Survey of the Book of Numbers

Author: Moses is believed to be the author of the book of Numbers. Numbers 33:2 refers to him recording some of the information contained in the book.

Date of writing: Likely written between 1440 and 1400 BC.

Purpose: The book of Numbers bridges the gap between the Israelites receiving the Law and entering the Promised Land. It provides a census of those who left Egypt as well as a census forty years later of those who would enter the Promised Land. The book gives an account of the Israelites' rebellion and the reason they were in the wilderness for so long. It also provides various laws and instructions for the proper worship of God. In many ways, it serves as both a history and a guide for the generation of Israelites tasked with conquering Canaan. It is also instructive to us today (1 Corinthians 10:1–13).

Key Verses:
"The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace" (Numbers 6:24–26).

"And he said, 'Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?'" (Numbers 12:6–8).

"Not one shall come into the land where I swore that I should make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected. But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of you dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure" (Number 14:30–34).

"God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?" (Numbers 23:19).

"I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth" (Numbers 24:17).

Themes: Two of the main themes in Numbers are obedience and rebellion, as well as the gradual fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham as the Israelites are about to enter Canaan (Genesis 12:1–3). Israel rebelled against God in various ways throughout the book: They complain against God for the lack of water and lack of variety in food (Numbers 11); Miriam and Aaron question Moses' authority (Numbers 12); the Sons of Korah question Moses and Aaron's authority and try to mutiny against them (Numbers 16); Moses rebels against instructions and takes matters into his own hands (Numbers 20). God's faithfulness to His people stands in stark contrast. While there were consequences for their rebellion, God never abandons the Israelites or breaks His promises to them.

The theme of God's holiness from Leviticus is fleshed out in the book of Numbers. In Leviticus God sets out His guidelines and parameters, His rules and rituals for holiness, as well as the consequences for living in sin, so that He could dwell in the Israelites' midst. In the book of Numbers, we watch as the people try to act according to the laws God set, and we also see what happens when they choose to live in sin. Not surprisingly, the results are exactly as God had said they would be in Leviticus.

Brief Summary: The narrative of the book of Numbers begins at the end of the Israelites' one year stay at Mount Sinai. The structure of the book follows their travels in five sections. The first is at Mount Sinai, the second is their travel from Mount Sinai to Paran, the third while they are in the region of Paran, the fourth as they travel from Paran to Moab, and finally it ends in Moab as they wait to cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land. While this trip should have taken around two weeks of travel, it took the Israelites forty years because of their rebellion against God.

Chapters 1—10 begin with a census taken of all the men able to fight in Israel, except from the tribe of Levi. The Israelites are instructed to camp around the tent of meeting by heritage in a specific way. The Levites receive instructions for the care of the tent of meeting (or tabernacle). Some of the purity laws laid out in Leviticus are further developed. The tabernacle is set up and dedicated, and the Levites are also consecrated. The keeping of the Passover is established. When the tabernacle was finished, the presence of God appeared over it like a fire through the night and a cloud during the day. God's presence with the Israelites was literal and obvious, and the Israelites followed God when they saw the cloud lift from the tabernacle and lead the way. They set out by tribe, with the ark of the covenant in the lead. The tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun came next, followed by the divisions of Levites tasked with carrying the tabernacle. Then the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad, followed by the divisions of Levites tasked with carrying the holy things from the tabernacle. Then came the tribe of Ephraim (one of Joseph's sons), Manasseh (Joseph's firstborn son), and Benjamin. The rear guard was made up of the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali.

In chapters 11—12 the Israelites follow God's presence away from Mount Sinai. But the people complain about their hardships and fire from God comes down and consumes some of the outskirts of the camp. The people cry out and Moses prays, resulting in the fire dying down. But then the people begin complaining about the manna that God was miraculously providing for them, and they begin longing for the food they had in Egypt. Moses became frustrated with the Israelites over this issue, so God had him appoint men to help him keep order among the Israelites. God also sent quail and a plague. Next, Miriam and Aaron begin speaking against Moses for his marriage to a Cushite woman, questioning his authority. But God calls them out and confirms Moses' leadership before them, in part by afflicting Miriam with leprosy. They repent, but Miriam must be confined outside the camp for seven days, and then the people resume their journey.

When they arrive at Paran (chapters 13—14) God tells Moses to send one leader from every tribe to spy out the Promised Land. The men come back affirming the fruitfulness of the land but in great fear of the people of the land. Yet Caleb, one of the spies, proclaims they can take possession of the land. The Israelites spend the night despairing that God had brought them to their death, and they wish for a new leader to bring them back to Egypt. Joshua and Caleb tear their clothes and affirm the fruitfulness of the land. They tell the Israelites "The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them" (Numbers 14:7–9).

The people wanted to stone Joshua and Caleb. God tells Moses He will strike the people down and make Moses a stronger nation. But Moses intercedes on behalf of the people, asking God to display His strength and continue to show the people of the region that He is with them. In part, Moses prays, "And now, please let the power of the LORD be great as you have promised, saying, 'The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.' Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now" (Numbers 14:17–19). Indeed, God is faithful to His Word. He forgives the rebellious Israelites and will certainly fulfill the covenant He made with Abraham. However, with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb, God did not let this generation enter the Promised Land. Because of their faithlessness they had to wait forty years until that generation had died and their children could enter the Promised Land.

Chapter 15 gives laws on various sacrifices. Chapter 16 describes another rebellion. The sons of Korah rise up against Moses and Aaron, claiming they have no right to be set above the rest of the assembly. Korah was from the tribe of Levi, as were Moses and Aaron. Moses said that in the morning God would show who belongs to Him. Korah and his followers were to present incense to the Lord. Moses and Aaron would do the same. When the people were gathered, God told Moses and Aaron to separate themselves so He could put an end to the rebellion. Moses and Aaron interceded and God instructed them to tell the people to move away from the tents of the rebels. Korah, his followers, and their households were swallowed in the ground and fire consumed the men offering incense. God instructed that their censers be hammered into sheets that would overlay the altar. Still, the next day, the Israelites complained that Moses had killed the Lord's people. God told Moses and Aaron, again, to separate themselves. And, again, Moses interceded. He told Aaron to burn incense to make atonement. God had already sent a plague that killed 14,700 people, but it stopped as Aaron offered the incense.

Chapter 17 tells of the budding of Aaron's staff, a confirmation that he was chosen for the priesthood. At God's instruction, the staff of a leader of each tribe was placed in the tent of meeting, and the one that sprouted was that of the one God had chosen. Aaron's staff was then to be placed in front of the ark of the covenant as a reminder to the people so the rebellious would stop their complaints. Chapters 18 and 19 discuss the duties of the priests and Levites, offerings, and ceremonial cleansing.

At the beginning of the next travel section (chapters 20—21), Miriam dies and is buried. As the Israelites are travelling, the people complain that they are thirsty, so God commands Moses to speak to a rock to bring forth water. Instead Moses strikes the rock and reprimands the people, misrepresenting God before the Israelites. Aaron is involved in the misrepresentation as well. And because of this, God did not permit Moses or Aaron to enter the Promised Land. Moses requests passage through Edom, but the Edomites refuse and even send an army out to block their land. The Israelites turn away, but the Edomites continued to be enemies of the Israelites, though God will pronounce judgment on Edom (Jeremiah 49:7–22; Obadiah 1). Aaron then dies.

In Chapter 21 a Canaanite king attacks Israel and takes some of the people, but other Israelites vow to God they will completely destroy the Canaanite cities if He will give them victory. God does. But as the people continue to travel, they again speak against God and Moses. God sends venomous snakes and many die. The people admit their sin and ask Moses to pray for God to remove the snakes. Instead, God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake. Any Israelite who is bitten could look on that and live. Jesus refers to this in John 3:14–15 saying, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." The Israelites continue on to the valley of Moab. There they ask the king of the Amorites to let them pass. He refuses and sends his army against the Israelites, who defeat the Amorites and settle in their land. Soon the king of Og comes against the Israelites in battle, but God again gives Israel victory.

In the last section of chapters 22—36, the Israelites are in the plains of Moab. At this point the narrative leaves the Israelites and focuses on a man named Balaam who was called upon by the king of the Amalekites to curse the Israelites. God gives Balaam specific instructions not to follow the king and curse the Israelites, a people He has blessed. But, driven by greed (2 Peter 2:15–16), Balaam continues to try. God uses Balaam's donkey to get the man's attention. He tells Balaam he can go with the Amalekite king but must only speak what God tells him to. King Balak attempts to get Balaam to curse the Israelites from various positions, but every time Balaam must only speak the words God has given. Though Balaam acted wickedly (Numbers 31:16; Jude 1:11; Revelation 2:14), his prophecies were not false. In one of his oracles Balaam prophecies the coming of Jesus: "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth" (Numbers 24:17).

Even amidst Israel's continual rebellion and ungratefulness, God protected them from unseen enemies and blessed them. However, the Israelites fell into sexual immorality with the Moabites and bowed before their false gods (Numbers 25; Revelation 2:14). Their unfaithfulness incurred the wrath of God. God told Moses to kill those engaged in the sin, and the judges of Israel did so. Phinehas, a priest, was especially zealous for the Lord. God said of him, "Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy" (Numbers 25:11). God made a covenant of peace with Phinehas and a perpetual priesthood.

Chapter 26 includes a new census of the people. Chapter 27 describes daughters of a man who had died with no sons asking for an inheritance so that their father's name would not be lost. God told Moses to grant the request. He also told Moses that if ever a man died with no sons, the inheritance should be given to his daughter. If there were no daughter, to the man's brothers, and if no brothers, to his paternal uncles. If there were no paternal uncles, then the inheritance should go to the nearest kinsman. In short, this set up the pattern of inheritance and the concept of a kinsman redeemer.

Chapter 27 also depicts Joshua being commissioned to take Moses' place as leader of the people. Chapters 28 and 29 discuss various offerings that were to occur daily, weekly on the Sabbath, monthly, and at specific annual feasts. Chapter 30 gives instructions regarding vows.

Chapter 31 describes Israel's vengeance on Midian, as instructed by the Lord. Chapter 32 talks of the tribes of Reuben and Gad settling in Gilead. The tribes were granted the land on the condition that they would not fail to aid the other tribes in conquering the lands they were to inherit. Chapter 33 gives an overview of the Israelites' journey.

Chapters 34 and 35 describe the boundaries of the land, list the tribal priests, and talk about cities for the Levites. Of particular interest is the cities of refuge in the land. Anyone who had killed another unintentionally could flee to these cities to remain safe from family members seeking to avenge the blood of the slain. There the people would judge between the accused and the victim's family member. If the accused was found faultless, he would live in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, at which time he could return to his own land. If he left the city of refuge, the victim's family member had a right to kill him. God also established that a murderer would be put to death, but more than one person had to testify as to his guilt. No one could buy his way out of the death penalty or out of the city of refuge. God said, "You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the LORD dwell in the midst of the people of Israel" (Numbers 35:33–34). God is serious about the sanctity of human life and His holiness.

Chapter 36 gives instructions regarding what should happen if a woman who inherited her father's land marries a man from a different tribe. It was established that the woman should marry a man within her own tribe so that the inheritance would not be transferred from one tribe to another.

Practical Application: The continual wavering of the Israelites between rebellion and victory looks a lot like the average Christian. Of this period, Paul writes a warning to the Christian, "Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, 'The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play'" (1 Corinthians 10:6–7). Paul warns Christians "We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:8–12). These temptations were not unique to the ancient Israelites; we are to watch ourselves lest we fall in the same areas.

The writer of Hebrews also warns against hardening your heart against the voice of God and harboring unbelief in our hearts like the Israelites did in the wilderness that caused them to fall away (Hebrews 3:7–9). It says that instead we are to "exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Hebrews 3:13).

The book of Numbers has a lot of "what not to do" examples that serve as a warning, but the most striking part about this book is the faithfulness of God amidst the faithlessness of the Israelites. God granted them victory against their enemies even when their hearts rebelled against Him between battles. When they spent their time complaining in the wilderness, God saved them from the enemy that they could not see. God could have rightly used Balaam to curse the Israelites for their rebelliousness, but instead he blessed them, saying, "How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel! Like palm groves that stretch afar, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that the LORD has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters. Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters; his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted" (Numbers 24:5–7). God was faithful to the Israelites when they were faithless, and He is an unchanging God who promises to do the same for us (2 Timothy 2:13).

Related Truth:

Survey of the Book of Genesis

Survey of the Book of Exodus

Survey of the Book of Leviticus

Survey of the Book of Deuteronomy

What is the basic timeline of the Old Testament?

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