Numbers clearly shows how terror strikes when the people of God will not maintain sustained worship of the God who is in their midst; in the absence of disciplined devotion, they simply lost hold of Him and turned to murmuring and to other gods. Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers all center on the holiness of God and what it means to be a people consecrated to Him. Christians are consecrated to God through the blood of Jesus Christ and the sacraments; to profane Christ and His covenant is to bring an even greater wrath upon yourself than that which befell the unfaithful Israelites.
Beginning in Numbers Chapter 13, twelve tribal leaders, one from each tribe, are selected by Moses himself to scout out the whole of the promised land in a 40-day reconnaissance mission. Meeting in Kadesh after the 40-days, Caleb urges Moses to attack the land, but vast majority of the other men say "we cannot attack these people; they are too strong for us," describing the giants or "nephilim" that inhabit some of the land and inciting the people to agree with them. Although God asked them to make a stand for the faith, they psyche themselves out saying "we felt like mere grasshoppers and so we must have seemed to them" (13:32ff).
At the sound of the majority’s account, the people complain about what God has done for them and speak of a mutiny against Moses, moving to select another leader to take them back to Egypt. When Caleb and Joshua try to quell the rebellion they are nearly stoned to death. God then says, "How long will this people spurn me? How long will they refuse to believe in me, despite all the signs I have performed among them? I will strike them with pestilence and wipe them out. Then I will make of you [Moses] a nation greater and mightier than they."
A true leader and living martyr, Moses intercedes for the people by saying that the nations know that God is in the midst of this people. If He were to kill them all here, people would say that "The Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them; that is why he slaughtered them in the desert" (14:15). Moses knows that God will not clean the slate of those guilty who will not give up their guilt and their sinful ways. Instead, he admits the guilt of the people and appeals to the steadfastness of God’s love; by no means is this an appeal to God’s "softness," but rather a testament of His unspeakable love for the people and willingness to provide the graces of repentance.
Answering Moses’ intercession in the midst of His wrath, God swears by Himself and His glory that He will pardon the people but not one of those who have already spurned Him ten times will see the promised land. He then fates the people to wander for forty years for their supreme lack of devotion, "forty days you spend in scouting the land, forty years shall you suffer for your crimes: one year for each day. Thus you will realize what it means to oppose me" (14:34).
Immediately after God’s sentencing, in Chapter 15, He provides hope by saying "When you have entered the land that I will give you…" and setting up regulations for proper worship and devotion. To establish the need for a holy Sabbath day, the Lord commands Moses to put a man who gathers wood on the sabbath to death (15:32-36). Mindful of how easily distracted and forgetful the people are, God then commands the Israelites to put tassels on the corners of their garments as a reminder; whenever they see the tassels they are to remember and keep all the commandments of the Lord. It is written, "Thus will you remember to keep all my commandments and be holy to your God. I, the Lord, am your God who, as God, brought you out of Egypt that I, the Lord, may be your God" (15:40).
While the Israelites may seem to be the most stupid, weak and unfaithful people on the face of the Earth, we realize that we are among their company. Miracles will do nothing for those who have no faith and are quickly forgotten, given the short attention span of human nature. Let us be ever-reminded of the need to be faithful and of God’s indescribable steadfast love.
Music: Tchaikovsky’s "Romeo and Juliet Overture" performed by the Skidmore College Orchestra. www.musopen.com