[Placeholder for an accompanying video to be added later]
The book of Numbers gets its name from the census that is taken of the Israelites at the beginning of the book and at the end of the book (with about 40 years in between, but more on that later.) In the biblical narrative, Numbers begins with the Israelites still camped at the base of Mount Sinai almost a year after the initiation of God’s covenant and the giving of the ten commandments. The tabernacle has been designed, built, and assembled, and the laws concerning worship and sacrifice have been established (see last week’s blog post regarding the book of Leviticus). God instructs Moses to take a census of the fighting men (age 20 and up). This is in preparation for the planned conquest of the Promised Land of Canaan. There were 603,550 fighting men from the twelve tribes. The Levites were not to be counted as part of this census.
The Levites, however, were counted in their own census by the three clans (sons of Levi), the Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites. Men aged 30 through 50 were counted to care for and transport the furnishings of the tabernacle (Kohathites), the textile coverings of the tabernacle and courtyard (Gershonites), and the posts, pegs, frames, etc. (Merarites).
Another part of the “numbering” was the designation of camping positions with respect to the tabernacle. When the Israelites set out and later set up camp, they had specific designated order of marching and order of camping around the tabernacle.
The Levites were to camp next to the tabernacle, between it and the rest of the nation, with Aaron’s descendants (priests) camped in front of the entrance in the east. The rest of the tribes then set up around the Levites.
The narrative progresses with the Israelites approaching the promised land, with various bits of complaining along the way. The next main part of the story occurs when Moses selects 12 men (1 from each tribe) to spy out the land in preparation for conquest. The spies tour the land for 40 days and bring back conflicting reports. The land is good, but the inhabitants are threatening. 10 of the men counsel against invasion, while two (Caleb and Joshua) stand firm on God’s promise and advise the nation to trust God and enter the land. The 10 prevail in convincing the nation, and the people rebel against God and Moses. It is this culminating act of rebellion which prompts God to give the people exactly what they asked for.
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in the wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:1-4) …. And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me. Say to them, ‘As I live, declares the Lord, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and all of your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected. But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure. (Numbers 14:26-34)
The rest of this section of Numbers provides further details of proper worship and additional rebellious attitudes of the people.
Next week we’ll look at Numbers 19-36 which mainly takes place near the end of the forty years spent wandering in the wilderness.
For Further Investigation
- Numbers video from The Bible Project
- Why the Placement of the Twelve Tribes is Important article at Step into the Story