K:JNWTS 30/3 (December 2015): 4-15


James T. Dennison, Jr.

What is the next book of Moses?


What is the name of this book in the Hebrew Bible?

Bemidhbar (from the Hebrew word in Num 1:1)

What does that mean?

"in the wilderness"

What does that suggest?

It captures the narrative plot of this book of 36 chapters

Is there a protological and eschatological wilderness sojourning?

Yes. The protological Israel sojourns here; the eschatological Israel sojourns later.

Who is the protological sojourner?

The Israel of old.

Who is the eschatological sojourner?

The new Israel of God.

Who is this new and eschatological Israel of God?

The Lord Jesus Christ--he is the individual and the federal Israel of God.

And he sojourned "in the wilderness"?

Yes, Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13

Why did he recapitulate the sojourn of the old Israel?

Because theirs was a failure due to sin and temptation. Jesus prevails where Israel failed--his sojourn is sinless and impervious to the temptations of the arch-rebel, Satan.

How does the "in the wilderness" narrative of the plot of the book of Numbers unfold?

First, location or setting or narrative space. The story opens at Mt. Sinai (Num 1:1 with 10:33); it unfolds through numerous settings of the 40-year sojourn in the wilderness; it concludes on the plains of Moab with Israel poised to enter the Promised Land  (Num 36:13).
Second, occasion or narrative time. The story opens on the "first of the second month, in the second year" after the Exodus (Num 1:1 with Ex 40:17). Thus, the book of Leviticus takes place at Mt. Sinai in that year between Exodus and Numbers in which the tabernacle of the Lord was erected and dedicated. Numbers ends in the 40 th year after the Exodus (Num 33:38 with Deut 1:3).
Third, crisis or narrative plot climax. The story peaks at the rebellion of unbelief in the first report espied about the Promised Land (Num 13-14) and God's pledge that that generation would not enter his rest (Ps 95:8-11), but would die in the wilderness. The narrative falling action from the crisis of unbelief is a wandering in circles about the Sinai Peninsula until that generation perished "in the wilderness" (cf. Jude 5; Heb 3:15-18;  1 Cor 10:5).

What is the narrative motif of this Biblical plot?

The old and the new[1]

What is the significance of this "old/new" terminology?

It is based on the two censuses (numberings) found in the book: Numbers 1 and 26. These two enumerations provide the fundamental structure of the book.


The book moves in transition from the death of the "old" generation (over 20 years of age) which came out of Egypt, rebelled "in the wilderness of Paran" (Num 12:16) because of unbelief and whose "carcasses fell" in the desert (Heb 3:17). This generation is counted in Numbers 1. The transition continues with the "new" generation (under 20 years of age in Numbers 1) which lives through the sojourn of the "land in between" and crosses over Jordan to the land of milk and honey. This generation is listed in Numbers 26. Death to the "old" members whose "evil heart of unbelief" barred them from God's eschatological rest. Life to the "new" members whose trust of God's covenant promises allowed them to enter God's Promised Land of rest with Jesus/Joshua, their captain.

What is the biblical-theological importance of this structured "old/new" paradigm?

The vertical and eschatological is present in the horizontal and historical. Faith or the lack of faith operates in the "land in between"--the interim between deliverance and permanence. For genuine believers in the wilderness land in between, the promise of God's everlasting rest is trusted, possessed and consummated. For unbelievers in the wilderness land in between, their indifference, hatred and/or rejection of God's gracious promises in history results in no everlasting rest (or life, John 3:16), but rather eternal destruction (Matt 25:41, 46). The life of sinners in every age of mankind's history is lived out in the 'wilderness', the 'land in between', the horizontal locus of the old and the new.
Here is the old man by nature in the history of man's sinful condition. To remain in this condition by nature is to remain in that evil heart of enmity and disbelief against God the Creator. The end of that sojourn is death--eternal separation from God as the wilderness generation of unbelief died in the land in between only to enter the land of eternal no-rest. But to be born anew--to be gifted with the unmerited grace of God--to be moved supernaturally by the Holy Spirit from a hard heart of unbelief to a fleshly/soft heart of faith in God the Lord and his Son, Jesus Christ, is to enter now/already into the promised heavenly rest of God with the certain assurance of consummate pleasure at his right hand forever and ever and ever. NB: the protological/eschatological sojourning/sojourner questions and answers above.

So Numbers tells a twofold story?

Yes--a story of rebellion against God and his covenant (by demerit) through unbelief leading to death and exclusion from his eternal rest; and a story of trusting faith in God (by unmerited grace) leading to life and inclusion in his eternal rest. And this it is even now for human life in the land in between, the land of sojourn, the land in the midst of deliverance and consummation.

What is the order and meaning of the original census (Num 1 with 2-4, 7)?

From the central tabernacle, Israel is numbered in concentric rings around the tent of meeting.

Why does the relational paradigm begin this way?

The Lord God and his tabernacle dwelling place, over which hovers his very own glory cloud, is the center of life for sojourning Israel in the wilderness.

What circle is next to the tabernacle?

The dwelling place of the priests and the sons of Aaron.

What circle surrounds them next?

The dwellings of the Levites (as a tribe).

What is the outer circle of this concentric arrangement?

The dwellings of the 12 tribes of Israel, grouped in threes from east (Judah, Issachar, Zebulun), to south (Reuben, Simeon, Gad), to west (Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin), to north (Dan, Asher, Naphtali). All Israel moves towards God's central glory presence through (or by means of) the Levitical and Aaronic priests. This concentrism underscored: no approach to God's holy person and presence apart from a mediator, intercessor and priestly go between.

And who is the once-for-all, the last and eschatological mediator, intercessor, priestly go between?

The Lord Jesus Christ, the ontological Son of God, who has made an end to ritual priesthood (Levitical and Aaronic) and tabernacle-temple dwellings (there is no temple where he, the glorified Son of God, dwells, Rev 21:22).

Is there any other pattern that unfolds the narrative plot of the book of Numbers?

There are two

What are they?

First, a pattern of pericopes/units alternating between narrative (chapters 1-4, 7-9, 10:11-14, 16-17, 20-27, 31-34) and legal instruction (5-6, 10:1-10, 15, 18-19, 28-30, 35-36). The reader will notice a similar alternating pattern found in the book of Leviticus (cf. http://kerux.com/doc/3001A1.asp).
The second is a pattern derived from the major motif of the book--sojourning.
  1. 1:1-10:10--Israel Sojourning at Sinai
  2. 10:11-20:21--Israel Sojourning from Sinai to Kadesh
  3. 20:22-36:13--Israel Sojourning from Kadesh to the Plains of Moab

Why is the alternating narrative-legal pattern important?

It demonstrates the unified/harmonious interface between the narrative life-story of the people of God and the self-disclosure of his moral-legal life-story. In other words, the ethico-moral life of God is disclosed in the legislation appropriate to sojourning people in a typological era. Much of this moral-legal material will be transcended and superseded by the self-disclosure of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom, in whom and with whom the typological will pass away and its fullness made clear in its eschatological aspect (which aspect is above the typological and incarnationally accomplished or completed in the eschatological Son of the eschatological arena which was ever and always the object of its typification).

In other words, the OT legal material always looks beyond itself.

Yes, to its eschatological reality in the being and life of God himself which is the atmosphere of his perfect moral-ethical nature in his eternal and infinite dimension (i.e., heaven). This is the narrative life-story of a new and transcendent order where moral-ethical categories are the mirror of the Triune God's own moral-ethical nature--and that in perfection and perpetuity. And this is true whether it is Nazarites (chapter 6), silver trumpets of assembly or celebration (10:1-10), sacrifice and offering in the land (15), duties and tithes of the Levites (18), red heifers or cleansing from contacting death (19), offerings again, feast days and sacred vows (28-30), or cities of refuge or the inheritance of females (daughters of Zelophehad, 35-36): the moral-ethical and typological are eschatologically oriented both redemptive-historically ("fullness of time") and transcendently (heaven's arena).

What highlights from the narrative portions of Numbers do you select?

Three: the Aaronic benediction (6:22-27); the major rebellions "in the wilderness" (13 14, 16); and the Balaam material (22-24).

What is noteworthy about the Aaronic benediction?[2]

It is a carefully crafted poem demonstrating an increasingly rich measure of the grace of God and as such is appropriate to the blessing of the sojourning people of God in every age of redemptive history.

In what does this richness consist?

First, in being blessed by the Lord, when sinners such as we are deserve cursing. Such blessing for pilgrims between the times is all the more precious when it is pronounced by the eschatological Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ. His benediction keeps and preserves his pilgrim sons and daughters unto the eschatological end (i.e., not the midst of the times, but in the final end of the beyond times).
Second, in the blessing of God's face reflected in his undeserved grace. Here too, such blessing for pilgrims between the times is all the more precious when it shines forth from the face of God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ--the eschatological Priest full of grace upon grace. His face beams with the eschatological gift of God (Eph 2:8) for his pilgrim sons and daughters until they are finally gathered into that eschatological land where they enjoy the eternal gift of beholding him face to face.
Third, in the blessing of God's countenance reflected in shalom ("peace"). Such a final permanent blessing for pilgrims between the times is all the more precious when it is pronounced by the eschatological Priest who is at once the eschatological Prince of Peace. The light of the countenance of the glorious and glorified Son of God is a permanent display of the radiance of the eschaton and his own eschatological person. Such light, such glory, such a divine God-man person speaks peace--everlasting peace, permanent, final, no-more-pilgrim-trials peace. Shalom--perfect shalom in the benediction of the perfect priest, light, Son, city of journey's end.

What is noteworthy about the two great rebellions bemidhbar ("in the wilderness") Numbers 13-14 and Numbers 16?

They are prototypical revolts against the Lord God, his servant(s) and his acts of grace towards his (ostensible) people.

What do you mean by "prototypical revolts"?

These narratives are emblematic of an attitude, a disposition of the mind and heart, an attack upon the unmerited grace of God. As such, they become the paradigm of hard-hearted (i.e., unregenerate) sinners (the "old" nature dominant) of the former era, as well as an identificational pattern of rebels against the will and word of God in the current era.

Where do you discover this paradigm?

Former era: Jude 5; 1 Cor 10:5, 10; Heb 3: 16-19; Neh 9:15-17; Pss 78:40-42, 95:16-18, 106:25-26; Isa 63:10
Present era: Jude 11; 1 Cor 10:6, 11; Heb 4:1-2, 11

How is Scripture interpreting Scripture here?

These are events with eschatological consequences. A saved/redeemed people are to mirror God the Savior. Not so with rebellion--the evil heart of unbelief--which mirrors the enemy of God, makes one a friend of the Tempter who seduces hearts in the wilderness. Even Moses is folded down temporarily into its insidious antithesis in his weakness. Such rebellion deserves destruction--merits destruction, unless grace intervenes. The beginning of rebellion against God's promise of rest in the Promised Land ends in eschatological consequences.

How so?

Those who participated in--or, better, joined their minds and hearts to--revulsion against God's promised rest discovered that they were permanently and eternally barred from that land of rest.

Why is their refusal of God's promised rest labelled an "evil heart of unbelief" (Heb 3:12, KJV)?

Because they did not believe God's word (which is evil); they did not accept God's gracious pledge to subdue their enemies (which is evil); they did not remember the omnipotent strength of God by whose unmerited grace they had been redeemed from slavery in Egypt (which is evil). They thought and felt and believed that the God who saved them from bondage was a liar, a deceiver, an untrustworthy wretch who wanted to kill them. They, in fact, believed God was the very antithesis of himself--their enemy and destroyer. In such evil unbelief, they substituted Satan himself for the living God. And having joined the kingdom of darkness in heart, mind and soul (their whole attitude, disposition, behavior showed their alliance with the ruler of this world), they received the reality of that kingdom--eschatological and eternal death outside God's everlasting rest. Their carcasses dropped "in the wilderness" and their souls joined the antithetical kingdom, its dread lord and the fellowship of the damned.

What significance do you find in Numbers 14:18?

This sin of rebellion "in the wilderness" was a sin against the "lovingkindness" (Hebrew, hesed-grace) of God. Those who despised this loving grace of God had hearts which had and did always despise the loving grace of God. Any benefits they found in the religion of Moses were temporal, external, serviceable to their own self-interest (i.e., release from slavery), not a mirror reflection of the glory of God in his heavenly dwelling place.

Who are the true sons and daughters of grace?

They are Moses, Joshua, Caleb, Miriam--possessing the end (land of the promise) in the beginning (land of the wilderness)--a permanent possession of a permanent grace, love, redemption/salvation and dwelling place.

Was the assault on Moses'mediatorial servanthood by Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Num 16) but a variation of the theme of rebellion "in the wilderness"?

Yes. Having rejected God's word and promise (and having failed in their longing to return to Egypt, Num 14:3), they now attack God's intercessory servant and the priesthood he mirrors.

What about their declaration in Numbers 16:13?

Their hearts classify the land of Egypt as a "land of milk and honey", as if that were the Promised Land from which they exited and the genuine "land of milk and honey" (Canaan) were the land of despair, drudgery and death.

So in setting their faces against Moses (and Aaron), Korah, Dathan and Abiram are setting their faces backward, toward Egypt, back to slavery and death in a idolatrous and brutal land.

Yes, their revolt is a window into their souls. They despise the promised rest of God; they despise his mighty grace and power of deliverance; they despise his servant who had mediated the covenant to them; they despise the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. And so with contempt and hatred ("against the Lord," 16:11), they perished in Sheol together with their families, possessions and "little ones" (16:27, 30, 33)--a foreshadowing of the hellish consequences of hatred and rebellion against the Lord and his servants--especially his covenant mediator servants.

Is this why the NT Scriptures relate these incidents?

Yes, these incidents are a narrative identification attractive to those in the present evil age--those who revolt against the Lord, his promised rest, his saving grace and his servant Mediator (the Lord Jesus Christ). They do so because of their own alliance with and allegiance to the hellish kingdom of darkness and the Satanic ruler pledged to oppose the people of God continually in their sojourn from slavery to settlement.

What more is there to say about this camp of rebels?

The use of the above narrative paradigm across the unfolding organism of redemptive history underscores the identification dynamic which always finds adherents in the external or outward "assembly of the Lord". There are always counterfeits and frauds like hard-hearted and unbelieving Israel "in the wilderness", as well as arrogant rebels like Korah, Dathan and Abiram attached to the community of faith (cf. the book of Jude). And they will always despise the genuine servants of God, even as they genuinely despise the eschatological Servant and Mediator of the covenant, the Lord Jesus Christ. In truth, they are 'Christians'who possess an "evil heart of unbelief". The protological paradigm is reprised eschatologically. This should not surprise the faithful elect; it will continue until kingdom come.

What more may be said of the "old" and "new" paradigm?

The "old and the "new" paradigm unfolds recursively through redemptive history. The "old" with a heart of stone at enmity with God and with his Christ, defying the Spirit; the "new" with a heart of flesh in love with God and with his Christ, by the Spirit. And thus the paradigm places "old" and "new" over ordo slautis as it does historia salutis. The Christocentric intrusion is the sole, gracious power of transition from the "old man" generation/era to the "new man" generation/era.

But is not Moses himself drawn into the circle of rebellion at Meribah (Num 20:1-13)?

Yes, the insidious tentacles of the kingdom of darkness snare the unsuspecting shepherd of Israel when he is disarmed (and wearied) by the whining, thirsty sojourners, only to vent his frustration (sinfully) by striking the rock for water while vaunting himself as the source of the life-giving stream ("shall we bring forth water for you?"--v. 20).

But was this really that serious a lapse on Moses' part?

Yes, even as God himself rebukes him, so the Lord treats the incident as unbelief ("you have not believed me"--v. 12), Moses thus aligning himself with the preceding, unbelieving rebel sojourners. He also did not set God apart from the whining complainers and complained like they; thus, putting himself in God's place. All of this drew glory to himself, not to God; all of which made him one with the complainers, not one with God; all of which caused him to contend with the Lord, not to be content with the Lord and his miraculous provision.

And did this have long-term consequences for Moses?

Yes, it demonstrated the imperfection of his own sinful soul and the fact that he was not the eschatological mediator of the covenant of grace. For he too needed the grace of the unmerited covenant of God and the blood of atonement to cover his sin and the perfect expression of giving glory to God always. In these, he failed at Meribah so that God barred him from entering the Promised Land.

But God did allow Moses to enter the land of rest from afar?

Yes, as one looking across the waters of separation from far off, Moses was graciously permitted to "enter in" by the eye of faith so that he could possess the eschatological land by faith even though he was denied setting his foot upon it. "By faith Moses ..." possessed the "substance of things not seen", typified by what his eyes did see.

Who was Balaam the son of Beor (Num 22:5)?

He was a pagan seer or soothsayer from Mesopotamia (Aram-naharaim or "Aram beyond the two rivers"). He is mentioned in Num 22-24, 31:8, 16; Deut 23:4, 5; Josh 13:22, 24:9, 10; Neh 13:2; Mic 6:5; 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11; Rev 2:14. His name also appears in the Deir Alla tablet (ca. 700 B.C.) discovered in Jordan in 1967.

What is his role in the narrative?

He was invited to curse sojourning Israel by Balak, the king of Moab (Num 22:4).

Did he in fact curse Israel?

No, God would not permit him to do so; rather he blessed Israel four times over.

Why would God use a heathen seer to bless his chosen people?

To demonstrate his power over the forces of darkness and to receive glory from their mouths about the "royal priesthood" who belong to him by covenant grace and redemptive might. In this way, the Lord projects the testimony of the wicked eschatologically--they too will confess God's glory and praise (though they will hate what they confess) when every one of their knees bow before the throne of the Lord Jesus Christ at the last/eschatological day (Phil 2:10-11). Thus, this protological blessing anticipates the eschatological blessing of the people of God.

In how many oracles does Balaam bless the Israel of God between the times?

Four: Num 23:7-10; 23:18-24; 24:3-9; 24:15-19

What redemptive historical paradigm is unfolded in these blessings?

The "already" or now blessing of God upon his people and the "not yet" or eschatological blessing of God upon his people.

Israel "in the wilderness" is "already" blessed of God four times over.

Yes, notice 23:10; 23:21-21; 24:8-9; 24:17, 19

And eschatologically?

Yes, as 24:14 emphasizes in the phrase acharith hayyamim or "end of the days", i.e., the eschatological end.

And who is the instrument of ending these eschatological days?

He is one from Jacob like a star
He is one coming from Israel from afar
He has a scepter in his hand
And in his rule draws nigh the end

Who is this figure whose advent brings the blessings and the kingdom of the "last days"?

He is the royal scepter-bearer of Judah, the regal house-sitter of Jacob, the king of all kings from Israel whose advent is the beacon-star of the ages, the sovereign sojourner from afar now drawn near, whose grace and power have now crushed and will yet crush all his and his people's enemies and adversaries. He is the Lord Jesus Christ--the blessed and eschatological sojourner--the truly first and last Israel of God in whom those united to him participate in the triumphant end of their wilderness sojourn even now.

What happened to Balaam?

He received the curse of God in betraying the blessings he had pronounced on believing Israel. Joining with the fornicating unbelieving Israel at Baal-peor, he too was slain in the judgment of death which God issued through Moses (Num 25:5) upon the wicked of that evil generation (the final remnant of the evil hearts of unbelief in the wilderness sojourn). Nothing impure was to cross over Jordan and enter the heavenly country (Promised Land).

How does the book of Numbers end?

With Israel camped on the plains of Moab, poised to cross over into Beulah land (Num 36:13)

What is the biblical-theological significance of the book of Numbers?

It reveals the unfolding redemptive historical narrative of the people of God "in the wilderness" between the times of redemption and possession--redemption from bondage, possession of the land of God. In between is the wilderness of testing, faith and setting the face towards the heavenly Canaan. They are always conscious that the space they occupy in between is provisional, never permanent (temporal, not eternal). They are always a pilgrim people in this world between salvation from slavery to sin and blessed possession of the land where God dwells with them face to face. In these last days, they journey in and through the eschatological sojourner, God the Son, who incarnated the sojourn through the wilderness of this world and has emerged from the now into the eschatological not yet once and for all. Their sojourn is complete and perfected in Christ--now and not yet.

Review some of the redemptive historical details of Christ Jesus "in the wilderness".

Jesus goes to "the wilderness" (Matt 4:1; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1).
He appears as the eschatological Sojourner "in the wilderness".
There he is assaulted/tempted by the protological rebel (the arch-rebel)--Satan, poohbah of Hell.
The eschatological Israel of God encounters the protological anti-Israel of God.
The protological rebel tempts the eschatological non-rebel/anti-rebel to join his damned enterprise.
The eschatological Israel, obedient to his heavenly Father's revealed will, spurns the tentacles of the lord of darkness and with perseverance dispatches him with the very Word of God.
The eschatological Israel prevails "in the wilderness" where the protological Israel failed.
The eschatological Israel completes and fulfills the sojourn "in the wilderness" for all the Israel of God (Gal 6:16) of every age. For they, elect in him, are united to his "in the wilderness" obedience, righteousness, sonship, holiness, glorious triumph over the Satanic protological rebel. And in this sojourn of the eschatological Israel of God, the "wilderness" becomes the garden of God, even now. For rebellion is behind them, in the eschatological, obedient anti-rebel--"in the wilderness" and beyond.

[1] This language is used effectively by Dennis Olson in his 1996 Interpretation commentary on Numbers (pp. 5-6; cf. also his Death of the Old and the Birth of the New). Caveat: Olson takes a liberal-critical approach to the meaning of the book, i.e., it is not divinely inspired; it was not written by Moses; its origin arises a millennium later in the post-exilic age from the evolution of Jewish religion in Babylon and Persia.

[2] Cf. the author's study here: http://kerux.com/doc/2502A3.asp.