The Book of Numbers is Israel’s epic road trip through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. It’s like a 40-year long camping trip, filled with adventures. So the Book of Numbers is like an exciting travel log where things start out well and go terribly wrong along the way. In fact, the Hebrew title for Numbers means “In the Wilderness” so it’s less about the numbers and more about God leading His people through the wilderness.
Here, watch the guys from
The Bible Project explain it with flair in this video.
Chapters 1-10 Wilderness Location: Mount Sinai
Chapters 10-12 Travel
Chapters 13-19 Wilderness Location: Paran
Chapters 20-21 Travel
Chapters 22-36 Wilderness Location: Moab
Jon: The book of Numbers gets overlooked, partly because it has a really boring name…
Tim: which is a shame, in Hebrew tradition the book’s name is “bamidbar” ( במדבר)
which means, “in the wilderness”. Numbers is an epic travel log of Israel’s journey
through the desert on their way to the land promised to Abraham.
Jon: Now, this pilgrimage should only have taken about 2 weeks on foot.
Tim: But instead it takes them forty years.
Jon: That’s crazy. practically half of someone’s lifetime.
Tim: Yeah, it’s a very long camping trip with lots of interesting stories, BUT, lets remember,
it’s most helpful to start with how the book is designed.
Tim: So, the book is broken up into five sections. There are three different wilderness locations,
broken up by two road trips that link it all together.
Jon: OK, so the story starts in the wilderness at Mt Sinai, right here on the map.
Tim: Then in the second section they travel towards a region called Paran.
Jon: and then a whole bunch of things happen there, in the wilderness of Paran.
Tim: Then, in this fourth section, Israel’s road trip to Moab.
Jon: The book ends with a large section in the wilderness of Moab, right across the Jordan
river from the promised land.
Tim Now, through all these sections, the storyline flows like gripping, dramatic movie:
everything starts great, then the trip goes horribly wrong. But it ends with a final redemptive
moment, a surprising act of God’s grace.
Jon: So lets begin with the first act, Israel is at the wilderness at Mt. Sinai. We’ve
become really familiar with this Mt.
Tim: Yeah, if you remember Israel came here after Egypt, they formed a Covenant with God
here, got the 10 commandments here, built the tabernacle here,
they’ve been here for one full year.
Jon: and now they take a census to number the people as they prepare to leave.
Tim: right, and then they’re are given instructions for how organize themselves in the camp: God’s
presence in the tabernacle, then the tribe of Levi and the priests around it, then the
rest of the tribes around them. This pattern is a visual symbol of how God’s holiness
is at the center of their existence as a people.
Jon: And they are told that when the cloud of God’s presence moves on they are to pack
up and travel with it.
Tim: The ark of the covenant carried by the Levites is in front, then the tribe of Judah
and on and on. This order also a symbol how God’s holy presence is their leader and
Jon: So we begin the second section of this book with enthusiasm as they leave the Sinai
wilderness and travel up to Paran- God’s with them, everything is organized, everything
is going to be great!…
Tim: …but it’s not great. After just three days on the road they start to complaining
about their hunger and thirst, and even Moses’ brother and sister start badmouthing him in
Jon: Not a great start. But now we’re in the 3rd section – the wilderness of Paran
– this is where they send 12 spies to scout out the promised land, two of the spies come
back really optimistic..
Tim: but the other ten are freaked out, they don’t trust God and say “we’re gonna
get annihilated” So they start a mutiny, and they try to appoint a new leader who will
take them back to Egypt. Basically, they are refusing to go into the promised land and
so God honors their choice and says that this generation of people will wander for 40 years
and die in the wilderness, and only their kids will get to enter the promised land.
Jon: You know, this story gets brought many times in the Bible
by different authors…
Tim: and always a reminder that while God remains faithful to his people, he will honor their
choices and let them waste their whole lives if they choose to live in rebellion.
Jon: OK, so this trip’s been a disaster so far.
Tim: it gets worse in this fourth section as they travel to Moab – even Moses has a
moment of rebellion, and is disqualified from entering the promised land. There’s another
rebellion among the people, the results in a snake attack
And what makes all these rebellions even worse, is that every step of the way,
God’s been providing, he offers forgiveness, he provides them food, water,
and this crazy stuff called ‘manna’…
Jon: What is that stuff?
Tim: No idea! But in spite of this they they complain and say they wish they had died
Jon: If I was God I would give up on these guys
Tim: You would think, and that is what makes this story in the final section so surprising.
Israel just arrived in Moab. The King of Moab is freaked out that this huge of people traveling
through his land, so he hires this pagan sorcerer named Balaam to pronounce curses on them.
Jon: This dude means business.
Tim: yah, and Balaam says, “I’ll pray to the Hebrew God and we’ll see what happens”.
And three different times he attempts to curse them, but each time he finds he can only utter
blessing. Most surprising is the last blessing in which
he prophesies that out of Israel will arise a victorious king, and this King is somehow
connected to God’s promise to Abraham to bless all nations thru this family.
So, here is Israel rebelling down in the camp,
totally unaware that up in the hills God is protecting and blessing them.
Jon: So, the book ends here in Moab. They are ready to go into the promised land.
They count everyone up, again like at the beginning, as they leave behind the
old generation including Moses
Tim: But before they leave Moses, he leaves them his last words of warning and wisdom
and that speech is what the next book, Deuteronomy is all about.
the next book, Deuteronomy, is all about.