While we must never reduce Old Testament narratives to allegories that we can read ourselves into, these historical accounts instruct us in our own walks with the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 10:6). In reading the book of Numbers, then, we can learn principles from Israel’s journey to the Promised Land without fancying that we are on a parallel journey.
Sunday I read several chapters of Numbers, going through familiar stories that I’d read many times. Part of my reading covered Chapters 13 and 14, in which Moses records the scouting expedition into Canaan. As God had told them, they found the Land brimming with choice fruits, milk and honey. It was wonderful!
But they also found giants in the land, causing them to question God’s wisdom in leading them there. They knew very well that they didn’t possess the strength to conquer those people!
As usual they grumbled against the Lord, once again incurring His righteous anger. But this time they’d gone too far, causing Him to decree that they would wander in the wilderness for forty years. Only Joshua and Caleb would enter the land as remnants of the generation that escaped Egypt. Joshua and Caleb would bring the next generation into the land.
What followed God’s decree caught my attention Sunday:
39 When Moses told these words to all the people of Israel, the people mourned greatly. 40 And they rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, “Here we are. We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned.” 41 But Moses said, “Why now are you transgressing the command of the Lord, when that will not succeed? 42 Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies. 43 For there the Amalekites and the Canaanites are facing you, and you shall fall by the sword. Because you have turned back from following the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.” 44 But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, although neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses departed out of the camp. 45 Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them and pursued them, even to Hormah. ~~Numbers 14:39-45 (ESV)
I did a double-take when I read those verses. After all, verse 40 says that they confessed their sin and decided to go up to the land as God had planned. Shouldn’t He have honored their apparent repentance?
I completely ignored the fact that God knew their hearts. They weren’t actually repentant; they didn’t care that their unbelief dishonored God. They just didn’t want to endure His punishment.
So they fashioned repentance on their terms. They decided to go up to the hill country and take it in their own strength, completely disregarding the warning that God would not go with them. In essence, they declared their stubborn independence from Him — their unwillingness to follow His will and accept His discipline. They marched up to the hill country in defiant pride, not in an attitude of humble obedience.
Essentially, their false repentance mocked His authority over them. And tragically, their defiance resulted in their deaths.
This episode is actual history. Squeezing it into a strict allegorical of our dealings with God puts the emphasis on us. At the same time, the Holy Spirit included it in Scripture to teach Christians the importance of humble obedience and a repentance that doesn’t mock His authority.
As we contemplate Numbers 14:39-45, we can learn that God will not accept repentance (or anything else) on our terms. He sets the conditions. He graciously gives us the privilege of obeying Him.