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He's the Creator of Heaven and Earth. All seeing and all-knowing. The ultimate judge of good and evil. And he will smite some sinners faster than you can say, "Whoops! Was I really collecting sticks on the Sabbath?"
In Numbers, God is pretty up close and personal with the people. Though he only ever appears in person to his special representative Moses, God dwells among the people from the beginning. He's with them wherever they go in the tabernacle (which is why that little tent needs to be handled with care at all times). His spirit, in the form of a cloud, navigates them through the wilderness. And he makes it clear that he's in this for the long haul:
So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God. (15:40-41)
Basically, this is the deal. God freed the Israelites from slavery so they could be his chosen people. Now, all they have to do is listen to him. Easy enough, right?
See God is a bit, shall we say, demanding. Not only does he command absolute obedience and unwavering loyalty from his people, he's also a bit of a prima donna when it comes to being worshipped properly:
And don't forget all the censuses God commands people to take. He's kind of a fan of bookkeeping. Combine this with the non-stop parade of laws, laws, laws. The first five books of the Bible have 613 different commandments. Numbers alone contains almost 60 of these. God's got some high expectations for his little tribes.
So, what happens when you cross the Almighty? He gets angry. And just like the Hulk, you won't like him when he's angry. Here's just a list of some of the punishments the Lord doles out:
All this has lead some people to say that God is a bit of a meanie. After all, it does seem like he's going a bit overboard in some of these situations. These people are kind of starving in a desert wilderness after all. Is it too much to ask that he show a little compassion and give them some leeway to screw up sometimes?
God's biggest jerk move comes when the Israelites refuse to go to war in order to claim the Promised Land. They're nervous that they'll be defeated in battle and that their "wives and little ones will become booty" (14:3). It's a pretty legit concern.
God, on the other hand, reads this as the ultimate act of disobedience. Since it's obvious they don't trust him to help them win and that they've lost faith in their deity, God lays down a harsh sentence:
"Your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure. I the Lord have spoken; surely I will do thus to all this wicked congregation gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die." (14:32-35)
But if you think that's tough love, remember that God's first plan in this situation was to just kill every single Israelite in the community. Yikes. Moses has to talk him down:
Moses said to the Lord, "Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for in your might you brought up this people from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; for you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go in front of them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, 'It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.'" (14:13-16)
This is actually kind of hilarious. Moses appeals to God's catty nature. The Creator of All Things Visible and Invisible just hates it when people gossip about him. Moses also reminds him what a just and forgiving God he is—"The Lord is slow to anger" (14:18). Oh really, Moses? That's news to us.
Okay, so God comes off as pretty cruel in this book. But is he really cruel?
It kind of helps if you think of God as a parent. Stay with us here. Ideally, a parent is someone who wants to help his child grow into a good and responsible person. God has freed his little children from slavery and he's asked them to undergo a difficult task—fighting their way across a dangerous desert landscape. He knows it's tough, but he's gonna stay with them 'til the end and get them through this ordeal alive. After all,
God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind. Has he promised, and will he not do it? Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (23:19)
That's deep stuff, right there.
But the Israelites just do not believe him. Seriously, kids, if you work hard and get good grades, you will get into a good college. So, what does any parent do when the kid steps out of line? They break out the punishments. Just think of a plague as the equivalent of getting your phone taken away after you break curfew.
So really, it's not that God is some big jerk who just loves being mean and sadistic. He's trying to teach his kids a lesson here. If he raises them right, maybe when it's time to move out of the wilderness and take over the Promised Land, they'll act like responsible adults.
It's clear God really does care about his little brood. His divine feelings seem to be genuinely hurt when the people question him. God complains to Moses,
How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? (14:11)
Seriously, guys. When are you gonna start putting your faith in him?
Even Balaam confirms what everyone already knows—Israel is blessed and loved by God and no one—especially not some foreign king—is gonna take them down in battle. As he says, "The Lord their God is with them, acclaimed as a king among them. God, who brings them out of Egypt, is like the horns of a wild ox for them" (23:21-22).
And don't forget, Numbers has one of the most popular and important blessings in the whole Bible:
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them. (6:24-27)
Awww. God sure does love his kids a ton.