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Introduction to the Book of Numbers

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

How to interpret OT Narratives How to interpret OT law
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Title of the book

The book is called Numbers because of the two numberings of Israel. The population of adult males of the first generation is counted at Sinai (ch 1), and the second generation is counted in the Plains of Moab (ch 26). In the Hebrew Scriptures the book is called 'In the wilderness' from the fifth word in the Hebrew text (1:1).


As with the rest of the Pentateuch, no author is named, except that Moses wrote down the list of stopping places (33:2). The same debate rages over Mosaic authorship as with the other books in the Pentateuch. Conservative scholars normally ascribe the book to Moses, but allowing for small changes and additions by Ezra, so it would come into its final form sometime after the return from exile. For example, it is unlikely that Moses wrote this description about himself, "Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth" (12:3). It would be more likely that this was a comment added later, perhaps by Ezra.

Purpose of book

The book describes the period of nearly forty years that the children of Israel spent in the wilderness as they travelled from Mt. Sinai to the Plains of Moab, at the eastern border of the promised land.

The most important theme is the rebellion of the people by their refusal to enter the land. As a result, an entire generation died in the wilderness. Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who brought a positive report, were the only adults, out of the over 600,000 who left Egypt, who lived to enter the land. The second generation finally entered thirty-eight years later, when they could have only taken a few months at the most.

The book contrasts the faithfulness and holiness of God with his rebellious and idolatrous people. God's judgement and mercy is shown on those who rebel or disobey or complain.

There are several historical events described in the book, including: the clashes with Edom, the clashes with the Canaanite King of Arad, the defeat of King Sihon of the Amorites, of King Og of Bashan, and of the Midianites and the settlement of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh in Gilead, the Trans-Jordan.

Geography from Exodus to Deuteronomy

It is helpful to note the overall geographical progression between the Exodus from Egypt to the entry into the Promised Land, which stretches over five books of the OT.

Israelites in Egypt Ex 1 - 12:36
Journey from Egypt to Sinai 3 months Ex 12:37 - ch 18
At Sinai one year Ex 19 - 49, Leviticus, Num 1 - 10:10
Journey from Sinai to Kadesh Barnea 3 months Num 10:11 - ch 12
At Kadesh Barnea 38 years Num 13-19
Journey from Kadesh to Plains of Moab 3 months Num 20-21
At Plains of Moab Num 22 - 36, Deuternomy, Josh 1-2

Structure of the Book of Numbers

There are a number of ways of seeing the structure in the book. One way is to focus on the geography as above. Another is to focus on the two generations: the first generation dies in the wilderness (ch 1-19), and the second grows up to enter the land (ch 20-26).

There is a continual interchange between the priestly laws, and narratives which describe the taking of the census, journeys or stories of rebellion.

ch 1-4 First census at Sinai
ch 5-10 Laws of purity in the camp
ch 10-12 First journey: Sinai - Kadesh
ch 13-17 Rebellions
ch 18-19 Laws for priests
ch 20-21 Second journey: Kadesh - Moab
ch 22-25 Balaam and Baal of Peor
ch 26 Second census at Moab
ch 27-30 Laws on vows and offerings
ch 31-32 Occupation of land east of Jordan
ch 33 Summary of journeys
ch 34-36 Laws on land allocation

Numbers is written partly chronologically and partly topically. For example, the first census (1:1) is a month after the offerings (ch 7). The census took place in the second month, but the offerings were brought in the first month, even though the account of the census comes first in the book.

The complaints and rebellions in Numbers

The theme of the time in the wilderness is the continuing complaining by the Israelites, and the desire to return to Egypt. These are described in a characteristic pattern: It begins with rebellion or complaining, when they express a desire to return to Egypt. In response, Moses falls on his face and intercedes to God, who sends judgement through plague. The people cry out to God, who relents and blesses his people. The place is then given a meaningful name to remember the rebellion.

After the rebellion, God declared that the Israelites have "tested me ten times" (Num 14:22). It is possible to list these ten acts of complaining or rebellion, from the Exodus from Egypt to the arrival at Kadesh Barnea.

Between Egypt and Sinai there were six acts of rebellion. The first when they complained about leaving Egypt because Pharaoh’s army was coming after them at the Red Sea (Ex 14:10-12). The second was at Marah, when the bitter water was made sweet (Ex15:22-24). The third was when they complained at being hungry, and God provided manna (Ex 16:1-3). The fourth was their disobedience by keeping manna overnight (Ex 16:19-20), and the fifth was their disobedience by collecting manna on the Sabbath (Ex 16:27-30). The sixth was when they complained of thirst, and God provided water out of the rock (Ex 17:1-4), when the place was renamed Massah (test) and Meribah (quarrel)

At Sinai was the act of rebellion when they made the golden calf (Ex 32:1-5). Between Sinai and Kadesh were two complaints: a general complaint (Num 11:1-3), when God sent fire, and named the place Taberah (burning), and a complaint about wanting meat (11:4-34), when God gave them quails and named the place Kibroth-hattaavah (graves of craving). The tenth testing was at Kadesh, when they rebelled against God by refusing to enter the land (14:3).

This was not the last testing, as they continued to rebel and complain while they were at Kadesh. Korah rebelled against Moses (Num 16:1-14), and the people complained against Moses for God’s judgement on Korah (16:41-50). They again complained about their thirst (20:1-3), before Moses was excluded from the land, and the place named Meribah (quarrel). There were two further testings of God on the journey from Kadesh to Moab. A general complaint caused God to send serpents (21:4-9), and they rebelled by yoking themselves with the Baal of Peor (25:1-5).

Changes in population between the two census

Reuben 46,500 reducing to 43,730
Simeon 59,200 greatly reducing to 22,200, perhaps following the incident of the Baal of Peor
Gad 45,650 reducing to 40,500
Judah 74,600 increasing to 76,500
Issachar 54,400 increasing to 64,500
Zebulun 57,400 increasing to 60,500
Ephraim 40,500 decreasing to 32,500
Manasseh 32,200 greatly increasing to 52,700
Benjamin 35,400 increasing to 45,600
Dan 62,700 increasing to 64,400
Asher 41,500 increasing to 53,400
Naphtali 53,400 increasing to 45,400

The total slightly reduced from 603,550 to 601,730

The role of Joshua

Joshua gradually becomes more prominent during the years described in the book of Numbers, eventually being chosen to replace Moses as the leader of the people of Israel.

The first time he is mentioned is when he objects to two of the elders, Eldad and Medad, prophesying, thinking that only Moses should prophesy (11:28). Moses rebuked him, desiring that all the Lord's people were prophets and the Spirit should rest on all. He is chosen to be the representative of his tribe, Ephraim, as one of the spies entering the promised land (13:8). He and Caleb bring a positive report of the land and urge the people to ignore the negative comments of the other spies and to enter and conquer the land which the land has promised them (14:6-9). As a result only Joshua and Caleb, who had faith, will live to enter the land (14:30), all the other ten spies die (14:38). They are the only two people left from the first generation (26:65).

Joshua was chosen by God to succeed Moses. He is commissioned before the Lord in the tabernacle before all the people (27:12-23), and again, only Joshua and Caleb, who have wholly followed the Lord, will enter the land (32:12). Moses tells Joshua the command concerning the settlement of Reuben and Gad east of the Jordan (32:28), and he and Eleazar the priest are chosen by the Lord to divide the land between the tribes (34:17).

The Regular Offerings (Num 28-29)

Occasion Ref Burnt offerings Sin offerings
Bulls Ram Lambs Goats
Every day (morning and evening) 28:3-8 2
Sabbath 28:9-10 2
New moon 28:11-15 2 1 7 1
Passover 2 1 7 1
Unleavened bread (7 days) 28:16-25 2 1 7 1
Pentecost 28:26-31 2 1 7 1
Trumpets 29:1-6 1 1 7 1
Day of Atonement (plus sacrifices Lev 16) 29:7-11 1 1 7 1
Tabernacles: 1st day 29:12-16 13 2 14 1
Tabernacles: 2nd day 29:17-19 12 2 14 1
Tabernacles: 3rd day 29:20-22 11 2 14 1
Tabernacles: 4th day 29:23-25 10 2 14 1
Tabernacles: 5th day 29:26-28 9 2 14 1
Tabernacles: 6th day 29:29-31 8 2 14 1
Tabernacles: 7th day 29:32-34 7 2 14 1
Tabernacles: 8th day 29:35-38 1 1 7 1

Total sacrifices per year (52 weeks)

Bulls Rams Lambs Goats
Daily (6 days a week) 624
Sabbath (x52) 104
New Moon (x12) 24 12 84 12
Passover and unleavened bread (x8 days) 16 8 56 8
Pentecost, Trumpets and Day of Atonement 4 3 21 3
Tabernacles 71 15 105 8
Day of Atonement (Lev 16) 1 2 1
Total 115 39 996 32

All with their grain offerings and drink offerings. Plus all the individual sin offerings, guilt offerings, freewill offerings, thank offerings and votive offerings.

42 stages of the Exodus journey (Num 33)

Location Stage (Num 33) Reference in Ex or Num Comments
1 Rameses 33:3
2 Succoth 33:5 Ex 12:37
3 Etham 33:6
4 Pi-hahiroth / Migdol 33:7 Ex 14:9 Cross Red Sea
5 Marah 33:8 Ex 15:23 Bitter water
6 Elim 33:9 Ex 15:27
7 By Red Sea 33:10
8 Wilderness of Sin 33:11 Ex 16:1
9 Dophkah 33:12 Ex 17:1 By stages
10 Alush 33:13
11 Rephidim 33:14 Ex 17:1
12 Wilderness of Sinai 33:15 Ex 19:11 Departed Num 10:11
13 Kibroth-hattaavah 33:16 Num 11:4-35
14 Hazeroth 33:17 Num 12
15 Rithmah 33:18 Num 20:1 Kadesh
16 Rimmon-perez 33:19
17 Libnah 33:20
18 Rissah 33:21
19 ?Kehelathah 33:22
20 Mt Sepher 33:23
21 Haradah 33:24
22 Makheloth 33:25
23 Tahath 33:26
24 Terah 33:27
25 Mithkah 33:28
26 Hashmonah 33:29
27 Moseroth 33:30 Num 20:22, Deut 10:6-7
28 Bene-jaakan 33:31
29 Horhaggidgad 33:32
30 Jothbathah 33:33
31 Abronah 33:34
32 Ezion-geber 33:35
33 Wilderness of Zin / Kadesh 33:36 Num 13:21, 20:1
34 Mt Hor 33:37 Num 20:22 Death of Aaron
35 Zalmonah 33:38 Num 21:1-4
36 Punon 33:42
37 Oboth 33:43 Num 21:10
38 Iye-abarim / Iyim 33:44 Num 21:11
39 Dibon-gad 33:45 Num 21:30
40 Almon-diblathaim 33:46
41 Mountains of Abraim 33:47 Num 27:12
42 Plains of Moab 33:48 Num 22:1

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