The Results and Lessons of Obedience in Numbers

Editors’ note: 

Obedience is not some optional extra we can ignore if it suits our fancy.

I find obedience difficult. I’m far too headstrong and wilful to be overly impressed with the idea of being obedient to anyone. This is enough of a problem in everyday adult life all on its own but, as a Christian, it’s not only expected of me, it’s commanded by God.

The Israelites  (and therefore us, as well) were regularly commanded to obedience: The Lord said to all the Israelites,

“Now if you will listen to Me and carefully keep My covenant, you will be My own possession out of all the peoples, although all the earth is Mine, and you will be My kingdom of priests and My holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)

Or, as Joshua told the Israelites:

“Only carefully obey the command and instruction that Moses the Lord’s servant gave you: to love the Lord your God, walk in all His ways, keep His commands, remain faithful to Him, and serve Him with all your heart and all your soul.” (Joshua 22:5)

Jesus was even more succinct:

“If you love Me, you will keep My commands.” (John 14:15)

But the Bible is not simply a list of commands. It also demonstrates those commands. A third of the way through the book of Numbers we are presented with just such a demonstration of God’s command to obedience. Over three chapters we see what happens when we reach for something beyond what God has set for us, what happens when we disobey, what happens when we lead others to disobey, and what happens when we obey. 


In Numbers 12 we see Moses’ older brother and sister, Miriam and Aaron, criticise him for marrying a Cushite woman. However, as Ronald B. Allen rightly points out, the real issue was “why was Moses God’s favourite?”[1] It seems that Miriam and Aaron wanted a little more of the limelight than they were currently getting. God had spoken through both Miriam and Aaron previously, but they weren’t happy with being second-fiddle to their younger brother.

God, unsurprisingly, was less than pleased with their behaviour. Why it was only Miriam that received the full brunt of God’s displeasure is not made clear—though Aaron had already been set apart as the high priest, so that could have been the reason he was spared. Nevertheless, God afflicted Miriam with leprosy, and she was forced to be “confined outside the camp for seven days” before she was healed and allowed to be brought back into the company of Israel. (Numbers 12:15)


The following chapter of Numbers sees the first exploration of Canaan, God’s promised land, by the Israelites. God instructed Moses to send twelve men to scout out the land God was giving them—to assess its quality, its people and its defences. Unfortunately, as we will see in a moment, only two of those sent out came back still believing God would give them the land He had promised them. The other ten scouts reported back to the people that “the people living in the land are strong, and the cities are large and fortified. … We can’t go up against the people because they are stronger than we are.” (Numbers 13:28, 31)

With that, “the whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night” (Numbers 14:1), complaining again that Moses and Aaron had brought them out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness. The people of God refused to enter into Canaan, and as a result, God forbade all who were 20 years of age and older from ever entering the land. Only Caleb and Joshua were spared. The rest of Israel’s adult population would be forced to wander in the desert for 40 years, and die in the desert, as punishment for disobeying God.

Ironically, though disastrously, when the Israelites began to realise the enormity of their mistake, they tried to enter Canaan anyway, without the Lord’s permission or His presence. As a result they were attacked and driven back. (Numbers 14:29-45)

Misleading Others

The ten scouts who brought back the negative report of Canaan, and who convinced the people that it was a lost cause, were more harshly reprimanded. The people had already been severely punished but, for leading God’s people away from His will, “those men who spread the negative report about the land were struck down by the Lord.” (Numbers 14:37)

The Bible is very clear on what happens to those who lead God’s children astray. James says that “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgement” (James 3:1). The prophets who were deceiving the captive Israelites in Jeremiah’s time were to be punished for prophesying falsely and leading the people into false hopes (Jeremiah 29:8-9, 30-32). And again, Jesus was nothing short of clear about the matter: “But whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea!” (Matthew 18:6)


Through Numbers there are two shining examples of obedience and faith in God. Caleb and Joshua have, for all my life, been my Biblical heroes. When everyone else around them was scared and afraid, they alone held to God’s promises. They both tried to convince the people of Israel that God would deliver Canaan into their hands as He had promised:

“The land we passed through and explored is an extremely good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into this land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and give it to us.” (Numbers 14:7-8)

Though no one listened, they still obeyed God.

What is most interesting is that, though Caleb and Joshua both obeyed the Lord, neither was rewarded immediately. Both had to wait forty years to enter Canaan. Further, when we read the book of Joshua, we see that their reward was postponed even further until the cessation of fighting. Only after that were they finally able to benefit from the rest and land the Lord had promised them. 

The Old Testament might seem a long way removed from our own lives, and maybe even thought to be made-irrelevant by the New Testament, but Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, makes it clear that the examples of the Israelites serve now as examples, “so that we will not desire evil things as they did.” (1 Corinthians 10:6) So what can we take as an example from the Israelites? How do we look at the disobedience of the Israelites and learn from their mistakes? Our obedience is an issue of greater import than our own future – for as we have seen, our own actions can lead others astray and cause greater harm. Obedience is not some optional extra we can ignore if it suits our fancy—it is expressly commanded of us, and as the Israelites discovered time after time, ad infinitum, there are significant consequences if we disobey. 

We could write an entire series of articles dealing with the intricacies of how we are to apply these lesson to our lives, but in my opinion, Joshua said it best before he died: 

“Only carefully obey the command and instruction that Moses the Lord’s servant gave you: to love the Lord your God, walk in all His ways, keep His commands, remain faithful to Him, and serve Him with all your heart and all your soul.” (Joshua 22:5) 

The history of Israel quite clearly demonstrates the folly of ignoring God’s commands and disobeying Him. Further, as Caleb and Joshua found out, our rewards for obedience are not necessarily immediate or obvious. They will not always be as we imagine or when we want. But both Caleb and Joshua remained faithful to the Lord, and both were equally rewarded. 

Let’s live like Caleb and Joshua, fearlessly confident in God’s promises, and obedient to His commands.

 Photo: Kamweti Mutu, flickr