Updated: Dec 21, 2018
Most Christians know the book of Numbers as the place where “Read through the Bible in a Year” programs go to die. The first chapter of Numbers opens with a long census of the fighting age men of Israel. The English name for this book comes from this and the second census that occurs later in Numbers (26:1-65). The Greek LXX called this book arithmoi and the Latin Vulgate followed with Numberi. But this is a really unfortunate title and understanding of the content of the book. The book of Numbers is actually one of the most dramatic and action-packed books of the Bible. One just has to persevere through the opening head-counting.
This book, as with the rest of the Pentateuch, was written primarily by Moses. The Hebrew title of this book is “In the Wilderness” which is taken from the opening word of the book. This also helps to set the location of its action. And it is this setting that is so crucial to understanding what is going on in the book. God’s People have been brought through the waters and redeemed from slavery and captivity in Egypt. But they have yet to enter into the Promised Land. They are pilgrims on a journey. They will face hardship. They will hunger and thirst. They will grumble. They will face opposition from the surrounding nations. They will see rebellion and sedition from within their own ranks. They will have to trust the LORD and the faithfulness of his promises. All of this takes place in the wilderness.
There are three main sections in the book of Numbers, and they revolve around the two censuses. The first section is the census and consecration of the first-generation army (1-10). The second section is failure of the first-generation army (11-25). The third section is the census and the consecration of the second-generation army (26-36).
The census and the consecration of the first-generation army included those who had witnessed all the plagues and miracles in leaving Egypt. They had experienced the first Passover where death came to every home. The first born of Egypt died but those under the blood of the Lamb walked out of the tomb in the morning. The Levites are the tribe of Israel that is set apart as belonging to the LORD in a special manner. And then the men are consecrated for holy war. They leave into the wilderness dressed for battle and ready to take the Promised Land.
The second section details a number of failures on the part of Israel. The people grumble about their general misfortunes in the wilderness (11:1-3). They complain of the lack of meat and vegetables (11:4-35). Miriam complains about Moses’ wife (12:1-16). The people complain and lament the spies report (13:1-14:38). Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On rebel against Moses and Aaron (16:1-40). The people grumble about the judgment on the rebels (16:41-17:13). The people complain of no water (20:2-13). The people question God’s goodness (21:4-9). The result of this series of failures to trust in the faithfulness of God is that the people are forced to wander in the wilderness for a whole generation. None of that generation, except Joshua and Caleb, would enter into the Promised Land. And their failure would serve as a warning to the next generation. It is also incredibly important to note that all of these failures began with grumbling and complaining. Outright rebellion against God always begins with an initial grumbling in the heart about our circumstances.
The third section begins with the census and consecration of a second-generation army. The Levites are once again set apart for the LORD. Joshua is then appointed to succeed Moses. This second-generation receives a foretaste of victory by defeating the Moabites and Midianites (31:1-54). And the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manassah are allowed to settle the Trans-Jordan (the area east of the Jordan), but only upon their commitment to fight with their brothers. The book closes on the plains of Moab by the Jordan in sight of the Promised Land with some final exhortations to the whole people. Remember the failures of your fathers. Trust in the Lord and act faithfully.
The book of Numbers details an important period in the pilgrimage of Israel from captivity to the Promised Land. As such, it has tremendous application for the Church today. We live between two worlds. We are pilgrims on a journey from this world into a better country. The failure of Israel’s first-generation should be a clarion warning for us to remain faithful and trust in God’s provision. Our grumbling and complaining will spread like gangrene and lead to spiritual death. Paul warned the Corinthians with the example from Numbers, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did…Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:6, 11-12).
 Please see, Numbers by Michael J. Glodo, in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised. ed. Miles Van Pelt, et al., (Crossway, 2016), 107–31.