Numbers & Joshua – Dare to Believe
– 4th book in Pentateuch.

1. Author
 The author of Numbers was Moses.
The Jews originally named this book Benmidar, which means “in the wilderness”. Some books have slightly different spelling but they have the same meaning. Greek translators later renamed it to Numbers, after the 2 accounts of the census of the Israelites. The word “And” at the beginning of Numbers reminds us that it is part of a 3 volume series ie. Exodus, Leviticus & Numbers. Leviticus also begins with “And” suggesting that all 3 books are a continuous work, with Genesis as a preface; and Deuteronomy as the postscript.

2. Date
This book was dated approximately 1406 BC, after the exodus from Egypt.

3. Purpose
To give a complete account of the journey from Egypt to Canaan.
Moses wrote about the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert to show God’s judgement, set against the backdrop of his faithfulness.

4. Historical Setting
– Numbers highlights Israel’s discontent, disbelief and disobedience, set against the background of God’s faithfulness and forbearance. This book covers 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the desert, from Mt Sinai to the border of the land that God promised to give them.
From the map, you can see Sinai here, and they traveled all the way to the border of Canaan, which is at the banks of Jordan River, opposite Jericho. In this book of Numbers, 2 census were conducted.
However, in the period between the 2 census:

  • Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years,
  • After which they went to the region east of the River Jordan and prepared to cross the river into Canaan.

Numbers is divided into 3 portions:

  • Firstly, the Preparation to leave Sinai from chapter 1 to 10:10.
    Here, the 1st census was conducted as instructed by God.
    On this slide on the right, you can see the encampment of Israel. The Tent of Meeting is in the centre, surrounded by the Levites and Priests, with the 12 tribes in the outermost ring.
  • Secondly, the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness from Sinai to Moab are covered from chapters 10:11 to 21:35. These chapters record the grumbling of the Israelites and the sending out of spies to explore the land of Canaan.
  • The third portion focuses on Israel’s dwelling in the plains of Moab before crossing River Jordan. This is where the Lord ordered the 2nd census to be conducted.
    You notice that the encampment of Israel remains the same, but that the total number of men recorded in the 2nd census was about 2000 less than in the 1st census.

The 3 portions of this book also correlates to the Israelites’ physical journey and their spiritual relationship with God.

  • The preparation to leave Sinai shows the obedience of Israel’s 1st generation.
  • The Israelites then spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness because of their disobedience to God.
  • And when Israel was dwelling in the plains of Moab, it reflected a renewed obedience by the 2nd generation.

5. Themes
 Firstly, Numbers discloses the complaints, unbelief & lack of faith of a discontented people:

  • Crisis of Discontent – One example of Israel’s disobedience is their spirit of discontent. They wailed that they did not have meat to eat and were tired of the manna that God gave.
Disobedience of Israel
– Spirit of Discontent –
‘… again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite, we never see anything but this manna!”‘ (Num 11: 4-6)
  • Crisis of Unbelief – they also did not believe that with God’s Almighty power, they would conquer Canaan. They looked at the promised land and saw giants and walled cities. They looked at themselves and saw untrained warriors, helpless women and children.
Disobedience of Israel
– Spirit of Unbelief –
They gave Moses this account: ” …. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. … We can’t attack those people, they are stronger than we are.” … (Num 13:27-31)
  • Crisis of Faith – the Israelites did not have faith in God’s promise that He would bring them victory when attacking Canaan. So they grumbled and wished that they had died in Egypt or in the desert.
Disobedience of Israel
– Crisis of Faith –
‘… All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly said to them,“If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? … Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ (Num 14:1-3)

– Secondly, we also learn about God’s chastening wrath against His disobedient children. Why did Israel spend 40 years wandering in the desert ?
Because God said that for each day the spies spent scouting Canaan, the Israelites would spend one year suffering in the desert, as punishment for their sins. Their disobedience also resulted in the death of the 1st generation; they could not enter Canaan – except Caleb & Joshua.

Judgement by God
” … Your bodies will fall in this desert. Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert. For forty years – one year for each of the forty days you explored the land – you will suffer for your sins … ” (Num 14:32-34)

“Not one of you will enter the land …, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. As for your children …, I will bring them in to enjoy the land that you have rejected.” (Num 14: 26 – 31)

– Although God displayed His wrath, His divine love & forgiveness, holiness & justice were also evident. In chapter 14 verse 20, God told Moses that He had forgiven the Israelites, and the 2nd generation would inherit the promised land. This shows that God loves and forgives the sinner, but He does not condone the sin.

God’s Divine Love & Forgiveness
The Lord replied, ” I have forgiven, as you asked. … but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times – not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers”.

“… my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it.” (Num 14 : 20 – 24)

6. Interpretative Challenges
– We now focus on the Interpretative Challenges of the 2 Census.
In the Greek translation of the Bible, the book Numbers is called Arithmoi. This is because the 2 census of Israel are central to this book.
But many Bible commentators cast doubt on the credibility of the large number of Israelites, which totaled more than 600,000 men, aged 20 or older. They raised 3 questions:

  • Was the Increase in the Israelite population from 70 (during Jacob’s time in Egypt) to 2 million people (including women & children) in just 4 centuries possible?
  • Can the land (in the wilderness), and
  • The times (during the bronze age) support so many people on the move?

– Two calculations prove that these numbers are correct:

  • Firstly, in Exodus 38, the total weight of silver offered for building the Tabernacle, was based on half a shekel per person. Multiply this by 603,550 men (which was the number of men 20 years or older), and we get 301,775 shekels. This is equivalent to 100 talents 1775 shekels, since 1 talent equals 3000 shekels.
    • 1st calculation with reference from Exodus 38:25 – 26:
      0.5 shekel x 603,550 men
      = 301,775 shekels
      = 100 talents 1775 shekels (since 1 talent = 3000 shekels)
The silver obtained from those of the community who were counted in the census was 100 talents and 1,775 shekels, according to the sanctuary shekel … twenty years old or more, a total of 603,550 men. (Exodus 38:25 – 26)
  • Then, in Exodus 1:7 and 12:40, we know that the Israelites stayed in Egypt for 430 years.
    They were fruitful and multiplied greatly, and became exceedingly numerous.
    So it is entirely possible that after 3 to 4 generations, there would be more than 600,000 men who were 20 years or older present during the first census.

    • 2nd calculation with reference from Exodus 1:7 & 12:40:
      The Israelites stayed in Egypt 430 years. Fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous.
    • The Israelites “multiplied greatly”, it is entirely possible that after 3 to 4 generations, there would be more than 600,000 men who were 20 years or older present during the first census.

– Tribal Marching Orders

  • The tribal marching order of how Israel moved in the desert. With Moses in front, leading the way, followed by Aaron and the Ark. Behind them is the tribe of Judah, followed by the other 11 tribes.

– Significance of Census

  • So what is the significance of the 2 census ?
    It shows that God fulfilled His promise to Abraham, and that his descendants would be numerous like the stars. From the 1st to 2nd census, there was a decline of about 2000 men because the Israelites were not faithful nor obedient.

7. Spiritual Lessons
Among the many spiritual lessons drawn from the book of Numbers, we have selected 4, namely :
God’s Guidance, God’s Wisdom, God’s Faithfulness and Spiritual Worship.

  • God’s Guidance (Num 9:15-23)
    • God manifested his presence with Israel through the cloud that went ahead of the people out of Egypt during Exodus. We know that God reveals Himself today through His Word. The cloud and pillar are no more, but the Word of God endures forever.
God reveals Himself to Us
Visible Cloud vs His enduring Word (1 Pet 1:25)
    • We also learn that God is present with His people. The cloud was visible over the Tabernacle 24 hours a day and the Lord has promised never to leave us or forsake us
God is Present with His People
The Lord has promised never to leave us (Heb 13:5b)
  • God’s Wisdom (Num 10:11 – 12:16)
    • Israel relied on their human strength and understanding – they did not believe that they could conquer Canaan. So who do we rely on in trials and tribulations ? God’s wisdom or our own human understanding ?
      Proverbs 14 :12 states that there is a way that seems right to man, but in the end it leads to death. So let us trust in the Lord with all our hearts and lean not on our own understanding.
Let us trust in the Lord (Proverbs 3:5)
  • God’s Faithfulness (Num 15)
    • In chapter 15, God made it clear that He had not gone back on His promise to Israel, despite His judgement. They would certainly, one day, enter the promised land.
    • The Israelites’ grain offering to God was to acknowledge His goodness. It also shows that we are to depend on Him everyday, for even the most basic things in life.

God’s promises (Num 15:1-16)
God’s daily provision (Num 15:17-21)

  • Spiritual Worship (Num 28 – 30)
    • Chapters 20 to 30 detail the laws on offerings and vows regarding spiritual worship.
    • We learn that worship is centred on God and is an act of personal reverence to the living God.
    • Worship also requires sacrifice. Because sin requires atonement, so God provided our Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour from our sins. In Romans 12:1, all believers are called to be living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.

Worship is God-centred (Num 28:1)
– Worship as personal reverence to the living God.

Worship requires sacrifice (Num 28:3)
– Sin requires atonement

God provided our Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour
– Believers called to be living sacrifices (Rom 12:1)

8. From Numbers to Deuteronomy to Joshua
– In our Bible study, we will also be covering the book of Joshua – so how is Numbers linked to Joshua ?

  • Deuteronomy is in between Numbers and Joshua – it is the final book of the Pentateuch.
    It records Moses’ final words to the Israelites before they entered Canaan.
    He reminded the 2nd generation to reject all forms of idolatry and to renew the earlier covenant with God that their parents had broken.
  • Then, in the book of Joshua, the Israelites finally entered and conquered Canaan.

– But Moses did not enter the Promised Land
However, we would like to point out that Moses did NOT enter the promised land. Why was this so?

  • …the Lord told Moses, “Go up into the Abarim Range to Mount Nebo in Moab, ….., and view Canaan, …. There on the mountain … you will die and be gathered to your people, ……… you broke faith with me in the presence of the Israelites ….. in the Desert of Zin … you did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites. Therefore you will see the land only from a distance, you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel”. (Deuteronomy 32:48-52)

9. To Obey is Better than Sacrifice
– In conclusion, we would like to highlight that “to obey is better than sacrifice, to heed is better than the fat of rams”.

But Samuel replied: Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22)

– So when we study Numbers, let us ask ourselves:

  • What are we learning from our own journey ?
  • Where are we heading ?
  • Who is the Lord ?

Numbers by Gordon Keddie
The MacArthur Bible Commentary by John MacArthur
Dare to Believe – a study of Numbers and Joshua : Teacher’s Manual Willmington’s Guide to the Bible