The book of Numbers is the fourth of the five books of Moses that comprise the Torah, which means “Law.” It gets its English name from the Greek Old Testament called the Septuagint (or LXX). The LXX named this book, “Arithmoi,” meaning “Numbers.” Its Hebrew name means “in the desert” or “in the wilderness.” Both names are appropriate. The Hebrew name is appropriate because Numbers covers the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness (or “desert”) from Sinai to the plains of Moab. The Greek name is also appropriate because of the many lists, and the numbers within those lists.
At the beginning of the book, the Israelites had been camped at Mount Sinai for about a year. The book of Exodus covered their escape from Egypt and their journey to Sinai. The LORD commanded Moses to organize the people in preparation to leave Sinai and go to the Promised Land. The book covers around 38 years of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, and describes many of Israel’s failures, including mutinies against Moses and outright disobedience to the word of the LORD. In Numbers, the LORD declares that the generation that left Egypt would die in the wilderness due to their disobedience. Only two, Joshua and Caleb, were allowed to enter the Promised Land, due to their faithfulness. Even Moses died without entering the Land due to disobedience.
The book of Numbers can be outlined in many ways. The most general outline involves the generation that leaves Egypt and the one after it, as seen below:
• Events Involving the Exodus Generation (Num. 1 – 25)
• Events Involving the Second Generation (Num. 26 – 36)
Another outline sees the book having three major divisions based on the major encampments of the Israelites:
• Israel at Sinai (Num. 1:1 – 10:10)
• Israel at Kadesh Barnea (Num. 10:11 – 19:22)
• Israel on the Plains of Moab (Num. 20:1 – 36:13)
Still another outline (the one followed here) is as follows:
• The Exodus Generation in the Wilderness (chaps. 1 – 25)
◦ The Israelites Prepare to Leave Mount Sinai (1:1 – 10:10)
◦ The Israelites Depart to Kadesh Barnea (10:11 – 14:45)
◦ The Israelites Journey to the Plains of Moab (15:1 – 22:1)
◦ The Israelites Are Confronted by Balaam the Prophet (22:2 – 25:18)
• The Second Generation Prepares to Enter the Promised Land (26:1 – 36:13)
◦ The Rules Concerning Inheritance (Num. 26:1 – 27:11)
◦ The Provision for Moses’ Successor (Num. 27:12 – 23)
◦ The Laws Concerning Offerings (Num. 28:1 – 29:40)
◦ The Laws Concerning Vows (Num. 30:1 –16)
◦ The LORD’s Judgment Against the Midianites (Num. 31:1 – 54)
◦ The Inheritance of the Eastern Tribes (Num. 32:1 – 42)
◦ The Review of the Journey to Canaan (Num. 33:1 – 56)
◦ The LORD’s Instructions Before Conquering Canaan (Num. 33:50 – 36:13)
There are two themes that flow from the book of Numbers. The first concerns the LORD’s infinite grace in light of the people’s many failures and transgressions. There is hardly a book in the Bible where the LORD had to exercise His grace to His people more often than this one. The book of Numbers contains a record of Israel’s failure after failure and the LORD’s gracious forgiveness after forgiveness. Even when He judged them, there was grace.
Second, and related to the first, the book stresses the importance of obedience. God chose the Israelites unconditionally; they were the LORD’s chosen people regardless of their behavior. However, He demanded obedience to show His people that their obedience results in blessing. God set forth a way of life for His people in the covenant He and the people entered into at Sinai (Exodus 19:5-8). The Ten Commandments made it clear that God would make the law, and that the pinnacle requirement of His law was for the people to respect and serve one another. The strong were to serve the weak. This was in stark contrast to the surrounding cultures, which centered around the strong exploiting the weak (Leviticus 18). God’s judgment brought discipline upon Israel in order to shepherd them toward living in harmony and service to one another.
The first chapter of the book of Numbers lives up to its name—it involves taking a census (i.e. “numbering”) of the Israelites. First, the leaders of the tribes were numbered, then a census was taken of each tribe. The exception to this census-taking was the Levites. The apparent purpose of the census was to assess their fighting strength, and determine the number of males above the age of twenty, who were eligible for military service.
Numbers 1 can be outlined as follows:
• The LORD Commanded Moses to Take a Census of Israel (Num. 1:1 – 4)
• The Tribal Leaders Were Counted (Num. 1:5 – 19)
• The Census Was Taken for Each Tribe (Num. 1:20 – 46)
• The Levites Were Exempted from the Census (Num. 1:47 – 54)