Book of Numbers


Authorship, date, and background Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch. The English title for the book derives from the Septuagint, which selected this name because of the two numberings of the Israelites in the wilderness journey (chapters 1 and 26). The Hebrew title was "in the wilderness of," taken from the fifth word of the first line in the Hebrew text. It is the more appropriate title because the book describes the journey of the Israelites from Sinai to the plains of Moab. Moses is the chief figure in the book. It indicates that he wrote down their movements as the Lord instructed him (33:2). Thus he kept a record of the wanderings which was incorporated in the book of Numbers along with other source material which he used. The date for the book would be the last two decades of the fifteenth century, assuming the early date for the exodus.

Most of the events recorded in Numbers occurred in the second and the fortieth years of Israel's pilgrimage from Egypt to the Promised Land. The years in between were passed over in virtual silence. Genesis recorded the beginnings of the nation of Israel through the patriarchs; Exodus traced the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, the making of the covenant between them and God, the giving of the Law, and the construction of the Tabernacle; Leviticus set forth the religious, political, social, and economic laws which were to govern Israel; Numbers recorded how God prepared his people for their entrance into, and the conquest of, the land he had promised to Abraham.

Characteristics and content Numbers describes how God leads, guides, disciplines, delivers, sustains, and protects his people. When they are disobedient he rewards them by judgement; when they repent he pardons and restores them. Their history is replete with backslidings and an account for all of the human passions common to man. Aaron and Miriam challenge the authority if their brother Moses. Miriam is chastened by God, who makes her leprous, after which Moses intervenes with God for her cleansing. The story of the quails, sent by God because of Israel's complaints against the manna, tells of the death of many at God's hands.

During this time Moses himself falls into sin. In an earlier event God instructed him to strike the rock to obtain water, which then flowed abundantly. On the second occasion God tells him to speak to the rock, undoubtedly because the rock is a type of Christ who can be smitten but once for the transgressions of men. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses, in anger, smites the rock, and for this transgression God forbids him entrance to the Promised Land.

Numbers recounts rather fully the story of Israel's encounter with the Moabites and the hiring of Balaam by Balak to curse the people of God. Instead he pronounces a triple blessing and predicts Israel's ultimate triumph. In the latter section of the book, Moses records the preparations for entering Canaan, and apportions the Transjordan territory to Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh.