Numbers is not a well-known book, neither is it widely quoted. Perhaps only two or three passages are well known. Samuel Morse quoted one of these after he sent the first telegraph message in Morse code to Washington DC on 24 May 1844. He expressed his amazement at what had happened with the verse, ‘What hath God wrought?’ (translated in the NIV as ‘See what God has done.’) The discovery of electronic communication was attributed to the God who had given the power.
The second verse is known by most people: ‘Be sure your sin will find you out’. This was originally said by Moses as a warning to the people when he was telling them that they must cross the Jordan and fight their enemies.
Neither verse is generally known to come from Numbers. Very few people are able to quote verses from the book and I have found that few know what any one chapter contains. We need to remedy this situation, as Numbers is another very important part of the Bible.
‘Numbers’ is a strange title for a book. In the Hebrew the title is taken from he first words of the scroll, ‘The LORD said’. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, the translators gave it a new title, Arithmoi (from which we get the word ‘arithmetic’). The Latin (Vulgate) version translated this as numeri. So in English we know it as ‘Numbers’.
It begins and ends with two censuses. The first was taken when Israel left Sinai one month after the tabernacle had been erected. The total number of people counted was 603,550. The second was taken when they arrived at Moab prior to entering the land of Canaan almost 40 years later. The number of people had dropped by 1,820 to 601,730 – not a very great difference. These were male censuses used for military conscription.
The book of Numbers tells us that there is nothing wrong with counting. King David was punished by God for counting his men, but this was because he was motivated by pride. Other parts of the Bible include examples of counting and taking stock – we are told, for example, that 3,000 were added to the Church at Pentecost. Jesus encouraged his followers to count the cost of following him by reflecting on how the leader of an army might evaluate his chances according to the relative strength of his army.
Three things can be said about the figures given in Numbers.
1. What a large number!
Many Bible commentators question the size of the numbers. The figures actually represent the military conscription – the men over 20 years old who were able to fight. We have seen already in our studies of Exodus that there were over 2 million people in total, so the ‘large’ number of 603,550 is actually a fraction of the whole population. There are a number of points to consider which indicate that the numbers given are, in fact, feasible and reasonable.
In 2 Samuel we are told that David’s army was 1,300,000, so a figure of around 600,000 is small in comparison.
The number is also small in comparison to the Canaanites. The Israelites would need to be of a certain strength in order to fight battles (remembering, nevertheless, that God was on their side).
Those who argue that it is impossible for the 70 families who came to Egypt to produce so many forget that the people were in Egypt for 400 years. If each generation had four children (a small figure for those times), the figure is possible.
Some say it is too great a number to fit into the wilderness of Sinai. It is feasible, however: there was enough space. If they travelled five abreast, the column would be 110 miles long and it would take 10 days to pass!
Some say these numbers mean that there were too many people to be fed successfully in the wilderness. That would certainly have been the case, but for God’s supernatural provision.
2. What a similar number!
Given the magnitudes involved, a difference of 1,820 between the first and second censuses represents a very small percentage change. The tribe of Simeon had lost 37,100 and Manasseh had gained 20,500, but most remained about the same. Since numerical growth indicates God’s blessing, we can note from the outset that this was not a period when God was pleased with his people. Considering the hostile environment and the length of time, however, maintaining such numbers was remarkable.
3. What a different number!
There were over 38 years between the two censuses, so a whole generation perished in the wilderness. (It was rare for men to reach 60; Moses was an exception to live until 120.) So although the number was similar, the people were not. Only Joshua and Caleb (2 out of 2 million) survived from those who left Egypt to enter the Promised Land. In some ways this is the biggest tragedy in the whole Bible. Numbers is a very sad book. Two-thirds of the book need never have been written. It should have taken 11 days to travel from Egypt to the Promised Land, but it actually took them 13,780 days! Only two of those who set out actually reached their home. The rest were stuck in an aimless existence, ‘killing time’ until God’s judgement was complete. Over time they all died in the wilderness, and a new generation took up the journey.
Most lessons we learn from Numbers are negative. This is how not to be the people of God! Paul tells us how we should view it in 1 Corinthians 10: ‘Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did … These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.’ Numbers is full of bad ‘examples’.
What, then, is the context for this book? The journey from Mount Sinai to Kadesh Barnea (the last oasis in the Negev Desert) and the beginning of the Promised Land of Canaan takes 11 days on foot. The route the Israelites took was to turn away from Kadesh and go across the Rift Valley, to the mountains of Edom. They finished up in Moab on the wrong side of the River Jordan. It took 38 years and a few months, not because it was a particularly difficult piece of country but because God only moved a little at a time. He stayed a very long time in each place and told them he would wait until every man among them was dead, except Joshua and Caleb.
What happened to bring God’s judgement down on the people? At Kadesh the people refused to enter the land when God told them to. Today many Christians have been brought out of sin but have not enjoyed the blessing that God has set out for them. They too end up in a miserable wilderness.
Two-thirds of the book of Numbers is about this protracted journey. The Bible is a very honest book, telling us about failures and vices as well as great successes and virtues. When Paul told the Corinthians that Numbers was written down as an example and a warning to us, he meant this as a clear statement of the book’s purpose. It may not be a popular book, but if you do not study history you are condemned to repeat it.
Even Moses was not permitted to go into the Promised Land, although he did enter it centuries later when he talked with Jesus. He too failed miserably at one crucial point, as we shall see.
Content and structure
Another of the five books of Moses, Numbers is a mixture of legislation and narrative. The author of the laws is not Moses but God. We are told 80 times in this book, ‘God said to Moses…’ God gives to Moses general laws and legislation, as well as regulations governing rituals and religious ceremony.
As for the narrative in the book, we are told that Moses kept a journal of their travels at the Lord’s command. He also kept another book called ‘the book of the Wars of the LORD’, recording accounts of the battles. Numbers was written by Moses using these records, yet Moses himself is referred to in the third person
The mixture of narrative and legislation makes it seem rather like Exodus, but whereas in Exodus the first half is narrative and the second half law, in Numbers it is all mixed up. It is therefore much harder to find a connecting thread.
A pattern emerges more easily when we consider the narrative and legislation in context. The structure of the book is chronological rather than topical. We can see this best by putting the content of Numbers alongside that of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Chronological context Content Duration
Exodus 1–18 Egypt to Sinai Narrative 50 days
Exodus 19–40 at Sinai Legislation ?
Leviticus 1–27 at Sinai Legislation 30 days
Numbers 1:1–10:10 at Sinai Legislation 19 days
Numbers 10:11–12:16 Narrative 11 days
Sinai to Kadesh
Numbers 13:1–20:21 Kadesh Legislation ?
Numbers 20:22–21:35 Narrative 38 years
Kadesh to Moab
Numbers 22:1–36:13 Moab Legislation 3 months, 10 days
Deuteronomy 1–34 Moab Legislation 5 months
It is fascinating to note that all the laws were given to the Israelites while they were camped. The stories of their travels show how they broke those laws. While they were camped and stationary God told them what they should do, but while they were moving we hear the story of what they did do. They would learn lessons both ways, through the teaching from Moses and through the experience of journeying (rather as Jesus taught his disciples both in ‘messages’, such as the Sermon on the Mount, and as they travelled ‘along the way’).
The chart given above is like a multi-layered sandwich. Thus in Exodus 1–11 the Israelites are stuck in Egypt, then in Chapters 12–18 they move to Sinai. All this is narrative. However, in Exodus 19–40, Leviticus 1–27 and Numbers 1–10 they are still at Sinai. These three consecutive sections are full of legislation.
In Numbers 10–12 they move again, from Sinai to Kadesh, a journey of 11 days. The stay in Kadesh covers the crisis when the people rebel. God speaks to them at Kadesh from Chapters 13 to 20, again with legislation.
Numbers 20–21 covers the journey from Kadesh to Moab, the whole journey of 38 years covering just two chapters. Numbers 22–36 covers what God said to the Israelites while they waited to go into the Promised Land. The whole of Deuteronomy 1–34 belongs to that same, stationary time period.
Numbers has a lot of movement in it, Deuteronomy has none, and Exodus has movement in just the first half.
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