The 33rd chapter of the book of Numbers details the stages in Israel’s journey to the Promised Land. It lists every staging point where they stopped and camped along the way. Why is this information important enough that God wanted it to be recorded? To answer that question, it’s important to remember that God does nothing haphazardly; everything He does has a purpose. It’s true that much of what could be learned from a physical study of the locations themselves may have been lost via the passage of time — and even that which remains today would mean little to nothing to one who has never personally visited the sites — but physical truths are under-girded by spiritual ones; so although the centuries may have eroded the evidences of the Exodus, the spiritual lessons we can learn from it remain eternally. Therefore, it stands to reason that the relevance of this chapter is best discovered when it is framed within a spiritual context. And since God has graciously preserved the truth for us in His Word, I’d like to start this study with an examination of words — specifically — exploring the meaning conveyed by the names of some of the encampments. Let’s begin in Exodus 33:5.
vs. 5: “The Israelites left Rameses and camped at Succoth.”
Israel had kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month, to celebrate their freedom from the bondage of sin. The very next day they physically departed from Rameses. Rameses means “child of the sun”, indicative of the fact that the sun was the chief god of the Egyptians. So, in this sense, Israel was also symbolically leaving behind the false religious systems of the world, to worship the one, true God. The first resting place on the journey was called Succoth, which means “booths”. Booths, of course, were temporary dwellings, and the entire nation would live in them until they received their permanent inheritance. If we accept the idea that the Christian church serves as the modern parallel to ancient Israel, then the lesson for us today is quite clear. At the very beginning of our walk with God, as we begin to worship Him in spirit and in truth, we have attention drawn to the fact that our dwelling on earth is temporary; and a reminder that we are no longer to live for the things of this world.
vs. 6: “They left Succoth and camped at Etham, on the edge of the desert.”
Etham means “with them: their plowshare”. A plowshare is the cutting part of a plow: the part that does the work. The name communicates that the LORD would be with them, and He would be the one doing and accomplishing the work of bringing them into the Promised Land. What a tremendous encouragement this provides for the believer today!
vs. 7: “They left Etham, turned back to Pi Hahiroth, to the east of Baal Zephon, and camped near Migdol.”
Pi Hahiroth means “Place where sedge grows”, so I researched the characteristics of sedge to see if any insight could be gained from doing so, and I came across the following description:
- “Sedges are herbaceous, dying back to the ground surface at the end of the growing season, but then re-growing the next season by sprouting from underground rhizomes or roots.”
Now this is purely speculative, of course, but that trait seems highly reminiscent of the fact that we all return to the ground from whence we came, but the Christian is born again to a new life in God; and is empowered to do so by the Heavenly Root, our Lord and Savior, Jesus, the Christ. I leave it to the reader to decide upon the merits of the association.
Moving on more concretely, however, we arrive at Baal Zephon, meaning “lord of the north”. Here is Strong’s definition:
“From ba’al (“lord”) and tsâphôn, which is derived from tsâphan; properly hidden, that is, dark; used only of the north as a gloomy and unknown quarter (in the sense of cold) — and according to others it is the Egyptian form of Typhon, the destroyer).”
Finally, Migdol means “tower” (representing strength and might). If we accept the above definitions as valid and accurate, the message that materializes from verse seven could be loosely rendered as:
They left Etham (with the knowledge that the LORD, as their plowshare, was with them — for it was at Etham that the LORD first appeared in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night), turned back to Pi Hahiroth, which sits at the right hand of Baal Zephon, and camped facing Migdol.
It was here that they would face the full might of the Egyptian army in a final confrontation. But why should the geographical reference points for Pi Hahiroth be mentioned? Might it not be that these locations are included to allude to a spiritual force as pertinent and real to the Christian as the Egyptian army was to the children of Israel? It seems clear that the “hidden destroyer” — the “lord of the north” — refers spiritually to the prince of the power of the air, Satan; but I shall table the thought for the time being, since a discussion of verse eight will allow this idea to be fleshed out more fully.
vs. 8: “They left Pi Hahiroth and passed through the sea into the desert, and when they had traveled for three days in the desert of Etham, they camped at Marah.”
How did they pass through the sea? Exodus 14:21 states, “…the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.” There are many correlations that can be drawn between how God led the children of Israel and how He leads His children today. The waters they passed through were symbolic of baptism (1 Cor. 10:1-5). As they walked, with the waters walled up around them on both sides, the path to the Promised Land stretched before them, while death, in the form of Egypt and its army, was behind them. The people could not receive their inheritance by staying where they were; they had to fully depart Egypt and emerge on the other side of the sea. This is also true of the Christian. As the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on”, we also are not to remain in the same condition we were in when God called us — we are to move forward and grow spiritually. Nor are we to turn back again to the manner of living we had prior to being baptized; for should we chance to look back, we will find only death behind us.
The children of Israel, having been released from slavery, were granted a new life of freedom, but that does not mean they were free from responsibility. They were to be a model kingdom, and were to serve as an example to the surrounding nations. But before they took possession of the land, they would first need to dispossess its current inhabitants. They were to destroy their enemies strongholds by acts of physical warfare, and were to rely on God to grant them the victory. Allow me now to pick up the thought I previously abandoned. God’s instruction to turn back to Pi Hahiroth has a different meaning for us, because the adversary we face as Christians, while no less real than the Egyptian army, is far more powerful. We, too, have been lead out from the land of sin, and have become subjects of a new Kingdom. But the battles we are to wage are spiritual ones, not physical. Our responsibility is to live a life of sacrificial obedience to God in the midst of people who love what the world has to offer. We must first be willing to allow God to accomplish his will in us, then we are to overthrow the fortresses and towers of Satan’s might by confronting sin in the hearts of men.
People have often expressed amazement, wondering how Israel could turn away from God and not believe Him, since they had experienced all of His miraculous interventions. I would therefore like to leave the examination of Numbers 33 to turn instead to the account in Exodus, starting in chapter 15, verse 22. After discussing the parallels between their Exodus and the Christian’s journey, you may judge if we, in reality, are very different from them, or not.
Exodus 15:22-24: Israel exited the Red Sea and went three days journey into the wilderness (which depicts uncharted territory — a land few had walked) of Etham, and pitched in Marah (meaning “bitter”). They had been separated from the rest of the world, and the stillness of the desert presented the opportunity to draw nearer to God, in preparation for their first test — a trial they were not anticipating. It was not a trivial one. They encountered undrinkable water — a life-threatening issue in such an inhospitable environment. Yet it was an experience with a figurative lesson at its heart — which was intended for their benefit. Water often symbolizes spirit in the Scriptures. In this instance, the water typified their old way of life — bitter waters of death they were no longer to drink from. The nation had undergone a baptism, but they had not received the Holy Spirit, nor did they have the benefit of hindsight, as the reader of the account does today, and so they failed to view this occasion in the proper light. The people’s question, “What are we to drink?” addresses a physical concern; for without water they would soon die. So, in a sense, what they were asking was “How will we continue to live, without water?”
The Israelites saw only the physical deprivation of the moment, brought about by the realities of their new environment, and so they asked the wrong question. The concern for the newly baptized believer, who also faces a new environment, containing a different set of realities, is spiritual. Therefore, if we house their physical concern within a spiritual frame, the relevance to the Christian becomes more apparent. Instead of crying out for water, we voice our plea for the gift of his spirit, and acknowledge that it is impossible to live a new life apart from it. And we can rejoice in knowing that God will be faithful to supply it, just as he was in providing for the Israelite’s need.
But this passage also contains a warning. Because they prioritized the physical over the spiritual, and because they viewed their circumstances apart from a confidence in the LORD’s provision, the joy the nation had felt as they exited the sea, and their delight in having their Deliverer traveling with them lasted a mere three days. Yet how different from them are we? Isn’t our enthusiasm for serving God also subject to the same entropy which so swiftly affected them, whenever our focus and priorities shift toward the physical realm? I would therefore encourage you to go back and read 1 Cor. 10:1-22 again in its entirety, with these thoughts in mind.
vs. 25-26: The bitter waters were made sweet by a piece of wood. I believe the wood represents the Lord’s sacrifice, which made the Holy spirit available to all: and the changing of the water represents both the converting power of his action and the transformative power of his spirit. When His spirit is in us, we no longer drink from water that produces death, we have waters of life springing up from within us. It is in this action that the people’s first test had its conclusion. But God does not leave them in their failure, instead, he decrees His first covenant with them and promises to heal them, as he had done to the waters.
vs. 27: Here I would only mention that I believe that the rest the people enjoyed as they camped here can be analogous to the time a new believer is given to study and learn God’s laws, prior to being given a more active work.
Ex. 16: 1-3: The Israelite’s arrive at the Desert of Sin. Sin means “thorn” or “clay”, which conveys the idea of getting caught up or ensnared in the ways of man. Physically it was a wasteland that stood between Elim and Sinai. Elim means “palms”, indicating righteousness, and Sinai was the mountain where the law was given. I believe the desert’s placement between these two locations is intended to portray the gulf that exists between man’s attempts at righteousness and the perfection and holiness represented in the Law. In the face of the holiness of God’s law, all men stumble and fall, and only the sacrifice of the Lord can bridge this gap.
It was here that the people grumbled over a lack of meat. In effect, their complaint was akin to saying, “We would rather die than continue to live like this — a life devoid of all the good and pleasant things of the world!” Because they were lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, the majority were re-ensnared by the thorny concerns of the flesh and died without entering the Promised Land. Allow me to make one small point of comparison, lest we feel ourselves superior to them: how many approach the Day of Atonement with weariness, and struggle to go one day without food — planning where to go and what meal to enjoy to break the fast with more anticipation and excitement than they had for the day itself?
I’ll share a final thought from verse four before drawing to a close. God told the Israelites that he would rain down bread from heaven, and Scripture doesn’t record whether they believed him, or not. If God had said he would turn the surrounding mountains into bread pudding, for them to enjoy dessert in the desert, they should have believed him and asked for spoons! So too with us. When we are presented with a difficult statement from God, we simply need to believe and obey. But how often do we struggle with this, and put comprehension before compliance? It’s true that understanding leads to increased wisdom, and wisdom is something everyone should strive to obtain, but wisdom is not righteousness. Righteousness is believing God and acting on the belief. Romans 3:21-31 and James 2:14-26.
There is much to learn from asking the question, “How could Israel have been so blind?” But the reason for asking should only be so that we might avoid a repeat of their errors. In addition to the inquiry we ought to include a petition: “Merciful Father, begin to make me less like them than I am this day, that I might become more like your Son.” Our primary concern should be for God to strengthen our desire to serve Him, no matter the cost, that we might escape the same hardening of heart that led to their ultimate downfall.
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)
The children of Israel eventually sent spies to scout out the land they were to inherit. Although God had showed through the water, quail and manna that he would supply their every need, when they saw the might of the people they were to face, they lost heart, and would not walk where God would have them go. They were unfaithful to their calling and died in the wilderness. How have we responded to the labor God has committed into our care? When we see the strength of the enemy, and face the reality that speaking out against sin brings persecution, do we subtly turn away from following God, preferring instead a life free from conflict and full of ease? Let each of us remember the covenant we entered into at baptism, and re-commit ourselves to seeking and serving God with all of our heart, mind, soul and being; lest we become re-ensnared in the cares of the world and miss out on the wonderful promises of God, as so many of our predecessors did.