The book of Numbers is named for the Lord’s instruction to Moses to number, or count, all the Israelite males “from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war” (Numbers 1:3). Moses counted the Israelite males twice, once at Mount Sinai and later in the plains of Moab near Jericho (see Numbers 26). This book also records the Israelites’ faithful experiences and rebellions as they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. As students study the book of Numbers, they will learn the importance of trusting and obeying the Lord and sustaining His chosen leaders.
Moses is the author of Numbers. He was called by the Lord to lead the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the promised land of Canaan. Moses witnessed most of the events recorded in the book of Numbers. He may have relied on other witnesses, written sources, or revelation for information concerning events he did not see, such as the interactions between Baalam and Balak (see Numbers 22–24). In addition, subsequent editors and scribes may have altered the text of this book, as illustrated by the parenthetical observation that “Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3; see also Moses 1:41).
There are varying opinions regarding when Numbers and the other books of Moses were written, and we do not know exactly where Moses was when he wrote this book. However, the text provides information concerning the settings of events recorded in the book. For example, Numbers 1:1–10:10 records events that occurred before Moses and the children of Israel departed from Mount Sinai. Israel’s experiences in the wilderness are found in Numbers 10:11–21:35. Finally, Numbers 22–36 relates events that occurred on the plains of Moab (on the eastern border of Canaan) as Israel prepared to enter the promised land.
The book of Numbers provides census information that helps us understand the size of the population of Israel at the beginning and near the end of their wanderings in the wilderness. It also outlines the organization of the camp of Israel, discusses the responsibilities of the Levites, and explains the purposes and conditions of the Nazarite vow.
In addition, this book records many incidents in which the children of Israel rebelled against the Lord and Moses and brought adverse consequences upon themselves (see Numbers 12:1–2; 13:26–14:4; 14:40–45; 16:1–3, 31–35, 41; 20:1–5; 21:4–5; 25:1–3). Besides illustrating the effects of divine justice, the book testifies of Jehovah’s merciful and long-suffering nature. For example, in commanding Moses to raise a brass serpent upon a pole, the Lord prepared a way for His people to overcome the effects of their rebellion (see Numbers 21:4–8). This experience became an important means of teaching the Israelites about the redemptive mission and Atonement of Jesus Christ (see Helaman 8:13–16; John 3:14–15).
Numbers 1–9 Moses and other leaders record the number of military-aged males in the tribes, which totaled 603,500. This number does not include males from the tribe of Levi (who are designated for service at the tabernacle). The Lord designates how tribes will camp in the wilderness. The Lord describes the Nazarite vow. The second Passover is held to commemorate the Lord’s deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.
Numbers 10–21 The Israelites leave their encampment near Mount Sinai. They continue their journey toward the promised land, marching north into the wilderness of Paran. Moses sends 12 spies into the land of Canaan. Two of these spies, Joshua and Caleb, return with an encouraging report. The remaining 10 bring a discouraging report. The Israelites are afraid to enter Canaan. As a consequence, the Lord declares that Israel will not yet enter the promised land of Canaan but will return to the wilderness to wander. They face many challenges and continue to murmur. Poisonous serpents bite many of the Israelites. Moses raises up a brass serpent on a pole, and the Israelites who look at the serpent are healed.
Numbers 22–36 The Israelites pitch their tents on the plains of Moab. King Balak of Moab fears their presence. Balak asks the prophet Balaam to curse them. Balaam refuses and instead offers a blessing on Israel, prophesying of the coming of Jesus Christ. However, some of the Israelites bring the Lord’s wrath upon themselves by having sexual relations with the daughters of Moab and worshipping Baal. The offenders perish. The rebellious older generation passes away, and the new generation is ready to enter the promised land. The Lord gives instructions on lands, boundaries, and cities in the promised land.