The covenant between God and Israel had been established: laws were given, guidelines for facilities and services were set forth, and now Israel was God’s people, and the One True God was the God of Israel. The time was ready for further fulfillment of God’s promises, but are the Israelites ready? This we learn in the book of Numbers.
Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible, so named from the Greek and based on the two censuses of the Israelites at the beginning and toward the end of the book. In Hebrew it is called BeMidbar, “in the wilderness,” from the first word of the book and more appropriate as the book’s description. The book of Numbers provides further legislation and describes the events between Israel’s departure from Mount Sinai until they arrive at the edge of the Jordan River.
Moses is considered the author of Numbers; he would have written the book around 1410 BCE. The first nine chapters finish out the first year after the Israelites left Egypt (ca. 1450 BCE); chapters 10 through 19 describe events which happen soon after; the final seventeen chapters describe events taking place forty years later (ca. 1410 BCE).
The book of Numbers interlaces narration of events as well as descriptions of ceremonial functions and legislation. Numbers 1:1-8:26 feature the first census of the people, a census of as well as a further description of the different clans and clan functions of the Levites, legislation regarding excluding the unclean, a test for adultery, the Nazirite vow and its stipulations, offerings provided for the Tabernacle, the lampstand, and the consecration of the Levites and rules regarding their retirement. After describing the second Passover celebration and the cloud over the Tabernacle (Numbers 9:1-23), God commands for trumpets to be made for summoning the Israelites for departure, and they depart from Sinai (Numbers 10:1-35). Other legislation includes laws about sacrifices, unintentional sins, penalties for breaking the Sabbath, and tassels on garments (Numbers 15:1-41), as well as the duties of priests and Levites and laws of purification (Numbers 18:1-19:22). There is also a second census along with laws regarding the inheritance of female heirs, Joshua as succeeding Moses, offerings before God, and paying vows (Numbers 26:1-30:16, 36:1-13)), as well as a recounting of Israel’s journey, the boundaries of the land, and the establishment of Levitical cities and cities of refuge (Numbers 33:1-35:34).
The narratives of Numbers can be divided into two periods. The first period chronicles events soon after Israel departs from Sinai: grumbling about food, appointment of elders to assist Moses, Miriam and Aaron’s opposition to Moses and its end, twelve spies sent to Canaan, the unfavorable report of the ten, the rebellion of the people and their condemnation to die in the Wilderness, their futile attempt to take the land, Korah’s rebellion, its aftermath, and the re-assurance of Aaron’s selection (Numbers 11:1-14:45, 16:1-17:13). The second period chronicles events about forty years later as Israel approaches Canaan: the death of Miriam, Moses’ and Aaron’s transgression at Meribah, Aaron’s death, victory over Arad, the bronze serpent, the defeat of Sihon and Og, Balaam’s blessing of Israel, Israel’s sin with Baal of Peor, Phinehas’ zeal, vengeance on Midian, and the settling of two and a half tribes on the east bank of the Jordan (Numbers 20:1-25:18, 31:1-32:42).
In many respects Numbers is as unpleasant as its desert wilderness setting: the sins of Israel and of its leaders are in stark relief. Disobedience and rebellion pervade the book. Nevertheless, God remains faithful. He has preserved His people thus far, and will soon allow their descendants to enter the land of His promise.
As we sojourn in this life, the “wilderness” before we enter the “Promised Land” of the resurrection, we do well to learn from Israel’s example in Numbers. Let us not disobey God and rebel against Him; instead, let us place our trust in Him no matter the circumstances and set our hope fully on the resurrection of life which awaits those who remain in Jesus Christ our Lord!
Ethan R. Longhenry