Date: c. 1400 B.C. or c. 1200 B.C.
The Book of Numbers narrates Israel’s wide-ranging experiences in the wilderness. Jewish scholars from ancient times until today have referred to it by the title “In the Wilderness,” which is the first word in the Hebrew text. Others refer to it as “Numbers” because the numbering of the people plays a prominent part in the book.
Numbers is a difficult book to outline because it consists of a collection of material that covers numerous events in Israel’s wilderness life. There are problems, travels, judgments, rules, admonitions, complaints, battles, and conflicts. All of these are designed to show that human life is a series of difficulties that need to be dealt with by the grace of God. With such an approach, they can be turned into blessing.
The most significant events that stand out in the history of Israel in the wilderness are: the departure from Sinai; the sending of spies into Canaan, the Promised Land; the rebellion of the people in refusing to enter the land; the judgment of God, condemning the people to 40 years of wandering; the failure of Moses; and the final victories of the people at the end of the 40 years.
Theological Themes in the Book of Numbers
Certain things stand out theologically in the Book of Numbers. First is the fact that the tabernacle is central. It points to the centrality of God in the lives of the Israelite people. Tragically, Israel’s worship later degenerated into outward formality–a lesson to all of us.
Second, God is in control of the whole situation. At no time is there any doubt as to who is running things. This is a comfort and a warning: a comfort, in that we can rest in God’s power and sovereignty; a warning, in that rebellion is futile.
Third, it is clear that God demands obedience. We cannot simply ask God to do everything. He expects, and demands, that we fight battles, face enemies, and overcome obstacles–all with his help.
Fourth, life is seen as a pilgrimage. This theme is found in the New Testament’s use of the Book of Numbers, Paul, in I Corinthians 10:10-11, says that all of these things were written for our admonition and learning.
Finally, it is clear that sin is a problem that needs to be faced among the people of God. It is sad to read that even Moses was not without fault before God, but the way he handled his problem is a lesson for us all. Earth is not heaven. That is certainly no news, but all too often we expect our lives to be without difficulty or temptation. Numbers shows us that such an expectation is wrong. We must always be on guard, lest we too “fall in the wilderness.” The Book of Hebrews in the New Testament makes a big point of this, pointing to the “rest remaining” for the people of God and the struggles we must face here below (Hebrews 4:1-16).
Outline for the Book of Numbers
- Organization of the people of Israel Numbers 1:1-8:26
- The memorial Passover ceremony Numbers 9:1-10:10
- Wandering in the wilderness; various judgments and regulations Numbers 10:11-21:35
- Further wandering (in Transjordan); more judgments and regulations Numbers 22:1-36:13