The Lord’s Day Evening
January 27, 2008
With God in the Wilderness
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. Please be seated. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 27, and I’d also invite you to take a peek at chapter 26 on your way to Numbers 27.
The last time we were in Numbers together, this past Wednesday night, we were looking at the long list of names of the heads of families of the tribes in Israel in that great chapter. And we said that the names were listed there for the purposes of both selective service (this is in preparation for the draft, to defend the children of Israel against those nasty Midianites that have been dogging them all their way) and also to prepare them for the battle that they’re going to have to engage in as they go into the land of Canaan. You remember God’s word to them was here is the land, it’s yours, now take it. And so it involved both believing that God had given them the land and it involved their acting on faith and aggressively taking the land from the Canaanites on whom God’s judgment was falling in bringing them into the land. And so the census is taken in large measure to give an idea of how many fighting men there are going to be available to Moses; and of course eventually — when we get to the end of chapter 27 — we know that it’s going to be General Joshua who’s going to be leading them into the land of Canaan.
We also said that not only was selective service a purpose of this census taken in Numbers 26; inheritance was an important purpose for this census. Proportionate to the size of the tribes, land would be allotted both in the Transjordan and in Canaan proper for the children of Israel to inhabit. And so it was important to know how large and how small, relatively speaking, the various tribes were, so that appropriate land could be appropriated to them for distribution amongst the clans and heads of families. And of course for this reason the names that are listed are given in Numbers 26.
Now that also jogged our memories and it reminded us that the three big themes in the book of Numbers are journey, warfare, and inheritance. There is this long journey through the wilderness coming to a conclusion in the book of Numbers that started all the way back in the book of Exodus, and that theme of journey gets picked up in the book of Hebrews. And in fact, in the whole of the early church, the picture of the Christian life is expressed in light of the term of wilderness wandering or pilgrims, a theme which is again picked up later in Christian history and manifests itself in classic books like Pilgrim’s Progress. This picture of journeying through this life on the way to the Promised Land is a part of the Christian life, but it’s rooted in God’s experience…the experience that He granted to His people in the Old Testament.
Then there’s the picture of warfare. To be a Christian, the Apostle Paul says, is to be a good soldier of Jesus Christ. But the imagery of the believing life as a life of warfare is not simply a New Testament image. It starts all the way back in the Old Testament and is displayed everywhere in the story of the children of Israel leaving Egypt, wandering through the wilderness, and going into and finally possessing the promised land.
But the third theme, the theme of inheritance, is there as well. We saw that in Numbers 26. We will see it tonight in a very extraordinary way, because God in this great journey is in the process of granting to His people an inheritance that He had promised to their forefather Abraham well over 430 years before. And so this is a matter of an inheritance promise, and a promise being fulfilled.
Now we also said as we looked at Numbers 26 that there are warnings there. Let me just ask you to look…scan across the passage and look at verse 1, verse 10, verse 19, verse 62, and then verses 63-65. There are a bunch of warnings in this passage. In the midst of encouraging words about inheritance and preparation for warfare against the land of Canaan, there are warnings. There’s the warning that you see in the very first verse of Numbers 26, which reminds you that this census was taken after the plague. That plague was the plague that is mentioned in the previous chapter, which cost Israel 24,000 soldiers. Don’t you think they wouldn’t have been thinking about that as they went into the Promised Land, and needed every man on deck? And they realized that through their own sin, through their own rebellion, through their own unfaithfulness in the incident with the Baals of Peor that they had lost 24,000 potential soldiers. It shows you the consequences of sin.
And then in verse 10, the mention of Dathan and Abiram, who contend against the Lord’s servant and are judged. And then the mention of Onan and Er, who had been judged before ever the family had gotten out of Canaan the first time, in verse 19. Or the mention of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, who had offered uncommanded strange fire before the Lord. And just as Al asked the question this morning, ‘Can a person hear God speak from the fire and survive?’ that makes all the sense in the world in the light of the story of Nadab and Abihu. Because they heard God speak from the fire, but they did not survive. They were consumed.
And then of course there’s the story of verses 63-65. Not one head of a household of a tribe of Israel was left when the census of Midian was taken. When the census of Sinai was taken, only two men, only two heads of households, Joshua and Caleb — of all of the fighting men of Israel, more than 600,000 — would enter into the land of Canaan … 599,998-plus fighting men of Israel had died in the wilderness. Two heads of families would go in. It’s a reminder of God’s judgment for unbelief.
But there’s also tremendous encouragement in Numbers 26. We commented on the glorious, glorious blessing and grace which is manifested in verse 11. Allow your eyes to look at it. In the midst of all these warnings, Numbers 26 gave us a beautiful reminder of God’s grace in that it mentions explicitly that though Korah had rebelled and 250 people with him, even though they had been slain and died, yet the sons of Korah did not die. Though their father rebelled, they were spared, and they went on to write Psalms 42, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 84, 85, 87, and 88. It’s a manifestation of God’s grace.
This afternoon we were having a wonderful meal with Al Mohler, and he was telling us stories. And one of the most moving stories he shared was this. There was a person at the seminary that was there when he got there. He was one of the most notorious liberals in all of the Southern Baptist Convention. He did not believe in the word of God, denied various central truths of The Apostles’ Creed and of Christian orthodoxy, and undermined the gospel in his teaching. And he fought Al tooth and nail when Dr. Mohler went in to change that seminary around and bring it back to fidelity to the word of God. Al was telling us that at Gate B-18 a number of months ago, at Gate B-18 in the Hartsfield/Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, he had run into this gentleman whom he had not seen in over fifteen years. (Al said it was too soon to see him again!) But they made small talk, and then finally the man turned to Al and he said, “Would you do me a favor, Dr. Mohler? There’s a young student at your seminary who has just started, and I’d like you to check on him and make sure that he’s OK. Just look after him for me.” And Al said, “I’d be delighted to do that. Let me take down his name.” And he took down his name. And he said, “Sir, may I ask you a question? What’s your connection with this young man? Why would you want me, of all people, to check on this young man?” And this very notorious liberal took Dr. Mohler by the lapels of his coat and pulled him close, and he said, “That’s my grandson. And he loves this institution now for what it now stands, and you’re his hero.” And there is the grandson of a notorious liberal, who loves the word of God and who loves the gospel, and loves the doctrines of grace, going to that seminary. Just like the sons of Korah were not destroyed, God’s grace has been manifested in the life of that family. That’s the story that’s before you in verse 11. Just in passing, you got to see that nugget of grace in Numbers 26:11.
Well, that brings us to Numbers 27, and we’re going to look at the first eleven verses. And it’s a section of Numbers that deals with inheritance, and it deals with an interesting exception in the inheritance laws.
As you know, in Israel the inheritance law had been established so that only the sons inherited the land of their fathers. Daughters were given significant dowries at the time of their marriage, but then it was their husband’s family land that they participated in and received the benefits from and passed on to their children. But unmarried daughters were not beneficiaries of the inheritance of land in Israel, and this story has to do with that very interesting circumstance in the laws of Israel.
Let’s look to God’s word, and let’s pray before we read His word.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for this Your word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful truth in it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of God in Numbers 27:1-11.
“Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, from the clans of Manasseh the son of Joseph. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Micah, and Tirzah. And they stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the chiefs and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, saying, ‘Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin. And he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.’
“Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘The daughters of Zelophehad are right. You shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers and transfer the inheritance of their father to them. And you shall speak to the people of Israel, saying, ‘If a man dies and has no son, then you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter. And if he has daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. And if he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. And it shall be for the people of Israel a statute and a rule, as the Lord commanded Moses.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
This is an amazing passage. It’s a passage that actually gives us a window into how the case laws of Moses — of the Old Testament, of the first five books of the Bible, of the Torah, of the Law — came into being. Cases were brought before Moses. Moses inquired of the Lord. The Lord set the law for all of Israel. Every circumstance had not been previously covered by the law. When a new case came into being, they came before Moses, Moses inquired of the Lord, and the Lord gave instruction as to how Israel was to live. It’s a beautiful picture of how case law came into being.
It’s also a beautiful picture of the fluidity of this law. God, because He was a wise and good and kind and generous ruler of His people, crafted law which was appropriate to the circumstances and situations in which they lived. And as they moved from some circumstances into other situations, He made adjustments in the standing law of the people, so that some laws that were in application before they had left the land of Canaan and sojourned in the land of Egypt, and then came through the wilderness and were going back into the land, were changed. Like this one that we read of tonight.
But behind this story is, of course, the rule of inheritance in Israel. You need to understand this in order to understand the daughters of Zelophehad’s request. Daughters in Israel up to this time — unmarried daughters — did not share in the family estate. They were given a large dowry at the time of their weddings. That dowry would have included precious metals — gold and silver. It would have included furniture. It would have included clothing. It would have included money. It was the father’s gift to his daughter to get her started with her own husband as they journeyed, but it would be her husband and her husband’s family that would have responsibility now of providing for her needs.
However, this left a gap in the case of unmarried daughters. You see, fathers’ property, upon the death of the father, was divided between his sons. If he had more than one son, his first son would get double the portion, and then his other sons would divide the remainder of his property. If there were no sons, his estate went either to his brothers, his uncle, or his nearest male relative. The idea, you understand, is to keep the land in the family and to preserve the family name…the memory of what God had done in His mercy to that family in the past.
But this left a gap for unmarried daughters, and it left that name unprotected in those unique circumstances. And so the daughters of Zelophehad, before the children of Israel — chapters before the children of Israel had gotten to the point of receiving one stitch, one parcel of land — are already thinking through the inheritance laws. Wise women of foresight, they were. And so they come to Moses and they say, ‘Moses, we would like to set before you a case and ask for your judgment.’
And it’s fascinating, isn’t it? In verses 2, 3, and 4, these daughters come before Moses and Eleazar and they make their presentation, and we are not told a single thing that Moses said back to them. It’s as if they put this case before Moses, and Moses goes, ‘Oooo, hadn’t thought about that before.’ And he immediately turns and says, ‘I think I’ll bring this case to the Lord.’ Moses has nothing to say to them. They bring their request to him — he is their lawgiver, he is their leader — but Moses has nothing to say immediately. He immediately turns and says, ‘Lord, I don’t know what to say. What do You say about this?’
That is one of the central points of the passage. And in this passage we see at least three things. These godly women had taken heed to the warnings of God; they had trusted in the word of God; and they wanted to live life by the word of God. And in all three of those things they teach us much about the Christian life. I want to look at each of those things.
I. The women took heed to the Lord’s warnings.
The first thing we’ll see is that these women took heed to the Lord’s warnings. Look at verse 3 of Numbers 27. As they begin to speak to Moses, they say,
“Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin.”
Now this is a fascinating statement. Perhaps one reason that they’re mentioning this is the families of the sons of those who rebelled with Korah had perhaps forfeited their inheritance rights because of the rebellion of Korah and his cohorts, and they wanted to make it clear that they weren’t part of that group that had rebelled along with Korah.
But at the same time they go on to mention that their father had indeed died in the wilderness for his own sin. What are they letting Moses and Eleazar know?
They’re letting Moses and Eleazar know that they know that God’s judgment on Korah and those others who were in rebellion against Moses and Aaron and God, that God’s judgment on them was right and that God’s judgment on the wilderness generation was right. The judgment of God on Korah, the others in rebellion, the judgment of God on the wilderness generation, had made an impression on these young women. And even as they go before Moses with this request, it is on their minds that their father was not merely the victim of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but he had been justly judged for his unbelief in his own time. Is that not extraordinary, given that they are going to plea for the law to be changed so that his name will be remembered? Is that not a remarkable confession and repentance? In that circumstance, surely your tendency would be to be defensive of his family name.
My father’s maiden aunts were fiercely defensive of family reputation, and for years they had told my father that his great-grandfather McDow had died in the last legal duel in the state of South Carolina. And when my father was working for Dun & Bradstreet in Charleston, South Carolina, he went down to The News & Courier, the old newspaper, and began to look at the era leading up to the death of Dr. McDow to find out events that might have surrounded the last days of his life. And what he uncovered was a story entirely unlike the story that the maiden aunts had told him all his life! He researched and researched, and then at the next family reunion, as the whole family was gathered around, he said, “Let me tell you what I found out. Dr. McDow not only did not die in the last legal duel in the State of South Carolina, he shot another man in the back fifty years after dueling had been outlawed in the state of South Carolina–and the other man’s wife spoke on behalf of his defense in the trial. And it was one of the most celebrated trials in the nineteenth century in Charleston, South Carolina.” The maiden aunts were horrified! And they said, “Ligon, don’t you know when to leave well enough alone?”
Well, I can see some of the family members of the daughters of Zelophehad saying, ‘Hey, back down on the story about Dad dying for his own sin in the wilderness!’ But these women had taken to heart the warnings of God. They understood the just judgment of God. And yet they were still ready to come and ask for God’s mercy.
It’s so important, my friends. If you have seen some visitation of God’s judgment in your life, do not forget that He is a God of mercy who waits to give grace to those who seek Him.
II. The women believed in the promises of God about the land.
There’s a second thing here, isn’t there? You see it in verse 4. These young women believed in the promises of God about the land. In verse 4, they say, “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan…? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.”
Israel hadn’t occupied the land. No land has been parceled out. No brothers had received land in Canaan. But they’re already thinking about the land that they want to receive — that hasn’t been given out to anyone! Why? Because they believed God’s word. God has told His children that He is going to give them an inheritance in the land and these godly women believe it! They believe it so much that they’re ready to go to Moses before anybody has any land and say, ‘Hey, when we do get land, Moses, we’d like to have a little bit.’
The daughters of Zelophehad trust the word of the Lord. Surely this is one of the reasons why God records this remarkable story. Do you realize that in all of the census of tribes of the heads of the families in Numbers 26, there’s no mention of a single daughter? But here in Numbers 27:1-11, these daughters of Zelophehad and their story are recounted for the world to see. They trusted God’s word.
III. These women wanted to live by God’s word.
And third, they wanted to live by God’s word. These women understood that life is determined by God’s will.
Let me let you in on a little secret. This particular loophole in inheritance law for unmarried women, for unmarried daughters, had been closed by the surrounding pagan cultures for a thousand years before Israel showed up. Even the Midianites had made already an allowance for the inheritance of unmarried daughters. But look at what the daughters of Zelophehad do not do. They do not go in and say, ‘You know, Moses, it’s time for Israel to get up with the times. We need to do what the Midianites are doing. You need to change the law so that we’re like the cultures around us.’ That is not what they do. They go to Moses and they say, ‘Moses, you make the call. You’re God’s man for Israel. We’re appealing to you. We’re appealing to the Lord because we trust the Lord to do what’s right. It’s the Lord’s word that rules in Israel. And so here’s our case, but it’s up to you. We’ll wait patiently until you come back with what God’s word is. We’re not appealing to surrounding culture and saying that God’s people have to conform to surrounding culture. We’re appealing to God’s word. We’re waiting to see what He says.’
And don’t you love what God’s first words are to Moses?
“Moses, the daughters of Zelophehad are right.”
Is that not a precious picture of the love of God for His children? You know, God could have fixed that law a thousand years before if He’d wanted to. But, because He loved His children, He gave them the privilege of bringing the request to Him so that He could answer it in front of the face of all Israel and all the earth. No, they didn’t appeal to contemporary cultural practices, but to Moses and ultimately to God; and, therefore, these daughters of Zelophehad by name and their story has been memorialized so that every Christian man, woman, boy, and girl, from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation knows their name and knows their story.
You know, that reminds me of something else. In the last hours of Jesus’ earthly ministry before His crucifixion, a woman came to Him and she broke a vial of alabaster oil and anointed Him with that. And that story is recorded in Matthew 26 and in Mark 14. And if you look at Matthew 26:13 or in Mark 14:9, you will see that though Jesus’ disciples objected to this woman and what she had done, Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done shall also be spoken in memory of her.” Just like the daughters of Zelophehad.
My friends, they have been memorialized so that we will take heed of God’s warnings and trust in the Lord’s word, and live life according to the word of God.
Heavenly Father, we bless You for Your love and goodness and wisdom and kindness. We ask that You would grant that we would live in trust and obedience to Your word, and to always take heed of Your warnings. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you stand for the benediction…and after the benediction, in fact, I’d like to ask Barry and Val Vickery and Mr. Kiti if you would please come down in front so that we can give you the right hand of fellowship.
Receive God’s blessing.
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away. Amen.