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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

- Numbers

by Thomas Constable



The title the Jews used in their Hebrew Old Testament for this book comes from the fifth word in the book in the Hebrew text, bemidbar: "in the wilderness." This is, of course, appropriate since the Israelites spent most of the time covered in the narrative of Numbers in the wilderness.

The English title "Numbers" is a translation of the Greek title Arithmoi. The Septuagint translators chose this title because of the two censuses of the Israelites that Moses recorded at the beginning (chs. 1-4) and toward the end (ch. 26) of the book. These numberings of the people took place at the beginning and end of the wilderness wanderings and frame the contents of Numbers.


Moses wrote Numbers (cf. Num_1:1; Num_33:2; Mat_8:4; Mat_19:7; Luk_24:44; Joh_1:45; et al.). He evidently did so late in his life on the plains of Moab. [Note: See the commentaries for fuller discussions of these subjects, e.g., Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, pp. 21-25.] Moses evidently died close to 1406 B.C. since the Exodus happened about 1446 B.C. (1Ki_6:1), the Israelites were in the wilderness for 40 years (Num_32:13), and he died shortly before they entered the Promised Land (Deu_34:5).

There are also a few passages that appear to have been added after Moses’ time: Num_12:3; Num_21:14-15; and Num_32:34-42. However, it is impossible to say how much later.


When the book opens the Israelites were in the second month of the second year after they departed from Egypt (Num_1:1). In chapters 7-10 we read things that happened in the nation before that. These things happened when Moses finished setting up the tabernacle, which occurred on the first day of the first month of the second year (Num_7:1; cf. Exo_40:17). When Numbers closes the Israelites were in the tenth month of the fortieth year (cf. Deu_1:3). Thus the time Numbers covers is about 39 years.

Numbers records that the Israelites traveled from Mt. Sinai to the plains of Moab, which lay to the east of Jericho and the Jordan River. However their journey was not at all direct. They proceeded from Sinai to Kadesh Barnea on Canaan’s southern border but failed to go into the Promised Land from there because of unbelief. Their failure to trust God and obey Him resulted in a period of 38 years of wandering in the wilderness. God finally brought them back to Kadesh and led them from there to the plains of Moab that lay on Canaan’s eastern border.

Even though the wilderness wanderings consumed the majority of the years that Numbers records, Moses passed over the events of this period of Israel’s history fairly quickly. No one knows for sure how much time the Israelites spent in transit during the 38 years between their first and last visits to Kadesh Barnea. God’s emphasis in this book is on His preparation of the Israelites to enter the land from Kadesh (chs. 1-14), and His preparation to enter from the plains of Moab (chs. 20-36). This indicates that the purpose of the book was primarily to show how God dealt with the Israelites as they anticipated entrance into the Promised Land. It was not to record all the events, or even most events, that took place in Israel’s history. This selection of content to teach spiritual lessons is in harmony with the other books of the Pentateuch. Their concern too was more theological than historical.

"The material in Numbers cannot be understood apart from what precedes it in Exodus and Leviticus. The middle books of the Pentateuch hang closely together, with Genesis forming a prologue, and Deuteronomy the epilogue to the collection." [Note: Ibid., pp. 15-16.]

The content stresses events leading to the destruction of the older generation of Israelites in the wilderness and the preparation of the new generation for entrance into the land. The census at the beginning of the book (chs. 1-4) and the one at the end (ch. 26) provide, ". . . the overarching literary and theological structure of the book of Numbers." [Note: Dennis T. Olson, The Death of the Old and the Birth of the New: The Framework of the Book of Numbers and the Pentateuch, p. 81.]

"We may also venture the purpose of the book in this manner: To compel obedience to Yahweh by members of the new community by reminding them of the wrath of God on their parents because of their breach of covenant; to encourage them to trust in the ongoing promises of their Lord as they follow him into their heritage in Canaan; and to provoke them to worship of God and to the enjoyment of their salvation." [Note: Ronald B. Allen, "Numbers," in Genesis-Numbers, vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 662.]

"The Book of Numbers seems to be an instruction manual to post-Sinai Israel. The ’manual’ deals with three areas: (a) how the nation was to order itself in its journeyings, (b) how the priests and Levites were to function in the condition of mobility which lay ahead, and (c) how they were to prepare themselves for the conquest of Canaan and their settled lives there. The narrative sections, of which there are many, demonstrate the successes and failures of the Lord’s people as they conformed and did not conform to the requirements in the legislative, cultic, and prescriptive parts of the book." [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "Numbers," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, p. 215.]


The basic genre of Numbers is narrative, though there are legal and genealogical sections as well. that supplement the narrative. One scholar identified 14 different genres in the book. [Note: Ibid., p. xiii.] However, most of it is narrative and legal material, and the overarching genre is instructional history designed to teach theology. [Note: Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 95.]


"The individual pericopes of Numbers manifest design. Their main structural device is chiasm and introversion. Also evidenced are such artifices as parallel panels, subscripts and repetitive resumptions, prolepses, and septenary enumerations. The pericopes are linked to each other by associative terms and themes and to similar narratives in Exodus by the same itinerary formula." [Note: Jacob Milgrom, Numbers, p. xxxi.]


I believe the theme of the book is obedience.

"The major theological theme of Numbers is reciprocal in nature: God has brought a people to Himself by covenant grace, but He expects of them a wholehearted devotion. Having accepted the terms of the Sinai Covenant, Israel had placed herself under obligation to obey them, a process that was to begin at once and not in some distant place and time (Exo_19:8; Exo_24:3)." [Note: Merrill, "Numbers," in The Old Testament Explorer, p. 98.]


I.    Experiences of the older generation in the wilderness chs. 1-25

A.    Preparations for entering the Promised Land from the south chs. 1-10

1.    The first census and the organization of the people chs. 1-4

2.    Commands and rituals to observe in preparation for entering the land chs. 5-9

3.    The departure from Sinai ch. 10

B.    The rebellion and judgment of the unbelieving generation chs. 11-25

1.    The cycle of rebellion, atonement, and death chs. 11-20

2.    The climax of rebellion, hope, and the end of dying chs. 21-25

II.    Prospects of the younger generation in the land chs. 26-36

A.    Preparations for entering the Promised Land from the east chs. 26-32

1.    The second census ch. 26

2.    Provisions and commands to observe in preparation for entering the land chs. 27-30

3.    Reprisal against Midian and the settlement of the Transjordanian tribes chs. 31-32

B.    Warning and encouragement of the younger generation chs. 33-36

1.    Review of the journey from Egypt Num_33:1-49

2.    Anticipation of the Promised Land Num_33:50 to Num_36:13

Conclusion of Numbers

The Book of Numbers is a lesson in the importance of trust and obedience. The Israelites frequently failed to trust and obey God in the hours of their trials, and consequently God postponed His blessing. Most of them never enjoyed the good things that God had for them. Obedience to God is essential on our part.

". . . the point of the book of Numbers is important for God’s people in any age: Exact obedience to God is crucial. Numbers makes the point most especially through examples of disobedience such as those found in chs. 11-21." [Note: Ashley, p. ix.]

The book also teaches us that the failures of His chosen human instruments do not frustrate God’s plans any more than the opposition of His enemies. The Israelites’ unfaithfulness to God did not turn Him back from faithfully carrying out His commitments to His chosen people. I believe the outstanding characteristic of God that Numbers reveals is His graciousness.

"Perhaps the most prominent theme is that of the gracious providence of the Lord in caring for all of Israel’s needs-militarily, physically, nutritionally and spiritually-in spite of constant rebellions by the people, both leadership and rank and file." [Note: Riggans, p. 2.]

The process of divine discipline is another important revelation. We see in Numbers how God deals with His people when they fail to trust and obey Him. On the one hand He does not permit them to enjoy what He has promised. On the other hand He works with them to prepare them to be stronger when they face the same tests again. Where their sin abounds, His grace abounds even more greatly. He makes the broken bone stronger at the place of the break than it was before the break.

Regarding the Israelites’ and our entering into all that God wants us to enjoy, everything depends on one’s attitude toward God. If we allow the giants and walls that stand between ourselves and God’s will to block our view of God, we will fail. Unbelief will lead to disobedience that will lead to discipline that will lead to frustration and death. However if we see the giants and walls overshadowed by God, as Caleb and Joshua did, we will succeed. Trust will lead to obedience that will lead to blessing that will lead to progress and life.

"Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience" (Heb_4:11).


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