The LORD commanded Moses to take another census of the family of Kohath, of the tribe of Levi, in verses 1-20. This census counted how many males there were between 30 and 50 years old. The family of Kohath was given the privilege of caring for the holiest items in the tabernacle. Before these items could be handled by the Kohathites, the priests had to cover them, because for any non-priest to look upon these items resulted in certain death.
Verses 16-20 describe the responsibility of Aaron’s son, Eleazar, concerning the oils and the grain offering. The LORD also gives a warning to the Kohathites not to look at the holy objects of the tabernacle.
Verses 21-28 cover the responsibilities given to the Gershonites. They were charged with transporting the curtains, coverings, and related items that comprised the tabernacle and the outer court.
In verses 29-33, the duties of the Merarites were discussed. These duties involved the items comprising the tabernacle’s frame. This included the crossbars, bases, pegs, and other related items.
Verses 34-45 cover the census itself. This census counted how many males there were that were between 30 and 50 years old in each family. Verses 34-37 contain the number of Kohathites, verses 38-41 contain the number of Gershonites, and verses 42-45 contain the number of Merarites. These sections are very similar in structure and content.
The last four verses of chapter 4 (46-49) contain a summary of the census of the Levites.
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.
Numbers chapter 4 continues the section that began in chapter 3 concerning the Levites. It contains another census of the three major families of the Levites. The purpose of this census was to discover how many Levites were available to carry and maintain the items that comprised the tabernacle itself, the items in the tabernacle, and the courtyard. The census numbers were to be based on the three sons of Levi-Kohath, Gershon, and Merari.
Numbers 4 can be outlined as follows: