The Letter to the Hebrews is founded on their history, in particular, God’s promises to them, their Exodus from Egypt, their journey to the Promised Land, the events surrounding their refusal to enter and their eventual entry. A short version of the story is told in Numbers chapters 13-14 with an even shorter summary in Deuteronomy chapter one.
Their story is an intentional allegory. Below is a condensed version –and afterward is the underlying message. (By the way, there’s a plea in 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 warning us to not follow their rebellious ways.)
God promised Abraham that he would have many offspring (which included being a father to many nations), he would be a blessing to others and he would own a land. The promises were passed down to the Hebrews as descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To them, the land was most important –and taking possession of it couldn’t happen until after they endured four hundred years of oppression in a foreign place –Egypt (plus there were the thirty years that they lived there under Joseph’s protection).
When the time was up, God initiated the Exodus with miracles –carried out by Moses– to illustrate His presence and authority. The Pharaoh denied the release of his slave-workforce so God inflicted His wrath on the Egyptians with the Ten Plagues. On the evening of their last night as slaves, the Hebrews began their annual tradition of celebrating the Passover –removing all of the leaven from their dwellings and then consuming the lamb. It was that night that the Death Angel delivered the last plague. He swept through the country and destroyed every firstborn male whose family didn’t have the lamb’s blood on the doorposts. The Egyptians were devastated by the loss of life; but the Hebrews were preserved –death passed them over.
The Egyptians gave the Hebrews many of their valuables to hurry them away –and stop God’s destruction. He led His people out of captivity –as a pillar of fire at night and as a pillar of cloud (or smoke) during the day. The Pharaoh’s army pursued them into the desert but God parted the Red Sea for the Hebrews to cross through –and then released it to engulf their enemy.
He provided everything they needed during their journey to the Promised Land. Yet, the people grumbled incessantly. They doubted God’s compassion and faithfulness –thinking they knew what was best: “At least back in Egypt, as bad as it was, we had food, shelter and security.” So He gave them the Ten Commandments to put them in their place. After all, they were His creation and He was God. Moses read the Law aloud in its entirety to the community before they agreed to it. Near the end is a stern commandment. “Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him.” (Exodus 23:20-21)
When they came to the edge of the land, the people asked Moses to send in spies to explore what they were up against before invading. After forty days the spies returned and reported that the land was fertile with great produce. Joshua and Caleb added that its inhabitants could be overtaken –just as God had said. The other ten didn’t believe it. Those men seemed huge and “we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.” (Numbers 13:33)
The men took a vote and chose to not enter. God was angry with them because they let their fears control them instead of trusting Him. They didn’t believe that it was a land of rest; but imagined continual battles with heavy casualties. God named their refusal “the rebellion.” Such a choice seems unfathomable after what they had just been through. He was angry with them because of their unbelief –distrust –disobedience –sin. He promised those rebels that they would never enter the land (Numbers 14:26-30).
When they realized the consequence of their disobedience, the men attempted to win back God’s favor by crossing in and battling its inhabitants. But it was too late. They weren’t reliant on His leading. Rather, they trusted in their numbers, their strengths, their knowledge –and they were thoroughly defeated. That was the start of their wandering in the desert-wilderness. For forty years they were reminded of the forty days that the twelve spies witnessed God’s Promised Land.
It was shortly after celebrating their second Passover that God told Moses to take a census. He was to record those men over the age of twenty who were able to serve in the army. Not only was it a count of men by family, it identified the first-hand witnesses to God’s faithfulness –and it’s what gives the book of Numbers its name. Except Joshua and Caleb, the fighting men of that generation –all 603,550 of them– died in the desert (Numbers 1:44-46).
God had Moses take the people out of bondage; introduce them to a new way of life; shepherd them for forty years in the desert; and take their next generation up to, but not into the Promised Land. God was pleased with him, except when he struck the rock (Numbers 20:8-11). It was because of that incident that Moses was not allowed to enter with them. His purpose in life was completed. He saw the Promised Land in the distance; then he died and God buried him (Deuteronomy 34:1-6).
It was time for a change of leadership and God chose Joshua. He was the only other man allowed on Mount Sinai when Moses received the Law. He was one of the twelve spies. He was the commander over the army when they victoriously battled the Amelekites. He had been with Moses through it all. So Joshua led the people through the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. He took the people into a place where he had already been. He knew the way. He had personally experienced the goodness that was awaiting them on the other side.
Their story –summarized above– is one of the Bible’s rich allegories. The physical people, places and events described in the Old Testament perfectly represent spiritual realities that were applicable to the New Testament Hebrews –and are also applicable to Christians today. To start with, the Hebrew names of the two leaders –Moses and Joshua– provide extraordinary insights.
Moses means “to draw out” –like water is drawn from a well. He lived up to the meaning of his name when he drew the Hebrews out of Egypt and then again out of the Red Sea. He started his people on their journey, took them ever-so-close to their destination and then shepherded them while they were in the desert.
Allegorically, Moses represents the Law. To the Hebrews, he’s the God-given commandments. To the rest of us, he’s our natural consciences –or moral values –or possibly the Ten Commandments borrowed from them. The end result is the same. It plainly shows everyone’s guilt.
Joshua‘s Hebrew name is actually Yhowshua –typically pronounced Yeshua– and it means “Jehovah-saved” or “the Lord’s salvation.” He is the one who finished the task of taking the Hebrews through the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. He led them to a place that he had been before –and he testified about its goodness.
Joshua correlates to Jesus. We traditionally call Him by His Greek name, Jesus; but Joshua –“the Lord’s salvation”– is His Hebrew name. Like the Joshua before Him, He takes His followers to the place that He has been before. However, this Joshua takes them (us) into a better place –into the presence of His Father. It’s what He testified about all of His earthly life. And it’s the Hebrew name Joshua that God the Father was talking about when He said “My name is in him” (Exodus 23:20-21).
God’s Promises: Our greatest desires –instilled within us before birth– are to be secure; to be loved and accepted; and to have a substantial purpose in life. They’re reflected in His promises to Abraham. The land would be a place of security (a foreshadow of eternal life in the kingdom of God); he would have many offspring (God expresses His love and acceptance through our brothers and sisters in Christ); and being a blessing to others (as His ambassadors, we tell the world about Jesus).
The Oppression: Domination by the evil Pharaoh and his army is symbolic of mankind’s natural predicament –in bondage to sin and death. It’s the bleak picture of our separation from God –a meager existence without hope –only the certainty of death and the worrisome uncertainty of what might follow. When Moses encouraged the people to leave, the Egyptian slave-bosses increased their harsh demands on them. Their lives became intolerable. That parallels the churning that goes on within us when we become aware of our pathetic condition –and wish for a better life, the deep-seated desires of the promises.
Their Release: To this day, the Hebrews celebrate the Passover –with the purging of leaven from their homes, and the eating of the Seder meal– as a memorial to God’s faithfulness. We recognize that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb –that He released everyone from the otherwise unbreakable bondage to sin and death.
Hopefully, we also recognize that our only participation in our salvation is trusting God to keep His promises. The leaven was deliberately expelled. It represents anything and everything that we might possibly do to gain God’s favor apart from faith. The Egyptians’ valuables that the Hebrews took with them are like the things of this world that we hang onto as we begin our journey with Him –and they become golden calves later.
Like the Hebrews, we fearfully look back over our shoulders for the pursuing enemy –not trusting God to have taken us through the sea. In our thinking, we’ve put constraints on what Jesus achieved. The fact is, that by His death, He reconciled everyone –the whole world– to His Father. The surety of death and the absolute control of sin has been destroyed –they lie at the bottom of the sea. He removed all of the barriers between us and Him.
Reconciliation vs. Salvation:
Let me explain these two different, but related processes. Salvation is what happens when when we receive God’s promises. That’s when we enter His kingdom, receive eternal life, and are incorporated into the bride of Christ.
Of course the problem started back in the Garden of Eden when Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowing what was good and what was evil. In so doing, she hijacked God’s position in her life –she became the judge of right and wrong –good and evil. That’s when God cited the fundamental problem, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us” (Genesis 3:22). She became god of her own life. (Adam joined her –but that’s another story.) It’s when God evicted mankind from the garden and He departed from them. Since then, everyone has been separated from Him. It’s what makes us dead-to-God. And that’s why we need Him to give us life (so we can be alive-to-God).
Religion is infatuated with the word “sin.” However, it’s clearer to understand our predicament –being separated from God– when we see ourselves as Eve’s children. Each of us has inherited her rebellious desire to be god of our own life. During our lifetimes, we’ve built up a whole host of attitudes and behaviors based on what we have decided is right and wrong. They are the bricks in the barrier-wall between us and Him. It was Jesus’ death that tore down those barriers and allowed mankind to approach God. That’s what reconciliation is –the removal of the barriers (our sins).
Reconciliation doesn’t make us alive –but it is necessary in order for us to become alive. The distinction is this. Everyone was reconciled so that they could come to God (Romans 5:8-11 and 2 Corinthians 5:17-21). But not everyone believes Him and enters His eternal life.
On the Journey: God led the Hebrews into painful desert-wilderness situations in which they were powerless. That drew out their worst fears –they thought that they were going to die. And He let them stew there for a while. Their natural, fearful responses turned into grumbling, distrust, disobedience and rebellion. Just as He took them into troublesome circumstances, He takes us all into situations that unmask our sinful nature –the natural tendency to trust ourselves and distrust Him. Those troubles are designed to spur us on to salvation.
The Law: It was after their complaining that God gave the Hebrews the Law. As His chosen ambassadors, it showed the world (and them too) that He was sovereign and they were not. It also showed His desire for them was to live securely in the land that He had prepared for them.
That Law is abundant with real-life examples demonstrating that they could never please Him through their own abilities. It’s no different for the Hebrews who came after Jesus’ death –or for us either. The Law plainly points out that our faith is naturally in ourselves –not in God. No one is innocent –no one deserves God’s gift of eternal life. It’s an extrapolation of what Romans 8:2 identifies as the “Law of Sin and Death.”
Rebellion: En route to the Promised Land the people brandished their independence –even insolence. But before we condemn them for their rebellion at the entrance to the land, let’s take stock of ourselves. Prior to our entrance into God’s salvation, we did the same thing. Although He reconciled us to Himself (not counting our sins against us) and although we saw His powerful love, we deliberately ignored Him –we refused to accept His gift –we kept our “safe distance” from Him.
Ironically, sin –rebellion– gets its power from the Law (1 Corinthians 15:56-57). And without the Law, sin is powerless (Romans 7:7-8). The Law can show us what’s needed to reach eternal life –but it cannot make us righteous –nor can it make us accept that life. (You might want to read the section on Law vs. Grace.)
The Witnesses: The census listed those who had witnessed God’s testimony –that they must put their trust in Him to live –or trust in themselves and die. The Hebrews of the New Testament times had seen and heard the evidence all the more clearly. The Son of God –the Passover Lamb, the final and ultimate messenger from God the Father– had come. He was Jesus. Yet, like their forefathers, they were slow to believe.
Everyone, not just the Hebrews, has seen God’s evidence about His Son –and everyone will be held accountable for trusting, or not trusting Him.
Realizing the Consequence: When the Hebrews were faced with the realization of their colossal blunder, they tried to fix their relationship with God by crossing over and attacking the enemy. But it was too late. God told them that they would never enter His rest –the Promised Land. And they never did. The only men who did cross over were Joshua and Caleb –and that was forty years later, after all of the others were dead. Only the next generation was qualified to enter –and that was under Joshua’s leadership.
When a person finally understands the fullness of the Law’s ramifications –that pleasing God and entering His promises can only be accomplished by faith– they also realize that they are dead, dead–to God. Good works don’t make their condition any better. Neither does religious (church) obedience. We try many of these things to make ourselves acceptable –for a long, long time. That’s what the forty years depicts. It’s a time of “works that eventually lead to death” (Hebrews 6:1).
Time for a Change: God chose a replacement –Joshua– to lead the people through the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. The New Testament Hebrews had the whole story –their history– to rely upon for understanding. It was time for them to change who they were following –to leave the Law behind, buried by God in a place of respect, and to let His designated replacement –Jesus– take over.
Furthermore, no one can enter as they are. All of us –that is our natural selves– have to die in the desert in which we’ve been wandering. We must give up our striving, our self-reliance, our religious obedience. Only the next generation can enter God’s promises in His kingdom. It’s a foreshadow of the necessity to be born-again. Jesus told Nicodemus about it in John 3:1-15.
One Last Note about Moses: Have you wondered what was it about Moses’ striking the rock (Numbers 20:8-11) that caused God to forbid him from entering the land with the rest of the people? Sure, we know that God told him to speak to the rock and water would come out of it –yet, instead he struck it twice. And we know that 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 explains that Christ is the rock that was with them in the desert.
But there’s more to be found out through the allegory. Moses –personifying the Law– was told to bring the congregation together and speak to the rock –Christ. We saw in chapter two that the congregation represented the crowd gathered at the foot of His cross. They were supposed to let the Law witness to them that Jesus was their Messiah –then living waters of salvation would satisfy them –and the Gentiles with them. But those rebels didn’t listen. No, they used the Law as an excuse for leading them to crucify Jesus. The first strike –His death on the cross– brought salvation to all who did listen. The second strike –piercing Him with a spear– caused water to flow visibly from His body and proved their rebellious nature was no different from that of their fathers who died in that desert.