The book of Numbers tells the story of the time God’s people spent in the wilderness. Although the first and last chapters contain a census of the people, the rest of the book describes what happened to those who had left Egypt with Moses; how most of them died during the wandering in the wilderness and how the next generation began to be prepared to settle in the Promised Land.
24 The Lord bless you and keep you; 25the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (Numbers 6.24–26)
God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind. Has he promised, and will he not do it? Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23.19)
I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. (Numbers 11.14)
Parts of Numbers contain complex regulations about the Levites’ role and some of these descriptions can be hard to understand.
There are also sections of Numbers which are hard going!
Traditionally Moses was regarded as the author of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis–Deuteronomy), known in Judaism as the Torah and in Christianity often as the Pentateuch (or five teachings).
Today many scholars would argue that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch but that these five books grew up over a long period of time and were written down and edited from oral tradition.
One of the biggest debates around the wilderness wanderings is whether it is possible to date them with any level of certainty.
Some offer a date around the fifteenth century BC (counting backwards 480 years from the construction of Solomon’s temple); others offer a date between 1250–1200 BC, using archaeological evidence (though others dispute the reliability of this evidence). Still others argue that it is impossible to date the events at all.
At least in part, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which are all set around the time of the giving of the law.
Theological history (i.e. history that is told with an eye to communicating what we believe about God). With Numbers, the key theme is preparing God’s people for living in the promised land.
1.1–10.10 The camp at Sinai, where a census is taken and the duties of the priests and Levites assigned
10.11–22.1 Travel to Moab, during which people ‘murmured’ against God and God decided that none of that generation would reach the promised land
22.2–36.13 The camp on the plains of Moab, where there is a new census because of the new generation of Israelites but new threats (like the Midianites) are recognised. This section ends with preparations for entering the promised land
There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.
the plains of Moab, Midian, Shittim, Bashan, Canaan, Dan, Dead Sea, Edom, Elim, Ephraim, Eshcol, Euphrates, Hebron, Israel, Judah, Midian, Moab, Mount Seir, Mount Sinai, Negeb, Paran, Shechem, Sinai (Peninsula), Tirzah, wilderness of Paran, wilderness of Sin, wilderness of Sinai
Amalekites, Ammonites, Amorites, Asher, Balaam, Balak, Benjamin, Canaanites, Isaac, Issachar, Jebusites, Joshua, Korah, Korahites, Levi, Levites, Manasseh, Midianites, Moses, Nazirites, Nephilim Phinehas
Altar, Baal, Solomon’s temple, Ark of the Covenant, atonement, burnt offering, censer, Cherubim, Feast of unleavened bread, Day of Atonement, jubilee, lampstand, Passover, Pentateuch, priest, Sheol, Tabernacle, threshing floor, tithe, Torah, wadi
The book of Numbers might be described as a ‘miscellany’ – in other words, a collection of different kinds of material from the description of priestly duties to songs and blessings, all put together in a single volume. Notice the wide variety of material as you read and ask why it was all gathered together into one place like this.
One theme, particularly in the central part of the book, is that those who left Egypt with Moses were not worthy to enter the promised land. Notice this where it occurs and ask yourself why this judgement was made.
Take particular care to notice the commandments about the Nazirites in 6.1–21 and see if you can think of people from the biblical text who obeyed – or appeared to obey – these laws.
Towards the end of the book we see enmity growing up between God’s people and the Midianites. Again, keep an eye open for this and ask yourself why you think this strand is so important to the book.
The 'glory of the Lord' often appears in Numbers. Notice it where it is mentioned and reflect on what God’s glory means to you.