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Numbers 36:1-13

Tonight we come to the end of our evening sermons on the book of Numbers begun last May. And again we encounter Zelophehad’s daughters. We first heard of these five women of the tribe of Manasseh in chapter 27. There they raised with Moses the problem of their family’s inheritance in the Promised Land given that their father left no male heir. Since he had no sons his property would ordinarily pass to other male members of the family. Moses consulted the Lord and was instructed to alter the rules of inheritance to allow daughters to inherit the land if they had no brothers.

But that raised another problem to which attention is paid in the final chapter of the book. When the daughters married the land would ordinarily pass into their husband’s family. Still today, remember, women take their husband’s name upon marriage and their joint property is held in that husband’s family name. If the daughters married men who were not of the tribe of Manasseh the land would therefore pass out of that tribe into another, the very result the rules of inheritance were designed to prevent. God gave the land to the various tribes in perpetuity but inheritance by heiresses instead of heirs would overturn that intention. If, say Mahlah or Noah or Hoglah or Milcah or Tirzah married a man from the tribe of Gad or Judah or Simeon, some of Manasseh’s land would pass out of its possession.

Text Comment

v.1       The question is formally raised by the men most responsible for the tribe’s affairs and most concerned for its future.

v.3       None of Zelophehad’s daughters was yet married.

v.4       The purpose of the allotment of land was to ensure both that each tribe received and retained its rightful share of the Promised Land. Remember, the law of Jubilee was also intended to preserve ownership of the land in the same hands into which it had first been given. But it is only sold land that is returned, not inherited land. Land that was inherited remained with the heir even at the jubilee.

v.9       In other words, the laws of inheritance do not need to be changed, but the daughters of Zelophehad, if they marry, must marry within their clan so as to avoid a transfer of land from one tribe to another. If they married outside their tribe, the land would in fact be lost to the tribe of Manasseh. In such a case and over time, given that it is not that uncommon for a father to have only daughters and not sons – think of John Pribyl as a kind of modern Zelophehad! – the land would become a patchwork of holdings, not the unified tribal inheritance that was envisioned in the division of the land.

v.12     We might say that there is a rough principle here that applies as well to our lives today. There are more important things than the romantic attraction of the moment. The Lord does not want a family’s kingdom inheritance to be lost because a woman marries outside the kingdom, outside her tribe, as it were. Believers must marry believers or the Promised Land will be lost to future generations. This is why so much emphasis in the Bible is placed on believers marrying believers. There is a great deal at stake and when spiritually mixed marriages take place, when a believer knowingly marries an unbeliever, it is rarely the case that the believing spouse raises the unbeliever to faith and life. Or, in the language of Numbers 36, it is rarely the case that the unbelieving spouse becomes a member of the Christian’s tribe. It is almost always rather the case that the unbeliever drags the believer down resulting in the spiritual death of succeeding generations. “But we love one another,” she says. But do you love God and do you love the Promised Land, and are you willing to forsake both to marry this person? Zelophehad’s daughters treasured their place in the Promised Land too much to throw it away for the sake of their choice of a marriage partner!

v.13     The final phrase of the book draws the reader’s attention forward to the final acts to be performed before Israel enters Canaan: the renewal of the covenant and the death of Moses, both related in the book of Deuteronomy. [Wenham, 240]

It inevitably occurs to the thoughtful reader of Numbers to ask why this material was placed here, at the end of the book, and not immediately after 27:1-11, where the matter of the inheritance of Zelophehad’s daughters was first discussed. And the answer is that this material about these women and their inheritance in the Promised Land forms an inclusio. If you remember, Numbers 26 contained the census of the second generation of Israel after the exodus, the generation that would eventually enter the Promised Land. All the material that followed that census, in one way or another, concerns the Promised Land and Israel’s preparations to take possession of it. That final section of the book, from chapter 27 to chapter 36, begins and ends with Zelophehad’s daughters and their inheritance in the Promised Land. It is a biblical narrator’s way of indicating the subject matter of his final section. It is all about inheritance in the Promised Land. He begins with some faithful women who care about their place in the Promised Land and it ends with those same women whose tribe’s continued possession of the land is ensured by their marriages within their tribe. The final section of Numbers looks forward to Israel’s lasting possession of the land that God promised to her. If it seems that the end of Numbers is somewhat anti-climactic, remember, the division of the books of the Pentateuch is artificial. We have before us really one book, not five, and even the division of that book into five sections was determined more by the size of scrolls than by thematic considerations.

Now as we conclude our studies of this great book of the Bible let me draw your attention to the emphasis placed on the faithfulness and obedience of God’s people. The family heads came to Moses to seek instruction and received it. They then obeyed those instructions in faith or confidence that in that obedience was to be found the path of God’s blessing. Zelophehad’s daughters did, we read, “as the Lord commanded Moses.” And virtually the last words of the book again accent this theme: “these are the commands and regulations the Lord gave through Moses…”

The book of Numbers has been about the pilgrimage of God’s people and the necessity of their faith and obedience. We saw one generation of God’s people – a particularly favored generation; a generation that saw the mighty power of God on terrible display in Egypt and at the Sea of Reeds – we saw, I say, one generation fall away into judgment and death because of its unbelief. We saw another generation rise to take its place and this generation to reach the borders of the Promised Land overcoming every obstacle by faith in the Lord and through obedience to his commands. Numbers, I say, is about the necessity of living by faith and keeping God’s commandments. It is about proving oneself faithful to God’s covenant. It is about how by faith and obedience God’s people reach the Promised Land.

Now, to be sure, there is another side to this story of Israel’s march to the plains of Moab and eventually into Canaan. There is God’s election of a people. Why Israel and not some other nation or people? That question comes up from time to time, most notably in Deuteronomy 7, and the answer, surpassingly wonderful as it is, is not much of an answer. It is because God loved Israel, which is almost the same thing as saying Israel was chosen because God chose her. It explains everything and nothing at the same time. We want to know: why did God pitch his love on this people and not on another? But that questions is without an answer. God knows, but we do not. And then there is the divine redemption of this chosen people. She was as guilty of sin as the Egyptians were but her firstborn sons were spared by the application of the Passover blood on the doorposts of Israel’s homes while the firstborn of Egypt were executed by divine judgment. She was brought out of bondage in Egypt not by her own strength or clever strategy but by the mighty power of God that laid her enemies in the dust. There would be no wilderness, no pilgrimage, had there been no exodus and no passing through the divided waters of the Reed Sea. And then there is the divine accompaniment and blessing of Israel through the wilderness. It is not as if God brought his people into the wilderness and then left it up to them to make their way to Canaan. He provided them food and water, miraculously on some occasions. He went before them in the pillar of fire to guide them on their way. He patiently bore with their grumbling and their miserable ingratitude and gave them victory over their enemies. He not only took them out of bondage he brought them to the Promised Land.

There is, in other words, a divine story to be told about Israel’s journey from bondage to freedom, from the land of her slavery to the Promised Land. Indeed, we do not hesitate to say that this is the first story, the primary story. This entire history covered in the Book of Numbers can be told as an account of what Yahweh did from beginning to end, for love’s sake, for the sake of his sinful and unworthy people. What follows must not in any way detract from our conviction of these things. Salvation, the Promised Land, is by God’s grace alone. It is his faithfulness, not ours that tells the tale. Let no one ever take our crown in believing and in proclaiming that!

But, it is only to be faithful to the Bible to say that that the story of Numbers can also be told as a story of Israel’s faith or lack of faith, of her obedience or disobedience, of her obtaining the Promised Land or her forfeiting it. Indeed, Numbers happens to be a part of the Bible that focuses special attention on that dimension of the story of salvation, of reaching the Promised Land. There is a divine story and there is a human story in salvation. There is the Lord’s predestination or election and Christ’s atonement; there is the sovereign grace of God. Absolutely. This is salvation. But alongside, in, under, around, and through that great story of what God and Jesus Christ have done for us,there is stress upon the decisive importance of a person’s faith and obedience. There must first be the covenant-making God but there must also be a covenant keeping people. You are well familiar with this as a reader of the Bible. You are used to seeing the two dimensions of salvation mixed together on the pages of God’s Word. You are even used to puzzling over the question: well, which is it: is it God’s grace or is it man’s faith and obedience?

Well, in the Bible it is always both. I don’t hesitate to say that it is more God’s grace and first God’s grace; I don’t hesitate to say that Christ’s dying on the cross is the true reason for any sinner’s salvation, because without that grace and without Christ’s atonement there could not be any faith or any obedience on man’s part. That is clear. But it remains the fact that, as Augustine puts it, “the one who made us without ourselves will not save us without ourselves.” And in Numbers, the emphasis clearly falls on Israel’s failure to believe and obey. That is what cost them the Promised Land in the first case, and it was the next generation’s willingness to trust the Lord and out of that trust to obey his commandments that gained them the Promised Land in due course. There is a tension here, no doubt. A great tension. Many of the great theological wrangles that have soured the life of the church resulted from just this tension, the difficulty of reconciling the divine and the human side of salvation. The Bible itself recognizes this tension between God’s sovereign grace, his election, his redemption of his people on the one hand and our fully responsible exercise of our free will on the other. It recognizes the tension but it does not explain how we are to hold the two dimensions of salvation together – God’s grace and man’s response in faith and obedience – and it does not resolve the tension created by two ideas that seem to us to be in conflict with one another, or at least, very hard to reconcile to one another. Our Westminster Confession of Faith simply asserts both truths and requires us to believe them both: God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass, he has chosen and redeemed his people, he is the author and finisher of salvation, on the one hand, and, on the other,man is a responsible agent whose faith or unbelief determine his future destiny. [III, i].

The biblical revelation of God’s covenant, such as we have in Numbers, represents the free will or the human accountability side of salvation. We are used to talking about the tension between election and free will, but we might as well talk about the tension between election and the covenant. The covenant is that relationship God has established with his people that requires of them faith and obedience. In the covenant the blessings or the curses are bestowed by God in response to man’s faithfulness or unfaithfulness. If a man or woman is faithful the blessings of God’s covenant meet him or her at every turn. If he is unfaithful he not only fails to obtain the promised blessings – including the Promised Land – but suffers the threatened curses instead. The covenant is the “if…then” part or dimension of salvation; the free will part, the human responsibility part, the contingent part of salvation.

It is altogether true, of course, that whom God has chosen, whom Christ has redeemed, whom the Spirit has renewed will gain heaven without fail. Salvation is of the Lord! But, of course, we do not know whom God has chosen; we are not told whom Christ has redeemed; we are not able infallibly to discern in whom the Holy Spirit has implanted the imperishable seed of the Word. As we read in Deut. 29:29: “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children that we might keep all the words of God’s law.” We live in the world of the covenant and we know of God’s election and of Christ’s redemption and of the Spirit’s renewal of the heart and the life only through the faith and obedience that they produce in the life of God’s people. For us, it is if…then: if we trust the Lord and if our faith then works itself out in love, then we come at last to the Promised Land. If we do not, we shall not. Such is the message of every page of the Word of God but especially of Numbers.

I lost a friend, a very good friend two weeks ago: so good a friend, my youngest son is named for him. Oliver Claassen preached in this pulpit years ago but I know only some of you will remember him. A South African, I met Olly first in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1975. I still remember the dark early evening we first shook hands. I was walking home from the University and Olly was heading to an evening class. He was taking a Masters in education at the University. I recognized him from church the previous Sunday and stuck out my hand and introduced myself and thus began a friendship that continued through the next thirty four years. Olly went to Covenant Theological Seminary from Aberdeen, then to Australia as a church planter with Mission to the World, and finally back to the United States where he had pastorates in three PCA churches, one in Atlanta (where my late sister was one of his parishioners), one in St. Louis, and most recently in Cape Coral, Florida.

Olly and his dear wife Helen were great friends in those first months in Scotland. I remember a long weekend Florence and I spent with them driving through England’s Lake District. Helen was pregnant with the first of their five children, and I remember quickly swerving to the side of an Edinburgh street so that Helen could open the back door of the car and throw up. That baby is a doctor now!

They had their ups and downs. Church planting in Australia was tough and often unrewarding work. They did it faithfully and well and left churches behind them, but those were wearying years. Florence, a few years ago, prepared a volume for Jamie, our son, with information on the three men after whom he was named: my grandfather James, a Presbyterian minister; Ian Hamilton, whom you know, now the minister of Cambridge Presbyterian Church; and Oliver Claassen. Both Ian and Olly provided written accounts of how they came to faith in Christ, both from unbelieving backgrounds, Ian during his high school years in Glasgow and Olly in his late twenties as a school teacher in South Africa.

So Oliver’s pilgrimage began. The man who led him to Christ, another teacher, bought him a Bible and told him to read it every morning and every night and to live according to its teachings. That is what he aspired to do and that is what he did. Very much as did the daughters of Zelophehad here in Numbers 36. They learned the will of God and they obeyed it in the confidence that the Lord would prove true to his Word. And so Olly did and continued to do throughout the years of his life. He too was traveling to the Promised Land and for him as well the way he was to travel was the way of trust in the Lord’s word and obedience to his commandments. And so it began and so it continued until the day of his death, August 4, 2009. He was a man who trusted the Lord Jesus, who loved and revered the Lord and so kept his commandments; who lived his life according to the truth revealed in Holy Scripture. And so he has obtained the Promised Land. So it has been from the beginning and so it is today. Those who live in faith and obedience obtain the salvation of God and those who do not – no matter their spiritual privileges – do not obtain it. And that is surely the main thing, is it not: the Promised Land! Olly is past worrying about anything else. Once there all is well!

As we finish this great book, let us all take to heart again and afresh this lesson: the people who are in covenant with God – people like us – the people who have before them the promise of an eternal country, the people whose privilege it is to live in nearness to God and in a relationship of love and confidence with him, those people are called to trust the Lord and obey him. That is what they must do. God has done so much for them; but they must do as well. He will help them if only they aspire and commit to doing what believers should. And in the doing of that they obtain the blessings that God promised to pour out upon his people. And should they fail to trust and obey, they will forfeit those promises and realize the curses instead.

As the children’s hymn has it:

When we walk with the Lord in the light of his Word,
What a glory he sheds on our way!
While we do his good will, he abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.

There is an almost inevitable tendency, strengthened alas by features of American evangelical culture, for Christians to assume in the depths of their hearts that whether or not they trust and obey, somehow God’s election and Christ’s redemption and the Spirit’s new creation will save the day. I’m not speaking of the general mass of the society, whether church-goers or not. They don’t care about heaven enough to think it a matter of serious importance. They don’t care about the word of God. They don’t think God cares about it either. Most people in our culture are astonishingly indifferent to the issues of life and death, of eternity, of heaven and hell. They may say they believe in God but they think about him almost not at all, they fear him even less; they have no reverence for his will. Somehow, they think it will all come out okay in the end. God will forgive them and approve of them. C’est son métier! It is his job. I am not talking about them. I am talking about the people, like us, who read the Bible, who say we believe it, who practice our faith at some level. It is for us that the temptation is very real to count on the Lord to make up for our failure to believe and to obey. We know of his sovereign love; we know because we have so often heard of our own sinfulness and helplessness apart from God’s grace. We know of Christ’s redemption and the forgiveness of sins that comes from it. And we know of the Holy Spirit’s power to renew even a deeply sinful life. These things seem far larger and greater to us than our own measly faith and our own imperfect obedience. Christ will tell the tale. And very subtly, even imperceptibly, we leave off believing and obeying because, at the last, such things will not tell the tale.

No! They will tell the tale. They have told the tale. They were and they are absolutely indispensible to salvation. The great visual picture of Numbers is of two peoples divided precisely here: the one trusting the Lord; the other not. The one entering the Promised Land, the other dying in the desert. There has been in evangelical circles a teaching, usually referred to as the carnal Christian theory, that maintains, in sum, that if a person has received Christ as his or her savior, he or she will go to heaven whether or not his or her life is characterized by faith and obedience. This is thought to be an essential consequence of believing that salvation is by God’s grace and not by our works. If salvation is by grace then it cannot be suspended upon our faith or our obedience. It must rest entirely and alone on God’s purpose, God’s love, Christ’s work, and the work of the Holy Spirit. To be sure, it is better to be a faithful Christian, these people say, but it is not necessary to be one. One must only have believed in the power of Christ’s saving work and trusted him and the cross for his or her own forgiveness.

I don’t suppose that many of you are tempted by that notion. It requires setting aside far too much of what the Bible plainly says. “Without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Christ saved his people, after all, to make them zealous for good works. God chose them to be conformed to the image of his Son. And so on. The Holy Spirit makes those in whom he works new creations, dead to sin and alive to righteousness. No, I don’t think you are much tempted by the carnal Christian theory. It amounts to a denial of what the Bible is everywhere determined to assert: viz. God’s people live righteously and must.

But we are all susceptible to the more subtle temptation of thinking – Paul said we would be – that since God has done all, and Christ has done all, and the Holy Spirit has done all – our faith and our obedience can’t finally be that important. Surely it won’t matter if I just don’t keep that one commandment; if I leave off trusting the Lord to be true to his Word in that one particular, and then that other one as well. And soon, if the truth be told, we are living a very half-hearted Christian life. We are only superficially faithful to God’s covenant. We are walking with others in the wilderness, but anyone who watched us would think we weren’t really very excited to be there. We’d rather be in Egypt and we often act as if we still were. NO! That is how the Israelites who came out of Egypt on eagles’ wings lost the Promised Land. It was just that way of thinking and then living that destroyed them and left them rotting in the desert instead of marching into Canaan to take possession of the holy land flowing with milk and honey.

In Numbers – as in the rest of the Bible – it is not the case that the divine side of salvation makes the human side insignificant or unimportant. We have in this book the story of two generations of church people. One was lost and the other was saved; one forfeited the Promised Land and the other gained it. And the difference, the only difference between those two generations that is identified and highlighted in the book is that the second generation trusted and obeyed the Lord and the first did not. That is the difference so far as Numbers is concerned. So much is it the difference that it is entirely faithful to say, entirely consistent with the language of Holy Scripture, that the generation that came out of Egypt failed to obtain the Promised Land no matter their election, no matter their redemption, and no matter the Holy Spirit’s work in them and among them. Obviously we are using such terms differently than, say Paul does in Romans or Ephesians, but we are using them in a way the Bible itself does many times. As Paul would later say, in the wilderness, they drank from the rock that was Christ, but in their unbelief they died the death of unbelievers anyway.

And so I want to exhort you, brothers and sisters, one last time from this great book about the Christian’s pilgrimage to the Promised Land, about the life of God’s covenant people, and about the terrible seriousness of the summons that has been issued to those in covenant with the Lord to live in faithfulness to him. It is not enough for you to know that Christ died on the cross for sinners. It is not enough to know that God has chosen his people and set upon them his everlasting love. It is not enough to know that once a man is saved, truly saved, he is always saved. All of that is gloriously true. I want you to believe that with all your heart and rejoice to believe it every day. It is fundamental. But it does not for a moment set aside the fact that those who trust the Lord and who obey his commandments, and those only, will reach the Promised Land, will gain God’s blessing and favor in this world and, after death, in the world to come.

What is a faithful reading of the book of Numbers? It is that reading that leads you to stop doing what you know is displeasing to the Lord. It is that reading that compels you to begin to live your life in new ways because you know that faith, true faith in God, requires it. It is that reading that makes you determined to believe every promise the Lord has made to you; to believe it and to live in the confidence and expectation of that promise being kept to you and for you. It is that reading that leads you to want to know the commands and regulations of the Lord, that makes you determined to obey them, and confident that in obeying them you will have your reward both now and forever. It is that reading that understands God’s electing grace, and Christ’s redeeming love, and the Holy Spirit’s internal work in the soul to have the purpose of producing in you a genuine faith in the Lord and an eagerness to love him with your life. That and that only is a faithful reading of the book of Numbers.