Lesson 5 of 6
In Progress

Theological Themes in Numbers

Death and restoration

Because of Israel’s rebellion, the exodus generation must die, according to Numbers 14:20-23. God’s purpose, however, is not annihilation, but a necessary cleansing in order to begin anew (14:11-12). This theme of death and resurrection will mark biblical theology throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

Defilement by a corpse

According to the purity laws of ancient Israel, contact with a corpse made a person unclean (see Numbers 5:2-3; 9:6-14; 19:1-22). Such defilement could even be transmitted from a living person (who had touched a corpse) to other things touched by that person (Haggai 2:13). Defilement by a corpse was especially serious for one who had taken a Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:6-21). This defilement or uncleanness is not a moral defect, nor is it sin; it simply recognizes the power and significance of death through appropriate ritual. As Israel understands, God is the God of the living and the source of life (Isaiah 38:18-19; see Luke 20:38). Death, though natural, separates from God and must be ritually observed–quite elaborately, in fact (especially in Numbers 19:1-22).

God as sovereign and faithful

No matter how wild and forbidding the wilderness, no matter how feckless and faithless God’s chosen people show themselves to be, the ark (10:33-36) and God’s glory (14:10b, 21-22; 16:19, 42; 20:6) provide unfailing signs of God’s continued presence and faithfulness. Even when God chastises the people, there is forgiveness and a future.

God’s intimacy with the people

In Jeremiah 2 and Hosea 2, God will remember the wilderness wanderings as a sort of honeymoon after the covenantal marriage at Sinai. Often, commenters will focus on the grumbling and disobedience of the Israelites in Numbers, and rightly so. But God’s visual availability to the entire camp, who daily took their orientation from the divine presence (Is the pillar over the camp, or out ahead?) must not be overlooked. God’s intimacy in dwelling with the people is certainly a theme to which the Bible will return repeatedly. 

The glory of the Lord

God’s glory frequently “appears” in Numbers. It can be seen by the people and is said to fill the earth (14:10b, 21-22; 16:19, 42; 20:6). Some see a connection between this “visible” glory and the cloud and fire that symbolize God’s presence in 9:15-23 and in earlier accounts of the Exodus. The Hebrew term for “glory”(kabod) means “weight” or “importance,” indicating the “weight” and significance of God’s presence, so evident that it can be felt and seen. Describing God’s presence among God’s people and later in the temple as the presence of the divine glory is a way to speak of God’s real indwelling without giving the impression that God is physically confined to a particular spot. Just as God’s glory might appear, it can also depart (Ezekiel 10).


No matter how discouraging and exhausting the wanderings in the wilderness, the reality of the land provides a constant reminder that the journey is purposeful. The provision of a particular territory for God’s people is a constant theme throughout the story, from the gathering of the people at Sinai, through the intense and varied stages of conflict in the middle of the book, to the battles with the Midianites and the preparations for entry into Canaan.

Law and love 

The story in Numbers is closely linked with the giving and hearing of laws, laws that address not only worship and ethics, but the full range of life. Taken together, they reflect the will of God and God’s loving attention to the health and prosperity of the people.

Moses’ mediation

When God proposes to “disinherit” a rebellious Israel, Moses intercedes, pleading for forgiveness (Numbers 14:13-19). Moses appeals first to God’s reputation among the nations, but then, more important, to God’s own character and God’s own promise (“The LORD is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love”; 14:18). The appeal is heard and God agrees to forgive (14:20). Moses’ mediation, similar to that of Abraham on behalf of Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33), indicates both God’s propensity to forgive and God’s willingness to respond to human intercession. Though God remains holy in Numbers, God is not distant; God is always in a personal relationship with God’s people.

The need for leadership

Numbers conveys an unusual interest in the organization of God’s people (as a defense against the disorientation presented by the wilderness?), keeping track of tribal groups, encampments, worship, inheritances, and land distribution. Throughout the phases of the people’s attention and inattention to the will of God, the need for trustworthy leadership is a constant theme.

Redemption of the firstborn

Because God spared the firstborn of Israel during the final plague leading up to the Exodus, all firstborn belong to God (Numbers 3:11-13). In Exodus 13:11-16, firstborn animals are given to God, but firstborn humans are “redeemed.” Numbers 18:15-16 sets the redemption price at five shekels of silver. In Numbers 3, the Levites are accepted as “substitutes” for Israel’s firstborn. The point everywhere is that sacrifice of firstborn humans, though they belong to God, is disallowed.

The sin of Moses and Aaron

Numbers reports that Moses and Aaron are refused entry into Canaan because of their sin in the wilderness of Zin (20:1-13). The sin is described as lack of trust (v. 12), but its precise character is unclear. Is it because Moses struck the rock (as he is commanded to do in what appears to be another version of this story in Exodus 17:1-7) rather than merely “commanding” it, as he is told to do here (Numbers 20:8)? Is it in Moses’ anger with the people? The text does not say, but the theological point seems to be that Moses and Aaron are not excluded from the land capriciously or even merely because of the corporate sin of the people. They bear their own individual responsibility–which may be an indication of a later exilic origin of this text (see Ezekiel 18:1-32).

Unintentional and intentional sin

According to Numbers 15:22-31, only those sins against God’s commandments that are “unintentional” can be forgiven by the atonement provided through priests and rites of sacrifice. Breaking the divine order is serious, even if unintended. Such errors must be attended to with somber ritual. Intentional sin, however–sin that is premeditated or “high handed” (the Hebrew term)–cannot be satisfied through sacrifice. Such a sinner “shall be utterly cut off and bear the guilt” (15:31). Later, the “high-handed” sin of David is similarly seen to be not amenable to forgiveness through sacrifice. Only repentance and God’s own cleansing and re-creation will suffice (Psalm 51:10-17).

The wilderness

The story takes place in “the wilderness,” which can represent the space between the point where God gathers the people and their final destination and place of rest. It is also a place to be traversed, not a place for settlement. The promise remains out of reach as long as the people are in the wilderness. In the same vein, the wilderness represents a place of testing, of homelessness, of what is primitive and savage and chaotic, all in sharp contrast to the land that is promised.

The wrath of God and atonement

The wrath of God in Numbers is not a personal emotion of anger or hatred, but the weighty consequence of disobedience and rebellion. Defying God brings divine wrath, that is, the disastrous results of turning away from God and God’s good purposes. Through the priesthood and sacrificial rites, God makes provision to avert this wrath, so the deadly consequences of sin do not prevail (Numbers 16:46). In the drastic act of killing the perpetrator of apostasy, Phinehas is said to have averted God’s wrath and made atonement for the people (25:11-13).