A Strategy for Reading Numbers

We’ve started a new book of the Bible this weekend in our 3 year journey through the Scriptures. The Bible Project’s 7 minute overview of Numbers is a good place to start. Below I’ve put together a little strategy to help us through the book in the weeks to come. happy reading!!

Watch The Bible Project’s overview video on the book of Numbers, which breaks down the literary design of the book and its flow of thought. In Numbers, Israel travels through the wilderness on the way to the land promised to Abraham. Their repeated rebellion is met by God's justice and mercy.

“in the Wilderness”

Let’s be honest, the title, “Numbers”, isn’t exactly inspiring. The name comes from the census lists in the book that feel odd to most of us for being included as God’s inspired words (more on this below). But the Hebrew title to the book is “In the Wilderness”. Much more exciting and interesting because the book relates Israel’s 40 years of wandering from Mount Sinai where they received the law to the Plains of Moab where they are prepared to enter into the Land of Promise. We have been waiting for this since Genesis 12:7!

In Genesis 12 Abraham and Sarah have no children. By the end of Genesis Israel is about 70 people living in Egypt. Now, on their journey to the Land that God Promised, Israel numbers well over 600,000! Abraham’s line has been blessed and has greatly multiplied as God promised (Genesis 12:2) despite multiple obstacles and much hardship. In this way we can see a lot of the “in between” nature of the Book of Numbers. While Israel isn’t in the Land yet, and although they struggle and often fail to trust YHWH, they have been blessed and looked after. God has been keeping his covenant promise all the while and intends to keep it going forward. 

3 sites & 2 Journeys

The geography of Numbers is helpful in understanding its structure. It is helpful to divide the book into 2 journeys between 3 sites. The location we begin at is where we have been since Exodus 19. Sinai is where YHWH gives the Law to Moses and the people. This is where Israel constructs the tabernacle. Leviticus is solely focused on the workings of the tabernacle and how to approach YHWH. Numbers picks up right here. Israel has been camping at Sinai for 1 year. After they observe their second Passover, marking the 1 year anniversary of their deliverance from Egypt, they set out on their first journey. 

They come to Kadesh. This was intended to be a temporary stop on their way to the Land but Israel ends up extending their stay around Kadesh for 40 years before beginning their second journey. This leads them to the Plains of Moab and their final destination before entering the Land. 

From Wenham, Gordon J.  Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary . Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, v. 4. Nottingham, England : Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press ; Intervarsity Press, 2008.

From Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, v. 4. Nottingham, England : Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press ; Intervarsity Press, 2008.

These 3 locations and the 2 journeys in between is where all of the drama of Numbers unfolds. The 3 locations and what happens at each location provide commentary on each other. For example, rebellions happen at all 3 locations (Exodus 32, Numbers 14 & Numbers 25). As is often true in biblical narrative, this invites the reader to note important progress or regress in a character over time by comparing events that repeat in multiple settings.

Preparation for entering the Promised Land

One of the themes of Numbers is the preparation of God’s people to enter into the Promised Land. In chapters 1-4 Israel is numbered for war, organized by camp in battle formation, and numbered for temple service. While this may read to us as a bit tedious, Dempster explains, “The presence of God is crucial for the well-being of the tribes; the tribes grace the divine presence in balanced symmetry.” (Dempster)

In 5-9 Israel prepares to travel with YHWH before the 2nd Passover is observed. 

10-12 follows Israel’s journey to Kadesh. It’s on this journey that Israel’s trust in YHWH’s provision is tested and jealousy arises against Moses’ leadership. YHWH brings both judgment and mercy as a response to this lack of trust. But it’s what happens at Kadesh that changes Israel’s journey drastically.

Spies & Response

13-19: Once Israel reaches Kadesh, spies are sent out into the Land of Promise. They are meant to bring back helpful information. What is the fruit of the Land like? What about its inhabitants? When the spies return they bring back a bad report to the people. While the land is good there is NO WAY we will be able to take it. The people are too big and mighty! While a minority trust YHWH and call the people to go anyway, Israel instead grumbles and stages a rebellion. They nominate a new leader to TAKE THEM BACK TO EGYPT!! They also make plans to execute Moses and Aaron!

In many ways this is the crux or centrepiece of the book. Israel, who has been amazingly delivered by YHWH’s hand out of Egypt now doubts His power and faithfulness to bring them into the Land He promised. Instead of destroying them, YHWH brings judgment tempered with mercy. 

YHWH pardons Israel but condemns this generation to die in the wilderness. Only their children will enter the Land and the spies who trusted YHWH. This begins the 40 years of wandering.

Covenant Blessing Trumps Generational Sin

20-21: As the 40 years comes to an end, Israel journeys to the Plains of Moab. On this journey Aaron and Miriam die. And it is also revealed that Moses will not enter the Land. And as Israel approaches the Land they begin to take possession of the land east of the Jordan.

22-36: This is the high point of the book. Although Israel has failed to trust YHWH in spectacular fashion, God’s covenant promise brings Israel blessing even by her enemies. 

As Israel approaches the Land the King of Moab hires a prophet to curse Israel. But in a great twist, the prophet Balaam ends up blessing Israel 3 times!! And he ends up cursing Moab and the nations opposing Israel. Some of the most uplifting and hopeful words of God towards his people in the 1st 4 books of the Bible are located here in the mouth of an outsider! If we were pessimistic about God’s people and their ability to succeed based on their keeping of the Law and trusting YHWH, we are given much hope in God’s own covenant blessing towards Israel!

This is a theme that the New Testament will focus on in great detail. Our hope is not in keeping the law given to Moses but rather in God’s promises which came even before the law. God’s promises He made to Israel’s ancestors. The great Mystery of the Old Story is just how will God reconcile the requirements of the Law with the Promises of His Covenant? The New Testament writers will point to Christ as the meeting point of these two seemingly opposing forces.

As Number ends we have come to the very brink of the Land of Promise. It is clear now, if it wasn’t before, that everything will depend on YHWH. His grace and His promise. 

Works Cited:

Dempster, Stephen G. Dominion and Dynasty: A Biblical Theology of the Hebrew Bible. New Studies in Biblical Theology 15. Leicester, England : Downers Grove, Ill: Apollos ; InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, v. 4. Nottingham, England : Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press ; Intervarsity Press, 2008.