An Overview of Numbers

Divine Author: God the Holy Spirit “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

Human Author: Moses

Date of Writing: c. 1440 and 1400 BC

Setting: In the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho  

Key Verses: Numbers 6:24-26, The Lord bless thee, and keep thee:25 The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:26 The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”

Theme : The service and walk of God’s people.

General Facts: 4th Book of the Bible; 36 Chapters; 1, 288 Verses

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Introduction

The Book of Numbers is a transitional book. Having been delivered from bondage in Egypt, having been led to Mount Sinai, where they encamped for a year, and where God expanded His covenant with His people, having been given detailed instruction for the Tabernacle, having constructed the Tabernacle and enjoyed the physical presence of God, the people were poised to enter Canaan. But first, God had something He wanted the Israelites to do as they traveled from Sinai to Paran, and on to the Plains of Moab, right across from the Promised Land.

Numbering the Israelites Numbers 1 – 4

In the opening verse of Numbers 1, the Lord spoke to Moses “in the tent of meeting.” The date of this divine encounter was the first day of the second month, Iyar (Heb. iyar, ee-yahr; (April and May), in the second year the children of Israel came out of the Land of Egypt.

Initially, Moses had not been able to go inside the Tabernacle. However, time passed, and the circumstances changed.  Study Exodus 40:35; 33:11

Because the Lord was willing to talk to Moses “face to face” on special occasions, Moses went into the Tabernacle and discovered the Lord wanted a census to be taken. “Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls; 3 From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: thou and Aaron shall number them by their armies” (Num. 1:2-3).

Specific men were selected to assist Moses in taking the census. “And with you there shall be a man of every tribe; every one head of the house of his fathers. 5 And these are the names of the men that shall stand with you” (Num. 1:4-5a).

The Results of the Census

From the census of the Israelites, an army would be formed to protect the people, and, in time, conquer Canaan.

In addition to providing a roll call of the militia, the census allowed the tribes to be arranged in various camps. The Tabernacle was to be in the center, for the Lord, in His glory and holiness, is the focus point of life. Around the Tabernacle would dwell the Priests and the Levites. Around them the 12 tribes would be orderly arranged with Judah occupying the head.

Revisiting the Purity Law Numbers 5 – 10a

Because the Lord was going to dwell in the midst of His people in a special way, every effort was to be made to make the people, and the place, pure, and clean. Special attention was to be paid to acts of ritual purity, followed by appropriate confession of sin, if necessary, and offering of an acceptable sacrifice.

God is on the Move Numbers 10b 

Because God had a geographical place for Israel, the cloudy presence of the Lord lifted up from the Tabernacle and began to move. It was on the 20th day of the 2nd month, the month of Iyyar, in the 2nd year that Israel left Egypt, “that the cloud was taken up from off the Tabernacle of the Testimony. 12 And the children of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai; and the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran” (Num. 10:11b-12). Each step of their journey was ordained by God, including those steps that led them to dark and difficult places in life. “And the cloud of the Lord was upon them by day, when they went out of the camp” (10:34). It is always important to be in the geographical will of God.

An Intercessory Prayer of Moses

Somewhere along the journey to Paran, Moses paused to pray. He knew the Israelites were entering into tribal lands that were hostile to travelers. Danger was just ahead. One night, when the Ark of the Covenant was set down, and all the people were encamped for the night, Moses rose up to pray. “Lord, let your enemies be scattered; and let them that hate you flee before you. Return, O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel” (10:35-36). Moses understood that the enemies of Israel were ultimately the enemies of God. Moses knew there are multitudes that hate God, and so they hate His people. Today, the Voice of the Martyrs staff seeks to minister to those Christians who are openly hated in various nations of the world. Jesus said, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

The Man Who Would Not Go with God

One person who refused to make the journey God was ordaining was the father-in-law of Moses, whose name was Hobab (Heb. chobab [kho-bawb’]; cherished). Despite the pleas of Moses, despite the promise of covenant blessings, Hobab said, “And he said unto him, I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred” (Num. 10:30). It is to a person’s personal shame and eternal judgment that they refuse to go on with God, and with His people. Such individuals, of their own free will, remove themselves from the sphere of the covenant of grace.

The Sin of Complaining Numbers 11

The spirit of Hobab manifested itself in the Israelites even though they continued their wilderness journey. The people began to whine and complain. Many wanted to turn around and go back to Egypt. “And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord” (11:1). The Lord does not appreciate the attitude of individuals who are ungrateful for what they have in a given moment, and who want more. The situation became tense between God and His people.

To address the situation, Moses went to the Lord to intreat Him to do something about the situation. God had to do something because, as Moses confessed, “I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me” (11:13).

The intercession of Moses on behalf of the nation proved successful. The Lord would provide manna from heaven (11:7), and He would provide fresh meat at well (11:

Judgement on Miriam and Aaron Numbers 12

The many burdens Moses had to carry was not confined to the people, and political rulers. Moses also had to endure criticism from his sister and brother, Miriam and Aaron who spoke against Moses because of his marriage to an Ethiopian woman. Moses had initially taken Zipporah to be his wife when he lived in Midian for forty years (Ex. 2:21; Acts 7:23, 30).

Then, during the wilderness journey an Ethiopian woman was taken by Moses as his second wife.

The criticism of Moses by Miriam and Aaron was known to the Lord. “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them; and he departed” (Num. 12:9).

Initially, the anger of the Lord against Miriam and Aaron seems to be misplaced. Were they not protesting an inappropriate relationship of Moses? The honest answer is, “Not really.” The real basis for the criticism of Moses was his powerful position as the leader of Israel. Notice the language of the text. “And they said, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it” (12:2).

To denigrate the leadership of Moses was to speak against the Lord Himself, for Moses was but a reflection of divine sovereignty.

Only the intervening prayer on behalf of Miriam and Aaron kept them from being swept into the dustbin of history by dying a sin unto death (12:9-15).

Twelve Spies in Canaan Numbers 13 – 15

After arriving in the wilderness of Paran, the Lord instructed Moses to send out 12 spies to survey the land and bring back a report. Ten of the spies brought back a report filled with fear and apprehension about the future. Though the land was filled with an abundance of food, the people were believed to be powerful and strong. There were giants in the land. There was no way Israel could enter into Canaan without being destroyed. Such was the Majority Report.

Two of the twelve spies offered a Minority Report. Caleb and Joshua did not think the people of Canaan were indestructible. They wanted to attack without delay. “And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it” (Num. 13:30).

Predicably, the vast congregation of Israel believed the Majority Report with its distorted view of reality. When Caleb and Joshua tried to reason with the people in gospel terms, the congregation cried out for them to be stoned (13:7-10).

This provoked the Lord to anger to the point He was willing to destroy the people with a pestilence, disinherit them, and make a greater nation in Moses (13:12). “And the Lord said unto Moses, How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?” (14:11).

As tempting as that offer may have sounded to Moses, his great heart beat for the people, and so, Moses interceded with the Lord, once more, on their behalf (14:13-19). The wrath of God was appeased by the reasoning of Moses. “And the Lord said, I have pardoned according to thy word” (Num. 14:20).

Moreover, in spite of the faithlessness of the Israelites, the Lord swore by Himself saying, “As I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord”, but not in the Exodus Generation. They were never going to see the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. Everyone twenty years of age and older would die in the desert within a forty-year time period. An expectation would be made for Caleb and Joshua who believed God. But the rest of the people would die a sin unto death (14:29-35).

The Rebellion of the Levites Numbers 16 – 19

Having dealt with the complaints of the people over food and water, having suffered the indignities of his sister and elder brother, Miriam and Aaron, having interceded time and again for individuals, and the nation, Moses was compelled to deal with yet another crisis. The Levites united with certain of the leaders of Israel to challenge the authority of Moses. Of course, the evil in their hearts was covered with pious language. Their position was simple. “Since everyone in the congregation was holy, Moses should not be the main person to make the major decisions (16:1-3).

Moses was not deceived by the spiritual language. When Moses heard the words of the rebellious Levites, he fell upon his face before the people in humility, and then rose to his feet to tell them that the Lord would reveal who is truly holy, and who is evil (16:4-5). God would reveal whom He wanted to lead His people. God would also reveal the Great Pretenders who were taking too much upon themselves (16:7).

In the end, the Lord dealt severely with the leaders among the rebellious Levites and children of Israel, and reaffirmed the leadership of Moses and Aaron (16:28-35; 17:8-13).

Into the Desert of Zin Numbers 20

During the first month of the Jewish year called Nisan (March and April), the whole congregation of Israel came in the Desert of Zin to a place called Kadesh. Several memorable events took place at Kadesh.

First, it was at Kadesh that Miriam died and was buried. Moses was probably filled with a mixture of emotions and memories about his sister. She had looked at him in love when he was a baby in a basket hidden among the reeds of the Nile River. She had caused him great trouble in their maturity when she slandered him before the nation. Now, Miriam was gone. Moses would live on without her for thirty-eight more years.

Second, it was at Kadesh that Moses struck the rock twice, that he was to speak to, in order to get water from the Lord (20:9-11).

Moses Struck the Rock Twice

Because the rock was a symbol of Christ, who was only struck once by the Father, because Moses put himself in the narrative as a provider of water (20:10), the Lord moved to discipline His servant. Neither Moses, nor Aaron would be allowed to bring Israel into the Land of Promise God had given to them (20:11-12). From the moment he struck the rock twice, Moses, and Aaron were dead men walking.

Third, from Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom. Moses was asking to be allowed to pass through the territory without harming the land. The people of Edom responded to Moses and his messengers saying, “You shall not pass by me, lest I come out against you with the sword” (20:1-18).

Neither the people of Israel, or the Lord ever forgot or forgave the Edomites for this awful treatment of the Exodus Generation. The ancient people that occupied the land south of Judah and the Dead Sea would be severe punished.

The open hostility of the Edomites to Israel is not surprising, given their historical relationship with Esau the brother of Jacob. Their story is told in part in Genesis 25:20-34.

Despite the historic animosity between the descendants of Esau and the descendants of Jacob, the Edomites should have treated the Israelites with more respect. Several centuries would pass, an then extensive judgment came to Edom from the 7th to the 4th century BC. That part of the narrative is recorded in the Book of Obadiah. Study also Isaiah 34:5-17; Jeremiah 49:7-19; Joel 3:19; Malachi 1

Dwelling Place of the Edomites

A scriptural truth must be remembered that justice delayed is not justice denied. God will avenge His people in His own way, and in His own time. The Edomites were reminded they should not have opposed and hurt the Israelites when they were weak and needed assistance (Obadiah 1:12-14).

A fourth important development recorded in Numbers 20 is the death of Aaron, and the exaltation of Eleazar to be the second High Priest of Israel (20:28). The Exodus Generation was dying out as the Lord had determined it would. Aaron was 123 years old when he died (Num. 33:39).

The Look of Saving Faith Numbers 21

When the nation of Israel continued their wilderness journey from Kadesh, they encountered Arad the Canaanites, who came out to fight against Israel. Though initially successful and able to take some prisoners, the people cried out to the Lord for military victory. Their prayers were heard, and the Canaanites were utterly destroyed (21:1-3).

The march of the Israelites continued from Mount Hor, by the way of the Red Sea, to the land of Edom. Once more the hearts of the people became fearful, causing the people to speak against God, and against Moses saying, “Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul despises this light bread” (Num. 21:5).

In His wrath at the ingratitude of the people, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (21:5-6).

With the stench of death in the camp, amidst the cries of pain and grief, the people of Israel repented of their sin of ingratitude. They readily confessed the evil they had done in speaking against the Lord, and against Moses.

As a type of Christ, in matchless grace, “Moses prayed for the people” (21:7). The Lord heard the prayer of Moses and instructed him what was to be done. Moses was to have the artisans in the camp make a serpent of brass, and put it on a pole. Any person who looked upon the uplifted serpent would be healed.

The typology is not hard to recognize. Jesus took upon Himself the sins of His people, represented by the serpent on the brass pole. Anyone who looks to him, with an eye of faith, shall be healed.

“I’ve a message from the Lord, Hallelujah!
The message unto you I’ll give.
’Tis recorded in His Word, Hallelujah!
It is only that you “look and live.”

—William A. Ogden

A Greedy Prophet Named Balaam Numbers 22 – 26  

As the children of Israel drew closer to Canaan, the tribal kings of the area became alarmed. When Israel camped in the Plains of Moab near Jericho, Balak knew what Israel had done to the Amorites and wanted to avoid armed conflict. Believing that Balaam, the son of Beor of Pethor had special power, money was offered to the greedy prophet to curse Israel. Centuries later, the betrayal of Balaam was remembered by the Jewish people. The apostle Peter warned Christians not to be like Balaam “who loved the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:15). Jude announced a curse on those who run after “the error of Balaam” (Jude 11). The Church in Pergamos was rebuked by the resurrected Lord for holding to “the doctrine of Balaam” (Rev. 2:14).

Consider

The Way of Balaam is the great sin of simony, or commercializing the gifts of God. “Which have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:15).

The Doctrine of Balaam is to abandon godly separation in favor of worldly conformity. Balaam taught Balak to corrupt people he could not curse by encouraging them to marry Moabite women, and so commit spiritual fornication.

The Tragedy of Balaam is reflected in that he was a man who could have been used in a positive way in the service of the Lord. His soul was sensitive to spiritual matters, and he had contact with God in a most unusual way until the day greed was found in his heart.

Justice and An Inheritance for the Daughters of Israel Numbers 27

One of the difficult cases Moses had to judge concerning the inheritance of a man named Zelophehad who died without having a male heir. His surviving daughters believed they should have the inheritance of their father passed on to them, and not a distant relative. The Lord agreed, and justice was done for the daughters of Zelophehad. Then Moses went on to detail other inheritance laws to guide the nation of Israel.

The Final Section Numbers 28 – 36

In the closing chapters of the Book of Numbers, Moses reviews many of the laws previously set forth. Special attention is paid to the children of the Exodus Generation for they were the one to inherit the Promised Land. A new census was taken, and new military battles were won. Two and one-half the tribes began to settle down on the east bank of the Jordan. to enjoy their inheritance. They would not go over the Jordan and enter into the Promised Land. Study

“Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of cattle: and when they saw the land of Jazer, and the land of Gilead, that, behold, the place was a place for cattle; 2 The children of Gad and the children of Reuben came and spake unto Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and unto the princes of the congregation, saying, 3 Ataroth, and Dibon, and Jazer, and Nimrah, and Heshbon, and Elealeh, and Shebam, and Nebo, and Beon, 4 Even the country which the Lord smote before the congregation of Israel, is a land for cattle, and thy servants have cattle: 5 Wherefore, said they, if we have found grace in thy sight, let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession, and bring us not over Jordan.

The book ends with the Second Generation poised to enter into the Land. Once in the Land of Promise, the various tribes would be assigned a designated area.

In the centuries to come, the prophets, poets, and apostles would retell the stories in Numbers with special attention paid to the unbelief of the people, and God’s loving longsuffering. Study Isaiah 63; Psalm 78; 95; 106; Ezekiel 20; Jeremiah 7; 1 Corinthians 10; Hebrews 4 – 5

Lessons to Learn from Numbers

  1. God knows the number of His people. Each and every person is created by Him and for Him.
  • What God does with His people is His own divine prerogative. Some are made soldiers, poets. Others are appointed magistrates and rulers. Still others are prophets, priests, and artisans.  All are appointed their role of service by the Lord.

The same principle is stated in the Church of the New Testament. It is God the Holy Spirit who sovereignly assigns every person their spiritual gift. “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal” (1 Cor. 12:7). Some of the gifts of the Spirit are mentioned in Romans 12:6-8, and Ephesians 4:11. Others are enumerated in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 28.

The patristic authors noted seven gifts of the Holy Spirit to be wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and awe (fear) of the Lord.

  • Seventy times, and in fourteen ways, God spoke in the Book of Numbers which indicates that God has a lot to say to His people. As you read through the Book of Numbers, notice to whom the Lord spoke. Look for individuals such as Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Eleazar, and Balaam.
  • The Deists are wrong to teach God is remote, and uses only Natural Laws to govern His creation. No, the Lord is intimately involved in the lives of individuals.
  • There is a place for the military in society in a fallen world. God would have people in a nation be safe and secure from foreign invasion, and enjoy internal peace in order to work, marry, reproduce, and worship.
  • The story of Hobab, who refused to go with God and His people is an illustration of the natural state of every unbeliever. Despite seeing value in spiritual matters, the heart is hardened to every gospel appeal to continue on a journey in grace. Like Hobab, each unbeliever has a compelling reason for not pursuing after God. And so, like Hobab, the unregenerate depart to their own land, and to their own kindred. Study Numbers 10:29 – 32  
  • Be honest with nostalgia. It is not uncommon for an older part of a generation to remember the past in a distorted way as better than being in the present. Many Israelites in the wilderness began to remember being in bondage in Egypt as a good thing for there was fine food to eat.  “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick” (Num. 11:5).

This was simply not true. There was no fine dining in Egypt. There was only hunger and hard work. That was the truth. Therefore, while the past should not be forgotten, neither should it be glorified unrealistically.

  • The practice of polygamy in ancient Israel has always been problematic for Christians. When a person believes in monogamy, it is difficult to reconcile multiplying wives.

The Law forbids a man to multiply wives. “Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold” (Deut. 17:17).

The Lord God established monogamy in the Garden of Eden. “Therefore, shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:4-5; 1 Cor. 7:2; Eph. 5:31).

The first standard in the New Testament for an elder, is to be the husband of one woman. “This is a true saying, if a man desires the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.  2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:1-2). This prohibition does not allow for serial wives whereby an elder can be married, divorced, remarried, divorced, remarried etc.

In spite of the creation mandate, and the Law of Moses, polygamy was practiced, and Moses himself violated what he had written down and demanded of others. Other examples of polygamy in the Bible are noted. 

Lamech was the first to have more than one wife. He was a wicked man, and a murderer (Gen. 4:19, 23).

Abraham had more than one wife in Sarah and Keturah. Sarah was the half-sister to Abraham, and the wife of his youth. Keturah was Abraham’s cousin line and the bride of his old age (Gen. 16:1-4; 23:2; 25:1).

Sarah from Hebron; Keturah from Beersheba

Jacob married Leah and Rachael (Gen. 29:1-3).

Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines who turned his heart from the Lord (1 Kings 11:1-3).

Gideon had many wives (Judges :29-31).

David had many wives (1 Sam. 18:27; 2 Sam. 3:2-5; 1 Chron. 14:3).

Elkanah had two wives (1 Sam. 1:1-7).

Rehoboam had 18 wives and 60 concubines; all forsook the Law of God (2 Chron. 11:21-12:1).

  • A special effort must be made not to be unduly critical of established authority. Christians are commanded to pray “For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim. 2:2).
  1. The eye of faith looks at a situation and sees only victory in the Lord. The eye of fear looks at a situation and sees there are “giants” in the land. The situation is hopeless. Those are the options of life. Faith, or fear. The Church is exhorted to choose faith over fear. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7).
  1. The Exodus Generation was given what they wanted; they would not be allowed to enter into the Land of Promise. While the judgment of God is holy and righteous, the Lord did respect the will of the people, as foolish and as wicked as it was.

For those who argue against the biblical doctrine of predestination on the basis that it makes a person to be a robot, notice that when people are given their free will, they consistently choose to go to hell rather than heaven. They consistently choose to sin rather than obey. They will themselves to be destroyed.

There is no one who seeks after God until the Lord of Glory comes to a soul in grace and mercy and drags that individual back to safety. Jesus said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44). Study John 1:13

Now notice that God chose to save the Second Generation and bring them into the Land of Promise, or they too would have perished in the desert like their fathers.

And there it is. The Free Will Generation, the Exodus Generation died in sin. The Chosen Generation, the Second Generation, were chosen by God to enter into the Land.

The Church should not dwell on man’s Free Will, which Charles Spurgeon said is a “slave”, but on a Subordinated Will given by God in grace so there is a capacity to love Him, obey Him, and live forever.

  1. It is an irony of evil that a person will often condemn someone else for doing exactly what they are doing. The Levites accused Moses of taking on too much authority. Moses pointed out that it was the Levites who were taking to much upon themselves (16:3, 7). People often condemn in others what they condone in themselves.
  1. The medical symbol of a staff, or rod, with a snake curled around it is the Rod of Aesculapius, the ancient mythical god of medicine.

The Greeks regarded snakes as sacred, and used them in healing rituals to honor Asclepius, the son of Apollo, an Olympian deity in classical Greek and Roman mythology. Apollo was the Greek god of sun and light. The snake venom was thought to be remedial and their skin-shedding was viewed as a symbol of rebirth and renewal (Remy Melina, “Why is the Medical Symbol a Snake on a Stick?”

Consider

It is possible Greek mythology borrowed from, and embellished, the account by Moses of a serpent on a pole being the source of healing. The Hebrew narrative is much older than Greek mythology.

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