Summary of the Book of Numbers
Numbers gets its name from the two censuses, or numberings, of the people of Israel. The first was done shortly after the exodus. The second took place at the end of the 40 years in the wilderness as the nation was preparing to finally enter the Promised Land.
The majority of the book talks about the wilderness experience of the people of Israel. For this reason, the Hebrew title of the book is “In the Wilderness.” The Septuagint (Greek) translation of the book also calls it “Numbers” and is probably why it is called “Numbers” today.
Like Leviticus, the book starts with God speaking to Moses. The book opens with: “And the Lord spake unto Moses.” This phrase (or variations) appear more than 80 times in the book. The authorship is most commonly attributed to be Moses (Numbers 33:1, 2). However, there are liberal scholars who believe the book was written by various priests during the post-Babylonian captivity. There is no hard evidence to suggest such a late writing for the book.
This book covers a large period of history. Whether it was written a bit at a time, or set down in writing by Moses at the end of his life is unknown. The time period covered is between 1438 and 1401 B.C. The actual date of writing could be any time during this period, but certainly the finalization of the book is around 1401 B.C. Specific dates are calculated using the following verses: Numbers 1:1; 33:38; 36:13; Deuteronomy 1:3.
Purpose of Numbers
The book chronicles the events of the Israelites refusal to trust God and enter the Promised Land because of unbelief (Numbers 14:32-34) and their subsequent wandering in the wilderness. As the name implies, it also documents the two censuses conducted (Numbers 1:2, 3; 26:2). This numbering counts two separate generations: those who lived through the exodus of Egypt and those who inhabited the Promised Land.
The book of Numbers is a transitional book. It is a bridge between the giving of the Law in Exodus and Leviticus with the entering of the Promised Land in Deuteronomy and Joshua. It is a reminder to the believer that even though he has been freed from the bondage of sin (Egypt), there is still a spiritual battle to be fought in daily life (the wilderness) before living a victorious Christian life (the Promised Land). They had to pass through the wilderness to get to the land promised by God, but they did not need to stay 40 years. Because of their disobedience they were not experiencing the life God had planned for them in the Promised Land.
Numbers 6:24-26 “The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.”
Numbers 12:6-8 “And he said, Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
Numbers 14:28-30 “Say unto them, As truly as I live, saith the LORD, as ye have spoken in mine ears, so will I do to you: Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward which have murmured against me. Doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun.”
- Wilderness – Used 45 times.
Outline of Numbers
This book can be outlined based on the locations of the main events.
- Israelites on Mt. Sinai (Numbers 1-10:10) — Israel is numbered and prepare for the journey
- In the Desert of Paran (Numbers 10:11-15:41) — Israel wishes to return to Egypt because they didn’t trust God to provide
- Wandering for 40 Years (Numbers 16-20) — Refusal to enter the Promised Land showing more lack of trust in God
- Conquering Edom and Moab (Numbers 21-25) — Death of Aaron
- Preparation to Finally Enter Canaan (Numbers 26-36) — Second numbering of the people
Summary of Numbers
The first nine chapters of the book include the first census of the people and their preparations to go into the Promised Land, or Canaan. These events took place on Mt. Sinai over a period of just 20 days (Numbers 1:1-10:11). The tribes are arranged in groups to facilitate the census and to separate out the Levites for their special service as priests. There are various laws given for how to cleanse the camp and the priests. During this time they celebrated the first anniversary of the event of Passover (Numbers 9:1-4).
They immediately began their descent into the wilderness and also their complaints. This was followed with judgments. Even though they knew they were slaves in Egypt, they preferred the thought of returning to slavery than trusting in God’s provision (Numbers 11:4, 5). The complaints were not limited to the people. Moses’ own brother and sister complained. Miriam, his sister, was stricken with leprosy. The scouts spied out the land and 10 (of 12) return with a bad report. The other two, Joshua and Caleb, tried to convince the people that what God had promised, He would accomplish. The people were persuaded otherwise and began the 40 years of wandering. As a result, Joshua and Caleb were the only two adults who left Egypt and were allowed to enter Canaan.
According to Numbers 14:34 they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. They began at Kadesh when they refused to trust God and returned there 40 years later to finally enter. At the beginning, Aaron was chosen as the priest for the people. When they did return, after all the adults had died or been killed off in the wilderness, they fought battles that brought them from Kadesh to the Jordan river. When they had finally decided to trust God and enter the Promised Land there was the second numbering of the people. They began dividing the land. Some of the tribes chose not to live inside the land of Canaan.
According to 1 Corinthians 10:1-12, each of these events took place as historical examples for future readers of the Bible. God’s holiness that was emphasized in Leviticus is still a central theme throughout Numbers. God’s goodness was present with them in giving them the blessings and protection He promised, but He also required their obedience to obtain it.