As the Israelites left Sinai for a land promised to descendants of Abraham, instructions had been received for a system of sacrifices. God knew people would fail to keep His decrees and statutes because of a flawed carnal nature. The obedience expected was not perfection, but a sincere desire of the heart to obey. The tabernacle had been completed according to specific details given by God and sacrifices were established to remove the guilt of sin and reconcile repentant people to Himself. There were general sacrifices for unintentional sins together with an annual Day of Atonement. And God manifested His Presence above the mercy seat of the ark of the Testimony, foreshadowing the throne of grace in heaven to which those “in Christ” can approach in their times of need.
“Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:16
To the contrary, God would severely judge willful disobedience and apostasy. Such would be dealt with by death or excommunication from the community of God’s chosen people under the old covenant. Many decrees, such as making clear distinction between unclean and clean foods, regulations about infectious skin diseases, and cleansing from mildew and discharges, were to help recognize the demand of God to separate from all that defiled relationship with Him. “Consecrate yourselves and be holy because I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD who makes you holy” (Lev 20:7).
So they left the Sinai with guidelines pertaining to all aspects of life as people redeemed by the LORD, and were expected to live in a way distinctive from that of the heathen nations. Their example was to demonstrate that their God was superior to gods of the surrounding people and the Only worthy of worship. This was in harmony with NT teachings of Jesus and the apostles regarding holiness and righteousness: “But as He which has called you is holy, so be you holy…as it is written, Be you holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15,16). There was no question as to consequences of disobedience as well as blessings for obedience. Nor would this change under the new covenant. And leaving Sinai, passing through the desert was to be for a short time. It was never the intent of God that time in the desert should be prolonged such that an entire generation should die before entering the promised land.
Furthermore, Israel left Sinai with the ark before them and cloud of the LORD overhead to lead them. Yet at once complaining and grumbling began. Even Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ own kinfolk, became jealous of the authority given Moses by the LORD. While leaders with Moses, they had no right to challenge authority given Moses just as believers today have no right to place themselves on the same level as the Word of God. God’s anger burned and Miriam became leprous and was confined outside the camp for seven days, foretelling NT teaching that the Lord is always faithful to discipline those who are His children.
“For whom the Lord loves, He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives. If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chastens not? But if you b e without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are you illegitimate children, and not sons” Hebrews 12:6-8
During Miriam’s absence, the cloud did not move. Upon her return to the camp, they moved to Kadesh on the border of Canaan (Numbers 12:15-16). There the LORD told Moses to send a man from each tribe to explore the promised land and bring fruit upon return. As they explored for forty days, they cut off a cluster of grapes and returned together with figs and pomegranates to report their findings. Here it was a critical mistake was made, one frequently repeated today were the truth recognized. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, the other ten spies discouraged Israel from proceeding into Canaan as God commanded. Instead they spread fear, describing seeming unsurmountable cities and opposition which posed great strongholds that could not be overcome.
“The people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great… we be not able to go up against the people for they are stronger than we…and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers; and so we were in their sight.” Numbers 13:28-33
Unbelief of these ten spies had two dimensions. The past faithfulness of God had not brought them into a relationship of trust, and they did not rely on His promises for the future. Instead of believing in the integrity of God and His Word, we too can respond in a negative manner when faced with challenges. The walled cities in Canaan are a type or picture of “strongholds” in our own lives which must be demolished if we are to live an overcoming life. But the spies forgot from whence came deliverance in Egypt and crossing the Red Sea. And how prone we are to depend on ourselves instead of humbling under the mighty hand of God so He may exalt us in His time (1 Peter 5:6).
“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds): casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God: and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
Israel’s unwillingness to trust God and attack the strongholds of the enemy had serious consequences. Moses tried to encourage the people, “The LORD is with us; fear them not” (Numbers 14:9). But except for Joshua and Caleb, they would not listen. There was even talk about stoning Moses, choosing a new leader, and returning to Egypt. How closely this foretold disciples of Jesus leaving when His teaching became difficult (John 6: 60-66), and tendency to back away from loyalty to Jesus if strong resistance comes from one’s family and close friends. Because of their rebellion, God determined none who refused to enter the promised land and engage with warfare against enemies and strongholds would be allowed to enter the land promised Abraham and his descendants. The ten spies giving a bad report died at once from a plague, and the other’s heard Moses tell God’s judgment. “As for you, your carcasses; they shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years; and bear your whoredoms” (14:32,33).
The NT says explicitly that God’s judgment on Israel for refusing to obey and to overcome strongholds is a warning for today, lest believers fall from grace when they think they are standing firm (1 Corinthians 10:11,12).
One might have thought lessons were learned, but as Solomon has written, what has been done in the past will be done again (Ecclesiastes 1:9). So it was a Levite Korah and 250 other leaders rose up against Moses and his leadership, not having learned from Miriam (Numbers 16:1-3). The response of God to their rebellion against His appointed leader was to open the earth and swallow Korah and his closest associates along with their families and possessions. Then “there came out a fire from the LORD and consumed the two hundred and fifty men” who had joined Korah in the rebellion (16:35). Ouch!
We see this same independence and jealousy among those chosen by Jesus to be disciples. They argued frequently as to who’d be greatest in the kingdom of heaven, not realizing the kingdom would be a manifestation of God’s sovereignty, authority and power, not man’s authority over others. So it is they drew rebuke by Jesus for lack of humility: “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). A carnal nature that is common to us all must be constantly guarded against if we would walk in the footsteps of Jesus. The words of the prophet Micah are needy of hearing by the Church today.
“He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8