By Mary Jane Chaignot

Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch. Once again its name is derived from the Septuagint via the Vulgate. In Greek this book is called arithmoi; the Latinized translation became numeri. The English version designated it as Numbers. The title is probably derived from the two occasions in the book where a census is taken (Num. 1-4; 26). Although this census-taking is an important aspect of the book, it is not its prime focus. There is a theological import that far exceeds mere "numbers." The entire story is set "in the wilderness" and describes the "wilderness" experience of the Israelites. Hence, the Hebrew Bible captures the essence of the book through its title: "In the wilderness" or "In the desert." (This phrase is only one word in Hebrew.) Perhaps it would be best to think of Numbers as being a link or a channel connecting the amazing events of the Exodus story to the conquest in Canaan. (Leviticus--third book of the Pentateuch--digresses into the law code; Deuteronomy--fifth book of the Pentateuch--is a more reflective piece.) It is the narrative of Numbers that takes the Israelites from the base of Mt. Sinai to the Transjordan region, the land of Canaan. In the process they are transformed from a people of bondage to a free people. This is really the story, then, of the journey from promise to fulfillment. Even a cursory glance through this book, however, will reveal that their transformation, their "journey" is not easy. And so it is that being "in the wilderness" has become a powerful metaphor for challenging times, marginal living, and transitional experiences. That was true then and it still is now.

This book might hold some surprises for the modern reader. Some of its themes seem all too relevant even today. Consider, for example, the question of second chances. What happens when God demands obedience, and the people are blatantly disobedient time and time again? Or how about -- how does faith get passed from one generation to the next? How do we balance the warnings of the past with the promises of the future? In a world of competing interests and many temptations, how does the church define itself and its mission? This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but perhaps it will pique one's interest in the potentially relevant aspects of Numbers.

Who wrote this timeless masterpiece? Like its predecessors comprising the Pentateuch, the book was probably given its final shape during the sixth century while the Israelites were in exile. And like its predecessors, tradition states that Moses was the author. The book actually never says that, at least not directly. However, there are those verses which claim Moses wrote things down as they occurred (Num. 33:2). There are also many statements that say, "God told Moses" -- obviously with the intent that he would communicate that message to the people. And even though scholars detect a very strong Mosaic element, they generally accept the post-exilic premise. This is not to say that aspects of the oral tradition do not go all the way back to Mosaic times. They do, of course. But remembering that there was a strong oral tradition lends credence to the acceptance of many and, mostly, unknown authors.

First and foremost, the book of Numbers is mostly a story about God and His relation to a people He had chosen for Himself. Even when these people grumbled, even when they engineered an outright rebellion, God remained faithful and loyal to them. He remained present with them in tangible ways and cared for them in practical ways. In return He asked for obedience -- which is exactly what they didn't do every time they faced some hardship. And let us not forget, that these were the people who had just been delivered out of bondage from Egypt. They had witnessed many astounding saving events. But at the first sign of difficulty, they grumbled against God and Moses. Then they witnessed the theophany on Mount Sinai and agreed to the covenant of the Ten Commandments, which they immediately violated -- and then repented for doing so.

Such behavior gives us a glimpse of how things will unfold -- at least with the first generation. The book of Numbers picks up the story at Mount Sinai where they have been for fourteen months. As the narrative opens, they're instructed to prepare for the march to the Promised Land. They are so ready and expectations are so high, but...

Being in the wilderness is hard. Trusting Moses (and God) is harder. Truthfully, they preferred to go back to Egypt, back to the time before Moses, before God, before any of this happened to them. They rebel, return, rebel, return, over and over again. God forgives, offers compassion, provides hope and finally judgment when they blatantly refuse to enter the Promised Land because the "spies" thought it too dangerous. As a result, the first generation was denied entry into the Promised Land: hence, the wandering for forty years. After refusing the Promised Land in the first place, they would all be destined to die in the wilderness. The fulfillment of the promise would be experienced by the next generation. The second generation would be the ones to carry on.

The book, then, offers a uniquely parallel design between the first or old generation and the second or new generation. The trials, tribulations, and sins of the old generation are told in chapters 1-25. The new generation experiences many of these same events, but with a different outcome. Their restored story is told in chapters 26-36. One generation is cursed; the other is blessed.

A brief overview of this is presented in Dennis Olson's commentary on Numbers, as part of the Interpretation Series.1

Numbers 1-25

The Old Generation of Rebellion

  • 1 - Census of the 12 tribes
  • 3 - Census of the Levites
  • 5 - Legal discourse re: women
  • 6 - Laws concerning vows
  • 7,15 - Lists and laws re offerings
  • 9 - Celebration of Passover
  • 10:8,9 - Law concerning the Priests blowing trumpets to sound alarm for holy war
  • 13 - List of spies from each of the 12 tribes chosen to spy out the land
  • 13-14 - The spy story and Israel's rebellion which led to the death of old generation
  • 10-25 - Scattered geographical notations about places Israel journeyed in wilderness
  • 18:21-32 - Provisions for Levites
  • 21:21-35 - Victory over Kings Sihon and Og and capture of the land east of Jordan
  • 25 - Midianites cause Israel to sin and God's command to Israel to punish the Midianites

Numbers 26-36

The New Generation of Hope

  • 26 - Census of 12 Tribes
  • 26 - Census of the Levites
  • 27 - Legal discourse re: women
  • 30 - Laws concerning vows
  • 28,29 - Lists and laws re: offerings
  • 28:16-25 - Instruction for future celebrations of Passover
  • 31:6 - Priests blow the trumpets to sound alarm for holy war
  • 34 - List of tribal leaders from 12 tribes chosen to divide the Promised Land.
  • 32:6-15 - Spy story of Num 13-14 is recalled as lesson for the new generation
  • 33 - Summary of places Israel journeyed in wilderness
  • 35 - Provisions for Levitical cities
  • 32 - Assignment of the land captured from Sihon and Og east of the Jordan River
  • 31 - Holy war against Midianites to punish them for what they did in chap. 25

The repetition alone should sufficiently answer the first question about second chances, but as we explore the nuances of the book, we will see that they had many -- third, fourth, and fifth -- chances.

1:1-25:18 --The Old Generation

  • 1:1-10:10
    • Getting ready to leave Mt. Sinai
  • 1:1-54
    • The first census
    • 603,550 males were counted over the age of 20
    • Number of males available for fighting in battle
    • Levites were not included, since their job was to care for tabernacle
  • 2:1-34
    • Setup of their camp
    • Given their marching orders
    • Suggests that everything was in perfect order
    • Tent of meeting is in center, with three tribes on each side
  • 3:1-4:49
    • Duties of Priests and Levites
    • Levites are subordinate to the Priests (line of Aaron)
    • Levites' duties include being responsible for furnishings of tent
    • Priests are responsible for the care of sacred objects
  • 5:1-8:26
    • Miscellaneous laws and Observances
  • 5:1-4
    • Laws relating to the purity of the camp
  • 5:5-10
    • Dealing with offenses among persons, i.e. stealing
  • 5:11-31
    • Questions relating to adultery (or suspicions of a jealous husband)
  • 6:1-21
    • Vows taken by Nazirites
    • Temporary vows -- no strong drink or cutting of hair
  • 6:22-27
    • Priestly Blessing
    • May the Lord bless and keep you
    • May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you
    • May the Lord give you peace
  • 7:1-88
    • Offerings at the dedication of the Altar
    • Each tribe brings an offering -- identical to avoid unholy competition
    • Totals of gifts are given
  • 8:1-4
    • Objects of the cult -- here, lampstands and instructions for use
  • 8:5-26
    • Cleansing rituals for the Levites
    • Similar to Lev. 8 which described cleansing of priests, just less elaborate
    • Age restrictions: can serve from age 25-50.
  • 9:1-14
    • Second Passover
    • Even "unclean" are able to celebrate Passover
  • 9:15-23
    • Presence of God: Cloud and Fire
    • Israelites will follow movement of the cloud
    • Fire will protect them at night
  • 10:1-10
    • Trumpets
    • Purpose: call together; break camp; go into battle; used at feasts

10:11-21:35 -- Journey from Sinai to Moab

  • 10:11-36
    • Climactic march towards Promised Land begins
  • 29-32
    • Hobab is invited to accompany them
    • Not sure who this is, some say Moses' father-in-law
    • Possibility of human guide -- offer refused
  • 11:1-14:45
    • From Sinai to Kadesh
  • 12:1-16
    • Miriam and Aaron rebel against Moses; Miriam punished with leprosy
    • (Aaron possibly escaped punishment due to his role as high priest)
  • 13:1-24
    • Spy story
    • 12 were chosen to spy out the land
  • 13:25-33
    • Return with report; land is great; towns are fortified; inhabitants are strong
  • 14:1-10
    • God's people focus on fear and danger
    • Caleb and Joshua try to encourage them
  • 14:11-38
    • People rebel; God punishes them with 40-year sojourn
    • Moses intervenes on their behalf
    • Spies die from plague
  • 14:39-45
    • Window of opportunity has closed; sojourn begins
  • 15:1-41
    • Cultic regulations
    • Dealing with sin offerings, supplemental offerings
  • 16:1-17:13
    • Rebellion by 250 community leaders plus three
    • Attack against Moses -- prayed to God
    • Accusers were swallowed up
    • Rebellion increased; Aaron -- used incense for atonement, stopped plague
    • 12 leaders put staffs in Tent of Meeting overnight
    • Aaron's budded, blossomed and produced almonds by morning
    • Aaron's priesthood divinely authorized
  • 18:1-32
    • Duties of Priests and Levites
    • Priests will get portion of sacrifice; Levites will get tithes
  • 19:1-22
    • Cleansing with water after someone touches a corpse
    • Restoration into cultic life
  • 20:1-13
    • Death of Miriam and Moses' sin
    • Perhaps occurs during last year
    • Moses strikes rock without God's instruction; Moses will not enter Land
  • 20:14-21
    • Edom refuses passage
  • 20:22-29
    • Death of Aaron
  • 21:1-3
    • Canaanites attack
  • 21:4-9
    • More grumbling; plague, rescue with bronze snake
  • 21:10-22:1
    • Arrival at Moab; defeat of Sihon and Og
  • 22:2-25:18
    • Demise of First Generation
  • 22:2-24:25
    • Balak summons Balaam to curse Israel; two kings have already been defeated by these people
    • Balak sends, not one, but two delegations to convince Balaam
    • Balaam is on his way when an angel intercepts him
    • Balak tries hard to get Balaam to do his job -- curse these people
    • Balaam does not curse, but blesses through delivery of seven oracles
  • 25:1-25
    • Israel's sins
  • 25:1-5
    • Worshipping Baal of Peor
  • 25:6-9
    • Marrying people of the land
  • 25:10-13
    • Peace through Phineas
  • 25:14-18
    • Remain separate from inhabitants of the land

26:1-36:13 -- The Second Generation

  • 26:1-65
    • The Second census
    • Only second-generation males are counted
    • Purpose and outcome is parallel to the first
    • 601,730 are counted (less than .3% difference from first)
    • Division of land among the tribes to be based on size of tribe
  • 27:1-11
    • Legal questions brought forth by Zelophehad's daughters
    • Able to inherit land as a son might
  • 27:12-23
    • Joshua chosen to succeed Moses
  • 28:1-30:17
    • Worship practices
    • Yearly calendar specifying what and when offerings should be made daily, weekly, monthly, yearly
  • 29:1-38
    • Deals with seventh, most sacred month -- three festivals
  • 29:39-40
    • Summary of all
  • 30:1-17
    • Vows re: women
  • 31:1-12
    • Battle with Midian (Victorious!)
  • 31:13-54
    • Dividing up the booty
  • 32: 1-42
    • Division of the land
  • 32:1-5
    • Reuben and Gad want to stay east of Jordan
  • 32: 6-15
    • Moses refuses request likening it to refusing to enter Promised Land (Remember chapters 13-14!)
  • 32:16-19
    • Reuben and Gad offer to help others fight and settle in
  • 32:20-27
    • On that basis, Moses gives them permission
  • 32:28-38
    • They keep their word; Moses keeps his
  • 32:39-42
    • Division of land according to Tribes
  • 33:1-49
    • Summary of time in the Wilderness
    • Many places unknown; itinerary not too helpful, may not intend to be history
  • 33:50-34:29
    • Division of land of Canaan
    • Boundaries of the land
    • Appointment of tribal leaders to assist with apportioning the land
  • 35:1-8
    • Special consideration for the Levites
  • 35:9-15
    • Institution of safe areas; asylum
  • 35:16-34
    • Who is qualified to use cities of refuge
  • 36:1-13
    • Legal rights of Daughters who've inherited land but marry outside tribe
    • Can only marry within tribe, or forfeit land rights
    • These are the commands and regulations of the Lord given to
    • Moses on the plains of Moab

Next month we will continue our overview of the Old Testament with a look at Deuteronomy. On the plains of Moab, Moses must hand over leadership to the second generation as they prepare for life in the Promised Land, a life in which Moses will not share. Deuteronomy is comprised of Moses' last words to the new generation.


Ashley, Timothy. The Book of Numbers, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993.

Farmer, William. The International Bible Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998.

McGrath, Allister. NIV Bible Commentary. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.

Noordtzij, A. Numbers, Bible Student's Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983.

Olson, Dennis. Numbers, Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989, p5-6.

Sakenfeld, Katharine. Numbers, Journeying with God, The International Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1995.