This is part of a series of articles, describing each of the 66 books of the Bible and how it relates to the one overall story of God’s relationship with man. The story is examined in terms of the eight recurring themes below. The series cover page can be reached here.
Care & Protection
Rebellion & Sin;
The book of Numbers is traditionally considered to have been written by Moses.
The literary style of the book is literal, historical narrative. The tone is matter-of-fact, even when describing obvious miracles. People and places are named in real-world context, with nothing “once upon a time” or “in a galaxy far, far away”.
This book is a continuation from Exodus and Leviticus. It gets its name from the census counts that it describes, along with several other lists and inventories. It documents how God led His chosen people to their promised homeland of Canaan. What should have been a relatively short, straight, joyous journey with their God turned into grumbling, griping, sin, punishment, forgiveness — lather, rinse, repeat — for forty years until they had finally settled down enough to inherit their land. The book includes all eight of the major themes presented in this article series.
Starting With a Census
The book begins with a census in chapter 1, counting all men over twenty years of age who would be eligible to fight in Israel’s army, grouped by their tribes as descendants from one of Jacob/Israel’s twelve sons: Reuben, Simeon, Gad, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Naphtali. Descendants of Levi were not counted, because they were set apart as caretakers of the tabernacle; they were not to be in the military. The count added up to 603,550, from a low of 32,200 from Manasseh to a high of 74,600 from Judah. Since that census was only military-age men, the total population was probably at least 2-3 times that count when women and children were included, somewhere between 1.5 and two million people.
In chapter 2, God instructed this vast crowd to camp in their tribal groups around the tabernacle, a specific three tribes to each of its four sides. When the camp moved, each tribe had its own turn and place in the sequence of events.
In chapter 3, the Levite tribe was counted separately, and set aside for its tabernacle duties. There were 22,000 Levite males from one month old and older. This was a close match to the count of 22,273 firstborn children of all the Israelite families. God said that all firstborn were to be His. Here, He accepted the Levites in place of the literal first son of each family. The 273-person discrepancy was redeemed in silver, five shekels each, giving an exact accounting of men dedicated to the tabernacle service.
In chapter 4, the Levitical duties were further allocated among the clans as descended from Levi’s three sons, with each responsible for its own portion of the tabernacle furnishings. Even those assigned to carry the most holy items, like the Ark of the Covenant, were not to touch or even see those items directly. The priests packed the items, covering them with first with fine cloth and then with durable leather before passing them on to the Levites. Even in packing and traveling, God’s holiness was paramount.
There is a several-chapter interlude before the main action starts again. Chapter 5 has three topics: keeping the camp pure, restitution for wrong, and a ritual for suspected adultery. The ritual is strange to modern readers: If a husband suspected his wife of adultery but there was no proof, he was to take her to the priest. The priest would write out a curse to happen to her if she was guilty, mix the ink from the writing along with dust from the tabernacle floor into water from the tabernacle basin, and have her drink the mixture. If she was innocent, nothing would happen and everyone would go away satisfied. If not, “her abdomen will swell and her thigh will waste away, and the woman will become a curse among her people” (Numbers 5:27). Weird though this sounds, note a couple of very positive points about it:
- The man was not free to take judgment into his own hands based merely on his suspicion. For that matter, neither was the priest. Punishment would happen only if God, who knows the truth, brought it about.
- The default was innocence. In similar “trial by ordeal” rituals that have been common throughout history — for instance, being thrown into raging water while weighted down, or walking across hot coals — it would take a miracle for the accused to survive uninjured. In this ritual, again, it would take a miracle from God before the accused would suffer.
In any case, this definitely emphasizes the importance of purity and fidelity in marriage. Since Israel’s covenant relationship with God was sometimes referred to as a marriage, with Israel “drinking the cup” of God’s wrath for unfaithfulness, this vivid picture is perhaps not quite as weird as it seems.
Chapter 6 describes the requirements for the especially solemn and binding “Nazarite” vow. It ends with the well-known priestly blessing:
The LORD bless you, and keep you;Numbers 6:24-26
The LORD make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.
Chapter 7 is another list, this time of the representatives of each tribe and the gifts that they brought for the dedication of the tabernacle.
Chapter 8 repeats and expands the dedication of the Levites to the care of the tabernacle.
Chapter 9 has some instructions about Passover celebrations. It then describes how God’s presence as a pillar of cloud and fire directed the movement of the people. When the cloud lifted, they set out and followed until it settled. Wherever that was, they stayed until it lifted again. That leads into chapter 10, where the cloud lifts for the first time and they begin traveling away from Mt. Sinai.
Now the trouble starts!
Whining, Rebellion, and Judgment…Oh, My!
The next several chapters are a litany of the people complaining, and God responding.
- Chapter 11:
- People: “We’re sick of manna. We want meat!”
- God: “OK, I’ll send you quail. It will be all you eat for a month, until you can’t stand it!”
- This ended with a plague that killed many of the complainers.
- Even before this point, the people had already been complaining about their hardships. God sent fire to punish them, but stopped when Moses interceded.
- During this period, Moses whined also. He was overwhelmed by the stress of trying to herd these cats all by himself. God gave him 70 elders from among the people, who could help share the burden for him.
- Chapter 12:
- Miriam and Aaron: “Why does Moses get all the fun?!”
- God: “Because he’s the one I chose!”
- This ended with Miriam covered with leprosy and cast out of the camp, until Moses interceded.
- Chapters 13-14: Spies scouted out the promised new homeland. They found it to be abundant and fruitful as promised, but also occupied by scary inhabitants who would have to be defeated.
- Spies (other than Joshua and Caleb): “It’s too much. We can’t handle this!”
- Joshua and Caleb: “God is with us. He can do anything!
- People: “We wanna go back to Egypt. We’ll pick our own leader and leave.”
- God: “Then I’ll destroy them all.”
- Moses: “Please don’t. That would make it look like You aren’t powerful enough to get them to the homeland You promised.”
- God: “OK, then, none of them will enter it. They will wander around the wilderness for forty years until they’re all dead, then their children will enter instead of them. Only Joshua and Caleb of this generation will get to the Promised Land.”
- People: “Oh, no! We’re sorry. We’re ready to go in now.”
- Moses: “Uh, uh. God is not with you. That won’t work.”
- This ended with the people trying to enter the land, and being soundly defeated by the Amalekites and Canaanites there.
- Chapter 15: Reminders to trust and obey God
- Special thanksgiving offerings for the future, after entering the Promised Land
- Atonement offerings for unintentional sin, but cast out for defiant sin
- A man put to death for breaking the Sabbath
- God said to keep it holy, and He meant it!
- Tassels on garments as constant reminder to remember God
- Chapter 16: Open rebellion, and judgment
- Korah, Dathan, Abiram and 250 followers: “Moses, who do you think you are? The whole community is holy. What makes you think you’re so special?!”
- Moses: “OK, all of you come to present incense to God. He’ll let us know who He chooses.”
- God: “Moses and Aaron, stand back out of range while I destroy the entire nation.”
- Moses/Aaron: “Please don’t punish everyone because one man sins.”
- God: “OK, stand back from the tents of Korah, Dathan, Abiram and their followers.”
- This ended with the ground opening up and swallowing the rebels.
- Then, the next day…..
- People: “How dare you kill them?!”
- God: “Moses, stand back while I send a plague to kill everyone.”
- Moses: “Aaron, quick, get incense from the altar and go among the people to make atonement for them.”
- This ended with Aaron standing between the 14,000+ already killed by the plague and the remaining ones spared by his intervention.
- Chapter 17:
- God: “I’m sick of this grumbling. Bring a staff from the leader of each tribe, and I’ll show once and for all who is to be My priest”.
- This ended with Aaron’s staff sprouting blossoms and bearing fruit (almonds).
- People: “We’re all gonna die! Anyone who goes near the tabernacle will die!”
- God: “I’m sick of this grumbling. Bring a staff from the leader of each tribe, and I’ll show once and for all who is to be My priest”.
- Chapters 18-19: Now that it’s clear who is to be priests and Levites, God outlines their duties again. He also provides for “water of cleansing”, a way that someone ceremonially unclean (such as from touching a dead body) can be made acceptable again.
- Chapter 20:
- People: “We’re thirsty, and there’s no water. Why did you bring us to this horrible place?!”
- God: “Moses and Aaron, take your staff with you, and speak to that rock. Water will come out.”
- Moses: “Do we have to bring you rebels water from this rock?”
- But he struck the rock with his staff instead of speaking to it as God commanded. He also acted like this was his own doing, rather than God’s.
- God: “Here’s your water. But because you disobeyed me, Moses, you will not enter the Promised Land.”
Conflict With the Neighbors
During these forty years of wilderness wandering, the Israelites crossed paths with other peoples in the area. They tried not to start trouble, but not all of their contacts were willing to be peaceful.
Chapter 21 first has the king of Arad attacking unprovoked. God gave the Israelites permission to retaliate and destroy the cities of Arad. Next, the Israelites asked respectfully to pass through the land of the Amorites. That king refused, attacked, and lost, and the Israelites settled on the border of the Amorite and Moab kingdoms for a while. Then the king of Bashan attacked, and also lost.
In the meantime, in verses 6-9, a major prophetic incident happened. Yet again, the people were complaining: Didn’t like the food, not enough water, “we’re gonna die in this stupid wilderness”. God sent serpents whose bite was killing the complainers. The people asked Moses to intercede. God had him make a bronze image of one of the serpents and raise it up on a pole. Anyone bitten could simply look toward the bronze serpent to be healed. Fifteen hundred years later, Jesus would say “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15).
Balaam, a Donkey, Blessings and Curses
Chapters 22-24 are downright humorous. The people of Moab, including a leader named Balak, were frightened by having such a large crowd camping on their borders. They were even more frightened because they had heard of the Israelite defeat of Arad and Bashan. Balak’s solution was to send for a prophet(? 1) named Balaam and have him come pronounce a curse on the Israelites. Balaam turned away the first couple of messengers because God had told him that the Israelites were His people. On the third try, God told him “OK, go with the messengers back to meet with Balak, but only do what I tell you to”.
Note: Commentators see Balaam’s initial refusals as half-hearted. There is an implication that he wanted to go, and might be convinced by enough incentives. That makes God’s permission to go more like leaving Balaam to his own devices rather than a true command. This interpretation explains what happened next.
As Balaam was traveling, riding on his donkey, an angel blocked the way…but only the donkey could see that; Balaam could not. The donkey turned aside a couple of times, then balked and stopped completely, in spite of beatings from an angry Balaam. Finally, the donkey spoke up, “Why do you keep beating me? Do I make a habit of disobeying you?” Then the angel allowed Balaam to see him, and told him that his donkey had saved his life by disobeying. Balaam apologized and offered to turn back, but the angel told him to go on to Moab.
Once in Moab, Balaam was destined to disappoint Balak. Three times, Balak met with Balaam, hoping for a curse on the Israelites. And, three times, Balaam pronounced a blessing instead. Balak was angry, but Balaam kept answering, “I have to say what God tells me to say”. Then, Balaam went on with four predictions against Balak and others of the region: first Moab, Sheth, Edom, and Seir; then Amalek; then the Kenites; finally Ashur and Eber. Then Balaam turned and headed back to his home (probably much to Balak’s relief!).
Sin and Judgment
Chapter 25 tells of two instances of grave sin and the resulting harsh judgment.
First, the Israelite men became involved in illicit relationships with Moabite women. This was bad enough in itself, but these relationships then led to the men participating in their women’s worship of the pagan idol, Baal. God had Moses and the tribal leaders publicly execute those involved in this immorality and idolatry.
On the heels of that event, one man brought his Midianite lover all the way into the camp with him. Aaron’s son Eleazar killed them both with one spear thrust, through the man and into the woman. His defense of God’s honor stopped a plague of judgment and resulted in a promise that his descendants would always be priests for God.
The Second Census
Chapter 26 tells of another census taken, this time to be used to determine each tribe’s allotment within the Promised Land. Presumably after all the years of wandering, the count was very similar: a total of 601,730 military-age men, from a low of 22,200 from the tribe of Simeon to a high of 76,500 from Judah, along with 23,000 non-military Levite men.
Inheritance and Succession
Chapter 27 starts with a question of the family name and land of a man who had died with no sons. Zelophehad’s daughters asked for his share of the inheritance in order to keep the family name alive. Their request was granted, and expanded into rights of inheritance for all families. If there was no son, the daughters could inherit. If no daughters, then the man’s brother would inherit. If no brothers, then his father’s brothers. If nothing else, the nearest relative in the clan would inherit, still keeping the property within the family.
Also in chapter 27, Joshua — one of the two original spies who trusted in God — was named as successor to Moses.
Offerings, Festivals and Vows
- Daily Offerings
- Sabbath Offerings
- Monthly Offerings
- Festival of Weeks
- Festival of Trumpets
- Day of Atonement
- Festival of Tabernacles
Chapter 30 describes the making of vows and their enforcement. A man was not to break his word. A woman could make a vow also, but it could be nullified if her husband (or father if unmarried) forbid that vow. If he knew about it, and did not forbid it, the vow would stand and must be fulfilled.
Vengeance on the Midianites
Chapter 31 describes God’s vengeance on the Midianites for the seduction and idolatry described above (chapter 25). After a major battle, the Midianite men and boys were killed, along with the women involved in the seduction. Our old friend Balaam was also among those killed. The virgin girls were kept captive, and the animals and valuable objects were kept as spoils. Everyone and everything involved in the battle had to be purified, and a portion of everything dedicated to God. There is another list, this time of the spoils of the battle.
The Destination in Sight
The last few chapters have the Israelites camped near the Jordan River, the boundary separating them from Canaan. They are preparing to enter the Promised Land, and are dealing with the logistics of making it their homeland.
Chapter 32 tells of the Gad and Reuben tribes dropping off before crossing the Jordan. They preferred the land on this side for their herds and flocks. At first, Moses was upset with them for abandoning the others. However, he consented when they promised to help with the military campaigns to take the land. They would just leave their families and animals behind during the battles, and return to them afterward. So that area became the homeland for the Gadites, the Reubenites, and also the Makites from the tribe of Manasseh.
Chapter 33 is a summary of route of the wanderings. Scholars have tried to retrace the exact route, but have not been completely successful. Most of the place names are no longer in use, or have ambiguous locations. Also, the overlap with other stopping places mentioned in Exodus and earlier in Numbers has conflicts that have not been easy to resolve.
That chapter ends with a command from God to “Distribute the land by lot, according to your clans. To a larger group give a larger inheritance, and to a smaller group a smaller one.” (Numbers 33:54)
There is also the warning:
When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places…But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them will become as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they will trouble you in the land in which you live. And as I plan to do to them, so I will do to you.Numbers 33:51-52,55-56
Failure to obey this warning would later cause Israel hundreds of years of trouble.
Chapter 34 defines the boundaries of the Israelite land in Canaan, and names the leaders who were to apportion it among the tribes.
Chapter 35 defines the Levite towns to be set aside for the Levites to live in, since they would earn their “living” by serving in the tabernacle rather than owning property. It also defines the “cities of refuge”. These were six towns to which someone who accidentally caused the death of another could go for protection against vengeance from the deceased’s relative. There were provisions for punishment for deliberate murder, but only after due process and the testimony of multiple witnesses. Vigilante justice was forbidden.
The book ends with chapter 36 revisiting the daughter’s of Zelophehad from chapter 27. There was concern that if they married outside their tribe (Manasseh), then their property would go to their husbands’ tribe and be lost to Manasseh. The decision was that they would marry only within the tribe.
Through all of this journey, the same one story is continuing. We see God’s sovereignty, holiness, relationship with and care for his people. We also see their sin, His judgment, and His provision for atonement, redemption, and reconciliation. The bronze-serpent incident points specifically forward to the true Redeemer to come.