Readers of Numbers should bear in mind that they are reading only part of a larger book. The ‘five books of Moses’ (or Pentateuch) originally were one book, the division into five volumes being purely for convenience. Numbers has greater significance once the reader sees it as part of this larger work. (Concerning the authorship and purpose of this larger work see PENTATEUCH.)
In fulfilment of his promises to Abraham, God had made Abraham’s descendants into a nation, saved them from Egypt and was now taking them to their new homeland, Canaan. The person he had given them as their leader was Moses (Gen 12:2; 15:18-21; Exod 3:10-12; 6:4-8; for map and other details see MOSES). After three months’ journey, God settled the people temporarily at Mt Sinai. There he established his covenant with them and gave them laws to govern their lives as his people. At the point where Numbers begins, Israel had been at Sinai almost one year (Exod 19:1; Num 1:1). During their time at Sinai, the people had received much instruction in religious, moral and social matters (Exod 20-24). They had also built the tabernacle (Exod 25-40), established a priesthood and a sacrificial system (Lev 1-10), and begun to regulate their national life according to the laws God had laid down (Lev 11-27). The people were now preparing themselves to depart from Sinai and head for Canaan (Num 1-10). The book of Numbers opens with Moses about to conduct a census so that he could prepare an army for the conquest of Canaan. The journey to Canaan should have taken only a few weeks, but instead it took almost forty years. The reason for the delay was the people’s rebellion against God. Out of fear and distrust they refused to enter Canaan, with the result that God left them in the wilderness till all that adult generation had died and a new generation had grown up.
At the end of Numbers, almost forty years after its beginning, Moses took another census, this time to organize the new generation for the conquest of Canaan. The book of Numbers takes its name (in the Greek, Latin and English versions) from these two census. Since the two census represent only a small part of the book, the Hebrew title ‘In the Wilderness’ gives a better indication of the book’s contents. Most of the book is concerned with the journey from Sinai to the borders of Canaan, and much of this journey was through wilderness country. There are very few details of the wasted years of ‘wanderings’ in the wilderness (Num 32:13).
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To begin with, Moses conducted a military census (1:1-54). He also set out arrangements for camping and marching (2:1-34), paying particular attention to the Levites, whose duty was to transport, erect and look after the tabernacle (3:1-4:49). After giving additional religious and civil laws (5:1-6:27), Moses accepted offerings from Israel’s leaders for the use of the Levites, and then dedicated the Levites to God’s service (7:1-8:26). Israel kept the Passover and awaited God’s sign for them to break camp and set off (9:1-10:10). The procession moved off (10:11-36), but soon the people became complaining and they criticized Moses (11:1-12:16). Worse still, they refused to go into Canaan when they heard of the opposition that lay ahead. In so doing, they rebelled against God and consequently condemned themselves to die in the wilderness (13:1-14:45). God impressed upon the people the necessity for obedience in all circumstances (15:1-41). Soon, however, there was another rebellion when a group of leaders challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron. They were destroyed in a dramatic divine punishment (16:1-17:13). In view of these rebellions, God gave further laws and regulations (18:1-19:22). Moses and Aaron lost patience with the complaining people, but their rash behaviour brought judgment upon themselves (20:1-13).
After being forced to detour around the land of Edom (20:14-21:20), the Israelites conquered all the Amorite territory east of Jordan and set up camp on the Plains of Moab in preparation for the attack on Canaan (21:21-22:1). Attempts by the king of Moab to destroy the Israelites were unsuccessful, though the Israelites almost destroyed themselves through their immoral behaviour with neighbouring peoples (22:2-25:18). Moses conducted a new census (26:1-27:23) and gave further laws and regulations (28:1-30:16). In a military victory over the troublesome Midianites, the Israelites gained some welcome profits (31:1-54). As the time approached for the Israelites’ attack on Canaan, Moses set out plans for the division of the land that they were to occupy. This included the land already conquered east of Jordan and the land yet to be conquered in Canaan itself (32:1-36:13).