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The Big Book–Cover to Cover: Numbers

Years ago Cindy and I visited the church we had attended in college and heard a guest speaker, Dr. Waltke. As he was preparing to teach, he warned he would be reading a lengthy passage of Scripture and encouraged us:

“While I have been nervous about this reading, I want you to remember, …this is a page of the Word of God and it deserves our attention.”

As we dive in to an overview of the book of Numbers, let’s be reminded that this is the Word of God.

Join us as we look at this important journey of the Israelites through the wilderness.

Show Notes:

Dr. Ron Allen writes, “Who but a mathematician could rise with joy to a book called “Numbers?”
-Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers,”in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), 700.

As we look at a high view of Numbers, let’s remember: It is the very word of God.


The title in the English bible comes from the Septuagint and the word is arithmoi, the same word from which we get arithmetic.

But the Hebrew title came from the fifth word in Numbers 1:1 meaning “In the wilderness” or “in the desert”

Frankly, I like that title a lot better than Numbers.

Because this is a hard thing, we’re in the wilderness. This is a hard chapter of the Pentateuch.


Moses is certainly the principal figure in the book and throughout he is a participant in and eyewitness to most of its major events.
-Eugene H. Merrill, “Numbers,”in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 215.

Scholars will debate the true authorship til the end of time, but I hold to a Mosaic authorship.

Numbers 33:2

The book of Numbers is detailed and laborious at times, but Moses is writing this as a timestamp.

When we have a date, a place, and an event – we’re crossing the Jordan – that’s a timestamp.


The date is actually pretty easy for us to figure out, the Israelites crossed the Jordan 40 years after the Exodus (1445/1446 bc)

Conservative dating puts the book around 1406 BC.

It’s a very compressed storyline – a long book, but it happens very quickly.

Notice the final verse: Numbers 36:13

It seems clear, Israel would now move into Canaan. This is a timestamp, and the same year that Moses dies.

What’s the purpose?

Why the book of Numbers?

Mortimer Abner wrote a book called How to Read a Book. It’s a brilliant book and one of the things he says is,

“Before you read a book, find out what the author’s trying to tell you.”

If you read a preface and the author doesn’t tell you what the book’s about, don’t read the book. When you become a critical reader, you start to understand how books are written.

What’s the purpose of the book of numbers? This is a fascinating question.

“Numbers seems to be an instruction manual to post-Sinai Israel. The “manual” deals with three areas: (a) how the nation was to order itself in its journeyings, (b) how the priests and Levites were to function in the condition of mobility which lay ahead, and (c) how they were to prepare themselves for the conquest of Canaan and their settled lives there. The narrative sections, of which there are many, demonstrate the successes and failures of the Lord’s people as they conformed and did not conform to the requirements in the legislative, cultic, and prescriptive parts of the book. The fact that the book covers the nearly 40-year period from the giving of the Law at Sinai till the eve of the Conquest points to its character as history. But it is more than a recording of history. It is history with the purpose of describing the Lord’s expectations and Israel’s reactions in a unique period, an era when the nation had God’s promise of the land but had not yet experienced its fulfillment.”
– Merrill, 215.

“We contend that the Book of Numbers is sublime. It forms an essential link in that forward-direction from Adam to Jesus. In the most unusual of ways, it heightens our appreciation of and response to the person of Yahweh. For Christians this book is even more rewarding; for we find ourselves confronting in new ways the meaning of our salvation in JesusChrist. He who is the goal of all history is the goal of the Book of Numbers…”

The theme of the Book of Numbers is worship.

It is the worship of God by Moses and those who align themselves with him. By God’s grace it may become a book of worship for us as well. ”
-Allen 657 -658

Recommended resource: Talk Thru the Bible

“The theme of Numbers is theconsequence of disbelief and disobedienceto the holy God. The Lord disciplined His people but remained faithful to His covenant promises in spite of their fickleness. Numbers displays the patience, holiness, justice, mercy, and sovereignty of God toward His people.Numbers was written to trace the history of Israel’s wanderings from Sinai to Moab… selects those events that are important to the development of God’s redemptive program. The sins of the first generation were written as a reminder and a warning to the second generation. They must implicitly trust God before they can possess the Land of Blessing.” – Bruce Wilkinson and Kenneth Boa, Talk Thru the Bible(Nashville: T. Nelson, 1983), 29

Not to be reductionistic, but perhaps a thumbnail theme is:

God remains faithful when His people remain faithless.

Noteworthy Features of Numbers

There are so many noteworthy features in Numbers.

  • The Tent of Meeting
    Every time I see the phrase “Tent of Meeting” I write “TOM” in the margin and quickly begin to see this is a recurring feature.

The Tent of Meeting becomes the place of worship.

  • The Levitical Priesthood
    Aaron is the high priest, some of his sons didn’t fare so well, but the Levitical Priests take care of everything there is to do with the tabernacle complex, also known as the Tent of Meeting.
  • The Aaronic Blessing in Chapter 6

Again, we’ve got this fun play going on – remember when Moses didn’t want to be the spokesperson, and God appointed Moses to speak.

So there’s a good question: was Aaron the one doing all the speaking and Moses stood beside him?

There’s some validity to that theory, and in Numbers both Moses and Aaron are mentioned a lot.

  • The Lord commands Moses and Aaron to build this tabernacle complex.
  • The firstborn becomes an enormous issue. Remember the storyline: Pharaoh thinks he’s god and thinks his son is a god, and God shows him who’s God. It’s a mockery polemic – a war – and the final plague is the death of the firstborn.

There’s another firstborn that comes later and saves the world – Jesus.

This firstborn theme is critical throughout all of scripture and is tucked away in this ritual worship prescribed in Numbers.

If you’re in the priesthood and things aren’t done right, you’re going to die.

In the Levites, God takes a firstborn tribe. “They shall be mine, I am the Lord” Numbers 3:13

Numbers 3:11-17

  • The priests’ duties, in summary: Numbers 3:25-32

This was a massive operation.

  • Consecration of the tabernacle: Numbers 7:1-9

Bible students, what comes to mind? Carrying the Ark required poles (Exodus 25:13-15). Some scholars estimate the Ark may have weighed 600lbs. The Ark was rectangular, approximately 45 x 27 x 27, which doesn’t include the height of the 2 Cherubim. It’s likely the poles were 12-19ft long.

Once the temple complex was built, it seems shorter poles were in place perhaps due to the fact that they didn’t move the Ark anymore.

2 Samuel 6:4-12: if they’d read through Numbers, they’d know that you don’t move the Ark on a cart.

Where were the Kohathites? Where were the Levitical priests? They’d stopped doing their jobs, likely they didn’t know the text and didn’t know that the Ark was to be transported by those poles

  • The tabernacle is erected and the cloud covered the tabernacle (Numbers 9:15) and the first time the cloud lifts and Israel moves (Numbers10:11).
  • Israel grumbles again and again and again. They grumble about manna, Moses complains to the Lord (Numbers11:10) and asks God to kill him (Numbers 11:15).
  • God gives them meat (Numbers 11:31) and we read of Miriam and Aaron grumbling against Moses and Miriam turns leprous.
  • Spies are sent into the land(Numbers 13:1-33).
  • Horrific consequences of disobedience (Numbers 14:31-35). This rebellion will land Israel 40 years of wandering in the wilderness – one long funeral procession – every man over 20 will die in the wilderness except Joshua and Caleb.

There are estimates regarding the number of funerals held per day during their journey. According to the Law, if you bury someone, you’re ceremonially unclean and you have to go through cleansing rituals, which required water, which was a valued commodity in the wilderness…

There’s so much going on in these storylines that we miss because we’re losing our ability to study carefully.


While most books of the Bible record deaths of various men and women, Numbers records the deaths Miriam (Numbers 20), Aaron, and Moses, in the 40th year in the wilderness.

Numbers 20:3-12

In Israel’s grumbling and they cry out: Why have you brought the Lord’s assembly into this wilderness…

Why? You were in slavery!

They’d rather be in slavery than in the wilderness, and we’re the same way.

We’d rather be enslaved to sin than have everything stripped out of our lives, it’s the human condition.

Then Moses strikes the rock, and God says he wont see the land which He has given Israel.

I’ve gotta believe that declaration put Moses on the ground, what a gut-punch. Imagine an athlete who’s been practicing his whole life but will never step onto the field, this was so much worse. Moses’ entire life has been to lead his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, and in one moment, he finds out he wont be going.

Meribah is what this place is called. It means ‘contended with the Lord.’ Remember the Waters of Mara? The bitterness?

These places take on names based on what occurs in each, and those names still remain.

Encouragement: Read the story of Phinehas (Numbers 25!)

Numbers 22:1-8. Moses recorded their starting places and recorded the journey. What should’ve taken 3 weeks will take 40 years.


  1. Seeing miracles doesn’t convince people. Israel witnessed so many signs and wonders in the wilderness, yet they did not believe.
    Whether you believe miracles and signs and wonders are still active today or not is a whole discussion we could have.My viewpoint is that God still heals, God still performs miracles, but God has not given a person the gift to heal or to do something miraculous. Elijah, Elisha, and the apostles had the power to do certain things. Individuals had the power from God for specific works, which is different from when we see an MRI where there was cancer and now there is not and we’re seeing a miracle.The problem with a miracle and signs and wonders is it doesn’t make people believe. Israel had seen the ten plagues, manna, water from the rock, the cloud in the day and pillar of fire in the night – and they still wanted a miracle.
  2. Ask God, not merely for a miracle, but for an immovable faith.
    If in God’s great kindness He grants me a miracle, I’ll need another one. We’re never satisfied.Lazarus has died and Christ raises him from the dead, and I think Lazarus got the bad end of that deal because now he’s got to live and die again. If God grants me a miracle, I’ll need another and another. So don’t be hard on the Israelites, but ask for an immovable faith.An immovable faith moors us to God and sustains us through this life.
  3. God may take all the props away. Will we trust Him when we are physically, emotionally, and spiritually parched? Like we said in 2 Peter: Where did we ever get the idea life was going to work out a certain way?When everything’s working out well or fine, we don’t need God. But when we are taken to the edge, that’s when we need God and where we learn to trust Him.The moment we think we can live without Him, that’s dangerous – when the props are gone, what will we lean on?
  4. Never underestimate the benefit of falling on your face. So many times in scripture we read of people who have fallen on their face. My favorite is in Revelation where John sees the angel of the Lord and it says, “I fell on at his feet like a dead man.” Revelation 1:17When you fall on your face, worship.Then next time you or I get bad news, are put to the test, are unjustly treated – rather than sulk, whine, grumble, or complain – fall on your face and worship.

Praise God. We can worship Him when all the props are gone.

Michael Easley

About Michael Easley

Michael is husband to one, dad to four, and host of Michael Easley inContext.

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