The Book of Numbers
The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary says about the title: “The LXX title Arithmoi (numbers) was
rendered Liber Numeri in the Vulg., which appears in English as the book of Numbers or simply Numbers.
The book is so designated because it makes a double reference to taking a census of the Jewish people
(chaps. 1-3 and chap. 26). As was usual, the Jews named the book from its opening word wayyedabber
(‘and He [Jehovah] said’), or more often from the fifth word bemidbar (‘in the wilderness’).”
Synopsis of the book:
We quote again from The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary: “The fourth book of the Pentateuch,
continuing the redemptive history of Israel where Exodus leaves off. As Genesis is the book of origins,
Exodus the book of redemption, and Leviticus the book of worship and fellowship, Numbers is the book of
the service and walk of God's redeemed people.”
Yet, the book of Numbers is basically a book of failure; failure of the people to reach the goal God
had set with them; failure to be what they ought to have been and failure to be where God wanted them to
be. It is the book in which we read how a great nation that left Egypt as a triumphant army, is reduced to a
bunch of roaming Bedouins, condemned to trek around in the desert for forty years until every single one of
them has died. The greatest failure was the failure to take seriously God’s revelation of Himself and God’s
promises for them.
The book starts out with God’s speaking to His people in the desert and preparing them for the
conquest, both militarily and spiritually. The numbering of the people, from which the book received its
name in our English versions, is for recruitment in the army and for the service and care of the tabernacle.
The people, however, are unwilling to pay a price for their freedom and dignity. They cast their
vote in favor of the slavery from which they had been delivered, because of the fish they ate and the
cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. They argue that this food was free, conveniently forgetting
that they paid for it with back breaking slave labor and that it was at the cost of their male babies, who were
drowned in the river Nile, that they ate those things. A rebellion starts in Moses’ own family, initiated by
his sister Miriam and brother Aaron. And later a large scale rebellion is started by Korah, a Levite and
certain Reubenites: Dathan and Abiram, who challenge Moses’ authority. But the greatest failure occurs
when the twelve spies, who had penetrated the promised land, return with the report that the land devours
those living in it, that Israel does not have a change to conquer it and that the enemy they will face are
“Nephilim.” This is a reference to the cryptic account of the creatures that inhabited the earth in the period
before the flood.1
One of the saddest accounts is the one in which Moses and Aaron lose their
temper and fail to give glory to God, when Moses strikes the rock instead of speaking to it.2
failure of the greatest man in the Old Testament makes us realize how great the damage is that sin has
incurred upon the human race. From a human viewpoint there is no hope for man. “All have sinned and fall
short of the glory of God.”3
Disobedience has robbed life of man of its value and purpose. For forty years
Israel roamed about in the desert, with nothing to hope for but death. Moses gave expression to this spirit of
hopelessness in his beautiful psalm:
“You turn men back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, O sons of men.’
For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.
You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning--
though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.
We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation.
You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.
All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan.
The length of our days is seventy years-- or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and
sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Relent, O LORD! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants.”4
But, although this tragedy occupies the center of this book, it is not its only message. The last ten
chapters, which open with a new census of the younger generation, most of whom were not born yet when
their parents left Egypt, is prepared to enter the land of promise. The disobedience of one man does not
annul the promises of God. God remains faithful to Himself and to His Word and everyone who puts his
trust in Him will not be put to shame.
Quotes from commentaries:
In his PREFACE TO THE BOOK OF NUMBERS, Adam Clarke writes: “This, which is the
fourth book in order of the Pentateuch, has been called NUMBERS, from its containing an account of the
numbering and marshalling the Israelites in their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Its
ENGLISH name is derived from the title it bears in the VULGATE Latin, Numeri, which is a literal
translation of the Greek word Arithmoi, its title in the SEPTUAGINT; and from both, our SAXON
ancestors called it ‘numeration.’ Why? ‘because in this the children of Israel were numbered,’ This title,
however, does not properly apply to more than the first three chapters, and the 26th chapter. This book,
like the preceding, takes its name among the HEBREWS from a distinguishing word in the
commencement. It is frequently called WAYª DABEER, ‘and he spoke,’ from its initial word; but in most
Hebrew Bibles its running title is Bª MIDBAR ‘in the wilderness,’ which is the fifth word in the first verse.”