Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Numbers

Aaronic and Levitical priests 

According to Numbers 3:5-10, the Levites are “given” to Aaron and his descendants to assist them in their priestly duties. Aaron had the authority that came with being Moses’ brother, and he had served Moses in priestly fashion as mediator and interpreter. He and his descendants were consecrated as priests of God in Exodus 28-29. The sons of Levi “ordained themselves” for the service of the Lord by their faithfulness and zeal during the golden calf incident (Exodus 32). Thus, in Numbers they were not enrolled with the other tribes in the census, but were appointed to serve and care for the tabernacle (Numbers 1:48-54). According to 3:11-13, the Levites serve as substitutes for the firstborn of Israel. All the firstborn properly belong to God, because God spared Israel’s firstborn during the Exodus (Exodus 11:4-13:16); but now the Levites are consecrated to God’s service in place of all the firstborn.

The bronze serpent 

Snakes were ambiguous figures in the ancient world. They could bring death, as in Numbers 21 and Genesis 3, or serve as a sign of life and healing, as in the case of the Greek god Asclepius. (Even modern medicine continues to use either the staff of Asclepius, wrapped by a single snake, or the caduceus of the god Hermes [two snakes entwined on a staff] as a symbol of the healing professions.) Snakes were associated both with ancient Near Eastern fertility deities (for example, Anath or Astarte) and with the fearsome sea serpent, Leviathan, the dragon of chaos. Archaeologists have found bronze serpents at several Palestinian sites. In biblical tradition, the bronze serpent of the wilderness, later placed in the temple of Jerusalem because of its historical and theological significance, eventually became treated as an idol and had to be discarded as part of Hezekiah’s reform (2 Kings 18:1-4). Biblical theology made clear that the power of the serpent was not in the thing itself, nor in any magical rite associated with the serpent, but solely in God, who had given the serpent as an act of healing and grace.

Caleb and Joshua 

According to Numbers, only Caleb and Joshua will be permitted to survive the 40 years in the wilderness and enter the Promised Land (Numbers 14:24, 30, 38; 26:65; 32:12). They were of “a different spirit” (14:24) and “unreservedly followed the LORD” (32:12). The theme of saving righteous individuals from communal disaster brought about by rebellion against God is not unlike the rescue of Noah and his family during the flood (Genesis 6:8-9). Joshua was appointed Moses’ successor (Numbers 27:15-23) and went on to lead the conquest of the land in the biblical book named for him, where he continued to be assisted by Caleb.


The purpose of the two censuses in Numbers, according to the text, is to enroll “everyone in Israel able to go to war” (1:3; 26:2). The census would, apparently, count and verify Israel’s strength, encouraging the people as they prepare for the encounter with Canaan. Curiously, David’s census–apparently for the same military purpose–is condemned, so much so that the Chronicler terms it an act incited by Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1-17; compare 2 Samuel 24:1). David’s census results in the kind of plague that had to be warded off as a potential effect of the census in Exodus 30:11-12. Although in Numbers the censuses are approved, elsewhere they are understood as dangerous exercises, perhaps because they assume Israel’s strength to lie in its armies rather than in its reliance upon God.

The 40 years

According to Numbers 14:32-34 (see also 32:13), the Israelites, because of their rebellion against Moses and Aaron and their fear of going forward on God’s journey (14:1-4), were compelled to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until the entire rebellious generation had died out. Generally, 40 years in the Bible is regarded as the span of a complete generation. The harsh penalty derives from the understanding that the rebellion against the leaders is ultimately a rebellion against God (14:11). God will begin the new nation with a new, cleansed people. According to the priestly writers, the 40 years ended with the death of Aaron (33:38; see 20:22-29).

Midian and holy war 

Although earlier on, Midian had provided for Moses both a place of refuge and a wife (Exodus 2:15b-4:31; 18:1-27), now in Numbers Midian has become Israel’s foe, enticing them to idolatry and apostasy (Numbers 25:1-18). The result will be a battle to “avenge the Israelites on the Midianites” (31:2) that is described in part at least in holy war terms (31:1-12). (Another holy war against Midian will follow in Judges 6:1-8:21, after which Midian becomes a paradigmatic emblem of those who oppose Israel and God [Psalm 83:9; Isaiah 9:4; 10:26]; though even Midian will come to worship God in the return of the nations envisioned in Isaiah 60:6.) In true holy war (Deuteronomy 20:1-20), the victory was seen to be God’s alone, not due to Israel’s strength, and the spoils of war were dedicated to God (that is, Israel could not profit from the war). There is no historical evidence that such holy wars of complete annihilation were ever fought by Israel. The language is more symbolic, announcing that finally nothing will be allowed to stand in the way of God’s liberation of God’s people and blessing of the world.

The murmuring stories 

The Book ofNumbers continues the murmuring stories that began immediately after the crossing of the sea in Exodus. In the early stories, God responds positively to Israel’s complaints. God sweetens the water at Marah (Exodus 15:22-25), rains bread or “manna” from heaven (Exodus 16:2-12), provides quail for meat (Exodus 16:13) and water from the rock (Exodus 17:1-7). With the growing sense that Israel’s complaint is finally “against the LORD” (Exodus 16:8), it is seen as the equivalent of unbelief (Numbers 14:11). In the final story of the series, the account of the bronze serpent, the narrator says directly that Israel spoke not only against Moses but also “against God” (Numbers 21:5). The result is death. This is not just a threat from a capricious God; it is a theological fact. God is the source of life, so rebellion against God is rebellion against life itself; death will naturally ensue.

The Nazirite vow 

Numbers 6:1-21 defines the Nazirite vow, by which a man or woman became especially dedicated to God for a temporary period (in Hebrew, nazir means “consecrated” or “separated”). Nazirites were required to abstain from wine, strong drink, and grape products; not to cut their hair; and not to go near a corpse. Samson was to be a lifelong Nazirite, set apart to deliver Israel from the Philistines (Judges 13:4-7); Samuel, too, was set apart as a lifelong Nazirite, given by his mother Hannah to serve God in the sanctuary at Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:11, 22). Although the term is not used, some interpret the asceticism of John the Baptist as a form of Nazirite vow (Luke 1:15). Others see a connection between Jesus as a “Nazarene” or “Nazorean” (Matthew 2:23) and the Nazirite vow, indicating Jesus as one consecrated or set apart for God’s work.

The Nephilim 

According to the spies who returned from the land of Canaan, they had seen Nephilim (or Anakites) there, who made them seem “like grasshoppers” (Numbers 13:33). The presence of these very large people in Canaan becomes one reason for the spies’ fear and their false unfavorable report about the land. This provoked the people’s rebellion in Numbers 14. The Nephilim appear in Genesis 6:4, perhaps as synonymous with the “sons of God” (angels?) who took wives for themselves from the human women; the women bore children who were “the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” In the King James Version of the Bible, the Nephilim were the “giants in the earth,” perhaps seen as gigantic because of the spies’ report in Numbers 13. The spies’ identification of some of the Canaanites with these mythic figures of the Genesis prehistory may simply reflect their fear or may suggest that there were, in fact, some very large (to the Hebrews) men among the Canaanite population.


The Book ofNumbers gets its English name by way of the Septuagint, which used the term because of the census that begins the book and the second one in chapter 26. The totals given for the men of fighting age (1:46; 26:51) are difficult to imagine, seeming to require an aggregate head count of more than 2 million people. Some suggest that the seemingly impossible numbers have been corrupted, but it may be better to assume that they are in some way symbolic, perhaps representing how the community grew and prospered over time to fulfill the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. Interpreters have sought other ways, as well, to explain the symbolic value of these numbers. The numbers from the census in 2 Samuel 24:9 are similarly thought to be historically impossible. The numbers in the second census (Numbers 26:51) are all the more surprising since, according to the text, they do not include any of those counted in Numbers 1:46, all of whom died in the wilderness (26:63-65).

The Phinehas tradition 

According to Numbers, Phinehas, son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron, “turned back” God’s wrath through the zeal for God shown by his killing of an Israelite man engaged in intercourse with a Midianite woman. For this, Phinehas and his descendants were granted a “perpetual priesthood” (Numbers 25:6-13). Phinehas’s act lived on in Israelite tradition; it was recited as part of the salvation history in Psalm 106:28-31 and became a model for the zeal of the Maccabees in the second century B.C.E., who, like Phinehas, turned away God’s wrath by executing apostate Israelites (1 Maccabees 1:64; 2:26, 54; 3:8). The significance of Phinehas and of atoning God’s wrath through sacrifice grew in postexilic Israel until, by the time of Sirach (second century B.C.E.), Phinehas was regarded as “third in glory” (after Moses and Aaron) among the “famous men” of Israel (Sirach 44:1; 45:23-25).

Priestly law 

The cultural and spiritual relevance of many cultic practices described in Numbers are assumed, rather than explained. This means that the contemporary reader is truly entering a world that is foreign and distant. Viewing this world from the perspective of anthropology can help us understand and appreciate that such rituals reflect the deepest values of a culture, shaping its views on many of life’s important events and transitions. Among other things, priestly law sought to appreciate and maintain the order with which God had created the world. Chaos always remained a threat, especially in an early world of danger and vulnerability, so dietary and purity laws, along with careful observance of calendars and rituals, were ways to participate in God’s order and to ensure a safe and secure world.

Priestly religion

For the world of Numbers, God is holy and can only be approached soberly, carefully, and through the mediation of the priest. Concerns for an intimate and individual relation to God, common in contemporary religion and spirituality, are largely unknown in that early culture. God is dangerous–not because God is angry or essentially a God of wrath, but simply because God is God. Rites of purity and sacrificial rituals are ways by which God graciously allows people access to God without the risks that come with approaching the holy.

The tabernacle

The care and detail laid down earlier in the Pentateuch for building the tabernacle (Exodus 25-31) remind us that it was a place like no other, the very place where God deigns to descend and to dwell among God’s people, the place where heaven and earth are linked. The tabernacle or tent of meeting served during the wilderness period as a kind of movable temple and shared many characteristics of what would become the temple in Jerusalem. As biblical theology makes clear, God is not bound to the temple or tabernacle, but God does promise to be present there.