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OT Lesson 15 Study Notes: Numbers 11-14; 21:1-9

Posted by Jim F. on April 17, 2010

Besides the chapters of Numbers assigned for this lesson, I also recommend chapters 16, 17, and 20.

It is unfortunate that we have no lessons from Leviticus. Though it is not immediately obvious how we should understand those scriptures and apply them to ourselves, the exercise of doing so can be very beneficial.

I have depended on study notes prepared by my friend, Art Bassett, several years ago. But I’ve edited and expanded them since then—more than once—so I am no longer sure who wrote what. So I take responsibility for what you see here, though I’m not sure how much credit I can take.

God’s Wrath

It is “common knowledge” that the God of the Old Testament is a god of wrath, and the God of the New Testament is a loving God—though each is the same God. Part of this confusion may stem our not understanding the subtleties of love and what it means for God. Or we may be guilty of over-simplification, assuming that we already understand what anger is, since we have experienced it so often in our own lives. Therefore when God shows anger, we think of him as being vindictive and cruel at times. But, following Paul’s lead (found in his teachings on sorrow; see 2 Corinthians 7: 10), just as there are two types of sorrow: godly sorrow and the sorrow of the world, there might also be two types of anger: godly anger and the kind we commonly experience in our own lives. The second kind most of us know well. The first may be entirely foreign to our nature and understanding. Its foreignness would require that we come to scriptures that speak of God’s wrath with a prayerful heart in an honest attempt to learn.

Here are some questions that may help us understand that second kind of anger:

1. Is there a substantial difference between our anger and God’s anger? What causes both? What is the end desired in each? Is one largely self-centered and the other primarily other-centered?

2. How does love figure into God’s anger? Is there a relationship between his anger and his constant reference to mercy and long-suffering?

3. What does the Lord mean when he says “As many as I love I rebuke and chasten” (Revelation 3: 19)? What does love have to do with chastisement? How can one truly love someone who has chastised him or her? What is the love shown immediately after chastening (D&C 121: 43) designed to accomplish?

The word “rebuke” in Revelation 3:19 translates the Greek word elencho, the ordinary meaning of which is to show or demonstrate or prove something, to convince of wrongdoing. The word “chasten” translates the Greek word paideuo, which means “to educate,” “to teach to be responsible.”

4. What is the relationship between chastisement and broken hearts and contrite spirits? What do a broken heart and a contrite spirit have to do with one’s coming to love and understand God? Why does the Lord instruct the Nephites that he wants a sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit (3 Nephi 9:20)? What is the connection between sacrifices—ancient and modern—and broken hearts and contrite spirits?

The word “contrite” literally means “bruised or crushed; worn or broken by rubbing” (Oxford English Dictionary).

5. Does God’s anger in the Old Testament, especially in the works we are currently studying, have anything to do with the fact that he is in the initial stages of bringing an entire covenant people to be? Do you think that he would appear as wrathful if he were dealing with a single individual?

6. How much of what we perceive to be anger is really guilt on our part, a perception that he is angry rather than real anger on his part?
Study Questions

Numbers 11

Verses 1-3: Each previous time that we have seen a story of the disaffection of the children of Israel, it has been for some specific complaint: no water, no bread, etc. Here, however, no reason for the disaffection is specified. What is the cause of Israel’s complaint this time? Notice the narrator’s explanation of the name that Moses gives to the place: “taberah” means “fire.” How is fire symbolically important? (Consider the fire associated with God, for example: at the burning bush–and later the entire mountain of Sinai; the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites by night; burnt offerings; the golden calf; and in statements such as “God will come in a pillar of fire” (D&C 29:12), “I will cause that your heart will burn within you” (D&C 9:8), “the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10), “a refiner’s fire” (D&C 128:24) “he will baptize you with . . . fire” (Matt. 3:11), the residence of God is like a sea of glass and fire (D&C 130:7), etc.)

How is Moses’ role in this story different than it has been in the previous stories of Israel’s complaints? How is that role the same here and in Exodus 32?

Verse 4-6: This verse tells us that it was “the mixt multitude” or rabble that began to complain rather than Israel (verse 4). What does that tell us? Does it change the meaning or application of the story? Does verse 10 contradict verse 4 as to who was complaining? Compare verses 4-6 to the complaint in Exodus 16:3. How are they the same? How different?

Verses 10-15: In previous cases, when Israel complained, Moses pled with God for them. Here (verse 10), he is also angry? Why? Are these Israelite grumblings different than the previous ones? Does Psalm 78:17-19 help us understand what is going on here? If so, how? Moses questions his ability to lead Israel by questioning the Lord: “Why have you done evil to me? Why haven’t I found favor in your sight?” (Leviticus 11:10). Is Moses justified in questioning the Lord? Why does Moses want the Lord to kill him (verse 15)? How serious do you think Moses was? Was he being hyperbolic or was he quite serious? Are we supposed to admire Moses here, or is the Bible showing Moses as a human being who tires and gets irritated? If the latter, why? Does this and the story that follows (verses 16-17) suggest, perhaps, that Moses has not been heeding Jethro’s advice about leading by delegating?

Verses 16-17: What was the purpose of the seventy men who were called to help share the leadership with Moses? Are these the same seventy elders who were with Moses on Mount Sinai, who also saw the Lord (Exodus 24: 9-11)? What is meant by “the spirit which is upon thee” (verse 17)? Why does the Lord speak in this way—”I will take some of the Spirit that you have received and put it on the Seventy”—as if we couldn’t each have the Spirit equally? Does that way of speaking about the Spirit teach us anything? For example, does it say anything about what it means to share in both the administrative responsibilities and in Spirit needed to carry out those responsibilities?

Verse 18: Why do the people have to sanctify, in other words, cleanse themselves before they eat the flesh that the Lord is going to provide? Do we sanctify ourselves before partaking of the flesh provided by the Lord?

Verses 19-20: Is the flesh to be provided a blessing or a punishment? What do you make of what the Lord does here? Is he being portrayed as petulant?

Verse 25: What might be meant by “they prophesied and did not cease”? What does it mean to prophesy? (Is Revelation 19:10 relevant here?)

Verses 26-29: Why is this story included? What do you make of the fact that those who received the spirit of prophecy were not those who had been chosen to be leaders, among the Seventy? What is Moses asking when he asks Joshua “Enviest thou for my sake?” (Numbers 11:29)? How do you explain Joshua’s response to the report that Medad and Eldad, two of the elders of Israel, were prophesying in the camp (verses 27-29)? Is jealousy when someone else has a power that we think has been reserved to us common? What does Joshua’s response imply about Israel’s concept of a prophet? Do we sometimes see this attitude reflected among church members today? What would it mean for every person to be a prophet? The Lord promised Moses that he would share part of the Spirit he received with the Seventy (verse 17; see also verse 25). Do we see Moses wishing that the Lord would give all of Israel a share in that Spirit? If so, what does that mean? What is Moses wishing for when he says “”Would . . . that the Lord would put his spirit upon them” (verse 29)?

Numbers 12

Verses 1-3: What might have caused Miriam and Aaron to turn against their own brother (1-2)? Is there any connection between this and Joshua’s jealousy in chapter 11? Biblical scholars are divided on the identity of the “Ethiopian woman,” more accurately “Cushite woman,” though Cush was in Ethiopia. However, “Cushite” may also refer to the region of the Cassites, east of Bablyonia. Few believe that this wife is Zipporah. Is the complaint they raise in verse 2 a separate complaint or part of the complaint in verse 1? Why might it be difficult for anyone to recognize a prophetic calling in one’s own brother? Note Psalm 69:8 and John 7:5; both imply that Jesus’s own brothers did not believe in his divine calling. How could this possibly be? Why does the writer—is it Moses?—include the parenthetical note of verse 3, that he was the meekest of all men? Is this supposed to tell us anything about what happens next?

Verses 6-9: In his rebuke to Aaron and Miriam, how does the Lord distinguish Moses from other prophets? What does he mean when he says “Wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” What is the significance of the Lord’s departure from Israel’s camp (verse 9)?

Verses 10-11: Why is only Miriam punished with leprosy? Might it have anything to do with Aaron’s calling as the High Priest, and the requirements regarding a high priest—that he be without blemish? Does the fact that she is mentioned first in the complaint (verse 1) suggest that perhaps she was the leader of this attack on Moses? Is it significant that Miriam’s skin is “white as snow” and that the Cushite wife of Moses, about whom she complained, was probably dark-skinned?

Verses 11-13: What do you make of Aaron’s and Moses’ responses?

Verses 14-15: What is meant by the Lord’s comparison between what had happened and a father’s spitting in the face of his daughter? Is the punishment laid down in these verses a substitute for leprosy or an additional punishment?

Numbers 13

Verses 1-20: Moses sends spies from each tribe to investigate the land of Canaan. The only one who returns confident that the land can be occupied is Caleb (of the tribe of Judah—verse 6). Is there any typological significance in the fact that Joshua (meaning ” Jehovah helps”; also translated “Jesus”) of the tribe of Ephraim (a son of Joseph) is one of the spies? Why does Moses change Oshea’s name (which means “help”) to “Joshua”? About what time of year did this spy-trip occur (verse 20)? So what?

Verse 6: Caleb is identified as a leader from the tribe of Judah, but in Numbers 32:12 he is also identified as a Kenizite, in other words, as a descendant of Kenaz, the youngest son of Esau (see Genesis 36:10-11). What does this tell you about the tribes of Israel and their relation to the descendants of Esau? What might that say about the contemporary idea one sometimes hears that the difficulties between Israel and Palestine are a result of the difficulty between Jacob and Esau?

Verse 21: Use the map in your Bible to see how much of the land of Canaan those chosen for this mission spied out.

Verses 30-31: What accounts for the difference between Caleb’s recommendation and that of the rest?

Verse 32: To whom do the Israelites report about Canaan in verse 32? To whom had they previously reported? What does that difference suggest? In verse 31, when the spies say “They are stronger than we,” does “we” refer to the Israelites or to the Israelites and God? What does either answer tell us? How do you explain the seeming contradiction in verse 32: the land eats up its inhabitants, and the people who live there are of great stature?

Chapter 14

Verses 2-3: What lament from the Israelites has been added to that of wanting to return to Egypt? How do you explain this addition?

Verse 4:

When the Israelites suggest choosing a captain for themselves who will lead them back to Egypt, the word translated “captain” suggests a tribal leader who was both a military leader and a judge.

Verse 6: Tearing one’s garments is a sign of distress or mourning. Why do Joshua and Caleb tear their clothes?

Verse 8: What does it mean for the Lord to delight in a people? Why that word rather than something like “approve of”?

Verse 9: What does Joshua mean when he says that the Canaanites are bread, in other words food, for the Israelites?

Verse 10: Why do the Israelites suggest stoning Joshua and Caleb? To this point we have seen stoning as punishment for only transgressing Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:13), killing someone using an ox (Exodus 21:28), sacrificing children to Molech (Levitucs 20:2), divining spirits (Exodus 20:27) and blasphemy (Exodus 24:13-23). To the Israelites believe that Joshua and Caleb have transgressed one of these? For example, do they think that the two of them have done something comparable to transgressing Mount Sinai or blasphemy? If not, on what grounds to they believe that Joshua and Caleb should be stoned?

Verses 10-20: What prevents the congregation from stoning Caleb and Joshua? How is that significant? What is “the glory of the Lord”? What does the Lord threaten (verse 12)? As we have seen several times before, here we see Moses pleading with God, arguing with him. What does that tell us about our relation to God? About the prophet’s relation? Note that Moses’ argument when he pleads for God’s mercy doesn’t change much from what it always is: “Think of what the Egyptians will say if you kill the Israelites now, after having freed them and promised them their own land.” Why does he think that God would or should worry about what other people think about him?

Verses 21-37: Notice that just as the Egyptians had rejected ten miracles before they would let Israel go, Israel had failed to hearken to the Lord and his miracles ten times (verse 22). What does the Lord mean when he says that Israel has “tempted” him, in other words, put him to the test? Why are they punished for testing God? What do you make of the parallel in these verses, which explicitly compares God to the Egyptians: as the Egyptians wouldn’t let Israel go from Egypt, God will not let them come into the promised land (verses 23-25)? Who escapes this condemnation (verses 24 and 30)? Why does the Lord swear by himself? (In the Bible, God uses this phrase only here, verse 28, and in verse 21). What does that mean? Why were these the only two to be allowed to enter into the rest of the Lord in Canaan? What age restriction is placed upon the Israelites regarding who would be allowed into the promised land (verse 29)? Given the age restriction in verse 29, how old would the oldest of the Israelites be—with the exception of Joshua and Caleb—when they came into the land (verse 33)? What does God mean when he says that their children will bear the whoredoms of the parents (verse 33)? What happened to the spies who brought back a negative report (verses 36-37)? Why?

Verses 39-44: How do you explain the sudden outward repentance on the part of some of the Israelites (39-40)? Why do you think the Israelites suddenly wanted to go into the land when only two out of the twelve spies had brought back a positive report (verse 40)? Why do you think they wanted to go even after Moses told them the Lord wouldn’t go in with them? Note the first reference (verse 44) to the Ark of the Covenant being used as a weapon, i.e., as a way of bringing God into the battle.

Numbers 21:1-9

Note that the Israelites were fighting their enemies as early as the first year or so after leaving Egypt (verse 3). Whom had they previously battled, when Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ arms (Exodus 17: 8-16)? Nehama Leibowitz (New Studies in the Torah: Numbers) points out that in their previous complaints the Israelites had said: “Why did you—Moses—bring us out of Egypt?” (See, for example, Numbers 16:13.) In verse 5, however, they use the plural: Moses and God have brought them into the wilderness. What does this change of pronoun suggest? Does this equation have anything to do with the punishment that follows? Notice also what the Israelites are beginning to say about the manna (verse 5). The clause “our soul loatheth this light bread” could also be translated “we detest this worthless food.” Why would the Lord send “fiery serpents” (verse 6)? Leibowitz also points out that the verb here is not best translated “sent.” Rather, “let go” is better. He didn’t stop them. Her understanding is that the Israelites are no longer satisfied to live on what the Lord provides (manna), but want a more natural life, so the Lord allows them to live a more natural life, not restraining the serpents in the desert. Why do the Israelites accept the serpents as a just punishment (verse 7). When Moses prays for relief from the serpents, why is he told to make a serpent of brass (verse 8)? What is the result (verse 9)? Why? Have you ever seen this symbol of a serpent wrapped around a rod, called a caduceus? Where? (It is interesting to note that it is a symbol used by both the medical association and by the Romans as an identifying feature of the god Mercury. Later in the New Testament, in Acts 14: 12, Paul is mistaken for Mercury. ) Why would God use this symbol when it is a representation of the very thing that is killing the Israelites? Why use it when we usually think of the serpent as a symbol for Satan?

The Zohar (the basic text of Jewish mysticism, also called Kabbalah) says:

“Everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” Why? As soon as he (the victim) turns his eyes and sees the likeness of the serpent, he forthwith becomes filled with awe and prays to the Lord, knowing that this was the punishment that he deserved. As long as the son sees his father’s strap, he is afraid of his father . . . Regarding this it is stated: “When he looketh upon it, he shall live.” He saw the strap with which He struck—and this led him to being redeemed. (Quoted in Leibowitz 264)

Does this provide any insights for LDS readers? What additional insights are added to this occurrence by the prophets of the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 25: 20; Alma 33:19-22 ; and Helaman 8:14-15)? What was it that healed those who looked upon it for help? What was the final fate of the brazen serpent on the rod (2 Kings 18:4)? Note what can happen to relics: first they serve simply to remind, but over time they often come to be venerated and even worshiped in a manner such as the brazen serpent, to whom the Israelites “offered incense.” (Note: Nehushtan means a copper thing [copper is the major ingredient of brass]—Hezekiah’s term of contempt for what had come to be worshiped as a sacred icon.) What then is the difference between the brazen serpent and the relics that God instructed Moses to put into the Ark of the Covenant? Why does God condemn one and commend the other? Do we have relics? If so, what is their benefit? What is their danger?

15 Responses to “OT Lesson 15 Study Notes: Numbers 11-14; 21:1-9”

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  3. Dave said

    Excellent post, more than I can even comprehend and I appreciate the work.

    Just wondering about the writing technique/style, usually I come to this site for help with my lessons but notice that most of the analysis consists of question upon question with no answers or insight that might help a teacher with the lesson preparation. For example, take the last paragraph:

    What then is the difference between the brazen serpent and the relics that God instructed Moses to put into the Ark of the Covenant? Why does God condemn one and commend the other? Do we have relics? If so, what is their benefit? What is their danger?

    Good questions, but writing in this manner tends to create more questions rather than provide insight and resolution.

    Just some feedback, thanks for the great post and answers to some of the posed questions.

  4. Jim F said

    Dave, thanks for the feedback. I appreciate any and all responses, especially those aimed to improve what I’m doing.

    You’re absolutely right that this way of creating study notes for the lessons “tends to create more questions rather than provide insight and resolution.” That is intentional, though. Notice that the title I’ve put on these is “Study Notes” rather than “Lesson Materials.” I’m not specifically writing to provide helps for teachers preparing lessons. I’m trying to provide materials for people who want to study the lesson, teachers or students. I hope to provide questions for people to think about and discuss rather than to provide answers to questions. I’m trying to show the kinds of things one might think about while reading the assigned passages.

    I don’t have any authority to provide answers to questions about the scriptures, and I assume that the answers of other thoughtful Saints will be as good or better than any I could provide. I also think that the work of thinking about the scriptures and discovering the things they say to us is work we must do for ourselves. When we do it, it is quite profitable. That’s been my experience now for almost forty years. So I don’t want to provide Sunday School materials that would cut short that work and, by doing so, perhaps also cut short what a person might learn from the scriptures. So I provide questions and depend on others to provide their own answers and insights.

    Not everyone will find the same questions interesting or profitable, so I provide as many questions as I can think of (and I seldom have answers to the questions when I write them–they’re study questions for me, too).

  5. NathanG said

    I ended up doing an impromptu lesson on this yesterday. One class member shared his perplexing question that I wasn’t prepared for. He asked why it would be that after giving command to not make graven images, God would turn around and command a graven image to be made that would lead to their healing. I like your thoughts in the post, but do you have any thoughts on this?

    Also, someone had heard said that serpent isn’t necessarily referring to snakes as we think of them, but perhaps something similar to the “dragon” that Satan is also compared to. Any thoughts there?

    • Jim F said

      NathanG, thanks for the good questions (and my apologies for taking so long to get to them). I didn’t have any answer to your first question (I’d not thought of it ever), so I checked a number of commentaries, both contemporary and medieval. None of them raise the question either, so none of them give an answer. My speclative guess is that “graven image” refers to an image of God: the commandment is not to make any images of God. So other images, such as an image of an animal, could be acceptable. There is archaeological evidence that some ancient synagogues had pictures of animals as part of the decoration.

      Second question: The word translated “serpent” is “seraph,” the usual word for serpent, particularly venomous serpent (but it is used in Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6 for “flying serpent.” The noun comes from a verb meaning “to burn.” The plural for “seraph” is “seraphim,” which we see, for example, in Isaiah 6:2, a vision of the temple. The snake seems to be associated with the temple and with Christ, so it is no surprise that Satan usurps that symbol in the Garden and in other instances. But I don’t see any direct connection to a dragon or other mythical beast.

  6. BrianJ said

    Nathan: In addition to what Jim provided, I like the way the symbol was used: by holding it up and demanding that they look at it, the people’s attention is focused on that which plagues them; i.e., the symbol is not subtle (even though the serpent is—hah!).

  7. NathanG said

    Funny Brian.
    This positioning of the serpent seems to be the feature focused on in the Book of Mormon as symbolic of Christ being raised on the cross.

    My attempt to put it all together: Just as the Israelites could see that which plagued them lifted up (at the direction of God), we can see Christ bearing our sins (that which plagues us) lifted up on the cross (fulfilling God’s plan). Looking up to this serpent turns faith towards repentance (perhaps as suggested by the Zohar) and looking towards Christ bearing our sins turns our faith towards repentance. And to take the subtlety a little further. We take our sins which often we try to hide or commit subtlely and through confession bring them out openly to Christ to bear them, leading to healing.

  8. BrianJ said

    “looking towards Christ bearing our sins turns our faith towards repentance.”

    I like it. A sort of moral influence view of the atonement.

  9. popsslc said

    As one who lurks but seldom comments, I express my thanks for the efforts and thoughtfulness of Jim in preparing these notes and of those who reply. As usual, due to stake and ward conference schedules early in the year, we are just now getting to this lesson.

    It seems to me the essential theme of the exodus account is all about faith: the consequences of faithlessness on one side, and the nature, cultivation, and power of faith on the other. For the most part, the Egyptian Israelites were a people devoid of faith. They had to learn how faith is built in individuals and in societies. They had to learn that faith is the power that moves you forward. The generation whose memories of Egypt were from a lifetime of personal experience and habit had to die off in order for a new generation to arise that remembered Egypt only as stories. The new Israel must learn to focus upon what they were going towards, not upon what they were leaving behind.

    Leaving Egypt did not result in the sudden acquisition of faith in Israel, because it was accomplished without the need for Israel to develop, exercise, or rely upon faith in order to be delivered. They were delivered from bondage because of the faith of their fathers in the promises of Jehovah, promises which Jehovah fulfilled in bringing the exodus to fruition. Over and over again, the record of the exodus points out events that underscore Israel’s lack of faith, lack of vision, lack of imagination, lack of purpose in going towards something that they had not yet experienced. Compare Israel’s lack of faith after their Egyptian bondage to the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph who were clearly able to envision and imagine a future that would be the fulfillment of Jehovah’s promises. It might even be fair to say that the real Egyptian bondage was less physical than it was the bondage of Israel’s faith. (Also note the difference between the exodus of ancient Israel and the exodus of the Latter-day Saints from Nauvoo. The Saints had a vision of what they were going towards.)

    I think this is the emphasis for my lesson today. It is important to connect these ideas to the daily lives of the people in my class. It connects to the desire in them to create a contemporary society of greater equity and justice and compassion. After all, what are we here for if not to build such a society? And how can we build it if we do not have the imagination and courage that is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?

    Just my 2 cents worth.

    • Jim F said

      Thank you, Popsslc. I’ll bet there are readers who would by happy to give you more than two cents for these thoughts.

  10. BrianJ said

    “It might even be fair to say that the real Egyptian bondage was less physical than it was the bondage of Israel’s faith.”

    Well put. I think the larger point you make about Israel learning to have faith is well-expressed in Exodus 6, where the Lord introduces himself not just as a God, but as a God who fulfills his promises.

    I’m not sure that I agree about the difference between Israel and the 19th Century saints (“The Saints had a vision of what they were going towards”). I believe that Israel also had an idea that they were headed to the land promised to Abraham (Ex. 3:17). They may not have known much about the land—but of course the same should be said of the saints headed to Utah. Thus, I think that both groups knew what the promise was (a better land)—but perhaps when you say that the LDS Saints had a “vision” you mean that they, unlike most ancient Israelites, had “a faithful hope.”

    • Jim F said

      Thanks, BrianJ. I’m not completely sure what I meant when I made that comparison of the Israelites goal and the 19th century Saints’ goal. I think I meant something like what you suggest–but if I didn’t, I’ll take your meaning over mine.

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