Numbers 33: Between Passover and the Promised Land (part 1)
To be honest, I must confess that Numbers 33 is one of those chapters that I usually just skim through without giving it much thought. This is because it is primarily just a list of places Israel had been throughout their forty year sojourn in the desert on their way to Canaan. Some of the places you will recognize, but by and large it is just a list of a bunch of places that to me are meaningless. It’s probable that modern archeologists don’t even know exactly where many of these places are. They are names of places whose locations are lost to history.
But then I realized something. These places are important. They are not important in and of themselves. There was never anything inherently interesting in most of these places. For the tribes of Israel, these places were important because of where they came from, and where they were going to. For these places were points along the way that God was leading them since their deliverance from Egyptian slavery to freedom in the Promised Land. Since they were being led by God who went before them in the pillar of fire and cloud, they could only go where he led. The only path to the Promised Land was through these mostly unremarkable places. And that’s why they were important.
Notice how the chapter begins. It begins in verses 1-4 with a brief recap of the departure of Israel from Egypt on the day following the Passover (ver. 3). I find the commentary in verse 4 especially interesting: “upon their [Egypt’s] gods also the LORD executed judgments.” It was not only about delivering Israel out of Egypt but also about showing who is truly God. The gods of the most powerful nation on the face of the earth could not stand up to the God of this lowly nation of slaves. But the important thing is to note that the recounting of the journeying of Israel begins with Passover.
Then towards the end of the chapter, we are led with the children of Israel to the borders of Canaan, “in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho” (ver. 50). In the remaining verses of the chapter, God is reminding Moses and Joshua what they are to do “when ye are passed over Jordan into the land of Canaan” (ver. 51).
I see in this a picture of the life of every believer. We too are people on a pilgrimage between Passover and the Promised Land. And the believer lives between the two. The believer rests in the finished work of Christ and lives in hope of the life to come. And it is in light of these two realities that we ought to live. The believer must be looking back to what Christ has done and forward to what is yet in store. But now what about the in-between? Because that’s where we are right now. How does the fact that we live between the bookends of Passover and Promised Land help us to live in the here-and-now? Let me suggest the following ways.
First of all, it means that our life has meaning now, not because of what we are doing or have accomplished, but in virtue of what Christ has done and is going to do for us. What that means is that our significance does not have its roots in us but outside of us, not in what we have done but in what has been done for us.
This is important because our culture, especially Western culture, is telling us to find our significance and meaning in ourselves, especially in terms of what has been called "expressive individualism." We are told in one way or another to construct our own meaning. Of course the world tells you that because it has nothing else to say. Especially when people deny the existence of God, there is no ultimate meaning for anything, and so you are left to create pies-in-the-sky for yourself (which is ironic, given the fact that they tell us that hope in heaven is pie-in-the-sky).
But the Scriptures tell us something different. God cares for his people no matter where they are at. It’s not the place you are at in life that makes you significant. It’s where you’re from (Passover) and where you’re headed (Promised Land). If you were to come upon the Israelites in one of these places, chances are you would find them in mundane surroundings. Insignificant. Hot, not a lot of water, not very interesting to look at and not very inviting to stay around. Life feels like that a lot. We may have had some high points (like Sinai) and low points (like Kibroth-hattaavah), but most of life for most people is plain and ordinary. And it’s easy to feel in times like this, “What’s the point?” What is our life worth, anyway? And we need to remember when we’re in these places in life, that every point is significant because it is a point along the way from Passover to Canaan. In any case, God cared about the Israelites, whether they were at Sinai or whether they were in Rissah because they were his people and because he had redeemed them and because he was fulfilling his promises to bring them into the Promised Land.
It makes me think of God’s promises to believers. All the Balaams of the world can be against them, but God is for them. Not because they are worthy but because they belong to him in virtue of what Christ has done. “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (Rom. 8:31-34).