The book is called Numbers for a good reason. In the beginning at Sinai, Moses takes a census of the people, and towards the end of the book in the plains of Moab, he takes another. Between these bookends, the narrative is punctuated by a series of failures and judgments.
In Leviticus, Aaron and his sons were consecrated to offer sacrifices. In Numbers, the Levites are established as the ones who will assist Aaron and transport the tabernacle in all its various parts. The dedication of the Levites serves as a substitute for the firstborn of Israel’s sons. Yahweh explains,
Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the people of Israel. The Levites shall be mine, for all the firstborn are mine. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine: I am the LORD. (Numbers 3:12–13)
Failure & Judgment
Once the Levites are consecrated, the people are ready to move.
In the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, the cloud lifted from over the tabernacle of the testimony, and the people of Israel set out by stages from the wilderness of Sinai. (Numbers 10:11–12)
This is where things begin to fall apart. Israel fails test after test.
- They complain constantly and experience judgment (chs.11, 14).
- Individuals rise up and oppose Moses’ leadership (chs. 12, 16)
- The spies bring back a bad report (ch. 13), and the whole generation is condemned.
- They are defeated in battle because they go up to fight even though they weren’t supposed to (ch. 14).
- Moses strikes a rock to get water from it, and he is told that because of this neither he nor Aaron will enter the promised land (ch. 20). They both die in the wilderness (chs. 20, 27).
- Various plagues break out among the people (for example, ch. 21 with the “fiery serpents”).
Nevertheless, when a mysterious prophet is hired to curse Israel, he can’t. Chapters 22–24 tell a sort of humorous story about Balak and Balaam. Despite Balak’s repeated efforts and offers of money, every time Balaam tries to curse Israel in the name of Yahweh, only blessings come from his mouth.
There’s another story right after this that is also a sign of hope. Phineas, one of the priests, sees a couple people acting in disobedience, he grabs his spear, and he drives the spear through both of them. It’s brutal, but that’s the way this book rolls. Disobedience leads to the death of thousands and thousands, and Phineas’ actions make plain that the people are getting on board.
Between this episode, Balaam’s blessings, and Joshua’s succession of Moses (ch. 27), it’s clear that the story is not over. Israel has failed repeatedly, but they are not forsaken. The census at the end of the book marks the passing away of the entire generation that was condemned because of the spies bad report.
Yahweh is proving true to his character as he described it in Exodus 34:7,
… keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
The new generation is already experiencing the promise of Leviticus 26.
But if they confess their iniquity … if their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant … I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them, for I am Yahweh their God. (Lev. 26:40–45)