Introduction to Numbers

A Brief Review of the Pentateuch

“The Pentateuch” is the Greek name given to the first five books of the Old Testament, the books that the ancient Hebrews called “The Law” (or, “The Torah.”) The Hebrew word “Torah” means “instruction,” a term well suited to describe these five books since they contain both the historical as well as the legal foundation of the Old Testament covenant.

The first of the five books, Genesis, deals with the creation of the world and man’s God-given place in it, the primeval history of the human race, and then focuses on the history of the Old Testament patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Genesis records God’s call to Abram to leave his homeland, Ur of the Chaldeans, and journey to the Promised Land of Canaan, and the divine promise that Abram will become the father of a great nation—a nation that will live in covenant with God, dwelling in His land and being His unique possession. As a token and assurance of the Lord’s commitment to His promise, He give to Abram the new name, “Abraham,” a name meaning, “father of a multitude” (Genesis 17:5.) The Book of Genesis concludes with the embryonic covenant nation (consisting of Jacob, who has been re-named “Israel,” and his twelve sons together with their families) journeying down into Egypt.

As the Book of Exodus opens we find that the embryonic covenant nation, by the blessing of the Lord, has grown into a great multitude, so much so that it has become a threat to the world-power of that day, the empire of Egypt (Ex. 1:7-10.) As its title suggests, the Book of Exodus records the Lord’s miraculous deliverance of His people from their Egyptian oppressors via their safe passage through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Under the leadership of their divinely appointed redeemer, Moses, and by means of the Lord’s own visible presence (in the pillar of cloud and fire), the Israelites are brought to Mt. Sinai, the mountain of God. There the Lord, true to His original covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15), enters into covenant with the nation of Israel, claiming them as His own possession and pledging to be their God. The Book of Exodus climaxes with the covenant nation dwelling in the presence of the Lord at the foot of Mt. Sinai with the Lord’s very throne in their midst (in the form of the sacred ark of the covenant housed in the tabernacle, Ex. 40:34.) But the divine promise made to Abraham that his descendants would possess the Promised Land of Canaan was yet to be fulfilled. Hence, the Book of Exodus concludes with the testimony that, by means of the pillar of cloud and fire, the Lord led His people “through all their journeys” (Ex. 40:38.)

The journey from Mt. Sinai, through the wilderness, to the border of Canaan is narrated in the fourth book of the Pentateuch, the Book of Numbers. Inserted between Exodus and Numbers is the Book of Leviticus. This third book of the Pentateuch contains the detailed prescriptions for the nation’s worship of the Lord and fellowship with Him by means of the various sacrifices He ordained. The book also contains sundry laws and regulations to govern the nation’s conduct as the redeemed people lived in community with their God and with one another. As the nation stands at the brink of the Jordan River and prepares to enter the Promised Land of Canaan, the faithfulness of the Lord their God is re-iterated and the covenant is formally renewed in the fifth book of the Pentateuch, the Book of Deuteronomy.

Thus, in the words of W.A. Elwell (p. 3), “The Pentateuch forms the historical, religious, and theological basis for the entire course of Hebrew history.” The human authorship of these five books down through the ages has been attributed to none other than the divinely appointed redeemer of God’s Old Testament people, Moses. By way of example, the Rabbis understood the words of Deuteronomy 31:9 (“And Moses wrote this law”) and 31:24 as referring to the whole Torah (Gen. 1:1 through Deut. 34:12.) They only differed in opinion as to whether Moses wrote the whole work at once after his last address, or whether he composed the earlier books gradually, and then completed the whole by writing Deuteronomy and appending it to the previous four books (C.F. Keil, pp. 25-26.) Keil’s reference to the opinion of the Rabbis shows their belief in the Mosaic authorship of the entire Pentateuch. However, Deuteronomy 31:9 and 24 seem to be referring explicitly to the renewal of the covenant as contained in that fifth book of the Pentateuch. Nevertheless, the tradition of the Mosaic authorship of the entire Torah (“The Book of the Law”) is affirmed by the New Testament (note, for example, Lk. 24:44; Jn. 1:45; 7:19; Acts 15:21.)

The Book of Numbers


Various names have been given to the fourth book of the Pentateuch. In the Hebrew Bible it has the title, “In the Wilderness,” (which is the fourth word in the Hebrew text.) The Latin Vulgate labeled it “Numbers;” a name suggested by the censuses that are reported in the book in chapters one and twenty-six (G. Van Groningen, p. 85.)

According to the testimony of Scripture (see above, under “A Brief Review of The Pentateuch,”) Moses was the primary author of the book, although some portions may well be post-Mosaic additions. For example, the comment made in Numbers 12:3 that Moses was the meekest of all men, is evidently a gloss—perhaps the testimony of Joshua who was very well acquainted with Moses. Then, too, Numbers 32:34-42, a passage describing the building activity on the part of the two and one-half tribes that settled in the Transjordan area after the conquest, is evidently an editorial insertion testifying to the fulfillment of the promises made earlier in the chapter (R.K. Harrison, p. 617.) It is more difficult to explain how the oracles prophesied by Balaam (Numbers 23:7-10; 23:18-24; 24:3-9; 24:15-24) were incorporated into the book. A clue may be found in the concluding verse of chapter twenty-four: After uttering his last oracle, Balaam “rose and departed and returned to his place.” Upon returning to Pethor, the city from where he had come (22:5), Balaam may well have committed these oracles to writing, being aware of their divine origin. As R.K. Harrison writes (p. 620): It may be that a disciple of the Mesopotamian seer was responsible for the survival of the narratives, although this cannot be regarded as being any more than purely conjectural. At some later date, perhaps in the days of Joshua, they may have come into the possession of the people of Israel and been incorporated into the Book of Numbers.


The Book of Numbers narrates the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness, from Mt. Sinai to the border of Canaan at the brink of the Jordan River. It embraces the whole period from the second month of the second year after the Exodus to the tenth month of the fortieth year. In addition to narrating Israel’s journey through the wilderness, the book also records the various laws and ordinances by which the theocracy would be governed. The Book of the Covenant had been instituted at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 20:22-24:18), but supplements relating to specific situations that would arise in the life of the community were added during the wilderness journey (note, in particular, chapters 5,15,19,28-30, 35:9-34, 36.)

The book consists of three main divisions, each containing a number of sub-divisions. The main divisions are as follows: (I) The Preparation for the Departure from Sinai (1:1-10:10); (II) The Journey from Sinai to the Plains of Moab (10:11-21:35); (III) The Events that Took Place in the Plains of Moab (22:1-36:13) (E.J. Young, pp. 84-91.)

The theme that is especially prominent in Numbers may be summarized in these terms: the faithfulness of the Lord and the severity of the Lord. In the words of R.K. Harrison (p. 634), Numbers must never be regarded as merely comprising a catalog of the outstanding incidents that marked the Israelite sojourn in the wilderness. Not only did the book record such events, it also interpreted them so as to demonstrate the covenant love of God for His people in every emergency of distress and danger, as well as the stern and severe judgment of God against apostasy and rebellion.

D. Olson notes the significance of the two census lists that are found in Numbers; the first at the very outset of the book (chapter one), the other found subsequent to Israel’s fearful refusal to enter the land of Canaan at the Lord’s command (chapter 26.) Olson concludes that these two censuses form the structural pillars of the book, distinguishing the two generations of Israel during the wilderness sojourn. Numbers 1-25 relates the history of the first generation—the generation that was intimidated by the strength of the adversaries and, consequently, refused to place their confidence in the Lord and obey His command to take the land. This generation died in the wilderness and was replaced by their children, those represented by the second census recorded in Numbers 26, those who did in fact enter into the Promised Land (R. Dillard and T. Longman, pp. 86-87.) The severity of the Lord (toward those who shrink back due to unbelief) as well as the faithfulness of the Lord (to His covenant promises) are evidenced in the Lord’s testimony recorded in Numbers 14:28-35, “… all who were numbered of you … from twenty years old and upward … who murmured against me, (30) surely, you shall not come into the land … (31) But your little ones … them will I bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected.” Previously in chapter 14 (verse 24) the Lord declared, “… my servant Caleb, because he … has followed me fully, him will I bring into the land … and his seed shall possess it.” Ultimately, it is the Lord Jesus Christ who is the one true and faithful servant of His Father (Jn. 8:29.) The kingdom of God (of which the Promised Land of Canaan was an Old Testament type) is given to Him and His “seed”—all those who believe in Him and who, by His grace, persevere to the end (Matt. 10:22; Heb. 3:12-19.)

Alleged “Problems” in the Book of Numbers

The total number of Israel’s military given in Numbers 1:46 appears to be excessively high (603,550 men fit for battle.) This would mean that the total population of the entire nation would approximate 2.5 million people. However large this number may seem, we must remember that it is in keeping with the promise the Lord made to Abraham: “’Look now toward heaven and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ And he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be’” (Gen. 15:5.) Furthermore, being aware of such a vast number of Hebrews within his kingdom, the Egyptian Pharaoh would be justified to express his concern: ‘the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us” (Ex. 1:9; note, too, Ex. 1:7.) Also, such a vast number of foreigners spread out across the plains at the very border of their territory would well account for the terror expressed by the king of Moab and his people (Num. 22:3. Note, also, the words of Balaam’s first oracle recorded in Num. 23:10a.)

With regard to the manageability of so large a number, we must bear in mind that this was not a massive, unruly mob. On the contrary, this was a very well-disciplined, highly organized nation, divided into tribes and clans and families, as is evident from the manner in which the census was taken (Num. 1.) We may also take notice of the arrangement for oversight that was instituted at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 18:21-22.) Neither must we discount the Lord’s superintending presence over this vast community that composed the people for His own possession.

With regard to logistics, it has been argued by some that it would have taken the entire day for a multitude of 2.5 million people to get into formation for a line of march, and thus would not have been able to progress a single mile before nightfall. G. Archer (pp. 236-237) answers such an objection by reminding us that the length of time required to fall into marching formation depends entirely upon the width of the columns. It is not necessary to assume that the Israelites kept within the width of a highway, for example, since they were moving over largely uninhabited rangeland. The four main divisions of approximately 500,000 persons each (Num. 10:14-20) might just as well have formed their ranks simultaneously and completed preparations to march within four hours and then have completed a ten-mile journey in about four hours.

Another question that has been raised with regard to the vast population of Israel is, How could such a large number of people be sustained in the wilderness? C.F. Keil (Vol. 3, p. 6) points out that the peninsula of Sinai yielded much more subsistence in ancient times than is to be found there at present. W.F. Albright (quoted by G. Van Groningen, pp. 87-88) notes, “in the time of Moses the peninsula of Sinai was not a complete desert … The charcoal burners, goats and camels had not yet destroyed … vegetation … wherever there was some subsurface water. There was such water, which was preserved by vegetation cover.” Then, too, the people were not required to only “live off of the land.” The Israelites left Egypt with herds and flocks (Ex. 12:38) that could provide dairy products and meat. Above all, we must remember that they were supplied with the Lord’s gracious and miraculous provisions: manna (Ex. 16:4,35), water (Ex. 17:5-6), quail (Num. 11:31.)

This now brings us to one other objection. Some have maintained that the supply of quail furnished to the Israelite host according to Numbers 11:31 is incredible. A quantity of quail piled up over such a large area for a depth of two cubits would result in about 70,000 bushels of quail per Israelite per meal. G. Archer (p. 237) points out that this is a total misunderstanding of the meaning of the text. The text does not state that the quail comprised a heap of bodies two cubits deep; it only indicates that the quail were deflected downward by a driving wind to a height of two cubits (about three feet) above the surface of the ground, where they could easily be knocked down by the meat-hungry Israelites. (The Hebrew preposition “al” before the phrase “the face of the earth” may just as well be translated “above” as “upon” in a context where horizontal motion is involved.)


Archer, Gleason L. Jr.; A Survey of Old Testament Introduction; Moody Press, Chicago, 1964 (Sixth Printing, 1970.)

Elwell, Walter A.; “The Pentateuch,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Edited by W.A. Elwell; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1989.

Harrison, R.K.; Introduction to the Old Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1969 (Fifth printing, November 1975.)

Keil, C.F. & Franz Delitzsch; “General Introduction to the Five Books of Moses,” Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament Vol. 1; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, Reprinted, February 1971.

___________________; “The Fourth Book of Moses (Numbers),” Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament Vol. 3; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, Reprinted, February 1971.

Longman, Tremper III & Raymond Dillard; An Introduction to the Old Testament; Zondervan Publish. House; Grand Rapids, MI; 1994.

MacRae, A.A.; “Numbers,” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, 1953 (Reprinted, October 1967.)

Van Groningen, Gerard; “Numbers,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Edited by W.A. Elwell; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1989.

Young, Edward J.; An Introduction to the Old Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1949 (Fourth Printing, June 1969.)