Timothy Ashley: The story is rather simple. Israel is counted by Moses, Aaron, and the leaders in order to prepare for the march to Canaan and life in the land following the conquest (chs. 1–4). After further exhortations to holy living and preparations to depart from Mt. Sinai (5:1–10:10), Israel leaves the holy mountain for Canaan (10:11–12:13). Spies are sent out from the oasis of Kadesh-barnea to reconnoiter. When they return to Moses and the people, their report is split. The majority say that the land and its inhabitants are too mighty to be taken. The minority (Caleb and Joshua) say that, since God had promised victory, he would bring victory for Israel, despite the strength of the land and its people. The people of Israel choose to believe the majority and are ready to go back to Egypt (thus rebelling against the leadership of Yahweh as well as that of Moses and Aaron) when God intervenes and punishes their disbelief and disobedience. Because of their sin, every person over the age of twenty would wander and die in the wilderness without coming into possession of Canaan. They would wander forty years, until the whole generation was dead (chs. 13–14).
The Israelites decide to try to make things better on their own. Unassisted by God (or Moses), they try to conquer the land but are humiliated in defeat (14:40–45). So for nearly forty years the people wander around Kadesh-barnea in the wilderness until all that generation dies (chs. 16–19). They then return to Kadesh-barnea, and are told to set out once again for Canaan. They depart from Kadesh-barnea and travel to the plains of Moab, just outside the land of promise (chs. 20–21). Along the way, they win some battles, showing that the tide is turning (21:1–4, 21–35). Just outside Canaan, the people are blessed by Balaam, a foreign seer (chs. 22–24). After his blessing, they sin further at Peor and are punished again (ch. 25). On the plains of Moab a new census is taken to mark the new beginning (ch. 26). The people wait for further instructions for life in the land of Canaan, where Joshua will lead them after the death of Moses (chs. 27–36).
PERSISTENT COMPLAINING, REBELLION AND RESISTANCE TO LEADERSHIP DELAY THE MOBILIZATION OF GOD’S TROOPS
FOR CONQUEST AND POSSESSION OF THE PROMISED LAND
Numbers 14:14: “They have heard that You, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; for You, O Lord, are seen eye to eye, while Your cloud stands over them; and You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.”
Numbers 14:27 “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who are grumbling against Me? I have heard the complaints of the sons of Israel, which they are making against Me.”
I. (1:1 – 10:36) FIRST GENERATION OF GOD’S TROOPS MOBILIZED FOR CONQUEST –
FOCUSING ON OBEDIENCE TO GOD’S INSTRUCTIONS
LOCATION = MOUNT SINAI
DURATION = 20 DAYS
A. (1:1 – 4:49) ORGANIZATION OF THE MILITARY TROOPS
1. (1:1-54) Census of the Military Troops – Men of War
2. (2:1-34) Geographical Organization of the Military Camp by Tribe
3. (3:1 – 4:49) Consecrated Service of the Levites (Assisting the Priests)
B. (5:1 – 6:21) PURITY AND SEPARATION OF THE MILITARY TROOPS
1. (5:1-31) Purity of the Military Troops – Avoiding Defilement
a. (:1-4) Avoiding Physical Defilement
b. (:5-10) Avoiding Interpersonal Relationship Defilement
c. (:11-31) Avoiding Marriage Defilement
2. (:6:1-21) Separation of the Military Troops – Via Nazarite Vow
a. (:1-8) Requirements of Separation
b. (:9-12) Renewal of Separation Vow if Defiled
c. (:13-21) Ratification of Fulfilled Separation
C. (6:22-27) GOD’S BLESSING ON THE MILITARY TROOPS – AARON’S BENEDICTION
D. (7:1 – 9:14) RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE MILITARY TROOPS
1. (7:1-89) Instructions Regarding the Offerings of the Tribal Leaders
2. (8:1-4) Instructions Regarding the Seven Lamps
3. (8:5-22) Instructions Regarding the Cleansing of the Levites
4. (8:23-26) Instructions Regarding the Length of Service of the Levites
5. (9:1-14) Instructions Regarding the Observance of Passover
E. (9:15 – 10:36) GUIDANCE FOR THE MILITARY TROOPS
1. (9:15-23) Guidance from the Cloud and Fire Representing the Presence of the Lord
2. (10:1-10) Guidance from the Silver Signal Trumpets for Worship and Mobilization
3. (10:11-36) Guidance Directing the Military Troops to Depart from Mt. Sinai
II. (11:1 – 25:18) DELAY DUE TO PERSISTENT COMPLAINING, REBELLION AND RESISTANCE TO LEADERSHIP –
FOCUSING ON TESTING AND FAILURE
LOCATION = WILDERNESS
DURATION = 38 YEARS 3 MONTHS AND 10 DAYS
A. (11:1 – 20:29) WINDING DOWN OF FIRST GENERATION
1. (11:1 – 12:16) Series of Complaints Representing Crises of Authority
a. (11:1-3) General Complaints of the People (Associated with Taberah)
b. (11:4-23) Complaints about Meat and Subsequent Leadership Issue (Associated with Kibroth-hattaavah)
c. (11:24-35) Resolving Complaints
d. (12:1-16) Murmuring of Miriam and Aaron (Associated with Hazeroth
2. (13:1 – 14:45) Cowardly Report of the Spies and Rejection of the Promised Land
a. (13:1-33) Cowardly Report of the Spies
b. (14:1-38) Rejection of the Promised Land
c. (14:39-45) Presumption Leads to Failure in Spiritual
3. (15:1-41) Worship Requirements for Living in Canaan –
a. (:1-16) Rejoice (Please) the Lord
b. (:17-36) Respect the Lord
c. (:37-41) Remember the Lord and His Commands
4. (16:1 – 17:13) Legitimation of Aaron’s Priesthood
a. (16:1-35) Revolt of Korah, Dathan and Abiram
b. (16:36-50) False Mediator vs. True Mediator
c. (17:1-13) The Sign of Aaron’s Budding Rod
5. (18:1-32) Distinctive Role and Support of the Priests and Levites
a. (:1-7) Distinction between Role of Priests and Levites
b. (:8-19) Support of the Aaronic Priests Via Various Offerings
c. (:20) Unique Portion for the Priesthood = Heart of the passage
d. (:21-24) Support of the Levites Via Tithes
e. (:25-32) Support of the Levites Includes Their Responsibility of Tithing to the Lord
6. (19:1-22) Laws on Cleansing
a. (:1-10) Preparation for Purification
b. (:11-13) Principles (General Rules) for Purification
c. (:14-21a) Process of Applying Purification
7. (20:1-29) Passing Away of Failed First Generation
B. (21:1 – 25:18) CRANKING UP OF SECOND GENERATION
1. (21:1-35) Initial Victories
a. (21:1-20) Celebrating Salvation
b. (21:21-35) Celebrating Impressive Military
2. (22:1 – 24:25) Treachery of Balaam
a. (22:1-41) Balaam Solicited by Balak to Curse Israel
b. (23:1 – 24:25) Balaam’s Oracles
3. (25:1-18) Spiritual Harlotry, Divine Judgment and Priestly Intervention
a. (:1-5) God’s Reaction to Extreme Corporate Spiritual Harlotry
b. (:6-9) Phinehas’ Reaction to Specific High Profile Instance of Blatant Spiritual Harlotry
c. (:10-13) Phinehas’ Reward for His Zeal and Faithfulness
d. (:14-15) Shameful Legacy for the Two High Profile Offenders
e. (:16-18) Call for Retaliation Against the Midianites
III. (26:1 – 36:13) SECOND GENERATION OF GOD’S TROOPS MOBILIZED FOR CONQUEST – FAITHFULNESS OF GOD TO RELAUNCH THE MISSION –
FOCUSING ON RENEWED OBEDIENCE
LOCATION = PLAINS OF MOAB
DURATION = ABOUT 5 MONTHS
A. (26:1–32:42) The Preparations for the Conquest and Possession of the Land
1. (26:1-65) Census of the New Generation
2. (27:1-23) Transfers to the Younger Generation
3. (28:1 – 29:40) Regulations for Offerings
4. (30:1-16) Regulations for Women’s Vows
5. (31:1 – 32:42) Settlement Instructions for Trans-Jordan Territory
B. (33:1–49) The Review of the Journey in the Wilderness
C. (33:50–36:13) The Anticipation of the Conquest and Possession of the Land
1. (33:50-56) Final Marching Orders for Conquering and Possessing Canaan
2. (34:1-15) Borders of the Promised Land
3. (34:16-29) Appointed Officials
4. (35:1-34) Levitical Holdings in the Promised Land
5. (36:1-13) Inheritance of Zelophehad’s Daughters
WHY STUDY THIS BOOK?
· To learn important lessons about the character of God – especially His faithfulness, His covenant love, His holiness, His hatred of sin and His justice.
· To see the examples of the deep-rooted nature of our sin that can lead to persistent unbelief, complaining, rebellion and challenging of spiritual authority. This should help us to guard against presumption.
· To be encouraged that God provides a second chance to a nation that experienced abject failure as a new generation arises with the opportunity to enter the Promised Land – having learned the lessons from faithlessness but now with a new humility. There are significant lessons about repentance and forgiveness.
· To witness the importance of spiritual leadership and its transition as Moses and Aaron complete their role in charge of God’s people.
· To exhort believers corporately to orient their lives around the favorable presence of the Lord.
· To show a realistic picture of the ups and downs of our challenging pilgrim journey of faith.
· To help believers wage war in dependence upon the Lord and the Spirit.
John MacArthur: Numbers chronicles the experiences of two generations of the nation of Israel. The first generation participated in the Exodus from Egypt. Their story begins in Ex. 2:23 and continues through Leviticus and into the first 14 chapters of Numbers. This generation was numbered for the war of conquest in Canaan (1:1–46). However, when the people arrived at the southern edge of Canaan, they refused to enter the Land (14:1–10). Because of their rebellion against the Lord, all the adults 20 and over (except Caleb and Joshua) were sentenced to die in the wilderness (14:26–38). In chaps. 15–25, the first and second generations overlap; the first died out as the second grew to adulthood. A second numbering of the people commenced the history of this second generation (26:1–56). These Israelites did go to war (26:2) and inherited the land (26:52–56). The story of this second generation, beginning in Numbers 26:1, continues through the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua.
R. K. Harrison: The book of Numbers is of pivotal importance for all OT study because it covers the formative period of Israel’s communal and religious life. During a four-decade interlude, the fledgling nation was given its characteristic structure as a group of Hebrew tribes that had been unified by the covenant at Sinai. Subsequently, the Israelites were chastened for their lack of faith in the Lord’s ability to provide for their needs, robbed of their fighting manhood to a significant extent through rebellion and disobedience, and finally disciplined into a military force that was to occupy the land of Canaan as their future homeland.
During this period Israel’s religious life was shaped by the promulgation of many laws from God that would establish the nature of her worship and prepare her for a settled community life beyond the confines of the wilderness. Through their separation from the perversions of contemporary pagan nations, the Israelites were to be dedicated to God as a holy people, witnessing to the lofty moral and spiritual ideals of the Sinai covenant.
Chuck Swindoll: In this book, the people of Israel tested God’s patience, and He in turn tested their endurance and faithfulness. Though the people failed many times, God showed His own faithfulness by His constant presence leading the way: through a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
More than just a history lesson, the book of Numbers reveals how God reminded Israel that He does not tolerate rebellion, complaining, and disbelief without invoking consequences. He taught His people how to walk with Him—not just with their feet through the wilderness but with their mouths in worship, hands in service, and lives as witnesses to the surrounding nations. He was their God, they were His people, and He expected them to act like it.
Gordon Wenham: It is impossible to discuss the theology of Numbers in isolation from the other books of the Pentateuch, particularly Exodus and Leviticus. The outward structural devices that link the three middle books of the Pentateuch point to an inner unity of theological theme that underlies them all. All are concerned with the outworking of the promises to Abraham and the moulding of Israel into the holy people of God. But the focus of interest in each book is different. Exodus concentrates on the deliverance from Egypt, the covenant at Sinai and the erection of the tabernacle. Leviticus highlights the nature of true worship and holiness. Numbers focuses on the land of promise and Israel’s journey towards it. God’s character and his reactions to Israel’s behaviour are constant throughout these books, but different aspects come to the fore in different books. If Leviticus emphasizes the importance of holiness and cleanness, Numbers reiterates the value of faith and obedience. Where Leviticus stresses the role of sacrifice in creating and maintaining right relations between God and man, Numbers accentuates the indispensability of the priesthood for preserving the nation’s spiritual health. Yet these contrasts are not incompatible with one another. It is through obedience to the law that Israel is sanctified, and without priests there can be no sacrifice. The theological emphases of the different books do not contradict but complement one another.
Dale Brueggemann: For the community of Israel facing the promise and demands of the conquest, this message about their predecessors would have prompted them to stay with God’s well-ordered plan, to follow his chosen leaders, and to count on his protection and blessing. The wilderness complaints and wanderings, followed by the death of a whole generation of would-be conquerors, should have been a potent warning against repeating that generation’s folly. That generation became the Old Testament byword for failing to enter rest because of unbelief (Ps 95:8–11). And that generation’s story still names us as its audience for both its warnings and encouragement (Heb 3:8–11; 4:3–7).