At the point where the book of Numbers opens, the people of Israel had been camped at Mount Sinai almost one year. During that time God had been preparing them for the life ahead by instructing them in the kind of religious, moral and social order he required of them as his covenant people. (For details see introductory notes to Leviticus.) The time had now come for the people to leave Sinai and head for the promised land, Canaan. The book of Numbers details the preparations for the journey, outlines certain regulations that the people had to follow, and describes significant events that occurred along the way.
A nation in the wilderness
On two occasions between the people of Israel’s departure from Egypt and entrance into Canaan, Moses conducted an official counting, or census, of the nation. These two census are recorded in the book of Numbers, and from them the book takes its name.
The first census, at the beginning of the book, helped Israel prepare an army for the conquest of Canaan. Although the journey to Canaan should have taken only a few weeks, it actually took about forty years. The reason for this was that the people rebelled against God by refusing to trust him for victory, whereupon God left them in the wilderness till that generation died off and a new generation grew up.
The second census, which is towards the end of the book, was therefore forty years after the first, its purpose being to organize the new generation for the conquest of Canaan.
Since the two census represent only a small portion of the book, the English title ‘Numbers’ does not give a true indication of the book’s contents. The Hebrew title ‘In the Wilderness’ is probably more suitable, as the book covers the journey from Sinai to the borders of Canaan, and much of this journey was through wilderness country. Most of the stories recorded in Numbers are concerned with this journey. The book gives very little information concerning the forty wasted years when Israel was not journeying, but ‘wandering’, in the wilderness (Num 32:13).