The key to unlocking the dynamic of Numbers is to recognise that because Numbers is a substantial and complicated book with several long detailed sections, a strategy is needed to simplify and get to the heart of what is going on. So study the structure first. You may also find it helpful to begin by reading the narrative sections (10:10 – 12:16, and 20:1 – 22:1) first.
Click on the link above to listen to an audio version of the book of Numbers.
Listen to Nick’s podcasts of sections of Numbers in the Starter Course.
Easy: Read the narrative section (Chapters 10 – 14).
Main: Read the whole book either in one sitting, or one or two chapters a day for a month.
A film about the Exodus: “Prince of Egypt” or “Exodus: of gods and men”.
Study the Bible for Life material and answer the ‘meal course’ questions.
Suggested verses for meditation …
24 The Lord bless you and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
The book of Numbers is the fourth book in the Pentateuch and can only be understood with this context. At first encounter, it is a baffling complex of narrative, religious and moral laws, purity rites, two censuses lists, and an encounter with a pagan prophet. So we need to start by identifying the key developments.
First, Numbers describes the Israelite’s journey from Mount Sinai (where Yahweh made a covenant with his people) to the plains of Moab just east of the river Jordan where Israel was poised to enter the Promised Land. Second, the book is about the failure of God’s people to enter the land at Kadesh and then God’s discipline on the older generation for their unbelief (chapters 1-25) and the preparation of the younger generation to enter (chapters 26-36). The first part is marked by repeated failures, rebellions, defeat and death. In the second part, not one soldier dies, there is no defeat, no rebellion, and no failure. Almost every part of the second section relates to and overturns a failure in the first section. Within these overarching developments, Numbers records the details of the continued development of the Levitical worship as written in the book of Leviticus. Numbers is therefore the record of several interlinked lines of development while God’s people travel across the desert.
The underlying motivation for the journey to the Promised Land is the belief that, as his covenant people, God had promised it to Abraham and his descendants. Faith and obedience are therefore the leading spiritual themes throughout Numbers. Those who believe God’s promises and act upon them are the ones who survive and are blessed, while those who disbelieve and disobey find themselves living outside God’s blessings, are (in different ways) punished, and die. Numbers also teaches about the presence of Yahweh among his people through his indwelling of the tabernacle. Like concentric circles around the Tabernacle, there are ‘zones of holiness’, with Moses and Aaron at the centre surrounded by the priests, Levites, tribes, the ‘unclean’ and then the pagans. The first part of Numbers describes the continued erosion of this holiness so that ultimately even Moses is tempted and fails to honour God properly.
The book of Numbers calls and challenges God’s people to believe his promises to them and live all our lives obediently in this perspective. Its stories challenge us to be holy in order to learn the leading of the Spirit and receive the blessings of the covenant we have with God.
Question 1 -
What made an impression on you as you read Numbers?
Question 2 -
Aaron’s blessing in Numbers 6:22-27 is a beautiful and profound high point in this book. Have you ever been blessed in this way?
Question 3 -
What view does the New Testament teach about the Israelites’ refusal to enter the Promised Land (1 Corinthians 10:1-12, Hebrews 3:19)?
Question 4 -
In what form and shape do the temptations to commit immorality and idolatry come to us today?
Numbers: 'The Journey'
Numbers: 'Rebellion, Failure, Death'
Numbers: 'Those who enter the promised land'
Author and date: The dating of the Pentateuch is the subject of a good deal of controversy. There are some references to Moses (whose life is dated as either 1500BCE or 1300BCE) committing God’s instructions to writing, but these are not frequent in the book of Numbers. While studies show that many of the artefacts and practices mentioned in Numbers are paralleled in the worshipping practices of neighbouring cultures at the end of the second millennium BCE, contemporary scholars usually take the view that the material is a compilation from different sources: priestly, Yahwistic and Elohistic.
Numbers is partly narrative, related in the form of a historical chronicle, and partly laws and instructions about worship. A study of the structure shows that the narrative is carefully composed around distinct geographical sections in the story. The religious and community laws are composed around these sections. A development can be seen, in that earlier laws and situations are later qualified and developed as they are tested in case practice (27:1-11, and later, 36:1-12).
The structure of Numbers
The structure of Numbers can be viewed in two ways:
1. Numbers viewed as a geographical development:
|1:1 - 10:10||The people of God prepare to enter the promised land.|
|10:11 - 12||The journey from Sinai to Kadesh.|
|13:1 - 19:22||Forty years near Kadesh.|
|20:1 - 22:1||The journey from Kadesh to the plains of Moab.|
|22:2 - 36:13||Israel in the plains of Moab.|
(This table is adapted from Olson p5-6)
|The failed first attempt
||The successful second attempt
|1 – First census of the 12 tribes||26 – Second census of the 12 tribes|
|3 – Census of the Levites||26 – Census of the Levites|
|5 – Legal issues involving women||27 – Legal instructions involving women|
|6 – Laws regarding vows||30 – Laws regarding vows|
|7, 15 – Lists and laws regarding offerings||28, 29 – List and laws regarding offerings|
|9 – Celebration of the Passover||28:16-25 – Celebration of Passover|
|10:8-9 – Instructions for the priests to blow the trumpets for Holy War||31:6 – Priests blow the trumpets for Holy War|
|13 – List of spies from the 12 tribes||34 – List of tribal leaders responsible for dividing the land|
|13 – 14 – Spy story leading to the death of the old generation||32:6-15 – First spy story recalled as a warning|
|18:21-22 – Provision for the Levites||35 –Provision of the Levitical cities|
|21:21-35 – Victory over Sihon and Og and the capture of the land east of Jordan||32 – Assignment of East Jordan land to three tribes|
|25 – The Midianites cause Israel to sin||31 – Holy War against Midian to punish them|
Chapters 1-25 are therefore a record of the failure of the first generation to enter the Promised Land.
Although Israel obeys God’s instructions for preparing to travel (1:1 – 10:10) the venture quickly degenerates into rebellion through complaints (11-12) and then outright rebellion (13-14), resulting in Moses’ near death.
There are important statements of hope in chapters 15 – 25: Balaam’s prophecies about the fulfilment of God’s promises to the patriarchs, victories over Arad, Sihon and Og, and laws relating to their future in the Promised Land. Nevertheless, the initiative ultimately fails in the apostasy of chapter 25 and the death of the first generation.
Chapters 26-36 record the new generation preparing to enter the Promised Land.
Like the first section, the narrative begins with a census.
Whereas the first section instructed on the arrangement of the people in concentric circles around the tabernacle in order to establish the holiness of God and protect the people, the instructions for the new generation address issues about land and structure worship in terms of time.
The first part is marked by repeated failures, rebellions, defeat and death.
In the second not one soldier dies, there is no defeat, no rebellion, no failure.
Almost every part of the second section relates to and overturns a failure in the first section.
1) Numbers tells the story of the people of God’s journey from Sinai to the border of the Promised Land. The foundational reason and explanation for this journey is God’s fulfilment of his promise to Abraham that his descendants would …
…and that through them, all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3, 22:18).
2) Those who disbelieve God and disobey his commands fail to enter the Promised Land.
3) Those who trust God and obey him enter the Promised Land.
Question 1 -
Man (joking): “I’m so humble I have to pray for pride.” Friend: ‘In that case, God has given you a great answer to prayer!’ How should 12:2 influence our understanding of the authorship of Numbers?
Question 2 -
The Israelites who came through the exodus then refused to enter the Promised Land because of fear. Jesus preached the Kingdom, and told his disciples to seek the Kingdom (Matt 6:33). Are you afraid of the Kingdom? What is the cost of encountering the Kingdom (Mark 8:34-9:1)?
Question 3 -
Why do God’s people fight God’s leaders, the very people God has chosen, gifted and appointed to lead them into the Kingdom of God?
Question 4 -
Question 5 -
Chapter by Chapter
Censuses (Chapters 1 – 4)
The cleansing of the camp (Chapters 5 – 6)
The dedication of the tabernacle and the Levites (Chapters 7 – 8)
Celebrating the past and pursuing the future (Chapter 9 – 10:10)
There is a careful logic underlying these chapters in which the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land. The censuses are the first steps in the military preparation for the attack on Canaan (1:3). There is a progression from the armed military men, to the Levites who carry the tabernacle, to the senior Levites (chaps 1-4). This movement from the common to the holy is then seen again in the purification of the camp, through from skin diseases (5:1-4) to more serious cases of adultery (5:11-31), before the more positive commitments about the Nazarite vow (6:1-21) and the Aaronic blessing of God to his people (6:22-27). The theme of the sacred at the centre of the common is seen for the third time in the dedication and purification of the Levites, whose special privilege is to represent God’s people as bonded into one community and centred around the worship of Yahweh. This central worship reaches its crescendo firstly through the annual festival of Passover (9:1-14) – the historic point at which the nation was born and the point from which the nation’s identity is traced – and experientially through the daily reality of the fire and cloud above the tabernacle (9:15-23). So, the people proceed towards Canaan united in the Passover and with God’s presence with them. Similarly, the community of Jesus’ disciples proceed into the Kingdom united at the Cross (1 Corinthians 1:10-25), with the daily presence of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Chapters 1 – 4 Censuses
Although 13 tribes are mentioned (12, and the Levites set apart to carry the tabernacle), they are considered to be one people. In one sense, these mirror today’s denominations centred around not the tabernacle but the crucified Christ. The census was the initial preparation for war as the people prepared to enter the Promised Land, and this is why the Levites were not included; their task was to service the tabernacle, not to fight.
The arrangements should be understood in this way: at the very centre of the camp was the tabernacle, where God’s presence dwelt. This was serviced by the Levites whose privilege and duty discharged them from serving in the army. The twelve tribes were encamped around the Levites; three on each side to the East, North, West and South. Outside the camp were the unclean.
God has declared that the people are a ‘kingdom of priests’ and we see both of these being worked out in these initial four chapters. The tribes are arranged around the tabernacle for war – they are a kingdom. But it is the tabernacle that makes them all priests in its widest sense.
The mature Levites were given the most important responsibilities in the care of the tabernacle. All this was under the supervision of Aaron and his sons.
Chapters 5 – 6 The cleansing of the camp
The development of this second section parallels the first four chapters, in that there is a progression from the outer (unclean) to the inner holy place where God is.
While chapter 5 addresses the removal of impurity from the camp, the following chapter instructs Israel more positively about holiness and dedication to God.
Chapter 5 does not make easy reading in 21st Century. Those with skin diseases are exiled from the camp (see Jesus’ compassion in Mark 1:40), but the test for the adulterous wife is especially difficult to read today. Perhaps we should assume that despite its crude harshness, it was nevertheless something the Lord used at the earliest stage of Israel’s formation. Two comments can be made, first it is possible that this test was actually included to protect a suspected woman from mob lynching. Second, there is no record of this test ever being practiced in the Old Testament. In contrast, Jesus refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery (John 8), and Paul’s teaching on the sexual equality of husband and wife in marriage was revolutionary and shocking in the vigorous and entrenched Roman patriarchal society.
Chapter 6 is positively focused on holy living. There is a detailed account of how a person can dedicate themselves to the Lord through the practice of the Nazarite vow – a modern equivalent would be monks and nuns. This is available for all people, not just the priests and Levites. The (temporary) holiness of the Nazarite was considered equal to the High Priest. The Aaronic blessing is recorded here because it speaks of God’s intention to bless all God’s people. In the Hebrew language there is a deliberate expansion in the three phrases: the first is three words long, the second five and the third seven, expressing the outward expanding work of God from the single priest to the whole community (such as the river flowing from the Temple in Ezekiel 47). It is the crescendo of this second section and it speaks of the profound longing in the heart of God to bless his people throughout the long process from Sinai to the Promised Land, to the Cross, to the Kingdom, and to the return of Christ. Its essence is grace and peace. We should use this blessing often.
Chapters 7 – 8 The dedication of the tabernacle and the Levites
The section from 7:1 – 10:10 actually occurs before the events of 1:1 – 6:17. They occur in the days following the consecration of the tabernacle (Exodus 40), and are integrated in with the narrative events of Leviticus.
In Chapter 7 the long, detailed and rather laborious description of exactly the same offerings given by each of the twelve tribes demonstrates their equal status within the people of God and their unity as one people before God. The significance of this is seen when the infighting between the different tribes is studied in the narrative history accounts throughout the Old Testament. The voice of God is heard from above the altar (7:89): here is a dynamic living dialogue, not a static religion of ritual.
Chapter 8:1-4: ‘The lampstand expresses visibly the life-giving power and light of God’s unseen presence in the midst of the community’ (Oslon, p.70). The tasks of the Levites were described in chapters 3,4 and 7, but here their purification and dedication are described. First their bodies are purified (8:5-7), then they are presented before the tabernacle (8:8-19). The sacrifice of animals on their behalf indicates that the Levites are then ‘living sacrifices’, and Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:1 is therefore immediately pertinent. Just as the tribes surround the tabernacle with their different gifts and abilities, so the Christian community is gifted in its ministry to the world (Romans 12:4-5). The powerful and awesome holiness of God is thereby channelled from the priests to the Levites to the community into the world.
Chapter 9 – 10:10 Celebrating the past and pursuing the future
The celebration of the Passover (9:1-14) is recorded as a ‘rebirth’ following the debacle of the Golden Calf which had brought God’s judgement on the people. The Passover is the most important Jewish festival, and is directly related to Good Friday and Easter, the most important Christian festival. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. At his last supper, Jesus specifically taught that his body and blood were the elements of the new covenant. To this is added two corollary adjudications relating to the questions of uncleanness due to contact with a dead body and secondly to those travelling. The pillar of cloud that had protected Israel during the Exodus now dwells over the tabernacle. This sign of the Spirit is the divine guide as the people begin their journey to the border of the Promised Land. The means of communication is through the trumpets (10:1-10) by which the people are either called together, or are instructed to break camp. As such, they represent the beginning of a new era, a concept which is developed strongly in later apocalyptic literature (Matthew 24:31, 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 1 Corinthians 15:52, Revelation 8:6-11:19).
The Israelites leave Sinai (10:11-36)
No water (11:1-3)
No food (11:4-35)
Aaron and Miriam challenge Moses (12:1-16)
The upbeat tone of the Israelites setting off from Sinai (10:11-36) turns quickly to disaster as one group after another complains against the Lord and looks back, yearning for Egypt. There is a general development from the outside to the centre. Even Moses complains (11:11-15)! While we might sympathise with the people’s hardships, the biblical writers do not. During the previous two years the Lord has demonstrated his presence and power in numerous ways. At first his judgement is limited: the fire is on the outside of the camp (11:1), but the final judgement (14:22) is upon the whole nation, and ultimately even Moses and Aaron fail to reach the Promised Land. Moses was beginning to wilt under the weight of leadership, especially when that leadership involved standing up against the people’s rebellion. Several crises of leadership and authority are described during the journey to Kadesh, but it is the Spirit (11:17,25, 29) and the prophetic dynamic (12:6-8) that demarcates God’s leaders from those they lead.
Chapter 10:11 – 32
10:14-28 The Israelites proceed in the order described in chapters 2-4. In each of the four sections, three tribes are mentioned from the order in chapter 2, followed by a description of one of the Levite groups discharging their responsibilities described in chapters 3-4. There is continuity from 1:1 to 10:11.
10:29 The apparent difficulty about who exactly Moses’ father-in-law was (Hobab, Reuel or Jethro – Exodus 18) can be answered in different ways. Moses could have had two or more wives, or perhaps more likely, he could have remarried after the first died. There is also reference to Moses ‘putting away his wife’ which implies divorce. Having worked among the Shona people in Zimbabwe, I am inclined to expect this as the practice whereby when one relative dies, a close relative then takes over that role. So in Shona culture if your father dies, then your father’s brother becomes your ‘father’.
10:29-32 Moses’ request to his father-in-law gives a final perspective on the matter of guidance. This human element goes hand-in-hand with the divine guidance from the cloud and fire (9:15-23, and 10:11).
11:16-30 Besides the narrative of these extraordinary events, this passage gives penetrating insight into the activity of the Spirit in the prophetic ministry, which is carried on into 12:4-9. There are many important principles evident here, but it is perhaps most significant that despite their anointing, the seventy elders failed very badly in the rebellion of chapters 13-14. Miriam and Aaron also failed badly (12:1-15). The anointing of the Spirit does NOT make a person blameless. The divine anointing must be matched by human obedience. Indeed, perhaps it was precisely because of their experience of the Spirit that Miriam and Aaron decided to challenge Moses (12:1). Perhaps this was the point where Korah’s rebellion was conceived (16:1-2).
11:31-34 The Lord’s firm punishment may seem severe in our own exceptionally rich and well-provided 21st Century culture, but the people’s cry for meat was made in the face of the miraculous daily provision of manna.
Chapter 12 describes a struggle for leadership, with Miriam and Aaron attempting to usurp the executive leadership. The Lord’s direct intervention with them (12:4-9) is exceptional in the Bible. Miriam seems to have been the provocateur (she is mentioned first in 12:1, and is the one punished 12:10-15). This event illustrates the principle ‘touch not the Lord’s anointed’. The Lord sometimes chooses people that we would not choose, but it is clear, just as it was with Moses, that the Spirit of the Lord is upon them. Occasionally God even chooses people whose unredeemed sinful nature is apparent to even the undiscerning, but even in such cases they answer to God and not to us, because it is clear that the Spirit of God is using them powerfully. Samson is one example of this, as are several ‘leading’ Pentecostal ministers.
The rebellion of the Spies (13-14)
Laws about certain offerings (Chap 15)
Food accompanying Sacrifices (15:1-16)
First dough offering (15:17-21)
Atonement: unintentional sins (15:22-31)
Sabbath breaker stoned (15:32-36)
Tassels on clothes (15:37-41)
The Office of the Priests (Chaps 16-18)
Korah’s rebellion (16:1-35)
Aaron halts the plague (16:36-50)
Aaron’s rod (17:1-13)
Duties of the priests and Levites (18:1-32)
Laws about cleansing (Chap 19)
These seven chapters describe Israel’s forty years in the desert in the region of Kadesh. The plan to enter the Promised Land faltered because the people became frightened of the Canaanites. Moses and Aaron escape with their lives but only because God intervened. The following chapter (15) seems designed to underline the boredom of being under God’s discipline while he and the whole nation wait for the older, unbelieving generation to die. The remaining four chapters address details concerning the office and work of the priests managing the sacrificial system at the tabernacle and recount the important incident of Korah’s failed attempt to usurp Moses’ leadership.
Chapters 13 and 14
Whereas God’s people were prepared to obey Moses’ instructions for worship, their complaints grow to a crescendo while they begin to travel from Sinai to Kadesh, and then decisively refuse to enter the Land of Canaan. Numbers 13-14 defines the structure of this book, since the Census on chapter 1 and the second census in Chapter 26 are both directly linked to it. It is the public failure of the people of Yahweh to enter into his plans for them. The result is that the ten unbelieving spies die immediately, and their generation die (naturally) over the next forty years. The story illustrates the necessity to believe God, and to believe that his purposes for us are good despite any cost or difficulty that may be involved. In New Testament language, the Cross always precedes the Kingdom. It is those who take up their crosses daily (Mark 8:34) who then see the Kingdom of God come in power (Mark 9:1). Steps of faith always precede the inheritance God has for us.
Chapter 15 abruptly changes course with instructions about offerings. The first significant point is in the introduction which, after the rebellion of the entire older generation in Chapters 13-14, affirms ‘after you enter the land I am giving you as a home …’ Instructions are given about unintentional sins by the community (15:22-26), by individuals (15:27-29) and then how to respond in cases of defiant intentional sin (15:30-31). A case example follows in 15:32-36. Last, there is teaching on the use of tassels as a ‘spiritual discipline’ so God’s people ‘remember to obey all my commands’.
In chapter 16, the rebellion that started on the outskirts of the camp (11:1-3) and then reached all the twelve tribes (chapters 13-14) is now taken up by the Levites, or more specifically the Kohathites who were the sub-group of the Levites responsible for ‘the most holy things’ (4:4). This therefore represents a new level of challenge to the divine plan to fulfil the promises to Abraham. The challenge to Moses and Aaron is articulated in verse 3: “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them”. It is possible that the minutiae of the instructions about tassels in 15:37-41, brought this to a head.
Two rebellions are described in this chapter. Moses’ response to the first (v4-17) is complicated, but it culminates in a show-down of power in v18-35 in which Moses is vindicated and Korah and his family are swallowed by the earth. Their immediate deaths should be viewed as similar to those of the 10 spies who publicly spoke unbelief and refused to obey God’s command to enter the land. The 250 lay leaders supporting him are burned by fire from the Lord in a separate incident because, despite Moses’ specific warnings, they assume a level of priesthood they had not been given. Paradoxically, their censors are thus made holy – and subsequently incorporated in the altar furnishings (v38). The second rebellion, or corporate complaint, is voiced by the whole Israelite community (v41) the following morning, but Aaron as priest intercedes for the community in his office as priest, standing ‘between the dead and the living’.
In chapter 17 Aaron is vindicated as the anointed high priest in Israel through the miraculous ‘sprouting, budding, blossoming and fruitfulness’ of his staff. Aaron, whose priestly intercession prevented the ‘wrath of God’ in the form of the plague from spreading as a result of Korah’s insubordinate leadership challenge (chapter 16) is now completely vindicated in a supernatural miracle that demonstrates that he, and he alone, is God’s choice. We should note three things. First, the censors that had ironically become holy through the outburst of God’s holy power, now become a covering for the altar, but as hard metal they speak of death and severity. Secondly, Aaron’s rod, still fruitful and blossoming, speaks conversely of life and the blessing of God. Both these are present in the very place where the Lord’s presence is, and from where his voice is heard. Third, in a complete reversal of the people’s insurrection through Korah and his lay leaders, the people’s response is ‘We shall die. We are lost.’ Although this was an overreaction, it became true: the older generation did all die in the desert.
Chapter 18 describes the Lord’s intervention and establishment of the priesthood and the Levites’ service after the turbulent and frightening debacle arising from Korah’s insubordination. There is a sense of holy fear throughout. The text speaks of the Lord’s severe rulings as he once again vindicates Aaron by speaking directly to him. Aaron and his priestly family are to bear the weight of responsibility for offences against the tabernacle, and in turn they are to receive the tithe from the Levites, while the Levites who are intermediaries between the priests and the people are to receive the tithes from the whole people of Israel. These concentric circles around the sanctuary protect the people from the holy presence of God. Outside the camp are the unclean and the foreign nations. The Levites are not allowed to own a segment of property; they must care for the Lord’s sanctuary, and they are dependent on the Lord. Jesus sent out his apostles with no money or pouches so they were completely dependent on the generosity of those they ministered to. Paul teaches the same axiom of ministry in 1 Corinthians 9.
After focusing on the priests and Levites, their responsibilities and their privileges, chapter 19 looks to the common people of Israel and provides a way (through water and a red heifer) for them to be clean from the uncleanness of contact with a dead body. It is a cleansing ceremony that is carried out by the common people for the common people, and thereby enables the whole community to proceed towards the Promised Land with the Holy God in their midst. Here, water cleanses from death; in the following chapter, the abuse of water will bring death to the people’s most prominent leaders.
The complaint about water at Meribah (20:1-13)
Edom denies Israel passage (20:14-21)
Aaron dies (20:22-29)
The victory at Hormah (21:1-3)
The bronze snake (21:4-9)
The journey to Moab (21:10-20)
The defeat of Sihon and Og (21:21-22:1)
Although chapter 20 could be viewed as the low point of the whole story with the deaths of Miriam, Aaron, and Moses judged not worthy of entering the land, there is nevertheless a sense of growing confidence in these short stories that bring God’s people to the point where they are ready to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. The early failures in Israel’s history are reversed with victories at Hormah and over Sihon and Og.
Chapter 20 is one of the lowest points in the who Exodus story because each of the leaders is judged unworthy of entering the Promised Land. Miriam, who led the praises after crossing the Red Sea but was expelled from the camp for a week for challenging Moses’ leadership, dies. But what follows is far more serious. Moses and Aaron disobey God’s instructions to them as he provides water for his people from the rock. What has always puzzled interpreters is quite exactly what was wrong with what Moses did. It seems that his fault was first that he hit the rock (twice!) when God instructed him to speak to it, and second that he and Aaron spoke and acted in a way which brought them, and not God, honour. Whatever they did was deemed so serious that they are both immediately disciplined.
The following episode where Edom refuses Israel passage is another setback because Edom was a ‘brother’ nation.
Aaron is then publicly stripped of his high priesthood and dies – possibly as a direct result of the removal of the anointing.
After the shock and desolation of chapter 20, the events of chapter 21 are rather surprising. There are victories at Arad, Jazar, Sihon and Og, and even though the people are again disciplined for their complaints on the issue of the snakes, it is nevertheless an extraordinary story of God’s intervention to bring healing. This final section describing the old generation (chapters 21-25) intersperses punishment and death for those who distrust and disobey God with stories that speak of hope for the new, younger generation that will rise up and make preparations to enter the Promised Land from Chapters 26 onwards.
The Encounter with Balaam (22-24)
Apostasy by Israel (25)
The second census (26)
Laws about the Land, offerings and vows (27-30)
Female inheritance (27:1-11)
Joshua appointed as Moses’ successor (27:12-23)
Calendar of public sacrifices (28:1-29:40)
Waving vows (30:1-16)
Israel defeats the Moabites (31)
Two tribes settle in Trans-Jordan (32)
List of all Israel’s encampments (33:1-49)
Property laws (33:50-36:13)
Occupation of the land (33:50-56)
The boundaries of Canaan (34:1-15)
Officers in charge of distribution (34:16-29)
Levite cities (35:1-8)
Cities of refuge (35:9-34)
Heiresses, marriage and their land (36:1-13)
These chapters describe, in the longest section in Numbers, the events at the encampment at the foot of the Moabite mountains. Balaam confirms that the patriarchal promises are being fulfilled in the emerging development of Israel, God’s people. This is followed by a great apostasy. The census in chapter 26 indicates that Israel is (again) preparing to enter the Promised Land. Then follows further teaching about worship and, most significantly, property matters ahead of their crossing the Jordan and entering the land.
Chapters 22 – 24 Balaam prophesies Israel’s future hope
In one of the most extraordinary stories in the whole Bible, a foreign prophet reasserts God’s promises to Abraham in four prophetic messages about Israel’s future. Although Balaam is viewed in mixed, even conflicting, ways in later Scriptures (compare Micah 6:5, Deuteronomy 23:3-6 and Jude 11), in these three chapters he is introduced as a mercenary Mesopotamian prophet who utters curses and blessings as a living for money and practices sorcery. Nevertheless, through a series of disciplinary divine interventions, Balaam eventually emerges and behaves as a true prophet operating under the Spirit of God (24:2,15f). The story itself is (typically) very carefully structured in terms of literary patterns:
The first oracle restates God’s promise in Genesis 13:16, affirming Israel’s special relationship with God and the promise of a vast population (23:10).
The second oracle flatly states that God will certainly not renege on what has promised Abraham, and he promises to bless Israel (23:19-20).
The third and fourth oracles foretell Israel’s victory over their enemies and the ensuing peace that will come (24:3-9, 15-24). Throughout the oracle sequence there is repeated reference and play on God’s initial promise to Abram, that ‘I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse’ (Gen 12:3). The most penetrating aspect of the final oracle is the future sight of a King: “a sceptre will rise out of Israel” (24:17).
This story is placed here in the narrative of Numbers just before chapter 25 that describes the final and ultimate rebellion of the older generation who left Egypt, as a result of which they die. The Balaam story speaks hope to the new generation whose story restarts with the census in chapter 26 as the younger nation now prepares to enter the Land of Canaan (compare 1:3 and 26:2).
Chapter 25 Apostasy by Israel
This chapter marks the final end of the generation that came out of Egypt (with the exception of Caleb, Joshua, and everyone under the age of 20 at the exodus). The decisive incident bringing this end was the combination of immorality with the Moabites (which we later learn was directly encouraged by Balaam – 31:8,16), and idolatry through worshipping Baal of Peor (31:1-3). This immediately follows the Balaam narrative where God disciplines this pagan prophet so he speaks only words that endorse the original covenant promises to Abraham. We must note the strong parallel this story has with that of the golden calf. In both stories, which act as bookends for the narrative about the older generation, God is ‘working’ on the mountain for his people’s blessing and future, while the older generation in flagrant disobedience are on the plain committing apostasy through immorality and idolatry. While Numbers has recounted several complaint stories, this is the first time that Israel has publicly committed idolatry, and it leads immediately to the death of the last remaining members of the older generation. In the first story, the Levites are set apart as priests because they sided with the Lord (when Aaron led the idolatrous rebellion), while in the second, Aaron’s grandson Phineas is jealous for the Lord’s honour, and ‘atones’ for the sin of Israel. The chapter ends with the stage clean and set for the younger generation to take the new initiative and enter the Promised Land. The lingering implied question is whether they will do so, or whether they will make the same mistakes as their parents.
Chapter 26 The second census
With the very first words of this chapter, a clear demarcation is made between the older generation which failed, and the younger generation which subsequently inherited God’s promises to Abraham. But although this second census is conducted on the same criteria as the first – ‘all those twenty years old or more who are able to serve in the army of Israel’, (26:2; 1:3) – the resulting details are recorded for the purpose of apportioning the land of Canaan in proportion to the population size of the tribes, (26:52-56). The final verses of chapter 26 explicitly explain and indicate the structure of the book of Numbers: the old generation, those counted in the first census, completely failed to obey God and enter into what he had promised, while the younger generation with Caleb and Joshua did believe, and did enter in.
Chapters 27 – 30 Laws about the land, offerings and vows
27:1-11: These five brave sisters argue on the basis of prior rulings for the benefit and good of the whole community as it plans to take possession of the land. Their argument is that it is not only unfair on those who have no male progeny – since they stand to lose ‘their name’ – but that such practice will enable some tribes to swallow up, or at least weaken, others.
27:12-23: The entry into Canaan is strongly anticipated in these last chapters of Numbers. And within the ‘inclusio’ of the two appeals by Zelophehad’s daughters, the first and leading issue is that of leadership, and specifically the appointment of Moses’ successor. We should note that Joshua is not given the level of anointing that Moses had (v20). He is to fully lead God’s people, but only within the guidelines of the teaching of Moses (Joshua 1:7-8), and only through Urmin and Thummin and not through the ‘mouth to mouth’ instruction of the Spirit.
Chapters 28 and 29
The people of God have for the past forty years been living in the desert. The structuring of their community, in chapters 2-4 after the first census, was organised around the central tabernacle sanctuary in order to protect the people from the holy presence of God at their centre. The concentric circles – tabernacle, Moses, Aaron and his sons, the priests, the Levites, the 12 tribes, the unclean, the desert and the nations – were ordered to ensure that the holiness of God’s presence maintained them from the chaos (evil) around them. The story however was that the chaos and evil from the outside penetrated the camp, even to the point where Moses himself failed and was judged unworthy of entering the Promised Land.
However, on the boundary of the Jordan a change is now required because the people will no longer be in a desert, but in a fruitful, established and permanent environment. What is now needed is a system of worship that protects God’s people from the intrusion of chaos and evil at the points of change. So, after the second census (chapter 26) and the appointment of Moses’ successor (with the inclusion of chiastic affirmation of the rights of women to possess land – chapter 27), there are instructions about patterns of worship based on time, rather than as was the case in chapters 2-4 based on location and place. It is not surprising therefore that chapters 27-28 ordain patterns of worship that facilitate the encountering of God and humanity the most vulnerable points of change, and that these are based on the creation poem of Genesis 1.
28:1-8 provides daily sacrifices at the beginning and end of each day, marking the change from light to darkness and darkness to light in a direct parallel to the first day of creation.
In 28:9-10 there is a special Sabbath sacrifice ordained that marks the partition of ‘holy’ and ‘unholy’ time in a pattern that directly reflects God resting on the Sabbath day (Genesis 2:3).
In a similar way the successive offerings in 28:11 – 29:40 spell out a pattern of worship that divides the year into two parts. The sacrifices of one half correlate with the sacrifices of the second since they take place either in the first month of the year (Passover, Festival of Unleavened Bread, etc), or in the seventh month (Festival of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, etc).
Olson: “The focus of Numbers 28-29 on the structure of offerings at each of the important boundaries of time provides a summary of a theology of time whereby Israel aligns itself with an embedded cosmic order created by God at the beginning of time” (p172).
This ordering of time not only synchronises humanity with the order of creation out of chaos, but provides points in time for the regular celebration of the divine interventions of God such as Passover, and for the Christian incarnation and atonement. But foundational to this philosophy of time is the establishing of a defence against the chaos of evil as God’s people pass from a system organised by location and place (the sanctuary in the desert) into a structure of life based on established fertility and settled living (the Promised Land).
The essential point in this chapter is that vows made to God must be fulfilled (30:2). The bulk of the chapter provides exceptions to this in the case of a woman who in a variety of contexts makes a vow without the prior approval of her father or husband. This therefore reflects the patriarchal society of that time. In the New Testament, minors are under the oversight of their parents, and husband and wife are equally accountable to God (Galatians 3:28).
This chapter records the decisive victory of Israel over Moab. It is recorded as a clear reversal of the final debacle of the old generation’s deception, immorality and idolatry in Numbers 25 that marked the end of that generation. The battle is extraordinary because not one Israelite soldier dies (31:49), all the Moabite soldiers are killed (31:7), and the victory spoils for Israel were exceptional (31:36-40). It is certainly difficult for the contemporary reader to contemplate the killing of the adult women as commanded by Moses (31:15-18). We should understand that the Israelites were operating under the concept of ‘Holy War’, the rules of which only applied for Israel during the years that they took possession of Canaan. The purpose was to rid the country, and specifically the people, of idolatry. The Moabite women were the ones that Balaam had manipulated to deceive the Israelites into idolatry and immorality – a strategy that was specifically expressed in the behaviour of the Moabite woman Cozbi (25:15). Balaam is therefore a complicated character in the Bible: while he was disciplined by God to utter only the words of God and re-endorse God’s promises to Abraham, he also at the same time actively encouraged Israelite men to commit immorality and idolatry. In fact, despite the commands of Scripture, Israel did not carry out Holy War, and as a result was plagued with idolatry throughout its history to the point where, because of compromise and apostasy, God’s people lost their land. This endorses the truth that we must never compromise in our love, obedience and worship of God.
A potential crisis is addressed and averted in this chapter. The issue is that two tribes request permission not to enter the Promised Land, but settle in the trans-jordan area west of the Jordan. The danger is indicated in Moses’ response to the request in the first part of the chapter. He cites the rebellion induced by the spies and the failure of the people to enter the land, and fears that this second generation will repeat their error. However, a compromise is reached once the two tribes promise to send fighting men to fight with those from the remaining tribes. This chapter is therefore closely connected to Numbers 13-14 and, since it ends on a positive tone, ‘corrects’ and contrasts the earlier mistake.
This chapter lists Israel’s encampments throughout the journey from Egypt to the plains of Moab. Besides the description of the Egyptians burying their dead and the death of Aaron, there is almost no additional information except the list of settlements, most of which are not identifiable. Perhaps the significance of the chapter lies in its sense of progress and intention towards the Promised Land, in a section (chapters 27-36) that are specifically focused on the possession of land. This would make sense of the end of the chapter which is a clear warning to rid the land of idols. Israel failed to drive out the inhabitants of Canaan, and for the rest of its history was plagued by the temptation to worship idols (Judges 3:5-6). In fact, the whole Old Testament states this as the leading and dominant sin of Israel.
The boundaries of the Promised Land, ‘Canaan’, are listed and these correspond well with other boundary lists (at other times) in the Old Testament. There are three lists of leading men from the tribes in Numbers. The first list is of those with responsibility for supervising the census as the people prepare to march to the promised land (chapter 1). The second list in Numbers 13 describes the spies whose fear turned the people back so they failed to enter, and the third in this chapter lists those with responsibility for partitioning the land within the tribes. These lists therefore serve to unite the book of Numbers as a literary unit.
Throughout Numbers there is a precedent for articulating the special case for the Levites immediately after the twelve tribes have been addressed: after the arrangement of the twelve tribes in chapter 2, the specific arrangements for the Levites are described in chapters 3 and 4. We are therefore unsurprised that after the boundaries of the Promised Land have been set out (chapter 34), the specific arrangements for the Levites immediately follow. Since this tribe is not allowed to own a region of land, they are allocated cities (by our standards ‘large villages’) throughout the country. Since the holiness of the people is a leading priority and murder a leading impurity, the provision of ‘cities of refuge’ are made in order to enhance justice (in a primitive society), prevent the escalation of feuds between families, and to protect the nation from impurity. The fugitive fleeing the results of unintentional manslaughter is placed in ‘internal exile’ until the high priest dies. There is a hint of Christ’s atonement for humanity underlying this practice.
The final chapter is the second part of the ‘inclusio’ device of chapters 27 and 36. In the first matter, the five sisters appeal that their father’s land be passed to them in order that the ownership of the land will not pass out of the tribe of Manasseh in perpetuity. This second appeal is different and is brought on their behalf by the leaders of the tribe. Can they marry outside the tribe? If they do then the ownership of their land will again pass out of the tribe. Moses adjudicates that they must marry who they want, but it must be a man from within their tribe. The overriding principal is again that the land must remain within the tribe in perpetuity, but the underlying theme and tone is positive: the people of God are now finally going up to inherit the good land that God has given them.
The overall message of the book of Numbers:
As the fourth of the five books in the Pentateuch, Numbers describes the journey of God’s people from Mount Sinai to the plains of Moab where they prepare to enter the Promised Land. The motivation for this journey is the belief that, as Abraham’s descendants, God is giving the land to them as a direct fulfilment of his covenant with Abraham. Numbers records many stories illustrating God’s blessing on those who believe and obey God, and the judgment and deaths of those who disbelieve God and directly disobey him. So, Numbers is directly calling God’s people to believe his promises to them and act accordingly.
The leading imperatives:
Numbers contains long sections instructing the Israelites in their religious and sacrificial systems, but all these have been fulfilled by the one sacrifice of Christ who made perfect atonement for the sins of all humanity when he died on the cross (Hebrews 10:14).
The implied imperatives:
Holy Habits: (Holy Habits are patterns of living and lifestyle practices which we choose to do in our lives. These can be in order to either withdraw from the dominion of the world, such as silence, secrecy, submission, fasting, watching, simple living, or, practices that plunge us into the life of the Kingdom, such as prayer, worship, celebration, study, serving the poor and deprived, etc. They can be as simple as kneeling by your bed and thanking God at the end of the day, or as substantial as attending an annual Christian festival.)
Question 1 -
While sorcery is strictly forbidden in the New Testament (Galatians 5:19), it is illuminating to study of the process whereby God intervenes to discipline the mercenary sorcerer Balaam (chapters 22-24) so that he ultimately speaks under the Spirit of God (24:1-2) and reaffirms God’s original promises to Abraham. The scriptures are very frank about these powers and giftings that operate outside the Kingdom (Acts 8:9f, 13:6f, 16:17f, etc). How should Christians view such people and activities? What is your view of someone like the magician and illusionist David Blaine?
Question 2 -
When Miriam and Aaron attempt to usurp the executive leadership from Moses (chapter 12), the Lord intervenes and says that he speaks directly only to Moses. This demonstrates the different levels of ‘prophetic ministry’. Although in the new covenant God has answered the cry of Moses (Numbers 11:29; 1 Corinthians 14:1, 5, 31), prophetic people are under the authority of the apostles (1 Corinthians 14:37). What are the criteria for discerning different levels of prophetic anointing?
Question 3 -
Numbers 12: During the 1990’s the Kansas City Prophets were prominent in Western Charismatic Churches. Did Jesus send them? (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)