Strength for the Journey: “The Time Lapse Photo Journal” – Numbers 33

time lapse photoHave you ever seen time lapse sequential photos? Through photo journaling, we are able to watch as a seed germinates and grows into a flower in thirty seconds. A single frame, taken at regular intervals, can be brought together with other frames in sequence, and the flower “grows” right before your eyes. Recently I saw a fascinating look from satellite photos of earth since the 1980’s until now. You can watch as Orlando grows outward, sprawling half-way across Florida’s inland counties. Even the changes in my own little town are noticeable from space. Watching a flower grow by staring at the pot in real time would be mind-numbingly boring. Watching it happen in high speed is fascinating. Sometimes the best way to notice the changes is when they are brought together in quick comparison.

Our passage for this lesson is a good example of how the diary of two generations can be brought together in time lapse to help pull out the lessons of God to His people. Numbers 33:1-49 read – at least to an emotionally detached Bible student – like a lifeless travel itinerary – empty place name after place name. The names don’t cast images on our minds because they weren’t OUR history – we hadn’t experienced the days and nights in those places. Yet, to the children of Israel those places were markers of God’s profound lessons to them – or at least they were supposed to be… Here is the problem: History isn’t well remembered even when it has been carefully documented. Powerful lessons to one generation can quickly dry on the page into dead words for the next generation. Standing at the edge of the Promised Land was a new generation of Israelites. The stories of God’s great victories over the gods of Egypt were just that – stories. They didn’t live through those events – their parents and grandparents did. The dramatic stories were fast losing their meaning and power.

Sociologists call the critical stories of a people’s heritage their “energizing mythology” – not a reference to the veracity of the events, but a reference to their power to create an ethos in a group. The bonding of people into a nation or community comes from the records of shared experiences that led to the formation of shared values. The record of God’s work in and through Moses was intended to help Israel move from an over-inflated family and rabble of ex-slaves to a nation – with common remembrances of the move of God in their midst. This is the overview of that process – the high speed “time lapse” journal, filled with snapshots that should bring back the pain of loss of feckless rebels and the contrasting warmth of comfort and care from a faithful God. This is both a historical overview, and a trail of learning and formation.

Key Principle: Before we move ahead, we should look back. Careful observations of the lessons of our past will help us make fewer mistakes in our bound forward.

That is why a nation needs its older members. Youth brings vitality and zeal, but not often wisdom – and a nation needs to look at choices of its future with wisdom.

The account opens: Numbers 33:1 “These are the journeys of the sons of Israel, by which they came out from the land of Egypt by their armies, under the leadership of Moses and Aaron.”

The story was intended to reflect “stages”. The Hebrew term “mas-sah’” (translated “journeys” in verse one) is derived from a term to “take up the camp” or “break camp”, but is figuratively used in the sense of the “stages” of a journey. A painfully literal translation of the opening verse says: “These are the stages of the camp movements of the sons of Israel which came out from the land of Egypt with her armies at the hands of Moses and Aaron.” In other words – this is a history lesson – a remembrance of the whole of the journey that is about to end with instructions to move forward into the Promised Land and begin the battle to possess it.

For time’s sake, I have traced in my study the whole of the record, and will press it together into the lessons that should flash before our minds as we read about the places. There were certainly many other lessons that could have been included. We are simply observers, not participants to the fourteen thousand five hundred cold nights and hot days of travel. We sit in temperature controlled rooms on padded chairs to critique the exhausted responses of camp crammed ex-slaves on a perilous and uncomfortable journey with uncertain leaders and little cohesive bond.

Numbers 33:2 Moses recorded their starting places according to their journeys by the command of the LORD, and these are their journeys according to their starting places.

When you read this whole chapter, the details are overwhelming, because the places don’t evoke any image in our minds. It is as painful as watching a long slide show of your friend’s vacation that you weren’t a part of, about places you haven’t seen. Our passage includes three parts:

  • Four lists of encampments that were struck and removed during the journey are reviewed quickly.
  • Sandwiched in the middle of the four lists is a passing geographical reminder of the encampment at Sinai, where Moses met God in worship and was given major portions of the three codes of law.
  • Finally, it ends with God speaking to the people by relaying a message about entering the land through Moses – that includes four instructions and a single warning.

Stage One: Eleven Camps from Ramses to the Mountain of the Law (Exodus 12-19).

First, let’s notice that twelve camps are named, and eleven journeys between them recounted in order. Along the way, let’s think about what God communicated to His people. You cannot read the first part of the journey out of Egypt, and not recognize that GOD HAS A PLAN FOR HIS PEOPLE.

1. Shouts and Cries: It began with the death and pain of Egypt contrasted with celebration and departure of Israel: Numbers 33:3 They journeyed from Rameses in the first month (Ex.13:4), on the fifteenth day of the first month [Nisan or Abib]; on the next day after the Passover the sons of Israel started out boldly in the sight of all the Egyptians, 4 while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn whom the LORD had struck down among them. The LORD had also executed judgments on their gods. 5 Then the sons of Israel journeyed from Rameses and camped in Succoth (Exodus 12:12-37).

2. Heavenly GPS: Next was the story of God’s miraculous guidance. Numbers 33:6 They journeyed from Succoth and camped in Etham (Exodus 13:20), which is on the edge of the wilderness. This is the part of the journey when God first placed the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day to guide them (Ex. 13:21-22).

3. Baiting: God sets up Pharaoh. Numbers 33:7 They journeyed from Etham and turned back to Pi-hahiroth (Exodus 14:2), which faces Baal-zephon, and they camped before Migdol. Exodus 14 tells the story of how God told Moses to camp by the sea after wandering a bit (remembered in the places named here) so that Pharaoh would see them wandering and chase after them! (Exodus 14:1-5). Pharaoh took the bait and chased after them. God parted the sea, and then swallowed up the Egyptians, causing great reverence to overtake the people of Israel (Exodus 14:31).

GOD HAS A PLAN. It may not always appear that God is at work, and sometimes the way God works is so incredibly difficult to discern. Who beside our God would have planned for Pharaoh to resist so that a contest could form and God could fill the hands of His people? Who would have thought ahead to the coming generations of Pharaohs and recognized the need to bring Egypt and her self-made gods to their needs before the Holy One, so that Israel would be left unmolested to flourish when they arrived in Canaan? God did! He did it according to a plan. Who would have thought of a desert GPS guidance system to get the people to follow Him? God did! He knew where He wanted His people and when. Who would have told the people to appear to be wandering so He could draw Pharaoh in and crush his chariots – the one danger that would have haunted Israel for the next four decades in the wilderness of Sin? God did! Because He wanted Israel to settle down and organize into a nation.

When it appears this old world is spinning out of control, it isn’t. God IS at work. His plan is complex, and His power is unbounded by human will. No Congress can overrule Him. If He allows something, it won’t be simply human sin sickness that causes it – it passed through God’s stamp of approval toward His plan. That is easier to say that to truly accept.

Did not this plan put His own people in more peril? Did not this plan drag out the bitter hardship of slavery and abuse on His people longer? Yes, it did. When a believer exclaims: “God has a plan!” they do so in the face of a world that would reshape God to their own sense of justice, their own sense of fairness, and their own sense of timing. God has a plan – but men and women who do not believe in Him do not like to hear that. He is not a malleable God – He will not be shaped, trained to jump through the hoops of our timing. Ultimately, belief that God has a plan is an expression of belief in God’s Sovereignty. A Sovereign has no need to explain the details of His plan to His followers. Job discovered that lesson.

When people demand that God explain Himself, they are often saying they don’t believe that He knows what He knows, sees what He sees and understands what He understands. Recognizing that God has a plan is recognition of God’s place above our lives – and that is something a non-believer does not WANT to do. Nevertheless, God has a plan!

Not only that, but WHERE GOD GUIDES, GOD PROVIDES. Look at the whole next segment of the journey to the Mountain of the Law:

4. Bitterness: The people face the reality they are unprepared for the desert. 33:8 They journeyed from before Pi-Hahiroth and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness; and they went three days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and camped at Marah (Ex. 15:22). Thirsty, the people came to Marah, a place of bitter calcium and magnesium springs, and found water that would cause terrible cramps and intestinal distress. God provided what they NEEDED, not what they WANTED.

5. Blessing: Numbers 33:9 They journeyed from Marah and came to Elim; and in Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there (cp. Ex. 15:23-27). The people learned that God had prepared places of rest and provision in the wilderness, in spite of the inhospitable appearance. God had PLENTY for them in places they knew nothing of, yet they needed to keep following Him past bitterness and into blessing.

6. Numbers 33:10 They journeyed from Elim and camped by the Red Sea (omitted in the Ex. 15-17 list, but less than 2 miles away – probably not considered important in the primary account). The hot desert also had some cool breezes, and the food supplies at the shore were helpful to stretch the supplies.

7. Bread: Numbers 33:11 They journeyed from the Red Sea and camped in the wilderness of Sin. Exodus 16 recounts this journey to have taken place one month into their travels, more than half way to the Mountain of the Law. At the point their grain had run out, God began providing the manna to them for the next forty years, until they came into Canaan (Josh 5:10-12). Cheese they had, perhaps even some eggs, but the staple of grain used to supplement both man and flock was running scarce – and God showed something new. God has more options to supply than we can see.

8. Birds: Numbers 33:12 They journeyed from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Dophkah. In the journey into the wilderness of Sin, they left the sea, and any fish they could have caught. Turning inland, they hungered for something more than manna, and God gave them quails. The sites are not named in the Exodus 16 account beyond the region (16:1), but they apparently included Dophkah and Alush – and are recapped in 17:1. The people could not risk

9. Numbers 33:13 They journeyed from Dophkah and camped at Alush.

10. Drink and Defend: Numbers 33:14 “They journeyed from Alush and camped at Rephidim (Ex. 17:1); now it was there that the people had no water to drink”. The story of Exodus 17 opens with the grumbling of thirsty Israelites, and the instruction for Moses to STRIKE the rock and get water from it near to Horeb (Ex.17:6), and area familiar to Moses (Exodus 3:1). Moses renamed the place he associated with his CALL by God the new names of Massah (Heb: trial) and later a similar place called Meribah (Heb: provocation). Meribah is not the same place as Massah and not at the same time, but connected by the same “water from the rock” experience in Numbers 20:8-11– except Meribah is where God said SPEAK to the rock (all remembered in Psalm 95:7-8). Shortly after God provided the water from the rock on the west of Horeb – a band of marauding Amalekites attacked (perhaps because they were taking the stored water?) and Joshua got his first command of an army of Israel to fight (Ex. 17:8-16) and the victory was celebrated by giving God the title “Yahweh Nissi – the Lord our Banner” (17:15).

11. Consultation: The Amalekites weren’t the only one who heard about Israel’s camp in the Wilderness of Sin – the Midianites also heard. Sometime during the time of camping at Rephidim, perhaps near the end of the fifty days of the journey, Jethro (Reuel) the father-in-law of Moses came out to see Moses and his family (Exodus 18) and told Moses to spread out the workload. Numbers 33:15 They journeyed from Rephidim and camped in the wilderness of Sinai (Ex. 19:1-2). Fifty days after Passover (12:18), they arrived from Egypt to the Mountain of the Law (19:1).

WHERE GOD GUIDES, GOD PROVIDES. He can provide water in a desert for thousands, or counsel in a tent for one leader. He can fill a net with fish, or a hungry belly with manna. He can store rain water in a rock wall or supply strength from a team mate holding up your arms during a conflict.

Stage Two: Fifty Days Later – Camping by the Mountain of the Law (Ten Months- Exodus 20-40; Numbers 1:1-10:11).

They arrived at the Mountain and met God. Some only saw His power from a distance, seventy saw Him pass by a prepared lunch table. One talked with Him and got a tablet cut from His hand. Here is the lesson: GOD KNOWS WHAT HE THINKS. He wasn’t waiting for a poll or survey to make the rules of right and wrong. He wasn’t “getting input” from Moses. God knows what is right, because God DEFINES what is right. He also is keenly aware that fallen human nature isn’t keen on following what is right…

During the time Moses was on the Mountain of the Law (forty days – Ex. 24:18), the people rebelled. Three thousand were involved in a calf worship uprising, together with an orgy that followed the inaugural celebration (Ex. 32). God tipped off Moses, who seemed in no hurry to go back to the people, and Moses angrily broke the tablets he brought from God when he saw the party. He called on Levites to kill those involved (3,000 according to 32:18). In the face of this bold mutiny, God threatened not to go personally with Moses to the Promised Land, though He would supply an angelic guide. Moses pleaded with God, and God relented and replaced the tablets (Ex. 34:1ff). He kept meeting with Moses, who walked from the presence of the Holy One with a shining face (Ex. 34:29ff).

Our faith is built on the truth that GOD KNOWS WHAT HE THINKS. He doesn’t need men to try to make right more popular. He requires only that we live by His Spirit and His Word – and that we understand His absolute right to move in history, and in our lives. We don’t have to understand his reasons, we have to follow His Words. We don’t need to make His Words softer to win him a greater popularity, we need to speak them openly, cherish them lovingly, and live them humbly. If the Bible means anything in all its content, it means this: GOD KNOWS WHAT HE THINKS AND SAYS WHAT HE MEANS.

Stage Three: Moving from the Mountain of the Law to Kadesh (Numbers 10:11-14:38).

The next stage after Sinai illustrates vividly the common frailties of people. The people didn’t trust Moses, and they didn’t trust God. They wanted what they wanted, when they wanted it. They fussed and fumed…

1. Greed: Numbers 33:16 They journeyed from the wilderness of Sinai and camped at Kibroth-hattaavah (Numbers 10:11-11:35). The people left the mountain in fanfare thirteen months after their departure from Egypt (Num. 10:11). The camp moved out, complete with a new worship center of the Tabernacle. Complaints about the conditions caused a fire to break out on the edge of the camp, and GREED overcame people on God’s next wave of quail brought to the camp – so a sickness set in killing those who incessantly cried for more than they needed. They buried many at the site of the “grave of the greedy” or Kibroth – hatta ‘avah.

2. Healing: Numbers 33:17 They journeyed from Kibroth-hattaavah and camped at Hazeroth (Num. 10:34-35). To get away from the cemetery, they founded a little village (chatser) and called it “The Villages”, or Hazeroth. It took time to heal from their losses.

3. Mistrust: Numbers 33:18 They journeyed from Hazeroth and camped at Rithmah [in Paran -Num 12:16]. (The whole encampment encompasses the stories of Num. 13:1-14:38). It began with Moses’ own family expressing jealousy about Moses and his special relationship with God. Miriam stalled all forward movement while she recovered from God’s temporary plague of leprosy. Next was the mistrust of the spies sent to the Hebron plateau. They returned with grapes and stories – but the majority of the spies would not urge the people to take the land as God instructed.

This stage, filled with rebellion and grave stones, reminds us of an essential truth: GOD’S PLAN REQUIRES OUR SURRENDER. God’s people need to follow God’s Word and God’s will – or disaster follows. When we want and pursue what God says we AREN’T SUPPOSED TO HAVE, we wound those around us. When we delay in following God’s stated purposes, we stifle God’s blessings. We go on in a desert while God provides in the land He called us to live in. Believers are called to surrender their WANTS to God and TRUST HIM for the direction and provision. We won’t find the provision in a place He hasn’t told us to be. Conversely, we will experience greater communion with Him when we walk beside Him, and refuse to wander off.

Stage Four: Eighteen Encampments in the southern deserts of Israel ending at Kadesh (Numbers 14:39-20:14).

In our recent studies in the Book of Numbers we have followed the lessons of the eighteen camps mentions in 33:19-36 There is no cross reference for these in another travel log outside of Numbers. Based on Deuteronomy 1:46-2:1 it appears Israel encamped for a length of time at Kadesh the first time “many days” at the time of the spies search, and God’s penalties to the people as a result of their disbelief. The record is near to Rithmah, an undermined location not far from Kadesh. Numbers includes the list of camps without commentary:

Numbers 33:19 They journeyed from Rithmah and camped at Rimmon-perez. 20 They journeyed from Rimmon-perez and camped at Libnah. 21 They journeyed from Libnah and camped at Rissah. 22 They journeyed from Rissah and camped in Kehelathah. 23 They journeyed from Kehelathah and camped at Mount Shepher. 24 They journeyed from Mount Shepher and camped at Haradah. 25 They journeyed from Haradah and camped at Makheloth. 26 They journeyed from Makheloth and camped at Tahath. 27 They journeyed from Tahath and camped at Terah. 28 They journeyed from Terah and camped at Mithkah. 29 They journeyed from Mithkah and camped at Hashmonah. 30 They journeyed from Hashmonah and camped at Moseroth. 31 They journeyed from Moseroth and camped at Bene-jaakan. 32 They journeyed from Bene-jaakan and camped at Hor-haggidgad. 33 They journeyed from Hor-haggidgad and camped at Jotbathah. 34 They journeyed from Jotbathah and camped at Abronah. 35 They journeyed from Abronah and camped at Ezion-geber. 36 They journeyed from Ezion-geber and camped in the wilderness of Zin, that is, Kadesh.

The eighteen encampments chronicle the venture of most of the thirty eight of the total forty years of wandering. It then took another two years in Transjordan to place the people in the valley opposite Jericho. This was forty years to reach what would have been a march of only a few days to get into the heart of the Promised Land when the spies went up from Kadesh through Wadi Zin.

A fourth lesson is so obvious in this section: WHEN GOD CALLS – ANSWER HIM. God told the people to go in to the land, but they chose a “plan b” for their lives. How many believers can identify with that?

• God told you to marry a believer, but you didn’t – plan b created a huge difficulty.

• God told you to live within your means – but plan b has meant years of recovery from debts.

• God told you to study His Word and know it – but years of distraction in your plan b has made you spiritually anemic and open to making the wrong judgments.

We could go ON and ON… but we all get the point. Delayed obedience is disobedience. WHEN GOD IS CALLING – PICK UP THE PHONE.

Stage Five: Ten Encampments from Kadesh to the Jordan River (Numbers 20:14-33:49; cp. Numbers 26:63).

Tired of running and ready to head, at least little by little, toward the Promised Land – the children of Israel moved another ten times – largely making their way AROUND THE LAND through Transjordan – a choice that would cost them two and one-half tribes, a deeply destructive compromise with women of the region and several difficult battles is recounted in a simple quick reference:

Numbers 33:37 They journeyed from Kadesh and camped at Mount Hor, at the edge of the land of Edom. 38 Then Aaron the priest went up to Mount Hor at the command of the LORD, and died there in the fortieth year after the sons of Israel had come from the land of Egypt, on the first [day] in the fifth month. 39 Aaron was one hundred twenty-three years old when he died on Mount Hor. 40 Now the Canaanite, the king of Arad who lived in the Negev in the land of Canaan, heard of the coming of the sons of Israel. 41 Then they journeyed from Mount Hor and camped at Zalmonah. 42 They journeyed from Zalmonah and camped at Punon. 43 They journeyed from Punon and camped at Oboth. 44 They journeyed from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim, at the border of Moab. 45 They journeyed from Iyim and camped at Dibon-gad. 46 They journeyed from Dibon-gad and camped at Almon-diblathaim. 47 They journeyed from Almon-diblathaim and camped in the mountains of Abarim, before Nebo. 48 They journeyed from the mountains of Abarim and camped in the plains of Moab by the Jordan [opposite] Jericho. 49 They camped by the Jordan, from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab.

At the risk of being overly OBVIOUS, there is a simple lesson we have in these eleven places and ten journeys: NOT BEING WHERE YOU ARE TOLD LEAVES YOU OPEN TO ENCOUNTERING TESTS FOR WHICH YOU AREN’T PREPARED. Skip school and hang out with trouble makers off campus and you will end up facing challenges you may not have bargained for. Sneak into the party with the “druggies” and “partiers” and you will be confronted with peer pressure and choices on a whole different level. Choose a philosophy program in a godless institution, and you may find yourself standing like a tree in front of a flame thrower. Spend late hours at the office under pressure with the new intern and you may find yourself ruining your marriage. CHOOSE TO SPEND YOUR TIME WHERE GOD HAS TOLD YOU TO BE. You may feel ready for the tests, but no one EVER failed when they avoided the test altogether.

The end of the passage is four commands and a warning in the Laws of Conquest. The four commands included:

The whole of the travel log had a point – and that was to let the lessons of the past inform the choices concerning the future. God gave four brisk and simple commands:

Numbers 33:50 Then the LORD spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan [opposite] Jericho, saying, 51 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them:

Command One: DON’T COMPROMISE WITH WICKEDNESS. Numbers 33:51b… ‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 52 then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places;

Command Two: DON’T STOP SHORT OF OBEDIENCE. Numbers 33:53 and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.

Command Three: TRUST MY DIRECTION AND PROVISION AGAIN. Numbers 33:54 You shall inherit the land by lot according to your families; to the larger you shall give more inheritance, and to the smaller you shall give less inheritance. Wherever the lot falls to anyone, that shall be his.

Command Four: PRESERVE THE IMPORTANCE OF THE FAMILY STRUCTURE. Numbers 33:54b…”You shall inherit according to the tribes of your fathers.

The One Warning:

Five stages gave way to a record of four commands that eventually came down to ONE WARNING: BE THE DISTINCT PEOPLE I HAVE CALLED YOU TO BE, OR YOU WILL NOT BE A PEOPLE AT ALL.

Numbers 33:55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them [will become] as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they will trouble you in the land in which you live. 56 And as I plan to do to them, so I will do to you.'”

Don’t get smug about being my children, act out of humility and obedience. How do we accomplish that? The best was is to LOOK BACK, and review the lessons God already taught you:

• God has a plan
• Where God guides, God provides.
• God knows what He thinks, and says what He means.
• God’s plan requires surrender.
• When God calls – answer Him.
• Choose to be where He tells you – or face testing that exposes your weakness.

Before we move ahead, we should look back. Careful observations of the lessons of our past will help us make fewer mistakes in our bound forward.