The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,  The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” – Numbers 6:22–27 (ESV)
The worst thing about the Book of Numbers is its name. Those who expect a divine spreadsheet will be disappointed because the book contains much more than that. Numbers contains stories of plagues, miracles, espionage, political intrigue, divination, war, talking animals, and angels. And that is only a start. Far from being a book devoted to lists of names and tabulations, Numbers continues the story of the people of Israel's exodus from Egypt and narrates the rest of Israel's time in the wilderness.
This series continues to work through the books of the Bible, landing now at Numbers. An unsuspecting reader coming off of Exodus may expect Numbers to be a generally happy book, narrating how the people of Israel followed the freshly revealed glory of Yahweh into the Promised Land. But Numbers does not do that. Instead, we find in Numbers the story of how an entire generation failed to enter the Promised Land because of disobedience.
The Big Idea of Numbers
I have taught that the big idea of Numbers is that Yahweh is his people’s guide to the promised land. Although the passage cited above does not explicitly address Yahweh's guidance of the people, it does address his intention and disposition toward his people. It also addresses Yahweh's guidance and leadership of the people as a whole as he directs their way to Canaan.
The blessing Yahweh commanded the priests to pronounce upon the people represents a distillation of the hope of God's people at all times and in every place. There is no greater hope than to see the face of God. It is shorthand for the entire experience of being fully in communion with God.
An Outline of Numbers
Numbers can be divided into three main sections according to the people's location. The story picks up where Exodus leaves off at Mount Sinai, then tracks the people in the wilderness while the first generation dies off, and ends with the journey to Moab as the next generation finally prepares to enter the Promised Land.
Chapters 1-10 cover less than a year's worth of time while the people are getting organized and ready to depart Mount Sinai. In this section, the people are divided and arranged in camps to prepare for their move. More instructions are given to the priests and Levites with various jobs assigned and various offerings made. The time at Sinai ends with the people celebrating Passover and departing from Sinai under the direction of Yahweh.
Chapters 10-20 cover the people's journey to and stay around Kadesh Barnea. This is a span of about 38 years. Many interesting things happen during these years. Yahweh strikes down many in a great plague after raining quail on them (ch. 11). Aaron and Miriam find themselves in trouble for questioning Moses' leadership (ch. 12). Spies are sent into Canaan to scope it out, only to return and recommend that the people not try to take it. Only Caleb and Joshua dissent from this opinion (chs. 13-24). In response, Yahweh decrees that no one from the generation who saw Yahweh's deeds in Egypt will enter the Promised Land except Caleb and Joshua. The rest of the section details high and low points during the period of wandering, with most of them being low points.
Chapters 20-36 narrate the journey to and stay in Moab. Aaron dies here. This is also the section where snakes attacked the camp and looking at the bronze serpent saved people's lives. The story of Balaam and his frustrated attempts to curse Israel fills several chapters (22-24). The rest of the chapters feature an assortment of events, from Phinehas' zeal, to property issues, to another celebration of Passover, to a census, to war with Midian, and some laws for life in the Promised Land.
The Benefits of Numbers
What benefit is there in reading Numbers? One of the elements of the story that stands out is that Numbers should never have existed in the first place. It is instructive to consider the fact that God's people spend 40 years in the wilderness due to their own persistent disobedience.
Why did not the people obey so that they could enter the Promised Land? Why did they persist in such foolish and stubborn rebellion? It is a strange thing to consider the contrast between how powerful God showed himself to be in Egypt and how disobedient Israel was toward him afterward. If Numbers shows us anything about ourselves, surely it shows us how much misery we bring upon ourselves by our own sin.
But we also learn about God's patience in Numbers. He is faithful. He holds back from destroying them. If we imagine ourselves in God's place, most of us would not have been as kind and long-suffering as God is. God consistently shows himself to be faithful to his promises even as his people show themselves to be unworthy of receiving them. Sound familiar? I don't know any Christian who lives up to the promises of God in Christ Jesus. We do not live up to our salvation so much as rest in it. We pursue good works and seek to walk in a manner worthy of the calling by which we have been called (Eph. 4:1), but we do not somehow attain parity or independence from God's promises. Rather, we are defined by them; we never outgrow them by our own excellence, godliness, or holiness.
Numbers also shows us some of the variety there is in God's world. The sheer scope of the kinds of events that take place in Numbers can be rather staggering. Numbers is full of stories that show the breadth of human experience and of God's dealings with them. We too often hear, and perhaps think ourselves, that modern life is too disconnected from the world of the Bible, that God cannot be considered to be active and engaged in the world today. But the sheer strangeness of some of what happens in Numbers encourages us that God is not surprised or taken aback by our experience today. We can trust God through the twists and turns of modern life.
Numbers also reminds us of the pervasiveness of sin and our need for a savior. It can be frustrating to read a book like Numbers because we just want the people to behave and the heroes to act like heroes. But they often do not. The only consistent hero in Numbers is Yahweh, God himself. Everyone else fails or shows themselves to be flawed. How we need to come to God in humility, asking for grace to live in God's world without making a fool of ourselves!
Numbers helps us in these ways and many more. Each story has its own potential benefits. But as we read today, we can be confident that the same God who led the Israelites through the wilderness in Numbers is the same God who will see us home. Yahweh was Israel's guide to the Promised Land. And he has not left us without a guide. The best reminder of this is Jesus's words to his disciples on the eve of his death:
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. - John 14:16–20 (ESV)
Knowing Numbers puts Christ's words in context for us. As we see Yahweh guiding his people to the Promised Land, we learn what kind of guidance to expect from the Spirit today. And that has everything to do with how we live for God through Christ.