A Bible Study

What Luther had to say about the book...

The fourth book (Numbers)...says much about the disobedience of the people and the plagues that came upon them...Indeed this is the very way it always goes; laws are quickly given, but...they meet with nothing but hindrance; nothing goes as the law demands. This book is notable as an example of how vacuous it is to make people righteous with laws; rather, as St. Paul says, laws cause only sin and wrath" (Luther's Works #35:238)


The English name of the book comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint) and is based on the census lists found in chapters 1 and 26. The Hebrew title of the book "in the desert" is more descriptive of its contents. Numbers presents an account of the 38-year period of Israel's wandering in the desert following the establishment of the covenant of Sinai.

Author & Date

The book has traditionally been ascribed to Moses. This conclusion is based on

1) statements concerning Moses' writing activity (33:1-2; Exodus 17:14; 24:4; 34:27)
2) the assumption that the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, are a unit and come from one author.


Numbers relates the story of Israel's journey from Mt. Sinai to the plains of Moab on the border of Canaan. Much of its legislation for people and priests is similar to that in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The book tells of the murmuring and rebellion of God's people and of their subsequent judgment. Those whom God had redeemed from slavery in Egypt and with whom He had made a covenant at Mt. Sinai responded not with faith, gratitude and obedience, but with unbelief, ingratitude and repeated acts of rebellion, which came to extreme expression in their refusal to undertake the conquest of Canaan (chapter 14). The community of the redeemed forfeited their part in the promised land. They were condemned to live out their lives in the desert; only their children would enjoy the fulfillment of the promise that had originally been theirs. (cf. Heb.3:7--4:11)


The book has three major divisions, based on Israel's geographical locations. Each of the three divisions has two parts, as the following breakdown demonstrates:

1) Israel at Sinai, preparing to depart for the land of promise
2) Israel at Kadesh, delayed as a result of rebellion
3) Israel on the plains of Moab, anticipating the conquest of the land

Part I Israel in the Wilderness of Sinai (1:1—10:10)

Chapter 1 The general census

The purpose of the census is to list all men over 20 fit for military service. The men who are Levites, by virtue of their other duties, were exempt. Moses and Aaron, the civic and religious heads, are in charge of the count, assisted by one representative from each tribe. In the second census (chapter 26), taken 38 years later, after Aaron's death, his son Eleazar takes his place. The later total, 601,730, is slightly less than the figure here, 603,550. In Egypt, Israel's population rose rapidly, but now the tough desert conditions and the judgements their disobedience brings upon them keep the figures static.

The problem of high numbers: A military force of over 600,000 would mean a total population of some 2-3 million. The Bible account makes it plain that the numbers involved were considerable. Israel could not have survived in the desert without Cod's miraculous provision. Even so, 2-3 million would equal the entire population of Canaan. And other passages imply that the Canaanites were more numerous than the Israelites (cf. Deuteronomy 7:7, 17, 22)

For this reason, various attempts have been made to reduce the numbers. Some believe for example, that the word translated "thousands" should be "captains" other that it should be "families". It is also possible that the numbers are used as symbols of power and importance, rather than a literal count of heads. We take on face value that the numbers recorded in this book are what Moses wrote as a literal census of the people and the army at that time.

Chapter 2 The encampment

When the nation moved, the three eastern, tribes, headed by Judah, led the way. 10:17 gives a slightly different order for the middle section--Gershonites :end Merarites carrying the tabernacle, then, Reuben, Simeon and Gad, followed by the Kohathites with the sanctuary. The northern tribes, Dan, Asher and Naphtali bring up the rear. The tribal leaders are the same as those who helped in the census.

Ramesses II of Egypt (Moses' contemporary) used this same hollow rectangular formation in his Syrian campaign, so it looks as if Moses was making rood use of his earlier Egyptian military training.

Verse 2: The standards-According to Jewish tradition, a lion for Judah, a human head for Reuben, an ox for Ephraim and an eagle for Dan.

Chapter 3 God chooses the Levites for special service

God's claim to the firstborn goes back to the night of the Passover (Exodus 12). Now God accepts the Levites instead of the firstborn of all Israel. The first census pairs them off, man for man, leaving a surplus of 273 who are redeemed for money.

Verse 47: Shekel of the sanctuary-A weight of about 10 grams, not a coin here.

Chapter 4 The Levitical families are assigned their jobs

The second census of Levites lists those between 30 and 50, eligible for the service of the tabernacle. (The age limits varied at different times: see 8:24; 1 Chronicles 23:24)

Verses 1-20: the Kohathites are responsible for carrying the sacred objects of the sanctuary after the priests have dismantled and covered them.

Verses 21-28: the Gershonites are in charge of transporting the curtains and coverings of the tabernacle and forecourt under Ithamar's supervision.

Verses 29-33: the Merarites are to look after the transport of the framework-pillars, pegs, cords-also under Ithamar's supervision. Wagons drawn by a yoke of oxen are provided for the Gershonites and Merarites (7:7-8).

Chapter 5 Various laws; the jealousy ordeal.

Verses 11-31 describe the trial by ordeal for suspected infidelity. Trials of this kind were not uncommon in ancient times, and they are also well known from Africa and India. This one is mild by some standards--and also less heavily weighted than many towards a verdict of guilty. It is not clear whether the water contained some herb, which would induce miscarriage if the woman were guilty and pregnant, or whether it worked simply by psychological suggestion.

Chapter 6:1-21 The Nazirite

A special vow gives the Nazirite his (or her) spiritual status. The outward marks of consecration to God are:

1) abstinence from wine and strong drink
2) uncut hair
3) special care to avoid defilement through contact with a dead body

The vow was usually for a limited time, but Samson (a somewhat unorthodox Nazirite) had a lifelong vow (cf. Judges 13-16). Samuel may also have been a Nazirite. It is not known how or when these practices originated.

Chapter 6:22-27 Aaron's benediction

This is one of the benedictions which is used by Christians today as is found in some of the orders of service in our hymnal today.

Chapter 7 The tribes bring their offerings

The dedication of the altar preceded the events of Numbers chapter 1 by a month. On the successive days the leader of each tribe brings a silver plate and silver basin filled with a cereal offering, a golden dish of incense, and animals for burnt-offering, sin-offering and peace-offering.

Chapter 8 Consecration of the Levites

Those who serve God must be clean through and through. Washing and shaving ensure outward cleanliness. The blood of sacrifice cleans man of the inward stain of sin.

Chapter 9:1-14 Rulings about the Passover

No one may opt out of celebrating the Passover (cf. Exodus 12). But the absentee and anyone ritually unclean at the time may observe the feast one month later.

Chapter 9:15-23 The cloud and the fire

God's guidance in the wilderness was a clear and visible reality. Cloud by day and fire by night marked His presence at the tabernacle, which was quite literally in their midst. When the cloud lifted, they moved on. Where it settled again, they encamped: no movement of the cloud, no movement of the people.

Chapter 10:1-10 The silver trumpets

They sounded the alarm, summoned the assembly, and announced the feasts and new months. Long trumpets like these were common in Egypt about 1400-1300 BC. Some were buried with the Pharaoh Tutankhamun (about 1350 BC)

Part II From Sinai To Kadesh (10:11--12:16)

Chapter 10:11-36 The journey begins

About three weeks after the census, they strike camp and leave Mt. Sinai. (Remember chapter 2 and the marching order.) Moses' brother-in-law goes with them as a guide. The direction and company of the Lord is a very real thing (see :33-36)

Chapter 11 Complaints about the monotonous diet

The first delicious taste of manna (Exodus 16) was like wafers made with honey. Now sheer monotony makes it stick in the gullet like sawdust! Mouthwatering thoughts of all the fish and vegetables that abounded in the Egyptian delta soon produce an irresistible craving. God gives them what they want--till they are sick of it! And with it comes judgement for the attitude which lay behind the outcry.

Verse 29 A remarkable attitude in a leader-power without a streak of corruption (see 12:3)

Verse 31 Quails-As in the previous year (Exodus 16) this was a migratory flight returning in spring to Europe.

Verse 32 Homer-"A donkey load;" 10 homers is the measure of their gluttony.

Chapter 12 Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses' leadership

The real bone of contention is not Moses' marriage, but his position. As Miriam is the one to be punished, presumably she was the instigator. Moses is silent, but God's answer is a remarkable tribute to the man (see verses 6-8)

Verse 1 Cushite-This is usually taken to mean "Ethiopian."

Part III In the Kadesh Area (13-20:21)

Details are few, but it seems that the best part of the 38 years-a whole generation-was spent around here...

Chapters 13-14 The Twelve Spies and Their Reports; Mutiny!

From Deuteronomy 1:19-25 it seems plain that Moses intended to go straight on into the promised land at this point; it was the people's suggestion that they should send spies ahead. No doubt Moses afterwards wished he had not listened.

The two men of faith put the true interpretation on the facts (Numbers 13:30) but the people listened to the ten prophets of doom, with their tales of giants and grasshoppers. God, and the good land, were forgotten. Within sight of the goal, was a punishment-a whole generation cut itself off from all that was promised.

Moses' prayer at this point is staggering. Only God's intervention has saved him from death by stoning. Yet here he is, pleading for the life of the stubborn nation that caused him nothing but trouble! Time and time again he stands between Israel and utter destruction (Exodus 32:7-14; Numbers11:1-2; 16:41-48; 21:5-9). Now his plea involves him in sharing their sentence with them.

The Anakim...the Nephilim: (see Genesis 6:4) Nothing is known of them outside of the Bible, but they were evidently a race of Goliaths.

Caleb-Never lost his whole-hearted trust in God. Forty-five years later, at the age of 85, he chooses Anakim territory to conquer as his possession (Joshua 14:6-15)

Chapter 15 Various laws

Verses 1-31; offerings to be made after the conquest of Canaan.

Verses 32-36: the seriousness of sabbath-breaking.

Verses 37-41: The border of tassels to remind forgetful Israel of God and His commands.

Chapter 16 The rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram

This unholy alliance has a two-pronged attack. Korah the Levite's grievance is Aaron's monopoly of the priesthood (10b). Dathan and Abiram challenge Moses on the grounds of high-handedness and his failure to bring them into the promised land (13-14). Put at root the attack is on God (11), and it is God who puts the rebellion down.

Verse 14: "Put out the eyes"-The New English Bible "hoodwink" gives the right sense. Our equivalent of the Hebrew idiom is "to pull wool over the eyes."

Verse 32: The earth opened its mouth-God makes use of natural forces to execute judgment. The phenomenon here may be the breaking up (perhaps by a storm) of the hard crusty surface which. forms over deep lakes of liquid mud in the Arabah rift valley where this incident occurred. Nevertheless it is a judgement of God for the sin of these men.

Chapter 17 Aaron’s rod produces the fruit

Like all biblical miracles, this one has a very practical point. Everyone can see where God's choice falls, and there is no more room for dispute.

Chapter 18-19 Duties and dues of the priests and Levites; the purification ritual

Neither priests nor Levites share in the inheritance of the land. Instead, God gives the priests the remainder of all the sacrificia1 offerings, firstfruits and firstlings.

The Levites are given the nation's tithes (one tenth of all the flocks and herds and produce), of which they in turn give one tenth to the priests.

The ritual with the red heifer (19:1-10) is the remedy for defilement by contact with a dead body, described in verses 11-22. To minimize the risk of accidental defilement, tombs were later painted white (cf. Matthew 23:27)

Chapter 20:1-13 Miriam's death; water from the rock

Miriam, Aaron (20:25ff; 33:38f) and Moses (Deut.34:5-8) all died in the same year on the brink of entry into Canaan. The best part of 38 years has passed since 13:1

Verses 2-13: Moses' sin seems to be his failure to give God credit for the water supply. It cost him the land he had so 1onEed to enter. Even the greatest of God's servants, after a long lifetime of trust and obedience, can fall. Nothing seems to cure the people's grumbles. They were moaning when they first left Egypt. They are moaning still, after all the years of God's providing.

Water out of the rock: Sinai limestone is known to retain water (cf. Exodus 17:6)

Chapter 20:14-21 Edom refuses a safe-conduct

Verse 14:Your brother Israel-Not just a manner of speaking, the Edomites were descendants of Esau, Jacob's brother.

Verse 17: King's Highway-Edom's refusal to let Israel pass involves them in a long detour south and round.

Chapter 20:22-21:35 Detour to avoid Edom

Chapter 20:22-29 The death of Aaron

Mt. Hor may be Jebel Madeira, northeast of Kadesh, on the northwest border of Edom.

Chapter 21 Victories over Arad and Sihon; the incident of the poisonous snakes

Complaints begin again on the trek south to the Gulf of Aqaba (the Red Sea here) to clear Edom's territory. Jesus used the incident of the bronze serpent to explain His own death in His discussion with Nicodemus (John 3:14). In the wilderness the people had only to look, and they lived.

Verse 16: The well-Water lies close to the surface in some parts of the Sinai peninsula and southern Transjordan. The Israelites often had only to dig shallow pits to find it.

Part IV. Israel on the Plains Of Moab

Chapters 22-24 Balak and Balam; the blessing of Israel

With the Israelites encamped on his doorstep, the king of Moab sends to Pethor on the Euphrates for Balaam, the diviner to come and curse his enemies. This was a routine business arrangement for the prophet, in a day when everyone believed in the power of words (especially formal "blessings" and "cursings" ) to influence events.

What is surprising is the disclosure that the source of Balaam's knowledge is God Himself. And neither bribe nor threat will budge him from the truth as God reveals it to him.

Three times they go through the same ritua1 (22:41-23:10; 23:13-24; 23:27-24:9). Three times Balaam blesses Israel, to the increasing anger of Balak. The fourth oracle tops all (24:15-24) -a remarkable prediction of Israel's future.

The incident of the ass: God's purpose seems to be so to impress Balaam, that no matter how hard Balak works on him, the prophet will stick to the truth.

The origin of these oracles: It is not known how these oracles came to be included in Numbers. But linguistic and other factors indicate that the oracles were written down by the time that the book of Numbers was written.

Chapter 25 Idolatry at Peor

It was on Balaam's advice (31:16) that the Midianite women brought Israel low at Peor. And he paid for it with his life. (31:8)

Verse l: Play the harlot-They did so literally and also as far as religion was concerned. By joining in pagan worship, Israel broke faith with God.

Verse 3: Baal of Peor-The local diety of the place. "Baal" (meaning "Master") gradually became a proper name for the great fertility god of the Canaanites. The events described here already show a blend of sexual and religious practices.

Moabite...Midianite: The interchange of terms sounds confused, but from late patriarchal times on, there was in fact a good deal of overlap in the use of the terms "Midianite," "Ishmaelite," "Medanite," and "Moabite."

Chapter 26 A Second Census Is Taken

Chapter 27: 1-11 The Right of Daughters to Inherit

Women could not normally inherit in other ancient Near Eastern countries, but in Israel the ruling was given that brotherless daughters may inherit. However, to safeguard the tribal inheritance, they must also marry within their own tribe. (See Chapter 30)

Chapter 27: 12-23 Joshua appointed as Moses’ successor

Moses’ life is almost over. Joshua, his right-hand man (Exodus 17:9ff; 24:13; 33:11; Numbers 11:28) and one of the two faithful spies (14:6ff) is now invested with authority to lead the nation in Moses’ place.

Verse 12: Mt. Abarim-The name of the mountain range. Mt. Hebo, overlooking Jericho, was the actual summit from which Moses viewed the land.

Chapters 28 Rules for public worship and vows

Verses1-8 Daily offerings

Verses 9-10 Sabbath offerings

Verse 11-15 Offerings for each new month

Verses 16-25 Offerings for Passover and Unleavened Bread

Verses 26-31 The Feast of Weeks (Firstfruits)

Chapter 29 The feasts of the seventh month

Verses 1-6 Offerings for the Feast of Trumpets

Verses 7-11 The Day of Atonement

Verse 12-38 For the Feast of Booths

For feasts, see Leviticus 23, and for offerings see Leviticus 1-7

Chapter 30 Vows

Verses 1-2 Men in Israel are unconditionally bound by vows of any kind.

Verses 3-15 the terms under which vows made by women are binding.

Chapter 31 Vengeance on the Midianites; dealing with the spoil

The Midianites are punished for their sin in inducing Israel to worship false gods. Army and nation divide the spoil fifty-fifty. One five-hundredth of the army’s share goes to the priests; one fiftieth of the nation’s share goes to the Levites.

Verses 48-54 record the army’s special offering given in gratitude for their safe return.

Chapter 32 Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh settle east of the Jordan

This is permitted only on condition that they help in the conquest of Canaan before returning to a settled life.

Chapter 33 A list of the stages of the journey from Egypt from the lands of Moab.

Verse 52: Figured stones . . . high places-i.e. stone carvings, and hilltops or artificial "high places" where shrines were built. The intention is to wipe out everything associated with idolatrous religions.

The remaining chapters address the following...

Chapter 34 The ideal boundaries of Israel

Chapter 35 Cities and pasture for the Levites; the six cities of refuge for those who cause death by accident

Chapter 36 Safeguards in the case of daughters’ inheritance (covered also in Chapter 27:1-11)


Concordia Self Study Bible – New International Version Robert G. Hoerber Editor Concordia Publishing House St. Louis, MO. 1986 pp. 184-241

Concordia Self Study Commentary Robert R. Roehrs Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO. 1979 pp. 103-120

Eerdmans’ Concise Bible Handbook - An illustrated book-by-book guide to the Bible Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co and Lion Publishing 1973 pp. 75-79