Introduction to Numbers
In Hebrew the name of this book is בְּמִדְבַּר (bemidebar) which means “in the wilderness.” This is not only appropriate as it describes where “the LORD spoke to Moses” (Numbers 1:1), it is also the story of the Israelite people for the first forty years after the Exodus. The English title comes from the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. It is Ἀριθμοι (Arithmoi) in Greek, referring to the two “numberings” or censuses that bookend the years in the wilderness. Numbers is primarily a historical narrative of the years Israel spent wandering the Arabian wilderness waiting to enter Canaan and contains several favorite or well-known stories about the Jewish people before they entered the land – the spies and the giants, Korah, Balaam, and others. However, it also continues the pattern of Leviticus, outlining God’s laws for his chosen nation.
By far, the greatest criticism of Numbers has to do with the two censuses, namely the counts of 603,550 (Numbers 1:46) and 601,730 (Numbers 26:51) military-aged men. There are many who would argue that those numbers are far too large to account for the Israelites who left Egypt and entered Canaan, respectively. Since these are the counts of only the men older than 20 years, when we allow for women and children, there must have been between two and three million people. Attempts have been made to reduce these numbers to a tenth of them or something else. Surprisingly, Archer (who often sides with more liberal views of the writings) took a hard stance on this issue, spending four pages answering the critics’ challenges and defending the literalness of these counts. 1 Most notably, he argues that, without these large numbers, how do we account for Pharaoh’s estimation of “the Israelite people, more numerous and stronger than we are” (Exodus 1:9)? Secondly, he calculates that the amount of silver that God required from the Israelites in Exodus 38:25-26 was exactly the amount necessary for 603,550 men. These, plus other arguments, make it impossible to cogently defend a position that does not take these census numbers literally.
The theme of Numbers is the sovereignty and holiness of God. He designed a plan that, had Israel followed, would have assured them success and blessing. However, because of their lack of dependence on him, they lost their blessings and even their lives.
Chapter one records the first census God had Moses take of the newly formed Israelite nation, after they had been at Mount Sinai for about eleven months. They were under strict obligation to count “the name of every individual male” (Numbers 1:2). Literally this phrase reads “according to the name of every male at their skulls.” In other words, in spite of those who wish to see the final count decreased (sometimes dramatically), God told Moses to take a “head count” and record their names individually. Thus, whatever number we have is meant to be taken literally.
Moses was not to do this alone. God told him that he and Aaron were to have the help of one chief leader of each of the twelve tribes (Numbers 1:4-16). Numbers 1:20-46 lists the twelve tribes numbered (excluding Levi) and concludes a total of 603,500 males. Judah was the largest tribe, by far, and Manasseh the smallest. The Levites were not included in this count, because they would not serve in the standing army (Numbers 1:47-54). They were responsible for the assembling, disassembling, and ministry of the tabernacle for the nation. Although not all of the Levites were priests, they all served in the tabernacle and helped the priests. This distinction between the tribes regarding the tabernacle was so strict that “any unauthorized person who approaches it must be killed” (Numbers 1:51).
- Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 265-269. ↩