Overview of Numbers
and Study of Numbers 1-2
February 7th

Produced by The Listening for God Ministry
Copyright 2016

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The book of Numbers is the fourth of the five books of the Pentateuch, all of which are assumed to have been written by Moses. In the previous books of Genesis and Exodus, we read about the creation of the universe, the growth of the descendants of Abraham who become the millions of Israelites enslaved in Egypt who eventually escaped.

We then read in Leviticus about the Israelites first few years in the desert following that escape and learned how God had instructed them regarding rules for living together and worshipping him, including the establishment of a mobile tabernacle. All of these instructions were designed to help Israel become a nation that would be a shining light to the world, which is part of the greater narrative of the Bible.

The book of Numbers describes the next phase of the experience of the Israelites in the desert. It records their prolonged journey from the foot of Mount Sinai to the plains of Moab on the east side of the Jordan, which may have been about 300 miles if they walked directly there, but it took them 40 years to travel an indirect route because of their lack of faith. The events in the book are estimated to have taken place between 1410 B.C. and 1450 B.C.

We will see many mini-narratives in the book of Numbers that support the bigger story. The main themes in Numbers include God's covenant loyalty to Israel, through whom he will fulfill his promise to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the Promised Land of Canaan. God had provided the victory over Egypt, but this time he expects the Israelites to participate in the conquest. Therefore, he has them conduct a census of able-bodied men and instructs them regarding preparation of a military force to conquer the Promised Land. However, the people lost faith in Godís protection, got impatient and rebelled on a number of occasions, which was a contributing factor to their prolonged existence in the desert. By the end of Numbers they will have arrived near to the Promised Land, ready to conquer as the LORD promised specific areas of land to the next generation from each of the tribes.

The original title of the book in Hebrew was Bendibar, which means "in the desert." This is an applicable title given that it describes the final years of the wandering Israelites' time in the desert. However, in the first Greek rendition, which was part of the Septuagint written in the second century B.C., the title was Arithmoi, which translated to Numbers in English. Presumably, the Greek translators used this title because it begins with a census (1). It could be nicknamed Grumblers, because the people spent more time counting their problems and fears as opposed to counting their blessings.

While reading this book we will observe many numbers that tell this story:

    2,000,000 people (approximately) in the twelve tribes at the time of the census, including women and children who were not part of the census
    603,000 men of military age counted in the first census
    74,600 men from Judah, the largest of the twelve tribes
    14,000 people who died from the plague because of their rebellion
    250 men who confronted Moses because they felt cut off from God
    70 elders that Moses requested to address grievances and received the spirit of the LORD
    40 years that the Israelites remained in the desert
    40 days that Israeli spies explored Canaan
    36 chapters in the book of Numbers
    12 Israeli spies sent to explore Canaan - one from each tribe
    10 spies who said the Israelites could not conquer Canaan
    2 spies who said the Israelites could do it
    1 true God that guided and provided for the Israelites and guides and provides for us

Our study will be divided into five major sections of Numbers(2), each of which will be further divided into daily studies, as shown below:

    Preparation for a Journey (chapters 1-10)
    Numbers 1-2 (The First Census) - February 7th
    Numbers 3-4 (Instructions for the Levites) - February 8th
    Numbers 5-6 (Restitution, Nazirites, and Blessings) - February 9th
    Numbers 7 (Completion of the Tabernacle) - February 10th
    Numbers 8-10 (Everlasting Presence) - February 11th

    First Approach to the Promised Land (chapters 11-14)
    Numbers 11-13 (Ye of Little Faith) - February 12th
    Numbers 14 (Grave Consequences) - February 13th

    Wandering the Desert (chapters 15-21)
    Numbers 15-18 (Rebellion in the Desert Part II) - February 14th
    Numbers 19-21 (Moses' Big Mistake) - February 15th

    Second Approach to the Promised land (chapters 22-36)
    Numbers 22-24 (The Incorruptible Sorcerer) - February 16th
    Numbers 25-26 (The Enemy Within) - February 17th
    Numbers 27-29 (Passing the Torch) - February 18th
    Numbers 30-32 (Taking Possession) - February 19th
    Numbers 33-36 (Bottom Line) - February 20th

References used for the analysis of this book includes the following

  • Abegg, Martin Jr., Flint Peter, and Ulrich, Eugene; The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, NY, 1999
  • Boadt, Lawrence, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ; 1984
  • Doll, Rev. Gregory, "Study of the Old Testament," Noroton Presbyterian Church, January - May 2011
  • Fee, Gordon D., Stuart Douglas, How to Read the Bible Book by Book, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2002
  • Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Zondervan Bible Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI; 1993
  • Life Application Study Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, M; 1991 (with commentary from an inter-denominational team of experts)
  • Men's Devotional Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI; 1993 (with daily devotionals from Godly men)
  • The New American Bible, Sponsored by the Bishop's Committee of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Catholic Bible Publishers, Wichita, KS, 1970
  • Peterson, Eugene, The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, 80920, 2005

Numbers 1-2 (The First Census)

Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. We recommend that you read at least two versions for added understanding. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verses

Moses and Aaron took these men whose names had been specified, and they called the whole community together on the first day of the second month. The people registered their ancestry by their clans and families, and the men twenty years old or more were listed by name, one by one.

- Numbers 1:17-18 (NIV)

Summary of Chapters

In these first two chapters, God tells Moses to take a census and instructs him on where each tribe should camp. Chapter 1 begins with the instructions from God on how to conduct the first census:

    "Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one. You and Aaron are to count according to their divisions all the men in Israel who are twenty years old or more and able to serve in the army. One man from each tribe, each of them the head of his family, is to help you."

    - Numbers 1:2-4 (NIV)

There are twelve tribes in the census. The tribe of Joseph had been split into two: Ephraim and Manasseh (the two sons of Joseph). This split would have resulted in thirteen tribes, but the tribe of Levi was not part of the census because they were designated as priests and were exempt from military service. Chapter 2 describes the way the LORD wanted each tribe to camp around the Tent of the Meeting:

    "The People of Israel are to set up camp circling the Tent of Meeting and facing it. Each company is to camp under its distinctive tribal flag."

    -Numbers 2:2 (MSG)

This arrangement provided a protective zone around this Holy space and made it the center of their encampment.

Reflection and Application

The census was conducted for the benefit of Moses and the people to help them prepare for their next stage of existence. The men of military age were counted so that Moses and the other leaders could prepare for battles to acquire the Promised Land. God did not need the census for his own purposes because he knows every person - even every hair on every head. The assignment of specific parts of the camp for each tribe was a foreshadowing of the assignment of permanent areas of land for each tribe that we shall read about later in Numbers.

When we are at a crossroads it's important for us to take a census of our assets, relationships, etc., so that we can plan and prepare. But at the same time, we should trust that God knows our resources and true needs and will provide for us accordingly. When we organize our lives it's important that we place God at the center, just like the Israelites had the mobile Tabernacle as the center of their camp.

"He Knows My Name," performed by Annie and Kelly McRae

Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions
    1. What was your response to the latest census in your country?
    2. What would an accounting of your resources look like today?
    3. How does God want you to use those resources?
    Recommended Prayer
    Father, please help us to center our lives around you and use our resources to serve you.

    Suggested Prayer Concerns
    Those who work in government offices


    (1) Abegg, Martin Jr., Flint Peter, and Ulrich, Eugene; The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, NY, 1999, p.108
    (2) Life Application Study Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, M; 1991, p.213

    Looking Ahead

    Tomorrow's reading:Numbers 3-4 (Instructions for Levites)

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