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An Introduction to the Book of Numbers

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A. The Hebrew title is Bemidbar or “In the Wilderness” (rbdmb) (of Sinai?)1

B. The Greek title in the translation of the OT (LXX) was arithmoi (ARIQMOI) emphasizing the lists of numbers recorded in the book (1--4; 26)

C. The Latin Vulgate picked up on the Greek title and named the book Numeri from which the English acquires the name Numbers.
Milgrom suggests that the Greek and Vulgate titles, “are probably derived from the oldest Hebrew title homesh ha-pekudim ‘the fifth (of the Torah) the mustered’ (Mish. Yoma 7:1, Mish. Men. 4:3), so named because of the several censuses recorded in the book (chaps. 1-4,26).2


A. The Passover occurred on the fourteenth day of the first month of the year and the nation departed from Egypt on the fifteenth day of the first month (Num 33:3; Ex 12:2, 6)

B. The tabernacle was erected at Mount Sinai exactly one year after the Exodus (on the first day of the first month of the second year; Ex 40:2, 17)

C. One month later the nation prepared to leave Sinai for the Promised Land (on the first day of the second month of the second year; Num 1:1)

D. On the twentieth day of the second month of the second year “the cloud was lifted from over the tabernacle of the testimony and the sons of Israel went out on their journeys from the wilderness of Sinai” (Num 10:11-12).

E. Deuteronomy opens with a reference to the first day of the eleventh month of the 40th year. This is 38 years, eight months and ten days after the nation departed from Sinai (Deut 1:3; cf. Num 10:11-12)Therefore, Numbers covers a period of time known as the wilderness wanderings which lasted 38 years, nine months and ten days.3

F. Hill and Walton offer the following timetable for events after the Exodus:4

Exodus from Egypt

15th day of 1st month

Exod. 12:2, 5; Num. 33:3

Arrival at Mount Sinai

1st day of 3d month

Exod. 19:1

Yahweh reveals himself at Sinai

3d day of 3d month

Exod. 19:16

Completion of tabernacle

1st day of 1st month of 2d year

Exod. 40:1, 16

Command to number Israel

1st day of 2d month of 2d year

Num. 1:1

Departure from Sinai

20th day of 2d month of 2d year

Num. 10:11

Arrival at Kadesh

1st month of 40th year?

Num. 20:1

Death of Miriam

1st month of 40th year?

Num. 20:1

Death of Aaron and thirty days of mourning

1st day of 5th month of 40th year

Num. 20:29

Departure for Moab

1st day of 6th month of 40th year?

Num 20:22; 21:4

Moses Addresses Israel in Moab

1st day of 11th month of 40th year

Deut. 1:2-3

Death of Moses and thirty days of mourning


Deut. 34:8

Joshua and Israel enter Canaan

10th day of 1st month of 41st year

Josh. 1:19


A. Mosaic Authorship: Although many critics questions Mosaic authorship of Numbers because of their view of sources in the book,5 it is better in view of they underlying assumptions of JEDP and the supporting historical evidence to give the book the benefit of the doubt and assume Mosaic authorship which was then edited at later times into its present canonical form6

B. Numbers in Numbers:

1. The design of the census in Numbers:7

a. To ascertain and recruit manpower for war (Num 1:3)

b. To allot work assignments in the forced labor gangs and the religious cult (Num 3:4)

c. To establish a basis for taxation (cf. Ex 30:11-16)

d. To order the Hebrew tribes in marching and camping formations (Num 2)

e. To contribute to the organization of former slaves into a unified people

2. Two census are taken in Numbers (1; 26):

a. The first census was taken in the second month of the second year after the Exodus (Num 1:1) numbering the first generation of post-Exodus Israelites

b. The second census was taken in the fortieth year after the Exodus numbering the second generation of post-Exodus Israelites (Num 20:1, 22-29; 33:38)

c. Both census were taken of Israelite men who were of fighting age (twenty years of age and older) Num 1:1-4; 26:1-4.

Census Figures in Numbers 1 and 268






















































































Greatest increase:

Manasseh (20,500)

Greatest decrease:

Simeon (37,100)

3. Significance of the Numbers in the Census:9

a. If one understands the numbers to be literal and the men to represent about one-fourth of the population, then the number of the Israelites ranges from two to three million people10

A literal understanding of the numbers in the census is in congruence with Pharaoh’s fear of the rapidly increasing Hebrews overrunning Egypt (Ex 1:7-12), the promises made to Abraham about becoming a great nation (Gen 12:2; 17:5-6), the earlier census taken during the first year in the wilderness (Exod 30:12--16; 38:26), and other traditions about the numbers of adult males who left Egypt (Ex 12:37; Num 11:21)11

b. Some argue that the numbers cannot be literal for the following reasons:

1) The Sinai wilderness did not have the ability to sustain such a large number of people and animals

2) Israel was unable to subdue and displace the Canaanites

c. Other non-literal approaches have been suggested for the reading of the numbers in the census:

1) The census totals are misplaced census lists from the time of David

2) The census totals are part of the writer’s “epic prose” style intended to express the wholeness of Israel and the enormity of YHWH’s deliverance of the people (e.g., figurative)

3) The census totals are literary fiction and/or exaggerations corrupted by centuries of revising the Pentateuch

4) The Hebrew word for “thousands” from the lack of vowel markings in the writings and could be read as “clan,” “tribe,” or even unit” (cf. Judg 6:15; Zech 9:7) or even “chieftain” or “armed warrior” (e.g., Gen 36:15).
Hill and Walton write, “Hence the census lists of Numbers record either military ‘units” or an unspecified number of warriors or individual (armed) fighting men. Such accounting lowers the Israelites army to a figure somewhere between 18,000 and 100,000 men, with the total Hebrew population numbering between 72,000 and 400,000 people.
It is argued that these drastically reduces figures are more consistent with available historical and archaeological data regarding population patterns during the period of the Hebrew Exodus. this approach also corroborates the biblical affirmations about the size of Israel when compared with surrounding nations (cf. Deut 7:1-7; Exod 23:29)12

C. Culture in Ritual: It seems that the rituals described in Numbers are to be closely tied to an understanding of Israel’s culture and thus Israel herself.

1. Just as all cultures have rituals which are expressions of who they are (even if those rituals appear from the perspective of those doing them to be non-ritual), so is it that Israel’s rituals are expressions of who they are.

2. Wenham has offered suggested interpretations of ritual in Leviticus and Numbers based upon studies in anthropology which suggest very plausible means by which one might interpret Israel’s cultural ritual13


A. The order (or disorder) of Numbers is often considered to be a difficulty for many in interpreting the book15

B. Wenham offers several suggestions for understanding the literary structure of this book:16

1. The mixture of law and narrative is designed to remind the readers that saving history concerns everyone and that now is when they must do the will of God

2. The inclusion of law with narrative is designed to emphasize promise in that Israel can fulfill it17

3. The rondo, or variation, form in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers emphasizes large cycles which bring out “the parallels between the three journeys, and between the three occasions of law-giving, at Sinai, Kadesh and the plains of Moab.”18 The following charts emphasize this19

Exodus to Numbers

Egypt (Ex 1--13), Sinai (Ex 19--Num 10), Kadesh (Num 13-20), Plains of Moab (Num 22-36)


Red Seat to Sinai

Sinai to Kadesh

Kadesh to Moab

Led by cloud Ex 13:21

= Nu 10:11ff


Victory over Egypt 14


cf. 21:21-35

Victory song 15:1-18

cf 10:35f


Miriam 15:20-21

= 12

= 20:1

People complain 15:23-24

= 11:1

= 21:5

Moses’ intercession 15:25

= 11:2

= 21:7

Well 15:27

= 21:16

Mana and quails 16

= 11:4-5


Water from rock 17:1-7


= 20:2-13

Victory over Amalek 17:8-16


cf. 21:1-3

Jethro 18:1-12

cf. 10:29-32







Divine promises

Ex 19:5-6; 23:23ff.

Nu 12:2


40 days








Moses’ intercession












Law of sacrifice

34:18ff; Lv. 1-7 etc.







Rebellion against Priests

Lv. 10:1-3



Atonement through priests and Levites

Ex 32:26-29



Priestly prerogatives

Lv. 6-7; 22


31:28-30; 35:1-8

Impurity rules

Lv. 11-16; Nu.9:6-14




Nu. 1-4




A. To fill-in the historical period from the Exodus and Sinai revelation to the preparations in Moab to enter the Promised Land

B. To explain that the 38 year period in the wilderness was a consequence for the unbelief of the older generation (Dt 1:35ff)

C. To demonstrate God’s faithfulness and forbearance against the backdrop of Israel’s unfaithfulness, rebellion, apostasy and frustration20

D. To present laws as case studies which do not have a precedent in what has been spoken thus far.21

E. To narrate the preparation of Israel for entry into the Promise Land22 by describing the journey from Sinai to the region beyond Jordan, and the legal decisions made in the wilderness23

1 Milgrom writes, It was also entitled va-yedabber after the first word (see Rashi on Exod. 38:26), as is the case with the other Torah books. The present Hebrew Title Bemidbar (the fifth word of the opening verse) seems more apt since it actually encompasses all the events described in the book that took place 'in the wilderness' (Leviticus, xi).

2 Leviticus, xi.

3 La Sor et al write, No effort will be made to press these date formulas, for Numbers makes no theological significance of them other than a general reference to the 'forty years' in the wilderness (cf. 14:33f.). However, it is highly unlikely that they were mere fictions of postexilic editors. It is not unreasonable to suppose that in addition to the written log of the stages of the journeyings (33:2) Moses also kept a record of the dates--at least those preserved in the account (OTS, 163, n. 1).

4 SOT, 133.

5 La Sor et al,

6 After marshalling supporting evidence for an early Numbers Wenham writes, This evidence lends weight to the book's own testimony that the traditions on which it is based originated in the Mosaic period. How much expansion, revision and rewriting they underwent in the centuries before they reached their final form, possibly in the early days of the monarchy, is hard to determine by critical methods. It is perhaps fairer to give the tradition the benefit of the doubt, than to assume everything must be late unless there is evidence to the contrary. But precise dating of the material is largely irrelevant to exegesis, for it is the final form of the text that has canonical authority for the church ... (Numbers, 24-25).

Likewise, Hill and Walton write, The book itself contains only one reference to Moses as an author of the material, and that is specifically limited to the itinerary of the Israelites in their desert trek from Egypt to Moab (Num. 33:2). Elsewhere the text implies that priests were also recording and preserving the divine instruction and regulations, especially those pertinent to their duties associated with the tabernacle (cf. 5:23).

As with Leviticus, the introductory formula 'and the Lord said to Moses' pervades every chapter of the book. Until more solid evidence surfaces to the contrary, it may be assumed by analogy to the book of Exodus that the bulk of the text in Numbers is the literary product of Moses, stemming from the fifteenth or thirteenth century B. C. (depending on the date of the Hebrew Exodus).

However, the references to Moses in the third person in the narrative (e.g., Num 12:3; 15:22-23) and the sporadic editorial insertions designed to inform a later audience (e.g., 13:11, 22; 27:14; 31:53) suggest that the book took its final form sometime after the death of Moses. It seems correct to assume that the substantial portions of the history and legislation of Numbers originated with Moses during the thirty-eight years of desert wandering that the book recounts (cf. Num. 33:38; Deut. 1:3). Whether he transcribed the words of Yahweh himself or dictated them to a scribe is unclear. But Numbers and the rest of the Pentateuch were cast in the form of a unified, five-volume book sometime between the days of Joshua and the elders of Israel (Josh. 24:31) and the era of Samuel (cf. 1 Sam. 3:19-21) [Survey of the Old Testament, 130-31).

7 This following is adapted form Hill and Walton, SOT, 136.

8 This chart is adapted from the charts by Walton and Hill, SOT, 137; and La Sor et al, OTS, 167; Wenham, Numbers, 60.

9 For fuller discussions of this difficult matter see Wenham, Numbers, 60-66; Budd, Numbers, 6-9.

10 See also Wenham, Numbers, 59. This still seems like the best solution to this writer, even though it is not without difficulties.

11 See Milgrom, Numbers, who himself concludes that At present, then, there is no choice but to assume that the number 600,000 was meant to be understood literally (p. 339; cf also pp. 336-38.

12 Hill and Walton, SOT, 137. They offer no real solution to this difficulty, but unfortunately affirm that one's presuppositions determine one's conclusion, Yet it must be emphasized that none of the interpretive options for the Numbers census figures is without problems or inconsistencies. Generally speaking, one's view of Scripture determines a person's stance on the biblical numbers, with one end of the spectrum inclined toward literalness, and the other end skeptical about their historicity and reliability, and between them a moderate view of openness toward alternative readings (ibid.).

13 Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary (Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), 25-39. An example of his discussion of an anthropologically-based approach to ritual symbolism is as follows: First, this approach seeks to understand the whole ritual system and not just parts of it, or more precisely to understand the parts in the light of the whole. This may be illustrated by Douglas' approach to the food laws. Earlier commentators picked on certain elements in the food laws as suggestive of a particular interpretation. For instance, sheep were clean because they reminded man of his divine shepherd, while serpents were unclean because they recalled the agent of the fall. But multitudes of animals in the list found no easy explanation of this type, for example, camels, eagles, grasshoppers, etc. Douglas drew attention to that feature of the list in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 that the biblical writers seem to concentrate on, namely the means of locomotion of the animals, how many feet and what type of feet they have. From surveying the lists as a whole she deduced that the animal world mirrors the human world. Just as there are three principal divisions among men, Gentiles, Jews, and priests, so there are three classes of animals: unclean, that may not be eaten; clean, i.e. edible; and sacrificial beasts. Her theory of correspondence between the human and the animal kingdoms is confirmed by other texts scattered throughout the Pentateuch.

Secondly, Soleer has independently arrived at a similar analysis of the food laws to that of Douglas. Indeed his study represents an advance on her work, showing that the correspondences between animals and men run even deeper than earlier realized. The birds listed as unclean are unclean, because they are birds of prey, i.e. eat flesh with blood in it, a mortal sin under Old Testament law (Lv. 17:10-14). It is the herbivorous land animals that are clean, and according to Genesis 9:3 (cf. 1:29f.) man too was vegetarian until after the flood. It is also worth noting that Carmichael, using more traditional methods of exegesis, has arrived at similar conclusions. He argues that in Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 22:110 the ox, the best of the sacrificial and clean animals, symbolizes Israel, while the ass, an unclean beast, pictures Canaan. This convergence of interpretation, based on several different methods of study, suggests that the symbolic dimensions of biblical thought are at last being understood.

Thirdly, this interpretation is corroborated in the earliest commentaries on these laws. For example, the second-century BC Letter of Aristeas sees the behaviour of clean animals as models for human conduct. Acts 10 links the preaching of Peter to the Gentiles with eating unclean animals. In other words, as soon as men of all nations could belong to the people of God, those food laws which had symbolized Israel's election of and served to separate her from the nations became irrelevant too (ibid., 33-34).

14 For a good discussion of the literary structure of particular units in Numbers see Migrom, Leviticus, xii-xxxi.

15 Martin North, Leviticus, 2.

16 Wenham, 14-18.

17 The clearest example of this is to be found in chapter 15, where the demand to offer grain, oil, and wine along with animal sacrifice is an implicit pledge that one day Israel will enter Canaan despite the events described in the previous chapters 13--14. The six laws about the land (22:50 to the end) similarly remind the reader that the promise is on the verge of fulfillment (Numbers, 15).

18 Wenham, Numbers, 16. In addition see Milgrom for a literary structure of the Hexateuch (Numbers, xiii-xxxi).

19 These are adapted from Wenham, Numbers, 16-17.

20 The success of Israel in fulfilling her role as God's mediatorial agent to exercise God's rule on earth does not rest on her but on the One who chose her into that position. There is a certain irony in God's permissive will in that He allows evil to draw people closer to Him. Although sin appears to be allowed to interfere with what God is doing, it does not ultimately triumph. The question is not whether man can obey but whether man will obey (with the strength of the Lord).

As Johnson writes, Numbers continues to reveal YHWH in His Presence among the people who permits Israel's disobedience to delay entrance into the land promised yet in the discipline of His permissive will prepared the next generation to enter the land in obedience administered under the responsibility demanded by law (Synopsis of Numbers [unpublished class notes in 371 Seminar in the Pentateuch, Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall 1989], 1).

21 Although some of the didactic sections are parallel with Leviticus (e.g., the prescription concerning the seasonal feasts in 28; 29; cf. Lev 1--7; 23), much is unique to Numbers. Some of these prescriptions strongly anticipate the settlement of the Promised Land and thus affirm that Israel will enter and posses the land (the test of an unfaithful wife (5:11-31), supplementary offerings (15:1-21), tassels on one's garment (15:37-41), water of purification (19:1ff).

22 Budd writes, One of his [the author's] chief concerns is to establish principles of attitude and behavior which are a precondition of possession and enjoyment of the land (Numbers, xvii).

23 Maryono writes, Moses also wanted Israel to learn from history. Together with describing in detail the great things God has done to and for them he also listed carefully various commands of God to govern their whole life. Their position as covenantal people obligates them to subject the whole area of their life under the control of God: worship, social, family, and individual. They are also to know that the land they will posses is a covenantal land. The Lord dwells in it, therefore, they are called to guard the purity of the land. Obedience to His commands will assure the possibility of enjoying the blessing in the land. Then Moses warns the people ... [that] grave consequences shall [occur if] they fail to obey God. Their covenantal position does not exclude them from the possibility of receiving server judgment (Petrus Maryono, The Synopsis of Numbers [paper submitted for course 371 Seminar in the Pentateuch, Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall 1989], 8).

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines