The Mercy and Justice of God

Numbers 27

As we consider Numbers 27 today, it may seem puzzling that the story of Zelophehad’s daughters is juxtaposed with the story of Moses not getting to enter the promised land. Why are these stories put together in the Bible?

Moses’ Lack of Gentleness

Perhaps when dealing with Zelophehad’s daughters, Moses made the same mistake he may have made when striking the rock for the second time: he did not honor the Lord God as holy.

What does it truly mean to honor God? It means correctly representing God’s kindness and compassion in front of the second generation of Israelites. Although the Bible does not say that Moses was impatient with Zelophehad’s daughter, like he was when he struck the rock, we can surmise that he may have ignored the daughters of Zelophehad. Both stories reveal the compassion of God.

Why do I say that? Let’s look at the second section of this chapter. The Bible says that this decision took place “standing at the door of the tabernacle, in front of Moses, the priest Eleazar, the leaders and the whole congregation.” This is a very meaningful verse. Let me illustrate with a modern example.

In the 2020 US election, the right-wing population in some states believed that the election was unfair. They began to bring charges in the district courts. State courts did not accept the cases, and the cases were brought before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court didn’t take the case, either. Under normal circumstances, all complaints are brought first to the district courts, then gradually move up to the Supreme Court.

If Moses truly cared about Zelophehad’s needs, he should have been able to handle this matter before the daughters appealed to the Supreme Court. When Moses first heard that Zelophehad of the tribe of Manasseh did not get any land, he should have asked God how to deal with it at that time, but he did not. When he finally asked God what to do about it, God immediately raised the matter of Moses’ disobedience to God after he clarified how to deal with the matter. Was this happening by chance? Moses also lacked compassion for the second generation of Israelis and said something impatient as he struck the rock. Perhaps his way of handling Zelophehad’s daughters’ needs was not gentle enough, either.

Although the leadership responsibility of Moses was transferred to Joshua here, the actual authority was not immediately transferred to Joshua. Moses was still the leader who guided the people’s itinerary. Numbers 27-36 speak of Moses leading the Israelites. The death of Moses is not recorded until Deuteronomy 34, at least 44 chapters later.

If our speculation is correct, then this chapter is still related to Moses’ failure. What was wrong with Moses when he smote the rock for the second time? He had no respect for God as holy. Moses knew the principle of God’s character: not to get angry easily, to be full of kindness, to bless the generations of those who love him, to never regard those who hate him as innocent, but punish their sins down to the third and fourth generation. Earlier, when Moses told God about Korah’s betrayal, God severely judged Korah. However, when Moses told God about the second generation’s betrayal and complaints, God did not judge them as severely. This may have been one of the reasons for Moses’ anger. Moses should have accepted the fact that the first generation of Israelites represent our old man, and the second generation represents the flesh of our new man after salvation. The nature of the two is different, so the way God treats them is also different.

It can be said that the Bible record still got a lot of chances to mention Moses’ disobedience to God, and it is not necessary to immediately raise the case of Moses’ disobedience to God together with the judgment of not allowing him to enter the good land right after mentioning Zelophehad’s daughters’ request to claim the property. This matter must have something to do with the division of property between Zelophehad ‘s daughter. Where is this relationship? It is God’s judgment on Moses. This is God’s judgment on Moses regarding the issue of Zelophehad and the way Moses dealt with his matter. Although Moses might not be that impatient, he might have been negligent. What was the cause of Moses’ negligence?

Pitfalls of Pride

Many leaders start out with humility, but later in life fall into pride and sin. All leaders face difficulties and obstacles at the very beginning, and these difficulties and obstacles will make them humble. David’s experience is a good example. When Saul was persecuting David, David submitted to God. Instead of killing Saul, David humbled himself before God, admitting that Saul was God’s anointed one. At the end of his life, however, after he had conquered his enemies and made peace throughout the country, David committed sin with Bathsheba and killed Uriah. David sinned for a second time when he numbered the Israelites. Joab opposed David’s unwise decision, and he would have stopped him if he could have. But the Bible clearly records that the King’s words prevailed over Joab’s words (1 Chronicles 21:4).

Similarly, although Moses was one of God’s greatest servants, he also needed to go through humbling experiences. His brother Aaron and sister Miriam gave him a lot of difficulties. These difficulties helped Moses grow in humility. When Aaron and Miriam attacked Moses, the Bible specifically called Moses the humblest person in the world (Numbers 12:3). The Lord himself came to Moses’ defense and blamed Aaron and Miriam.

However, by this chapter, both Miriam and Aaron were dead. Aaron’s son, Eleazar, was priest. Except for Caleb and Joshua, most first-generation people had died. At this time, Moses became the absolute authority. In the eyes of the Israelites, he was like a god. The Israelites were slowly turning Moses into an idol. I believe that Moses knew God and did not agree with their idolatry. But the Israelis indeed elevated Moses to the position of deity. When the Lord Jesus came, many Israelites would not accept Jesus Christ. Instead, they said they would only accept Moses. Moses had gradually become the Israelites’ idol.

Even though Moses did not have the intention to exalt himself, his failure to honor God was a very serious matter in God’s eyes. He reinforced the people’s idolatry when he attributed the miracle to himself. Therefore, God must discipline Moses.

When God uses a person greatly as his servant, he also disciplines that person severely. Because of the great revelation Paul got from God, he was also given a thorn from the enemy to bother him. He asked the Lord three times to take it away, but God did not do so. He said his grace was enough for him.

The chapter demonstrates that as leaders, we must not mistakenly represent God and snatch away the glory that is rightfully God’s. God’s judgment is strict and there is no room for pride in His service. Even if you are someone as important as Moses or David, God will still discipline pride in his servants.

Inheritance Restored

Zelophehad’s daughters asked Moses for land, and he granted their request. This story teaches us that we can receive what we ask for in prayer and faith, as long as it is promised in Christ.

The first section of this chapter specifically mentions the family tree of Zelophehad and his five daughters. The five daughters came to Moses and the crowd with a request. They were not only fighting for their inheritance, but also for their father’s status. The five daughters made it clear to the congregation that their father died in sin, though it was not related to Korah’s betrayal. In the Old Testament, the death of an Israeli man in sin would indeed bring danger to his inheritance. Therefore, this story is about God setting a precedent for similar cases in future generations. For example, Ruth’s father-in-law, husband, and brother-in-law died in Moab. Naomi, her mother-in-law, took Ruth back to Judah. Not only did these women lose their husbands, but they also had no sons. Because of this, they lost their inheritance in Israel. However, since Zelophehad’s daughters had already asked for protection of their father’s status and inheritance, the precedent was set. This precedent helped Ruth and Naomi redeem their inheritance.

In Ruth and Naomi’s case, their relative Boaz was the one who helped them redeem their property. However, before Boaz could help redeem their land and marry Ruth, he had to give another relative who was closer to Ruth the opportunity to do so. The relative refused, because he knew that if he married Ruth, their son would not belong to him, but to Ruth’s father-in-law and husband who had no descendants. He was worried that this would damage his own property.

This story reminds us that as sinners, we have lost our inheritance: God himself. Christ came as our Kinsman Redeemer to redeem us, even though we could not redeem ourselves. Jesus came in the Year of Jubilee to give us back our inheritance. He is our elder brother and relative, so he can redeem us. He can return our inheritance (God himself) to us, and allow us to return to our inheritance (God himself).

Zelophehad’s daughters are from the tribe of Joseph, and Christ is from the tribe of Judah. The story may seem to have nothing to do with the birth of Christ, but it is indeed related. The precedent set in this chapter led to Ruth’s redemption by Boaz, who later gave birth to Obed. Obed, in turn, was the father of Jesse, and Jesse was the father of David. David is the ancestor of Christ. Therefore, the main purpose of this story is to prepare for the appearance and salvation of Christ.

The Lord told Moses that if a person dies without sons, he must give the inheritance to his daughters. If there is no daughter, then he must give it to his brother. If there is no brother, then he must give it to the father’s brother. If his father had no brothers, then he must give it to the closest relative in the family. This rule eventually paved the way for Ruth to be redeemed.

What Zelophehad’s daughters did was very commendable. Although their father committed sins and died, God’s mercy was extremely generous. This is true in the Old Testament, and even more so in the New Testament. Christ is our Kinsman Redeemer, so we must come to Him without fear and ask for mercy and grace (Hebrews 4:16)

Jesus said to his disciples, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me something in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14) Jesus also said, “If you live in me, my words will live in you. Whatever you want, ask and it will be done for you.”

Mercy and Justice.

The story of Zelophehad’s daughters and the story of Moses’ inability to enter the Promised Land are put together here so we can recognize the difference between God’s mercy and God’s justice.

Zelophehad’s death in sin and Naomi’s husband and two sons’ deaths in Moab were all due to God’s righteous judgment. But God granted Zelophehad’s daughters requests and established the principle that Kinsman Redeemers can redeem their relatives.  As a result, the salvation that Naomi and Ruth later obtained was due to God’s mercy.

The Lord told Moses about his mercy and justice in Exodus 34: “The Lord, the Lord, is a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and rich in love and honesty. To save love for thousands of people, to forgive sins, transgressions, and evils, never regard the guilty as innocent. He must be punishable for his sins from his father and his son until three or four generations.” (Exodus 34:6-7) This is God’s character and mode of operation. Moses knew this very well. Therefore, when dealing with the complaints of the second generation who wanted water to drink, he should have been full of compassion and grace for the Israelites, not impatience and anger. This is an extremely important principle.

Although Moses failed, Paul set a good example in the New Testament. The people in the Corinthian church he established had many complaints and criticisms against him. They also committed many sins, including sins of immorality, such as marrying a stepmother. Paul was very angry with their sin. But when he handled this matter, he was very compassionate. He told the Corinthians to remove fornicators from among them–even handing them over to Satan so they would be physically corrupted, but their spirits would be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). However, after Paul heard that the disciples in Corinth had repented, he immediately changed his tone. He asked the disciples in Corinth to forgive the sinners, and Paul forgave them too. He urged for restoration for these people, lest they become too sorrowful and be swallowed up with grief. Paul did not want Satan to take advantage of them through the overly harsh treatment of sin (2 Corinthians 1:11).

Paul also said in 1 Corinthians 4:18-21: “Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you.  But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power.  For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.  What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” ESV

The people were arrogant because Paul was not there. Paul said that the kingdom of God lies not in words, but in power—and even in the rod of discipline. Paul had the authority and power from God to judge them, just as Moses had God’s authority to judge Israel. But Paul’s attitude here is very humble, giving the Corinthians choices and begging them to turn from sin. In fact, Paul kept himself under control and stayed humble, pleading with the Corinthians to repent in mercy.

Just like Moses and Paul, spiritual leaders in the church today will face similar tests. People will complain or even misunderstand them. Our responses will reflect our knowledge of God’s rules and the manifestation of God’s life in us. We must remember that God is merciful and gracious. When we face complaints and opposition, we have an amazing opportunity to demonstrate the life of God in us. The more we have God’s anointing and authority, the more we should have God’s temperament of mercy and kindness. If we lose the mercy and kindness of God, we lose the authority God has given us. The level of our authority lies in the level of the mercy of God manifested in us.

When the Lord Jesus was on earth, he had compassion on people who were like sheep without a shepherd. Whether he saw the blind people (Luke 18:35-43) or lepers (Mark 1:41), he had mercy on them. Jesus is the best manifestation of God’s temperament.

The story of Zelophehad’s daughters reveals the compassionate heart of God. Luke 1:78-79 says, “Because of our God’s compassionate heart, the morning sun comes to us from high to illuminate those who sit in the darkness and the shadow of death and lead our feet to the path of peace.”

The story of Moses shows that if believers cannot demonstrate a compassionate heart as we serve Him, then in God’s eyes we “do not respect God as holy.” We must be strictly disciplined.

But God’s strict discipline to Moses does not mean you cannot pray for God’s mercy or that God won’t answer your prayers. If you believe this, you are falling into the enemy’s traps. Both stories not only speak of justice, but also of God’s mercy. If you are in a similar situation to Zelophehad’s daughters, come to God without fear and ask for His mercy. If you are a person who serves God like Moses, remember to show God’s mercy in everything so as to honor God as holy. The more we show God’s mercy in our service, the more we have God’s authority. However, if we lose God’s mercy, we will also lose God’s authority.

I hope that the relationship between these two stories will help you better understand God’s mercy and how we can apply it in our lives. We welcome you to come to God’s most holy place without fear, ask for grace and mercy, and get help in time of need.