Numbers is the book of wanderings. Most of the book describes Israel's experiences in the wilderness. Israel as a nation is in its infancy at the outset of this book, only thirteen months after the Exodus from Egypt. In Numbers, the nation goes through a painful process of testing and maturation in which Yahweh teaches His people the consequences of rebellion and irresponsible decisions. The forty years of wilderness experience transform them from a rabble of ex-slaves into a nation ready to take possession of the Promised Land.

The book of Numbers takes its name from the two numberings of the Israelites—the first at Mt. Sinai (ch. 1) and the second on the plains of Moab (Num 26:1-51LEB). Jewish writings usually refer to the book by the fifth Hebrew word in Num 1:1LEB, bemidbar, meaning "in the wilderness." The Greek title in the Septuagint is Arithmoi, meaning "numbers," a term taken over into the Latin Vulgate where the title is translated Liber Numeri, "Book of Numbers."

Author: The evidence that points to Moses as the author of Numbers is similar to that for the previous books of the Pentateuch. There are in Numbers more than eighty claims that "Yahweh spoke to Moses." It is apparent (Num 33:2LEB) that Moses kept detailed records as an eyewitness of the events in this book. As the central character in Exodus through Deuteronomy, he was better qualified than any other person to write these books.

Some scholars have claimed that the third-person references to Moses (e.g.,Num 8:23LEB; Num 14:36LEB; Num 15:1LEB, Num 15:22LEB) point to an author different from Moses. Such use of the third person may seem unusual to the Western mind, but it was commonly employed by ancient writers and is used consistently in each book in which the name of Moses appears (e.g., Exo 24:1LEB; Lev 6:1LEB; Deu 5:1LEB).

Date: Leviticus covers only one month, but Numbers stretches over almost thirty-nine years (c. 1444-1405 B.C.). It records Israel's movement from the last twenty days at Mt. Sinai, the wanderings round Kadesh Barnea, and finally the arrival in the plains of Moab in the fortieth year. Moses no doubt kept this record of events in the course of the wilderness wanderings.

Themes and Literary Structure: Numbers may be divided into three main sections: it begins with the old generation (Num 1:1-10LEB), moves through a tragic transitional period (Num. 10:11-25LEB), and ends with the new generation at the doorway to the land of Canaan (chs. 26-36).

Numbers records two generations (chs. 1-14 and 21-36), two numberings (chs. 1 and 26), two journeys (chs. 10-14 and 21-27), and two sets of instructions (chs. 5-9 and 28-36). It illustrates both the kindness and the severity of Yahweh (Rom 11:22LEB) and teaches that Yahweh's people can move forward only as they trust and depend on Him.

The theme of divine judgment on unbelief is prominent in Numbers, which records the failure of Israel to believe in the promise of Yahweh and the resulting judgment of wandering in the wilderness for forty years. The critical turning point in the book may be seen in chapter 14, when Israel heeded the warnings of the fearful spies and rejected Yahweh by refusing to go up and conquer the Promised Land. Yahweh judges Israel "according to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection" (Num 14:34LEB).

The book of Numbers is more than a warning against unbelief and disobedience, however. Throughout it testifies to the grace and mercy of Yahweh and points forward to the divine grace to be displayed in Yashua. The divine presence and guidance is evident in the pillar of fire and cloud (Num 10:11LEB). Yahweh's care for His people is seen in the daily provision of manna for food and in the rock which provided water for the people to drink, gifts which prefigure the coming of Yashua (John 6:31-33LEB; 1Co 10:4LEB). A vivid illustration of divine mercy is seen in the provision of the bronze serpent as the means of healing those who had been bitten by poisonous snakes, a picture of the crucifixion (Num 21:4-9LEB; cf. John 3:14LEB).