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The dates for Numbers encompass the entire 40 years in the wilderness, following the Exodus in 1440 B.C.—and it extends throughout that 40 year period. The name of the book comes from the fact that it contains the results of two censuses.
To the modern reader, the book can seem like something of a jumble. There are narrative sections, there are random laws, there are census lists, there is the prophetic word given by the pagan prophet Balaam, and though he was a true prophet, he was not a true man. But there is a structure to the whole thing.
“And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Num. 21:5– 9).
Summary of the Text
The two census lists are given prior to two invasions, one abortive and one more effectual. The results of the censuses are roughly the same—around 600,000 fighting men. The people traveled first from Egypt to Sinai, and from Sinai to Kadesh. To invade Canaan from the south would be more natural, and Kadesh was that place. But the people gave way to fear in response to the negative report of the ten spies, and then when they attempted to invade, they were ignominiously defeated. But by the end of the book, they are poised to invade Canaan from the east, across the Jordan, from the plains of Moab. The first travel narrative is found in 9:15-14:45 and the second is found in 20:1-22.
One theme of this book has to do with leadership, and challenges to that leadership that arose. You would think that someone who had wrecked Egypt, divided the Red Sea, and drowned Pharaoh, would have a secure spot as a leader. But not so with Moses (16-17). Selfish ambition always blindly takes what the grace of God has given as a starting point.
While Korah’s rebellion was a big deal, there were also challenges to the leadership of Moses that were a little closer to home. Numbers 12 tells us that Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of a “Cushite woman” he had married. This is a bit obscure, but Josephus tells us the back story, and it might even be true. When Moses was still a prince of Egypt, he once besieged a city in Ethiopia named Saba. The queen of that city fell in love with Moses from the city wall, and offered to surrender the city if he married her, which he did. If that were the case, and this woman belatedly showed up in the Israelite camp in the wilderness one day, one can easily imagine how it would disrupt the organizational flow chart, and not to Miriam’s liking.
Certain things would defile an Israelite ritually, things like childbirth, or a woman’s period, or touching a dead body. They were not moral issues, but they were still designed to teach us holiness. This, not that. Here, not there. Think of them as a gigantic audio/ visual aid. We needed this kind of help (over centuries) to teach us the concept of holiness, walking us toward the concept of ethical holiness, toward the idea of righteousness.
In the sacrifice of the heifer, the priest would burn (among a few other things) the fat of the heifer and some cedar wood (Num. 19:5-6). This made the priest unclean (Num. 19:7). Then a man who was clean (Num. 19:9) would gather up the ashes, and place them outside the camp in a cleanplace, where it would be used by the Israelites in the waters of cleansing. Now soap can be manufactured from wood ash and animal tallow. So the manufacture of soap made you unclean, but the use of it made you clean. Remember what I said about germs. Ritual cleansing also resulted in better hygiene. Cleanliness is next to godliness.
This is the lesson pointed out in Hebrews. “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:13–14).
Balaam and the Star
Numbers also contains the Balaam story. The New Testament tells us that Balaam was an unrighteous man (2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 11; Rev. 2:14), and the Israelites killed Balaam when they invaded (Josh 13:22). Piecing the story together, Balaam was a true prophet, but not a true man. He refused to prophesy against Israel, but was apparently the one who gave the king of Moab the shrewd but ungodly advice to use sex against Israel as a weapon. This resulted in the great apostasy at Baal-Peor.
At the same time, we should look carefully at Balaam’s prophecy. “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: There shall come a Star out of Jacob, And a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, And shall smite the corners of Moab, And destroy all the children of Sheth” (Num. 24:17). We should at least consider the possibility that the Magi who came from the east were informed, at least in part, by Balaam’s prophecy. Here is a star prophesied by a non-Hebrew prophet, and they came in response to it.
Jesus in Numbers
Even though God commanded that the bronze serpent be made, and those who looked to it in the time of Moses were acting in true faith, the serpent eventually became a snare. It had acquired the name Nehushtan, and Hezekiah rightly had it destroyed (1 Kings 18:4). Nevertheless, it was a type of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14).
The people were afflicted (because of their grumbling) with the poison of “fiery serpents.” The word here is related to the word seraph, or seraphim. From this, and the description of the heavenly seraphim (Is. 6:2-3), I take these as some kind of poisonous winged serpent—small dragons. An image of one of these serpents was cast in bronze and impaled on a pole. Anyone who looked on their affliction there was healed of their affliction here.
That Christ uses this image to describe Himself on the cross is simply astonishing. God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21). When we look at Christ on the cross, we are looking at the crucifixion of all accusation. What is our snake bite? Is it not accusation? Is it not the sting of the law? Is it not the fact that we are guilty? So look there—there is your guilt, there is your condemnation, there is your poison. Look there and be free.