The fourth book of the Bible gets its name from the fact that it contains two censes of Israel during its forty-year desert wanderings. It also refers to the placement of the twelve tribes around the tabernacle. For example, whenever the Israelites would pick up camp and move on in their journey, the twelve tribes each had an appointed location on the northern, southern, eastern, or western side of the tabernacle. Another of the “bookkeeping” qualities of Numbers is that it gives a list of the stages on the desert journey as well as each of the lands allotted to the twelve tribes once they arrive in the Plains of Moab on the edge of the Promised Land.
Still, “Numbers” is probably a misleading title, and might even discourage people from reading it. The Hebrew name for the book is “in the desert,” which better describes the book’s narrative contents. The first ten chapters refer to Israel’s preparations to leave Mt. Sinai and move toward the Promised Land. This is where Israel is instructed how to assemble around the tabernacle. Not only this, but Israel is also given several commands concerning purity, lest they arrive at their destination unworthy to enter.
The remainder of the book tracks the Israelites’ moves from Mt. Sinai to the Plains of Moab. Along the way, the Israelites are hardly cooperative with God’s leadership, as embodied by Moses. First they complain about having too much manna. Later they rebel against Aaron. When they send out spies to scope out the land, the news of strong resistance sends them into despair rather than strengthening their faith in God. Even Moses, the prototypical standard of Israelite piety, sins by striking a rock to get water to come out of it. In fact, this act is enough to keep Moses from entering the Promised Land himself—a tragic development for someone who had come so far in the journey away from Egypt and all that it symbolized to God’s people. On this journey, the Israelites also fight occasional battles with the nations whom they encounter. Unfortunately for the Israelites, at the brink of the Promised Land, they begin to become friendly with the Moabites, who lead them astray to their own false gods. In response to this rebellion, God orders that the faithful members of Israel kill those in relationship with the Moabites. This is hardly an encouraging book, and it is oftentimes shocking and frustrating to modern readers.
One problem with the book is that the numbers seem exaggerated, especially of those conscripted for the army. For example, in Numbers 1:46 there are said to be 603,550 men fit for war. In Numbers 26:51, at the end of the journey from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land, there are said to be 601,730 men enrolled in the army. Numbers like this would require a total population of over 2,000,000, which scholars consider physically impossibe. Several solutions have been proposed over time, but it is most convincing to conclude that these numbers are simply an extended exaggeration to drive home a point: God is with the Israelites and causing them to prosper.
Numbers also contains some well-known passages and scenes: the famous “Aaronic blessing” (“The LORD bless you and keep you…” see Numbers 6:22-27), the Israelites’ complaint about manna and God sending quail (Numbers 11), and Balaam’s donkey rebuking him with an audible voice (Numbers 22).
All in all, Numbers is a book that features a lot of rebellion by the people and swift punishment by God. As with Exodus, reading of such violence can be a bit unsettling for modern Christian readers, and this is a point we will return to when we look at Deuteronomy and Joshua. Already here in Numbers, the tone is set for how Israel will take possession of the land: they will fight for it and kill those who resist. As 10:35 puts it, “Whenever the ark set out, Moses said, ‘Rise up, O Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you.’” Numbers closes with Israel on the march, striking fear into all those in her way.
– Peter Enns