The Book of Numbers, called Arithmoi (meaning “Arithmetic”) in the Septuagint, gets its name from the census in chapters 1 and 26. Numbers takes up the story where Exodus left off. It is the fourth book of the Pentateuch.
You will recall that in Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch, we have the creation and fall of man and many beginnings. We have the beginning of Israel—not a nation yet, but a growing family that migrates down to Egypt to escape extinction by famine.
In Exodus we find the family becoming a nation in Egypt. We see them in slavery by the brick kilns of Egypt; then we see God delivering them by the hand of Moses and bringing them through the wilderness as far as Mount Sinai.
In the Book of Leviticus we see the children of Israel marking time at Mount Sinai while God gives the Law and the tabernacle. God calls them to Himself and tells them how to come.
In the Book of Numbers we see the children of Israel depart from Mount Sinai and march to Kadesh–barnea. After their failure at Kadesh–barnea, they began to wander until that generation died in the wilderness. The years of wandering were a veritable saga of suffering, a trek of tragedy, and a story of straying.
“Pilgrim’s Progress” is an apt theme for this book. Here we find the walking, wandering, working, warring, witnessing, and worshiping of God’s pilgrims. It is a handbook for pilgrims in this world. In the words of the hymnwriter, “Chart and compass come from Thee.” This is a road map for the wilderness of this world.
This book is helpful for us today. The lessons which the children of Israel had to learn are the lessons that you and I will need to learn, which is the reason God recorded this history for you and me. “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
“Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Cor. 10:11).
“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13).
“Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11).
“I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil” (John 17:14–15).
The first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch (since pentateuch means “five books”), were written by Moses. They are identified in Scripture as the Law. Although the Mosaic authorship has been questioned, it is affirmed by conservative scholars and confirmed by archaeology. Bible believers unanimously accept the Mosaic authorship.
It is interesting to note that the distance from Mount Sinai to Kadesh–barnea was from 150 to 200 miles—a journey, in that time, of eleven days (Deut. 1:2). The Israelites spent thirty days at Kibroth. They spent forty years on a journey that should have taken forty days because their walking was turned to wandering. Since they refused to go into the land, they did not advance an inch after Kadesh–barnea. At the end of their wanderings they came back to the same place, Kadesh–barnea. What was the reason? Unbelief.
Between the census in the first chapter and the census in the twenty–sixth chapter, we find a divine history of the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness for about thirty–eight years and ten months, commencing with the first movement of the camp after the tabernacle was reared.
A comparison of the two sets of census figures will show that their number was decimated. Numbers 1:46 says there were 603,550 fighting men. Numbers 26:51 states that there were 601,730 fighting men. This represents a loss of 1,820 fighting men. God’s command was for them to be fruitful and multiply, but they were losing instead of gaining during the years in the wilderness.
The census helps us to ascertain the number that had come out of Egypt. I am giving to you the estimate of Dr. Melvin Grove Kyle, who was a great Egyptologist and one of the editors of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia and also, at one time, editor on the staff of The National Geographic. He was a great man and a great archaeologist—and as dull as any lecturer can be. However, a person could get a wealth of information if he would make the effort to listen to him. I must say that I found him intensely interesting. Dr. Kyle figured that with about 600,000 fighting men there would be approximately 400,000 women. He set a figure at 200,000 senior citizens and 800,000 children. Then there was a mixed multitude that followed, which he estimated to be about 100,000. This gives a total estimate of 2,100,000 people, which does not include the tribe of Levi. Between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 would be the number who came out of the land of Egypt!
Included in this book are three illustrations that are helpful in this study. Two of them show the tabernacle and the way the children of Israel camped around it. The other illustration shows the order by which they marched.
Don’t think for a moment that this was a mob going through the wilderness helter–skelter. No group ever marched more orderly than this group. As we study this, I am sure you will be impressed by the way God insisted upon the order of this camp.
This is God’s method. To the church He said, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). He is a God of order. Have you ever pulled aside the petals of a rose and looked deeply into it? He put the rose together nicely, didn’t He? Have you noticed the way He shaped a tree? Have you noted the orderly arrangement of every fruit and vegetable you pick up? Have you observed the orderliness of this universe? Things are not flying around, bumping into each other. There is plenty of space to maneuver because the Lord has arranged it so. We live in a remarkable universe which reveals a God of power and a God of order. The psalmist said, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God …” (Ps. 14:1). Nobody but a fool could be an atheist. This universe shouts out the message. The order of the universe evidences it. The power of this tremendous universe reveals that there is a Person in control of it. Not only does it reveal a Person, but it reveals His genius.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 8: Numbers. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)