Lesson 3 of5
In Progress

Background of Numbers

The book of Numbers occupies an important “bridge” or transitional position in the story of the people of Israel. It begins as a report of those who were delivered from Egypt, following them through their early stages of faithfulness and on into their lapse into rebellion (chapters 11-14). Even as this first generation fades away in tragedy and waste, a newer generation, with new opportunities, steps forward to prepare to enter the land that was promised.


The book is put together over a long period of time using a variety of sources. After the long interlude of legal material in Leviticus, Numbers continues the narrative reports of Israel’s journeys that began in Exodus; it contains priestly laws regarding purity, the priests, and worship; it includes the Balaam saga, census lists, ordeals, vows, descriptions of holy war, songs and prayers, poems and blessings. Attempts to define and date these sources have argued that they stretch from Israel’s earliest historical or epic accounts similar to the narrative material found elsewhere in the Pentateuch (sometimes called the J and E sources, based on the names they employ for God–Yahweh [Jahweh] or Elohim), to the redefinitions and priestly writings of the exile (sometimes called the P source). All of this material is now put together in an organized form. It begins, for example, with the Lord speaking to Moses at Sinai (1:1) and ends with the report of God’s commandments to Moses in the plains of Moab (36:13). The old and new generations are defined by the two censuses (chapters 1 and 26). There are three clear geographical divisions: in the Sinai wilderness (1:1-10:10); the journey from Sinai to Moab (10:11-22:1); and on the plains of Moab (22:2-36:13).

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