An Overview of the Book of Numbers

James Coakley
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It may be fair to say that the book of Numbers is the most overlooked book within the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible. But it shouldn’t be overlooked! The book of Numbers gives us important insight into God’s relationship with His people. Here’s an overview of it.

What Does the Title of the Book of Numbers Mean?

The English title for the book comes from the Greek Septuagint (LXX) name, Arithmoi, “Numbers.” That is because several numbered lists appear in the book, including censuses. The Jewish title for the book is Bemidbar (“in the wilderness”) and is derived from the fifth Hebrew word of the first verse. This title relates to the geographical location so central to the book.

The historical background of the book of Numbers is the wilderness wandering of the nation of Israel after the exodus from Egypt (1445 BC) and before the crossing of the Jordan River into the promised land (1405 BC).

Who Wrote the Book of Numbers and When Was It Written?

In and outside of Christian circles, some wonder about the authorship of the first five books of the Bible. What about the book of Numbers, specifically?

Who Wrote the Book of Numbers?

Numbers is traditionally held to be authored by Moses. There is strong association of this book with the fivefold “book of the law/ book of Moses,” attributed to Moses in both the OT and the NT (Jos 23:6; Neh 8:1; Mk 12:26). Numbers 33:2 states that Moses recorded events in Israel’s wilderness journey, so he had the skills to keep and write records.

Some scholars doubt Mosaic authorship and view this book as coming from various sources that editors later compiled into the present book. According to the “documentary hypothesis,” the book is comprised mainly from P (Priestly) sources (1:1–10:28 and chaps. 15, 17–19, 26–31, 33–36), while the other chapters are a mixture of J and E sources.

When Was the Book of Numbers Written?

This book, as part of the singular book of the law, was probably penned in the final year of Moses’ life. It ends with the Israelites camped on the east side of the Jordan River opposite Jericho. Deuteronomy was written in the 11th month of the 40th year after the exodus (Dt 1:3). Therefore the book of Numbers would have been written just prior to Deuteronomy, in the year 1405 BC.

What Is the Theme and Purpose of the Book of Numbers?

The book of Numbers compares and contrasts two generations of Israelites as counted in the two censuses within the book (in chaps. 1 and 26). The first generation was sentenced to die in the wilderness as a result of their rebellion. The second generation faithfully prepared to enter the promised land. Their story is bracketed by narratives regarding Zelophehad’s daughters and the promise of land inheritance (27:1-11; 36:1-12). Suspense is naturally created as to whether the second generation will follow the errors of the first generation. The book is structured so that each subsequent reader/listener of the book can place himself in the place of the second generation to see which of the generations he or she will emulate.

The book is a combination of multiple genres, the main ones being historical narrative (10:11–14:45) and poetry (chaps. 21–24). Other genres are law (chaps. 5–6), lists (chaps. 1–4), and travel itineraries (chap. 33)

The book of Numbers is notoriously difficult to outline. There are several time references within the book, but it is hard to outline the book chronologically (cf. 1:1 with 9:1), so those markers are not all that helpful in structuring the book.

A common way to outline the book is by the geographic movements within the book.

  1. Sinai (1:1–10:10)
  2. Kadesh-barnea (10:11–20:13)
  3. Moab (20:14–36:13)

Dennis Olson has suggested that the book be divided according to the two generations and their censuses (Dennis T. Olson, The Death of the Old and the Birth of the New: The Framework of the Book of Numbers and the Pentateuch [Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1975], 120–23). Thus, chaps. 1–25 deal with the first generation of God’s people out of Egypt on the march in the wilderness. Then, chaps. 26–36 cover the second generation of God’s people out of Egypt as they prepare to enter the promised land. The outline in this commentary will follow his suggestion.

For Further Reading:

The Moody Bible Commentary

by Michael A. Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham

Imagine having a team of 30 Moody Bible Institute professors helping you study the Bible. Now you can with this in-depth, user-friendly,...

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