From the Editor’s Notebook: Pointers on the Pentateuch, Numbers

From the Editor’s Notebook

W. Ross Rainey

Pointers on the Pentateuch

Numbers: The Book of Pilgrimage and Service

Key Word: Journeys.

Message: Discipline in the desert.

Key Verse: 33:1 — “These are the journeys of the children of Israel, which went forth out of the land of Egypt with their armies under the hand of Moses and Aaron.”


The title “Numbers,” stemming from the Greek, is given to this book because of the two separate “numberings” of Israel, the first one in the second year of their journey (1-4), and the second on the borders of Canaan, some 38 years afterward (26). Its title in the Hebrew Bible is “b’midbar,” meaning “in the desert,” an accurate and appropriate designation since the book records the journeyings of the Israelites from Sinai until they arrived in the Plains of Moab. As already indicated, Numbers covers a period of 38 years and of the 27 chapters which tell of the events which took place after the people left Mount Sinai (10-36), 17 are occupied with the history of the last year (20-36). Chapters 15-19 represent a period of almost 37 years, but no itinerary is given because these years represent their wanderings as distinguished from their journeyings. As W. Graham Scroggie has said: “The movements of God’s people out of His will are not on His calendar.”1

Numbers might well be called “The Book of Murmurings,” there being eight specific incidents of the same. The people murmured against their food and drink, their blessings and punishments, their leaders and priests, and even against God. Their murmuring led still further downward to lust to rebellion and to idolatry.

The outstanding characters in the book are Joshua and Caleb, the only two who entered Canaan out of the older generation which left Egypt. The key chapters are the thirteenth and fourteenth which record the great rebellion at Kadesh-barnea, the Israelites failing at that time to press on and possess the Land of Canaan. As a result of their unbelief, the entire generation, apart from Joshua and Caleb, was condemned to die in the wilderness (cf. Heb. 3:7-19).

That Moses was the human author of Numbers is confirmed by several passages in the New Testament (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1, 3-6, 8; Heb. 3:2; 9:14; 12:9).

Scroggie helpfully shows the relation of Numbers to Leviticus as follows: “As EXODUS is connected with GENESIS, and LEVITICUS with EXODUS, so is NUMBERS with LEVITICUS. In LEVITICUS the subject is the believer’s worship, but in NUMBERS it is the believer’s walk. The one treats of purity, and the other of pilgrimage. The one speaks of our spiritual position, and the other, of our spiritual progress. The one is concerned with our condition within, and the other, with our conduct without. LEVITICUS is ceremonial, and NUMBERS is historical. In the one the Sanctuary is prominent, and in the other, the Wilderness. The one emphasizes privileges, and the other, responsibilities. The one calls to fellowship with God, and the other, to faithfulness to God. LEVITICUS speaks of the priests, and access to God, and NUMBERS, of the Levites, and service for men.”2


1. The Old Generation (1-20)

2. The New Generation (21-36)

Another way of briefly outlining the book is as follows:

1. Preparing (1:1-10:10)

2. Provoking (10:11-20:29)

3. Progressing (21-36)

Notable Notes

A good way to remember the contents of Numbers is to memorize the geographical movements it describes in connection with Israel. The three main movements are:

1. From Sinai to Kadesh-barnea (1-12).

2. From Kadesh-barnea through the various wilderness wanderings and back to Kadesh-barnea (13-19).

3. From Kadesh-barnea to Jordan (20-36).

Scroggie has further indicated that “This book is remarkable for the number of fragments of ancient poetry preserved in it, showing, incidentally, the use in the Pentateuch of other writings (cf. vi. 24-26; x. 35, 36; xxi. 14, 15, 17, 18, 27-30).

Moses, Aaron, and Miriam all died before the people entered into the Land; Law, Priesthood, and Prophecy bring us to the borders of our inheritance, but only our Divine Joshua can bring us into it.”3

One of the keynotes of Numbers is the word “service” which is used over 40 times and also translated “warfare.” Our service, as was the case with Israel of old, involves conflict. Thus the redeemed of the Lord are to walk, to work, and to war, thereby serving as a forthright witness to those round about them.

Numbers sets forth both the goodness and severity of God. Again and again, in Israel’s trek through the wilderness, God manifested His patience and longsuffering toward a murmuring, wandering and unthankful people.

The rebellion of Korah, one of the three great rebellions in Israel’s history between the Egyptian and Babylonian captivities (this one; the one in Samuel’s day, when they demanded a king; and the division of the kingdom after Solomon’s death), is a divine classic in setting forth the apostasy of man and the patience of God.

Numbers is an incomparable Old Testament record of the Shepherd care of Jehovah for His ancient people, Israel. The order of the camp is beautiful and impressive — foursquare (speaking of universality), in the wilderness, with the Tabernacle of the Lord in the midst, all suggesting the Christian Church in the world with Christ in the midst (Matt. 18:20; John 20:19), proclaiming the gospel message to all men everywhere (universality). Jehovah is seen as Administrator, Protector, Counselor and Leader. Here, the nation is accounted in array, and then in advance. As a purified people they had been provided with every need for their desert pilgrimage.

The severity of God is revealed in His punishment of sin, even the sin of Moses, while the goodness of God is evidenced in the guiding cloud, the daily manna, the water from the rock, and the brazen serpent for healing — all serving as types of the Lord Jesus Christ.

To be saved from the initial sin of murmuring, which sin leads to the sins of lust, rebellion and idolatry, is a major step toward spiritual maturity (cf. 1 Thess. 5:18; Phil. 2:14). One of the great lessons to be learned from Numbers is that while the wilderness is a part of the necessary discipline of God’s redeemed people, the long years of wandering as a result of unbelief are entirely unnecessary. What happened to Israel is for our warning, not for our imitation (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-11; Heb. 3:17-19) .

Three chapters are devoted to the false prophet Balaam and his prophecies (22-24), hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites. These chapters are among the most unusual and interesting in all the Bible, revealing a great deal concerning Christ and God’s plan for His people.

In Numbers the LORD JESUS CHRIST is revealed as the “STAR OUT OF JACOB” (24:17).

1 W. Graham Scroggie, Know Your Bible, I, p. 33.

2 Ibid., pp. 34-35.

3 Ibid., p. 34.