Numbers 36: Lessons from the Book of Numbers

Introduction: The book of Numbers ends with a continuation of the rules about Jewish probate law where a father dies with only daughters. Moses addressed this issue in Chapter 27. Here, he was forced to revisit this issue when the brothers of the deceased man named Zelophehad came forward to complain about the possibility of daughters marrying outside the family and transferring their inherited wealth to others. To some, the end of the book of Numbers may seem anticlimactic. If the book were edited by a professional editor, the editor might have told Moses to add this discussion to Chapter 27 and end the book with a conclusion about the lessons from the people’s time in the wilderness. But God has a purpose for everything He does. For several reasons, God ends the book of Numbers with a discussion about inheritance. First, because the book of Numbers symbolizes our life journey to the promised land in heaven, God wants us to focus on the spiritual inheritance that awaits us. Second, God ends this book in this manner to let us know that we must continually consult the Holy Spirit (who is part of our inheritance) for guidance during our life journey. Although the Bible tells us what we need to know, our personal journeys and decisions will involve circumstances where we must also consult with the Holy Spirit through prayer and the Word. Third, God wants us to understand that our spiritual inheritance is contingent upon our spiritual marriage to Christ. Our relationship with Jesus must be as close as a new bride and groom. Fourth, the book ends with a description of the obedience of the daughters of Zelophehad to God’s word. We too must learn to be obedient or we will wander in circles like the Jews did. Fifth, in looking at the big picture, God wants us to remember the lessons of the Jews’ mistakes. Those who forget their mistakes are bound to repeat them. Sixth, we are not destined to wander in the wilderness. God prepared the Jews for victory, just as He does with us. Only through rebellion and a lack of faith will we fail. Finally, the book contains a message of hope. Even when we make poor choices and find ourselves in a personal wilderness, we see that God will always be with us and provide for us.

1. Our Unearned Spiritual Inheritance. Nu. 36:1-5; 27:1-2.

  • Zelophehad’s daughters’ unearned inheritance. The book concludes with male relatives of Zelophehad complaining to Moses about a potential loss of their inherited wealth: “Now the heads of the fathers’ households of the family of the sons of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of the sons of Joseph, came forward and spoke before Moses and before the leaders, the heads of the fathers’ households of the sons of Israel, 2 and they said, ‘The Lord commanded my lord to give the land by lot to the sons of Israel as an inheritance, and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters. 3 But if they marry one of the sons of the other tribes of the sons of Israel, their inheritance will be withdrawn from the inheritance of our fathers and will be added to the inheritance of the tribe to which they belong; so it will be withdrawn from our allotted inheritance. 4 And when the jubilee of the sons of Israel takes place, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe to which they belong; so their inheritance will be withdrawn from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers.’ 5 Then Moses commanded the sons of Israel in accordance with the word of the Lord, saying, ‘The tribe of the sons of Joseph is right in its statements.’” (Nu. 36:1-5). Moses would turn to God to resolve this conflict.

  • Zelophehad’s daughters’ unearned inheritance. God previously rewarded Zelophehad’s daughters for asking in faith for their father’s share of the Promised Land. As an act of grace, God granted them an unearned spiritual inheritance (Nu. 27:7; 36:1-2). Under the laws of that time, neither the daughters nor the tribe had any legal right to inherit in the Promised Land. Only by God’s grace did they receive an inheritance.

    • God protected the rights of women. At that time, women in the Middle East had no right of inheritance. Even today, for those who follow Islamic Sharia law, if a father dies with only a daughter, the daughter takes only one-half of the estate. Even if there are five daughters and one distant uncle, the uncle would still receive half of the estate. God’s directions to protect the rights of women were radical at the time.

    • The male relatives had no right of inheritance either. In providing for the daughters, God took nothing that was owed to their male relatives. For three reasons, the male members of the Manasseh tribe had no legal right of inheritance. First, the Manasseh tribe was not technically Jewish. Manasseh’s mother Asenath was Egyptian (Gen. 41:50; Dt. 7:3). Under Jewish law, Jewish identity traced through the mother, something which again made Judaism unique in that area. Second, in replacing the Levite tribe from the original 12 tribes (which God had set aside for His service) the tribe of Judah should have had the right to a double inheritance with two tribes receiving land, not the tribe of Joseph. As Joseph’s second son (Gen. 41:52), Manasseh’s tribe should have been forced to live in the land allotted to the eldest brother, Ephraim. Third, Zelophehad died because of his sins in the wilderness, which could also have caused his heirs to lose their inheritance (Nu. 27:3). Thus, the male relatives of Zelophehad had no legal right to complain about the inheritance that God gave to Zelophehad’s daughters. We also should not covet what others have or worry about our wealth. God gives us what we need.

  • Through faith in Christ, we also may receive a spiritual inheritance. Like both the daughters and the male relatives of Zelophehad, we have no legal right to an inheritance in heaven. Because of our sins, none of us are righteous before God (Ps. 14:2-3; 53:2-3; Rom 3:10, 23). The “wages” or the cost of our “sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23). Like the daughters of Zelophehad, our inheritance in the Promised Land is an act of mercy and grace: “For by grace you are saved through faith; and it is not of yourselves: it is a gift of God; Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9). The daughters of Zelophehad obtained this inheritance by petitioning Moses. We ask for our spiritual inheritance through Christ (Jo. 3:16; Rom. 10:9-13). If you feel that you are owed things, remember that all that you have is given to you through God’s mercy and grace.

2. Seeking God’s Will Through the Holy Spirit is Part of Our Inheritance.

  • Zelophehad’s daughters and later Zelophehad’s male relatives petitioned Moses. Zelophehad’s daughters challenged the system of inheritance. As a model for us in dealing with unjust laws, the daughters petitioned their civil leader Moses. As a leader, Moses also set the example by seeking God’s guidance. Because God is just, He ordered that women be given a right of inheritance (Nu. 27:8-11). “With righteousness, He will judge the needy, with justice He will give decisions for the poor of the earth.” (Is. 11:4). When the male relatives complained (even though out of apparent selfish motives), Moses again petitioned God for answers. We too must also seek God’s guidance. This same lesson applies to our civic leaders and our nation as a whole.

  • Our journey also requires constant guidance from the Holy Spirit. As a down payment on our eternal inheritance, God has left us with His Holy Spirit to guide us on our journey through the wilderness: “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Eph. 1:13-14). As we come to understand that the book of Numbers symbolizes our own journey through the wilderness, we realize that the book ends in this manner to teach us a lesson. Our journey will frequently require God’s guidance as we apply the Word to the multiple different circumstances and people that we encounter in our daily lives. We need only consult the Spirit through prayer and reading God’s Word (Jam. 1:5).

3. A Spiritual Inheritance Awaits Those Who Marry Christ. Nu. 36:6-9.

  • God gave us freedom to choose. God gave the daughters of Zelophehad the freedom to marry whoever they wanted to marry: “Let them marry who they wish . . .” “6 This is what the Lord has commanded regarding the daughters of Zelophehad, saying, ‘Let them marry whomever they wish; only they must marry within the family of the tribe of their father.’ 7 So no inheritance of the sons of Israel will be transferred from tribe to tribe, for the sons of Israel shall each retain possession of the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. 8 And every daughter who comes into possession of an inheritance of any tribe of the sons of Israel shall marry one of the family of the tribe of her father, so that the sons of Israel may each possess the inheritance of his fathers. 9 So no inheritance will be transferred from one tribe to another tribe, for the tribes of the sons of Israel shall each retain possession of its own inheritance.” (Nu. 36:6-9). He did not endorse forced or arranged marriages. He certainly did not endorse the forced marriage after a rape that is still common in some Islamic societies today. He also gives us freedom. We can either seek a spiritual marriage with Jesus or the things of the world.

The daughters of Zelophehad1

  • The need for a kinsman redeemer. Although the daughters of Zelophehad had the freedom to marry whoever they wanted (Nu. 36:6), there were consequences for their decisions. They could marry into another tribe, but they would lose their inheritance if they did so (Nu. 36:7-8). This kept an inheritance within the family. This was similar to the law of the kinsman redeemer, which required a kinsman to purchase land lost by a family member through debt or other circumstances (Lev. 25:25-28). Only if a kinsman redeemer could not be found would the family which lost its property need to wait until the Jubilee year to redeem the property (Lev. 25:28). A kinsman was also to marry a family widow to help support her family (Dt. 25:5-10). This is what Boaz did for Naomi and Ruth (Ruth 4:9-10). At that time, no social security system existed. God allowed for this system to ensure that resources remained within each tribe to provide for all.

  • Christ is our kinsman redeemer. When someone is sold into slavery, a kinsman can redeem the person during the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:26, 48). Through original sin, we were born into spiritual slavery, and Jesus became human to be our kinsman redeemer. On the first day of Jesus’ public ministry, he entered the synagogue and read from Isaiah 61:1-2. After reading the passage, “He has come to proclaim release to the captives . . . to set free those who are oppressed,” Jesus proclaimed: “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk. 4:14-21). Although believers are freed today from the spiritual consequences of sin, the time for the physical captives and slaves to be set free will not happen until Christ’s Millennial Reign. At this time, the laws of the Jubilee will be fulfilled. The land will revert from the ruler of this world to Christ the Messiah. We will live under His rule being freed from all bondage and debts.

  • We must marry Christ to keep our inheritance. Jesus is our High Priest (Heb. 8:1). We are the adopted sons of God the Father (Rom. 8:15, 23). As our High Priest, Jesus will one day marry the adopted children of God and form a bond of spiritual intimacy (Rev. 19:7-8; 21:1-9). Through faith, we must be purified by Christ’s blood to marry Him (2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 14:4). In heaven, the church will become the bride of Christ (Rev. 19:7-14; 22:2, 17) and they will then dwell together (Rev. 20:4). We have this great spiritual inheritance to look forward to in the future. Yet, you must prepare in advance during your lifetime to marry within God’s family to receive this inheritance. Jesus gives us the parable of the virgins who failed to prepare for the bridegroom. They failed to fill their flasks with oil (the Holy Spirit). When the bridegroom came, they were not ready. Jesus said that He never knew them (Matt. 25:1-13). We must be prepared at all times by staying pure and focused on Christ. If not, you might be left behind when the groom comes to marry His church.

4. Christ Also Requires Obedience to His Word. Nu. 36:10-13.

  • The obedience of the daughters of Zelophehad. Upon hearing Moses’ instructions, we learn that the daughters of Zelophehad married their uncle’s sons: “10 Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the daughters of Zelophehad did: 11 Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad married their uncles’ sons. 12 They married those from the families of the sons of Manasseh the son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained with the tribe of the family of their father. 13 These are the commandments and the ordinances which the Lord commanded to the sons of Israel through Moses in the plains of Moab, by the Jordan opposite Jericho.” (Nu. 36:10-13).. By the fact that the uncle had petitioned Moses, we can assume that they were initially reluctant to marry their uncle’s sons. Even when we don’t understand, we must obey God’s Word.

  • Some of our blessings are conditional on obedience. God once promised Abraham: “I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.” But this was conditional and only would be true “if you obey his voice [The Holy Spirit] and do all that I say.” (Ex. 23:21-22; see also Lev. 26:7-8; Nu 10:9, 35; Isa. 54:17). “But if ye will not obey the voice of the Lord, but rebel against the commandments of the Lord, then shall the hand of the Lord be against you, as it was against your fathers.” (1 Sam. 12:15; Ps 106:26-27; Lev. 27:17). Abraham was remembered for his faith in obeying God’s voice (Heb. 11:8). By contrast, Balaam was remembered for his disobedience (Jude 1:11; 2 Pet. 2:15). We are likewise commanded to be obedient to God (Rom. 1:30; 2 Tim. 3:2). Jesus warns us: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (Jo. 14:15). “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” (Jo. 15:10). Are you rebelling in any area of your life? If so, there may be spiritual blessings that you are forgoing.

5. Remember the Jews’ Mistakes or You Will Repeat Them.

  • Paul’s warning to us to study the book of Numbers. Although many Christians ignore the book of Numbers, Paul warns us: “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction.” (1 Cor. 10:10-11). The poet and philosopher George Santayana also warned: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We are on our own exodus from bondage to redemption. If we fail to follow God’s Word, we will also wander in circles in the wilderness like the Jews did. By contrast, if we follow God’s Word and believe in faith, our journey will be direct.

  • The Jews failed because they were double minded believers. The Jews were not evil people. Their problem was that they, like us, suffered split loyalties between the things of God and the world. Jacob warned Rueben that because he was double minded: “you will no longer excel.” (Gen. 49:4). The double minded person lacks a clear focus. Paul said, “I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.” (1 Cor. 9:26). If we ask for things from God with doubt in our hearts, we are like the turbulent sea (Jam. 1:5-6). If we pray with doubt, we become “double minded” between our faith and our doubts. God will not answer those prayers: “That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” (Jam. 1:7-8). To excel, we must keep our focus on God.

  • Without faith, we cannot enter the Promised Land. The Jews were initially unable to enter the Promised Land because they rebelled out of a lack of faith in God’s promises: “So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.” (Heb. 3:19). Only Joshua and Celeb were allowed to enter because of their faith (Nu. 14:24, 30). Without faith, it is also impossible for us to please God (Heb. 11:6).

6. Your Journey in the Wilderness Does Not Need to Include Pointless Wandering

  • God intends for us all to succeed. The Jews’ failure was not what God had planned. He had them at Mount Sinai for years studying His Word before they set out for the Promised Land. The first nine and half chapters of Numbers were also filled with instructions for the Jews to succeed. God also wants us to succeed. He left us His Word and His Holy Spirit to guide us. We need only trust in faith and obey. God is again looking to find those who will be counted as part of His army (2 Tim. 2:3). Are you ready to serve?

  • Let God bring you into the wilderness to show the sins in your heart. God searches our hearts and tests our minds (Jer. 17:10; Ex. 20:20). In Hosea 2:14, God says “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, bring her into the wilderness and speak kindly to her.” When we are tested, we frequently find that our hearts are wicked, and we are in need of repentance (Jer. 17:9). Sometimes our life is so busy that we can’t hear God’s voice and direction for us. Sometimes, He must pull us into the wilderness before we will finally listen to Him. The last time you found yourself in the wilderness because of your sin, what did you find when He showed you the sin in your heart? Did you repent?

7. God Will Always Provide For You During Your Journey.

  • God forces us to depend upon Him in the wilderness. Every good and perfect thing in our lives comes from above (Jam. 1:17). In the wilderness, we are forced to face this fact. In our busy lives, this is not always the case. As Moses warned: “you may say in your heart, ‘my power and my strength of my hand made me this wealth.” (Dt. 8:17). God may humble you in the wilderness to rid you of such beliefs. For those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, even time in the wilderness can be a good thing (Rom. 8:28). We should rejoice for any struggle that draws you closer to Him.

  • God provides for us in the wilderness. Even if you wind up in a wilderness, the book of Numbers teaches us that God cares for us there (Hos. 13:5). Through Christ, He provided manna and water in the desert (Matt. 4:4; Jo. 6:33-35). He was also guiding the Jews by a visible pillar of light (Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19). He even protected their feet from swelling (Dt. 8:4). Jesus does not change (Heb. 13:8). We also need not worry about our provisions when we find ourselves in the wilderness of life: “But seek first the kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt. 6:33).

  • God will never forsake us in the wilderness. Even when we find ourselves in the wilderness because of our sins, we can rejoice that God will never leave us nor forsake us. He cared for the Jews, even when they rebelled against Him. The same is true with us as well: “I will never desert you, nor will I forsake you.” (Heb. 13:5; Dt. 31:6).

  • Give thanks by being a light to others. Once you realize all that God has done for you in your wilderness, hopefully you will be motivated to serve Him (Rom. 12:1). The light that once guided the Jews now resides in you: “You are the light of the world.” (Matt. 5:14). Don’t hide His light and use your gifts for yourself (Matt. 5:15). Instead, let His light inside of you guide others to help them out of the wilderness and into God’s eternal Promised Land (Matt. 5:16). He also wants you to help to make disciples of all the nations of the Earth (Matt. 28:19-20).