by Rev. Julian Duckworth
The book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible, and of the Torah or Law of Moses. It comes after Leviticus, with its many laws, and before Deuteronomy with its review, laws, and anticipation of entering the land. Numbers is named from the two censuses mentioned in chapters 1 and 26. The original Hebrew name of the book translates to ‘In the Wilderness’ and the contents of Numbers is very much set in the later part of that journey. In particular chapters 13 and 14 refer to the pivotal incident when God tells Moses to send twelve spies into the land (Canaan), and, on their return, ten of the twelve cry out that the land is inhabited by giants and cannot be taken, while Joshua and Caleb say that the land is abundant and Israel should go up and take possession.
For this lack of faith, God tells Israel that they will wander in the wilderness for forty years until those adults who set out from Egypt have all died – except for Joshua and Caleb – and that their children shall be those who are to go into the land, a new generation to serve the Lord. The subsequent chapters describe various incidents in this journey but little of the itinerary, except that chapter 33 is almost entirely composed of the forty-two named camping-points from Rameses in Egypt to the banks of the River Jordan.
The overall spiritual meaning of the book of Numbers is clearly to do with aspects of regeneration and the change from selfness to love and obedience to God, from natural life to spiritual life, from earth to heaven in the regenerating person. The incidents in Numbers strongly reflect this personal work at deepening levels of our spiritual life, plus the fact that the whole book is journey-centred, ending with Israel arriving at the banks of the Jordan.
One clear structure of Numbers is based on locations: first, at Mount Sinai; then at Kadesh-Barnea, from where the spies went up; and lastly, generally in the plains of Moab. These are linked by short episodes of journeying. Another structure would be the generational change from those in Egypt to those who will go into Canaan, as already mentioned.
The spiritual idea of numbering the people of Israel is about surveying truths and states in the regenerating person. Fairly often in the Bible, the command is to not count the people, as our spiritual state is known only to the Lord; but when numbering is commanded as here, it is to do with self-examination and our need to know and regulate our spiritual states.
The first part of Numbers is mostly to do with the appointment of the Levites, their duties and assignments, as well as the consecration and life of those who take the vow to be a Nazirite, then further laws such as jealousy and unfaithfulness in marriage, and the offerings given by the tribes for the dedication of the altar, the cleansing of the Levites for their service, and the ways in which the Passover was to be kept. This section ends with how the cloud covered the Tabernacle, and, when it arose, they were to set out again, and when it settled, they were to camp for however long the cloud settled over the Tabernacle.
The general spiritual idea here is that of ensuring a sense of holiness and of the presence of the Lord in our lives. It is worth noting that the great Priestly blessing comes at the end of chapter 6, which is about the Nazirites who took the vow of being separated to the Lord.
Chapter 10 describes the command to leave Mount Sinai and to make two silver trumpets for calling the people and determining the movement of the camps. The camp is broken up and departs tribe by tribe. The people complain about the manna being their only food, and the Lord tells Moses to appoint seventy elders of the people and to tell the people that the Lord will give them meat for one whole month until it becomes loathsome to them. And the Lord sends quails which when eaten, bring plague on the people. This is followed by the complaint of Aaron and Moses against Moses, and the Lord’s curse of leprosy on Miriam which is lifted after seven days of exclusion from the camp.
The Kadesh incident of spying the land is taken up in chapters 13 and 14 ending with the command of God for Israel to face forty years in the wilderness, one year for each of the forty days in spying the land. The spiritual meaning of forty is always to do with experiencing temptations and the time and endurance which it involves.
After the rebellion of Korah and others against Moses and Aaron for setting themselves above the assembly of Israel, for which they were swallowed up in the earth, comes the Lord’s command to each tribe to bring a named rod into the Tabernacle overnight, and for Aaron to be the name on the rod of Levi. On the following morning, only Aaron’s rod had sprouted with leaves and almonds. So the Lord was rid of the complaints of the people.
After two chapters on the duties of the Levites and the purification of the unclean, chapter 20 is about events: the first being Moses’ striking the rock twice to get water for Israel, for which he is refused entry to Canaan by God for his lack of trust. Then they ask the king of Edom for passage through this land, promising not to take from it, but the king refused and Israel was forced to turn aside as they set out from Kadesh where they had been since the spying of the land in chapter 13. The chapter ends with the death of Aaron, refused entry to Canaan because of Moses’ disobedience. Aaron dies and is mourned thirty days.
Then the people again complain and the Lord send fiery serpents which bite many of the people who die. The people become repentant and ask for forgiveness. The Lord tells Moses to make a fiery serpent and set it up on a pole so that whoever looks at the bronze serpent shall live. Israel moves on and asks Sihon the king of the Amorite for passage through his land. He refuses, and Israel defeated his armies and took possession of his land, and also with Og, king of Bashan, and took his land too.
The next three chapters – 22 to 24 – are concerned with Balak and Balaam. Balak is the king of Moab and is afraid of Israel. He sends messengers to Balaam, a diviner, with money, asking him to curse Israel. God comes to Balaam and forbids him to curse Israel for they are blessed. All this is repeated again with promises of far greater wealth. Balaam disobeys God and sets out to go to Balak. The Angel of the Lord stands in the way and Balaam’s donkey sees it and presses against the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot. Balaam hits the donkey who speaks to Balaam who sees the Angel of the Lord standing. Balaam comes to Balak who asks him to go out with him to curse Israel but he will only bless them because he promised obedience to God. Then Balaam sees the camp of Israel and recites an oracle foretelling the future joy of Israel. This includes a prophecy of the Lord’s advent in v 17.
After the second census in chapter 26 come various chapters of ritual laws. Chapter 31 is about Israel’s conquest of the Midianites; chapter 32 is about the agreed settlement of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh on the east of the river Jordan; chapter 33 is an itinerary of the camping places from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan; chapter 34 is the demarcation of the future borders of Canaan and the leaders from each tribe who shall divide the land as an inheritance; and the final two chapters, 35 and 36, are about laws concerning judgments about murder and bloodshed, and laws about marriage being restricted to one’s own tribe and not to the other tribes of Israel. At this closing point, Israel is in the plains of Moab by the river Jordan across from the city of Jericho.