After years of wandering in the wilderness and what seems like way too many rebellions against Yahweh, Israel has finally arrived on the edge of the promised land. What could possibly go wrong now? And yet even here, two of Israel’s tribes rebel, repeating the sins of Adam and Eve and dividing themselves from their brothers. Join Tim and Jon as they wrap up the Numbers scroll.
God wants to give good gifts to his children. Those gifts often force God’s children into decisions about how or whether they will receive those gifts as they are given. The portrait of human nature over and over in the Hebrew Bible is that we either don’t want to receive God’s gifts as given, or we forfeit his gifts and take some other thing that fits into our definition of what we think is good. This story fits into that category.
In part one (00:00-20:20), Tim and Jon conclude our exploration of the Numbers scroll with a look at Israel’s final preparations for entering the promised land. As Israel stands on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to enter the land of Canaan, the narrator’s language sets this moment in analogy to Adam and Eve on the brink of re-entering Eden (an event that doesn’t happen in the Bible but which will figuratively take place when humanity dwells on the earth at the return of the Messiah). It’s a moment rich with historical and spiritual significance.
Numbers 28-29 includes a long list of feasts and offerings that acknowledge the danger of the wilderness, remember God’s provision and rescue in the face of that danger, and anticipate even greater deliverance in the form of entrance into the promised land.
In part two (20:20-33:50), Tim and Jon dive into Numbers 32, which opens with an immediate focus on the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who see the land east of the Jordan River (outside the promised land) and want to settle there (Num. 32:1).
This is a subtle hyperlink to the moment with Eve at the tree: Once again, God’s people are seeing and requesting to take something that God has said not to take. Understandably, Moses is angry at their lack of trust in God’s word (that the land of Canaan would be better for them than what they could see with their eyes), but Reuben and Gad remain stubborn. But they also promise to help the rest of the tribes conquer the land before settling down. Moses says that Yahweh will permit this if they are serious and keep their word.
Numbers 32:23 But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the Lord, and be sure your sin will find you out.
This is a hyperlink to Genesis 4, when Cain murders his brother Abel. He says afterward to Yahweh that because of his sin, he knows others will find him to kill him (Gen. 4:14). Not only does the choice of Reuben and Gad replay Adam and Eve’s sin but it repeats the division between brothers that immediately follows. Instead of being a place for brothers to dwell in unity, the promised land will only be home to ten of twelve tribes, with Reuben, Gad, and half of Mannasseh staying east of the Jordan.
In part three (33:50-43:29), the guys explore the agreement Reuben and Gad make with the rest of the tribes. In the scroll of Joshua, we’re told that they uphold their end of the deal—they help the other ten tribes conquer the land of Canaan—and then they return home.
While the narrative never explicitly says that it’s wrong for Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh to settle east of the Jordan, the hyperlinks to Genesis 3-4 gives us a hint that this choice won’t end well for them. Sure enough, when Assyria invades Israel, Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh are the first to go (2 Kgs. 13-20).
Following Reuben and Gad’s decision, the narrator of Numbers provides a complete list of all the places Israel camped between Egypt and Canaan, the boundaries of the promised land, and a list of Israel’s tribal leaders. In the middle of these records, we find a description of the cities of refuge Israel is to create in the promised land (Num. 35).
In part four (43:29-01:01:21), Tim and Jon conclude the Numbers scroll with a look at cities of refuge.
In Numbers 35, Yahweh commands Israel to set up cities of refuge, where people who have killed other people unintentionally—in some kind of tragic accident, for instance—can flee there to live safely away from the dead person’s family members. The underlying assumption here is that in ancient Near Eastern culture, it was common for families to demand vengeance for the death of their members, even if the death happened accidentally.
So why would Yahweh require cities of refuge?
Numbers 35:33-34 So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I Yahweh am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel.
Yahweh’s speech at the end of Numbers 35 reveals that these cities of refuge are about far more than mercy—they prevent the pollution of the promised land. Yahweh formed humans from the ground, and when humans spill the blood of other humans, it “cries out” from the ground (Gen. 4:10). As humanity increases in violence, it pollutes God’s good creation and inspires Yahweh’s judgment (an extreme example of this is the flood in Genesis 7, sent in response to violence).
This episode was produced by Cooper Peltz with Associate Producer Lindsey Ponder. It was edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. MacKenzie Buxman provided the annotations for our annotated podcast in our app.
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