The title “Numbers” comes from the Septuagint and is based upon the census lists found beginning at chapter 1:26 “According to the number of the names . .”, Numbers presents a forty year period [1447-1407 BC] when Israel wandered about in the wilderness following the Commandments given at Sinai. Apart from listing names, it stresses the need for Cod’s chosen people to walk in holiness and righteousness.
Numbers relates the journey of the Israelites from Mount Sinai to Moab on the boarders of Canaan (the Promised Land). In it we find details of the various laws that were to govern the priests and the people. It also reveals the almost constant murmuring and complaints of Israel and the judgement that God has to administer upon them as a result.
Instead of being grateful to the Lord for delivering them out of bondage in Egypt, the people refused to believe or obey God. Being faithless, they rebelled against Cod so much and so often, that He was forced to refuse them entry into the Promised Land when they first arrived at the borders. Because of this, every’ single person, apart from the children, would die in the wilderness which they would wander around for the next forty years. Only Joshua and Caleb of the original group were allowed to enter when they came to the entrance to Canaan the second time (because they alone had faith in God).
Apart from recounting the desert wanderings of Israel the book of Numbers reveals much that is theologically significant. It was during the first year after Israel’s deliverance from bondage that they entered into a Covenant relationship with God. Cod declared them to be His people, set apart for His purposes. They were His kingdom and His Children. He promised to live among them (signified by the Tabernacle), and lead them each step of the way (seen in the pillar of fire and cloud) until they finally reached the Promised Land. In this book Moses presents Israel as a chosen people who would settle in a chosen place so that God could build them up as His Kingdom.
Being God’s chosen race did not exempt them from chastisement. Throughout Numbers we see why the Lord needed to rebuke and punish the Jews for their disobedience and breaking of the Covenant that they agreed to uphold. Though God loved them, and did all that was needed to protect and provide for them, we see that God’s wrath at times needs to be displayed. Therefore Moses reveals the Lord as a God of wrath also. This wrath would not only come upon Israel for her sin, but would also extend to the nations of the world that withstood Him or His people. Even Moses, the servant of God and leader of the nation, was not exempt from experiencing God’s displeasure when he disobeyed.
Though God was angry with the faithlessness of His people, He still stood against those who sought to destroy her (such as Egypt and Moab). The story of Balaam is a good example of this. The king of Moab hired Balaam (a false prophet) to curse Israel, but God would not allow him to do so. Instead the curses he tried to speak over Israel were turned upon the Moabites. Though he tried seven times to curse the Jews he could only pronounce a blessing upon them (Numbers 22-24). Though the anger of God must be poured out upon His own people He would keep a remnant of those that would be faithful to His covenant. God had a plan for Israel that could not he thwarted by man or devil.
Numbers also reveals that young men of the age of twenty years upward were conscripted into military service. As a result 603,550 were enlisted from eleven of the twelve tribes, the Levites were not to be called up (1:46). About thirty years later that number had slightly fallen to 601,730 (26:51). Some estimate that there were in the region of 3,000,000 people of Israel at that time.
The book of Numbers has three major divisions based upon the locations she found herself in as she wandered through the wilderness:
1… Israel at Mt. Sinai (1:1-10:10)
a) Census taken to know how many young people were eligible for military service. (1:2-46)
b) The people of Israel were made to camp according to their tribes around the Tabernacle. This was for their safety from a military point of view, but also reduced disorder when they needed to break-up camp (Chapter 2).
c) The Levites were. assigned their duties. These priests were to serve God in various ways. The families that made up the tribe of Levi were responsible for all things corresponding to the Tabernacle. The Kohathites carried the sacred objects. The Gershonites were to carry the curtains and the coverings. The
Merarites carried the framework, pillars, pegs and cords. Whenever the camp moved on they were always to be led by Judah. (Chapter 4).
d) Various laws relating to sanitation and injustice and adultery (Chapter 5). e) Laws regarding those who took the Nazarite vow (Chapter 6). This chapter also contains the famous priestly blessing (:22-27).
f) Lists of the gifts offered to the Lord (Chapter 7).
g) The consecration of the Levites, ritual washings (Chapter 8)
h) The second Passover since leaving Egypt. Moses reveals how God has been leading them (Chapter 9).
i) The silver trumpets that were used by the priests to announce the breaking up of camp (Chapter 10).
2… From Sinai to Kadesh (10:11-20:13)
a) The people complain at Taberah because they desire better food. God sends them quail but also punishes them with a plague (Chapter 11).
b) Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses’ marriage to an Ethiopian woman. They also doubt his leadership. Miriam is stricken with leprosy. Aaron and Miriam repent and she is healed (Chapter 12)
c) Twelve spies sent to spy out Canaan (Chapter 13)
d) Because ten of the spies brought back an evil report, the people believed them and sought to stone Moses. Later some tried to go up and take the land but were defeated by the Amalekites (Chapter 14)
e) Laws concerning offerings and sacrifices that were to be brought before the Lord when they did come into the Promised Land. Mention is made of
Sabbath day regulations (Chapter 15)
f) Korah, Dothan and Abiram reject the authority of Moses and Aaron.
Because of their rebellion they and their families had the ground open up beneath them. A plague also struck others who disbelieved, only stopped when Aaron ran among them with incense (Chapter 16)
g) Aaron’s rod that budded as a sign that God had chosen him (Chapter 17)
h) Duties of the priests and Levites (Chapters 18-19)
i) Moses’ sin that would keep him from entering the Promised Land (Chapter 20)
3… From Kadesh to Moab (20:14-36:13)
a) Edomites refuse Israel passage through their land (Chapter 20)
b) The bronze serpent set on a pole for the Israelites to look upon so as to be
healed from the bites of the fiery serpents sent by God because of their unbelief (Chapter 21)
c) The defeat of Sihon king of the Amonites and Og king of Bashan for their opposition to Israel (Chapter 21)
d) King Balak of Moab hires Balaam to curse Israel (Chapter 22-24)
e) Israel enticed into whoredom and Baal worship with Moabites at the advice
of Balaam. 24,000 were put to death as a result. (Chapter 25)
f) The second census before entering the Promised Land (Chapter 26)
g) Various instructions and laws for the new generation (Chapter 27-30)
h) The defeat of Midian and death of Balaam (Chapter 31)
i) Instruction for the settlement of the tribes (Chapter 32)
h) Moses recounts how the Lord has led Israel the past forty years. He explains
the inheritance of the Levites, the need for cities of refuge, and various laws concerning marriage and the inheritance of women (Chapters 33-36)
God reveals Himself in the book of Numbers as the Faithful and Almighty Lord who desires to protect and guide His people. Yet He must punish sin because He is a Holy God, those who have the sin of disobedience cannot stand before Him. He is seen as the God who does not change His mind regarding His Covenant or those who sin against Him. He is a God who must be obeyed if man wants to be abundantly blessed by Him. We see Him in Numbers as the Almighty Lord who is interested even in the smallest details of the life of His people. Moses therefore reveals Him as the Covenant-keeping God who is always true to His Word.