Book of Numbers
The journey in the wilderness
By Moses, shepherd of God’s people
At first glance, it is understandable why the Book of Numbers is not the most popular book in the Old Testament; it contains long lists of numbers, and it tells of the wilderness life, a long wandering through the desert.
But if you read carefully, you realize that Numbers chronicles something amazing, the wilderness journey filled with promise, conflict, victory, adventure, and disappointment.
Some of the most dramatic and memorable moments in Scripture are found in these chapters—
- the spies sent out to reconnoiter the promised land of Canaan
- the rebellion of Korah and its deadly aftermath
- the bitter defeats and sweet victories of Israel’s forces
- the constant complaining despite God’s provision for His people
- the fiery serpents sent to punish the complainers
- the oracles and cryptic predictions spoken by the prophet Balaam
- and finally, Moses’ fateful decision to disobey God
All these add up to tell a remarkable story of how God is moving step-by-step to fulfill His promises to His people.
A Punished, Wandering In The Wilderness Generation
The story begins with Israel encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai.
God has some final instructions for the people before they break camp and begin their long march. As before, despite divine guidance during the journey, the people constantly complain against God and His leaders.
Their rebellion reaches its climax at Kadesh—a large oasis on the southern edge of the land of Canaan—when the people reject God’s gift and threaten to return to Egypt. Had it not been for Moses’ pleading, God would have destroyed them right then. Instead, He punished that generation by making them wander “in the wilderness” (which is the Hebrew title for this book) for 40 years and denying them the privilege of living in the land of promise.
Now God’s promises may have been delayed, but they were not frustrated.
Another generation is born in the desert. And so, when the story ends, that new generation is standing on the eastern edge of Canaan ready to possess the land and realize another component of God’s covenant with them.
Paul, the emissary of Jesus, had the Book of Numbers in mind when he wrote 1 Corinthians. He appealed to these defining moments and said they were written down as an example to teach us, so that we will not make the same mistakes our spiritual ancestors did when they hungered after evil, worshiped false gods, and tested the limits of God’s patience (1 Corinthians 10:1–11).
Numbers reminded him—as it should us—that God’s covenant promises are His gifts to His people. Still they demand something of us. They bring out the best in us when we hear and follow God’s teaching. Ultimately, the horizon of God’s promises lies beyond Abraham and Israel; His purpose in Numbers involves nothing less than the redemption of the entire world.
The people of the Lord have been out of Egypt for more than a year; and God has provided direction, instruction, and correction from inside columns of smoke, from on top of mountains, from anywhere His people were located. But now they have the special congregation tent — a complex, multilayered tent within an enclosed court, which they can take along on their wilderness journeys and set up anywhere.
This is a holy place for the people of the Lord. It is the place for them to offer sacrifices; and inside this special tent, behind a heavy curtain, is the holiest place of all, where their spiritual leaders receive revelation from God. There are two Hebrew words used for this special place.
- One is literally “tent” while the other is “dwelling.” The word “tent” usually refers to the entire congregation tent, where any Israelite may come to the outer court and sacrifice.
- The word “dwelling” is used for that extra holy place or sanctuary behind the curtain, the residence of God or the place of His revelation where only certain priests were allowed.
Now the people are ready to begin the preparation to move into the land promised to them by the Lord. First, He sets about organizing this enormous band of escaped slaves for the happiness journey.
Three times God calls the Israelites to count their people. In Exodus 30, they count the population to develop an orderly funding program for the construction of the congregation tent.
Here God tells them to count the men eligible for fighting in their militia; and in chapter 26, after a plague has ravaged the people, they will once again determine the size and makeup of their fighting force.
It is interesting to note the change in the number of warriors within each of the extended families. Some tribes experience a tremendous loss in the number of fighters, and other tribes have a considerable increase:
The Levites as a whole are given into religious service sacrificing the animals and serving in the congregation tent rather than taking all the firstborn males, as was done with the livestock. To have drawn the servants of the Lord from the entire nation would have resulted in great disruption of each of the families and tribes.
A census can be ominous or encouraging. Sometimes everyone on the list has to die before a new generation can take the land ( chapter 1 ), but sometimes, like in this chapter, it is an occasion to highlight God’s people, the Levites.
Now that the arrangement of the camp, the ordering of the families, and the organization of their defenses is complete, God begins sanctifying the people. Because this camp is a holy place — a place where God has chosen to dwell among His people — purity is an obvious concern.
But beyond the religious regulations, concern for cleanliness and rules for social interaction are essential because of the vast number of people traveling together. There are more than 600,000 males over the society’s average age of 20 years, and logically these men make up one-quarter of society.
The laws given to the people are not simply religious instruction, but are necessary for the good morale and accompanying social concerns of such a large population, concerns such as transmission of diseases, mistreatment of individuals, and suppression of crime.
This judgment ritual is a mixture of dust or ash and water to bring objectivity to the accusation of adultery on a wife. The result is either clearing her name or confirming the claim against her. The administration is reserved for the priest, and the results are final.
Logistical concerns are paramount with this new reality of a traveling nation. With their large numbers and their countless livestock, moving this caravan is a logistical nightmare during the Israel wilderness journey.
Just moving the congregation tent is a challenge, involving a number of families and special carts to carry the tons of layers of the tent and the many utensils for worship.
The most holy items are carried manually, but without physical contact. Thus God provides a system of carrying poles fed through loops so the holy item is not touched. The actual arrangement of the caravan is also specified, as well as the arrangement of the tribes in relation to the congregation tent.
Just like in Leviticus 4:23, the language of 8:24 suggests that the priestly duty is associated not only with divine service but with divine war. Certain Levites of certain ages would maintain sacred space and behavior as Israel prepared to conquer the land.
In the first two months of the second year, the nation is organized for religious service, for war, for civil order, and for travel. On the first day of the first month, construction of the congregation tent is completed and dedication of the altar and the priests begins.
On the eighth day, the dedication and ordination of the priests is completed. On the twelfth day, the dedication of the altar is completed, the Levites are appointed, and normal services begin. On the fourteenth day, the Passover is celebrated.
In the second month, the census of the men over 20 years of age is started. On the fourteenth day, a second Passover is celebrated for those who were impure from the first celebration. Finally, on the twentieth day, all the Israelites begin their travels to Canaan.
The people of God are being instructed by Moses, but they are being led by God Himself. They can see the cloud of God before them and hear the blowing of trumpets telling them to move, but at the very front of their column is the chest of the covenant. God’s presence and His promises go before them as they wander through this wilderness.
One of the great truths of Scripture is that God may send His people out, but they are never alone and He is ever before them. In the same way the Hebrews have led their sheep rather than driving them, God leads His people rather than forcing them to go first into the unknown or into battle.
Moses is described as uniquely close to the Lord. He is singled out as God’s servant, a distinction reserved for a few in the Old Testament, with David being the most notable. His importance is underscored by God’s unique communication with Moses. It is direct, plain, and without trances, visions, or dreams.
Literally, the communication is right in God’s face. The idea here is that it is not veiled but intimate; there is a closeness between God and Moses no other person shares.
But in the same way that Jesus will be understood only by those who know Him and are known by Him, God’s communication to Moses is different. It is not a riddle that is hard to understand or easy to confuse. God is seen and heard clearly by His servant and friend, Moses.
There is dissension in the camp. Some of the leaders have been sharing their doubts with the people, and folks are nervous. The thrill of this wilderness camping experience has worn off, and some are thinking that working for the Egyptians wasn’t so bad.
So barely two years out of Egypt, the Israelites are standing at the door of their promised land. Moses needs to motivate the people, and he selects 12 key men from each of the tribes to explore the land of abundance God has provided. The nation stands to enter into a time of great reward, but first their leaders must bring back a report that will inspire their confidence.
What a sad time it is for the Israelites! Joshua and Caleb have pleaded for courage among the people, and Moses and Aaron must now plead for patience on the part of the Lord. The Israelites stand on the edge of God’s promise, and they can’t find the courage to believe and to move forward by faith into the promise. Because of their reluctance to believe, they must wander through this wilderness with only God to supply their basic needs until He has purged the nation of those who lack faith.
The next 38 years will cleanse the nation and develop the character each person needs to claim the promises of God. This same two-step process is repeated throughout the Bible: refine and cleanse while building the necessary faith. Unfortunately, the fire necessary for refinement is normally painful.
A constant theme as God instructs His people is to remember or to have a memorial: the family of Abraham builds monuments of stacked stones almost everywhere they go, and these people will do the same as they enter the land. Each child is given a name with clear meaning about either the character of the child or about the faithfulness of God.
Each town is given a name that recalls something of significance, maybe the founder or a great war. Likewise, the foods they eat in their feasts have meaning or help them recall a shared memory.
The offerings of the Israelites and the later sacraments of the church all serve as memorials or remembrances. Here God instructs the people to alter their garments as a reminder of His commands and their own responsibilities to obey. Since the punishment for unbelief or disobedience is severe, God in His grace builds reminders into everyday life so the people do not have to struggle to remember these critical rules or truths.
Suddenly the brilliance of God’s glory overtakes the place. The people are used to the glory of God being reserved for Moses. But now all could experience it. This rare occurrence is again related to open rebellion against Moses. God makes it clear: His conduit to the people is Moses. They must have thought back on the experience at Hazeroth, when Miriam and Aaron chastised Moses for marrying a Cushite, and God also appeared ( chapter12 ).
The rod or staff is a symbol of guidance, protection, and power. At this time, the people are confused and afraid because the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram — followed by their sudden and absolute judgment — has caused the Israelites to think hard about their situation.
Remember they said in response to God’s judgment, “What if the earth swallows us up too?” They are truly in awe of God. Immediately after this upheaval, God establishes the leadership of Aaron and his successors using the staff of Aaron. Only his staff and not those of the other leaders is affected.
His staff not only buds but it bears fruit — almonds. Like the symbols of the testimony and the manna, the staff is a memorial for the people. With the staff, they are reminded that the Lord provides and protects.
Since the Levitical tribe inherits God Himself rather than a territory of land that they can farm and have for livestock, they are given a portion of the meat, grain, and drink offerings offered up by the people.
Will these people never learn? But why should they be any different than the rest of us? We all tend to forget God’s provision, and we focus on the challenge before us. God has been leading them through a region full of challenges.
You would think that after 40 years of daily provision from God in the wilderness these people would quit fearing the worst, especially since they have already gone through this very same experience once before — when they came out of Egypt in Exodus17.
Unfortunately, Moses doesn’t follow God’s instruction just as it is delivered to him, so he, too, is unfaithful. Instead of “provision” or “water-of-plenty,” the place is known as Meribah (“rebellion”). They are to remember their lack of faith and their active rebellion against God their savior every time they mention this place.
Kadesh (“holy”) is the place where God was not treated in a holy manner by the Israelites, including Moses and Aaron. And neither do Israel’s ancient relatives from Esau, the Edomites, who shared a common ancestor with Israel — Isaac.
The Amorite King Sihon receives the same envoy as the Edomite king, and his response is the same: “You can’t pass through here.” Many of the other nations in this chronicle are aware of the divine provision of the Israelites because it is obvious that the survival of this enormous group in such an inhospitable environment is the work of God.
With this understanding, the Amorite king nevertheless chooses to pick a fight with them. Not only did he say “no” to the Israelites crossing their territory, but he attacked. There is a very important principle here: don’t be on the opposite side of God in a fight.
Now we overhear this very unusual dialogue between the Moabite leader Balak and the respected prophet Balaam. While Balaam is not an Israelite, he has a healthy respect for the God of the Israelites. No matter how Balak tempts Balaam to curse the people of the Lord, God continues speaking to Balaam and frustrating Balak’s plans.
Eventually it comes down to a not-so-dumb donkey instructing the great prophet. Both Balaam and Balak learn that God is not one to be toyed with. He can frustrate the plans of even the greatest kings and prophets.
Interestingly, a discovery was made in Jordan of an inscription containing prophecies of Balaam. He specialized in animal divination, slaughtering animals for his prophetic purposes. So Balaam was used to hearing God “speak” through animals, if not always so directly.
It is difficult in our age of diversity, tolerance, and equality to accept the prohibition of intermarriage between the Israelites and the peoples of the land and the command to eliminate the natives as the Israelites later occupy the land.
Now this is not a command about ethnicity or purity of race; it is about shared purpose and complete devotion. The people cannot tolerate devotion to other deities and still serve the Lord. It is for their protection and well-being that God aggressively punishes those who pollute the faith.
Attention now shifts to their future in the land. Just as God has used Moses and Aaron to lead the congregation up until now, a new leader must be trained and in place for Israel to move forward. Remember that Moses and Aaron must be replaced because they are part of that unfaithful generation God won’t allow into the land; they, too, acted against Him and are being punished in spite of their consistent favor with God.
The preparation to enter the land needed only a couple of years for God to provide the law, the plans for the congregation tent, and an orderly structuring of the tribes. But the time in the wilderness has stretched on for another 38 years because it took a generation for God to purge the lack of belief on the part of the people.
The situation concerning vows with men is clear and straightforward: keep your word. With women, it’s more complicated. The promises made by women have certain restrictions that don’t apply to men’s vows: whatever a woman promises to God or others is subject to review by her father, if she still lives at home, or by her husband, if she’s married. Those men have the power to nullify her promises.
The Israelites took Midianite women as wives and consequently started worshiping their gods. Some 24,000 Israelites died in that judgment. Moses is now told to pick up where the priest Phinehas left off and kill the Midianites.
This is a surprising note about Balaam. He honored the Lord and would only speak blessing over Israel ( 22–24 ). Here and later ( Joshua 13:22; 24:9–10 ), Balaam is cast as an enemy of God’s people (also 2 Peter 2:15; Revelation 2:14 ).
Because of the details concerning priestly matters of ritual process and purity, Eleazar the priest explains how the Lord commanded they should proceed. They have been in contact with corpses, blood, and pagan objects, and it is essential that they cleanse themselves properly as members of this holy congregation.
Although slightly misunderstood by Moses, Reuben and Gad still express loyalty to the Lord and to their Israelite kin, but they like the prospects of settling in the fertile land that they will also share with the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites.
In this next chapter, Moses outlines the Israelites’ journey to this point, and in doing so reminds them of the events that have brought them to this place. In that walk down memory lane, it can be difficult to place the locations within a linear reference of time.
The entire book moves through a few months in the first 14 chapters, and suddenly it is 38 years later. After that, time seems to stand still as the people are prepared to go into the promised land. It is hard to determine when things happened in those 38 years.
One battle between the Amorites (a people of Canaan) and the Israelites seems to be mentioned in four different passages ( 14:45; 21:1; 33:40; Deuteronomy 1:44 ). In this chapter, Moses is looking back at what has brought them to this place, ready to enter the land.
He rehearses the death of Aaron ( 20:27–29) and the battle that followed. Initially, the Amorites overcome the Israelites at Hormah ( 14:45; 33:40; Deuteronomy 1:44) and take prisoners ( 21:1 ).
Then with the Lord’s help, the Israelites rebound to defeat the king of Arad and rescue the people who have been captured ( 21:2–4 ). For some reason, this battle is mentioned in different contexts three times and with two different outcomes.
Aaron is now dead, and Moses is given the final instructions about the division of the land. Even knowing he will not enter the land, Moses doesn’t whine or step back from leadership.
He continues following God until the nation is about to cross through the waters of the Jordan and begin their new adventure, realizing God’s destiny for themselves, because he is the faithful servant of God even when he knows there will be no reward.
These regulations and ordinances detailed in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are not just to help the Israelites live better together; they also affect the condition of the nation.
Even more importantly, they reflect on the Lord. What the people do or fail to do affects the reputation of God, and that has more far-reaching implications than the people can imagine. God uses the people of His kingdom to demonstrate to the surrounding nations what it means to live in obedience and according to the will of God.
It also impacts the purity of the worship made to the Lord and the environment of His holy tent and later the temple. His program in general that is being accomplished through the nation is colored by the moral behavior of the people.