The children of Israel observed Passover for the first time while camped at Mt. Sinai. Following this wonderful celebration, the people’s attention changed. In the months preceding this event, their primary focus had been on constructing the tabernacle. But now that the tabernacle was complete and Passover had passed, the principal concern of the camp shifted to something new.
After having stayed at Mt. Sinai for just over a year, the people of God were about to break camp and resume their journey. It was finally time to claim and occupy the Promised Land that the LORD had promised to them. And thus, the assembly began to make preparations for the upcoming trip. It had been several months since they’d last travelled anywhere, and many had grown somewhat comfortable with their home in the wilderness of Sinai.
Today’s message is titled “Goodbye, Sinai” and it has 3 major points of emphasis. First, we will study what happened in the weeks just prior to Israel’s departure from the mountain of God. Second, we will will discuss the detailed manner in which they departed. Third, we will learn what took place in the days just after they departed.
I. THE FIRST CENSUS (Numbers 1-2)
Two weeks after the Passover, on the “first day of the second month” the LORD commanded Moses to determine the size and strength of his army. Their next major task would be to invade the hostile land of Canaan, which would require significant military action. Following God’s directive, Moses took a census of the people. All men from ages 20 and above who were fit enough to serve as soldiers were included in the count. Individual leaders from each of the 12 tribes were also designated to serve with Moses.
The results of the census are listed in Numbers chapter 1. The total number of warriors counted from the entire camp was 603,550, a sum that combines subtotals of each of the 12 tribes. Notably, the tribe of Levi is not included in this number because they were exempt from military service. As we learned earlier in this series, the Levites had been designated by God to serve alongside the priests in the tabernacle. Interestingly, the inclusion of this census and of a second one conducted later on in chapter 26 are the reason why we title this book “Numbers”.
In addition to evaluating the size of his army, Moses also received specific instructions for the arrangement of their camp. The tabernacle was to be set up in the center with the Levites and priests stationed around it. The 12 tribes of Israel were to encircle them on the north, south, east, and west. Therefore, they were divided into 4 groups. To the east was the camp of Judah, which also included the tribes of Zebulun and Issachar. The the south was the camp of Reuben, which also included the tribes of Simeon and Gad. To the west was the camp of Ephraim, which also included the tribes of Manasseh and Benjamin. To the north was the camp of Dan, which also included the tribes of Naphtali and Asher.
While each tribe had their own individual banner, each of these 4 larger divisions also had a standard for their group. According to ancient Jewish tradition, the standard of Judah bore the image of a lion, the standard of Reuben bore the image of a man, the standard of Ephraim bore the image of an ox, and the standard of Dan bore the image of an eagle. These are identical to the 4 living creatures that surround God in the apocalyptic visions of Ezekiel and Revelation.
II. THE PEOPLE DEPART (Numbers 9-10)
God further instructed Moses to make 2 silver trumpets. These would be used for various purposes, such as to convene meetings or to break camp. Differing signals were established. Some were designed as alarms for combat situations and others were blasts of joy when observing festivals and feasts. These trumpets would be used in a variety of situations by the children of Israel.
The cloud of God had resided over the tabernacle for many months. Finally, on the 20th day of the second month, the cloud lifted and began to move. Moses sounded the trumpet, and the children of Israel set out from Mt. Sinai. Just as they had done previously, these pilgrims followed the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. They marched in a particular order, with the camp of Judah leading and the camp of Dan at the rear.
Before saying goodbye to Sinai Moses asked his brother-in-law Hobab, Zipporah’s brother, to join him on their journey to the Promised Land. When Hobab refused, Moses pleaded with him to reconsider. Though nothing else is stated explicitly in this passage, a later reference found in Judges 1:16 suggests that the descendants of Hobab resided in Israel along with the children of God. It is reasonable to believe that Hobab changed his mind and ultimately decided to accompany Moses and the Hebrews to Canaan.
With the Ark of Covenant going ahead of them signifying the presence of God, the children of Israel journeyed northward. They would make a few stops - at Taberah, at Kibroth-hattaavah, and at Hazeroth - before eventually coming to a stop and setting up camp somewhere in the wilderness of Paran.
III. MORE COMPLAINTS (Numbers 11-12)
Almost immediately, the people began to complain again. God became angry and sent fire which consumed some folks on the outskirts of the camp. Though Moses prayed and the fire was extinguished, the complaints persisted. The people were displeased with the manna which the LORD was providing daily. They demanded meat to fill their raging appetites. Moses did not know how to satisfy them and was heavily burdened. God told him to select 70 men from among the camp to help share this load.
Following this, God sent a wind from the sea which blew in literally millions of quail. These fell to the ground covering an estimated area of almost 20 square miles. The birds were piled up 3 feet deep. There was enough quail for Israel to eat meat for an entire month. They people went out and gathered quail for a full day and a half. Seeing their greed, the LORD sent a severe plague on the camp and many people were killed.
Even Moses’ brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam began to complain. The murmured about Moses’ wife because she was a Cushite (she was born in Ethiopia and almost certainly a black woman). They also pridefully complained that Moses should not be considered to be the only leader - after all, God had spoken through them too. In response to their grumblings, God summoned the 3 siblings to the tent of meeting. There He rebuked Miriam and Aaron, and caused Miriam to become leprous. Subsequently, she was put out of the camp for 7 days. When she returned, the people of God continued onward to Kadesh.
The children of Israel were comfortable at Mt. Sinai. They had become content just living there. After a while, they even developed daily routines and practices. It was a safe place where God spoke with them regularly, and helped them to grow and develop in their faith. While they camped at Mt. Sinai, the congregation had little interaction with other people or groups. They did not have to engage with the world around them. They made preparations to carry out God’s calling, but they never actually had to do it. Life was simple and relatively stress-free.
In the same way, many contemporary Christians and churches are resistant to move out of their comfort zones. Some have dwelt at their own personal Mt. Sinai for years, stubbornly refusing to leave. They enjoy the easy lifestyle of coming to church, learning about the LORD, and worshiping with their fellow believers. But many have no real interest in carrying the message of Jesus to the lost, because doing so would require them to move. Some believers spend their entire lives preparing for something that they never actually do.
Here is the plain truth... God has not called His people to stay, but rather to go. While there will certainly be quiet seasons of life in which God is discipling us and equipping us to accomplish His will, these are but temporary. At some point beloved, we have to move. God has called us to reach this world for Christ, to carry the light of the gospel to dark places, and to confront the enemy in the powerful name of Jesus Christ. This can’t be done sitting in our “safe place”.
Whether we are moving literally or figuratively, either way can be hard. It exposes us to new pressures, problems, and worries. It often leads to complaining, grumbling, and doubt. Even still, moving is what God has called us to do. Perhaps this morning it is time for you individually - and for us collectively - to leave these comfort zones behind, to heed His voice, and to say “Goodbye, Sinai!"