Discovering Numbers

Two Names for the Book

Two names describe this fourth book of Moses. The Hebrew name is “In the Wilderness.” This name fits because the book describes the experiences of Israel as they journeyed from Sinai to the borders of the Promised Land.

Exodus tells us about Israel’s first year in the wilderness. Numbers picks up in the second year and ends 38 years later, completing a period of 40 years between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land.

The title we use today, “Numbers,” comes from the Greek translation of the book. It highlights two censuses in the book, in chapters 1 and 26. The first census tells how many people came out of Egypt and the second tells how many entered the Promised Land.

On one hand, Exodus shows God’s gracious deliverance of the Hebrew people from bondage and his commitment to form a special relationship with them. Leviticus amplifies the way he would make this possible – the sacrificial system and the Day of Atonement.

On the other hand, Exodus introduces us to the spiritual problems of the Hebrew people. Despite God’s love for them, they showed early signs of resistance to him.

  • They complained at the Red Sea (Exo 14:10-12).
  • They complained about bitter water at Marah (Exo 16:1-3).
  • They complained about being hungry in the desert (Exo 16:19-20).
  • They complained about a lack of water at Rephidim (Exo 17:1-4).
  • They worshipped a golden cow idol at Sinai (Exo 32:1-35).

Numbers amplifies this pattern of discontent and disobedience, showing how such resistance persisted and intensified after they departed from Sinai. Despite God’s ongoing faithfulness and forgiveness, provision and protection, they continued to doubt him.

As a result, God canceled his plans to give them the Promised Land. They would die in the wilderness and the next generation would get their chance to possess the land instead. The central verses of Numbers record this turning point:

“Because all these men who have seen My glory and the signs which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have put Me to the test now these ten times, and have not heeded My voice, they certainly shall not see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who rejected Me see it” (Num 14:22-23).

The first census gives us the names of those who disobeyed God and died in the wilderness. The second census gives us the names of their children who entered the land.

Numbers shows us how the people of Israel tested God’s patience. As a result, they failed to experience and enjoy all that God had planned for them. It also shows us how God remained faithful to his promises, despite the nations’ resistance to him.

For believers today, this book teaches that ongoing disobedience, discontent, and distrust towards God will prevent you from experiencing the joys of your relationship with him.

Outlining the Book

You can divide this book in half according to the two generations:

  1. Chapters 1-25: The older “parent” generation exited Egypt but died in the wilderness
  2. Chapters 26-36: The younger “child” generation who grew up in the wilderness but entered the promised land.

You can also divide it into three sections by the locations where the action occurred:

  1. At Mount Sinai (1:1-10:10)
  2. In Kadesh (10:11-22:1)
  3. At Moab (22:2-36:13)

These outlines give a helpful perspective on how to study this book.

An Overview of the Book

Together, both Exodus and Numbers provide a lot of narrative material (i.e. true stories) about things that happened during the journey of the Hebrew nation from Egypt to the Promised Land. To understand the difference between them, you should know that Exodus describes the journey from Egypt to Sinai, then Numbers resumes by describing the journey from Sinai to the Promised Land.

Both books feature a crisis of rebellion against God that threatened the outcome of Israel’s journey and the closeness of their relationship with him. In Exodus, they worshipped a golden cow (Exo 32). In Numbers, they refused to enter the Promised Land (Num 13). In both cases, Moses prayed for them and God preserved them from destruction.

The opening chapters describe Israel’s final days at Mount Sinai (1:1-10:10). This section highlights various instructions from God. These instructions served as final preparations for their journey to the Promised Land. It emphasizes the need for Israel to obey God’s instructions carefully and exactly.

The journey into the wilderness began very well. The people followed God’s instructions and he guided them with a column of cloud by day and a column of fire by night.

Before long, however, Israel’s underlying heart problems resurfaced in a series of three incidents in which various groups of people complained about something (11-12).

One commentator observes that “this section constitutes a shift in the structural and theological movement of the book from one of unity, faithfulness, holiness, and celebration to one of discord, rebellion, and dissatisfaction with who they were as the people of the covenant.”[i]

  1. First, the people complained about their situation in general (11:1-3). They were not happy about following Moses into the wilderness.
  2. Next, a smaller group of non-Israelites who had left Egypt with them instigated some discontent that spread to the rest of the people (11:4-35). Like the complaints before Mount Sinai, their discontent focused on their limited food supply.
  3. After this (and perhaps most stunning of all), Moses’ older siblings – Miriam and Aaron – challenged his leadership role by claiming to have an equal share of the responsibility and launching a coup against him (12:1-16).

God responded swiftly and strongly to all three cases of resistance. Sadly, however, the people would disobey and rebel against him even more.

When they arrived at the borders of the Promised Land, he told them to send 12 men as spies to scout out the land. When they returned, 10 of the men persuaded the people that God was unable to give them the land – that taking the land would be impossible.

This major instance of unbelief and disobedience against God stands out like worshipping the cow stands out in Exodus. Unlike Exodus, God did not continue his plans to give them the Promised Land. He changed course and refused to give them another chance.

He consigned them, instead, to wander in the wilderness for another 38 years until all the disobedient adults had died and the next generation had grown into adulthood.

Sadly, this was not the final instance of rebellion:

  • They attempted to take the land without God’s help and failed (14:39-45).
  • Korah, Nathan, Abiram, and 250 other leaders staged a coup against Moses (16:1-3).
  • All the people murmured and complained about Moses’ leadership (16:41).
  • They later argued with Moses over a lack of water and food selection (20:3).
  • They argued about the same thing again on another occasion (21:5).

The rest of Numbers describes the events and teachings that occurred as the first generation passed away over a span of 38 years. Then it tells of their final approach to the borders of the Promised Land as the next generation prepared to enter.

Lessons for Today

For generations to come, these episodes would serve as warnings to Israel not to commit the same errors (Deut 1:19-40; Psa 95:10-11; 106:24-27). What’s more, these episodes also serve as warnings for us today (1 Cor 10:1-12; Heb 3:7-4:11; Jude 5).

Consider how Paul applied the message of this book to the church in Corinth.

  • We should not let a strong desire for earthly luxuries prevent us from doing God’s will (1 Cor 10:6; Num 11:4). While there is nothing wrong with enjoying nice things, we should not crave them so strongly that we insist on having them and hold back from following and serving God wholeheartedly.
  • We should not worship idols or other gods, nor should we mix worldly amusement and personal entertainment into our worship of God (1 Cor 10:7; Exo 32:6).
  • We should not indulge in the promiscuous sexual sins and lifestyle practices of the world around us (1 Cor 10:8; cf. Num 25:1-9). This refers to any sexual activity outside of marriage. Pornography, premarital sex, cohabitation, homosexuality, prostitution, adultery, and other similar activities have no place in the Christian life.
  • Don’t complain about God’s provision or see how much sin you can commit before God punishes you (1 Cor 10:9; cf. Num 21:5-6, Psa 78:18-19).
  • Don’t spread gossip and discontent against the spiritual leaders that God has placed into your life (1 Cor 10:10; cf. 1 Tim 5:19), as Miriam and Aaron did (Num 12:1-16), Korah and other leaders did (16:1-3), and as all the people did (16:41). In this verse (10:10), Paul shifts from third person to second person, speaking as a spiritual leader to a church who might be tempted to question his leadership role.

When you read the book of Numbers, you should think about each instance of discontent and disobedience. You should ask yourself whether you think or act in similar ways.

  • Do you blame God for the difficult circumstances in your life?
  • Do you distrust the leaders he has placed into your life?
  • Does a strong desire for the material pleasures of this world govern your life?
  • Are you defeated by immoral habits of one kind or another?
  • Are you tempted to worship idols and other gods?

Let these examples from the past prompt you to trust God more deeply, obey him more completely, and be content with the people and circumstances of your life.

Furthermore, if you have believed on Christ and are an older, supposedly more mature Christian, then you should especially take these warnings to heart. If priests and leaders like Korah and close relatives and servants of God like Miriam and Aaron could fail, then so can you. Keep on trusting in and following the Lord so that you will be example of faith to the next generation, not a sad story that ended in frustration and unbelief.

Closing Encouragement

The frequent disobedience and unrest of the Israelites was hard to handle. Even Moses, whom God calls the most humble and sincere man on Earth (Num 12:3), lost his temper with them on one occasion. When they complained about their water supply, he slammed his rod against the rock and berated them instead of speaking gently (Num 20:10-12).

Even so, the LORD remained faithful to his promise. Though Israel resisted his care and guidance, he continued to bless them. He showed mercy by giving them multiple chances, and when those chances ran out, he extended his promises to the next generation.

God’s faithfulness to these stubborn people was so steadfast and sure that even the covetous prophet named Balaam had to bless the nation of Israel near the end of the book, even though he wanted to curse them for money (Num 23:7-11, 18-25, 24:3-10).

Most importantly, he even issued a messianic prophecy 24:17 foretelling the coming ministry and reign of the Messiah as king over the entire world. This Messiah would come through the nation of Israel – despite their disobedience.

Knowing that Israel would be a disobedient child, God told the priests to repeat the following blessing to them for generations to come (Num 6:22-27):

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.”’ “So they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.”

These blessing shows God’s determination to bless the people of Israel no matter what. So special is this blessing that “two small silver scrolls (about one inch long) have been found in the area known as Keteph Hinnom in Jerusalem. They were amulets [necklaces] in a burial cave from the sixth or seventh century BC, and they contained this benediction. At present they represent the oldest example of any text of Scripture.”[ii] This also shows us how important and special these words were to the people of Israel for many centuries.

As we learn in Numbers, when God’s people disobeyed, he tended to give them multiple chances to correct their behavior, though such chances would eventually come to an end. (Pushing the limits of these second chances is called “testing God” and is not good to do.)

Even when a person’s or a generation’s chances ran out, God would continue to extend his blessing to the next generation, who would need to choose for themselves whether they would follow him.

Today, God intends to bless you as well, despite your lack of trust in him. Consider how many times the New Testament letters open with words like this, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 1:3-4).

Paul spoke this blessing to the church at Corinth in the opening of his first letter to them, even though they were a carnal, disobedient, and worldly congregation at the time. Today, these words apply to us as well. May they not encourage us to sin.

Instead, may they inspire us to turn away from the kind of behavior, unrest, and disobedience that we read about in Numbers and show the world around us that we are glad to obey and follow God and to identify as his children.

[i] R. Dennis Cole, Numbers, vol. 3B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 181.

[ii] Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), Num 6:24–26.

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