The Book of Numbers

The book of Numbers in the Bible contains a lot more than just census data of the ancient Israelites. It contains spiritual lessons for Christians today!

At first glance, the name Numbers may not sound appealing and interesting. People who aren’t into numbers and statistics might automatically dismiss the book based solely on the title. 

But those who study the book may be surprised to discover that it contains many important spiritual principles and lessons. It’s a book of history that records many of God’s miraculous deeds as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness.

We’ll take a deeper look into the book of Numbers by covering these topics:

Why is the book of Numbers called Numbers?

The book of Numbers is called “Numbers” because it records two censuses that were taken of the Israelites during the years they wandered in the wilderness. The first census was completed while the Israelites were still at Mount Sinai (chapters 1-2), and the second one came 38 years later when they arrived at the borders of Canaan at the end of their wanderings in the wilderness (chapter 26).

So the book literally records the population numbers of Israel at this time in their history. The title, Numbers, originated from the Greek Septuagint version of the Bible, which titles it Arithmoi (Greek for “numbers,” and the word we get arithmetic from).

In the Hebrew Bible the book is referred to by a Hebrew phrase in the first verse of chapter 1 that means “in the wilderness” (or “in the desert”). This is a more complete designation, since the book of Numbers contains the history of Israel wandering in the desert from the time they left Mount Sinai, in the second month of the second year after the Exodus (Numbers 10:11), until they arrived in Moab, near the borders of the Promised Land, in the 10th month of the 40th year of their journeying.

So Numbers is a sequel to the book of Exodus.

Who wrote the book of Numbers?

The author of the book of Numbers was Moses.

Though the book doesn’t come with a specific byline with Moses’ name on it, the evidence of Moses’ authorship of the book of Number is strong. Here are five reasons we believe Moses wrote this book.

  1. The book begins by describing how God spoke to Moses: “Now the LORD spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:1). Throughout the book, the phrase “the LORD spoke to Moses” (or a form of it) shows up more than 50 times. Since the book records so many words that God spoke directly to Moses, Moses would have been the logical person to record these interactions.
  2. The book of Numbers is essentially a sequel to the book of Exodus, picking up where Exodus leaves off. The evidence that Moses wrote the book of Exodus is strong and supports the fact that Numbers is Moses’ follow-up to Exodus.
  3. The book itself tells us Moses was a writer who kept written records. In Numbers 33:2 we read: “Now Moses wrote down the starting points of their journeys at the command of the LORD.”
  4. Moses was educated in the Egyptian court and may have been one of the few people among the Israelites to have the literacy and writing skills to write the books of the Pentateuch (Acts 7:22).
  5. The New Testament writers, including Jesus Himself, attributed the books of the Pentateuch to Moses (John 5:46-47; Romans 10:5).

To learn more about the Mosaic authorship of the books of the Pentateuch, read our articles on the books of “Genesis,” “Exodus,” “Leviticus” and “Deuteronomy.”

When was the book of Numbers written?

The book of Numbers covers a period of 38 years. It begins in the second month of the second year after the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt and ends in the 10th month of the 40th year after the Exodus. It is possible that Moses wrote the contents of the book throughout those 38 years (like a journal) or wrote it at the end of the 40 years.

In either case, Moses would have completed the book of Numbers around 1404 B.C.

How many chapters are in the book of Numbers?

The book of Numbers has been divided into 36 chapters.

Major events in the book of Numbers

Here is a list of some of the major events in Israel’s history found in the book of Numbers:

  • Establishment of the second Passover (Numbers 9:6-14).
  • The Israelites leave Mount Sinai and journey north into the wilderness (10:11-36).
  • The Israelites complain about manna. God provides them quail (11:1-15, 31-35).
  • Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses. God reaffirms His intent to work through Moses (12:1-16).
  • A group of 12 Israelites spy out the Promised Land, but 10 of them return with an unfaithful negative report (13:1-33).
  • Because of their unfaithfulness, the Israelites are sentenced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years (14:26-39).
  • The rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram against Moses. God destroys the rebels using an earthquake (16:1-40).
  • God causes Aaron’s rod to bud, showing that He was working through Aaron and his descendants (17:1-13).
  • Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron, die in the wilderness (20:1, 24-29).
  • Moses sins by striking the rock to draw water, instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. God decrees that Moses will not lead Israel into the Promised Land (20:8-13).
  • The people murmur again and are afflicted by snakes. Moses is instructed to set up a bronze image of a serpent. When the bitten people look at it, they are healed (21:5-9).
  • The Israelites defeat enemies in Sihon and Bashan as they come closer to the land of Canaan (21:21-35).
  • Balak, king of Moab, hires Balaam to curse Israel. God does not permit Balaam to curse Israel, and he instead blesses Israel (22:1-24:25).
  • The Israelites fall into sexual sin and idolatry at Baal-Peor. God sends a plague as punishment, which is ended by the bold action of Phinehas (25:1-18).
  • Moses is permitted to view the Promised Land, but not to enter it (27:12-14).
  • Joshua is ordained as Moses’ successor (27:18-23).
  • Moses leads Israel to war against the Midianites because the Midianites had tempted Israel to sin (31:1-54).

Themes of the book of Numbers

  1. God’s presence among His people.

The Creator God made His presence visibly known among His people. “Now on the day that the tabernacle was raised up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the Testimony; from evening until morning it was above the tabernacle like the appearance of fire. So it was always: the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night” (9:15-16).

The people moved when the cloud was taken up and camped when it descended. The Israelites understood that as long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they were to remain camped in the presence of God (9:17-18). The tribes were arranged in order around the tabernacle, where God’s presence was located, with the Levites in the middle.

Today we don’t have a tabernacle with God’s presence as the ancient Israelites did, but Christians are encouraged to draw near to God, and He promises to respond in a very personal way (James 4:8; 2 Chronicles 15:2). God’s presence is with and inside His people through His Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).

  1. Grumbling angers God.

Despite God’s day-and-night presence in their midst, the people constantly were guilty of murmuring and grumbling, even to the point of wanting to overthrow Moses and choose another leader to take them back to Egypt (Numbers 14:4).

“Numbers, therefore, is not a mere bit of ancient history but . . . it is a complex story of unfaithfulness, rebellion, apostasy, and frustration, set against the background of God’s faithfulness, presence, provision, and forbearance” (William LaSor, David Hubbard and Frederic Bush, Old Testament Survey, p. 99).

The people soon forgot the hardships of Egyptian slavery and lusted after the foods of the land of their captivity (11:4). They lacked gratitude despite God’s providing for their daily needs.

Despite all their complaining and the other ways they displeased Him, God remained patient with the Israelites. This teaches us that God is an incredibly faithful, merciful and patient God.Their complaining and unfaithfulness displeased God and disqualified that generation from entering the Promised Land (11:1; 14:26-39). The apostle Paul referred to this incident and others with a warning that we should not follow the bad example of the sinning, murmuring, complaining and griping Israelites (1 Corinthians 10:10-11). Christians should have faith in God as their Provider and Sustainer.

But despite all their complaining and the other ways they displeased Him, God remained patient with the Israelites. This teaches us that God is an incredibly faithful, merciful and patient God (Exodus 34:6).

  1. Moses as intercessor

Moses, on a number of occasions, acted as personal intercessor on behalf of the people. When Miriam and Aaron expressed jealousy toward Moses, God’s anger “was aroused against them.” Miriam was stricken with leprosy, and Aaron appealed to Moses: “Oh, my lord! Please do not lay this sin on us, in which we have done foolishly and in which we have sinned.” Moses then interceded, and after seven days of banishment outside the camp, Miriam was healed (Numbers 12:9-15).

When the Israelites rebelled at the report of the returning spies, God threatened to disinherit them. But after Moses’ intercessory prayer, God pardoned the iniquity of the people, although they were still not allowed to go into the Promised Land (14:1-23). In this area, Moses served as a type of Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus Christ is our ultimate Intercessor (Luke 22:31-32; John 17:20-21) and High Priest (Hebrews 7:25-26; 1 John 2:1-2).

There are numerous examples in the Bible of righteous individuals who interceded on behalf of others. Other well-known examples include Abraham, who pleaded for Sodom (Genesis 18); Job, who prayed for his friends (Job 42:10); members of the Church who prayed for Peter in prison (Acts 12); and Samuel, who prayed for the Israelites (1 Samuel 12:18-23).

God is looking for people who will intercede on behalf of others in fervent, heartfelt prayers (Isaiah 59:15-16; James 5:16).

Outline of the book of Numbers

Simplified outline based on location

  • Chapters 1-10: The Israelites at Mount Sinai.
  • Chapters 11-20: The Israelites wander in the wilderness and settle in Kadesh.  
  • Chapters 21-36: The Israelites enter the plains of Moab and the Transjordan region.

Detailed outline

Chapter 1: Numbering (census) of the people.

Chapter 2: Organization of the families in the camp. Each family had a standard—an ensign or signal flag (Numbers 2:2).

Chapters 3-4: Assignments of the priests and Levites.

The Levites were chosen to do God’s service in place of the firstborn, and in these chapters the duties of the families of Levi—Gershon, Kohath and Merari—are identified (3:25-39). When transporting the Ark of the Covenant, the priests (and no one else) first covered it. Other Levites were forbidden to touch the sacred articles.

Chapter 5: Laws of defilement.

Chapter 6: The Nazirite vow. Those who took the vow were separated for a period of special service to God with strict limitations. The word Nazirite comes from the root nazir, and means to “separate” or “keep away from.” (Some mistakenly think Jesus Christ was under a Nazirite vow. He wasn’t. Jesus was a Nazarene, which refers to a resident of the town of Nazareth.)

Chapters 7-10: Final instructions and events before departing Sinai.

Much of chapter 7 deals with the offerings that the leaders of Israel brought to the tabernacle when the altar was dedicated.

The first 10 verses of chapter 10 describe the various uses of trumpets, and on what occasions and for what reasons they were blown. For instance, the two silver trumpets were used to send a signal to the entire congregation. Other occasions are described, such as calling leaders (verse 4), an alarm of war (verse 9) and announcing festival days (verse 10).

The second part of chapter 10 pictures Israel departing Mount Sinai (verses 11-13), with the Ark of the Covenant leading the way (verses 33-34).

Chapter 11: Only three days after their departure from Sinai, the people started complaining! This attitude of ingratitude greatly displeased God, who struck the outskirts of the camp with fire to teach them—and us—an important lesson. They showed an abject lack of appreciation for what God had done for them.

Consider Moses and the lessons we can learn from what he experienced. The reaction of the people so discouraged him that he reached a point where he asked God to kill him: “Please kill me here and now” (11:14-15). As we read about the various incidents in the book of Numbers, we notice how ingratitude undermines faith and produces a chain reaction in human nature. Always wanting more can produce bad results (James 4:1-3).

Chapter 12: Miriam and Aaron were critical and disrespectful of Moses, most likely due to envy. God again backed up His chosen servant. Miriam was stricken with leprosy, and Moses prayed for her healing. God answered his prayers.

Chapters 13-14: The 12 spies were sent to Canaan. Ten of the spies brought back an “evil report,” which resulted in the entire nation rebelling against God. They lacked faith in God’s power and might to fulfill His promises, and they feared human beings more than Him (Numbers 13:28).

The people lamented, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness!” (14:2). So God gave them their wish! Because of refusing to accept God’s judgment, the Israelites would wander 40 years and that generation would die in the wilderness before their children inherited the Promised Land.

This incident was followed by another sin, that of presumptuousness (verses 39-45). This provides another lesson we must learn.

Chapter 15: Various laws restated.

Chapter 16: Another example of rebellion against God’s constituted authority. Korah, a first cousin to Moses, and 250 leaders accused Moses and Aaron of taking too much authority. It seems they were more specifically targeting the priesthood. These dissenters wanted to muscle in on the power base and appoint themselves to positions of authority. They undoubtedly had convinced themselves that their motives were noble, but God knew better than they did what was really in their hearts.

The contentious leaders refused to recognize that they were in rebellion against God, who had appointed Moses and Aaron in the first place (Jude 1:10-11). The result was that the dissenters were destroyed (Numbers 16:31-33).

Unbelievably, the very next day the people complained against Moses and Aaron, and Moses had to again intercede on their behalf.

Chapters 17-20: The incident of the budding of Aaron’s rod is described. Twelve rods, one from each tribal family, were placed in the tabernacle, but only Aaron’s rod miraculously produced buds, blossoms and even ripe almonds to demonstrate God’s support (17:8).

The duties and responsibilities of priests and Levites are outlined in chapter 18, while chapter 19 deals with ceremonial cleanliness.

The Israelites moved from Kadesh to the plains of Moab in chapter 20. Along the way first Miriam died (20:1) and then Aaron (verse 28).

During this time Moses made a terrible mistake that cost him entry into the Promised Land. The people once again complained that they had no water. God told Moses to speak to the rock, but instead, Moses in anger spoke to the people and then struck the rock twice (20:10-11).

Another lesson for us all: We must take God’s instructions seriously and follow them exactly. The Bible warns us not to lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-7).

Chapter 21: Canaanite tribes attacked Israel and were defeated. Because of the Israelites’ complaining, “fiery serpents” entered the camp. God told them to mount a bronze serpent on a pole and promised to heal those who looked on the pole.

Chapters 22-25: Balak, the king of the Moabites, instructed Balaam to curse Israel, but he was unable, as God prevented him from doing it. However, Balaam advised the Moabite women to entice the men of Israel into adulterous pagan rites so God would punish them (Numbers 25:1-9; Revelation 2:14).

Chapters 26-31: In chapter 26, the second census was taken. God chose Joshua (Numbers 27:18). Chapters 28 and 29 deal with sacrifices during God’s festivals, and vows are discussed in chapter 30. In chapter 31 Midian was defeated and Balaam was killed. For more on this man’s conduct, see the article “Balaam.”

Chapter 32: Land on the east side of the Jordan River was given to Reuben, Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh.

Chapter 33: This chapter reviews the history of the Israelites’ wanderings for 40 years in the wilderness.

Chapters 34-36: Eleazar the priest and Joshua divided up the inheritance of the land (chapter 34); specific cities for the Levites were set aside (chapter 35); and judgments regarding inheritance were refined (chapter 36).

The book of Numbers in the New Testament

There are various references to the book of Numbers in the New Testament. Below are a few examples:

  • Numbers 12:7 in Hebrews 3:5-6.
  • Numbers 14:16 in 1 Corinthians 10:5.
  • Numbers 17:8 in Hebrews 9:4.
  • Numbers 19:1-9 in Hebrews 9:13.
  • Numbers 22:5 in 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:11; Revelation 2:14.
  • Numbers 27:17 in Matthew 9:36; Mark 6:34.

Life lessons from the book of Numbers

Numbers contains many spiritual and moral lessons, and it is a book of testing and faith. We can learn such lessons as showing gratitude (instead of grumbling and complaining), accepting God’s appointed leadership and following God’s instructions. Sin brings devastating results.

The book of Hebrews sums up the lessons by stating that we should not harden our hearts as the ancient Israelites did. As a result, many did not enter the Promised Land (Hebrews 3:7-11). “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God . . . lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (verses 12-13). Numbers 32:23 reminds us, “Be sure your sin will find you out.”

It is God’s desire that we not repeat the mistakes of the Israelites of old, but rather that we respond to and follow His truths outlined in His Word. This is the hope we have to enter our Promised Land—the Kingdom of God—as children of God.

For further study, read the articles in the section: “The Practical and Priceless Benefits of Bible Study.”

For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.

About the Author

André van Belkum

Andre van Belkum

Andre van Belkum currently serves as the pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in New Zealand and the Pacific region. Previously he pastored congregations in southern Africa, including South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

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Erik Jones

Erik Jones

Erik Jones is a full-time writer and editor at the Life, Hope & Truth offices in McKinney, Texas.

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