What we’re reading about happened about three and a half thousand ago. The Exodus from Egypt happened around 1200-1400 b.c. during the bronze age.
In Britain, Stonehenge was over one and a half thousand years old, and more sophisticated weapons, tools and ornamentation were beginning to appear. Around this time in Egypt, the first pyramids were over a thousand years old and Nefertiti, whose beauty was recorded in many enduring works of art, was queen to Akhenaten. In China, Zhu Di was established as the great third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. I’m sure you remember it well…
Our story is a record of what was happening on the Sinai peninsula, roughly the size of Wales, in the time between Israel’s exodus from Egypt and their entry into Canaan. The covenant people were an organised community, families living in tents, tending animals, farming and following laws and ordinances. They were great in number (though the exact numbers outlined give rise to debate) and were wandering, without roots, in a challenging desert environment. Basic necessities like food and water would never have been far from their thoughts, along with the fear of destruction at the hands of forces greater than themselves.
God, who has given the law to the people through his servant Moses, now tells them to advance to the land of Canaan. Despite God’s clear presence (in the pillar of cloud and fire) and his previous dealings with the people which should still be fresh in their memories, Israel still grumbles and is disobedient to God’s calling, and as a result, are sentenced to 40 years of wandering in the desert. In this time, God rebukes, punishes, preserves and shapes his people. First and foremost, the book of Numbers continues to show the steadfast purpose of God to fashion a people for Himself who will display His image to the world, and out of which a saviour will rise.