Do you ever feel like you’re in your high school math class reading through the book of Numbers like a timeworn Algebra 2 book? Rest assured there’s no Pythagorean theorem in this book of Numbers! The name ‘Numbers’ actually comes from an old Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. The Septuagint translators gave the book that title because of the listing of the numbers of the tribes of Israel in the first four chapters. It is a shame that the title of this great book is defined by only a small portion of its contents. The Hebrew name given to the book is much more accurate to its true contents, בְּמִדְבַּר (bemindbar). The Hebrew word bemindbar actually means “in the wilderness” which is exactly what the book of Numbers covers. After a long-awaited return to the land, which was promised to their fathers, the Israelites can finally take the journey through the desert back to Israel. The trip from Egypt to Israel shouldn’t have taken more than a couple of weeks on foot, but somehow the Israelites found a way to make the journey last 40 years. There is a lot that happens in these 40 years. This book is filled with rich history that is very dear to the Israelite people and events that would shape their faith and ours forever. If anyone has ever told you that Numbers is a boring book, I stand opposed. As we spend some time traveling though the beginning of this book I hope you see the importance that God has placed in its words.
The first words of the book are its name sake. “Then the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting.” There you have it, these words literally are the title of the book. I want to point out something that can easily be over looked by long-time Christians, and that is the phrase “the LORD spoke to Moses”. When was the last time that God chatted you up to give you direct commands? It’s not every day that the Creator of the universe talks directly to people. Only a few times in the Bible do we see God in direct communication with people in this way. I think as Christians we become numb to the stories we read as if everything is a normal day occurrence when it isn’t. For the first time in history there is a place that God has designated to dwell among His people. For the first time in history God is setting up a nation to call His own. God literally creates the nation of Israel before our eyes in the book of Numbers. When you stop to think about it, what is happening here is a monumental shift in history, setting the world on a course for God’s redemption plan to take place.
We find the book of Numbers picking up the story of God’s people two years into their time in the wilderness. During this time God has made a covenant with His people and they have built the tabernacle. Then we find that God wants Moses to count the number of able bodied men that could fight. These are the numbers that we find in the first chapter. Remember these are just the men 20 years of age and up who can fight; this doesn’t include all the men unable to fight, women, and younger people. Just the fighting men numbered 603,550! No one knows the exact number of the Israelites, but many estimates put the total number of people at around 2-4 million. As we read all the numbers of the first chapter we might be tempted to drift off to sleep, but an interesting point to realize is just how accurate the numbers are. The accuracy and attention to detail, to me at least, is evidence towards the validity of the scriptures. These aren’t details that someone would make up. If you look at any mythology or creation story, you don’t frequently see detailed accounts with genealogies such as we do here in Numbers. The detailed records of the Old Testament are proof to God’s care and intent for truth. Even with counting, our God is faithful and true.
As we move into the second chapter we see a rehashing of the numbers of the tribes and explicit directions from God as to how the Israelites are to set up camp. Imagine a square with the tabernacle at the center. Directly around the tabernacle are the Levites. On each side of the square we find three tribes. I think there are two things we can glean from Chapter 2 about how God chose to design the camp. First, I think we can see how orderly and intentional God is with His people. I think no small part of having the Levites around the center was to help maintain a health boundary around the tabernacle to keep it holy. Holiness is one of the most important things to God. We can see how seriously God treats His holiness when He strikes now Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, in Leviticus 10. I think another reason God laid out the camp like He did was so that not one tribe was favored by being closer to the Tabernacle than another tribe. Imagine the fights that could have started if the tribes were allowed to camp wherever they wanted. If Dan claimed a spot right next to the Tabernacle, Judah might have started a fight because they were closer to God that day. Although these might not be the most glamorous chapters of the Bible, they do show us that God set up a very good system for His people. The first two chapters of Numbers show us a glimpse into God’s intentionality and love for His people.
I’ll admit, the first few chapters of this book aren’t the most exciting. However, the book of Numbers holds many interesting stories and important lessons for us to learn as followers of God. Many of the greatest teaching points for the prophets and apostles come from the stories in this book. It is through the miracle of the exodus and the hardships of the wilderness that the nation of Israel is birthed. I can’t wait to explore more of this book with you in the coming days!
Josiah & Amber Cain
Today’s Bible reading can be read or listened to at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Numbers+1-2&version=NIV
Tomorrow’s Bible reading will be Numbers 3&4 as we continue our 2020 Chronological Bible Reading Plan