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Introduction to the Book of Numbers

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General Info

We get our English title for Numbers from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, in which the book is called Arithmoi, based upon the census in chapters 1-4 and 26.  The Hebrew title, taken from the fifth word bemidbar, meaning “in the desert” or “in the wilderness”, is actually more descriptive of the book’s contents.

In Exodus, God fulfilled His promise given in Genesis to make the Jewish people (descendants of Abraham) into a great nation.  He gave them the law at Sinai, establishing the nation as a theocracy.  We now come to Numbers, whose first section overlaps the few weeks at Sinai presented in Leviticus, then proceeds with an almost 40 year account of Israel’s wanderings in the desert, a journey marked with much disobedience, lapses in faith, and struggles with God.

The journey from Sinai to the Promised Land could have been completed in approximately two weeks, but due to Israel’s continued complaints and disobedience, cumulating in their refusal to carry out the conquest of Canaan (the Promised Land), God finally condemned them to live out their lives in the desert, with only their children receiving the promise of the Land.

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Brief Survey

The Book of Numbers opens about a year after the Exodus (Ex 12-15).  The Israelites are still camped at Mt Sinai, which began in Exodus 19 and continued through Leviticus, which probably overlaps somewhat with the first ten chapters of Numbers.  A census is taken of all the tribes who came out of Egypt.

After breaking camp, the Israelites, following God manifested as a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, travelled to Kadesh on the southern border of Canaan (34:4), about 60 miles southwest of the Dead Sea.  From there, spies were sent into the land (ch 13).  The spies returned with a report that the land was indeed, a land “flowing with milk and honey”, but that the occupants were strong and the cities well fortified.  Joshua and Caleb trusted in God’s promise and advised the people to occupy the land at once, but the other spies exaggerated the danger and the people became afraid and rebelled (ch 14).  Because of the rebellion, which marks the pivotal point of the book, God sentenced all but Moses, Joshua and Caleb to wander in the wilderness for forty years until dead, with only their children to enter the land.

The Israelites eventually journey to the Plains of Moab, just across the Jordan from the Promised Land.  During this journey, Moses sins at Meribah (ch 20), so he would not be allowed to enter the land.  After the first generation dies, a census is taken of the second generation (ch 26).  During this time at Moab, arrangements were made for Joshua to succeed Moses (ch 27) and for settling Transjordan (ch 32), the wilderness journey was reviewed (ch 33), and boundaries were established for settling Canaan (ch 34), along with cities for the Levites (ch 35).

The Book of Numbers ends with the Israelites camping just across the Jordan River from Jericho, which looks forward to Moses’ final instructions from God in Deuteronomy and the beginning of the conquest (Jsh 2:1).

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Relevance for Christians

After the exciting events in Genesis and Exodus, the books of Leviticus and Numbers appear slow and tedious to many readers.  In our Introduction to Leviticus, we’ve shown the significance and importance of the book as a basis for understanding many of the NT themes.  The book of Numbers returns to the historical narrative modes of Exodus (even containing many parallels) and, like the other Books of Moses,  contains many types or foreshadows of events to come.  In fact, the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness give us a great picture of the Christian journey through this world as we prepare to enter our heavenly Promised Land (Heb 3:7–4:13).  We could say that God chose His people in Genesis, redeemed them in Exodus, sanctified or set them apart for worship in Leviticus, and now leads and directs them in their daily walk in Numbers.  So we see God’s history of salvation evident from the beginning and continuing throughout Scripture. 

Many of the events in Numbers are mentioned elsewhere in the OT, primarily in Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, and several Psalms, but in this section, we’re more interested in the NT’s use of the book.  Paul writes in Romans 15:4 and in 1st Corinthians 10:1-11 that the OT narratives were written as examples for our instruction, and he specifically mentions events from Numbers in the latter such as the cloud, the manna, the rock which produced water, the grumbling, idolatry, sexual immorality, the serpents and the grumbling.

The Greek word that Paul used for “example” in the 1st Corinthian passages is typos, from which we derive our English word “type”.  In theology, a “type” is a special picture or symbol which God designs and places at a certain time in history which points forward to a larger or ultimate fulfillment at a later time in history (see Typology in Leviticus for more info).  For example, we’ve already mentioned that the Israelite’s wilderness journey pictures the typical Christian’s journey through life, with its associated lessons, struggles, and eventual rest.

As we would probably suspect, many of the types in Numbers foreshadows and are fulfilled by various activities in the life of Christ.  The most prominent illustration is probably that of the bronze serpent (21:4-9) prefiguring Christ being “lifted up” on the cross (Jn 3:14), then ultimately, the resurrection and ascension to the Father.  We also see the sacrifice of the red heifer “without defect of blemish” (ch 19) picturing the sacrifice of the perfect, sinless Lamb of God at the cross.  In an aforementioned verse (1Cor 10:4), Paul sees the rock (17:6) that quenches the thirst of the multitudes as being Christ.  In addition, the daily manna which came down from heaven pictures Christ as the Bread of Life (Jn 6:31-33).

The restrictions on the priest’s methods of avoiding the death penalty when approaching a Holy God (4:15) and the choice of Aaron as the only high priest (ch 17) prefigures Christ as the only way to God (Jn 14:6).  The turning away of God’s wrath by the priests points to Jesus’ propitiation (appeasing the wrath of God) at the cross (Rom 3:23-25), while the various failures by the priests anticipates the need of the superior priesthood of Christ (Heb 7:23-25), including His once for all final offering (Heb 10:1-10).

In chapter 24, we find Balaam’s fourth oracle proclaiming I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel (24:7, see also Gen 49:10).  This prophecy was partially fulfilled by King David’s rule over Israel, but its ultimate fulfillment is in Jesus (1Cor 15:24-27, Eph 1:17-23), who is the root and descendant of David, the bright and morning star (Rev 22:16).

In addition to the types of Christ found in Numbers, there are a couple of other foreshadows worth noting.  We already alluded to the promised inheritance of the land, which anticipates our eternal inheritance of the Christian’s Promised Land (Eph 1:11, Col 1:12-14, Heb 11:13-16).  We also see the distribution of the Holy Spirit to the elders (ch 11) prefigures the much wider distribution of the Spirit at Pentecost (Joel 2:28, Acts 2).

Returning to the use of Numbers by the writer of Hebrews to describe the Christian’s journey in this life, we notice that he draws heavily from Psalms 95:6-11 to place an emphasis on God's wrath in response to the Israelites’ repeated disobedience.  The same God who rescued His chosen people from Egypt later banned them from the Promised Land.  So as Christians, the primary lesson we can take from the examples in Numbers is to be faithful in trusting and obeying God, despite the outward appearance of our circumstances.  We are to walk by faith rather than by sight (2Cor 5:7).

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Key Verses

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace. (6:24-26)

He [God] said, "Listen to my words: "When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD. (12:6-8)

The LORD said to Moses, "Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites… They gave Moses this account: "We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. (13:1-2,27-28)

Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes and said to the entire Israelite assembly, "The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them." But the whole assembly talked about stoning them. Then the glory of the LORD appeared at the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites. The LORD said to Moses, "How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? (14:6-12)

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: "How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell them, 'As surely as I live, declares the LORD, I will do to you the very things I heard you say: In this desert your bodies will fall--every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. (14:26-31)

The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the Israelites and get twelve staffs from them, one from the leader of each of their ancestral tribes. Write the name of each man on his staff... The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites."... The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Testimony and saw that Aaron's staff, which represented the house of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds. (17:1-2,5,8)

The LORD said to Moses, "Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink." He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them." (20:7-8,10-12)

The LORD said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. (21:8-9)

God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? (23:19)

When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came upon him and he uttered his oracle: "How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! God brought them out of Egypt;  May those who bless you be blessed and those who curse you be cursed!" I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. (24:2-3,5,8-9, 17)

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go up this mountain in the Abarim range and see the land I have given the Israelites. After you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was, for when the community rebelled at the waters in the Desert of Zin, both of you disobeyed my command to honor me as holy before their eyes." Moses said to the LORD, "May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD's people will not be like sheep without a shepherd." So the LORD said to Moses, "Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. (27:12-19)

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Author and Date

Like the other books of the Pentateuch, tradition ascribed the Book of Numbers to Moses (see 33:1-2).  It’s possible that some minor portions were later added by scribes, but internal and external evidence points to Moses as the author of the essential content.  Both Jewish and early Church sources attribute the book to Moses.  Tradition assumes that the first five books of the Bible were written by the same author based upon the books forming a singular literary unit and other evidences.  See Introduction to the Pentateuch - Author for more information, including modern challenges to the authorship.

Most of the book’s material was probably recorded during the desert wanderings and compiled at the camp on the Moab Plains in the latter part of the 1400s BC, shortly before the death of Moses and the entry into the Promised Land.

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Historical Background

In Genesis, we witnessed God’s election of Abraham to be the ancestor of the nation of Israel, and their subsequent preservation in Egypt.  After about 400 years in Egypt, God used Moses to rescue them from slavery, deliver the law at Mt Sinai, and to build the tabernacle (aka Tent of the Meeting) for the dwelling of His glory among His people.  Leviticus provided God’s instructions at Sinai for proper worship and holy living.

The Book of Numbers thus begins with the Israelites still camped at Mt Sinai, approximately a year after leaving Egypt.  God is preparing them for their home in the Promised Land of Canaan, but due to the peoples’ disobedience and outright rebellion, God would forbid them from entering.  Instead they would live out their lives wandering in the wilderness.

See Intro to the Pentateuch for the timeline chart.

While Leviticus covers only a few weeks, Numbers spans a period of almost forty years, from the camp at Mt Sinai (~ 1445 BC), then wandering in the desert (~ 1446-1407 BC), and finally camping on the Plains at Moab (~ 1405 BC) just across the Jordan River from the Promised Land.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Historically, the book of Numbers was written to chronicle the forty year span of Israel’s camps at Mt Sinai and the Plains of Moab, along with the wilderness wanderings in between.  On a practical level, it was written as a reminder and warning to the second generation of God’s chosen people not to repeat the sins of the first.  If the next generation was to possess the land of promise, they must learn to obey God.  By extension, the NT writers state that these narratives are also recorded as examples and instruction for all believers during times of spiritual warfare.

So, a major theme of Numbers (which is theologically further developed in the NT) is that of sin and unbelief.  Theologically, the book demonstrates that disobedience invites the judgment of God.  Yahweh allowed the Israelites to suffer the consequences of their actions before restoring them to fellowship upon their repentance, and He does the same for us today (1Jn 1:9).

Numbers also continues the theme of the ongoing fulfillment of the covenant promises to Abraham concerning his descendants occupying the land of Canaan (Gen 12:1-3).  Despite the unbelief and disobedience which resulted in various discipline, including delaying the journey, God remains faithful and continues to lead and protect His people with the cloud of fire until, by the book’s end, the next generation is poised to enter the land.

The covenant promise to Abraham contained three component blessings, each of which can also be considered a sub-theme within the book.  Reaching the Promised Land is the ultimate goal of the journey.  Next, God had promised Abraham that He would make him into a great nation, referring to his descendants.  Each census indicated that the fighting men of Israel now numbered over 600,000, not including women and children.  In his first oracle, the pagan prophet Balaam declared that the people of Israel could not be numbered (23:10).  God also promised a blessing to the nations that blessed Israel and a curse to those who cursed her.  During the journey, Israel encountered and defeated several nations which acted in a hostile manner.  Balaam, who was hired by the Moabites to curse Israel, blessed her instead with very the words of the promise (24:9).

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

Like the other books of Moses, Numbers is a historic epic which delivers much of its content through narratives focusing on certain events illustrating God’s relationship with His people.  Thus, all events and instructions should be interpreted in the context of God’s covenant promises to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).  In particular, we observe God’s faithfulness to His promises in spite of the Israel’s disobedience.  At the same time, we should also note that there are definite consequences to the people’s actions.

In addition to the narrative, the book of Numbers contains a variety of other literary genres, such as prose, law (eg ch 4-6), and poetry (eg Balaam’s oracles in chapters 23 and 24).  See the Genre Analysis Section of our Bible Study Guide for more information on these literary types.

Another key to a better understanding of Numbers is to recognize the critical turning point of the book in chapter 14.  Instead of trusting God to fulfill His promise, the people rejected Him by refusing to enter, conquer and take possession of the Promised Land after hearing the scouts’ report.  God then rejected the first generation and sentenced them to wander the wilderness for forty years, one year for each day that they spied out the land (14:34).

Contrary to some modern opinions however, God did not reject Israel as His chosen people.  The book of Numbers illustrates this by God declaring that the children (the second generation) would enter the Promised Land.  We also see this principle confirmed by the aforementioned Balaam oracles.  The pagan prophet was summoned by the king of Moab to curse Israel, but after an encounter with the one true God of Israel, he is only able to pronounce God’s blessings on Israel and curses on her enemies (ch 23-24).

See Interpreting the Census Figures in Numbers for a discussion of some issues raised in the past century or so.

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The book of Numbers can be divided into three major sections.  The first (1:1–10:10) covers the last few weeks of the Israelites camping at Sinai.  The second section (10:11–22:1) chronicles the approximately 39 year journey to the plains of Moab, including the Law-giving at Kadesh.  The final section (21:1–36:13) deals with the last months of Israel’s encampment in Moab shortly before they entered the Promised Land of Canaan.

1:1 – 4:49 Census of the First Generation
5:1 – 6:27 Purifying the Camp
7:1 – 7:89 Offerings for the Tabernacle
8:1 – 10:10 Dedications of the Tabernacle; Observance of Passover; The Cloud and Trumpets
10:11 – 12:16 The Journey from Sinai to Kadesh; Protests, Fire and Quail
13:1 – 13:33 Spies sent to Canaan
14:1 – 14:45 The People’s Rebellion at the Spies Report, and Defeat
15:1 – 15:41 Laws given at Kadesh
16:1 – 16:50 Korah’s Rebellion
17:1 – 17:13 Budding of Aaron’s Staff
18:1 – 19:22 Duties of Priests and Levites; The Red Heifer and Purification Laws
20:1 – 21:35 The Journey from Kadesh to the Moab Plains; Moses’ Sin at Meribah; The Bronze Snake
22:1 – 24:25 Balak, Balaam and Israel; A Donkey Speaks
25:1 – 25:18 Baal Worship at Peor
26:1 – 26:25 Census of the Second Generation
27:1 – 30:16 Instruction for the New Generation; Jewish Festivals
31:1 – 31:54 Vengeance on Midian
32:1 – 32:42 The Transjordan Tribes' Settlement
33:1 – 33:56 Summary of the Journey from Egypt to Canaan (The Promised Land)
34:1 – 34:29 Boundaries of Canaan; Tribal Chiefs
35:1 – 35:34 Levite Cities; Cities of Refuge
36:1 – 36:13 Female Heirs

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