How and Why to Read Numbers in 2022
There’s an old saying that some people’s purpose in life is to serve as an example to others. That’s certainly true of the Israelite generation who perished during the 40 years in the wilderness. Paul says so in 1 Corinthians 10:6a, “These things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” That is, after experiencing God’s extraordinary deliverance and provision in the Exodus, the generation that left Egypt “were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5). Let’s not make the same mistakes.
In fact, Israel’s wilderness wanderings are an allegory of this earthly life. God has supernaturally delivered us from our slavery to sin and the dominion of death (Egypt). For now, we dwell in this world as sojourners and wanderers, who have not yet obtained our inheritance. We shall one day dwell with God forever, but now we hunger and thirst after him “as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalms 63:1). And we look forward to one day entering into the rest God has promised us (Canaan), which happens after death (the Jordan River).
“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11). It’s worth considering the wilderness wanderings of those unfaithful Israelites, to learn from their bad examples. Moses records most of those wilderness years in the book of Numbers.
Background of Numbers
Numbers is the fourth book of Moses, and it explains how and why the people of Israel did not go straight up from Mount Sinai to take possession of the Promised Land. The three most important events in Numbers are two censuses and a rebellion. The book opens with Moses numbering (hence the name) the people of Israel; he found approximately 600,000 males over the age of 20, Levites excluded. Then, after God has guided the people to the edge of the Promised Land, in chapter 14, they refuse to enter. God promises as a fitting judgement, “Your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell” (Numbers 14:29-30). In chapter 26, Moses numbers the people of Israel again; he again found approximately 600,000 males over the age of 20, but “not one of those listed” in the first census survived (Numbers 26:64).
These three events present several lessons up front. First, while two men, Caleb and Joshua, are excepted from this judgment for their faithfulness, Moses takes care to emphasize the ones who died for their disobedience. God’s judgment is an important theme. Second, even after God wipes out an entire generation, the people of Israel are as numerous after 40 years in the wilderness as before. This demonstrates God’s remarkable faithfulness to multiply them, and his remarkable provision to preserve them in the wilderness. They also offer a backbone for the rest of the book,
roughly dividing it into three sections.
In chapters 1-10, Israel prepares to leave Mount Sinai, where they had been camped for all of Leviticus, and ever since Exodus 19. Israel is numbered and organized as a military camp (chapters 1-2). The Levites are numbered and organized to carry the holy items of the tabernacle (chapters 3-4). Then, God provides instructions designed to preserve the holiness of their camp (chapters 5-6), including ejecting unclean people from the camp, exposing sin, making God the witness over secret adultery, and the Nazirite vow. This concludes with God blessing the people through the priests. This section also lists the offerings that consecrated the tabernacle and the Levites (chapters 7-8). Israel observes the anniversary of their escape from Egypt (chapter 9) before setting out after the cloud (chapter 10).
In chapters 26-36, Israel is encamped at Shittim (also called Peor), where they remain throughout Deuteronomy and all the way to Joshua 3, and where they prepare to enter the Promised Land. The people are recounted and reorganized (chapters 26-27). Then Moses takes care of some unfinished business, giving instructions about offerings and vows (chapters 28-30), avenging Israel on the Midianites and Moabites (chapter 31) — more on that later — distributing early conquests (chapter 32), and recording a travelogue of the entire journey (chapter 33). The final chapters look forward to the conquest of Canaan, with instructions about driving out the inhabitants, dividing the land, designating special cities, and providing for female heirs (chapters 33-36).
In between, in chapters 11-25, is contained a truncated account of nearly 40 years of wilderness wandering in consequence of their rebellion; it seems many of those years are passed over in silence shortly before chapter 20. Chapters 11-17 recount the inauspicious beginning; the Israelites rebel against Moses and God, seemingly without taking a break. In the first three rebellions, God provides a solution, but then a judgment. In the next three, the order is reversed, and God responds with judgment, but then graciously provides reminders to his people to turn their hearts from rebellion. As the wandering progresses, God provides more rules for the purity of the Levites and the people (chapters 18-19). Then, as the 40 years draw to a close, Israel turns back towards the Promised Land, only to experience more rebellion and death (chapters 20-21). They are also forced to make a circuitous journey around several countries who don’t allow them to pass through their territory. But there are a few bright spots in chapter 21, particularly their military victories and a song about a well. In a final drama, the king of Moab hires a foreign prophet, Balaam, to curse God’s people, but he can only bless them; he advises Moab to seduce Israel into idolatry and sexual immorality instead (chapters 22-25).
One feature of Numbers that intimidate casual readers is the diversity of genres. Numbers is not a limited access highway like some books — get up to speed and set the cruise. Numbers is more like a commercial district — constant accelerations and decelerations, turn lanes, stop lights, and traffic. There are multiple chapters each of narrative, poetry, laws, and record-keeping, interspersed with one another. Properly interpreting these different genres involves rapid gear-shifting and patience at the broken momentum. It can seem like a slog, particularly taken after Leviticus. But, like a commercial district, the rich wares on offer here explain why you ought to keep coming back.
What to Learn from Numbers
It may be difficult at first, but Numbers offers rich material for reflection. Take the people’s frequent rebellion, for instance. What does their behavior demonstrate was true about their hearts, which angered God? If we aim to please him, how will we protect our hearts from the same sinful attitudes? How were God’s judgments fitting, and what does that teach us about God’s justice? What do God’s solutions teach us about his character, and how can we rely on those same attributes of his character in our own trials?
To take one particularly sweet example, in Numbers 11 Moses is overwhelmed by the burden of caring for the restive multitude, so God places his Spirit, which was on Moses, and places it on 70 elders of the congregation, who prophesy. When Moses is told, he responds, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29). Moses could have no idea how God would answer this prayer, approximately 1,500 years later, when he poured out his Spirit on the apostles at Pentecost.
There is more food for thought in contrasting the attitudes of faith and sight evident in the book’s final chapters. In Numbers 32, Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh ask for Moses to give them their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan River. They’ve seen this territory, it seems good to them, and they can have it with no more hard fighting. They’re walking by faith. This fateful decision meant their territory was some of the first to be cut off from Israel (1 Kings 10:33). By contrast, the daughters of Zelophehad, who had no male heir, stood up after the census to justly demand, “Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers” (Numbers 27:4). The possession they sought was in Canaan, which Israel had not yet taken, and they had never seen. Their request showed their faith that God would fulfill his promise to give the land to the people of Israel.
Or consider Balaam, who is universally condemned in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11, Revelation 2:14). How do his actions demonstrate his greed? Why does he bless Israel after coming to curse them? Why was he confident in the stratagem of enticing Israel into God’s judgment by sexual immorality and idolatry? A man of international reputation dies an ignoble death (Numbers 31:8) at God’s command (Numbers 25:16-18) for siding with God’s enemies, while the young priest Phineas is approved by God (Numbers 25:10-13) for his jealousy in defending God’s holiness (Numbers 25:6-8). Why?
Numbers in the New Testament
Finally, we can’t consider Numbers without looking at how it is applied and extended by the inspired authors of the New Testament. In the immediate context of the Bible’s most famous verse, Jesus invokes Numbers when he said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). In that incident (Numbers 21:4-9), the people “spoke against God and against Moses” quite unreasonably, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food,” and the Lord sent fiery serpents among them in judgment. When the people repented of their sin, at God’s command, “Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” When we are afflicted for our sins and repent of them, we can look to Jesus and live.
Throughout the New Testament, there are exhortations not to be like the rebellious Israelites in Numbers. Do not “desire evil as they did. …We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer” (1 Corinthians 10:6b, 8-10).
Invoking Psalm 95 at length, the author of Hebrews urges, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews. 3:12-13). He adds, “to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Heb. 3:18-19). They did not believe God, and therefore they did not obey God.
This is both a somber and an encouraging place to end this consideration of Numbers. Sin wants to deceive us and tell us lies about God. Every sin we commit begins with unbelief. We’ve got to seek out and destroy that unbelief in our hearts before it can fester. But, boy, is it ever slippery. That’s why we need other Christians who can look into our lives and point out the sin we can’t see.
On the encouraging side, Israel’s wilderness journey is not an allegory for a Christian’s life, in one key sense. The Israelites who wandered in the wilderness all perished in unbelief; they never crossed into the Promised Land. But that isn’t the case for Christians. “We who have believed enter that rest,” Hebrews continues (4:3), and “whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:10). We look to Jesus and have eternal life in him. To some, Jesus said, “You have seen me and yet do not believe” (John 6:36), but to us he says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
He has promised to keep us until his coming, when we will see him face to face. When that time comes, there will be no more striving or struggling, no more trials or temptations, no more pain or hunger or weakness or grief or death. But we will have perfect peace and rest in his bosom forever.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.