Philippe R. Sterling
Numbers presents the census and military arrangement of the tribes of Israel and the regulations for the transport of the sacred objects for the journey to the land of promise—a journey that involves struggles and challenges from within and from without and that succeeds only with trust in God and obedience to God.
The name “Numbers” refers to the two numberings or censuses taken in the book (chapters 1—3 and 26). The first numbering was of the generation that failed to obey God and would perish in the wilderness. The second numbering was of the new generation that would enter and conquer Canaan in dependence on God.
The last verse of Numbers states, “These are the commandments and the ordinances which the LORD commanded to the sons of Israel through Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho.” Israel had completed the journey through the wilderness and was about to enter the land of Canaan. They would cross the Jordan 40 years after the Exodus when all the men of war who came out of Egypt died because they had not listened to God (see Josh. 5:6). This would date the book at 1406 BC if the date for the Exodus is 1446 BC on the basis of 1 Kings 6:1 which says that Solomon began to build the temple in the fourth year of his reign (966 BC) which was 480 years after the Exodus.
Numbers functions as an instruction manual for the journey of Israel after the acceptance of the covenant at Sinai. It deals with how the nation and the priests and Levites were to order themselves in the journey and how they were to prepare to enter and conquer Canaan. The book begins in the second year after the Exodus and covers the thirty-eight year period until the eve of the conquest of Canaan.
The twin themes of Numbers are preparation for service and discipline for disobedience. Service to God requires faith and obedience. God seeks a believing and obedient generation.
Literary Structure and Content
I. Organization of the Older Generation: God organizes his people for their spiritual walk and warfare in their journey to the place of promise (1—10).
1st Numbering and Arrangement of the Tribes in Camp: God instructs Moses to count the fighting men, organize the tribes in the camp, and count and organize the priests and the Levites for the care of the Tabernacle (1—4).
The two censuses were counts of the fighting men of Israel and not the whole population. The first census puts the number at 603,550 and the second at 601,730. The total population may have numbered two million.
God gave instructions for the order of encampment and the order of march. In both cases the tabernacle was central. God was to be at the center of all life.
Different family groups of Levites received individual assignments for the care of the tabernacle. Believers today receive special gifts and assignments.
Purity and Separation to God: God’s people are to purify and set themselves apart to him (5—6).
The last section deals primarily with the organization of the community as a whole. This section deals with the spiritual preparation of the individuals within the community. The Nazirites are a special type of the separated life. The passage ends with the priestly blessing.
Final Preparations and March from Sinai: God’s people are to trust in God and follow God’s leadership (7—10).
The leaders of the tribes of Israel give their gifts to God (7), the Levites are cleansed and set apart for service (8), and the nation celebrates the Passover (9:1-15). The tribes are now ready for the journey. All they need to do is follow God’s day to day leadership. The march from Sinai begins.
II. Defection and Discipline of the Older Generation: God’s people might not trust and obey him and come under his judgment and experience his discipline (11—20).
Israel’s Rebellion at Kadesh-barnea and God’s Judgment: God’s people may rebel against him and come under his judgment (11--14).
The people complain about their diet and experience God’s discipline (11). Miriam and Aaron complain against Moses and experience God’s discipline (12). God sends spies representing the twelve tribes into Canaan and they come back and report about the bounty of the land and the great obstacles they would face in trying to possess it (13). The people rebel at Kadesh-barnea after the report of the spies and come under God’s judgment (14). As a result of the plea of Moses God pardons the sin of the people but will not allow that generation to possess the land of promise. They will wander and die in the wilderness. Only Joshua and Caleb who believed God will live to enter Canaan.
38 Years in Wilderness: God instructs and disciplines his people through 38 years of wandering in the wilderness (15—20).
God gives instructions about the offerings and obeying his commandments (15). Korah and the princes rebel against Moses and Aaron, and come under God’s judgment (16). God confirms the Aaronic priesthood (17—18). God institutes the ordinance of the Red Heifer (19). Miriam dies; Moses sins in striking the rock with the result of not being allowed to bring Israel into the land of promise; Aaron dies (20).
III. Organization of the Younger Generation: God organizes the new generation of his people for entering and possessing the place of promise (21—36).
The old generation under judgment has died off. The time for a new generation and a new start has come.
Conflict with Moab on the Plains of Moab: The new generation experiences victories in route to Moab, conflict with Moab, moral and spiritual seduction and discipline (21--25).
Israel experiences some victories in route to Moab (21). But in between the victories there is discontent concerning the journey and God’s provision of “miserable food”. God swiftly disciplines the people by sending serpents into their midst. The people repent and ask for the intercession of Moses with God. God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a standard. Anyone bitten by a serpent could look at it and live.
The conflict with Moab and the prophecies of Balaam is an account of how the intended cursing of God’s people by an enemy is turned into blessing by God. The four prophecies of Balaam reveal God’s plans for Israel. In them Israel is set forth as a people separated to God (23:9), a people among whom God dwells (23:21), a people who are to be a channel of God’s blessing (24:9), and a people through whom the Messiah would come (24:17).
Chapter 25 is the sad record of the seduction to immorality and false worship of some of the people and leaders of Israel by Midianites. Only the swift action of Phinehas the grandson of Aaron limits the judgment of God. God commands that these Midianites be slain and chapter 31 records the carrying out of this command.
2nd Numbering and Arrangement for New Leadership: God instructs Moses to conduct a new census and commission a new leadership (26—27).
Offerings and Vows: God instructs Moses to command the people concerning offerings and vows (28—31).
Preparations for Entering Canaan: God gives instructions for the settlement of the land of promise (32—36).
The tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh settle east of the Jordan but vow to help the other tribes conquer the land of Canaan (32). There is a review of the journey from Egypt to the Jordan (33). God gives instructions for dividing the land, for the cities of the Levites, and for inheritance by marriage (34—36).
The inheritance and possession of the land was a major component of the covenant promise to Israel. Israel’s occupation of the land was a stage in the process of reclaiming all creation for God. Possession of the land required pilgrimage and conquest in obedience and dependence upon God.
God tests his people. Testing is a repeated theme in the Pentateuch and the major theme of Numbers. God tested the faith and obedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God tested Abraham in calling for the sacrifice of Isaac. Joseph tested the loyalty of his brothers. Moses described Israel’s forty-year pilgrimage in the wilderness as a test of faith and covenant loyalty to God (Deut. 8:1-2). The purpose is to humble, encourage dependence on God, teach obedience to his commandments, and show the condition of the heart.
In the New Testament James teaches that God tests believers with the view of approving faith and developing spiritual maturity (James 1:2-4), but he does not tempt with the purpose of inciting to evil (1:12-15). That is the work of Satan. Even Jesus was tempted in every way as we are so that he might be our sympathetic High Priest (Matt. 4:1-11; Heb. 4:14-16).
God’s people progress forward only as they trust God’s promises and rely upon him. The younger generation was able to possess the land of promise because they trusted God and obeyed his marching orders in a way that the former generation failed to do at Kadesh-barnea. Their journey portrays the possible experience of every pilgrim who makes his way from promise to possession (see 1 Cor. 10:1-13; Heb. 4:1-13). Trust and obey, pilgrim.
Messianic Prophecy and Typology
The Bronze Serpent – The bronze serpent is a type of Christ on the cross (see Num. 21: 4-9 and John. 3:14-15).
Red Heifer – The red heifer pictures purification through the sacrifice of Christ (Num. 19).
Wilderness Wanderings – The wilderness wanderings portray the pilgrimage of believers with Christ the rock that gave them water and was smitten (1 Cor. 10). Manna portrays the provision of the Bread of Life from Heaven.
Star from Jacob and Scepter from Israel – Balaam foresees the rule of Christ (Num. 24:17, 19).