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Doug Van Meter - 11 December 2022

To Have, and to Hold (Numbers 36:1–13)

One major challenge in the Christian journey is the various distractions that tempt us to “let go” of what is truly important—like eternal life. The apostle Paul addressed this reality in all of his epistles, perhaps most clearly in 1 Timothy 6:11–12, 17–19. Numbers 36 challenges us in the same regard, as we will see by considering its four major sections: 1. A Faithful Request (vv. 1–4) 2. A Faithful Responsibility (vv. 5–9) 3. A Faithful Response (vv. 10–12) 4. A Faithful Record (v. 13)

Scripture References: Numbers 36:1-13

From Series: "Numbers Exposition"

An exposition of the book of Numbers by Doug Van Meter.

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The book of Numbers begins rather mundanely, with several long chapters recording various censuses and the organising of the tribes around the tabernacle. But as we saw, this was vital to the success of Israel as she marched to the Promised Land. She would need to faithfully focus on the Lord who dwelt in her midst.

Throughout our studies, however, we observed, time and again, not Israel’s faithfulness but her faithlessness; not her belief but her unbelief. In fact, her unbelief was so offensive to God that, over the course of four decades, he killed that generation. The New Testament makes much of this by applying it to us as new covenant believers (1 Corinthians 10:1–13; Hebrews 3–4).

As we come to the end of the book, perhaps we might be disappointed to see that it appears to conclude as it commenced: seemingly mundane, with what seems to us to be an irrelevant law. But looks can be deceiving. In fact, this closing chapter points to confident great hope and to commendable faith.

As the new generation stood on the brink of the Jordan, soon to cross, conquer, and inherit what God had promised, the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh, as well as five women of that tribe, displayed faith in God’s promises about the future. And so the book ends as it began: with enthusiasm about what the nation would have from God, and encouragement to hold on to what they had.

Just across the Jordan River lay the promised inheritance, which they were to have and, more importantly, to hold. This is the theme of this closing chapter. We can title this study, “To Have, and to Hold.”

A major challenge to our Christian journey is the various distractions that tempt us to loosen our grip on what is truly important. Like eternal life. The apostle Paul addressed this reality in several places, perhaps most clearly in 1 Timothy 6:11, 12, 17–19: “But as for you, O man of God flee these things…. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses…. As for the rich in this present age … they are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”

Paul expected Timothy, a leader in the church, to lay hold of eternal life—to have it and to hold it (v. 12). And as a leader of God’s people, he was to instruct the congregation to also have, and to hold eternal life (vv. 17–19). Rather than being distracted by the lure of the world, Timothy and the congregation were to devote themselves to the pursuit of the inheritance they had in Christ Jesus. Using the metaphor from the book of Numbers, we can say that pastor and people, together, were to cross over and claim the promised inheritance God, in Christ, had secured for them. May our study today be a helpful means toward this end.

We will study these closing thirteen verses under the following headings:

  1. A Faithful Request (vv. 1–4)
  2. A Faithful Responsibility (vv. 5–9)
  3. A Faithful Response (vv. 10–12)
  4. A Faithful Record (v. 13)

A Faithful Request

The chapter opens with a faithful request from God’s people:

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.”

(Numbers 36:1–4)

The last word of the chapter, and therefore the last word in the book of Numbers, is “Jericho.”

I assume that the people of Israel were positioned so that they could see the city, and I assume that those standing on the walls of Jericho could see the Israelites. It was a tense time for both peoples. But for the faithful among Israel, anticipation dominated anxiety. They were soon to have their inheritance. All those promises to the former Patriarchs would soon come to pass. And it only took six hundred years!

As they believed God for what he had promised, some among the tribe of Manasseh were concerned about a promise made earlier to the daughters of Zelophehad (chapter 27). You might remember that the five daughters of this man evidenced faith that the nation would reach this point when the Promised Land would become an experiented reality. Since their father had no sons, they pleaded to be sure that, as daughters, they would not be disenfranchised from the tribal inheritance. They knew of God’s promised inheritance and desperately, because faithfully, wanted to have it. They did not want to miss out on God’s promised blessings. They wanted to have and to hold their inheritance. Therefore they boldly, because believingly, brought this matter to Moses who brought it to God. Yahweh affirmed their faith and assured them that they would not miss out. God commanded a statute to protect these, and future, women from losing tribal inheritance if their father died without sons. They were to have their inheritance. But now there looms the concern: Would they be able to hold on to it?

With the passage of time, and with Israel about to possess what had been allotted to each tribe, the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh became concerned. They had no problem with these women inheriting land. They were worried about their land being parcelled out to other tribes in the event these daughters married outside their tribe. “At issue is not a complaint or a grievance against women per se so much as a concern for the continuity of the lines of inheritance within the tribes” (Allen). That is, would their inheritance not be transferred from Manasseh to other tribes, thus shrinking Manasseh’s possession? What could be done to protect the tribal inheritance from God? How could they hold that which, by God’s grace, they had? We can summarise the worry: Marriage could mess up their inheritance, with generational consequences.

We should note that, whatever else is in this passage, faith is at the epicentre of this closing chapter. Reading carefully, we are refreshed by the faith of these leaders after the unbelief of so many former leaders in the book. These leaders believedthat the land would be theirs. They were different from the first generation. They actually believed God would fulfil his promise!

A side note is important at this point. According to Numbers 32:39–43, these tribal leaders were those living on the easy side of Jordan. They were among the fringe members of the people of God. They continued to exhibit the nervousness of those on the fringe: They were worried about being marginalised. The fringe was not the place to be! Yet, as we will see, the Lord loved these people and was committed to helping them preserve what he had allotted to them. God is gracious, indeed.

The statement in v. 4 is curious in that the law concerning the year of Jubilee did not address the issue raised here. It dealt with land that had been sold due to indebtedness, not land that was transferred through marriage. Perhaps the point was that even the incredible Jubilee law would not correct this situation. The mention of “the jubilee of the people of Israel” is another hint that this request was driven by faith. Let me explain.

In Leviticus 25, God revealed the law of jubilee, which took place the year following the seven sabbaths of years (that is, in the fiftieth year). The word means “ram’s horn,” for the priests would blow the horn announcing the jubilee. This was the year when all debts were forgiven, and indentured servants set free. Land that had been sold to defray debt was returned to the former owner or family.

Its mention here signifies this generation’s intention to honour the jubilee—in fifty years!

This generation had faith that they would not only secure their inheritance but also practice the sabbatical laws, including the one applying to the jubilee. Their intentions were faith-filled. Their faith was long-term; it looked forward. This is the nature of biblical faith.

Biblical faith is relevant for the here and now, yet it also reaches forward to the future (Hebrews 11:13–16).

While not begrudging the daughters of Zelophehad their right to land, at the same time these leaders were concerned about holding on to what God had given them to them. They did not want to lose God’s gracious gift to them. They understood the need to both have and to hold what God had given them.

A Faithful Responsibility

God provided an answer, and it was expected that everyone would be faithful to fulfil this God-ordained responsibility.

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.’”

(Numbers 36:5–9)

A key term/phrase is “shall hold on to their inheritance” (v. 7) or “shall hold on to its own inheritance” (v. 9). The words “hold on to” can be translated “cling to” or “cleave to.” It is used this way in Genesis 2:24 with reference to a man cleaving to his wife, and in Ruth 1:14 where Ruth clung in devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi. Its use here is therefore a strong command that each family was to cling to its God-given inheritance. “The issue is not just their personal happiness but the solidarity of the larger family unity. As a man is to cleave to his wife (Genesis 2:24), so a person is to cleave to his family inheritance” (Allen). Like a marriage, when it comes to their land inheritance, each tribe and each clan within the tribe was to have and to hold God’s gracious inheritance.

We are told that “Moses commanded the people of Israel according to the word of the LORD.” We don’t know how much time had passed between the request from the Gileadites and the proclamation from Moses. I suspect it was not overnight. I suppose Moses met with the Lord at the tent of meeting, where he would commune with him. Once Yahweh communicated his precept Moses then faithfully relayed the word of Yahweh to the people. Since it was the word of God, it was expected that the people would obey it. But more so, “Theologically, like many of the laws in Numbers, it is a promise that the tribes of Israel will always dwell in their God-given land” (Wenham).

I love the phrase, “The tribe of the people of Joseph is right.” It harkens back to 27:7: “The daughters of Zelophehad are right.” In each case, a faith-filled concern was brought to the Lord, who acknowledged its legitimacy and responded accordingly. James 1:5 exhorts God’s people to ask the Lord for wisdom, as does its old covenant equivalent (Proverbs 3:5–6), both which give the assurance of God providing the answer we need.

The Lord reaffirmed the right of the daughters of Zelophehad to marry, but they were to marry within their tribe (vv. 5–6). This statute was then expanded to cover all the tribes (vv. 7–10). The intention of this statute was that the perpetuity of the land inheritance would continue undiminished from generation to generation. The whole would be protected to the degree that the parts were protected. The outcome was to be something like The United State of Israel. Each part was essential to the whole and the whole was the focal point of the parts. This law would have protected diversity among the parts while at the same time guarding the unity of the whole, alleviating unnecessary squabble over the land inheritance of each tribe. In other words, this law recognised the united vision and mission of the nation as well as the individual tribal land rights. Both the nation and the individual tribes were winners. As each tribe took responsibility to have and to hold its inheritance, the (united) nation would fulfil its God gifted responsibility and mission.

Is there a lesson for us here?

The lesson is that, while recognising the importance and unity of the whole, there must be a proper respect for the parts. Uniformity was not the antidote to disunity. By this law, God was respecting the boundaries he assigned for his people. Unified in their worship of the true God and in their mission would result as each tribe made the most of their inheritance. As each tribe appreciated God’s gift of land, and as each tribe was committed to faithfully holding on to it, the nation would faithfully and fruitfully inherit all the Lord had promised them. And as each tribe lived holy within its own parcel, the light of the nation would bring glory to God. So it is with the local church.

As each member and each family unit holds faithfully to what the Lord has given to them—the gospel—the whole of the local church is equipped to fulfil its mission. There are both centralised and decentralised functions in the local church. As each member clings faithfully to what he or she has from God, all benefit. It indeed takes a village to raise a Christian. Each home is vital, as is the wider congregation of homes.

Consider that the Holy Spirit gifts each member of the church to contribute to the building up of the whole. As Paul highlights, there are diversities of gifts yet one Lord and one body (1 Corinthians 12). To the degree that each member holds on to their gift, stewarding it in accordance with God working in them, the whole body is built up. Each member of BBC should see their gifts as that which they have by God’s grace and which they should utilise for God’s glory and for the good of his people. We will return to this matter later.

A Faithful Response

The daughters of Zelophehad responded faithfully, as detailed in vv. 10–12.

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.

(Numbers 36:10–12)

Verse 10 is beautiful: “The daughters of Zelophehad did as the LORD commanded Moses.” They responded in faith to God’s revealed word. They did not merely make a promise that they would obey, but someone edited this chapter sometime later to inform us that they faithfully kept their promise (v. 12). As Cole points out, “These women demonstrated their loyalty to the covenant relationship to Yahweh.”

How different the book of Numbers would have been had the initial redeemed generation did as the daughters of Zelophehad did! Every time you read about these daughters, it is in a context of their believing God. Allen observes that, with these words, “there is hope in the actions of the daughters of Zelophehad that they will be representative of the nation: this generation will do well” and “we may observe that we would likely never have heard of [Zelophehad] had he had sons instead of these daughters!” (Allen).

Twenty-one times in Numbers we read similar words (“did as the LORD commanded”), usually with reference to Moses. This is an important concept for God’s people to practice if they will have and hold their inheritance. We must do as the Lord commands. Anything less is to be guilty of unfaithfulness. For God’s people to succeed as a whole, each of us needs to do what the Lord commands us. Failure to do so jeopardises the mission of the church. Yes, how you respond to the word of God matters—a lot.

A Faithful Record

The chapter (and book) closes with a statement claiming that we have a faithful record of all the rules and commandments revealed by God to Moses the mediator in the plains of Moab: “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” (v. 13).

This final verse reminds the reader that God spoke to his people in the wilderness, a major theme of the book (1:1). Now that he had continually saved and sustained and spoken to them, the question looming before the reader remained: Would the people serve God? The answer would depend on whether she would remain faithful to “the commandments and the rules that the LORD commanded through Moses … in the plains of Moab.” Would the nation be faithful to the Lord?

As the book ends with Moses and Israel on the verge of the promised land, we anticipate the death of Moses. In fact, this is perhaps the reason that this marital matter of the daughters of Zelophehad is found here, rather than as an immediate appendix to chapter 27:1–11.

Remember that it was immediately after that passage that the Lord tells Moses he is soon to die and that he is to prepare the nation for a transition of leadership from himself to Joshua (27:12–23). Now, at the end of the book, we are again provided with a reminder of Moses’ imminent death.

We know from the book of Joshua that Israel would inherit what God had promised (Joshua 21:41–45). She would haveall the inheritance God promised. Her challenge was, would she hold to what she would have? We know the answer. That for which this faithful generation was initially concerned to have and to hold would eventually be lost through covenantal disobedience. Israel would cease to faithfully hold and therefore would no longer have. That would be bad for them, and bad for the world. After all, Israel was the means of God’s promise of the redemption of sinners (Genesis 12:1–3). But God is faithful. Israel’s failure was not the end of the story. God would bring about the ultimate Jubilee so that everyone of his people will receive their full inheritance. “That fullness has arrived in in the person of Jesus Christ, who is himself our Jubilee, the one in whom our lost inheritance is restored to us” (Duguid).

The Lord Jesus Christ, the True and Faithful Israel, the True and Faithful Son of God (c.f. Exodus 4:21–23; Hosea 11:1 with Matt 2:13–15) would come to both have and to hold his promised inheritance: chosen sinners to be saints (Ephesians 1:15–18). Having lived for them a perfect life, meriting God’s righteousness for them, then having died in their place taking God’s wrath on their behalf, Jesus then rose from the dead to secure their standing before holy God thus reconciling them forever. And though saved sinners are Christ’s inheritance (Isaiah 53:12), those saved sinners also receive an inheritance: full and final salvation. Let me personalise this: We who have been saved by the Lord Jesus Christ have an imperishable inheritance. And we must hold what we have (see 1 Peter 1:3–9).

The Greek word that Peter uses for inheritance is used in the Greek Old Testament of the Promised Land (Joshua 11:23; 13:14, 23, 28, etc.). We learn in 1 Peter that Christians are to hold to the promised inheritance of full and final salvation, both mentally and spiritually, in the face of tribulations and temptations. This is what makes the book of Numbers so significant to the new covenant believer. We are expected to do better because we are enlightened to do better (see 1 Corinthians 10:1–13). And we can do better, for Peter tells us that we are equipped better (v. 3), enriched better (v. 4), empowered better (v. 5), and expect far better (vv. 6–9).

Brothers and sisters, as we come to the end of another year and stand on the verge on a new year, let’s reflect and resolve by the grace of God to do better. Let us reflect and resolve—relying on the grace of God—to hold to what we have. In the words of Paul to Timothy, let us hold on to eternal life (1 Timothy 6:11–12, 17–19). What we have is invaluable, so holdit tightly.

The late seventeenth-century Puritan Matthew Henry wrote, “Our removes in this world are but from one wilderness to another.” Christians face many—sometimes prolonged—trials as we journey towards our inheritance of the Celestial City.

Most of us can look back at 2022 and identify a wilderness or two in which we have found ourselves: buffeted by betrayal, stricken with sickness, bruised by battles, slain by sin, harmed by hatred, insecure because of impoverishment, lonely through loss, and various other trials. Christian, as you come to the end of this year, perhaps little has changed. Perhaps you still find yourself in a wilderness. If so, let me first try to encourage you by pointing you to what you have. You have eternal life. That is, being reconciled to God, you have the knowledge of God (John 17:3). There is no inheritance greater than this. You have daily access to the throne of grace for forgiveness. You have the daily promise of provision. You have the promise of full and final salvation along with the promise of a world that will freed from the fall. No more curse, no more darkness for the Lord is the light of that new world (Revelation 22:5).

Though you may not have health, wealth, success, your own home, electricity, a relationship you desire, or the career you desperately want, if you are in Christ, you have all you could ever need.

Having encouraged you concerning what you have, let me conclude by exhorting you to hold what you have. Don’t let go. Keep persevering. Keep believing. Keep reading. Keep praying. Keep fellowshipping. Keep worshipping. Keep confessing. Keep turning away from the lure of the world. In the words of Paul to Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. That is, hold on to the gospel to remind you of all you have, even as you move from wilderness to wilderness. Duguid encourages, “The wilderness is not the end of the story. The trials and difficulties of our earthly existence are not all there is. The future belongs to the Lord and to his Christ and to all whom he has called to be his. It is promised to all those who persevere by faith in Christ, and it will assuredly be given to them on the last day. The Lord is faithful, and he will do it.”

It has been a long journey through Numbers. But I trust it has been a fruitful one. May it equip us for our journey until the day we finally cross over to the ultimate promised land, the glorious new heaven and new earth. That is a reality that we will have and that we will forever hold.