May 8, 2008
Numbers — With God in the Wilderness
“No Inheritance Transferred”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 36–words which you perhaps never thought you would hear! We started on the first Wednesday night in January of 2007… about a year and a half later, we have come to the end of the book in Numbers 36, but not to the end of the journey. We’ve only come to the end of this part of the journey. This particular part of the journey of God’s people won’t end until Joshua. They’re not across the Jordan yet. They haven’t fought the battle of Jericho yet. They haven’t taken possession of all the land yet. So even when we come to the end of Numbers 36, the people of God still have a long way to go in their journey.
But I must say that as we’ve studied this book together, I’ve come to love it more, precisely because it speaks to God’s people in the midst of their journey in the wilderness, because that’s where we live the Christian life, in the wilderness. We’re on a pilgrimage. We’re not home yet. We haven’t arrived. There are many dangers, toils and snares, not only through which we’ve already come, but through which we must go. And so there is a certain affinity of the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ in this fallen world with the Hebrew believer in the old covenant in the wilderness.
We’ve already said several times as we’ve moved to the end of this book that the final chapters of Numbers are filled with instructions for Israel’s occupation of, and living within, the Promised Land. There’s nothing anticlimactic about these instructions. In fact, it’s the culmination of everything that’s been going on in the history of Israel since Abraham, since at least Genesis 15, and you can take it back further than that.
Now last week we looked at Numbers 35, and we saw two parts in that passage. The first part pertained to the 48 cities given to the Levites, including the cities that were given to them to be cities of refuge, and the second part of that chapter pertained to laws concerning manslaughter and murder and cities of refuge, and vengeance and ransom, and the death penalty. All of these things are dealt with in verses 9-34.
But we zeroed in on two specific lessons in Numbers 35. First of all, we observed God’s concern for the pastoral care of His whole people. He spread the Levites throughout the whole land, so that all of His people had access to pastoral care. And then we observed that God intends His people to manifest a public respect for the sanctify of life by treating the taking of life seriously and by following through on stringent consequences in the case of either manslaughter or of murder, and so this was yet another one of these episodes of final instruction before the children of Israel entered the land. And that brings us tonight’s passage, the final chapter in the book of Numbers and our final study together in this great book.
As we read this chapter, I want you to be on the lookout for four things. If I were to outline this chapter, I would outline it in four parts: verse 1; then verses 2-4; then verses 5-12; and then verse 13.
In verse 1, we see an acknowledgement of the Lord’s authority. In verses 2-4 we see the presentation of a real problem. In verses 5-12 we see God’s declaration of the solution to that real problem. And then, in verse 13 we see a sobering reminder to all those who are readers of the book of Numbers as to the importance of the law, the instruction of the Lord. And so we see a reminder to the reader in verse 13, an acknowledgement of the Lord’s authority in verse 1, a presentation of a real problem in verses 2-4, God’s declaration of the solution to that problem in verses 5-12, and a reminder to the reader in verse 13.
One more thing before we read God’s word, and that is that the background to the passage that we’re going to study tonight, we’ve already studied. We studied it in Numbers 27:1-13. As we read this passage tonight you may want to keep your finger in Numbers 27:1-13, because when I overview that passage you may want to sneak a peek and remember what we learned there. It provides the background to the passage that we’re going to study together tonight.
Now before we read God’s word, let’s pray.
Our heavenly Father, this is Your word. Every part of Your word is God-breathed. Every part of Your word is profitable. Every part of Your word is indeed intended to be a lamp to our feet and a light to our way. We ask then, by Your Spirit that You would open our eyes to see how this word, which is part of Your wonderful, perfect, inspired word, is indeed a lamp for our feet for the living of this day. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of God in Numbers 36, beginning in verse 1:
“The heads of the fathers’ houses of the clan of the People of Gilead the son of Machir, son of Manasseh, from the clans of the people of Joseph, came near and spoke before Moses and before the chiefs, the heads of the fathers’ houses of the people of Israel. They said, The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the people of Israel, and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother to his daughters. But if they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the people of Israel, then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our fathers and added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry. So it will be taken away from the lot of our inheritance. And when the jubilee of the people of Israel comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry, and their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers.’
“And Moses commanded the people of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying, ‘The tribe of the people of Joseph is right. This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, ‘Let them marry whom they think best, only they shall marry within the clan of the tribe of their father. The inheritance of the people of Israel shall not be transferred from one tribe to another, for every one of the people of Israel shall hold on to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. And every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the people of Israel shall be wife to one of the clan of the tribe of her father, so that every one of the people of Israel may possess the inheritance of his fathers. So no inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another, for each of the tribes of the people of Israel shall hold on to its own inheritance.’’
“The daughters of Zelophehad did as the Lord commanded Moses, for Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, were married to sons of their father’s brothers. They were married into the clans of the people of Manasseh the son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s clan.
“These are the commandments and the rules that the Lord commanded through Moses to the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, inerrant and authoritative word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Now you’re thinking to yourself, “This is a strange way to end this book. This is a strange way to end what in so many ways has been an action-packed adventure story.” But there is perfect logic as to why this book ends this way. This passage, Numbers 36:1-13, fits here because of the theme of inheritance. That is a theme that we have seen appearing in this book from the very beginning, but especially from chapter 27 on: preparation to receive the land. Inheritance of the land of Canaan has been a regular feature of the final chapters of this book. It makes perfect sense. If you’ve been wandering in the wilderness for forty years on your way to receive a land which God has promised to you, and you’ve almost gotten to that land, you can look across the Jordan and see it. The Reubenites and the Gadites are already in the land that God is going to give to them after the land of Canaan is possessed, so the children of Israel can see the land. They can almost taste it, like you can taste a succulent meal that you smell being prepared in the kitchen. They can see the land. Everything on their mind now is the receiving of the inheritance of this land. It makes perfect sense that the final chapters of this book would be filled with the preparations for the specific things that are necessary for the tribes to inherit the land.
But this particular story has in its backdrop the story which we studied in Numbers 27. Let me ask you to just take a look as I describe what happened there. If you’ll remember, in the original rules of inheritance that God gave to the children of Israel through Moses, daughters did not share in the family estate. Instead, daughters were given large dowries at the time of their weddings. Father’s property, father’s land, was to be divided between not his daughters or his sons and daughters, but was to be divided between his sons, the oldest son getting a double portion and the rest having the remainder of his property divided among them. Now if there were no sons… under God’s original command to Israel through Moses, if there were no sons to a father, his estate went not to his daughters but to his brothers or uncles, or his next nearest male kinsman.
Now, is this an example of primitive chauvinism? No. What’s the function behind this rule? What happens to daughters? Well, lots of them get married to other people. And what would happen to that family’s land inheritance if it were given to the daughters? That land inheritance would pass into the possession of another family, her husband’s family. So the purpose of this commandment is not discrimination against daughters; the purpose of this commandment, at least in part, is to keep land in particular families.
Now, in Numbers 27 the daughters of Zelophehad, these five amazing, strong, godly women, appear before Moses and they say, ‘Moses, our father died in the wilderness, but he was not part of the generation…not part of Korah’s rebellion. He died in the wilderness, but he was a godly man, and he had no sons. We are all that our father had. It’s just not right that his name, his heritage, will no longer be remembered amongst your people when we go into the land. It’s just not right that the land that was his would be given to his brothers or uncles or next nearest male relative, and his heritage, his name, his legacy would be lost and forgotten in the generations to come. And so, Moses, what we’d like to ask you to do is to ask God whether his legacy might not be passed on through us.’ And you remember it’s an amazing passage. Moses goes to the Lord, and the Lord says to Moses, ‘The daughters of Zelophehad are right on this, Moses. And we’re going to change the law as I originally gave it to you, and we are going to insert this: the way of inheritance will go from fathers to sons. If there are no sons, it will go to daughters. If there are no sons or daughters, then it will go to a brother or to an uncle, or to the next nearest male relative.’ And so by the petition of the daughters of Zelophehad, the mode of inheritance law is changed in Israel.
Now, however, the relatives of the daughters of Zelophehad, as the children of Israel are about to enter into the land, and fresh off of hearing in numbers 34 how the land is going to be divided between the tribes — and remember, we said first of all it’s going to be divided by lot, so there’s no way that you can manipulate who gets what land. It’s going to be divided by lot. And then you’re going to have these godly men that help subdivide the land amongst the tribes, so that all of the chance circumstances that could have led to dissention and to break-ups of families are taken out of the picture. The larger tribes are going to get bigger pieces of land, the smaller tribes are going to get smaller pieces of land.
And this is fresh on the minds of the relatives of the daughters of Zelophehad, and so they (in Numbers 36) come to Moses and they say, ‘Moses, we still see a problem with the law as it exists. You’ve just told us that it’s God’s purpose to give the lands to the tribes so that that land stays within the tribes in perpetuity. Well, Moses, what happens if the daughters of Zelophehad who are descendents of Manasseh, one of the half-tribes of Joseph…let’s say, what happens if they fall in love with boys from Judah? Does that mean that even though Zelophehad’s name is preserved, his heritage is kept in that land, does that mean that the possession of that part of the land of Manasseh is going to become part of the possession of the tribe of Judah? What do we do about this, Moses?’
Now notice that just like the daughters of Zelophehad, these relatives of the daughters of Zelophehad are not coming arrogantly. They’re coming because they believe in the authority of God’s word. They’re humbly submitting themselves to Moses, but they’re saying, ‘Moses, we see a problem with this. We fully appreciate the good that there is in preserving the name of Zelophehad in the inheritance through his daughters, but we just don’t know how that’s going to protect the inheritance that you intended to give of land to Manasseh. If they marry into another tribe, then that land will belong to that other tribe. So that within the area of Manasseh you might have this island of land that belongs to Judah, or to Benjamin, or to Dan, or to one of the other tribes.’ And so that’s the situation that’s put before us in this passage, and as you might imagine, Moses goes to the Lord and the Lord has a glorious solution for all this.
Now there’s so much to learn in this passage, but we only have time very briefly to see three things.
I. The people submit themselves to the authority of God in matters of inheritance.
The first thing that I want you to learn (and you see it in the example of these relatives of the daughters of Zelophehad) you see in verse 1. You see their submission to the Lord in the matter of inheritance. Now they see a problem. They see a loophole in the inheritance law that might cause the land that is given to one tribe to pass out of possession of that tribe and into the hands of another tribe, and they know that that can’t be consistent with God’s purposes as He has revealed them to them in His word and through Moses, and so they’re perplexed.
But notice what they don’t do. They do not stage a protest march. They don’t picket. They don’t say, ‘God, You’ve made a big mistake.’ What do they do? They go to Moses and they say, ‘Here’s the problem as we see it. We submit to your leadership and to whatever God says to us through you.’ Just like the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27:2, they didn’t say, ‘Moses, this is wrong. We’re not putting up with it anymore. We’re going to have a boycott of all the women in Manasseh of your plan.’
No, they go to Moses and they say, ‘Moses, you’re God’s servant, and God’s in charge of us. We don’t understand this. We think there’s got to be a better way, but we submit to whatever the Lord says to us.’
And you know, the same thing happens, doesn’t it, it Numbers 32. Do you remember when the Reubenites and the Gadites want to stay on the eastern side of the Jordan and take land there, and there’s almost a big hoo-hah in Israel over this. And they come to Moses and they say, ‘Look, you tell us whatever we need to do. We do not want to make a problem out of this. You tell us what we need to do, and we’ll submit to whatever the Lord says through you.’ In each of these cases, what do we see? The children of Israel — so unlike what they did so often in the wilderness — in each of these three cases, the children of Israel submit to the Lord in the matter of inheritance.
Now what do we learn about that? We learn that living under the authority of the Lord means living under His word. It means that whenever we are faced with hard decisions, dilemmas, moral choices, that the first place we want to go is to God in His word and make sure that we are living under His word. These brothers and sisters were facing a particular problem or dilemma in each of these cases in Numbers 27, Numbers 32, and now Numbers 36. But what do they do? They go to Moses and they go to the Lord, and they say what? We will submit to Your word.
You know, about 85% of all the problems we have in the church would disappear if we just walked by that one rule. ‘You know, Lord, we’ve gotten crosswise with one another, but here it is. We’re going to go to Your word and whatever You say to us in Your word, we’re going to do.’ Eighty-five percent of our problems would just disappear if we submitted ourselves, if we lived under the authority of the Lord by living under His word.
II. God cares about His people.
Now, the second point is this: isn’t it glorious in verses 5-12 where God gives the solution to this dilemma which has been raised in verses 2-4…isn’t it glorious in verses 5-12 how God shows that He cares about the inheritance that He has given to the tribes staying within those tribes?
God cares about the inheritance that He has given to the tribes staying within those tribes. Now, look. There are all sorts of reasons why God wants to do this. I wish I could expound upon these at length tonight. One reason that He wants land to stay within families and stay within tribes is He does not want Israel to become a place where there is gross economic disparity. You remember the later prophets often say to Israel, “Woe to him who adds field to field.” [Now us twenty-first American capitalists say what’s wrong with that? That’s a growing business.] Well, in Israel, of course, what that meant was there became an inequity of opportunity for a family to support itself, because one family amasses great land, and thus resources, and other families are squeezed out of having those limited resources that are necessary in order to provide for the family. And so there are actually laws that are built into the way Israel is to exist so there are not tremendous disparities of economic opportunity in Israel.
We need to think about this in our own day and time. When a worker could work for fifty years and not earn in a lifetime one one-hundredth of what the CEO of a corporation earns in one year–and this happens, my friends, all over our country–you’re introducing all manner of conflict in the society. You have greed and you have envy, and you have avarice, and all manner of problems are inserted by those kinds of gross economic disparities. And God has woven into the very fabric of Israel some controls to keep that kind of thing from happening.
But fundamentally, apart from all those interesting social and economic reasons for this particular law, fundamentally God is giving His people through their tribes and through their families a lasting inheritance. In other words, He’s giving them an inheritance that He wants to last, and that means for Him that He wants to see it pass down through a family generationally so that that family years later can look back and say, “You know, God has been so faithful to us. He’s given us what we need to care for our family and to give for the building of His kingdom, and for the display of His glory.” And that family can look at that inheritance that’s been passed down, and they can be thankful for that inheritance, and they can appreciate that inheritance, and they can be grateful for that inheritance, and they can praise the Lord for that inheritance.
In other words, God’s fidelity can be seen to them in that inheritance being passed down from generation to generation. In other words, God wants His promises to be experienced generationally. He wants generation after generation of the tribe of Manasseh and of the family of Zelophehad to have to look back and say, “You know, the Lord has been faithful from generation to generation.”
Do you remember what Moses prayed? It’s going to be the first Psalm that we study when we start studying the Fourth Book of the Psalms: “Lord, Thou hast been our refuge from generation to generation.” You know, some of you can give those testimonies of what the Lord has done in your family from generation to generation, where there is a gospel legacy of grace from generation to generation. The Lord wants His promises to be experienced generationally. Remember that the next time you see and hear a covenant baptism in this church. The Lord is really concerned about His inheritance being passed on from generation to generation.
III. To walk by faith is to walk by the word.
One last thing, very quickly. I wish I could elaborate more on this, but one last thing. In verse 13 where we read,
“These are the commandments and the rules the Lord commanded through Moses to the people of Israel…” [and then listen to this closely as we close] “…in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.”
Now, boy, there is a sermon in the place names in the final few words of the book of Numbers.
What’s going on here? They’re in the plains of Moab. They’ve conquered Moab, but they haven’t crossed the Jordan, and they haven’t taken Jericho. So how are they going to do that? The answer is in the first part of the verse. They’re going to trust and obey God and His word. That’s how they’re going to cross the Jordan. That’s how they’re going to take Jericho. They’re going to trust and obey God and His word. What do we learn in the very final verse of Numbers? That to walk by faith is to walk by the word.
Take your hymnals in hand and let me ask you to turn to a very famous hymn, a hymn that probably many of you have memorized. Turn to 672. The whole hymn is worth studying, but just listen to the first stanza:
“When we walk with the Lord in the light of His word,
What a glory He sheds on our way.
While we do His good will, He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.
Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus, than to trust and obey.”
And what’s the very last message of Numbers 36:13? To walk by faith is to walk by the word. How is it that they’re going to cross the Jordan and conquer Jericho? By faith. And how do you do that? By believing and obeying God and His word.
I love it when Derek reminds us that the Puritans so often teach us that the first, the very first, principle of the Christian life is “walk by rule.” Now is that a legalistic, constraining, narrow, binding, caging bondage to walk by rule? No. Because isn’t it interesting that even in verses 5-12 you find out what? That God’s command is meant for your blessing. And so Moses’ last word to you is this:
“These are the commandments and the rules that the Lord has commanded through Moses to the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.”
How are we going to get through the Jordan and through Jericho and into the land? We’re going to walk by faith, by trusting and obeying God and His word.
May the Lord bless us as we do that very same thing.
Heavenly Father, thank You for this book, and thank You for Your word. Cause it to dwell richly in our hearts. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you stand for God’s blessing, and then we’ll sing the Doxology.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.