The fourth book of the Torah or Pentateuch is Numbers. The name is descriptive, for in the book the children of Israel are numbered twice. The first census is the exodus generation (1:2-3), the second census is of their children (26:2-4). The Hebrew name for the book is bemidbar, “in the wilderness,” coming from Numbers 1:1, “Now the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of meeting…”
The book picks up the history of Israel’s escape from Egypt and sojourn to the land of Canaan in the second month of the second year after coming out of Egypt (1:1). At this point the exodus generation still had the hope of entering the promised land. They were numbered (ch. 1), organized for the journey (ch. 2-4), and given laws concerning purity (ch. 5-6). Their leaders brought offerings to Moses for the service of the tabernacle (ch. 7-8) and then God began to lead His people on their journey (ch. 9-10).
Unfortunately, things began to fall apart soon thereafter. The people were prone to complain, as chapters 11-12 demonstrate. Rather than be thankful and supportive, we find complaints about the manna and Moses’ wife.
In chapter 13, twelve spies were sent to check out the land of Canaan. They returned after 40 days, speaking of a great land flowing with milk and honey, but ten of the twelve were afraid and shared their fear with the populace. Only Joshua and Caleb believed the LORD would grant them the land as
He had promised. The people sided with the faithless spies, and so the LORD said none of them would enter the promised land. Of that generation, only Joshua and Caleb would see Canaan. The rest would die in the wilderness (chapter 14).
Their transgressions persisted. In chapter 15, a man was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath. He was stoned for his sin. In chapter 16, Korah, Dathan, Abiram and others rebelled against Moses. In chapter 20, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness of Zin. Moses, frustrated with the people, acted with pride, striking the rock and took the glory for himself rather than exalting God. As a result, Moses would not be permitted into the promised land. In chapter 21, they complain against the LORD again and are attacked by fiery serpents.
Chapters 22-24 focus on the prophet Balaam who was hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse Israel. At first Balaam obeyed the LORD and told Balak he could not go, but his greed and pride was eventually greater than his commitment to God. It almost cost him his life, for the Angel of the LORD stood in the way, but the prophet did not see him. He was saved by his donkey. In the hills near the camp of Israel, Balaam offered sacrifices to God and proceeded to bless them four times. Though he did not curse them, he did teach the Moabites how to cause Israel to stumble in idolatry & adultery (chapter 25).
In chapter 26, the census of those who would enter the promised land is taken. Moses focused on various laws in chapters 27-30, including the instruction about inheritances, sacrifices, the Sabbath, the Passover, the day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, and vows. The book closes with preparations for the new generation to go to receive Canaan, including the appointment of new leaders—Joshua to lead them in battle, Eleazar to lead them in worship, and new leaders are established in each of the tribes (chapter 34).
Next week, we continue with Deuteronomy…