Introduction to Numbers




The English title “Numbers” derives from the Septuagint name “Arithmoi,” based on the two military censuses in chapters 1 and 26. The Hebrew title, Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness,” describes the geographical setting of much of the book—from the Wilderness of Sinai to the arid Plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from Jericho.

“When they came to the Valley of Eshcol, they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes, which was carried on a pole by two men. They also took some pomegranates and figs. That place was called the Valley of Eshcol because of the cluster of grapes the Israelites cut there”.

“When they came to the Valley of Eshcol, they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes, which was carried on a pole by two men. They also took some pomegranates and figs. That place was called the Valley of Eshcol because of the cluster of grapes the Israelites cut there” (13:23-24).


AUTHOR: Christian scholars have traditionally held that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, which includes the book of Numbers. As with the other books in the Pentateuch, Numbers is anonymous, but Moses is a central character throughout. Moses kept a journal (33:2), and the phrase “The Lord spoke to Moses” is used over 40 times. It is possible that a few portions were later added by scribes, such as the reference to Moses’s humility (12:3) and the reference to the “Book of the Lord’s Wars” (21:14). Moses remains the primary writer.

BACKGROUND: Numbers continues the historical narrative begun in Exodus. It picks up one month after the close of Exodus (Ex 40:2; Nm 1:1), which is about one year after the Israelites’ departure from Egypt. Numbers covers the remaining thirty-nine years of the Israelites’ stay in the wilderness, from Sinai to Kadesh, and finally to the plains on the eastern side of the Jordan River.


SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD: The principal character in the book of Numbers is Yahweh, the God of Israel. He is sovereign over the affairs of all peoples from all nations. Even Balaam, a sorcerer opposed to the ways of God, was made into an instrument for accomplishing his purposes. God accomplished his will even when his people rebelled, as in the rejection of the promised land in chaps. 13-14; in the end he kept his promise to Abraham by achieving this goal in the next generation of Israelites.

PRESENCE OF GOD: God’s presence is exemplified in the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day, by the ark of the covenant that represents the throne of his presence among humanity, and by the mobile sanctuary, which demonstrates that the God of Israel cannot be confined to a territory, region, or city, much less a sanctuary of any kind.

PURITY AND HOLINESS OF GOD: God is holy and pure, and he requires such behavior from those who claim him as their God. This is a central theme of the Pentateuch and the book of Numbers.

GOD AND REVELATION: The revelatory terminology of “the Lord spoke to Moses” provides the framework for the structure of the book. Moses is the primary human agent of revelation. Numbers presents God as one able to accomplish his revelatory will even through a donkey or pagan diviner.

PROMISE AND FULFILLMENT: God promised Abram that he would produce a great nation through him (Gn 12:2) and give his descendants the land of the Canaanites and Amorites (Gn 15:1,8-21;17:8). The two censuses show God’s fulfillment of the first promise. The granting of territory to two and one-half tribes in Transjordan is the beginning of the land fulfillment. God proved himself faithful to that second promise by bringing it to fruition for the second generation (Nm 15:1-21; 27:1-23; 36:1-12).

UNIQUENESS AND EXCLUSIVITY OF GOD: The God of Israel is the one true God; therefore, he is worthy of humanity’s exclusive devotion. He cannot tolerate the worship of other deities, the elements, and forces of his creation. He is beyond human reason to comprehend and incomparable to human character (23:19). All images of deity were forbidden by Israelite law along with unauthorized worship centers, cultic instruments, and certain worship styles. All such forms of idolatry were to be removed from the land, lest Israel lapse into transgression and suffer punishment.

CELEBRATION IN WORSHIP: The dual themes of celebration and worship are delineated beginning in the initial chapters of Numbers, which depict Israel in harmonious devotion to the Lord (chaps. 1-7), and continuing to the promise of an abundance of crops in the land, which would be brought to the Lord in sacrifices and offerings when the people inherited their tribal territories (15:1-21; 28:1-29:40). Interspersed throughout the book are several songs, including the “Song of the Cloud” (9:17-23) and the “Battle Song of the Ark” (10:35-36). The parameters of faithful worship for the sojourning Israelites are also delineated through several negative circumstances, including their failure to keep the Passover (9:13), the breaking of the Sabbath (15:32-41), and the judgment against unfaithful priests or their supporters (chaps. 16-17). Worship and celebration of the God of Israel are not limited to Israelites. Several passages state that there is one law for the Israelites and resident aliens. Aliens could celebrate the Passover if they wanted to identify with Israel in its devotion to the Lord, the one true God, but they had to abide by his instructions and precepts (9:14).


Numbers shows us how God responded to the unbelief of the Israelites. There are consequences to our disobedience, but God’s grace remains and his redemptive plan and desire for us will not be stopped. The book of Numbers underscores for us the importance of obedience in the life of a Christian, and Paul reminded us of the value of learning from the way God has worked in the past (Rm 15:4; 1Co 10:6,11).


Numbers reflects the challenging message of faithfulness. The book consists of seven cycles of material, with the repetition of the following types of material: (1) a statement of the historical setting, (2) reference to the twelve tribes of Israel and their respective leaders, (3) matters related to the priests and Levites, and (4) laws for defining the nature of the faithful community.

This book of the Law is primarily narrative with portions of case law interwoven into a vibrant literary fabric.


I.First Census and Consecration of Israel at Sinai (1:1-6:27)

A.Numbering and arrangement of the people (1:1-2:34)

B.Choosing of the Levites (3:1-4:49)

C.Cleansing and blessing of the people (5:1-6:27)

II.Preparation for Departure to the Promised Land (7:1-10:36)

A.Gifts of the tribal leaders (7:1-89)

B.Consecration of the Levites (8:1-26)

C.Observance of the Passover (9:1-14)

D.Movement of the camp (9:15-10:36)

III.From Mount Sinai to Kadesh (11:1-15:41)

A.Disobedience of the people (11:1-14:45)

B.Miscellaneous instructions and laws (15:1-41)

IV.Rebellion against Aaron’s Priesthood (16:1-19:22)

A.Judgment of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (16:1-17:13)

B.Duties and revenues of priests and Levites (18:1-32)

C.Ordinance of the red cow (19:1-22)

V.From Kadesh to the Plains of Moab (20:1-25:18)

A.Rebellion and judgment of Moses and Aaron (20:1-29)

B.Judgment and healing via snakes (21:1-35)

C.Balaam’s efforts to curse Israel (22:1-24:25)

D.Campaign of Phinehas against idolatry (25:1-18)

VI.Second Census and Preparation of the New Generation (26:1-30:16)

A.Another counting of Israel (26:1-65)

B.Inheritance for Zelophehad’s daughters (27:1-23)

C.Instructions to the new generation (28:1-30:16)

VII.Preparation for Entering the Promised Land (31:1-36:13)

A.Vengeance against the Midianites (31:1-54)

B.Settlement of tribes beyond the Jordan (32:1-42)

C.Journey from Egypt summarized (33:1-49)

D.Instructions for division of Canaan (33:50-34:29)

E.Levitical cities and havens of refuge (35:1-34)

F.Laws of female inheritance amended (36:1-13)

1600-1525 BC

Aaron 1529-1409?

The Hittites destroy Babylon. 1530

The Hittites develop iron technology. 1500

Ahmose I, first pharaoh of Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty, expels the Hyksos from Egypt. 1525

1500-1450 BC

Moses 1526-1406

Glass bottles are first used in Egypt. 1500

Copper trumpet is developed in Egypt. 1500

Hatshepsut, female pharaoh in Egypt. 1479-1457

In the first well-documented battle in history, Pharaoh Thutmose III defeats an alliance of enemies at Megiddo. 1469

1450-1445 BC

Joshua 1490?-1380?

Passover is instituted. 1446

The exodus and defeat of Pharaoh at the Red Sea 1446

The Ten Commandments are given at Mount Sinai. 1446

Tabernacle is built and dedicated. 1445

Exploration of Canaan by 12 spies. 1445

1445-1375 BC

Events in Leviticus 1445

Events in Numbers 1445-1407

Events in Deuteronomy 1406

Events in Joshua 1406-1380?

The Egyptians develop a water clock, a container into which water dripped at a constant rate indicating the amount of time that had elapsed by reference to marks on the container into which the water flowed. This device had an advantage over the sundial in being able to tell time at night. 1400