he is not speaking of a car, but of the grate around a small coal fire in one’s living room] and reading some of the masterpieces. And as he reads he comes, let us say, on Augustine concerning Cicero and the eleventh of Matthew; or on Luther concerning the righteousness of Christ in Romans and in Galatians; or on Hooker concerning Peter’s fall and repentance…. But our student sits still and reads on. Instead of rising from his seat and going to his desk and taking up his pen and opening his interleaved Bible and there setting down all those arguments and illustrations which are now due by him to his Bible and to his future pulpit, our young Esau has had the exhilaration of the hunt, but he has not taken the trouble to roast what he has hunted: he has not taken care that he shall have all the best results of his reading ready to hand when his future work shall need it all. There is an excitement and a delight in hunting that there is not in roasting.” [James Fraser of Brea, 48-49]

I think that is why the text makes a specific point in saying, “The Lord told Moses to write this down.” Moses probably would not have thought to have done so. He might have thought it was boring too. There is a great lesson there to be remembered by that phrase “roasting what you hunt,” taken as you may remember, from Proverbs 12:27: “the lazy man does not roast his game…” It is, I think, the great lesson for us, if not the lesson for us, here in Numbers 33. It is why the list of the stages of Israel’s journey was created by Moses in the first place at the Lord’s command. It is not enough to have experiences of God’s grace, power and provision in your life if you do not remember them and take them to heart and bring them up again to yourself as arguments, even weapons in your spiritual warfare. How can I possibly think this, how can I possibly do that when God showed that to me and did that for me and how he corrected and rebuked me here and there and then.

You have your own 42 stations, every step of the way that you have taken through the wilderness of this world. Faith Presbyterian Church has its 42 stations. Interspersed among them are yours and our Rephidims and Kibroth Hattaavahs. No one has only Rephidims and Kibroth Hattaavahs. Every one of us has many more Rithmahs and Rissahs. But you don’t need that many Rephidims if only you remember them. You have as many as you need to bring home to your mind and your heart your own sin and shame, Christ’s great grace, mercy, and love, the Father’s certain provision for your needs, and the Spirit’s presence with you to help you do God’s will and enjoy his blessing.

It is the recollection of the journey that keeps the journey of your life a living thing in your mind. Otherwise it is very apt to become nothing but a rather meaningless and unimportant succession of days and nights, not much of anything happening of real consequence. And believe me, parents especially, nothing is more fatal to the children of the church than for their parents to think of their lives in that utterly uninteresting way.

Every moment of your life is chocked full of real consequence, supercharged with eternal significance, and it is the active recollection of where you have come and what God has shown you and what he has done for you and how he has loved you and provided for all you need, it is the active remembrance of your sin and his grace that turns your daily round into a great story of a pilgrimage, a great adventure full of exploits, over which and through which is found the presence of the Living God.

You do what Moses did and write up your list and read it again and again until you know your own story and you find it rising up to meet you at every turn in the road as you wend your way through the wilderness of this world to the Promised Land.