Numbers 3: Subtle Significance at the Start.
“The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Desert of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt. He said…” (Numbers 1:1)
The first few words of the Book of Numbers seem so ordinary, so unspectacular, so mundane that we could breeze right past them and never realise what we missed. I’ve done that most of the many times I’ve read this book – I’ve taken verse 1 as mere scene-setting and not batted an eyelid – rushing on to read the rest. But there’s something hugely significant here, in the very first sentence, and it’s worth pausing to see what it is, and to engage with it. Before we plunge into the rest of the book, let’s see what we can learn in the very first verse.
Breaking it down word by word, let’s look at it. The Lord. This is a translation of the Hebrew Yahweh, God’s personal name. It could have said Elohim, as in Genesis 1:1, which speaks of God’s divine status and creative power, but instead it chooses Yahweh, a personal name which reveals so much more of God’s character. Not only does it’s literal meaning ‘I AM who I AM’ (Exodus 3:14) remind us of God’s unchanging, eternal nature, but the story that goes with the name reminds us that this is the covenant God, the one who revealed Himself to Moses and came to rescue His people. This is the God who wanted a relationship with His people, and who literally moved earth and sea to get it. Every time you read the words ‘The Lord’ in the Bible, it’s worth pausing to reflect on who He is and to be thankful for the fact that it’s this God who speaks to us, not some remote, aloof deity.
‘The Lord spoke‘. Again, so simple, so everyday, yet so profound. We’re used to God speaking to us, and to hearing people speak about how He speaks to us, that we forget how incredible this is. With David we might very well wonder ‘what is mankind that You are mindful of them, human beings that You care for them?’ (Psalm 8:4). God doesn’t have to speak to us, He would be just fine if He ignored us completely. Based on any measure of merit, we could never deserve His attention, so to have Him speak to us is an incredible privilege and blessing. Let’s not forget that, nor become so familiar with it that we lose the wonder.
Consider also that this phrase is a key one for the Book of Numbers – it appears nine times in the book, which is more than Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus or Deuteronomy. Of all the first five books of the Law, Numbers is the one where God speaks most often. This reinforces the idea that God is a God who speaks, who reveals Himself to us and who imparts wisdom and instruction to us. If Numbers is a book when God speaks, Numbers is a book where we should listen.
‘The Lord spoke to Moses‘. God was speaking directly to Moses, not to the community at large, and only rarely in the book does He address anyone else directly. Most of this speech is to Moses. This is the pre-Jesus phase of our relationship with God, when barriers were in place to keep the sinful away from the sinless and the profane from the pure. Israel needed a mediator to go between them and God, and Moses was that mediator. When we remember this distance, let’s be thankful for how much closer we are today, and how far superior is our mediator, Jesus.
‘The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting‘. The location is holy and the preposition is crucial. In the tent of meeting. Moses has now come inside and can speak to God in the chosen place of His dwelling. In Exodus 40 Moses couldn’t even come near the tent because God’s glory was so fierce, and in Leviticus 1:1 ‘The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting.’ Moses has come closer, he still hasn’t been ushered inside. He’s outside while God speaks to him from within. Now, in Numbers, he’s ‘in the tent’ at last. God no longer needs to speak to him from afar, because he’s invited him in and can speak to him up close.
We, who were once far from God, heard His call and now we’re close enough to speak to Him (Ephesians 2:13). Moses’ slow progress towards God is symbolic of humanity’s slow progress towards God, inching closer as the Bible’s story progresses. Sin forced us apart and kept us distant, but, little by little, the God of grace is drawing us nearer. The story and sequence of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers is one of progress and increasing intimacy.
Just take these verses in sequence to see how this progress works:
“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (Exodus 40:34-35)
“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting. He said…” (Leviticus 1:1)
And now in Numbers…
“The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting…” (Numbers 1:1).
This is then followed by Deuteronomy, which is the book of Moses’ words, following on from Numbers, the book of God’s words.
“These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness east of the Jordan…” (Deuteronomy 1:1)
The Lord comes down in glory. Moses can’t even get near (Exodus);
The Lord spoke to Moses from the tent (Leviticus);
The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent (Numbers);
We share God’s words (Deuteronomy).
- God comes down (and does so again in Jesus)
- God speaks to us
- God invites us in
- We share God’s words with others
We gradually get closer. Both Leviticus and Numbers begin with the Lord speaking. We would be wise to listen and not rush past that. Don’t be so busy reading your Bible, just ticking it off your list, to really see what’s going on here. Everything starts with God, and everything we do should be in response to what He says. God is speaking to you and wants to draw you closer. Are you listening? Will you let Him?