Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible. It is a continuation of Exodus and describes the ongoing work of God among the Israelite people. In that sense Leviticus becomes almost a parenthetical statement concerning the lives of the priests and detailing the various religious ordinances that would govern the people. We should not draw too tight a line between Numbers and Leviticus as many spiritual laws are revealed in the fourth book also.
Numbers is so named because the first event recorded in the book is a census of the people. Later events include details of rebellion in Numbers 11:1-3 and their stunning refusal to enter the promised land because of evil reports from 10 of the spies sent into the land. That rebellion would result in a 40 year wandering in the wilderness.
The name for this book in the Hebrew Bible was Bemidbãr which roughly translates into “the wilderness of.” The Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX) used the name “Numbers.” Truly the book does focus more on the wilderness wanderings than the census.
Numbers is an exciting book filled with descriptions of conflict, political intrigue, spies and warfare. Throughout the book however we always see the mighty hand of God caring for and providing for the needs of his people. We should remember that God had promised to use this nation to bring a blessing for all men into the world. Jesus would come through this nation, specifically the tribe of Judah, over 1400 years later.
The first census detailed in chapter one counts 603,550 men from age 20 upward able to go to war (Numbers 1:44). This number did not include the Levites who were set aside for Tabernacle service.
Numbers: The End of an Era
Numbers brings us to the very end of an era. It encompasses a period from the beginning of the wanderings until the death of the key leaders including Miriam (Numbers 20:10, and Aaron (Numbers 20:22-29).
The Israelites have yet to enjoy the promised land. Their faithless and dependence on what they could see themselves had caused their wanderings. But that period is fast coming to an end. Soon they will stand on the shores of Jordan and look into the promised land. What could have been theirs in just a couple of weeks has now taken almost 40 years to attain.
Numbers: Authorship, Dating and Technical Details
Like the rest of the Pentateuch, Moses is the author. The words he records are guided by God and are trustworthy. Numbers was likely written near the end of Moses’ life. He has seen the death of his sister and brother and must know that his time is near. In Deuteronomy he will face his own demise.
Numbers has been attacked by those who hold to a lower view of Scripture as being unreliable and even impossible. Gleason Archer did a fine job of defending the Numbers account and the reader is directed his work, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. One central problems detractors face is the refusal to acknowledge the powerful, even supernatural working of Jehovah among his people. Once you decide that God cannot do something you are left with little more than words on a page.