Numbers is the fourth book of the five-volume Pentateuch which opens the Old Testament and establishes the origins of the nation of Israel. The English title “Numbers” comes from the two God-ordered censuses recorded in the book; the first was conducted in preparation for the Israelite’s initial entry into Canaan and the second, after they had wandered in the wilderness for almost forty years. Despite the English title, Numbers isn’t primarily a book of genealogy or lists. In fact, the Hebrew title translates as “In the Wilderness” and is perhaps a more accurate description of its content and scope.
Chronologically, Numbers picks up the Israelites’ journey toward Canaan after the giving of the Law at Sinai and the construction of the Tabernacle. Following Exodus and Leviticus, it contains both narrative and legislation; and as one commentator notes, “this blending of history and legislation is true to life, and, as in Exodus and Leviticus, the laws grew out of the experiences of the people.”1 Numbers also contains several notable pieces of poetry, including the Aaronic Blessing and a Messianic prophesy.
In many ways, the book of Numbers continues the Pentateuch’s theme of God’s faithfulness to unfaithful people; but Numbers is distinct because it highlights the dangers of unfaithfulness. One of the key words of the book is the word “unbelief,” and the narrative records several noteworthy acts of rebellion: Miriam and Aaron against Moses, Korah’s rebellion, the nation’s refusal to enter the Promised Land, and Moses’ rebellion at Meribah when he struck the rock instead of speaking to it.
The concept of rebellion or unbelief is essential to understanding Numbers and the Israelites’ forty years of wilderness wandering. Some Bible teachers interpret these years as a sort of pilgrim’s progress toward the Celestial City, linking it to Hebrews 11:13-16 that describes Christians as exiles and pilgrims “seeking a better country.” They equate the years in the wilderness with the ups and downs of the life of faith.
There are many problems with this interpretation, not the least of which is that Hebrews 11 alludes to the second, not the first, generation of Israelites who actually entered the land in faith. But more simply, the text of Numbers does not read as a text of victory; instead it reveals what happened when the children of Israel did not act in faith. The Apostle Paul emphasizes this point in I Corinthians, writing that even though they drank from the same spiritual Rock that we drink from—Jesus Christ himself—nevertheless,
with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did… 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. (I Corinthians 10:5-11)
Instead of an account of the Christian walk, Numbers reveals what happens when we reject the salvation that Christ has obtained for His people—what happens when we respond to the gospel in unbelief.
In this sense, Numbers illustrates Hebrews 6:4-6 which describes the difficulty of restoring those who fall away from the faith. If you have been offered salvation, if you have been brought to the edge of the Promised Land and have even tasted its fruit as the Israelites had, and you still reject the promises of God, there is nothing more to be offered you. By rejecting the gracious gift of God, you reject your only means of blessing and chose your own harm. In the case of the first generation of Israelites, this meant wandering and death in the wilderness.
Numbers for Women
While the Scripture is not gender specific, Numbers includes several passages that are interesting in light of discussions of womanhood in ancient near eastern contexts. One of the greatest criticisms (and misunderstandings) of the Old Testament is how it handles questions of male and female equality. On the surface, Numbers reads classically patriarchal. After all, only the males of fighting age are recorded in the censuses; and under the Law, a father or husband could even override a dependent woman’s vow to the Lord (the vows of divorced and widowed women stood on their own).
Perhaps, one of the strangest sections in Numbers describes what to do when a “spirit of jealousy” comes over a husband. If a man believes that his wife had been unfaithful to him, he was take her to the priest; unlike in some cultures, he could not simply decree her guilty or divorce her. The priest would then “bring her near and set her before the LORD” and have her drink a concoction made from holy water and the dust from the floor of the tabernacle. If she was righteous, nothing would happen to her; but if she was guilty, her stomach would swell and she would become barren.
Because this procedure seems so alien to us in a modern western context, it could be easy to miss the significance of the fact that the wife stands before the Lord on her own. She cannot be condemned on her husband’s word alone nor can she hide behind him if she has been unfaithful. Her righteousness is established between her and her God—albeit in an odd and completely inexplicable way. Taken in light of the larger theme of unbelief, Numbers reminds us that even if certain cultures would diminish a woman’s responsibility, God does not. Not only do we have the awesome privilege of standing before our Creator God, we also have to fearful responsibility to stand before him as well. Just like men, we must choose to live in faith or suffer because of our unbelief.
The Gospel according to Numbers
But even as Numbers warns against the dangers of unbelief, it also reveals God’s faithfulness in the gospel. The book is replete with pictures of the Messiah who would one day come. Some are embedded in the social and religious laws and others in the narrative itself: for example, the red heifer, the water, the bread, the brazen serpent, the star, and the cities of refuge.
But the gospel is perhaps most clearly and beautifully displayed in the sections of poetry. Early in the book, before the people even had opportunity to rebel, God speaks to Moses, instructing him to have Aaron bless the people with the following promise:
The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:24-27)
Later in the book, after Israel’s rebellion, God proves faithful to His promise when Balak, the king of Moab, hires Balaam to prophesy against the nation. But instead of cursing, Balaam can only bless them. As soon as he opens his mouth, he confirms that Israel still exist under God’s blessing: “How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?” (Numbers 23:8) Balaam continues to prophesy that Israel will be established in the land and flourish. In His grace, God even inspires him to offer the Messianic promise that “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17).
More than anything, Numbers reminds us that God does not respond to us according to our sin; He does not “reward us according to our iniquity.” Instead He responds to us in light of His own faithfulness. We may suffer because we refuse to embrace His provision, but He does not abandon us. Even as we wander in our self-imposed wildernesses, He chooses to wander with us and will not forget His covenant to us.
By Hannah Anderson
1 W H Griffith Thomas, Through the Pentateuch, Chapter by Chapter, W.h. Griffin Thomas Memorial Library (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, ©1985), 134.