Well, you got through Leviticus, and you found that it’s got a real devotional punch if you pay attention to the big ideas. And now you’re in Numbers. Funny name. Lots of repetition. And details. And, well, numbers.
What’s with that?
When Numbers begins, Israel is still at Sinai, where they’ve been for the year since leaving Egypt. They’ve received the Law (that’s the last part of Exodus, and all of Leviticus), and they’re preparing to continue to Canaan. When Numbers ends, the people of Israel are at the Jordan River, ready to enter the land (Dt 1.1). For those of you keeping score, that means that the entire 40 years of wilderness wandering takes place in Numbers.
So what’s with the numbers? What’s that all about?
Oh, this is really good. Really good.
The book begins, as you might expect, with numbers: a census. God directs Moses to count all the men in the Israelite army (Num 1.2-3). Moses obeys, and we’re told that Israel’s army numbers just over 600,000 (Num 1.46).
Hold that thought.
Now Israel prepares to travel from Sinai, what we might call Constitution City, to their permanent home, promised by God to Abraham all those centuries ago. If there are 600,000 soldiers, then you probably have about 2 million people in all, and moving that many people around is going to require some organization. So God describes the organization of the camp (Num 2); the jobs of the Levites in breaking down, carrying, and setting up the Tabernacle (Num 3-4); and the dedication of the Tabernacle to active service (Num 7-9).
Now we’re ready to move. Off we go.
The Israelites decamp and head for Canaan (Num 10-12), arriving at Kadesh-Barnea, near Canaan’s southern border, where God instructs them to investigate the land they’re about to enter (Num 13). What they see makes them afraid, and they refuse the land God has assured them is theirs (Num 14). God sends them on a 40-year hiatus, where the fearful adults will all die, leaving their “vulnerable” children to take the land by force (Num 14.28-35).
Yikes. That’s a turn of events.
And the rest of the book describes the torturous turns of those 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Someone has estimated that for those 40 years, about 85 people died every day, on average, until all the adults were gone. That’s 40 years of daily grief, reminding Israel of the perils of faithlessness.
God is killing them all. Will he eradicate them? Or will he keep his promise to Abraham, 400 years ago, that they would occupy the land (Gen 17.8)?
Well, that’s where the numbers come in.
In chapter 26, Israel has arrived at the plains of Moab, just across the Jordan River from Jericho and the rest of The Land. All the older generation is gone now, and the current generation can see the land ahead of them. Will they be able to take it?
God answers their question with a second census. Count all the soldiers, he says. They do.
How many soldiers are there? 600,000 (Num 26.51). Just as many as there were before.
In judgment, God remembers mercy. He destroys the faithless generation, but he sees to it that four decades later, the army is just as large as it was before, despite their less-than-ideal living and breeding conditions.
The promise is still good. The land is still theirs. God’s judgment has not disabled the promise.
The numbers have spoken.