Strength for the Journey: "For the People" – Numbers 26-27

gavel-WSYou cannot live in Central Florida and not know that one law firm has “drummed” in its advertising the phrase “for the people”. The ad hearkens back to the immortal words of President Lincoln at Gettysburg. President Lincoln delivered a speech during the American Civil War, on the chilled afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863, while inaugurating the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, some four and a half months after the battle between Union armies and the Confederate troops. Not even two years later, on June 1, 1865, Senator Charles Sumner commented in his eulogy on the slain president that Lincoln was mistaken when he said that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” On the contrary, Sumner remarked, “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.” The infamous speech was short, and a small part of it recalled:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. … The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that Lincoln headthese dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

I am transfixed by the last line of that short essay about government “of the people, by the people, for the people”. I know, we didn’t gather for some strange mix of Americana and Bible – our kingdom of celebration today is one “not of this world”. I mention it only because those words relate directly to our passage of study for this lesson in Numbers 26 and 27. The text contains a vital leadership lesson that was learned by Moses at the very end of his tenure as “Prime Minister of Israel” – of perhaps we should call him simply “Elder of Israel”. The lessons is clear…

Key Principle: We must learn to be both careful about doing right, but not become insensitive to people in the process.

The rules are very important, but they are incomplete when they become the total standard of life apart from a living relationship with people. This is a problem for people in leadership to remember – especially when they forget the rules were made for people.

• I am thinking of the Pharisees that were offended by the hungry disciples eating from the barley stalks as they walked through the fields.

• I am recalling a recent YouTube video of a decorated police officer clearly overreacting to a man in a hotel lobby and using excessive force only moments after meeting the man.

Leaders are servants and laws are meant to serve a community – not to inflict harm on it. Yet, sometimes we can get to be so legally minded, we lose our humanity. Moses found out that it was a problem 3500 years ago, and some of us experienced the same thing this past week.


In order to recognize the principle of our lesson, we must excavate the layers of progression in the Biblical passage. Essentially, three events led to three outcomes – and God taught the leader in the process. The events included:

1) Counting the people in a census (Numbers 26:1-51).
2) Casting lots for the apportionment of territory (Numbers 26:52-56).
3) Counting the Levite population that was given no land (Numbers 26:57-62).

These three simple events were intended to set the parameters of geography for the settling of each of the Israelite tribes after they conquered the land. Nobody got land in the counting or the lot casting – what they got was an understanding of what came next – the settlement of tribes in different territories. The story is NOT ABOUT the events, but the inadvertent INEQUITY that came from the events – that Moses never saw coming. Why? Because leaders, like everyone else, are HUMAN. They make mistakes. They forget things, and they don’t see the full range of effects of every rule, or every policy. Blunders are a part of everyday life. I like what Chuck Swindoll wrote years ago in his book Living Above the Level of Mediocrity about mistakes:

…Blunders are a sign of our humanity. Scripture records man’s mistakes to teach us. I think they fall into five categories:

1. Panic-prompted mistakes usually involve fear, hurry or worry.
2. Good intention mistakes come from wrong timing or wrong methods.
3. Passive negligence mistakes result from laziness, lack of discipline, or inconsistency.
4. Unrestrained curiosity mistakes relate to the demonic or sensational.
5. Blind spot mistakes usually come from ignorance, habit or influences.

A man opened a new business and his best friend sent him a flower arrangement. The friend dropped in a few days later to visit his buddy and was pained to see a sign that read, “Rest in Peace”. He called the florist to complain. The florist said, “It could be worse. Somewhere in this city is a cemetery with a flower arrangement that says: ‘Congratulations on your new location!’”

The counting of the people was not a mistake, nor was the apportionment of land – but the tribal divisions of terrain overlooked some people – and that was at the heart of the lesson of sensitivity. Before we look at the three events, don’t forget – this family did not consider itself a NATION yet, but rather a series of tribes from one father who was now long dead. Let’s quickly scan the events on our way to the lesson:

Close up of Three Events

We will not read all the way through the legal document of families of Numbers 26:1-51. The recalling of specific names was very important to the individual families of the registry, but for time’s sake we will simply summarize the census as follows:

Event One: The Command and Execution of the Census (26:1-51)

Numbers 26:1 Then it came about after the plague, that the LORD spoke to Moses and to Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, saying, 2 “Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel from twenty years old and upward, by their fathers’ households, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel.” 3 So Moses and Eleazar the priest spoke with them in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, 4 “[Take a census of the people] from twenty years old and upward, as the LORD has commanded Moses.” Now the sons of Israel who came out of the land of Egypt [were]:

• Sons of Reuben (26:4-11): 43,730
• Sons of Simeon (12-14): 22,200
• Sons of Gad (15-18): 40,500
• Sons of Judah (19-22): 76,500
• Sons of Isaachar (23-25): 64,300
• Sons of Zebulun (26-27): 60,500
• Sons of Manasseh (28-34): 52,600
• Sons of Ephraim (35-37): 32,500
• Sons of Benjamin (38-41): 46,600
• Sons of Dan (42-43): 64,400
• Sons of Asher (44-47): 53,400
• Sons of Naphtali (48-50): 45,400
• Sons of Israel at the end of the journey: 601,730 men over twenty who could fight.

This “head count” meant that all but 1820 of the 603,550 counted in Numbers 1:45-46 were replaced. The people were only slightly smaller in number than when they counted thirty-eight years before in the desert, but the people were almost ENTIRELY REPLACED. These were the children and grandchildren of the original census – their parents were all gone and buried in the sand and rock of the deserts behind them.

As we come toward the end of this book, we should recall there were three stages of Israel’s journey through the wilderness give the book of Numbers its structure:

(1) Nineteen days during Israel’s preparation for departure from their camp at the Holy Mountain of the Law (Num 1:1–10:10),

(2) A thirty-eight-and-one-half-year journey from the Mountain of the Law to the plains of Moab (Num 10:11–22:1).

(3) A few final months of Israel’s encampment on the plains of Moab shortly before they entered Canaan (Num 21–36).

God told them which way to go to be blessed – and they went another way. He wasn’t being cruel… that is the cost of doing life their own way. God had a future plan for Israel – but they would be cut out of it and it would be placed in the hands of another.

Event Two: The Command and Execution of the Lots (26:52-56)

Immediately after the tallying of the potential warriors, God commanded Moses to divvy up the land geographically, with larger portions going to larger tribes:

Numbers 26:52 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 53 “Among these the land shall be divided for an inheritance according to the number of names. 54 “To the larger [group] you shall increase their inheritance, and to the smaller [group] you shall diminish their inheritance; each shall be given their inheritance according to those who were numbered of them. 55 “But the land shall be divided by lot. They shall receive their inheritance according to the names of the tribes of their fathers. 56 “According to the selection by lot, their inheritance shall be divided between the larger and the smaller [groups].”

This was probably very exciting for the people. Travel landless for a generation and you will hunger to settle down. Add to that, you are coming home to the place of your ancestry from a hot and inhospitable desert, and excitement abounds!

Event Three: The Counting of the Levites (26:57-62)

Numbers 26:57 These are those who were numbered of the Levites according to their families: of Gershon, the family of the Gershonites; of Kohath, the family of the Kohathites; of Merari, the family of the Merarites. 58 These are the families of Levi: the family of the Libnites, the family of the Hebronites, the family of the Mahlites, the family of the Mushites, the family of the Korahites. Kohath became the father of Amram. 59 The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed, the daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt; and she bore to Amram: Aaron and Moses and their sister Miriam. 60 To Aaron were born Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. 61 But Nadab and Abihu died when they offered strange fire before the LORD. 62 Those who were numbered of them were 23,000, every male from a month old and upward, for they were not numbered among the sons of Israel since no inheritance was given to them among the sons of Israel.

Don’t forget that Moses was tied to this family – not only Aaron’s sons. As a result of the pedigree of Moses, his family would be landless. There was no way a disruption could have arisen about favoritism and nepotism in the ranks – Moses’ family got nothing in the land inheritance. The chief idea was to spread the Levitical families out among the population and have them act in priestly ways toward the people of the tribe in whose land they dwelt.

Truthfully, none of these three events appears all that relevant to a believer today on the surface. We could take some time to see the spiritual principles involved in God commanding the people, and the passage is not devoid of spiritual truth – but that does not appear to be the purpose of the record. The lesson is found by following the events to WHAT THEY CAUSED in Moses’ heart – as this is primarily a lesson in sensitivity. Look closely at the verses that followed the three events – and in each of the outcomes there is a lesson to treasure!

The three events led to three outcomes. Don’t forget the point of the story…
We must learn to be both careful about doing right, but not become insensitive to people in the process.

Close up of Three Results

Moses counted. The people cast lots. The Priestly family was counted… but the mundane events led to three important results:

1) Encouragement: God lifted Moses with a reminder that He keeps His promises (Numbers 26:63-65).
2) Exposure: A blind spot was uncovered in the inequity of the inheritance as it was proposed (Numbers 27:1-11).
3) Entreaty: The sensitivity lesson still fresh on his mind, Moses presented to God the need for one who will be “for the people” in his administration – and God calls Joshua to be his replacement (Numbers 27:12-23).

Lesson One: A Lesson of Encouragement (Numbers 26:63-65):

Look closely at the words of Numbers 26:64 But among these there was not a man of those who were numbered by Moses and Aaron the priest, who numbered the sons of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. 65 For the LORD had said of them, “They shall surely die in the wilderness.” And not a man was left of them, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.

God lifted Moses with a reminder that the Lord keeps His promises. It may seem strange that such a lesson was needed for the old leader of Israel. By now, he was well-seasoned in his experiences with God. Did he not recognize that God follows through meticulously on His promises?

All of us, no matter how long we have walked with God, need to hear again this important truth: We must take God at His Word, and we must take His Word seriously. How very sad that so many, even in what is called “the church” of the modern era seem more concerned with public opinion than truth! If there is a God in Heaven, and if He is our Creator, and if He did offer us the story of the truth of events that will unfold in our world at the end of time – how can we trade temporal popularity for eternal truth?

Let me first illustrate how this is being played out, and then what we can – and must – do about it.

If you take the time to look back, you will discover the attacks against the veracity of the Bible were paired off with the rise of what has come to be known as “The Social Gospel”. When Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) studied theology at the University of Rochester, he joined one of hundreds of educational and “Christian” institutions funded by John D. Rockefeller. For a time he Pastored a Baptist Church among immigrants in the Big Apple until he joined the faculty at Rochester Theological Seminary — also funded by Rockefeller. In 1902 he became its Professor of Church History. As a professor he wrote books such as Christianizing the Social Order and A Theology for the Social Gospel. He had been educated to believe the Bible was not flawless, and that it offered – rather than salvation – a social ideology. He believed the Gospel was to be more relevant and compassionate to the hurting of his day. He introduced Jesus’s mission “not to save sinners from their sins” but as a Reformer with “a social passion for society.”

I mention him, because his influence is blowing in churches that are gearing to promote social philanthropy in the days ahead. Rauschenbusch called for political reform, ecumenical unity, social Justice and global peace. Important concepts of historic “Christian” theology – terms like “redemption” and “regeneration” were redefined to earthly meanings of peace and care. Listen to the authors of our day and see if you can pick out the subtlety:

• Pastor Brian McLaren’s recent book, The Secret Message of Jesus offers this message in the beginning: [Jesus actually] “came to start a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual, and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world” (p.4).

• Professor Anthony (Tony) Campolo is professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. He wrote: “The gospel is not about… pie-in-the-sky when they die…. It is imperative that the up and coming generation recognize that the biblical Jesus was committed to the realization of a new social order in this world…. Becoming a Christian, therefore, is a call to social action.”

I am not saying these men have contributed nothing to the Gospel of Jesus – I simply cannot judge that extensively the work of another servant’s hands. I can say their works seem very wrong headed. I can caution that our youth are being attracted to the “bright lights” of philanthropy, because Jesus helped people. There is certainly nothing wrong with helping people – and it is a godly thing to do. There is, however, something VERY WRONG with orienting the teaching of Scripture to a social planning manual while both questioning the text’s historical truthfulness and ignoring its primary purpose. The Scripture is not nearly so flexible a thing.

God is Creator in the Bible. Man is the sinner that needed judicial reconciliation to God after the Fall in the Garden. The message of salvation is not primarily about the “empowerment of the poor” or the “enfranchising of the destitute” to a better life on earth. The Gospel is about a breach of mutiny against the Holy One. We must be clear that we are not using God’s Word to build a Kingdom on earth – but rather we are walking with God by His Word as part of a Kingdom that will come with a renewed earth.

Let’s not go too far afield. The lesson to Moses was that God literally fulfills His promises in real terms in every sense. When we diminish the literal quality of history or prophecy in the Bible, we open the door to remake its message entirely. Moses was encouraged to see God deliver on His promises, even when the promises were not positive for all the people he served.

You can count on God – and you can count on His Word. I don’t mean some cryptic version of truth that cannot be discerned. I mean that God does what God promises – seriously, literally, completely – whether His message is endorsed by theologians or popular on the streets.

Lesson Two: A Lesson of Exposure (Numbers 27:1-11):

At the heart of the lesson on sensitivity is the next story that resulted from the count.

Numbers 27:1 Then the daughters of Zelophehad, … 2 …stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the leaders and all the congregation, at the doorway of the tent of meeting, saying, 3 “Our father died in the wilderness, yet he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah; but he died in his own sin, and he had no sons. 4 “Why should the name of our father be withdrawn from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.” 5 So Moses brought their case before the LORD. 6 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 7 “The daughters of Zelophehad are right in [their] statements. You shall surely give them a hereditary possession among their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer the inheritance of their father to them. 8 “Further, you shall speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If a man dies and has no son, then you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter. 9 If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11 If his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his nearest relative in his own family, and he shall possess it; and it shall be a statutory ordinance to the sons of Israel, just as the LORD commanded Moses.‘”

A blind spot was uncovered in the inequity of the inheritance as the count was made and lots divided land. Some were unrepresented in the count. Women who had no inheritance knew elsewhere in the Law they were not to be passed over. A brother or near relative was to raise up the name in the place of the fallen one – as would happen in the story of Naomi told in the Book of Ruth.

This was a case of real inequity because the census neglected some who were undefined in the law. They lived at the edge, and now were being pushed out of a rightful inheritance. The fact is, sometimes people get taken advantage of because we don’t see them. Legal mechanisms don’t replace real relationships. When people don’t engage each other, they don’t really understand each other. It is easy for any of us to get so caught up in our own world, that we don’t see the problems of those around us well at all.

Mark this in your Bible as a “BLIND SPOT” lesson. It wasn’t that someone INTENDED wrong, it is that wrong happened in a place nobody was looking at the time. David Roper in The Law that Set You Free wrote a great illustration of a blind spot:

A close friend of mine has a friend who is a young attorney. He is a member of a sizeable law firm run by a rather traditional kind of boss who enjoys a special kind of ritual at Thanksgiving time. Every year this young attorney participates in this ritual because it means so much to his employer. On the large walnut table in the board room of the office suite sits a row of turkeys, one for each member in the firm. It isn’t just a matter of “if you want it you can have it; if you don’t you can leave it.” The members go through some rather involved protocol. Each man stands back and looks at his turkey. When the time comes, he steps forward and looks at his turkey, announcing how grateful he is for the turkey this Thanksgiving. This young attorney was single, lives alone, and had no use for a huge turkey. He has no idea how to fix it and even if it were properly prepared he has no way to use all the meat. Because it was expected of him, he took the turkey every year. One year his close friends at the law office replaced his turkey with on made of papier-mâché. They weighed it with lead to make it feel like a real turkey, but it was a bogus bird through and through. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, every gathered in the board room. When it came is turn, this young man stepped up, picked up the large bird and announced his gratitude for his job and for the turkey. Later that afternoon, he got on the bus heading to go home. With the big turkey on his lap he wondered what in the world he would do with it. A little farther down the bus line, a rather run-down, discouraged-looking man got on. The only available seat was next to our young attorney friend. The lawyer learned that the stranger had spent the entire day job-hunting with no luck, that he had a large family and was wondering what he would do for Thanksgiving tomorrow. The attorney was struck with a brilliant idea: This is my day for the good turn, I will give this man my turkey! Then he thought, “This man is no freeloader. He’s no bum.” He asked the man: “How much money do you have?” “Oh, a couple of dollars and a few cents” the man replied. “I would like to sell you this turkey” he said as he placed it on his lap. Sold” the man handed over the two dollars and some coins that he had. He was moved to tears, thrilled to death that his family would have a turkey for Thanksgiving. He got off the bus and waved goodbye to the attorney. “God bless you… Have a wonderful thanks giving, and ‘I’ll never forget you”. The bus pulled away from the curb, as both men smiled. The next Monday, the attorney went to work. His friends were dying to know about the turkey. You cannot imagine their chagrin when they heard the story of what happened. I understand through my friend, they all got on the bus every day that week looking in vain for a man who, as far as I know, to this day still entertains a misunderstanding about a guy who innocently sold him a fake turkey for a couple of bucks and a few cents.”

Sometimes we can hurt people, even when we don’t KNOW we are doing so. We can do it with WORDS that are insensitive, but we can also do it with short-sighted or ill-informed ideas for which we haven’t truly considered the outcomes. Moses got corrected by God, but he got something more… he got a message to BECOME MORE SENSITIVE to the people – not just the system and the rules.

Lesson Three: A Lesson of Entreaty (Numbers 27:12-23):

How do I know? Because of Moses’ prayer for a successor. Look at the words in Numbers 27: 15 Then Moses spoke to the LORD, saying, 16 “May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, 17 who will go out and come in before them, and who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD will not be like sheep which have no shepherd.” 18 So the LORD said to Moses, “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him; 19 and have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before all the congregation, and commission him in their sight …

The sensitivity lesson still fresh on his mind, Moses presented to God the need for one who will be “for the people” in his administration – and God called Joshua to be his replacement. Moses was satisfied – because he knew the mettle of Joshua, but he also knew his tenderness, and his care for the people.

We must learn to be both careful about doing right, but not become insensitive to people in the process.

W.H. Griffith Thomas offered a warning: “There is no greater foe to Christianity than mere profession. There is no greater discredit to Christianity today than to stand up for it, and yet not live it in our lives. There is no greater danger in the Christian world today than to stand up for the Bible, and yet to deny that Bible by the very way we defend it. There is no greater hindrance to Christianity today than to contend for orthodoxy, whatever the orthodoxy may be, and to deny it by the censoriousness, the hardness, the unattractiveness with which we champion our cause. Oh this power of personal testimony, with the heart filled with the love of Christ, the mind saturated with the teaching of Christ, the conscience sensitive to the law of Christ, the whole nature aglow with grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (Listening to the Giants, 149-50, Warren Wiersbe, Baker 1980)