I doubt many Christians have EVER ventured into the Book of Numbers. What a dull sounding book to our ears. But as you’re about to discover the Book of Numbers is one of the most vibrant and informative of all the books in the Bible.
You see for us in our day the word “numbers” is associated with accounting and records keeping, math:
- Income tax returns,
- Balancing check-books,
- Using computers and the Internet,
- Dealing with budgets and debt.
Numbers are impersonal and cold and in some ways even feel like a threat to our culture; in other ways numbers represent a kind of self-imposed bondage we are forced to deal with like it or not.
But long ago numbers were magical. They were mysterious and portended good things and bad. They were symbolic and thought to be the very key to unlocking the mind and will of the gods.
Numbers were desired, exciting and thoroughly studied and discussed. Numbers were awesome, welcome, and at times fearsome. Numbers were intensely important to the Hebrew people as well, right on through Jesus’ era and into today.
The Apostle Paul made abundant use of the book of Numbers in one of his greatest teachings, as found in the 1 Cor. 10:1-11.
Avoid Israel’s Mistakes
For I do not want you to be unaware, believers, that our fathers were all under the cloud [in which God’s presence went before them] and they all passed [miraculously and safely] through the [Red] Sea; and all [of them] were baptized into Moses [into his safekeeping as their leader] in the cloud and in the sea; and all [of them] ate the same spiritual food; and all [of them] drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not well-pleased with most of them, for they were scattered along the ground in the wilderness [because their lack of self-control led to disobedience which led to death].
Now these things [the warnings and admonitions] took place as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did. Do not be worshipers of handmade gods, as some of them were; just as it is written [in Scripture], “The people sat down to eat and drink [after sacrificing to the golden calf at Horeb], and stood up to play [indulging in immoral activities].” We must not indulge in [nor tolerate] sexual immorality, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand [suddenly] fell [dead] in a single day! We must not tempt the Lord [that is, test His patience, question His purpose or exploit His goodness], as some of them did—and they were killed by serpents. And do not murmur [in unwarranted discontent], as some of them did—and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example and warning [to us]; they were written for our instruction [to admonish and equip us], upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
1 Cor. 10:1-11 AMP
You see all of these events that Paul listed are found WRITTEN DOWN in the Torah, in the book of Numbers to be specific. Paul saw what we would see: that the book of Numbers while a record of history is also prophetic. We will see the Messiah in the book of Numbers, and we will see Him operating BEFORE He became a man.
Numbers is not actually the Hebrew name for this, the 4th of the 5 books of Torah. Numbers is merely the English translation of the Greek name given to this book…Arithmoi…from which we also get the word arithmetic. And the Greeks gave this name to it because in the early chapters the Lord orders a census taken of the Israelites, and the results are recorded.
In Hebrew the name for this book is B’midbar; and it means “In the Wilderness”. It is in the book of B’midbar where we find the story of the 40 years that Israel spent wandering in the wilderness of the Negev, the Sinai, and probably for a short time the Arabian Peninsula.
Numbers is really an unsuitable name and the amount of actual “numbers” and lists is quite small. The vast bulk of this book consists of stories and narratives of those formative 40 years that our Lord apparently thought important for us to know about (as Paul forcefully points out to his readers).
B’midbar has all sorts of interesting nuances; not the least of which is that the first 10 chapters covers a time period of only 20 DAYS. That’s right, the first 10 chapters record the events of less than 3 weeks.
Everett Fox, the editor and commentator for the scholarly Schocken Bible, sees a structure of B’midbar that can be broken into thirds.
The first section covers chapters 1 -10, and he calls it
“In the Wilderness of Sinai: The Camp”.
It covers the census of the Israelites and the duties assigned to the Levites. It explains the ordering of the Camp, the rites of the Nazarite, matters of God’s presence in the Wilderness Tabernacle, and the beginning of the journey towards the Land of Canaan.
The second section covers chapters 11 – 25, and Fox calls it
“The Rebellious Folks: Narratives of Challenge”.
It begins by dealing with the fate of the generation of Exiles that came out of Egypt, the first 3 of their rebellions, the account of the 12 spies sent into Canaan, then some more rebellions, encounters with various other peoples, and then the famous story of Balaam, the pagan prophet.
The third section includes chapters 26 – 36. Our commentator entitles it
“In the Plains of Moab: Preparation for the Conquest of Canaan”.
It begins with another census, talks about certain Holy Day sacrifices, adds some rules about making vows, tells of some battles they had with people they ran across, discusses the upcoming conquest of the Promised Land, and lays out laws about the Sanctuary Cities, or Cities of Refuge, that will be operated by a special group of Levites as a safe place for those who committed manslaughter to reside under protection from the Kinsman Redeemers who want revenge.
Since this is a fairly large book it helps us to know in advance that from a 30,000-foot view B’midbar, Numbers, plays out according to a pattern of 3; and so we find three important cycles of revelation and instruction from the Lord laid out in its pages.
- The first takes place at Sinai;
- The second at Kadesh (also called Kadesh-Barnea), and
- The third takes place in Moab, as Israel gets ready to enter Canaan.
Numbers would NOT be the first book that one who is intent on studying the Scriptures would probably want to start with; because Numbers is based entirely on the foundation laid out by Genesis and Exodus. If one doesn’t know or understand the foundational context for B’midbar then one will invariably misunderstand what goes on (particularly as regards the many God-ordained rituals).
In my next blog post we are going to talk more about these God-ordained rituals.