Numbers 33 has all the intrigue of a times table, but ironically doesn’t actually include numbers.
So what’s in it that’s so boring?
It’s just a list of places the Israelites had been on their trek through the wilderness. And worse, it’s repetitive.
They left A and camped at B.
They left B and camped at C.
They left C and camped at D.
It’s like the begats1, but with places instead of people.
That comparison actually gives us our second clue as to the import of the chapter: they’re real places.
I’m reminded of a John Piper story about a Lynette Oaks story about the genealogies of the Bible that most Americans just skip. Oaks tells of translators working with the Binumarian people of Papua New Guinea in the 1970s. They were translating Matthew 1, the genealogy of Jesus, when the native speaker working with them insisted on sharing it immediately, that evening. Perplexed, they asked what was so important. He replied, “No one bothers to write down the ancestors of spirit beings. It is only real people who record their genealogies. Jesus must be a real person.”
Oaks, and Piper, meant that the “boring” parts of the Bible might just not be meant for you. That’s true, sure, but I say that they are a clue for everyone who reads them that this story is true, not just a fairy tale.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; that’s the second clue.
The first clue is that God tells us it’s important. Numbers 33:2 records that Moses kept this travel journal “at the Lord’s direction.”
That’s way more specific than 2 Timothy 3:16–17 about the entire Scripture being useful. Not just “all Scripture” but “this Scripture right here, yes, the verses you’re about to read, they’re gonna be important for thousands of years, get excited, here they come!”
[Insert 41 incredibly boring verses.]
All of this is a bit of a preamble, though. The wonder hidden in these verses is how the Israelites moved. Remember back in Exodus how God told the Israelites where to go?
When the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward, throughout all their journeys; but if the cloud wasn’t taken up, then they didn’t travel until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of Yahweh was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.
When the cloud of the presence of the Lord stayed, they stayed. When it lifted, they went. And instead of Mapquest: Ancient Near East, they followed the pillars of cloud and fire.
That means that every little “They left A and went to B”—all 41 of them—is a sequence of world-shattering miracles wherein Yahweh, the infinite God of the universe, specifically directed when they left, where they went, how they got there, and where they camped.
Forty-one sets of reality-altering miracles, any one of which should blow my mind, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve skipped over them as “boring.”
Here they are, so you can share in all their glory with me.
|Verse||They set out from||and encamped at|
|7||11||Red Sea||Wilderness of Sin|
|8||12||Wilderness of Sin||Dophkah|
|11||15||Rephidim||Wilderness of Sinai|
|12||16||Wilderness of Sinai||Kibroth Hattaavah|
|28||32||Bene Jaakan||Hor Haggidgad|
|37||44||Oboth||Iye Abarim (Iyim)|
|39||46||Dibon Gad||Almon Diblathaim|
|40||47||Almon Diblathaim||Mountains of Abarim|
|41||48||Mountains of Abarim||Plains of Moab|
So here are our clues about the importance of these boring verses:
- God tells us they’re important (Numbers 33:2).
- Real places mean these stories are true.
- Every verse contains at least three miraculous movements and appearances of God.
Next time you’re reading Numbers, don’t miss the miracles.
See 1 Chronicles 2:36–41 for a great example. ↩