Introduction to Numbers
This fourth book of the Pentateuch gets its name from the two “numberings” of the children of Israel. The first census was taken soon after the escape from Egypt and the giving of the law (Numbers 1–4). The second occurred as they were nearing the end of the forty-year sojourn in the wilderness and the new generation was preparing to enter the promised land. Numbers 5–25 recounts a number of experiences of the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings, along with additional instructions given by God through Moses during that time. This section ends with their remarkable encounters with the false prophet Balaam (Numbers 22–25). After the second census, the last ten chapters (Numbers 27–36) gives further instructions concerning offerings and feast days, as well as other events occurring as Israel was getting ready to invade Canaan.
The wilderness wanderings occurred during the period from approximately 1447 B.C. to 1407 B.C., assuming the chronology accepted by most conservative scholars is correct. The book of Numbers records events from the wilderness period. Despite the obvious Mosaic authorship (the book contains at least eighty statements to the effect that “the LORD spake unto Moses”), liberals still allege that most of it was written by priests living after the Babylonian exile. There is no proof whatever for such an assumption. All the internal evidences of the book itself, as well as its correlation with what is known archaeologically about this period, fit the wilderness period much better than the post-exilic period.
l:1 spake unto Moses. Like Leviticus, the book of Numbers includes many actual statements of God, recorded by Moses after God spoke to him in the tabernacle. This statement–“the LORD spake”–is found eighty or more times in the book.
1:1 second year. Since the Israelites left Egypt about the middle of the first month at Passover time, the book of Numbers begins about twelve and a half months after the start of their exodus. The events in Numbers then cover essentially the forty years of wilderness wandering (Numbers 14:34; 32:13).
1:2 the number of their names. In accord with the Biblical principle of plenary verbal inspiration, even these long lists of names and numbers in this book (as well as similar apparently mundane information in other books) have a divine purpose. Among those that might be suggested are: (1) to illustrate God’s concern for every individual and each one’s own distinct role in God’s economy; (2) to emphasize that God is a God or order and structure, not of chaos and randomness; (3) to demonstrate His faithfulness to Abraham, fulfilling His promise to multiply Abraham’s seed; (4) to confirm His interest in maintaining the integrity of families as well as individuals.
1:3 go forth to war. This census was commanded by God with military preparedness in view, as the Israelites would have to defeat the pagan nations in Canaan if they were to claim the promised land. This generation, however, would instead have to die in the wilderness because of their lack of faith that God would enable them to do this (Numbers 14:26-35).
l:18 assembled all the congregation. It is interesting that the Greek word used to translate “congregation” in the Septuagint is ecclesia, the New Testament word for “church.” Stephen actually called this congregation “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). Another word used for church in the New Testament is “assembly” (James 2:2; note also Hebrews 10:25). This assembly of “all the congregations,” probably numbering in the millions, thus might be considered a type of the coming “general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23), which will all be called together in heaven at the return of Christ.
1:46 all they that were numbered. This number did not include the women and children nor the tribe of Levi. All the Israelites in the wilderness must easily have exceeded two million. Since there were only seventy who had entered Egypt (Genesis 46:27), this represented an average doubling of the Israelite population every twenty to thirty years, depending upon the somewhat uncertain duration of their stay in Egypt, which may have been as little as 215 years or as much as 430 (Genesis 15:13; Exodus 12:40,41; Galatians 3:17). This represents an unusually high growth rate, implying large families (Jacob had twelve sons, for example). As reported in Exodus 1:7, “the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.” Despite these large numbers, God miraculously provided food and water for them in the desert for forty years. Their numbers no longer grew, however. The corresponding total at the end of the forty years was only 601,730. Of this total, only Caleb and Joshua were left from the number in the first census, all others dying in the wilderness because of unbelief.
1:47 not numbered. The Levites had a separate census because they had been designated to serve in and protect the tabernacle (Numbers 1:50-51), not to fight in the wars of conquest.