Sunday, June 21, 2009

Introduction to & Overview of the Book of Numbers

   The Hebrew name of this fourth book of the Torah is bemidbar (in the wilderness). We won't go into as much detail as we did in Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus.

   Numbers starts where Exodus left off. The last chapter of Exodus (40:17) tells us that "So the Tabernacle was set up on the first day of the first month of the second year." Numbers 1:1 tells us "A year after Israel’s departure from Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the Tabernacle in the wilderness of Sinai. On the first day of the second month of that year he said". So, there is a just a 1 month break between the setting up of the tabernacle at the end of Exodus and the command to number the people at the start of Numbers. The Book of Numbers essentially bridges the gap between the Israelites receiving the Law (Exodus and Leviticus) and preparing them to enter the Promised Land (Deuteronomy and Joshua).

   Numbers is frequently quoted in the New Testament especially in 1 Corinthians 10:1-12: I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. All of them ate the same spiritual food, and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did. As the Scriptures say, “The people celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry.” And we must not engage in sexual immorality as some of them did, causing 23,000 of them to die in one day. Nor should we put Christ to the test, as some of them did and then died from snakebites. And don’t grumble as some of them did, and then were destroyed by the angel of death. These things happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age. If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall.

   Chapters 1 to 14 deal with the generation that came up from egypt but perished in the wilderness.

   Chapters 21 to 36 deal with the new generation that grew in the wilderness that was going to cross the Jordan river into the Promised land.

CHRONOLOGICAL SETTING: The Passover occurred on the fourteenth day of the first month of the year and the nation departed from Egypt on the fifteenth day of the first month (Numbers 33:3; Exodus 12:2, 6) The tabernacle was erected at Mount Sinai exactly one year after the Exodus (on the first day of the first month of the second year; Exodus 40:2, 17). One month later the nation prepared to leave Sinai for the Promised Land (on the first day of the second month of the second year; Numbers 1:1) On the twentieth day of the second month of the second year the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle of the Covenant. So the Israelites set out from the wilderness of Sinai and traveled on from place to place until the cloud stopped in the wilderness of Paran.” (Numbers 10:11-12). Deuteronomy opens with a reference to the first day of the eleventh month of the 40th year. This is 38 years, eight months and ten days after the nation departed from Sinai (Deuteronomy 1:3, Numbers 10:11-12). Therefore, Numbers covers a period of time known as the wilderness wanderings which lasted 38 years, nine months and ten days.

Key Verses:

  • Numbers 6:24-26: May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace.

  • Numbers 12:6-8: And the Lord said to them, “Now listen to what I say: “If there were prophets among you the Lord, would reveal myself in visions. I would speak to them in dreams. But not with my servant Moses. Of all my house, he is the one I trust. I speak to him face to face, clearly, and not in riddles! He sees the Lord as he is. So why were you not afraid to criticize my servant Moses


  • Numbers 14:30–34: You will not enter and occupy the land I swore to give you. The only exceptions will be Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. “‘You said your children would be carried off as plunder. Well, I will bring them safely into the land, and they will enjoy what you have despised. But as for you, you will drop dead in this wilderness. And your children will be like shepherds, wandering in the wilderness for forty years. In this way, they will pay for your faithlessness, until the last of you lies dead in the wilderness. “‘Because your men explored the land for forty days, you must wander in the wilderness for forty years—a year for each day, suffering the consequences of your sins. Then you will discover what it is like to have me for an enemy.’

Overview of Contents:

I. Numbers 1:1 -10:10: The camp of the people of Israel at Sinai

  • Chapter 1 Census of the People of Israel

  • Chapter 2 Order of Camping and Marching

  • Chapter 3 Separation and Numbering of the Tribe of Levi

  • Chapter 4 Instructions of Service for the Levites

  • Chapter 5 Laws of Uncleanness, Trespassing and the unfaithful Wife

  • Chapter 6 Law of the Nazarite

  • Chapter 7 Offerings of the Twelve Princes of Israel for the Dedicating of the Altar

  • Chapter 8 Light of the Sanctuary and Dedication of the Levites

  • Chapter 9 Passover in the Wilderness ; the Cloud as Guide of the People

  • Chapter 10:1-10 The Two Trumpets of Silver

II. Numbers 10:11-20:29: The 38 years of Wandering in the Wilderness

  • Chapter 10:11-36 First Setting Forward of the Camp

  • Chapter 11 Murmuring of Israel because of the Manna and the Punishment of God; Appointment of 70 Elders

  • Chapter 12 Miriam's Speaking against Moses and her Leprosy

  • Chapter 13 Sending out of the Twelve Spies

  • Chapter 14 Murmuring of the People and God's Punishment : the Forty Years of Wandering in the Wilderness

  • Chapter 15 Various Laws : Instructions for Offering in Canaan; Breaking of the Sabbath;

  • Chapter 16 Rising up of Korah and his Punishment (compare Jude 11)

  • Chapter 17 Aaron is confirmed as High Priest

  • Chapter 18 Instructions for Levites and their Position in Israel

  • Chapter 19 Law of the Red Heifer or the Water of Purification

  • Chapter 20 Moses' Sin ; the Death of Miriam and Aaron

III. Numbers 21-32: The Sojourning on River Jordan

  • Chapter 21 The Serpent of Brass (compare John 3:14); Victory over Sihon and Og

  • Chapter 22 Balak calls for Balaam to curse Israel

  • Chapter 23-24 Balaam's Four Parables of Blessing over Israel

  • Chapter 25 Fornication and Idolatry of Israel and the Zeal of Phinehas for Jehovah

  • Chapter 26 Second Numbering of the People of Israel

  • Chapter 27 The Daughters of Zelophehad ; Joshua is Called to be Moses' Successor

  • Chapters 28-29 Offerings at the Feasts of Jehovah

  • Chapter 30 Laws of Vows

  • Chapter 31 Israel's Vengeance of the Midianites

  • Chapter 32 Two and a Half Tribes beyond Jordan (Reuben, Gad and Manasseh)

IV. Numbers 33-36: Retrospect and Forecast

  • Chapter 33 Israel's Route of Wandering

  • Chapter 34 Canaan's Boundaries

  • Chapter 35 Cities of the Levites and Cities of Refuge

  • Chapter 36 Daughters of Zelophehad and Law of Succession for Women

Above outline from Numbers
by Arend Remmers:


  1. Numbering God's people

    • God orders Moses, in the wilderness of Sinai, to take the number of those able to bear arms—of all the men "from twenty years old and upward," the tribe of Levi being excepted, and to appoint princes over each tribe.

      The result of the numbering is that 603,550 Israelites are found to be fit for military service.

    • Moses is ordered to assign to the Levites exclusively the service of the Tabernacle.

    • God prescribes the formation of the camp around the Tabernacle, each tribe being distinguished by its chosen banner:

         East of the Tabernacle: Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun - a lion.

         South: Reuben, Simeon, and Gad - a man's head.

         West: Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin - an ox.

         North Dan, Asher, and Naphtali - an eagle.

      The same order is to be preserved for the march. The tent of meeting and the camp of the Levites follow the camp of Reuben.

    • Moses is ordered to consecrate the Levites for the service of the Tabernacle in the place of the first-born sons, who hitherto had performed that service.

      The Levites are divided into three families, the Gershonites, the Kohathites, and the Merarites, each under a chief, and all headed by one prince, Eleazar, son of Aaron.

    • The Levites who are suited for the service of the Tabernacle—those from thirty to fifty years of age—were then numbered.

    • Preparations are then made for resuming the march to the Promised Land.

    • Various ordinances and laws are decreed.

  2. Recommencement of the journey

    • Moses is ordered to make two silver trumpets for convoking the congregation and announcing the recommencement of a journey.

      The first journey of the Israelites after the Tabernacle had been constructed is commenced.

      The people murmur against God and are punished by fire.

    • Moses complains of the stubbornness of the Israelites.

    • Moses chooses seventy elders to assist him in the government of the people,

    • Miriam and Aaron insult Moses at Hazeroth, which angers God; Miriam is punished with leprosy and is shut out of camp for seven days, at the end of which the Israelites proceed to the desert of Paran.

    • The spies are sent out into the lands and come back to report to Moses.

      The spies have to see how fertile the ground is, how fortified the cites are and how strong the people are.

      Joshua and Caleb, two of the spies, argue that the land is abundant and is "flowing with milk and honey."

      The other spies say that it is inhabited by strong and evil men, which causes the Israelites to want to return to Egypt.

      The Lord talks to Moses and says he will kill all of the Israelites.

      Moses pleads with God, saying that others would think badly of God for leading his people to the wilderness and abandoning them there.

      God speaks to Aaron of having to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

    • Moses is ordered to make plates to cover the altar with the two hundred fifty censers left after the destruction of Korah's band.

      The children of Israel murmur against Moses and Aaron on account of the death of Korah's men and are stricken with the plague, with 14,700 perishing; Aaron's rod is used to quell the destruction.

    • Aaron and his family are declared by God to be responsible for any iniquity committed in connection with the sanctuary.

    • The Levites are again appointed to help him in the keeping of the Tabernacle.

  3. Preparations for crossing the Jordan:

    • After Miriam's death at Kadesh Barnea, the Israelites blame Moses for the lack of water.

      Moses, ordered by God to speak to the rock, disobeys by striking it, and is punished by the announcement that he shall not enter Canaan.

    • The King of Edom refuses permission to the Israelites to pass through his land.

    • Aaron dies on Mount Hor.

    • The Israelites are bitten by fiery serpents for speaking against God and Moses. A brazen serpent is made to ward off these serpents.

    • The new census, taken just before the entry into the land of Canaan, gives the total number of males from twenty years and upward as 601,730, the number of the Levites from a month old and upward as 23,000.

    • The land shall be divided by lot.

    • Moses is ordered to appoint Joshua as his successor.

    • Prescriptions for the observance of the feasts, and the offerings for different occasions are remunerated: every day; the Sabbath; the first day of the month; the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread; the day of first-fruits; the day of the trumpets; the Day of Atonement; the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles; the day of solemn assembly.

    • The conquest of Midian by the Israelites and the massacre of the Midian population is recounted.

    • The Reubenites and the Gadites request Moses to assign them the land east of the Jordan. After their promise to go before the army to help in the conquest of the land west of the Jordan, Moses grants their request. The land east of the Jordan is divided among the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh.

    • The stations at which the Israelites halted during their forty years' wanderings in the wilderness are enumerated.

    • While in the plains of Moab the Israelites are told that, after crossing the Jordan, they should expel the Canaanites and destroy their idols.

    • The boundaries of the land of which the Israelites are about to take possession are spelled out.

    • The land is to be divided among the tribes under the superintendence of Eleazar, Joshua, and twelve princes, one of each tribe.

Graphic from Book of Numbers - Preparing for the Lord's Battle:

Outline of the first 4 chapters:

  1. The census of adult males (20 years + excluding the Levites)

  2. Distribution of the tribes

  3. The census of Levite males (30-50 years old)

  4. Distribution of Levite duties

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation of the Bible.

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