Sunday School Lesson #15

Lesson 15: Numbers 11-14; 21:1-9

(I also recommend chapters 16, 17, and 20.)

It is unfortunate, I think, 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.

Much of what follows has been more-or-less plagiarized from study notes prepared by my friend, Art Bassett, several years ago. Of course, since I’ve edited and expanded them, I have to take responsibility for what you see here, even if I cannot take much credit.

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 misconception 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 (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 (D&C 121: 43) designed to accomplish?

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?

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?

Major Events of these Passages

1.   The people of Israel yearn for other food besides manna (Chapter 11:1-15, 18-23, 31-35).

2.   Seventy others are chosen to help Moses (Chapter 11:16-17, 24-30).

3.   Miriam and Aaron rebel against Moses (Chapter 12).

4.   Spies are sent into the land of Canaan to see if the Israelites can take the land; they come back with a mixed report (Chapter 13).

5.   The people mourn over their inability to take the land; the Lord decrees that only Joshua and Caleb of the original camp of Israel will enter the promised land; some decide to try to take the land anyway (chapter 14).

6.   Although chapter 20 is also not in the reading assignment, I would encourage you to read it since it deals with the death of Miriam and Aaron, and proffers a reason for Moses not being able to go into the Promised Land.

7.   Because of the murmurings of the Israelites, God sends fiery serpents among them; Moses sets a serpent on a pole for them to look upon to be healed. (Numbers 21).

Study Questions

Numbers 11

Verses 1-3: Note that “taberah” means “fire.” Each previous time that we have seen a story of the disaffection of the children of Israel, it has been for some specific complaint: not water, not bread, etc. Here, however, no reason for the disaffection is specified. Why do you think that is so? 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 grumblings different than the previous ones? Does Psalm 78:17-19 help us understand what is going on here? If so, how? Why does Moses want the Lord to kill him (verse 15)? How serious do you think Moses was? Was he, perhaps, being hyperbolic? 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 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?

Verse 20: Is the flesh to be provided a blessing or a punishment?

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 would it mean for every person to be a prophet? 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?

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. Why might it be difficult for anyone to recognize a prophetic calling in one’s own brother? Note that both Psalm 69:8 and John 7:5 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?

Verses 6-9: In his rebuke to Aaron and Miriam, how does the Lord distinguish Moses from other prophets?

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?

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 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 (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” (which means “Jehovah helps”)? About what time of year did this spy-trip occur (verse 20)? So what?

Verse 21: Use the map in your Bible to see how much of the land of Canaan they spied out.

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

Verse 32: To whom do the Israelites report about Canaan in verse 32? To whom had they previously reported? What does that difference suggest? 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?

Numbers 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: Note that 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 9: What does Joshua mean when he says that the Canaanites are bread for the Israelites?

Verses 10-20: What prevents the congregation from stoning Moses 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. Why does he think that God would worry about what other people think about him?

Verses 21-37: Notice that as the Egyptians had rejected ten miracles before they would let Israel go, Israel had not hearkened 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 this parallel, which explicitly compares God to the Egyptians: as the Egyptians wouldn’t let Israel go from Egypt, God would 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). 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 points out that in their previous complaints the Israelites had complained about Moses: “Why did you—Moses–bring us out of Egypt?” (See, for example, Numbers 16:13.) Here (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 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. (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—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 had 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?

5 comments for “Sunday School Lesson #15

  1. Thank you for a very ineresting article – Hope that you don’t mind me sharing someof it with my Gospel Doctrine Class.

  2. I not only don’t mind, I hope you will. The point of these is to help people prepare better for Sunday School, whether class members or teachers. Feel free to use these notes in whatever way you wish.

  3. Thanks for posting the Num 20 suggestion, I’m not sure I would’ve made time to look at this otherwise. I posted some cross-references that discuss Moses and Aaron’s rebellious act here (I thought Ps 106:32-33 is particularly interesting…).

    I think the moral ambiguity of prophets/patriarchs in the OT has a tendency to make us Mormons uncomfortable. Sure, Joseph Smith is rebuked a bit in the D&C, and Lehi perhaps has his lapses, but there aren’t examples as stark as in the OT (e.g. Noah’s drunkenness, Jacob’s dubious obtaining of the birthright, Moses killing the Egyptian guard, or esp. David and Uriah…).

    First, I find these examples sort of comforting—even these great men had their weak moments, so maybe there’s hope for me. Second, I think there’s a lesson that no matter how righteous we are or what leadership positions we have, we’re not immune to sin and must remain vigilant. Third, I think these examples suggest a danger in over-apotheosizing leaders—our testimonies shouldn’t hinge on the infallibility of our leaders.

    And I think the story of Eldad and Medad (Num 11:26-29), where prophesying/testifying isn’t limited to the official leaders, underscores the second and third point above.

  4. Robert C.: Your response to this lesson was very much like mine: “even these great men had their weaknesses, so maybe there’s hope for me.”

  5. Since I study economics, I’m surprised I hadn’t thought about this before, but the fire in Num 11:1 consumed Israel. The Hebrew word ‘akal means “to eat, or to consume,” just like the English word consume, although there is another Hebrew word sometimes translated as consume, kalah, which has more of the “destroy” connotation that I usually associate with the consuming fire metaphor. But to think of the fire as “eating” the complaining Israelites in Num 11:1 establishes an interesting contrast with Num 14:9 where Joshua says that Israel’s enemies will be like bread to them. Thus, God (who is righteous) consumes unrighteous Israel, like righteous Israel will consume their unrighteous enemies. A similar type of contrast/reversal with respect to ‘akal can also be found (arguably) in Ps 22 as discussed here.

    This has also made me wonder about the symbolism of eating the sacramental bread. Does our consuming of the bread prepares us for God’s consuming fire of judgment? Is this another version of the abase-then-exalt motif (i.e. Christ is being consumed by us, then he will consume us; or, first we consume Christ, then we will be prepared to be consumed by him)? Does this help us understand peculiar BOM usages of the word “consume” (e.g. in 2 Ne 4:21 Nephi is filled with God’s love, “even unto the consuming of [his] flesh,” suggesting that God’s love can consume as well as his wrath)? I’m not sure any of these thoughts make sense yet, but thanks again for the very thought-provoking questions.

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