Lesson 1 of 6
In Progress

Summary of Numbers


Though the census lists in chapters 1 and 26 play an important part in the book, the title “Numbers” does not adequately represent the content. The Hebrew title Bemidbar (“in the wilderness”–the first words of the Hebrew text) captures the theme much better: the book tells the story of how Israel’s exodus generation entered the desert where most of them died away in faithlessness and disobedience, and how the next generation emerged, prepared to claim the promise of a new land. The Book of Numbers continues the story of the journey out of Egypt, emphasizing the theme of God’s faithfulness that endures even in the face of arduous journeys, physical privation, vacillating leadership, and unbelief.


Numbers is the story of a people on a difficult journey, with everything–life, health, purpose, destiny–on the line. As such, it has provided a point of reference and a framework of meaning for communities of faith over time. In the New Testament, Paul refers to the wilderness journey as an instructive example for his people in Corinth (1 Corinthians 10:11).


Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible; it is also the fourth of the five books of the Torah (Pentateuch). It follows Leviticus and precedes Deuteronomy.


At one point (33:2) the text records that “Moses wrote down their starting points, stage by stage, by the command of the Lord”–one basis for the traditional claim of Mosaic authorship. Ascribing the material to Moses was a way to anchor it in antiquity and name its authority. The book, however, encompasses so many forms of literature and betrays so many different periods in its style that it is best understood as a compilation from sources that stretch from Israel’s earliest history to postexilic times. These have been edited to give an account of Israel’s wilderness journey, warning subsequent generations against apostasy while promising God’s ongoing work of restoration and renewal.


While much of the material comes, no doubt, from earlier periods, scholars now think the book reached its final form after the exile, perhaps as late as the fifth century B.C.E. The book’s narrative of the “quest for a homeland” may have found particular resonance for Israel while in exile from Judah.


The Book ofNumbers describes the travels and fortunes of the people of Israel during the “in between” period: their journey from the wilderness of Sinai (1:1) to the plains of Moab, close to the borders of the Promised Land (36:13).


The writers of the Book ofNumbers used a variety of sources and a variety of literary forms, including stories and narratives, laws, census lists, itineraries, instructions for worship, summaries of legal disputations, battle reports, poetry, and blessings. As a whole, it is best read as part of a historical saga written for a theological purpose: as a warning against disobedience and a promise of God’s faithful guidance toward new life.