The fifth word in the Hebrew text of the fourth book of the Pentateuch is bemidbār, which means ‘in the wilderness’. The English title ‘Numbers’ comes from a translation of the Greek word ‘Arithmoi’, used in the Septuagint, which refers to the two censuses in this book (chapters 1-4 and 26). The human author which God inspired to write the text of Numbers is Moses (Numbers 1:1; 33:2). Apparently Moses wrote Numbers near the end of his life, in about 1406 BC, east of the Jordan on the Plains of Moab (Constable 2016:1). By that time, Israel had been in the wilderness for nearly 40 years (compare Numbers 1:1 and Deuteronomy 1:3) and many Israelites who started the journey had perished because of disobedience to the LORD.
The Structure of Numbers
Whether you look at it geographically or chronologically, almost everyone agrees that a structural change occurs between Numbers 10:10 and 10:11, because this is when Israel departs from Mount Sinai. Condren (2013:450) proposes the following structure for the first section of Numbers, i.e., for Numbers 1:1-10:10:
A Non-Levite Tribes organized around the tabernacle 1:1-2:34
B Levites organized for tabernacle service 3:14-4:49
C Community legislation 5:1-6:27
A’ Non-Levite Tribes bring offerings to the tabernacle 7:1-89
B’ Levites inducted to tabernacle service 8:1-26
C’ Community legislation 9:1-10:10
How is the rest of Numbers structured? Olson (1997) is known for viewing the two censuses as major structural markers, dividing the book between the first, older generation that rebelled under Moses and who then died in the wilderness, and the second, younger generation that would go on to enter the Promised Land under Joshua. This leads to two major sections, namely Numbers chapters 1-25 and then Numbers 26-36. If this is correct, then one can outline Numbers as follows (cf. Merrill, Rooker & Grisanti 2011:235-236; Constable 2016:4):
Section 1: Older generation (chapters 1-25)
Preparations for entering the Promised Land 1:1-10:10
Various rebellions, judgement of an unbelieving generation 10:11-25
Section 2: Younger generation (chapters 26-36)
Preparations for entering the Promised Land 26-32
Various warnings and encouragements 33-36
The Purpose and Main Themes of Numbers
The structure above already alludes to the main themes of Numbers, namely faith and obedience. After striking Egypt with ten plagues, God brought the descendants of Jacob out of Egypt, made a path for them through the Red Sea and brought them to Mount Sinai. There God entered into a covenant with the nation Israel. In the book of Leviticus, God gave further instructions to Israel how to approach and worship God. What is required now, as the nation prepares to enter the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is faith and obedience.
Sadly, Numbers shows various rebellions despite the faithfulness of God. First there was a general rebellion (chapter 11), then Aaron and Miriam rebelled against Moses (chapter 12) and then came the rebellion at Kadesh-Barnea when only two spies (Joshua and Kaleb) brought a favourable report, trusting God to lead Israel into the Promised Land (chapters 13-14). More rebellions followed later, for example at Korah (16). The older generation sinned, leading to God’s verdict: they shall not enter the Promised Land, with all the Jews older than 20 years dying during the next (about) 38 years in the wilderness — except Joshua, Kaleb and their families.
But does Numbers end on such a low note? On the contrary, as Baxter (cited in Constable 2016:7-8) notes, behold not only the severity of God, but also His goodness (cf. Romans 11:22):
In Numbers we see the severity of God, in the old generation which fell in the wilderness and never entered Canaan. We see the goodness of God, in the new generation which was protected, preserved, and provided for, until Canaan was possessed. In the one case we see the awful inflexibility of the Divine justice. In the other case we see the unfailing faithfulness of God in His promise, His purpose, His people.
God has never rejected Israel and He never will. While nearly the whole generation that came out of Egypt perished in the wilderness, God started anew with the younger generation, protecting, preserving, and providing for them until they possessed the Promised Land.
Missler (2002:60) rightly says that every one of the events in Numbers has a lesson for us. What happened to both generations of Jews in the wilderness was written as an example, as a type, for us (cf. 1 Corinthians 10). We must heed these warnings, individually and collectively. What was the manna a type of (Numbers 11:6; cf. also John 6:32-35)? Why did God instruct Moses to place a brass serpent on a cross-shaped pole as an antidote for snake bites — something which leads to the most famous Bible verse (Numbers 21:1-35; cf. also John 3:14-16)? What can we learn from the wonderful example of faith that the daughters of Zelophehad exhibited (Numbers 27, 36; cf. also Ulrich 1998; Claassens 2013)? If we do not heed these lessons, we will not stand, but fall. For if Moses did not enter the Promised Land because he hit the rock instead of speaking to it as God instructed him — thereby breaking the typological lessons regarding Christ’s first and second comings — we should fear lest a heart of unbelief overtake us. But God is not only severe, He is also good. In fact, Numbers teaches us in so many ways that the God of Israel is gracious, long-suffering, faithful to fulfil his promises, loving, caring, holy and, in short, of perfect character.
Claassens, L.J.M., 2013, ‘Give us a portion among our father’s brothers’: The daughters of Zelophehad, land, and the quest for human dignity’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 37(3), 319-337.
Coakley, J., 2014, ‘Numbers’, in M. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (eds.), The Moody Bible Commentary, pp. 215-262, Moody Publishers, Chicago.
Condren, J. C., 2013, ‘Is the account of the organization of the camp devoid of organization?: A proposal for the literary structure of Numbers 1:1-10:10’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 37(4), 423-452.
Constable, T.L., 2016, Notes on Numbers.
Merrill, E.H., Rooker, M.F. & Grisanti, M.A., 2011, The World and the Word, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville.
Missler, C., 2002, Learn the Bible in 24 hours, Thomas Nelson, Nashville.
Olson, D.T., 1997, ‘Negotiating Boundaries: The Old and New Generations and the Theology of Numbers’, Interpretation 51(3), 229-240.
Ulrich, D.R., 1998, ‘The framing function of the narratives about Zelophehad’s daughters’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41(4), 529-538.
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