The Background of Numbers
Author and Date
Moses is the source and primary author of the book of Numbers, which is the fourth volume in the Pentateuch. Its English name comes from the censuses in ch. 1–4 and 26.
Numbers tells of Israel’s journey from Mount Sinai to the borders of the Promised Land, summarizing some 40 years of the nation’s history. With Israel having been freed from slavery in Egypt and then receiving the law (Exodus and Leviticus), the book of Numbers begins with the people’s final preparations to leave Sinai. It then records their triumphal setting out, before a series of events in which the people grumbled about the difficulty of the journey and the impossibility of conquering Canaan. This response leads God to delay their entry to Canaan by 40 years. The closing chapters of the book tell how the people at last set out again and reach the banks of the Jordan, ready to cross into the land promised to their forefathers.
Theme and Purpose
The theme of Numbers is the gradual fulfillment of the promises to Abraham that his descendants would be the people of God and would occupy the land of Canaan. The book shows the reality of God’s presence with Israel in the pillar of cloud and fire over the tabernacle. It also shows how Israel’s unbelief delays the entry into Canaan and costs many lives. Nevertheless, by the end of the book, Israel is ready to enter the land.
There were four elements to God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3, and they all play a role in Numbers:
1. The Land
Numbers describes Israel’s journey toward the Promised Land.
Abraham had been promised that his descendants would be as many as the stars of heaven (Genesis 15:5). Jacob’s family consisted of just 70 persons when he entered Egypt (Genesis 46:27). Now they had increased immensely. The first census (Numbers 1:1–46) showed that the fighting men numbered 603,550. That did not include women and children. Surveying their camp from a hilltop, Balaam declared, “Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel?” (Numbers 23:10). Balaam went on to predict that Israel would become a powerful kingdom in its own right: “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17).
3. Covenant Relationship with God
The essence of the covenant was, “You shall be my people, and I will be your God.” The Lord’s presence with Israel is constantly highlighted throughout the book of Numbers.
4. Blessing to the Nations
This is the aspect of the promises to Abraham that is least apparent in Numbers. To a greater or lesser degree, the nations that Israel encounters are all hostile. Nevertheless Balaam recalls the phrasing of Genesis 12:3 when he says, “Blessed are those who bless you, and cursed are those who curse you” (Numbers 24:9). Nations who treat Israel generously by blessing her will themselves be blessed.
Numbers consists of three major blocks of material describing the events and laws associated with three centers where Israel encamped for a significant time. These centers are Sinai (ch. 1–10), Kadesh (ch. 13–19), and the plains of Moab (ch. 22–36). They are linked by two short travelogues recording what occurred as Israel journeyed from one camp to the next.
I. Israel Prepares to Enter the Land (1:1–10:10)
II. Marching from Sinai to Kadesh (10:11–12:16)
III. Forty Years near Kadesh (13:1–19:22)
IV. Marching from Kadesh to the Plains of Moab (20:1–21:35)
V. Israel in the Plains of Moab (22:1–36:13)
Journeys in the Wilderness
The Global Message of Numbers
Numbers in Redemptive History
The modern title of the book of Numbers is probably one reason that the church often neglects this important part of Scripture. The title, together with a first reading of its early chapters, may mislead the reader into believing that the book is primarily a detailed census of the population of Israel. The original Hebrew title of the book, however, is “In the Wilderness,” and this accurately describes the essence of the book. The original purpose of Numbers was to warn the second generation of Israel not to lapse into the rebellion and unbelief of their first-generation parents, lest they also perish in judgment in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. Yet its deeper purpose was to encourage them that the Lord was with them, and that he intended to fulfill his promise to their father Abraham to give his descendants the land and through them to bless the nations.
Numbers thus has something to say to Christians all around the globe today, for this book advances the history of redemption for all peoples—the story of salvation that began in Eden, was given as a solemn promise in Genesis 12:1–3, and which we see finally accomplished in Revelation 21–22.
Conquest of the Promised Land
In Numbers, Moses seeks to encourage the second generation of Israelites to advance to the Promised Land by faith and begin the war to take possession of it. This will be a holy war. The Israelite camp houses a holy army, for the Lord dwells at the center of the camp and has ordered its military configuration and census. The camp itself is arranged in three concentric circles (or squares), from greater to lesser holiness. The holy tabernacle sits at the center. The Levites, encamped immediately around the tabernacle, provide a protective space between it and the rest of the camp. The twelve tribes surround them as the outermost ring. As Israel prepares to set off from Mount Sinai toward Canaan, the tabernacle becomes the royal traveling tent of a King on the march to retake what is rightfully his. The camp is a holy army preparing for war to take the Promised Land by conquest.
Tested in the Wilderness
Israel’s wilderness wandering can be seen as an “already–not yet” stage in redemptive history. Israel had already experienced God’s salvation in their exodus deliverance from Egypt, but they had not yet obtained the Promised Land. The wilderness becomes the place of testing. When Israel first entered the wilderness, the Lord gave them manna from heaven, not merely to provide for their needs but also that “I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not” (Exodus 16:4; compare 20:20). The wilderness was no easy stretch of land through which to journey. Hot and dry, it offered no shelter from the sweltering heat. Like much of the world today, the wilderness was barren, harsh, windswept, and inhospitable. Plants did not grow, and humans struggled to survive. God intended the wilderness to function as a test for his people, to reveal whether their faith was genuine or not. Those with genuine faith persevered with the Lord through the hardships and trials; those who did not trust the Lord fell away into apostasy and rebellion.
Universal Themes in Numbers
Abrahamic, messianic, and new creational themes are all seen in Balaam’s oracles (Numbers 23–24). Genesis 12:3 and Genesis 49:9 are echoed in Numbers 24:9. Israel is reaffirmed as the bearer of a messianic hope and the channel through which the Abrahamic promise will be realized and the nations of the world blessed. The messianic promise from Genesis 49:9 of an ultimate king of the nations from the line of Judah is picked up and expounded (Numbers 23:21, 24; 24:7, 9, 17–19). This king will bear Israel’s vocation upon his shoulders and will fulfill the Abrahamic promise. Through him the world will be blessed and the curses of Genesis 3 will be overcome (see “The Global Message of Genesis”; compare Psalm 72:17). He will rule over the world as the king of Israel, depicted in a vision as an Eden-paradise-kingdom (Numbers 24:3–7). All these hopes are finally fulfilled in Jesus.
The Global Message of Numbers for Today
Murmuring Rather Than Trusting
Grumbling plagues the global church today as it always has. Complaining when circumstances are difficult, when leaders appear ineffective, or when resources are scarce may seem like the normal and even right thing to do. The book of Numbers warns, however, that grumbling is taken by the Creator-King as treason. Whenever Israel murmured, God’s anger was roused and he broke out in judgment against them (Numbers 11:1–3, 33–34; 12:10–16; 14:20–23, 27–38; 16:20–35, 46–50; 20:12; 21:6–9). The Lord had set out to test Israel, but Israel tested him instead—ten times (Numbers 14:22). For their stubborn rebellion, the first generation’s bodies were strewn across the desert, and they never saw or entered the Promised Land.
The global church must recognize that grumbling, murmuring, and complaining all flow out of a lack of trust in the promises of its covenant Lord. By covenant, the Lord had become Israel’s God and had promised to provide for their needs and protect them. He had also sworn to bring them to the Promised Land, assuring them that it was “flowing with milk and honey”—far better than slavery in Egypt. The people, however, did not trust these promises. Their murmuring reflected the deeper issue of unbelieving hearts. Grumbling, complaining, and murmuring by the church is rebellion against Christ and reveals unbelief in the promises of God. Paul warns the church against such murmuring (Philippians 2:14–15).
Adversity in the Wilderness
In 1 Corinthians 10:1–13, Paul refers to several events in Israel’s journey through the wilderness. He sees the church as being “in the wilderness,” on its way to a Promised Land, having been freed from slavery in an exodus deliverance (see 1 Corinthians 5:7). God had tested his people Israel by the difficulties of the wilderness, in order to see if they would trust and obey him in the midst of adverse circumstances. Likewise, the span between the first and second comings of Christ can be seen as the church’s own wilderness journey. In his first coming, Christ delivered his people in the exodus deliverance of the cross; at his return, Christ will usher the church into the new creation, the true and final Promised Land. The wilderness march of Israel serves as a pattern of the church’s own wilderness march (1 Corinthians 10:11).
Our march through this wilderness is not easy, nor does God intend it to be. It is a time of difficulty and suffering. It is a time of testing, to distinguish between those who profess faith in Christ and persevere in obedience to him (thus revealing genuine faith) and those who profess faith yet fall away in apostasy (revealing lack of true saving faith). Through difficult circumstances, the church must trust Christ as we march homeward. Christ has promised to every believer who overcomes the wilderness of this world the privilege “to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). He has assured the church that he will bring her safely home to this Promised Land. This is indescribably better than any pleasures that the fallen world may offer (Hebrews 11:24–26).