Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Numbers 27:12-23] To begin Joshua’s chapter, God had to close Moses’. Using the beginning of January as a natural look-ahead/look-back moment, we can parallel the transfer from Moses to Joshua with changes we need to make in our own lives in the new year. We can also think about preparing future leaders for our churches and communities—are we doing that?
So Moses appealed to the Lord, “May the Lord appoint a man over the community so that the Lord’s community won’t be like sheep without a shepherd.” Numbers 27:15
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Old You/New You
You know by now that I’m not a “New Year’s Resolutions” guy. If it’s important enough that you want to do it, you shouldn’t wait until an arbitrary date to start! However, I am a “take regularly stock of your life” guy. The first week of a calendar year is just as good a week as any to take a look at yourself—your priorities, your direction, your focus. How has this past year gone? What could have been different?
Here’s a thought exercise you might try with your class to get them thinking about this week’s lesson. What would your 2020 self say to your 2019 self if you had the chance? Interesting question, huh? Try to put yourself in your shoes at the beginning of2019. Do you remember what your goals and dreams were for the year? What about your expectations? How did the year measure up to where you stood a year ago? And, if things didn’t go the way you wanted, was there anything you could have done differently during the year to change that? (Sometimes things happen that are beyond your control, but sometimes you make mistakes or bad decisions.) So, does that question make sense now? What mistakes would you warn yourself not to make? What expectations would you help yourself bring in line with reality? What opportunities would you help yourself not miss? Believe it or not, that’s basically what this passage is about.
Moses has made some big mistakes. So have the people. Now, 40 years after their first opportunity to enter the Promised Land, a new generation has a new chance with a new leader. I can’t imagine how bittersweet that must have been for Moses. Moses would go on to tell Joshua and the people what they can and should do differently so as not to make the mistakes of the past. We don’t have a future self to warn us about this upcoming year, but we can think about the mistakes, misplaced priorities, and unrealistic expectations we had for 2019 and try to help ourselves not repeat those errors in 2020. [Editor's note: if I knew then what I know now, I might have said something different about 2020.]
The Importance of Commissioning
Ask your class to list the different kinds of commissioning/installation services they’ve been a part of. (FBC is doing deacon installation this Sunday.) We’ve got them for graduates, public officials, law enforcement, military, and a bunch more. Ask your class why we have those kinds of services. Why are they important? Why do we make a big deal out of them? I think they serve two really big purposes: (1) they formally remind the person of what they’re doing, and (2) they validate that person in the eyes of the audience. Think about Joshua. Moses has been the leader for a generation of miracles (and failures). How easy would it be for the people to accept a new leader (or someone to attempt to usurp)? This commissioning would be critical for the Jewish people as they enter the Promised Land.
This Week's Big Idea: What a Difference a Generation Makes
This seems like as good a week as any to recap the book of Numbers, considering we’ve entered the final major section.
Travel to Sinai (Ex 15-18) -- [2.5 months (Ex 19:1)]
Encamped at Mount Sinai (Ex 19-Num 10) -- [9 months until building the Tabernacle (Ex 19:1), Then 2 months before departing (Num 10:11)]
Travel to Kadesh-Barnea (Num 11-12) -- [Several months (Num 13:20)]
Cycle of rebellion and judgments around Moab (Num 13-22) -- [38 years (Deut 2:14)]
[Events of Num 22-25 happen concurrently to 13-22]
New generation starts over (Num 26-36)
As I said at the beginning of our quarter, Numbers is dominated by two censuses: the first, rebellious generation (1-8), and the second generation given another chance (26). The question that Moses leaves with them (and Joshua) is “what will you do with that chance?”. That’s why this is such a great lesson for the start of a new calendar year. God’s mercies toward us are new every morning, and certainly on January 1.
Tribe / 1st Census / 2nd Census
Reuben 46,500 43,730
Simeon 59,300 22,200
Gad 45,650 40,500
Judah 74,600 76,500
Issachar 54,400 64,300
Zebulun 57,400 60,500
Manasseh 32,200 52,700
Ephraim 40,500 32,500
Benjamin 35,400 45,600
Dan 62,700 64,400
Asher 41,500 53,400
Naphtali 53,400 45,400
Total 603,550 601,730
I can’t understand why Lifeway chose to skip over a detailed analysis of the results of the second census in chapter 26 (I’m kidding). But if someone in your class mentions looking at it, here are some interesting tidbits that I think we can take away from it. First and most importantly, after 40 years of living in a desert, note that the population was pretty stable. That’s an absolute miracle. Second, note that the tribe of Simeon collapsed. They were associated with the sexual sin of the previous chapter (25:14) implying they were especially punished. Third, note that the largest tribe is still Judah, in keeping with God’s earlier promise of blessing. Fourth, note the very large increase in Manasseh. All of the tribes would have to increase to make up for the decimation of Simeon, but Manasseh especially so. We are given no indication why this happened; it’s just a fun little mystery for nerds like me to ponder.
The Larger Context of Numbers
We are at a key transition in the Bible (let alone the book of Numbers). A new generation has the opportunity to move beyond the sins of their fathers, and this means a lot of changes are in store. (God’s law is not one of those changes! The book of Deuteronomy is Moses re-giving the law to this new generation.) One of those changes is pointed out in early chapter 27. So many people have died on this journey, and the children are dealing with the fallout. One set of daughters were not yet of marrying age, and they were concerned about the inheritance promised their father. Local custom was that only men could inherit property. But what if all the men were dead? This was a really big deal because God’s blessing was connected with the physical possession of land. That a family with no men could be shut out from God’s blessing was very concerning! And there were many different ways this particular situation could be manifest in different families. So Moses took the problem before God, and God ruled in favor of the daughters. Here is the proper order of inheritance: (1) son, (2) daughter, (3) brother, (4) uncle, (5) any relative. I would say that giving the daughter a claim before a brother was very progressive. But note that in chapter 36, God issues a clarification: the land must stay in the tribe. Therefore, if a woman possesses land and she wishes to marry, she must marry within the tribe so as to preserve the integrity of the borders. (Key point: the people were willing for their customs to change based on the new circumstances. That would be a key feature of their hoped-for success in the promised land.)
Part 1: Facing Death (Numbers 27:12-14)
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go up this mountain of the Abarim range and see the land that I have given the Israelites. After you have seen it, you will also be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother was. When the community quarreled in the Wilderness of Zin, both of you rebelled against my command to demonstrate my holiness in their sight at the waters.” Those were the Waters of Meribah-kadesh in the Wilderness of Zin.
This section may have been better titled “Accepting Consequences”. Ask your class how they identify significant moments in life, either “points” or “turning points”. How do they know when such a moment happens? Sometimes these are clear events—like the birth of a child, the change of a job—something that involves a change in your life. But sometimes they are just regular, ongoing moments—like a job review, a report card, a shareholders meeting. A lot of people consider January 1 such a moment. It’s a time for looking back and looking ahead. We consider them “turning points” when they result in a change in life. We consider them “points” when we just use them to refocus our priorities or whatever ends up happening. But sometimes (and this is one of the hardest things in life) we get to a moment and realize that we need to make a change. Our “point” needs to become a “turning point”. In the sports world, they pay GMs a lot of money to make the decision after the season ends whether they need to “reload” or “rebuild”. Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s not.
Ask your class how they know the difference. In the case of the Hebrews, this would be a major “turning point” moment in their history. God makes that clear to everybody by announcing that Moses is going to die, and there will be a new leader. Here’s my thought exercise (if you find it interesting): put yourself in Moses’ shoes. Does Moses feel like a failure? Does he feel like he could still be an effective leader? Does he want to ask the boss (using my sports analogy again) “let’s run it back for one more season; give me one more season!”? One of the biggest farces in the NFL right now is Jerry Jones/Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys. Jones has been unwilling to fire Garrett, and even now with his contract expired they’re still dragging out the future of the franchise. Essentially, with our passage, God is not allowing any uncertainty: “Moses, you are done as the leader of the people.” It’s decisive, and necessarily so. If God left any room for doubt, there would be confusion among the people and room for someone to appear as an usurper. So, you might explain this passage as “Even though the book continues, God has written an end to a chapter.” It’s time to turn the page.
Now, to the text. “Abarim range” represents a range of mountains east of the Jordan across from Jericho. In Deut 3:23-29, we find out that Moses did indeed ask God to let him enter the Promised Land, and God refused. God sent Moses to Mount Pisgah (in the Abarim range) to look at the Promised Land. But in Deut 32:49, we find out that God sent Moses to Mount Nebo to die. It’s possible those were two different peaks on the same mountain, or these were two different events. See the previous Focus for more information. God’s point is that leaders are indeed help to a higher standard; their sin must have consequences.
Aside: Death, Disobedience and Meribah
This chapter points back to the lesson you taught on Numbers 20, where the sin in question took place. The people were grumbling while camped in the Wilderness of Zin (“Meribah” means “strife”), and Moses reacted poorly to them. But immediately after, God told Moses and Aaron that the consequence for their sin (just as for the rest of the Israelites) would be no Promised Land for them. Chapter 20:22-29 gives us a very parallel look at the death of Aaron. There, at Mount Hor, God said that Moses and Aaron and his son Eleazar should go up on the mountain, transfer all of his priestly garments and authority to Eleazar, and then he would die. And that’s what happened (and Israel mourned there for 30 days). This is exactly the same pattern used with Moses.
So, why did their sin not allow for forgiveness? (Remember: it’s not that Moses and Aaron weren’t forgiven, it’s that they would not receive the earthly reward of the Promised Land. I think there’s a big difference.) The clue is in the name of the location “Kadesh”, which means “holy”. The assumption is that “Kadesh-barnea” and “Meribah-kadesh” are the same location, name tweaked for effect. “Holy” means “set apart”. God had set apart Moses’ staff to be a symbol of God’s power available to the people, and God gave Moses rules to follow with its use. But in chapter 20, Moses failed to follow them. He acted in such a way as to insinuate that he had control over God’s power—the very opposite of “holy”. God’s leaders could not represent God thus, and the punishment for such a great failure must be severe. If God had “changed His mind” here at the last moment and allowed Moses into the Promised Land, what kind of message would that have sent to the people? It was a significant sin with consequences. But note that Moses appeared on the mountain with Jesus, so he clearly received the ultimate reward of forgiveness and salvation.
Part 2: The Future (Numbers 27:15-17)
So Moses appealed to the Lord, “May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all, appoint a man over the community who will go out before them and come back in before them, and who will bring them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community won’t be like sheep without a shepherd.”
It’s quite possible that Moses had accepted the fact that he could no longer be the leader when he still asked God for mercy to enter the Promised Land. Or, this request happened after Moses’ failed appeal. Moses clearly cared about the people. He had put his own neck on the line many, many times—both with God and with angry (and armed) Jews—for the good of the people. It’s only right that he should desire to provide for their future. A counter question would be to ask your class what they think would have happened to the Jews if they had not had a good leader as they were approaching the Promised Land. What a complete disaster that would have been!
Ask your class about succession plans. What are the different options? What’s good and bad about them? Having the son take over for the father is still common today. Appointing a successor is also common. And then, there’s the job search/election in which the people choose a new leader. There are pros and cons to each; sometimes the clarity of succession is more important than “finding the best candidate”. But in my opinion, the very best succession plan is that the best leader for the future is identified and agreed upon before the old leader steps down. That’s what Moses is asking for here—that God would let everyone know who the best leader would be. (Wouldn’t that be nice!) And Moses even mentions those parts of his job that he thought were the most important. Personally, I think that his answer (and going and coming and bringing) is the very definition of a great leader. But it’s still pretty vague. Ask your class what they think Moses meant by his “job description”. I don’t have a clear answer for you, so this is one of those times when your “Spirit-inspired groupthink” is probably as good as any. The phrases “go out” and “come in” are used in a military context (in Josh 14:11, 1 Sam 18, 1 Ki 3:7, 2 Ki 11:9) though not exclusively. The “bring them in/out” phrase is used of shepherding, which Moses makes clear is his intent. So, we very well could have the idea of a good leader being both a General and a Shepherd. That’s a mind-blowing combination to me. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the implications. One way or another, this is an excellent request from Moses. And based on the wording, it is clear that Moses intended for this request to be made known to the people, so that they would feel really good about his successor.
I realize this might be too challenging for a single morning, but a way you might help hammer home the significance of what Moses said would be to ask something like “Try to write a one-sentence job description for the pastor of our church, the mayor of our community, and the president of our country”. Obviously, you can’t put everything they do in it, so what would be most important to mention? What are the priorities of the position? How would other people in your church and community respond to your proposed job description? But then here’s the most important question of all: how would we cultivate future leaders to meet those job descriptions? It’s not just enough that Moses desired a good leader for the people for the future—we immediately discover that Moses had been preparing someone to be that leader. What needs to happen for us to develop necessary leadership skills in the next generation? Who is doing that well? This is a question that every church and community is dealing with right now (literally; that’s one of the focuses of the Archway partnership in McDuffie County). On a smaller scale, what can your class do to build up a future Sunday School class leader?
Aside: The Burden of Knowing Your Own Death
Lost in all of the action of this book is the fact that Moses knew he would die before entering the Promised Land. When that time was far off, that probably wasn’t a big deal. He was old and knew he would die eventually. But as the Promised Land grew closer, it would have become very evident to Moses that he would soon die. What a burden. This is the diagnosis of a terminal illness without having an illness.
Fiction has taken this idea on so many times that it is now recognized as a trope: “foreseeing my death”. The cyclopes are said to have bargained one of their eyes for the ability to see the future, but were betrayed in that they only could foresee their own death. It drove most of them mad. In Moby Dick, the character Queequeg may have been complicit in the ship's demise due to the knowledge he didn’t share about his own coming death. Robert Heinlein wrote a short story about a doctor who invented a machine that would tell you the moment of your death (his own death was accurately predicted). It shows up as central to episodes in the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One of my favorite recurring versions of this is the Matt Smith-era Doctor Who, which actually had two versions of this going, one in which the Doctor knew the circumstances of his death, and one in which the other characters thought they knew that information. In the background of all of these fictional takes is the general reaction of morbid curiosity and revulsion. Personally, I think it would be too morbid to ask your class to think about how they would live if they knew the date of their death. But I do think you can ask them to appreciate how Moses faithfully continued to lead the people, even as his demise got closer and closer. I find it very dignified.
Part 3: God Provides (Numbers 27:18-23)
The Lord replied to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man who has the Spirit in him, and lay your hands on him. Have him stand before the priest Eleazar and the whole community, and commission him in their sight. Confer some of your authority on him so that the entire Israelite community will obey him. He will stand before the priest Eleazar who will consult the Lord for him with the decision of the Urim. He and all the Israelites with him, even the entire community, will go out and come back in at his command.” Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua, had him stand before the priest Eleazar and the entire community, laid his hands on him, and commissioned him, as the Lord had spoken through Moses.
This is one of the refreshing times when the person who has been groomed for a position turns out to be the best person for that position. (That doesn’t always happen; sometimes the son just isn’t qualified to take over the family business.) Joshua, who has been a general, a leader, a faithful believer in Yahweh, and Moses’ assistant, is outside-and-in the best person to lead Israel into the Promised Land. Note that God says Joshua “has the Spirit”. Some argue that this should just mean “spirit of leadership”, but this is a rare phrase. I believe that the Spirit of God rested on Joshua in a special way (remember, this is long before Pentecost) which means that God Himself provided Joshua with the qualifications to be a leader. That’s a big deal.
Take your class through the commissioning service—ask them to identify the key elements. In what ways do our modern commissioning/installation services match this description (if you used this as an icebreaker, just reiterate what you already said)? I love it for its simplicity. One question your class might have: why only “confer some of your authority”? That sounds odd. The word for “authority” is more commonly translated “majesty” or “honor”. Here’s how I understand it: no one was ever going to replace Moses (note that Joshua wasn’t on the Mount of Transfiguration), but Moses needed to begin to “step down” so Joshua could “step up”. This included delegating governmental power to Joshua Before Moses died, yes, but I think it also refers to the civic “place of honor” (i.e. Moses needed to start letting Joshua do some of the talking and presiding). In other words, God wanted this to be a transition process which would make the finality of Moses’ upcoming death less cataclysmic to the functioning of the people. I think that the role of Eleazar is equally important. Remember that he was Aaron’s son who went through this same process back in chapter 20. His role here would legitimize him in the eyes of all the people. Now, Aaron’s heir and Moses’ heir would be the leaders of the people.
The lesson is really straightforward: the new generation is now in charge. So use this as a vision-casting Sunday. What can the members of your class do to help prepare future leaders in your church (rather than throw them into the fire when the old leaders die)? And if you have business or civic leaders in your group, ask them to think the same way about their non-church roles.
Connecting This Passage with the Gospel
This is an interesting lesson in which you might not see a clear way to share/explain the gospel. And yet, I’ve previously asked you to always share the gospel in your lessons. So, what gives?
Well, I believe that the gospel message can be found throughout the Bible (sometimes, it’s really obvious like in the bronze serpent passage). I hinted at two such applications in my handout, but you may have missed them. First: note that though Moses’ punishment kept him out of the Promised Land, it didn’t keep him out of heaven. I think that’s a great way to talk about the intersection of forgiveness and consequences. “How can we say that God loved Moses if He still punished him?” The eternal glory of heaven is so much more than the passing niceties of this life—suffering pain and loss today in no way lessens the infinite gift of salvation. Or, you could talk about God’s holiness, how our sins require a purification that results in change in our lives. Sometimes, that purification can only come through discipline/punishment. “The Lord disciplines those He loves.”
Second: note the preparation for Joshua to succeed Moses. It wasn’t just about learning procedures for governing or memorizing laws—note that Joshua had the Spirit on him. Preparation for leadership is just as much about the heart as it is the head. When we think about the next generation of church leaders, we need to make sure first that they are fully committed followers of Jesus before we worry about their skills and aptitudes. There’s your gospel tie-in!
Even though those are not obvious applications, I don’t think it's a stretch to appeal to them. So, when you’re planning future lessons, that’s the kind of approach you can take to bring the gospel out loud and clear!