Numbers 1-10: at Mount Sinai
Numbers 11-21: on the journey
Numbers 22-36: in Moab
The oft-repeated phrase of the first section is "The Israelites did everything the Lord commanded Moses." But, once they got on their journey, in sections two and three, the oft-repeated phrase is, "Israel grumbled."
The main themes of the book of Numbers are:
1. Israel breaks the covenant (over and over again - this theme will continue throughout the entire Old Testament)
2. God is Provider
This period of wilderness wandering is an important time in the life of the Israel precisely because of the two themes above. They learn first that they cannot keep the covenant - that they are unfaithful people and yet God remains a faithful God, no matter what. He always provides for them, whether they are faithful or not. This time period is an absolutely integral time in Israel's "marriage" to YHWH, their God. The marriage metaphor is used throughout Scripture (but especially in the prophets) to talk about God's relationship with Israel. Though the same metaphor and theology is found in many of the prophets, it is most explicitly used in the book of Hosea in which Israel is depicted as the adulterous wife and God the faithful husband who continues to love and continues to not only take her back, but woo her back into His arms. See the chart below for how Israel's history fits the marriage metaphor:
|Betrothal||Promises to Abraham|
|Wedding||Exodus from Egypt|
|Adultery||Idolatry in the Holy Land|
|Divorce||Exile to Assyria/Babylon|
|Remarriage||Return of the Remnant|
What is the missing part of the marriage? The part between the wedding (the Exodus) and the start of their life together (entry into the Promised Land)? The Honeymoon! The Wilderness Wanderings are Israel and YHWH's honeymoon! Now isn't that exactly the kind of honeymoon you imagined, wandering around the wilderness for 40 years with only the same old blah tasting bread every day? But what's the purpose of a honeymoon? What are we supposed to "get" out of it? A binding together of the couple, their learning to trust each other and work as a team, their getting away from it all to focus only on their relationship, so that it will withstand all that they will face in their life together in the real world. I don't think God could have gotten them anymore away from it all. And he couldn't have put them in a better position to learn to trust Him and to focus completely on their relationship with Him. The prophets Jeremiah and Hosea speaks of this time as a beautiful time in Israel's relationship with God: "I remember the devotion of your youth, the love of your betrothals, your following after Me in the wilderness, through a land not sown. Israel was holy to YHWH, the first of His harvest" (Jer 2:2-3) and "I will allure her, bring her into the wilderness and speak kindly to her... and she will sing there as in the days of her youth... when she came up from the land of Egypt... and you will call me Husband and no longer Master." (Hosea 2:14-16). As hard as the times of wilderness in our lives are, they are the times when we lean on God the most, they are the times when we learn to trust Him the most. When there is nothing else we can do, nowhere else we can turn, God provides. This journey through the book of Numbers will show us how Israel behaved through their time of wilderness (much like we do in ours!) and how God was always faithful, always teaching, always leading, always guiding, always providing.