The book of Numbers is so called because of the two numberings of the Israelites that took place at the beginning and end of their wanderings in the wilderness. The book covers a time period of approximately forty years, beginning at Sinai and ending with the final approach of the people to the Promised Land. In it we see a number of key events: rebellion by the people, a bad report brought by the spies, the exchange between Balak and Balaam, etc. There are also some hidden gems that speak to us of Christ; in particular, keep an eye out for the bronze snake (c.f. John 3:14-15) and the city of refuge (Ps. 91:2).
Chapters 1-4: The first census
The book of Numbers opens with the first census, taken by Moses while the Israelites were still camped at Sinai. Most people skip over this section, as it lists names and numbers of the various tribes and clans of the nation. But when you read it, think about the humble beginnings of the nation: from a family of just 70 people, God caused them to multiply so that each tribe could fill a sports stadium. We also see the divisions of the Levites and the number of people there. The three Levitical families were responsible for carrying different parts of the tabernacle, which we read about here. God had very specific rules for how they were to carry out their duties, and from this we can learn how we should act in respect of Him and His holiness.
Chapters 5-6: Laws concerning adultery and the Nazirite
In chapters 5 and 6 we see God giving Moses a couple of extra instructions, concerning the test for an unfaithful wife and the Nazirite vow. There are several people in the Bible who were Nazirites or took this kind of vow, including Samson (Judg. 13:7), Samuel (1 Sam. 1:11), and Paul (Acts 18:18 and Acts 21:24). Taking a Nazirite vow was an act of dedication to God, and could be for a fixed period of time or for life.
Chapters 7-8: Dedication of the Tabernacle and the Levites
Numbers 7 gives a list of all the offerings brought by the leader of each tribe over the twelve days that the tabernacle was dedicated. All the offerings are the same, and we see the dedication of the people in bringing them to God.
In chapter 8 we see the dedication of the Levites, whom God took in substitution for the firstborn of the nation, after the events of Ex. 32, where the Levites were the only tribe to take a stand for God’s righteousness.
Chapters 9-10: Moving on from Sinai
In chapters 9 and 10 the Israelites celebrate the Passover feast, and then break camp as the pillar of cloud lifts from the tabernacle and leads them on through the wilderness. This passage is quite descriptive of how they were led by the cloud, and demonstrates to us how we too should be obedient in following God’s leading in our lives. We also see the instructions God gave Moses to make two silver trumpets for summoning the people.
Chapters 11-12: Rebellion from the people
Just as everything seems to have been set in order, with the people united in dedicating the tabernacle and following the pillar of cloud, we see problems. We read how some people started complaining about the conditions and the food. So Moses goes to the Lord about it, and God provides quail for the people – but at a cost: those who complained, died of a plague before they could finish eating it. After this we see Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, wanting their share of the leadership. Miriam is struck with leprosy, but Moses prays for her healing. Rebellion arises out of self-will – when we think that what we want is better and more important than what God wants. We can ask ourselves, would we have been satisfied with the manna God was miraculously providing, or would we have been joining those demanding to have other food?
Chapters 13-14: The spies explore the land of Canaan and incite the people to rebel
After these events, God instructs Moses to select a man from each tribe to go into the land of Canaan and explore it. They do so, and come back with some of the fruit – but also with a bad report about there being giants in the land. Although Joshua and Caleb pointed out that God would be on their side and give them victory, the people listened to the ten other spies and started talking about going back to Egypt. God is angry and threatens to strike them all down, but Moses intercedes. Instead, God declares that the nation would wander in the wilderness for forty years, until the whole generation of adults who complained had died.
Chapter 15: Offerings to be made in the land
In chapter 15 God describes some of the offerings that were to be made when the people did eventually enter the land. We can look at these as part of His promise that they would indeed be victorious.
Chapters 16-18: The rebellion of Korah and reiteration of God’s selection of Aaron
In chapter 16 we see the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abihu, who were Levites but not priests. They were dissatisfied with the role they had been given and challenged Moses. So Moses called them to come to the Tent of Meeting, and God destroyed them by having the earth open up and swallow them alive. The others who had joined them were also destroyed by fire from the Lord. The people continued grumbling after this, and God sent a plague. Finally, God tells Moses to call all the leaders together to put their staffs in front of the presence of the Lord. God caused Aaron’s staff to bud, as a sign of His selection of Aaron as priest. Although God doesn’t necessarily deal with our rebellion in the same way today, we would be wise to take note of how such attitudes displease Him. We must learn to be satisfied with what He has given us to do, and not strive or complain because He hasn’t given us the ministry He may have given to someone else, even though we may feel that we are more qualified or experienced.
In chapter 18 God reiterates and gives additional instructions concerning the role and portion of the Levites within the nation. Understanding these aspects is important for understanding the events of the rest of the Old Testament, and how the Levites were to relate to the rest of the nation.
Chapter 19: Laws concerning the preparation of the water of cleansing
In Numbers 19 we see laws concerning how the water of cleansing was to be prepared and applied. This outward cleansing is symbolic of the inward cleansing of sin that each of us needs to receive from God. It is interesting to note that in the offering of the sacrifice, the priest becomes ceremonially unclean until evening – just as Jesus descended into Hades, being ‘unclean’ because He was bearing our sin at the time.
Chapters 20-21: Passing through Edom, Arad and Moab
In chapters 20-21 we see the Israelites nearing the end of their wanderings, and travelling through the regions of Edom, Arad, and Moab, approaching the Jordan from the south-east. In these two chapters we also see two major events which have great consequence and significance. The first is Moses striking the rock for the second time. (The first was in Ex. 17.) This was an act that caused God to put him in the penalty box, so that he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. This may seem a rather extreme move by God, but He had told Moses to speak to the rock, not to strike it. By striking it in anger, Moses firstly misrepresented God to the people, and secondly, broke God’s intended prophetic symbolism of the rock being Christ. At Christ’s first coming, He was struck and living water poured out. At His second coming, He will not be struck, but will be implored to provide salvation.
The second event worth noting is that of the erection of the bronze serpent. This was in response to a plague of snakes that God sent among the people. God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole, so that everyone who looked at it would live. This is curious, because it seems to violate the second commandment not to make anything in a form of an animal or other created thing. Indeed, the children of Israel did fall into the trap of worshipping this bronze snake (see 1 Kin. 18:4). Bronze is a symbol of judgement; the snake is a symbol of sin. So the bronze snake lifted up on a pole represents sin being judged – a picture that Jesus uses of Himself, John 3:14-15.
Finally we see the defeat of Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan. God had forbidden the Israelites to attack the Edomites or Moabites because of the blood relationship between their ancestors (Edom, or Esau, being the brother of Jacob, and Moab being the son of Lot, Abraham’s nephew). But there was no such relationship between the Israelites and Amorites, so they were free to conquer them.
Chapters 22-25: Balaam and Balak
In Num. 22-25 we are introduced to Balak, king of Moab, and Balaam, a prophet. Balak is concerned about the million-plus people wanting to pass through his land, so he summons Balaam and offers him money if he will curse the people. Initially Balaam declines, but when Balak insists, he goes. On the way we have the amusing story of how angels came and stood in his way, which he did not see but his donkey did. After the donkey avoided the angels three times, with Balaam beating her each time, God caused the donkey to speak (2 Pet. 2:15-16).
When Balaam arrives, Balak takes him to various mountains to see the people in the hope that Balaam will curse them. But as Balaam starts to speak, God puts words of blessing in his mouth. Four times this happens, and Balak sends him away – but not without one final piece of advice from Balaam, which we only discover through other passages of Scripture (Rev. 2:14). Balaam knew that God would bless Israel if they were obedient to Him. He reasoned, therefore, that if they could be enticed to sin, God would curse them. So he counselled Balak to have the young women of Moab tempt the men of Israel into sin. You can read about what happened in Num. 25.
Chapters 26-27: The second census
Numbers 26-27 gives the second census of the Israelites, just prior to entering the Promised Land. While this seems a list of dry numbers, we see the effect of the events of Num. 25 on the tribe of Simeon in particular, reducing their population to just over 22,000 men.
In ch. 27 we meet the daughters of Zelophehad. They came to Moses to enquire about how property might be distributed to them when the nation entered the land, since the Law had only made provision for property to be passed down through the males of a family. Zelophehad had five daughters and no sons, and the daughers feared that they would be left with nothing. God makes provision for them here, and they take it up in Num. 36.
Chapters 28-30: Laws concerning offerings and vows
In chapters 28-29 we are given additional details concerning the offerings that were to be made at the appointed times: the daily offerings, Sabbath offerings, new moon offerings, and offerings associated with each of the national feasts. These complement Lev. 23.
In chapter 30 God gives Moses commandments concerning the making and breaking of vows.
Chapters 31-32: Defeating Midian, land east of the Jordan
In ch. 31 God instructs Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites for how they had led the nation into sin (Num. 25). He sent the army into battle, and God gave them victory and great spoil. He protected their army so that no-one was missing, and the people gave an offering to God out of the spoil in gratitude.
In ch. 32 we see another potential problem arising, and one that would have ramifications throughout Israel’s history: the tribes of Reuben and Gad asked Moses’ permission to claim land on the east side of the Jordan river and not cross into the Promised Land. They asked this because they had large flocks and herds, but Moses was displeased, thinking they were shirking their responsibility and rebelling against the Lord. He warned them of how their forefathers’ rebellion against the Lord and rejection of the Promised Land at Kadesh Barnea had led to the whole nation being forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years. But the Reubenites and Gadites insisted this was not their intention. They agreed to cross into the Promised Land and help their fellow Israelites drive out the inhabitants of the land. Historically, however, these tribes were always the first to be attacked and taken into captivity by the Assyrians and later the Babylonians. God gave them their request, but one cannot help but think they would have received an even greater blessing had they entered the land.
Chapter 33: The stages in Israel’s journey
Numbers 33 gives a list of the stages in Israel’s journey. Some of these place names are familiar to us, and others are not. This demonstrates to us how God had faithfully led them all the way from Egypt to Canaan, although they had not always obeyed Him faithfully.
Chapters 34-36: Instructions for the land, including appointing cities of refuge
The final chapters of Numbers contain instructions concerning the overall boundaries of the land and how it was going to be assigned to the different tribes. We also see God’s commands concerning the cities of refuge: how they were to be appointed, and how they were to operate. The Levites were not to receive any tribal land as an inheritance, for their inheritance was to be God Himself (Deut. 10:9). However they were to be assigned cities throughout the land, so that they could teach the people God’s ways. Six of these cities – three on each side of the Jordan – were to be cities of refuge for someone guilty of manslaughter to flee so they could be safe from the next of kin, who took on the role of the avenger of blood. This is a beautiful picture of our security in Christ. The final chapter sees the implementation of the law made for Zelophehad’s daughters in ch. 27.
The book of Numbers thus leads us up to the point where Israel was about to enter the land. At this time, Moses took the opportunity to reiterate to the people the law of God in a number of sermons, which comprise the book of Deuteronomy.