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Numbers continues the story of the fulfillment of God’s promises of land to Abraham. As the people of Israel make their way across the wilderness to inherit the gift of land, God’s holy presence goes with them. During the journey, two primary dynamics related to holiness are revealed: (1) Israel has a stubborn heart, and (2) Israel is the chosen nation through whom God will rescue the world. Israel’s stubbornness foreshadows the unending cycle of disobedience in the rest of the story of the Old Testament, and this cycle flags up the sin nature problem that the law of Moses is unable to resolve.
Israel as a blessing to the nations affirms once again missional aspect of the image of God restored in humanity with the goal to witness to and glorify the One True God. God decided that his creation redemption project would unfold in the world through Abraham. Abraham was to be the conduit through whom the nations would receive blessing (Gen 12:3). This point is affirmed in the stories of Balaam (Num 22–.25) In short, Balaam, a pagan prophet, is instructed by king Balak to pronounce a curse against Israel. In his instructions, Balak uses language that recalls Genesis 12. He says, “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are stronger than I; perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land; for I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed” (Num 22:6; italics added). As Balaam sets off to do as instructed by his king, God sends an angel to stop him from pronouncing the curse. In place of the curse, Balaam pronounces an oracle in favor of Israel (Num 23:7–10). Once again, this story illustrates that Israel is the chosen people through whom God’s redemptive work will manifest in the world for all nations.
Interestingly, another message of Numbers is that regardless of Israel’s special status among other nations before God, their faithfulness to the covenant is still required for the success of God’s redemption plan. Election, in other words, is not license for lawlessness. As the Israelites wander through the wilderness and fail to uphold the law, they are still cursed. Israel’s repeated stubbornness anticipates Israel’s downward spiral of rebellion as recounted in the historical books and prophets, and as is predicted in Deuteronomy.