A name like Numbers scares a lot of people off. To them, it is suggestive of repetitive lists, irrelevant facts, and boring details. That’s too bad, because the book of Numbers, though not without its challenges, is as enriching as it is enlightening.
Numbers is a critical part of the Pentateuch narrative. It picks up the story line from Exodus and carries it to Israel’s encampment on the brink of the promised land. If we didn’t have Numbers, we’d go straight from Mt. Sinai to Moses’ message to Israel on the plains of Moab (Deuteronomy) and miss out on almost all of rich, though troubled, history of the nation’s wilderness experience.
It’s called Numbers because of the numbering that take place at the beginning and toward the end of the book and is central to its purpose. The first census involves the generation that left Egypt, while the second is of those who grew up or were born in the wilderness. Numbers shows the exodus generation in all their unfaithfulness and their consequent death in the desert. The wilderness generation represents the people of hope. They are the people Moses speaks to in Deuteronomy and who cross over the Jordan into Canaan under Joshua’s leadership.
Throughout it all, Numbers shows God remaining faithful in His promise to bless Israel and the world. The censuses demonstrate this in no uncertain terms. Both numbered only the men of fighting age because the conquest of Canaan was in view. In both censuses, such men numbered over 600,000. That would put Israel’s population was in the neighborhood of between 2 to 3 million. Just as He had promised, God was making Abraham’s descendants like the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. The censuses bear witness of God’s power to bless abundantly.
And while it’s true that the numbering gave structure and helped bring unity and order out of potential chaos, the censuses also provided Israel with a clear sense of identity. Each Israelite understood how he or she related to their tribe, the tribe to the nation, the nation to the tabernacle and all of it to God (Allen). They understood they were part of something much bigger than themselves.
The numbers in Numbers are so much more than numbers! They remind us that we can always count on God.