The book is called Numbers because of the two numberings of Israel. The population of adult males of the first generation is counted at Sinai (ch 1), and the second generation is counted in the Plains of Moab (ch 26). In the Hebrew Scriptures the book is called "In the wilderness" from the fifth word in the Hebrew text (1:1).
As with the rest of the Pentateuch, no author is named, except that Moses wrote down the list of stopping places (33:2). The same debate rages over Mosaic authorship as with the other books in the Pentateuch. Conservative scholars normally ascribe the book to Moses, but allowing for small changes and additions by Ezra, so it would come into its final form sometime after the return from exile. For example, it is unlikely that Moses wrote this description about himself, "Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth" (12:3). It would be more likely that this was a comment added later, perhaps by Ezra.
Purpose of book
The book describes the period of nearly forty years that the children of Israel spent in the wilderness as they travelled from Mt. Sinai to the Plains of Moab, at the eastern border of the promised land.
The most important theme is the rebellion of the people by their refusal to enter the land. As a result, an entire generation died in the wilderness. Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who brought a positive report, were the only adults, out of the over 600,000 who left Egypt, who lived to enter the land. The second generation finally entered thirty-eight years later, when they could have only taken a few months at the most.
The book contrasts the faithfulness and holiness of God with his rebellious and idolatrous people. God's judgement and mercy is shown on those who rebel or disobey or complain.
There are several historical events described in the book, including: the clashes with Edom, the clashes with the Canaanite King of Arad, the defeat of King Sihon of the Amorites, of King Og of Bashan, and of the Midianites and the settlement of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh in Gilead, the Trans-Jordan.
Geography from Exodus to Deuteronomy
It is helpful to note the overall geographical progression between the Exodus from Egypt to the entry into the Promised Land, which stretches over five books of the OT.
|Israelites in Egypt
||Ex 1 - 12:36
|Journey from Egypt to Sinai
||Ex 12:37 - ch 18
||Ex 19 - 49, Leviticus, Num 1 - 10:10
|Journey from Sinai to Kadesh Barnea
||Num 10:11 - ch 12
|At Kadesh Barnea
|Journey from Kadesh to Plains of Moab
|At Plains of Moab
||Num 22 - 36, Deuternomy, Josh 1-2
Structure of the Book of Numbers
There are a number of ways of seeing the structure in the book. One way is to focus on the geography as above. Another is to focus on the two generations: the first generation dies in the wilderness (ch 1-19), and the second grows up to enter the land (ch 20-26).
There is a continual interchange between the priestly laws, and narratives which describe the taking of the census, journeys or stories of rebellion.
||First census at Sinai
||Laws of purity in the camp
||First journey: Sinai - Kadesh
||Laws for priests
||Second journey: Kadesh - Moab
||Balaam and Baal of Peor
||Second census at Moab
||Laws on vows and offerings
||Occupation of land east of Jordan
||Summary of journeys
||Laws on land allocation
Numbers is written partly chronologically and partly topically. For example, the first census (1:1) is a month after the offerings (ch 7). The census took place in the second month, but the offerings were brought in the first month, even though the account of the census comes first in the book.
The complaints and rebellions in Numbers
The theme of the time in the wilderness is the continuing complaining by the Israelites, and the desire to return to Egypt. These are described in a characteristic pattern: It begins with rebellion or complaining, when they express a desire to return to Egypt. In response, Moses falls on his face and intercedes to God, who sends judgement through plague. The people cry out to God, who relents and blesses his people. The place is then given a meaningful name to remember the rebellion.
After the rebellion, God declared that the Israelites have "tested me ten times" (Num 14:22). It is possible to list these ten acts of complaining or rebellion, from the Exodus from Egypt to the arrival at Kadesh Barnea.
Between Egypt and Sinai there were six acts of rebellion. The first when they complained about leaving Egypt because Pharaoh’s army was coming after them at the Red Sea (Ex 14:10-12). The second was at Marah, when the bitter water was made sweet (Ex15:22-24). The third was when they complained at being hungry, and God provided manna (Ex 16:1-3). The fourth was their disobedience by keeping manna overnight (Ex 16:19-20), and the fifth was their disobedience by collecting manna on the Sabbath (Ex 16:27-30). The sixth was when they complained of thirst, and God provided water out of the rock (Ex 17:1-4), when the place was renamed Massah (test) & Meribah (quarrel)
At Sinai was the act of rebellion when they made the golden calf (Ex 32:1-5). Between Sinai and Kadesh were two complaints: a general complaint (Num 11:1-3), when God sent fire, and named the place Taberah (burning), and a complaint about wanting meat (11:4-34), when God gave them quails and named the place Kibroth-hattaavah (graves of craving). The tenth testing was at Kadesh, when they rebelled against God by refusing to enter the land (14:3).
This was not the last testing, as they continued to rebel and complain while they were at Kadesh. Korah rebelled against Moses (Num 16:1-14), and the people complained against Moses for God’s judgement on Korah (16:41-50). They again complained about their thirst (20:1-3), before Moses was excluded from the land, and the place named Meribah (quarrel). There were two further testings of God on the journey from Kadesh to Moab. A general complaint caused God to send serpents (21:4-9), and they rebelled by yoking themselves with the Baal of Peor (25:1-5).
Changes in population between the two census
||reducing to 43,730
||greatly reducing to 22,200, perhaps following the incident of the Baal of Peor
||reducing to 40,500
||increasing to 76,500
||increasing to 64,500
||increasing to 60,500
||decreasing to 32,500
||greatly increasing to 52,700
||increasing to 45,600
||increasing to 64,400
||increasing to 53,400
||increasing to 45,400
The total slightly reduced from 603,550 to 601,730
The role of Joshua
Joshua gradually becomes more prominent during the years described in the book of Numbers, eventually being chosen to replace Moses as the leader of the people of Israel.
The first time he is mentioned is when he objects to two of the elders, Eldad & Medad, prophesying, thinking that only Moses should prophesy (11:28). Moses rebuked him, desiring that all the Lord's people were prophets and the Spirit should rest on all. He is chosen to be the representative of his tribe, Ephraim, as one of the spies entering the promised land (13:8). He and Caleb bring a positive report of the land and urge the people to ignore the negative comments of the other spies and to enter and conquer the land which the land has promised them (14:6-9). As a result only Joshua and Caleb, who had faith, will live to enter the land (14:30), all the other spied die (14:38). They are the only two people left from the first generation (26:65).
Joshua was chosen by God to succeed Moses. He is commissioned before the Lord in the tabernacle before all the people (27:12-23), and again, only Joshua and Caleb, who have wholly followed the Lord, will enter the land (32:12). Moses tells Joshua the command concerning the settlement of Reuben and Gad east of the Jordan (32:28), and he and Eleazar the priest are chosen by the Lord to divide the land between the tribes (34:17).