Keith R. Keyser, Gilbertsville, Pa., USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The Hebrew name of the book is bemidhbar, meaning ‘In the wilderness’. This phrase occurs repeatedly in the book, e.g., 1. 1, and accurately describes its setting.1 In the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint the book was known as ‘Arithmoi’;2 this, in turn, became ‘Numeri’ in the later translation known as the Latin Vulgate. Both of these terms refer to the prominent censuses of Numbers chapters 1 and 26.3 One writer notes that both of the names ‘reflect the importance of the census of the Israelite tribes in the book that is the basis for the allocation of territory; the phrase “according to the number of names” is found fifteen times in reference to the distribution of land.4
To contemporary readers, these lists of impossible sounding names might be devoid of interest, but they actually serve an important purpose: they clearly identify God’s people. As John Nelson Darby remarks: ‘The first thing to be noticed is, that God numbers His people exactly, and arranges them, once thus recognized, around His tabernacle: sweet thought, to be thus recognized and placed around God Himself’!5
The censuses also demonstrate the Lord’s faithfulness to His covenant. The first one is a list of those whom He delivered from Egypt, but who eventually fell under His judgement on account of their unbelief, Num. 14. 29; Heb. 3. 16-19. God promised to curse the unbelieving, Deut. 27. 26, and thus He performed His word. Yet the second census assures the reader that there is a generation that will inherit the blessing by His grace received through faith.6
2. The Purpose of the Book
Numbers is book four of a five-book series: the books of Moses. Although unbelieving academia has fiercely attacked Mosaic authorship since the early nineteenth century, the Son of God affirmed it.7 As the last verse indicates, the Lord Jesus directly referred back to Numbers, citing the story of the serpent on the pole. The apostles also believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Acts 3. 22; 26. 22.
These books explain the history of God’s central work in the world, which is the creation of a people for Himself who will be a light to the nations. The continuity between Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers is explained by J. B. D. Page this way: ‘Exodus describes the way out of Egypt, and the foundational truth of redemption. Leviticus tells of the way in to God, detailing the principles of worship. Numbers relates the way through the wilderness, with lessons for our conduct in this world. In Leviticus, the priests are prominent. In Numbers, the Levites, and later the people, are foremost’.8
Numbers continues the teaching at Sinai begun in Exodus chapter 16 and resumed in Leviticus.9 It follows Israel as they wander in the wilderness for nearly forty years,10 learning the folly of disobedience and the blessing of obeying the Lord’s word. Along the way, the Almighty’s faithfulness, mercy, grace, wisdom, and sovereignty is seen. The book also contrasts the blessings that Israel enjoys through Jehovah’s covenant fidelity, e.g., Num. 1-10, and their practical failure and recurrent rebellion against His authority, Num. 11-21.
The practical and theological function of the wilderness
While the desert11 was an austere setting, in God’s hand it became the training ground for Israel’s future blessing and inheritance. The Psalms often look back to this formative period in Israel’s history as a warning against the cost of disobedience and thanksgiving for divine provision, Ps. 106. 14-33. Both Stephen and Paul referred to the wilderness experience in their sermons, Acts 7. 37-44; 13. 18. Likewise, Hebrews chapters 3 and 4 use the sin of the first wilderness generation as a solemn warning against apostasy to mere professors. The background to 1 Corinthians chapter 10 verses 1-13 – another serious warning passage – also looks back to Israel’s spectacular sins in the wilderness era. Clearly, it left a mark on the consciousness of God’s people. Its truth is of trans-dispensational importance, that is, it was valuable for Old Testament Israel and for the New Testament church, 2 Tim. 3. 16-17; Rom. 15. 4.
Believers have derived much spiritual benefit from ‘wilderness experiences’ through the centuries; its frequency as a motif in Christian hymnody demonstrates this phenomenon. For example, Darby’s beautiful lyrics speak of the believer’s longing for a better home and show that his ‘life is hidden with Christ in God’, Col. 3. 1-4:
This world is a wilderness wide!
We have nothing to seek or to choose;
We’ve no thought in the waste
We have naught to regret, nor to lose.
The Lord is Himself gone before;
He has marked out the path that
It’s as sure as the love we adore,
We have nothing to fear, nor to dread.
Although the wilderness is not an end point in itself, it is an important pathway that leads towards the destination of enjoying God in His inheritance. It may be temporary, but it is also indispensable for sanctification. Christian character is moulded and formed under the Lord’s hand in the desert of this world.12 As C. H. Mackintosh declares: ‘It is emphatically a wilderness book, and characterized by journeyings, service, and all the vicissitudes of wilderness life. As such, it is deeply interesting, most instructive, and easily applied to the Christian in this present evil world (compare Numbers 1 and 36. 13 with Deuteronomy 1. 3)’.13
3. The Plan of the Book
Broadly, the book may be divided generationally. Chapters 1-25 concern the first generation that rebelled and failed to enter the Promised Land. Chapters 26-36 are occupied with matters concerning the second generation that would eventually enter the Land under the leadership of Joshua. Since the book of Numbers prepares Israel for their journey through the wilderness to the edge of Canaan, accordingly the first ten chapters are preparatory for the journey. These instructions reflect the orderly nature of God’s dealings with His people, 1 Cor. 14. 40.
The Lord begins by commanding Moses to conduct a census, chapters 1-4, including the preparation of the Levites for service. The censuses of this book are especially concerned with marking out the nation’s eligible warriors. Like many modern democracies, the army was composed of ‘citizen-soldiers’, rather than a professional warrior caste. The camping arrangement around God’s sanctuary, the tabernacle, is also laid out, and the camp is purged of defiling and defiled objects or people; this includes the trial of jealousy in chapter 5 verses 11-31. The other side of holiness is detailed in the Nazarite vow, 6. 1-21, which depicts total consecration for the Lord’s service. Chapters 7-9 deal with the worship and service of the tabernacle, and detail the sacrifices of the leaders, the arrangement of the lamps in that sanctuary, and the celebration of the Passover. Chapter 10 concludes this preparatory section with instructions concerning the silver trumpets and the movements of the camp as directed by the Lord. This section of the book emphasizes the resources and blessings that Israel enjoys through the goodness of their God.
Chapters 11-21 follow the repeated rebellions of the people and the ensuing discipline from the Lord. There are repeated challenges to His authority – usually focusing on His servant and representative, Moses – followed by divine judgement. Complaints come from sources as varied as the mixed multitude, Moses’ siblings Miriam and Aaron, the ten unbelieving spies, Korah and his allies, and even Moses himself. Interspersed within these sad accounts of human disloyalty are reminders of the Lord’s gracious and purifying work, chs. 15; 18-19. There are also divinely given victories over various enemies, ch. 21.
While they apparently relate a radically different topic, in actuality chapters 22-25 continue to demonstrate the Lord’s faithfulness towards His people, as He protects them from the spiritual machinations and assault of King Balak and his prophet-for-hire Balaam. Despite their best efforts to curse Israel, He turned their malediction into blessing. What is more, He used the false prophet to reveal the tremendous position of Israel in the Almighty’s sight, 23. 21. Sadly, chapter 25 shows that the attack came from a different, more alluring direction. The women of the Moabite-Midianite coalition invited the Israelite men to a feast, thereby beguiling them and enticing them into both spiritual and physical fornication.14
The second census, ch. 26, sweeps the old generation off the scene and turns the reader’s attention to the new generation that will inherit the Land. Preparations for entering the Land are made as teaching concerning inheritance laws, chs. 27 and 36; daily and seasonal sacrifices, chs. 28-29; laws regarding vows, ch. 30; victory over their enemies the Midianites, ch. 31; and instructions concerning the Transjordanian settlement of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, ch. 32; the establishment of Levitical cities and cities of refuge, ch. 35, are all set forth. Chapter 33 verses 1-49 looks back on where the Israelites have travelled during their wilderness wanderings, and verses 50-56 give teaching concerning the future conquest of Canaan. The boundaries of the land are delineated, 34. 1-15, and administrators are chosen to divide the inheritance, vv. 16-29. Perhaps most importantly, there is a change of leadership, as Moses inaugurates Joshua as his successor to lead God’s people into the land of their inheritance, 27. 18-22.
A simple breakdown of the book is:
- Preparation for travels, chs. 1-10.
- Journeying from the desert to the edge of the Promised Land, chs. 11-25.
- Preparation for entering the Promised Land, chs. 26-36.
Some writers divide the book based on geographical setting:
1. ‘The people of God prepare to enter the Promised Land (1. 1 – 10. 10)
2. From Sinai to Kadesh (10. 11 – 12. 16)
3. Forty years near Kadesh (13. 1 – 19. 22)
4. From Kadesh to the plains of Moab (20. 1 – 22. 1)
5. Israel in the plains of Moab (22. 2 – 36. 13)15
4. The Author and Date of the Book
Contrary to liberal and non-believing scholarly consensus, like the rest of the Pentateuch Numbers was written by Moses, circa 1405 B.C. Its material focuses on events between the second and fortieth years after the exodus.16
5. Important Themes in the Book
A) God as a God of order.
B) Unity of the people of God.
C) Spiritual warfare.
D) Holiness and its practical development.
E) God’s view of His people and their position of favour in His sight.
F) The danger of murmuring.
G) The human propensity to sin.
H) Grace after human failure.
I) God’s sovereignty in carrying out His will.
[Extracted from Laws for Life, Volume 2 in the Old Testament Overview series published by Precious Seed].
1 ‘That term [bemidhbar] occurs over 40 times throughout the book, and in several places its occurrence is so dense (chapters 14 [8 times], 20 [7 times], and 33 [7 times]) that one cannot help but recognize that it constantly directs the reader’s attention to the importance of the wilderness to the context of the narratives in the book’. Gregg Watson, ‘Numbers, Book of’, ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Lexham Press, 2012.
2 Tertullian, a second-century Latin-speaking Christian, referred to it as ‘the book of Arithmi’, indicating that the book was called ‘Numbers’ as early as the first century A.D. [R. Dennis Cole, Numbers, The New American Commentary, Vol. 3B., Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000, pg. 23].
3 T. Whitelaw, ‘Numbers, Book of,’ ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, The Howard-Severance Co., 1915, pg. 2163.
4 Barry L. Bandstra, ‘Numbers, Book of’, ed. Mark Allan Powell, The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated), HarperCollins, 2011, pg. 707.
5 J. N. Darby, Synopsis of the Books of the Bible: Genesis to 2 Chronicles, Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2008, pg. 247.
6 Robert D. Spender, ‘Numbers, Theology of’, in Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library; Logos Library System (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), electronic edition, no pagination.
7 Matt. 8. 4; 19. 8; Luke 24. 27, 44; John 3. 14.
8 J. B. D. Page, ‘Introducing Numbers’, in Day by Day through the Old Testament, ed. C. E. Hocking and M. Horlock, Day by Day Series, Precious Seed, 1982, pg. 80 [italics original].
9 John D. Currid points out the Hebrew verbal clue to Numbers’ continuance of the Sinai teaching of the previous two books. See: A Study Commentary on Numbers, EP Study Commentary, Evangelical Press, 2009, pg. 26 [boldface original].
10 38 years and 10 months, M. G. Easton, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper and Brothers, 1893, no pagination available.
11 On the definition of ‘wilderness/desert’: ‘The Hebrew word for wilderness (midbar) means a place for driving flocks. It is not a completely arid desert, but contains a little vegetation and a few trees. The rainfall in such areas is too light, a few inches per year, to support cultivation’. Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 4, InterVarsity Press, 1981, pg. 65.
12 Epistles such as 1 Peter and James have the imprint of the wilderness very strongly upon them. They are written to a pilgrim people journeying through the wilderness ‘to an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away’, 1 Pet. 1. 4.
13 Mackintosh, pg. 419.
14 Num. 31. 15; Ps. 106. 28; Rev. 2. 14.
15 Wenham, pp. 61-62.
16 Many conservative commentators hold to this date, seeing the Exodus around 1445 B.C. See MacArthur Jr., ed., The MacArthur Study Bible, pg. 195 and William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad, Thomas Nelson, 1995, pg. 169.
AUTHOR PROFILE: KEITH KEYSER is a commended full-time worker, married with a young family, and is in fellowship in the assembly meeting at Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania. He ministers throughout North America and spent some time in Spain. He also regularly writes material for assembly magazines.