English Bibles, following earlier Latin and Greek versions, call this book Numbers. This title was known from the second century ad and perhaps earlier. It indicates that the book begins and ends with a census of Israel and its priests (chs. 1–4, 26). Jewish tradition used other titles, taken from the opening words of the Hebrew text. These were, ‘In the desert’ (referring to the fact that the forty years of this history were spent in the desert); ‘And he spoke’ (some early Christian Fathers favoured this title as it emphasized that the whole book is about the word of God, Israel’s refusal to believe that word and God’s faithfulness to it); and ‘The fourth book of Moses’ (part of the Pentateuch, from Genesis to Deuteronomy).

Outline of the book

Numbers falls into three parts.
Preparation to go to the promised land (chs. 1–10). In this section Moses prepares Israel. The tribes are numbered, organized and purified, the priesthood is established, the tabernacle is consecrated and the Passover is celebrated. Every detail of this preparation is commanded by God’s word. Two aims are in view: to make Israel fit for the Lord’s presence and to prepare them to possess the land promised as their inheritance in God’s sworn covenant with Abraham. At the end of this thorough preparation, the people set out for Canaan, led by God’s presence in the pillar of cloud and fire over the ark of the covenant.
Journeying to the promised land (chs. 11–25). What should have been a joyful pilgrimage became a trail of discontent. As they journeyed the people began to grumble. When they saw the powerful nations of Canaan they refused to enter. In unbelief, they rejected God’s promise. Consequently, they had to remain in the desert and die there. Towards the end of forty years, they advanced towards Canaan again.
New preparation for inheritance in the promised land (chs. 26–36). After forty years, they reached the plains of Moab. The focus in this section is on the inheritance. The new generation was numbered and commanded how to allot the land and what offerings to make there. Thus they were made ready to inherit the promised land. The final preparations included the command that the land allotted to each tribe must never pass out of its possession; in this way the inheritance was guaranteed. Despite Israel’s unbelief, God was faithful to the purpose of his covenant.
Table 1. Outline structure
Preparation to go to Canaan to inherit the land
Promise (Land)
The word of the Lord confirms the promise.
Journey to Paran Desert
Journey to Canaan
Failure to enter
Unbelief (Desert)
Israel will not believe.
Events there 13:1–19:22
They lose what is promised.
(Gap of 38 years between Num. 19 and 20)
Death in the desert.
Gap of 38 years (summarized in Num. 33:19–35
Year 40: the end of the pilgrimage
Year 40 journey to Moab 20:1–21:35
On the plains of Moab
New Preparation to inherit the land
Promise (Land)
The word of the Lord reaffirms the promise.
Table 2. The relationship between the narrative framework and the laws
Narrative Framework
I.     Preparation
1–2     The tribes are counted and the camp is set in order.
3–4     The Levites are counted and set in order as priests.
{4:4–33}     Regulations for the service of the Levitical Priests
5:1–4     The unclean are sent away: removal of the causes of defilement.
5:5–6:21     Laws for removing causes of defilement: in society (stolen property); in marriage (adultery); in life (Nazirite vows).
7:1–8:5     Anointing and setting apart tabernacle and altar; setting up the lampstand.
8:6–26     Laws for Levitical service at the tabernacle.
9:1–11a     The Passover is kept
9:11b–14     Passover law.
9:15–23     The cloud covers the tabernacle and will lead Israel on its journey.
10:1–10     Silver trumpets to call assemblies and for setting out on the journey.
10:11–36     Israel sets out on its journey.
II.     Journeying
11–14     Israel journeys to Canaan, murmuring on the way, finally refusing to enter. The oath: they will never enter because of their rebellion.
15     Offerings commanded for the time when Israel does enter the land. Distinction between deliberate and unintentional sins.
16–17     Korah’s rebellion against Aaron’s high priesthood. The Lord confirms his choice of Aaron.
18–19     Laws confirming Aaron’s high priesthood over the Levites; Aaron’s house must cleanse Israel from uncleanness (water for cleansing).
20–25     The end of the journey and events in the plains of Moab. Balaam’s blessing and Israel’s sin with the Midianites.
III.     New Preparation to inherit the Promised Land
26–27     The tribes are counted: as a basis for possessing and allotting the land.
{27:8–10} Inheritance law.
28–30     Offerings and vows, the calendar of feasts to be observed in the land.
31–32     Revenge on Midian. Settlement in Transjordan.
34–35     Boundaries of the land; allotting the inheritance; Levitical towns and cities of refuge for keeping the land pure.
(33     Moses’ record of the journey)
36:1–13     Marriage of Zelophehad’s daughters and their inheritance
{36:7–10} Inheritance law: no inheritance may pass from tribe to tribe.

Type of literature

    It is important to know what kind of writing Numbers is. Indeed, this is a principle of interpretation: we must identify the type of literature of biblical books and their contents. The books of the Bible are not all the same. They consist of different types of literature: law, history, psalm, gospel, letter and so on. The different kinds cannot be read in the same way. For example, history is different from doctrine. Acts (history) records that Paul circumcised Timothy ‘because of the Jews’ (Acts 16:3). Yet by letter (doctrine), Paul teaches that circumcision is no longer required (Gal. 2:3; 5:2; 6:12–16). The distinction is important because we must obey doctrine and not necessarily follow the example of history.
In the book of Numbers we can see four main types of writing: narrative, law, administration records and speeches. If we extracted the narrative sections, we would have a continuous story of the events which happened. For example, we could leave out the details of the census and the laws about offerings and feasts and be left with an account of what happened to Israel at Sinai, in the desert and on the plains of Moab. This is the framework of the book (see Table 2). The main subjects of the laws are the priesthood (4:4–33; 8:6–26; 18:1–19:22), purification (5:5–6:21), offerings and feasts (9:11b–14; 10:1–10; 15:1–41; 28:1–30:16) and commandments concerned with the inheritance of the land of Canaan (27:8–11; 31:21–24; 34:1–35:34; 36:7–10). The administration records include lists of leaders (1:5–16; 13:4–16; 34:19–29), genealogies and censuses (1:20–46; 3:1–4, 17–29; 4:34–49; 26:4–51, 57–62), camp-site records (2:3–33; 33:1–49), lists of tribal offerings and tribute (7:12–88; 31:32–40, 42–47), diplomatic correspondence (20:14–20; 22:5–6, 16–17) and land boundary records (34:3–12). The speeches which are quoted include prayer (10:35–36), blessings (6:24–27), oracles (23:7–10, 18–24; 24:3–9, 15–24), vows (21:2), oaths (5:19–22; 14:20–25, 28–35), poems, songs and ancient sayings (21:14–15, 17–18, 27–30). Often these speeches bring out the significance of the events recorded in the narrative and can, therefore, be crucial in their setting.

Narrative framework

    The laws, administration records and speeches all fit into the narrative which supplies a framework. The administration records form a natural part of the narrative. For example, the messages sent between Edom and Israel (20:14–20) help to tell the story of how Edom refused to let Israel cross its territory into Canaan. In fact, the administration records help to create the special character of Numbers’ narrative.
It is less obvious how the laws fit into the narrative. Many readers have been puzzled why the laws are placed where they are. Nevertheless, there is a link and unless it is seen the book cannot be properly understood. Two examples of this can be given. First, the narrative of the Levite Korah’s rebellion against Aaron (chs. 16–17) is immediately followed by laws reinforcing Aaron’s high priesthood over the Levites (chs. 18–19). Secondly, the narrative of Israel’s failure to enter Canaan because of their unbelief and God’s oath that that generation will never enter (chs. 13–14) is followed immediately with laws which imply that Israel will one day possess the land (ch. 15). Those laws begin ‘After you enter the land … ’, and the offerings required are of flour, oil and wine, i.e. they are from the produce of the land. Thus, these laws show God’s grace despite Israel’s sin. The relationship between narrative and law is shown more fully in Table 2.
The narrative focuses on key speeches. Hebrew narrative tends to quote the words of the leading characters. Frequently, the climax of a story is expressed in a very significant speech. For example, the account of Abraham’s trial of faith (when he was commanded to sacrifice Isaac) reaches its climax in the oath of God (Gn. 22:15–18). Such key speeches express the main point of the account. Numbers, like Genesis, quotes key speeches at crucial points in the narrative. These are shown in Table 3.
Table 3. Key speeches in the narrative
Key speech
The priestly blessing. This is given only after the camp has been ordered, the priesthood established and the camp purified.
Moses’ prayer. Rise up, O Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you and Return, O Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel. This prayer of invocation sums up the point of 1–10. God is present among the hosts of Israel and he leads them forward to the promised inheritance in the land of Canaan.
14:20–25, 28–35
The Lord’s oath. Israel’s unbelief in God’s promise and their refusal to enter the land leads to this divine oath with all its terrible finality: not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers.
23:7–10, 18–24; 24:3–9, 15–19, 20–24
Blessings on Israel. Though in Balaam’s mouth, the text makes it clear that these blessings are spoken by the command of God. They cannot be changed, nor revoked. These are extremely significant because Israel is on the verge of entering Canaan.
Covenant of eternal priesthood. This is extremely important: Israel has overcome its enemies and yet it falls by its own sinfulness. In the grace of God, the means of overcoming sin is guaranteed: i.e. the priesthood.
26:52–56; 33:50–56; 34:2, (3–12), 29
Repeated commands that the land must be allotted to Israel as their inheritance.
36:7, 9; (27:7–11)
A final commandment: No inheritance in Israel is to pass from tribe to tribe, for every Israelite shall keep the tribal land inherited from his forefathers. This commandment embodies the purpose of God: All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring for ever (Gn. 13:15) The promise of God to Abraham thus leads to the inalienable right of inheritance.

Important characteristics of the narrative

Much can be learned from the style and character of the narrative.
The narrative is not perfectly chronological
    Numbers is broadly chronological. In places, however, the historical order is not followed. This is true particularly of chs. 1–10 which record the events of the first two months of the second year after the exodus. If we rearranged the text, the chronological order would be as follows: on the first day, the tabernacle was set up (9:15–23); for twelve days the tribes brought their offerings for its consecration (7:1–8:26); on the fourteenth day the Passover was kept (9:1–14); two weeks later, on the first day of the second month, the census was taken and the camp was purified (1:1–6:27); on the twentieth day Israel set out for Canaan (10:1–36). Numbers is not the only book in the Bible where the chronological order has been set aside for another arrangement. It seems to be the case in some of the gospels, for example. In such cases, there is a reason why the historical order has not been followed. If we can discover that reason, it will shed light on the author’s purpose.
In chs. 1–10 the author seems to follow the plan of the camp. The camp was arranged in two circles: in the outer circle were the tribes and in the inner circle were the priests with the tabernacle in the centre (see on 2:1–34). This layout taught Israel that God should be the centre of their thoughts and lives. Above all else, Israel needed God to dwell among them (Ex. 33:3–16). They were to desire his presence more than anything (Ps. 42:1–3). By following the order, tribal camp (outer circle), priests’ camp and tabernacle (inner circle centre), the author leads the reader into the centre. He does this three times. First, with the numbering of the tribes (chs. 1–2) and then the Levites (chs. 3–4) and secondly, with the consecration of the camp (chs. 5–6) and then the tabernacle and priesthood (chs. 7–8). Finally, approaching the time of setting out, first Israel keeps the Passover throughout the camp (9:1–14), then the cloud appears over the tabernacle (9:15–23) and then Israel sets out. The most important event, the manifestation of God’s presence which actually took place before all the other events, is thus reserved till last. This delay creates a sense of climax and points out what is most important. Israel’s desire is withheld until the last moment then, at last, the cloud descends and God’s abiding presence is displayed to his people (9:15–23). Only then can they go up to Canaan (ch. 10).
It is interesting to compare Exodus and Numbers (Ex. 40 is parallel to Nu. 9:15–23). Exodus takes us from slavery in Egypt to Sinai and the glory of God’s presence in the tabernacle and the cloud (Ex. 40). The climax is God’s dwelling among his people as he promised to Abraham (Gn. 17:7). Numbers goes beyond that point to a new focus of interest, the inheritance in the land of Canaan. God leads Israel to the land promised in the covenant with Abraham (Nu. 10:29). The rest of Numbers is concerned with the inheritance lost by one generation but preserved for the next.
The narrative leaves much out
    Numbers covers a period of about forty years. However, it does not record everything that happened in those forty years. There is a thirty-eight year gap between chs. 19 and 20 (Dt. 2:14; Nu. 21:12). The record concentrates on a few months of the second year and the fortieth year at the end; in between is an almost total silence.
Moses made a list of the camp sites (ch. 33). The narrative mentions only a few places on the journey (e.g. 1:1; 9:1; 12:16; 20:1, 22–23; 33:50; 36:13). Comparison with Moses’ list confirms the gap in the narrative. Two episodes might have occurred in the intervening desert years: the stoning of the Sabbath-breaker (15:32–36) and Korah’s rebellion (16:1–50). The former occurred ‘in the desert’, but this seems to mean the desert of Paran (15:32). The latter is not dated but it appears to result from the failure to possess the land (16:14), and we may reasonably conclude that this followed fairly swiftly (note 16:41 for instance). Israel remained at Kadesh for many days, enough time for these things to take place (Dt. 1:46). Even if they did occur later on the journey, the author is not concerned to tell us; on the contrary, he attaches them to the rebellion. Thus there is no record of the journey from Rithmah to Kadesh (33:19, 36).
The point is that the author focuses on three crucial phases: the preparation (chs. 1–10); the rebellion (chs. 13–19); and the end of the journey and new preparation (chs. 20–25, 26–36). Furthermore, his silence about the period spent in the desert is eloquent testimony that these were wasted years. Clearly the author has been highly selective, choosing carefully what to include. He wants us to attend to what he has recorded and ignore all else.
The narrative alternates between the word of God and the words of men
    A stark contrast is drawn between the two. God gives his word, and obedience brings great progress. When Israel speaks for itself, however, we hear grumbling, complaining and rebellion, and this provokes the judgment of God.
In chs. 1–10, the directing factor is the word of God. Repeatedly we read ‘The Lord spoke’ (1:1; 2:1; 3:1; etc.). The Hebrew word ‘spoke’ as it is used here carries the sense of giving commandment, i.e. all was done ‘at the Lord’s command’ (3:39, 42; 9:18–23). The result was progress and peace. Throughout the book we should notice statements that ‘The Lord said’; these refer to the directing word of God.
In chs. 11–25 the picture changes completely. When the people start to speak, they complain against God. Murmuring characterizes the journey and repeatedly we read that ‘the people complained’. They grumbled about hardships (11:1), the lack of meat (11:4) and about the prospects awaiting them in Canaan (14:1–4). Miriam and Aaron opposed Moses (12:1); Korah and his followers opposed Moses and Aaron (16:2–3), soon followed by the whole community (16:41–42). Many years later they were still complaining, this time about water (20:2–3); and only six months before the end of forty years (21:4f) they were still complaining. Throughout the central section of Numbers (chs. 11–25), the word of God comes in response to the evil-speaking of Israel. We read that ‘the Lord heard’ (11:1, 18; 12:2). Although judgment fell, God’s word reaffirmed his will and provided for continued blessing.
In chs. 26–36 the word of God directs Israel and confirms the inheritance.
This alternating structure reveals a fundamental element in the theology of Numbers: God remains true to his covenantal purpose despite Israel’s repeated failure. Those who provoke him lose their inheritance. They lose their lives. Yet God remains faithful and his word constantly confirms that his purposes are unchangeable. We meet this throughout Scripture. Paul writes, ‘if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself’ (2 Tim. 2:13; rsv), and, ‘What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar’ (Rom. 3:3–4).
Table 4. Alternating word of God and contrary words of men
Word of God
Response of Moses
The Lord speaks to Moses commanding Israel to prepare to set out for the land.
Moses does all according to the command of the Lord. Preparation is made.
Contrary word of people (unbelieving)
Response: word of God (faithful)
Complaints on the journey. They prefer Egypt.
Command to spy out the land, ready to enter it.
(Miriam and Aaron oppose Moses.)
The word of God concerning Moses.)
Complaint for bringing them to the land; they prefer the desert.
Oath denying them entrance}.
Command: offerings in the land for unintentional sin and blue tassels reminding Israel not to sin. (God’s purpose continues.)
Korah opposes Moses and Aaron
Commands confirming the Aaronic priesthood.
Striving against Moses and impatience in face of opposition from enemies.
God’s irrevocable blessing commanded even in the mouth of and enemy, Balaam.
Israel sins with Moab (open rebellion).
The continuity of the Aaronic priesthood, the means of dealing with sin, guaranteed by covenant.
Word of God
Response of Moses
New preparation including allotting and guaranteeing the inheritance, a calendar and other orders for the land.
Moses does what the Lord commands, even recording the stages of the journey.

Geographical information

    Numbers contains information about Israel’s route as they travelled from Sinai to Moab (ch. 33). Consequently, many commentaries divide the book according to its geography, i.e. according to three main locations: Sinai, the desert and Moab (see Table 1 and map in Exodus). However, the geography does not determine the structure of the book. We have already seen that most of the journey is ignored. If we attach too much weight to the geography, the result may obscure the theological structure of the text.
Nevertheless, the geography does support the theology. Sinai was the mount of revelation (and the word of God directs, chs. 1–10). The desert wastes outside the promised inheritance are the setting for wasted years of spiritual barrenness and death (chs. 11–25). Moab was at Canaan’s border, where Israel prepared again to receive the inheritance. However, Numbers is not a collection of isolated episodes, brought together because they happened on the same journey, or in the same place. Rather, the book presents a clear theology which the geographical information is designed to support.
Notice also that towards the end of the book Israel’s camp sites are mentioned more often. This conveys the sense of rapid advance to that goal for which Israel has waited for so long. Their progress accelerates because the forty years’ wandering is coming to an end. Every camp site is one step nearer the land. Excitement mounts as Canaan is approached (20:1–22:1; 33:1–50).

Place in the Pentateuch

    Numbers is an integral part of the Pentateuch. It is united to the other books in two crucial ways. First, there is continuity in the history. Numbers follows Exodus and leads on to Deuteronomy. Exodus moves from Egypt to the first year at Sinai; Numbers covers the next forty years, moving from Sinai to Moab (surveyed in Dt. 1:6–3:29); Deuteronomy deals with the renewal of the covenant on the plains of Moab. There is continuity and development of laws and institutions. Exodus records the making of the tabernacle (Ex. 25–40); Numbers overlaps Exodus on the setting up of the tabernacle and contains additional instructions on transporting it (4:4–33). Other common subjects include the priesthood, offerings, feasts, vows and purification.
Secondly, there is unity of theology. The main unifying factor is God’s covenant made with Abraham (Gn. 11–22). This is the foundation provided in Genesis and shared by Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. This is why God delivers Israel from Egypt, meets them at Sinai and takes them through the desert to the plains of Moab. This is why there is a tabernacle and a priesthood. These fundamentals are now to be explored in a study of the theology of Numbers and its leading doctrines.
Theology and leading doctrines
    There is one fundamental doctrine in the book of Numbers: the Abrahamic covenant. It undergirds the entire book. There are other leading doctrines, in particular, the word of God, faith and apostasy and holiness and priesthood. These are held together by the Abrahamic covenant which provides the organizing principle.
The Abrahamic covenant
    God’s promises to Abraham were framed in a covenant and confirmed with an oath (Gn. 12:1–3, 7; 13:14–17;15:1–16; 17:1–21; 22:15–18). Such was the force of this oath that it is impossible for God to forsake his covenant promises (Heb. 6:13–18). This sworn covenant is firmer than the heavens and earth (Ne. 9:6–7; Is. 40:8; Je. 31:36–37; 33:25–26; Mt. 24:35; 1 Pet. 1:23–25). The same covenant was renewed with Isaac and Jacob (Gn. 26:3–5; 28:13–15). As the covenant is repeated a formula emerges containing four main promises.
1. The relationship with God. ‘I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you’ (Gn. 17:7; cf. Gn. 15:1; 26:3; 28:13, 15). God drew Abraham and his descendants into a relationship with him by an everlasting covenant (Lk. 20:37–38; Rom. 8:35–39). That relationship is given many names in Scripture: fellowship, sonship, being the people of God and eternal life (1 Jn. 1:3, 6–10; Rom. 9:4–6; 1 Pet. 2:9–10). God is our heavenly Father. The relationship is the fundamental goal of all redemptive history; it is the fundamental concern of the entire Bible.
2. The land. ‘Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you’ (Gn. 13:17). Sometimes the borders of Canaan are marked out (Gn. 15:18–21), and at other times the land is described more generally as ‘the land I will show you’ (Gn. 12:1) or ‘the gate of their enemies’ (Gn. 22:17; rsv). There is no doubt that Canaan is specifically intended. Jacob and Joseph left instructions that they should be buried there (Gn. 50:5, 12–14, 24–25). Thus, the last words of Genesis refer to the promise of Canaan. But will Canaan be big enough for Abraham’s descendants who will cover the face of the earth like the dust of the earth (Gn. 13:14–17)? The NT indicates that the promise was wider: ‘Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world’ (Rom. 4:13). Genesis supports this. In the creation, God gave mankind dominion over the earth. Because of the fall, dominion was lost through the curse and death. God’s covenant was his plan to redeem the creation (Rom. 8:18–23) and Canaan was but the firstfruits. The prophets and apostles spoke of a new earth and new Jerusalem descending to that new earth. Thus Abraham ‘was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (Heb. 11:10), and the OT saints ‘were longing for a better country’ (Heb. 11:16; cf. Jn. 14:1–4; Heb. 4:1–6).
3. The people. Abraham’s descendants will become a countless multitude. ‘I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth’ (Gn. 13:16), ‘I will make you into a great nation’ (Gn. 12:2), ‘I will … make your descendants as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore’ (Gn. 22:17). This countless multitude signifies the redeemed drawn from all mankind (Gn. 17:4). John saw that this would be fulfilled at the end of time, exactly as promised to Abraham: ‘and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb’ (Rev. 7:9). Again, the covenant has a universal scope, concerning every nation, though not every individual.
4. The nations blessed in Abraham’s seed. The Hebrew word ‘seed’ (‘offspring’, Gn. 22:18 but see the niv mg.), can refer both to all descendants and to just one offspring. All nations will share the blessings promised to Abraham; his seed will bring this about. Here is the promise of Christ Jesus, Abraham’s seed and the light of the world (Jn. 1:9; 9:5; Gal. 3:16). His earthly life and work were the means of drawing men to God (Jn. 3:14–16; 12:32). But further, all Abraham’s children, who are Christ’s brethren, must share his work; they become the means of blessing others from the nations. This is what Christ meant by ‘You are the light of the world’ and ‘You are the salt of the earth’ (Mt. 5:13–16).
The whole book is essentially concerned with the first and second promises above: that God might be with his people and that they might enter the land of Canaan. Chs. 1–10 is concerned first with God’s presence with his people. This is Moses’ prayer (‘Return, O Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel’; 10:36) and Aaron’s blessing (6:22–27). The people prepared for this by ordering and cleansing the camp. God cannot dwell with anything unclean (Ps. 15; Rev. 21:27). The priesthood was established in its ranks so that Israel might serve God. The tabernacle was set up for God’s dwelling place. After every preparation was faithfully made, God revealed his presence: the cloud appeared over the tabernacle and led Israel forward. This preparation had in view the first promise: that God might be in fellowship with his people.
The second main concern springs out of the promise of the land. ‘We are setting out for the place about which the Lord said, “I will give it to you.” ’ (10:29). They journeyed to Canaan because God had sworn to give it to them. Although they rebelled and were forbidden to enter the land (14), the rest of the book shows that God had not abandoned his purpose. After forty years God again prepared them to inherit the land. Indeed, the key to chs. 26–36 is inheritance. However, the land was not to be possessed for its own sake. The land was the place where God could dwell among his people. The land without God was no inheritance at all. Everything relates, therefore, to the chief end of the covenant: to be the people of God, secure in fellowship with him.
The other two promises are far less prominent (see on 23:1–24:25). The main point is that the Abrahamic covenant determines the theology of Numbers. If that is not understood, Numbers remains a closed book.
The word of God
    A leading doctrine in Numbers is the word of God. Chs. 1–10 emphasize that everything was done according to the word of God. While this happened, Israel enjoyed the blessing of God (6:22–27) and his presence (9:15–23; 10:35–36). Certain characteristics are prominent. First, the word of God is unchangeable. This was Moses’ confidence when setting out from Sinai (10:29) and his refuge in difficulty (14:17–19). Joshua and Caleb’s boldness in the face of fearful enemies came from the word of God, that he would give them the land (14:7–9). Secondly, the word of God is irresistible. The Israelites who refused to enter Canaan but later changed their mind were resisting the word of God. They perished for their folly (14:41–45). Later, Balaam was unable to resist God’s word of blessing. He could not curse Israel but said, ‘Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything of my own accord, good or bad, to go beyond the command of the Lord—and I must say only what the Lord says.’ (24:13). When the word of God comes as oath, its unchangeableness and irresistible nature are emphasized (14:20–35).
    The term ‘apostasy’ is rare in Scripture, but the sin of apostasy comes into sharp focus in chs. 14–15. Two passages combine to expound and warn against apostasy: the account of Israel’s rebellion (ch. 14), and the following laws which differentiate between unintentional sin and defiant sin (15:22–31). The term ‘apostasy’ means lit. ‘standing away from’. The man who commits apostasy ‘stands away from’ his covenant relationship with God. It follows, therefore, that only those who are embraced by the covenant can commit apostasy. Esau did this when he ‘sold his inheritance rights’ (Heb. 12:16). The text yields an analysis of apostasy and the following elements can be noted:
1. Apostasy involves knowledge. Israel had seen the glory of God and his signs (14:22). They knew the promise that the land would be theirs (14:3). The spies had seen the land and knew that it was exactly as promised, that ‘it does flow with milk and honey!’ (13:27; 14:8).
2. Apostasy involves rejection. Israel refused to hear the voice of God (14:22; the niv reads ‘who disobeyed me’, but the Hebrew text reads ‘and they did not hear my voice’). They rebelled against God (14:9) and rejected the land of promise (14:31). They rejected the good news brought to them by the spies (Heb. 4:1–2, 6).
3. There is no atonement for apostasy. Those who knowingly reject God’s covenant promise cannot go unpunished. Although God forgave and was willing to preserve the nation, he could not overlook the sin of those who had ‘treated him with contempt’ (14:23). There was no atonement for them; intercession would not prevail in their case. ‘Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished’ (14:18, 22–23).
4. Apostasy leads to dispossession. The oath of God denied the people entry to the land (14:23, 28–35). At 14:12, after the words ‘I will strike them down with a plague’, the Hebrew text reads ‘and dispossess them’ (niv ‘destroy them’). The point is that they would be disinherited, cut off from their covenant inheritance. Only Caleb and Joshua would inherit (14:24).
What caused this terrible sequence of events? Unbelief. After receiving precious knowledge, they refused to believe. ‘How long will they not believe in me, in all the signs which I have done in their midst?’ (14:11, translated from the Hebrew). Outward disobedience springs from an inward refusal to believe despite the tremendous weight of evidence. Consequently, they treated God with contempt (14:11, 23). The same elements occur in the law of 15:22–31 where they are presented in terms of a contrast drawn between unintentional failure and defiant sin.
Thus, Numbers provides an analysis of the terrible sin of apostasy. A whole generation failed to enter Canaan because of this sin. The essence of apostasy is rejection of covenant standing through unbelief. Knowing the promises and the power of God who confirmed them with an oath, Israel refused to believe. Thus despising God, they rebelled. Afterwards, they were unable to find a way back. There was no way to undo their sin. They could never enter the land. They were dispossessed and died outside the land of promise. It is no accident that the record of their apostasy closes with the words ‘and beat them down all the way to Hormah’ (14:45). The name Hormah was given to this place later (21:3) but the writer uses it now because it means ‘total destruction’ (its NT equivalent is anathema). The name signifies the opposite of covenant relationship. The author is making the point that Israel was surely cut off, as the Canaanites were later.
Table 5. The contrast between unintentional failure and defiant sin (15:22–31)
Unintentional failure (15:22–29)
Defiant sin (15:30–31)
1.     No knowledge. Although the law is known, the failure to keep it is hidden from the people (vs 22–24). The Hebrew word ‘error’/‘to err’ is repeated ten times.
1.     Knowledge. The Lord’s word is known to the man and he knows also that he is acting contrary to it.
2.     No rejection. There is no rejection of the commandment. The point of the language is that the sin is a mistake.
2.     Rejection. The sin is committed defiantly (Hebrew: with a high hand). The man defies God: he blasphemes (v 30). He despises the word and acts in outright defiance of the commandment.
3.     Atonement. Sacrifice is provided. The point is to make atonement for the people (vs 25–26, 28).
3.     No atonement. No offering is prescribed. On the contrary, his guilt remains on him. (v 31).
4.     Forgiveness. The promise is repeated: the community, or the individual, will be forgiven.
4.     Dispossession. The person must be cut off from his people. This is stated twice; the second time, the text is more emphatic he must surely be cut off (vs 30–31).


    Numbers contains instruction about the priesthood. The chief concern seems to be with the hierarchy. Aaron was the high priest, his sons were priests with him, and the Levites served under them (3:1–10). The hierarchy determined their service (4:1–33) with the priests having the holiest duties (they alone may enter the Most Holy Place, and even then, not every priest and not at all times). This hierarchy also determined the tithing system (18:8–32). Israel paid tithes to the Levites who in turn paid their tithes. Aaron’s family received a portion from the Levites’ tithes. The doctrine of priesthood is a means for teaching about God’s holiness and his mercy. On the one hand, God’s holiness is magnified by the distance set between him and even the majority of the priests. It is emphasized by the need for mediation. On the other hand, God’s provision of mediators is a token of his mercy. He provides the means for dealing with sins. Thus Israel may continue to be his people.
When opponents challenged Aaron’s high priesthood (and the leadership of Moses), God upheld his servants (chs. 16–17). The reason is clear. Their opposition challenged the authority of God himself who had set apart his servants.

Use in the New Testament

The influence of Numbers upon the NT is extensive and profound.
1. It provided principles which influence church order and ministry. The ordering of the camp (2:1–34) shows that God requires order, not disorder, in the churches (1 Cor. 14:33). The hierarchy of priests and Levites (3:1–4:49; 17:1–13) shows that ministers must not function without authority nor think too highly of themselves but be subject to one another (Rom. 12:3–8; see on 27:12–23; cf. 1 Cor. 14:32). The fact that there was no inheritance for Levites (26:57–62) shows that ministers of God should not have worldly interests but be devoted to God’s service (2 Tim. 2:4). Tithing (18:8–32) is behind the teaching that ministers of the gospel have the right to financial support (1 Cor. 9:3–14; Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17–18). The seventy elders (11:16–30) provide a model for church councils (Acts 15), the association of local churches, unity of practice and mutual help (Col. 4:15–16; 1 Cor. 11:16; 2 Cor. 8–9). Korah’s rebellion (16:16–35) is also held up as a warning (Jas. 5:9; Jude 11). Daily offerings (28:1–8) are a model for continual prayer (1 Thes. 5:17).
2. A parallel is drawn between the journey to Canaan and Christian pilgrimage (this is the basis of 1 Cor. 10:1–13; 2 Cor. 5:1–10; Heb. 3:1–4:13). For example, the common experience of Christ and the promise (1 Cor. 10:3–4; Heb. 4:2), the complaints about bread from heaven (11:4–15; cf. Jn. 6:1–65, especially v 41), the refusal to believe the message therefore making God a liar (14:11; cf. 1 Jn. 5:10), deliberate sin which cannot be forgiven (15:22–31; cf. Mt. 12:22–32), the impossibility of repentance (14:39–45; cf. Heb. 6:4–20; 12:17) and sin for which we should not pray (1 Jn. 5:16). In essence, the NT takes the generation that fell in the desert as a sober warning of apostasy.
3. The high priesthood of Christ is compared and contrasted with Aaron’s high priesthood (Heb. 4:14–5:10; 6:13–8:13). Hebrews can hardly be understood apart from its background in Numbers. Similarly, Christ’s sacrifice is presented against the background of the sacrifices of the tabernacle (Heb. 9:1–10:18), e.g. the reference to the ashes of the heifer (19:1–22; cf. Heb. 9:13–14).
4. The NT draws several images from Numbers: the serpent lifted up (21:4–9; cf. Jn. 3:14), the trumpet call (10:1–10; cf. Mt. 24:31; 1 Cor. 14:8; 15:52; 1 Thes. 4:16; Heb. 12:19), the cloud and tabernacle (9:15–23; cf. Jn. 1:14) and the sacrifice of lambs (28:1–8; cf. Jn. 1:29).
5. The three great feasts (28:16–29:38) supply the framework for the three main events of salvation. Passover, Weeks and Tabernacles correspond with Easter, Pentecost and the second coming of Christ. Thus, Tabernacles prefigures the harvest at the close of the age (see on 29:12–38). John’s gospel is also oriented to the feasts.
6. Other elements of NT teaching are influenced by Numbers. The Day of Atonement (29:7–11), celebrated a few days before Tabernacles, emphasizes the need for repentance, without which a person will be cut off. Similarly, repentance is needed before Christ comes and ‘unless you repent, you too will all perish’ (Lk. 13:5; cf. Mk. 1:1–8). Balaam (chs. 22–24) is taken as a warning not to desire gain from wrongdoing (2 Pet. 2:15–16; Jude 11; Rev. 2:14). The purging of the camp illustrates the purity required in the church (see on 5:1–4). The Aaronic blessing influences the greeting in all of Paul’s letters and also the end of Revelation (see on 6:22–27).
7. Hebrews seems to have adopted similar structures to Numbers: pilgrimage to the land and the connection between the covenant word of promise and faith or unbelief. It shares a keen concern with other related doctrines such as priesthood and apostasy.


    Traditionally, as part of the Pentateuch, Numbers has been attributed to Moses. Moses is the central figure, the events took place in his lifetime, and the laws were given through him. However, there are indications that Moses did not give the text its final form. Note the following points about Numbers, which take account of evidence from the rest of the Pentateuch.
1. Moses is referred to throughout as if someone else is writing about him (1:1 says ‘The Lord spoke to Moses’, it does not say ‘to me’). Furthermore, the text highly commends Moses (12:3). Would Moses praise himself?
2. The Pentateuch contains evidence that it was written some time after Moses’ lifetime. It records his death and the thirty days mourning (Dt. 34:5–8) and compares him with later prophets (Dt. 34:10). Numbers mentions that certain cities’ names were changed, which probably happened after the settlement (32:38, 42).
3. The Bible nowhere claims that Moses wrote the whole of Genesis to Deuteronomy. It does claim that Moses actually wrote down certain parts (Ex. 17:14; 24:4; 34:27–28; Nu. 33:2; Dt. 31:9, 19, 22). Later Scripture speaks of the ‘Book of the Law of Moses’ (1 Ki. 2:3; 2 Ki. 14:6; Ezr. 7:6; Ne. 8:1; 13:1; Dan. 9:11, 13). The NT regards the law as coming from Moses and refers to the Pentateuch as ‘Moses’ (Lk. 16:29, 31; Jn. 1:17). Moses is said to have written of Christ (Jn. 1:45; 5:46). Thus Scripture indicates that Moses wrote the law, a record of Israel’s journey, a song and prophecy of Christ (e.g. Dt. 18:15). It is scriptural, therefore, to speak of Mosaic authorship in these terms. Yet it is probable that Moses’ successors drew his writings together in the final form of the text as it appears today. Other biblical writings seem to have passed through a similar process (consider Is. 8:16; Jn. 21:24–25; Rom. 16:22); Hebrews, for example, was written by those who heard the apostles (Heb. 2:3).
Scholars have developed various theories to explain how the Pentateuch arrived at its final canonical form. These are outlined in the general introduction to the Pentateuch. In dealing with this question, it is essential to distinguish between the clear evidence of Scripture and what scholars make of that evidence.
Further reading
G. J. Wenham, Numbers, TOTC (IVP, 1981).
J. Philip, Numbers, CC (Word, 1987).
R. B. Allen, Numbers, EBC (Zondervan, 1990).
J. Milgrom, Numbers, The JPS Torah Commentary (Jewish Publication Society, 1990).
rsv (New) Revised Standard Version
cf. compare
NT New Testament
OT Old Testament
niv New International Version
mg. margin
lit. literally
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
CC The Communicator’s Commentary
EBC Expositor’s Bible Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Nm 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.