The most important thing to remember about the book of Numbers is that it’s about the Israelites’ preparation to conquer the land God promised them.
History: Context & Background
Assuming Moses wrote the book of Numbers, as has been traditionally understood for all five books in the Torah, Numbers was likely written sometime around 1400BC, at the end of Israel’s 40-year sojourn in the wilderness.
Unlike Exodus and Leviticus, Numbers deals with several nations that the Israelites interact with during their nomadic years. As such, a map can come in handy for tracing the route of their travels and where various kingdoms such as Bashan, Ammon, and Moab are located.
Literature: Style & Structure
Numbers is a tough book for the modern reader to get into. It’s not because it’s so relentlessly single-minded like the book of Leviticus is concerning religious and civil laws, but rather, because Numbers contains so many different literary genres with minimal organization by today’s standards. Within the book the reader will find political censuses, various laws, and historical stories with spiritual commentary. Because of this, there are number of great stories in Numbers that are frequently missed by those who give up reading this book because of the other “boring” parts.
Despite this piecemeal collection of writing styles and topics, the book of Numbers is logically organized in a chronological fashion, forming a tripartite (three-part) outline: first the preparation to conquer the promised land, then the forty-year wandering in the desert, and finally the second preparation to conquer the promised land. Both conquest preparations begin with a census taken of all the able-bodied men who would be fighting in the holy war. (When the Israelites turn against God out of fear of the Canaanites, God punishes them with the 40-year time period so that the next generation would be the ones to conquer the land instead – that’s why there are two preparations each with their own census of the people.)
PART 1: Preparation in Sinai to conquer
1-2 census & organization
3-4 organization & Levitical laws
5-6 laws about defilement, property, adultery, and vows
7-9 laws about the Tabernacle
10 going to Mount Sinai
PART 2: Forty years in the desert
11-12 complaining & grumbling
13-15 refusal to enter Canaan & God’s curse
16-19 Korah’s rebellion & Aaron’s priesthood
20-25 Moabite war & Midianite war
PART 3: Preparation in Moab to conquer
26-27 census, laws about women, Joshua’s leadership
28-30 laws about offerings, vows, and festivals
31-35 defeat of Midian, settlement of the Eastern lands
36 inheritance for women & tribes
Theology: Themes & Insights
The most-repeated types of stories throughout the book of Numbers are stories in which Israel acts unfaithfully to their calling from God. Thus the key lesson that readily presents itself to us is the importance of obeying God and remaining faithful to his commands, lest God’s judgment or curses befall. On the flip side, there are also a few stories of Israel remaining faithful to God, and their success and prosperity in God’s work for them is a noteworthy contrast.
A similar lesson derived both from these types of stories, as well as from the interesting story of Balaam the (non-Israelite) prophet in chapters 22-24, is that God is utterly sovereign. His kingship is perfect in power and anyone who seeks to follow him, worship him, or speak in his name, is bound to do so only in God’s way and none other. And yet, as the stories and assorted laws in the book of Numbers attest, God is a merciful god who cares about his people, including even those normally marginalized by society.