Slippery Slopes to Sin
N°4. Lessons from Numbers.
The Book of Numbers opens with the record of a census taken not long after the Israelites had departed from Egypt. Some forty years later a second census was taken prior to the Israelites going in to take possession of the Promised Land. The English name for this book of the Bible, Numbers, derives from these two censuses. The Hebrew name however is different and perhaps more descriptive: the Hebrew name is "In the wilderness" and is taken from the opening verse. This Bible book concerns the history of God’s people during those in-
While the early chapters of the book, especially ch.7, repeat the concerns of the Book of Leviticus in dealing with the whole matter of the sin offering and unintentional sin and ch.29 outlines how the sin offering was to figure prominently in the annual Feast of Tabernacles, what really stands out as we read through Numbers is the way in which Israel repeatedly failed in the same area of conduct and behaviour.
As we consider this we will have to think about the notion of besetting sins.
As with Leviticus the Book of Numbers does contain something of a definition of sin:
Num.5:6 "When a man or woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the LORD"
This "breaking faith with the LORD" is the sin that Achan would later be guilty of as he disobeyed the Lord’s express commands and caused trouble for the wider congregation of God’s people (Jos.22:20).
Once again the description is broad and can cover many different types of behaviour. As we read through this particular Bible book we find that one particular sin surfaces again and again.
I hope you all know what I mean by the expression "besetting sin". A besetting sin is a fault to which a person, or group of people, is especially prone. It refers to a particular sin that has an especially strong hold upon a particular individual or group. The list of such sins is, of course, endless – we are each of us different and so we are likely to be affected by different things and in different ways.
Because we are all different, my besetting sin or sins (or area of weakness) will probably not be the same as yours. It is therefore important for each of us to recognise where our own weaknesses lie and to realise that we are liable to be targeted at these points. The enemy of our souls will often use these sins to try to convince us that we are unworthy to serve the Lord, perhaps even to try to persuade us that we can’t be real Christians at all.
Now I don’t want to justify besetting sins in any way – sin is sin – but we must be aware that one of Satan’s strategies is to attack us over our besetting sins. Keeping that in mind should keep us from giving way to despair. When we fall again for the same temptation the accuser will be ready at hand with any number of condemnatory suggestions including:
Christianity doesn’t work for you
You can’t be a real Christian if you still do the same old things
There’s no point in trying to resist temptation
You’re a hopeless case and God can’t use you
Israel’s besetting sin at this time was the sin of grumbling and complaining. We find the sin surfacing on several different occasions each of which we will look at briefly.
Grumbling and Complaining Part One
Almost as soon as Israel had left Egypt some of the people had begun to grumble – first it was provoked by a lack of good drinking water and this was quickly followed up by an apparent shortage of food to eat. In both instances the LORD provided what was needed but the Israelites did not learn from his provision that they could trust him and so the very next time water became an issue again they turned again to their grumbling and again the LORD provided for their needs.
The people then arrived at Mt. Sinai where they stayed for about a year and more than 50 chapters of Scripture deal with what happened during this period.
The time came to move on and the narrative of this move is the subject of the Book of Numbers. It was not long before problems were encountered and the people’s reaction was to feel sorry for themselves and to complain about their misfortunes – we are now in Num.11.
The LORD is angry and punishes the people with a punishment that is curtailed only when Moses prayed about the situation.
But no lessons have yet been learnt. Almost immediately we read about a rabble element that had joined itself to Israel when the people had left Egypt lamenting the lack of variety on the menu. Their attitude quickly spread and contaminated the people as a whole and the next thing we know is that everyone is overlooking the LORD’s provision of manna and is instead weeping in self-
Moses turns in desperation to the LORD who gives the people what they crave but in greater measure than they want – along with the superabundance comes something of a curse. The psalmist looking back on this event wrote:
Ps.106:15 "And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul."
Or as the Message has it:
Ps.106:15 "He gave them exactly what they asked for—but along with it they got an empty heart."
The people were already vulnerable and susceptible to grumbling – the conduct of the rabble proved to be the catalyst encouraging a further outbreak of grumbling amongst God’s people.
Lesson: beware of the company of those whose behaviour encourages you to slip into your "favourite" or "darling" sins – remember "bad company ruins good morals" (1Cor.15:33).
Grumbling and Complaining Part Two
In chapter 12 it is the turn of Aaron and Miriam to complain. Although Moses is God’s appointed leader they have no qualms about speaking against him of whose influence and authority they appear to be jealous. The reason or pretext for challenging his leadership and calling into question his special role in God’s plan was the Ethiopian wife he had chosen for himself. The two of them already hold important offices amongst God’s people but apparently want to enjoy a yet higher status.
Pride and ambition can lead so easily to resentment when others get on and we don’t get what we want. Resentment in turn leads to criticism and grumbling about the injustice of our own situation and the perceived injustice of the favours bestowed on another.
Had Zipporah his first wife died? Did Miriam now expect to have the importance of being the first lady in the nation? If so Moses’ remarriage would have scuppered her plans.
Instead of being content she leads Aaron in lodging some protests and complains about Moses making him out to be something of a self-
The LORD suddenly intervened and once more there are serious consequences for complaining and grumbling. Miriam is rendered temporarily leprous and only spared as Moses intercedes for her.
In ch.13 spies are sent into the Promised Land but after a 40 day mission they return with a majority report that was very negative indeed. Caleb gave a different assessment – he didn’t want the people to rebel against the LORD (14:9) but the majority report carried the day and seriously dampened the spirits of the people who were now very discouraged. What the people did in their discouragement is described in ch.14.
In their discouragement someone had to be responsible for the plight they now thought they found themselves in. The scapegoat was obvious. It was the fault of the leadership. And so the people grumbled against both Moses and Aaron.
In their discouraged state they lost all sense of proportion and fearing death they even talked of choosing a new leader who would lead them back to Egypt!
The LORD is displeased with this rejection which is, in reality, a rejection of his lordship over them. He suggests to Moses that he might actually give up on the people and start again with Moses’ own family.
Judgment is averted as Moses once more intercedes but as before sin, this sin of grumbling and complaining, has its consequences: the people will have to wander now in the wilderness and not themselves be allowed to enter Canaan. In the ensuing 40 years the entire generation of adult men will die without having been able to enter the land. It would appear that the spies who had been responsible for so discouraging the people and causing them to grumble by the bad report they gave, were amongst the earliest to die.
How serious a thing it is to so discourage others that they are provoked to sin!
Sadly, the people still put their trust in what they think they can do and instead of believing the Word spoken to them they try to take matters into their own hands: the result is a military disaster!
Grumbling and Complaining Part Four
The rebellion and the complaints that followed the majority spy report did not bring an end to this sorry litany of complaints and grumbles that litter the Book of Numbers. The next case for us to consider is found in ch.16 and concerns Korah and his rebellion. Korah was at the head of a sizeable opposition that did not appreciate the joint leadership of Moses and Aaron. The accusation suggested that Moses and Aaron were setting themselves apart from the rest of the people as though they were super special.
Moses regarded the accusations as serious, not because he thought of them as attacking him and Aaron but because he saw it as an attack upon the LORD himself.
The accusations involved a deliberate twisting of the facts and a faulty apportioning of blame. Moses is accused of dishonesty in it all.
As before the LORD intervenes to make clear who is in the right and again Moses turns to intercession this time with the help of Aaron his brother.
Also as before sin has its consequences and this time there is considerable loss of life as Korak and his supporters die an unnatural death.
And still sin crouches at the door waiting for an opportunity. Moses could not possibly have provoked the earthquake that led to the death of his detractors but the people accuse him and Aaron of being responsible for the death of the LORD’s people. They go on and on don’t they with their grumbles and their complaints. It seems that once a pattern of behaviour has been chosen the mould is very difficult to break.
And again the LORD prepares to intervene and again Moses intercedes to stop the plague that had already broken out.
We can see this pattern so clearly in Israel’s history: a situation is met with grumbles and complaints and this reaction itself provokes the LORD to anger. Moses actsd as a mediator interceding for mercy. We can see the pattern repeating itself and wonder why they didn’t.
And yet, and yet...
What of our own blind spots concerning our own besetting sins? If we can see and wonder at the sinful stupidity of those Israelites shouldn’t we take careful note and try to avoid a sinful stupidity of our own?
Grumbling and Complaining Part Five
The people have travelled on and are approaching the end of that long period of forty years and in their travels they have now arrived at Meribah where, guess what, there is another water shortage – we have come to ch.20. Consistent in their faithless behaviour the people yet again react with criticism of their leaders Moses and Aaron.
What a consistent leader Moses had been up to this point and he continues to do the right thing – he turns to prayer again. The instructions he receives are however different this time and he doesn’t follow them carefully preferring to do things the way it had worked for him in the past. It was sin and sin always displeases the LORD and always has consequences.
Yes, the people can drink but Moses has forfeited the right to cross over the Jordan and walk in the Promised Land.
Perhaps we can see here something of the effect of constant grumbling and complaining. At the end Moses crumbles and sins – a reminder that Moses too has feet of clay and that he will not be the One to forever deal with the sin of his people! The nation would have to wait for that prophet who would be raised up to be like Moses see Deut.18:15ff.
The people’s constant grumbling was a very real factor in Moses’ failure at Meribah – surely that ought to alert us: when we give way to our besetting sins we may well be a factor in causing the fall in the life of a brother or sister in Christ.
Grumbling and Complaining Part Six
The last example for us to briefly consider comes as the people turn their grumbling against both the Lord and his representative Moses. The subject matter of these complaints is by no means new – the people go over their familiar grumbles about lack of water, lack of a varied diet with more interesting food, and the failure to be led safely to their destination as though the only reason they had been led out of Egypt into the wilderness was so that they might be made to die there.
There is indeed nothing new under the sun as these Israelites complain and moan about the same old things. The trigger this time was however slightly different – we read in Num.20:4 that it was down to impatience.
Are you impatient I wonder? Am I? We live in an age where we’re actively encouraged in many different domains "to want it and to want it now" – how easy to allow the world to squeeze us so that we too become impatient wanting instant satisfaction and gratification. With such a mindset we will be unlikely to persevere well and will be more ready to throw in the towel complaining and grumbling that "it" (whatever that "it" might be) doesn’t work for us.
And what have we been seeing all along? Yes, that’s right – sin has consequences. The people grumbled and the LORD sent fiery serpents.
Finally, this time the people recognise the error of their ways and they go to Moses and say:
v.7 ""We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us."
Of course Moses does pray and is given a remedy for the people’s problem, that bronze serpent to be set up on a pole and a simple look to that serpent and safety was to be had.
We come to one greater than Moses, we come to one who never ever fails, to One who prays and prays on for us, making intercession for us. We come to the One who is far greater than that bronze serpent: the LORD Jesus Christ.
Let us keep coming to Jesus Christ and let us also learn from the Word of God the utter folly of giving in to besetting sin!
And to God be the glory.