What Is the Book of Numbers About?

Time: 5 Minutes

Hey Friend!

Our editorial team wrote this book introduction for you. We hope it helps you find your bearings in the Bible story, and inspires you to open this book of the Bible!

In a letter to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul says that the events in the book of Numbers “took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). We know he’s referring to Numbers because he mentions specific events—wilderness (10:5), serpents (10:9), and grumbling (10:10). He warns these New Testament Christians, telling them to remember Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, and not to repeat their sins. So what happened in the desert?

The book of Numbers covers 38 years of Israel’s history, including their move from Mt. Sinai to the plains of Moab, right outside the Promise Land.

If you’ll remember, at this point God had brought the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt. He had gathered them at Mount Sinai and entered a formal covenant with them. He initiated a loving relationship with them, where they would be his people and he would be their God. God had instructed the Israelites to build the tabernacle—a portable structure God filled with his presence to fulfill his promise to be with his people. After that, God had given the Israelites certain commandments (his law) to obey so that they, though sinners, they could dwell with their holy God.

With this history in mind, we come to the book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). Numbers begins with the Israelites preparing to move from Mount Sinai towards the Promised Land. After camping at Mount Sinai for about a year, God instructs the Israelites to follow him (Numbers 10:1-10), promising to be with his people as protector and guide. The same cloud that guided God’s people out of Egypt to Sinai (Exodus 13:21-22) is now guiding people from Sinai to the Promised Land (Numbers 10:11-12).

In this respect, we might expect Numbers to glow with excitement and hope, a sense of gratitude to God and excitement for his provision. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what we see. Instead, we hear this: “And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, and when the LORD heard it, his anger was kindled” (Numbers 11:1 ESV).

At the very outset of their journey, the Israelites complain against God. They complain against the One who delivered them from slavery in Egypt, sent plagues against Egypt, parted the Red Sea, crushed the Egyptian army, provided food from heaven and water from rocks. God did all of this for them, and the Israelites still chose to grumble against God.

And don’t you and I do just the same?

Numbers is like a mirror, helping us see our tendency to wander from God and doubt him.

Unfortunately, the whole middle section of Numbers shows how the Israelites continue to test God, rebel against Moses (their God-given leader), question God, and even refuse to enter the Promise Land! “The whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we have died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!” (Numbers 14:2 ESV).

Eventually, God punishes this first generation’s faithlessness with death: “I, the Lord, have spoken. Surely this will I do to all this wicked congregation who are gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die” (Numbers 14:35 ESV). The continued unfaithfulness of the Israelites incurred the wrath of God. In fact, God did not even allow Moses to enter the Promise Land.

Do you see why Paul warns us against being like the Israelites in Numbers (1 Corinthians 10:6-13)? We quickly fall into sin when we forget all that God has done for us.

When we witness the Israelites breaking their covenant with God, and choosing sin instead, it causing us to wonder: How will the promised blessing for the nations (Genesis 12:1-3) come through Israel, if they cannot seem to be faithful to God?

In one of the strangest sections in the Old Testament, we see God reiterate his plans for Israel—through a pagan, prophet-for-hire, named Balaam (Numbers 22-24). Balaam prophesies that God still intends to prosper his people and bring them into the Promise Land. God waited for the first generation of Israelites to die, so he could bring the next generation into the land.

As the Lord prepares this second generation to enter the Promise Land, we are still left with a question: Will they be like the first generation?

Numbers is like a mirror, helping us see our tendency to wander from God and doubt him. But it’s also a wonderful reminder that our failure does not keep God from keeping his promises. Open Numbers to discover the faithful character of God.