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Book of Numbers

Book of Numbers
by Timothy Kenney, PhD

The fourth book of the Pentateuch, the Book of Numbers, derives its name from the account of the two censuses of the Hebrew people taken, one near the beginning and the other toward the end of the journey in the desert (Chapters 1 and 26). Authored by Moses in 36 chapters, it continues the story of that journey, begun in Exodus, and describes briefly the experiences of the Israelites for a period of about thirty-eight years, from the end of their encampment at Sinai to their arrival at the border of the Promised Land. Numerous legal ordinances are interspersed in the account, making the book a combination of law and history.

The various events described clearly demonstrate the action of God, who punishes the murmmuring of the people by prolonging their story in the desert, at the same time preparing them by this discipline to be His witnesses among the nations.

The Book of Numbers is organized into three general areas:

  1. Preparation for the Departure from Sinai
  2. From Sinai to the Plains of Moab
  3. On the Plains of Moab

A narrative summary of the Book of Numbers follows.

I. Preparation for the Departure from Sinai - Numbers 1-10.

The beginning of the Book of Numbers continues the story of the Israelites at Mount Sinai. In the second year of their exile, the Israelites were counted by tribes and each man over twenty was made eligible for war. Among the twelve tribes there were 603,550. The sons of Levi were not counted because God claimed them in exchange for the first-born of every family. The Levites were split into different groups to do the various works of God. They were also to be judges to the people because they were endowed with the ability to cleanse. The princes of Israel brought a great assortment of gifts to the tabernacle and Aaron the priest cleansed all the Levites. They kept the passover. God told them to make two silver trumpets to sound the orders for the Israelites.

More laws are given concerning the Levites. Legal procedures for prosecuting an adultress and other matters are laid down within the first ten chapters.

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II. From Sinai to the Plains of Moab - Numbers 11-21.

The next eleven chapters trace the Israelite journey through the wilderness. The people encamp at an oasis known as Kadesh-barnea. They complain about the food and Moses' leadership. Spies enter Canaan and bring back a large cluster of groups to show the bounty of the land, but the Israelites are afaraid of the people of Canaan and refuse to enter the land. God assents to their wish and lets them die in the desert. Korah tries to seize the perogatives of priesthood and is destroyed. God shows His own choice for the priesthood by making Aaron's rod bud and bear almonds. The people continue to complain and God afflicts them with serpents so that they repent. They are healed when they look at a bronze serpent that Moses makes. As they make their way through the Transjordan, they win victories over King Sihon and King Og.

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III. On the Plains of Moab - Numbers 22-36.

The final chapters in Numbers bring the Israelites to the plains of Moab and near the Promised Land. While in the plain of Moab, some of the Israelites slept with prostitutes. God had all of these men killed. Because there were more women than men, God told Moses to make it legal for women to inherit property if their male relatives died. God reviewed the types of sacrifices with Moses. Moses spoke to the heads of the families about sworn vows. A woman's vow was to be secured by her husband who had the right to make her vows void.

Fearful of Israel's advance, the Moabite king Balak summons a driver named Balaam to curse them. God uses Balaam to bless Israel instead. Isreal commits apostasy by worshiping the Baal of Peori; Phineas the priest slew the idolators. Isreal eventually conquers the region.

Our next biblical article completes the Pentateuch with a narrative outline of the Book of Deuteronomy.

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Bibliography

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