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Introduction to Numbers


Summary of the Book of Numbers

This summary of the book of Numbers provides information about the title, author(s), date of writing, chronology, theme, theology, outline, a brief overview, and the chapters of the Book of Numbers.


The English name of the book comes from the Septuagint (the pre-Christian Greek translation of the OT) and is based on the census lists found in chs. 1; 26. The Hebrew title of the book (bemidbar, "in the desert") is more descriptive of its contents. Numbers presents an account of the 38-year period of Israel's wandering in the desert following the establishment of the covenant of Sinai (compare 1:1 with Dt 1:1).

Author and Date

The book has traditionally been ascribed to Moses. This conclusion is based on (1) statements concerning Moses' writing activity (e.g., 33:1-2; Ex 17:14; 24:4; 34:27) and (2) the assumption that the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, are a unit and come from one author. See Introduction to Genesis: Author and Date of Writing.

It is not necessary, however, to claim that Numbers came from Moses' hand complete and in final form. Portions of the book were probably added by scribes or editors from later periods of Israel's history. For example, the protestation of the humility of Moses (12:3) would hardly be convincing if it came from his own mouth. But it seems reasonable to assume that Moses wrote the essential content of the book.


Numbers relates the story of Israel's journey from Mount Sinai to the plains of Moab on the border of Canaan. Much of its legislation for people and priests is similar to that in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The book tells of the murmuring and rebellion of God's people and of their subsequent judgment. Those whom God had redeemed from slavery in Egypt and with whom he had made a covenant at Mount Sinai responded not with faith, gratitude and obedience but with unbelief, ingratitude and repeated acts of rebellion, which came to extreme expression in their refusal to undertake the conquest of Canaan (ch. 14). The community of the redeemed forfeited their part in the promised land. They were condemned to live out their lives in the desert; only their children would enjoy the fulfillment of the promise that had originally been theirs (cf. Heb 3:7 -- 4:11).

Theological Teaching

In telling the story of Israel's desert wanderings, Numbers offers much that is theologically significant. During the first year after Israel's deliverance from Egypt, the nation entered into covenant with the Lord at Sinai to be the people of his kingdom, among whom he pitched his royal tent (the tabernacle) -- this is the story of Exodus. As the account of Numbers begins, the Lord organizes Israel into a military camp. Leaving Sinai, they march forth as his conquering army, with the Lord at the head, to establish his kingdom in the promised land in the midst of the nations. The book graphically portrays Israel's identity as the Lord's redeemed covenant people and its vocation as the servant people of God, charged with establishing his kingdom on earth. God's purpose in history is implicitly disclosed: to invade the arena of fallen humanity and effect the redemption of his creation -- the mission in which his people are also to be totally engaged.

Numbers also presents the chastening wrath of God against his disobedient people. Because of their rebellion (and especially the nation's refusal to undertake the conquest of Canaan), Israel was in breach of covenant. The fourth book of the Pentateuch presents a sobering reality: The God who had entered into covenant with Abraham (Ge 15; 17), who had delivered his people from bondage in the exodus (Ex 14-15), who had brought Israel into covenant with himself as his "treasured possession" (Ex 19; see especially Ex 19:5) and who had revealed his holiness and the gracious means of approaching him(Lev 1-7) was also a God of wrath. His wrath extended to his errant children as well as to the enemy nations of Egypt and Canaan.

Even Moses, the great prophet and servant of the Lord, was not exempt from God's wrath when he disobeyed God. Ch. 20, which records his error, begins with the notice of Miriam's death (20:1) and concludes with the record of Aaron's death (20:22-29). Here is the passing of the old guard. Those whom God has used to establish the nation are dying before the nation has come into its own.

The questions arise: Is God finished with the nation as a whole (cf. Ro 11:1)? Are his promises a thing of the past? In one of the most remarkable sections of the Bible -- the account of Balaam, the pagan diviner (chs. 22 - 24) -- the reply is given. The Lord, working in a providential and direct way, proclaims his continued faithfulness to his purpose for his people despite their unfaithfulness to him.

Balaam is Moab's answer to Moses, the man of God. He is an internationally known prophet who shares the pagan belief that the God of Israel is like any other deity who might be manipulated by acts of magic or sorcery. But from the early part of the narrative, when Balaam first encounters the one true God in visions, and in the narrative of the journey on the donkey (ch. 22), he begins to learn that dealing with the true God is fundamentally different from anything he has ever known. When he attempts to curse Israel at the instigation of Balak king of Moab, Balaam finds his mouth unable to express the curse he desires to pronounce. Instead, from his lips come blessings on Israel and curses on its enemies (chs. 23 - 24).

In his seven prophetic oracles, Balaam proclaims God's great blessing for his people (see 23:20). Though the immediate enjoyment of this blessing will always depend on the faithfulness of his people, the ultimate realization of God's blessing is sure -- because of the character of God (see 23:19). Thus Numbers reaffirms the ongoing purposes of God. Despite his judgment on his rebellious people, God is still determined to bring Israel into the land of promise. His blessing to Israel rests in his sovereign will.

The teaching of the book has lasting significance for Israel and for the church (cf. Ro 15:4; 1Co 10:6,11). God does display his wrath even against his errant people, but his grace is renewed as surely as is the dawn and his redemptive purpose will not be thwarted.

Special Problem

The large numbers of men conscripted into Israel's army (see, e.g., the figures in 1:46; 26:51) have puzzled many interpreters. The numbers of men mustered for warfare seem to demand a total population in excess of 2,000,000. Such numbers appear to be exceedingly large for the times, for the locale, for the desert wanderings, and in comparison with the inhabitants of Canaan. See note on 3:43.

Various possibilities have been suggested to solve this problem. Some have thought that the numbers may have been corrupted in transmission. The present text, however, does not betray textual difficulties with the numbers.

Others have felt that the Hebrew word for "thousand" might have a different meaning here from its usual numerical connotation. In some passages, for example, the word is a technical term for a company of men that may or may not equal 1,000 (e.g., Jos 22:14, "family division"; 1Sa 23:23, "clans"). Further, some have postulated that this Hebrew word means "chief" (as in Ge 36:15). In this way the figure 53,400 (26:47) would mean "53 chiefs plus 400 men." Such a procedure would yield a greatly reduced total, but it would be at variance with the fact that the Hebrew text adds the "thousands" in the same way it adds the "hundreds" for a large total. Also, this would make the proportion of chiefs to fighting men top-heavy (59 chiefs for 300 men in Simeon).

Another option is to read the Hebrew word for "thousand" with a dual meaning of "chief" and "1,000," with the chiefs numbering one less than the stated figure. For example, the 46,500 of Reuben (1:20) is read as 45 chiefs and 1,500 fighting men, the 59,300 of Simeon (1:23) is read as 58 chiefs and 1,300 fighting men, etc. But in this case, as in the former, the totals of 1:46 and 2:32 must then be regarded as errors of understanding (perhaps by later scribes).

Still another approach is to regard the numbers as symbolic figures rather than as strictly mathematical. The numerical value of the Hebrew letters in the expression bene yisra'el ("the Israelite community," 1:2) equals 603 (the number of the thousands of the fighting men, 1:46); the remaining 550 (plus 1 for Moses) might come from the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters in the expression "all the men . . . who are able to serve in the army" (1:3). This symbolic use of numbers (called "gematria") is not unknown in the Bible (see Rev 13:18), but it is not likely in Numbers, where there are no literary clues pointing in that direction. (For one more option [hyperbole] see note in 1Ch 12:23-27.)

While the problem of the large numbers has not been satisfactorily solved, the Bible does point to a remarkable increase of Jacob's descendants during the four centuries of their sojourn in Egypt (see Ex 1:7-12). With all their difficulties, these numbers also point to the great role of providence and miracles in God's dealings with his people during their life in the desert (see note on 1:46).

Structure and Outline

The book has three major divisions, based on Israel's geographical locations. Each of the three divisions has two parts, as the following breakdown demonstrates: (1) Israel at Sinai, preparing to depart for the land of promise (1:1 -- 10:10), followed by the journey from Sinai to Kadesh (10:11 -- 12:16); (2) Israel at Kadesh, delayed as a result of rebellion (13:1 -- 20:13), followed by the journey from Kadesh to the plains of Moab (20:14 -- 22:1); (3) Israel on the plains of Moab, anticipating the conquest of the land of promise (22:2 -- 32:42), followed by appendixes dealing with various matters (chs. 33 - 36).

I.           Israel at Sinai, Preparing to Depart for the Promised Land (1:1;10:10)

A.   The Commands for the Census of the People (chs. 1-4)

B.   The Commands for Purity of the People (5:1;10:10)

                                    II.   The Journey from Sinai to Kadesh (10:11;12:16)

                   III.        Israel at Kadesh, the Delay Resulting from Rebellion (13:1;20:13)

                  IV.        The Journey from Kadesh to the Plains of Moab (20:14;22:1)

V.        Israel on the Plains of Moab, in Anticipation of Taking the Promised Land (22:2;32:42)

VI.           Appendixes Dealing with Various Matters (chs. 33-36)

──《New International Version


Introduction to Numbers

This book is called NUMBERS from the several numberings of the people contained in it. It extends from the giving of the law at Sinai, till their arrival in the plains of Jordan. An account is given of their murmuring and unbelief, for which they were sentenced to wander in the wilderness nearly forty years; also some laws, both, moral and ceremonial. Their trials greatly tended to distinguish the wicked and hypocrites from the faithful and true servants of God, who served him with a pure heart.

── Matthew HenryConcise Commentary on Numbers


00 Overview




The name of the book

Bunsen entitles it “The Munster-roll.” But the thought which gives unity to this book is very concrete and definite. Both to the book of prophetic legislation, or Exodus, and to Leviticus, the book of sacerdotal or cultus legislation, there is annexed the book of the kingly calling of Israel under its King Jehovah--the book which treats of the host of God, of the discipline of the army, of its typical march from Sinai to Canaan, from the Mount of God to the elementary conquest of the world under the standard of the Ark of the Covenant, and under the guidance of Jehovah; and because this march is typical, it is darkened and checked in many ways by the power of sin. Another designation, “The wandering towards Canaan,” is partly too indefinite, partly too narrow, because the wandering as a whole had already begun with the Exodus from Egypt. (J. P. Lange, D. D.)

The authorship of the book

Much which has been said upon the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch generally, applies with special force to the authorship of this book. One portion, viz., the catalogue of the stations or encampments (33) is expressly ascribed to Moses (verse 2). Some of the legislative enactments which are found only in this book, or which are recapitulated in Deuteronomy are expressly assigned to Moses in Joshua--

, point to the conclusion that the writer of the book was either an eye-witness of the scenes which he records, or a forger whoso skill has been unequalled in after ages. The topographical notices, again, testify to an acquaintance with the history of Egypt (e.g., Numbers 13:22)
, and also with that of the surrounding nations, previously to the entrance into Canaan (e.g., Numbers 21:13)
; whilst the allusions to Egyptian customs, products, and institutions, and also to particular incidents of Egyptian history, are such as cannot, with any great amount of probability, be ascribed to any writer between the days of Moses and those of Solomon (e.g., Numbers 11:5-7; Numbers 21:5-9; Numbers 33:4; Numbers 33:6-8)
. Again, the contrast between the general allusions to the topography of Canaan, such as might well have been obtained from traditional sources, or from the reports of the spies, as compared with the more minute descriptions given in Joshua, precisely corresponds with the recorded history of Moses. Thus, while in Joshua the boundaries of Canaan are expressed with great minuteness, in Numbers they are laid down in general terms (cf. Joshua 15:1-63 with Numbers 34:1-29.)
. It may be observed further, that the fact that the boundaries assigned to the promised land were never actually realised, even in the clays of David and Solomon, affords a strong argument in support of the belief that the books in which they arc described were not written at the late period to which they are assigned by some modern critics, in which case the original assignment would naturally have been made to accord with the actual extent of the kingdom. It must be observed, further, that the statistics of this book stop short of the death of Moses, and that the records of families are restricted to the Mosaic era Thus, e.g., we read of the promise given to Phinehas and to his seed after him of an everlasting priesthood (Numbers 25:13), and we find mention of the part which Phinehas took in one of the latest expeditions in which Moses was engaged (Numbers 31:6); but we must have recourse to the books of Chronicles and of Ezra 2:1-70 we desire to obtain information concerning his descendants. (C. J. Elliot, M. A.)

The chronology of the book.--

1. The narrative commences with “the first day of the second month of the second year after they were come out of Egypt” (Numbers 1:1); and the death of Aaron at the first encampment during the final march on Canaan (Numbers 20:2) took place in the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year (Numbers 33:38).

2. Between these two dates, therefore, intervene no less than 38 1/4 years (cf. Deuteronomy 2:14)
, the long and dreary period of tarrying in the wilderness till the disobedient generation had wasted away.

3. The solemn rehearsal of the law contained in Deuteronomy was commenced by Moses after the overthrow of Sihon and Og, in the beginning of the eleventh month of the fortieth year (Deuteronomy 1:3-4).

4. We have, consequently, from the death of Aaron to the opening of Deuteronomy a space of exactly six months, in which all the events narrated in the fourth part of this book (Numbers 20:1 to end) would seem to have occurred, with the probable exception of the defeat of the king of Arad.

5. Those events are many and remarkable. After the tedious years of suspense were once passed, the history of the chosen people hurries on, not without a sort of dramatic propriety, to a crisis. Crowded as this space is, it yet has room enough for the incidents here assigned to it.

6. The first month of the six was passed at the foot of Mount Her in mourning for Aaron (Numbers 20:29). But it is likely that during this month a part of the host was engaged in revenging upon the king of Arad the molestation inflicted by him on the Israelites during their journey from Kadesh to Mount Her.

7. Next ensued the journey “from Mount Her by the way of the Red Sea to compass the land of Edom” (Numbers 21:4); and this, being about two hundred and twenty miles to the brook Zered, would be accomplished within four weeks.

8. The appearance of the host in the plains of Moab brought them into the neighbourhood of Sihon, king of the Amorites. The policy pursued by him of resisting the progress of Israel with all his forces (Numbers 21:23) caused his overthrow to be speedy and total; as was also for like reasons that of Og, king of Bashan. The two battles at Jahaz and Edrei probably took place both within a fortnight; i.e., towards the middle of the third of the six months in question.

9. The issue of the conflict with the Amorite kings determined Balak to send for Balaam (Numbers 22:2). The distance from Moab to the nearest point of the Euphrates is about three hundred and fifty miles, and Pethor may have been yet more distant. But as Balak was urgent, and could of course command all facilities for travelling, two months would amply suffice for his ambassadors to go and return twice over; and for the delivery by Balaam of his prophecies (22-24). No doubt during these weeks the Israelites were engaged in completing and consolidating their conquest of Gilead and Bashan.

10. We have thus a margin of at least six weeks left, during which occurred the seduction of Israel by the wiles of the Midianites, and the consequent plague (25); the second numbering of the people in the plains of Moab (26); and the war upon the Midianites (27).

11. It is accordingly in full consistency that the death of Moses is spoken of (Numbers 31:2) in connection with the Midianitish war, and as following close upon it; and that Balaam after quitting Balak had not yet returned home when that war occurred, and was taken captive amongst the Midianites. (T. E. Espin D. D. , in Speak. Com.)

──The Biblical Illustrator