Numbers is the fourth book in the Old Testament, in the section known as either the Pentateuch, The Torah, or The Books of Moses. The majority of scholars agree that it was written by Moses through inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Like Leviticus, there are passages which may seem dry or insignificant, and yet there is much to be learned in this section of the Bible. How do we read through it?
Understand the Theme
When I study the Bible with my kids, I assign a theme or central idea to each book to help them remember the main contents of that book:
- Genesis is a book of “beginnings.”
- Exodus teaches us about the Israelite’s exit from bondage.
- Leviticus‘ theme is “Be Holy for God is Holy.”
The theme we use for Numbers is “numbering and grumbling,“ because there’s a great deal of both!
I also like the theme Warren Wiersbe assigned in his commentary: “Man’s Failure and God’s Faithfulness.”
Both themes are evident throughout Numbers, so look for them as you read.
Use These Study Tips:
1. Define words. Our understanding of the Bible grows with a growing vocabulary. This applies to children and adults.
During our morning Bible Reading, I will often pause after reading certain words to ask my kids their meaning. If they aren’t able to accurately define the word, I might give a quick definition (for the sake of time), but I usually ask them to look it up in the dictionary later. If I cannot explain it, I look it up!
*Older Kid Tip: for older kids, have them write some of their definitions in the side margins of their bible. When the word crops up again, ask them to define it (again). Repetition builds remembrance.
Here is a list words/phrases we are defining in Numbers (using the ESV translation):
- census (chapter 1)
- consecrate (chapter 7)
- meek (12.3)
- restitution (14.7)
- “visited by the fate of all mankind” (16.29)
- “anger was kindled” (22.22, 27)
- divination (22.7)
- discourse (24.3)
- inheritance (26.52)
- commission (27.23)
- convocation (29.1)
- pledge (30.3)
- vengeance (31.3)
- plunder (31.9)
- refuge (35.11)
2. Ask Questions of the text:
- Why do we need to know how many Israelites?
- Why does God punish Moses when he strikes the rock instead of speaking to it?
- What do we learn about grumbling against/usurping authority of those whom God has appointed to lead? How should we address problems to leadership?
- Why did the Israelites doubt God? What should they have done instead? How should we address our doubts and fears?
- Does might make right (in the example of the 12 spies)?
- How did Moses react to the relentless challenges to his authority? What can we learn from His example?
- What can we learn about God through the ordering and numbering of the camp?
- In Balaam’s prophecy, do we get a hint of Jesus’ coming?
3. Review, review, review! Don’t lose sight of what you have already learned. It’s a good habit to summarize the previous reading before picking up a new chapter. It keeps the reading in context and helps solidify and order of events. When I study with the children during breakfast, I select key chapters and have the kids tell me something significant in those chapters. I try to review those with them every other day.
4. Additional resources:
- The Wiersbe Bible Commentary (Old Testament). I really like the way Wiersbe outlines Numbers in this commentary. I particularly appreciate his focus on the Israelites’ relationship with God through these delineations. I recommend using commentaries with great caution; always, always, always, keep in mind that the Bible is the final word on the matter—not the commentator!
- The Rose Book of Bible Charts, Maps, and Time Lines Excellent pictures and charts for visual learners!
I have put together a quick reference guide with a list of words to define and a more detailed list of questions. Click the link to download and print this free PDF: Numbers Quick Reference for Study PDF
The Significance of the Numbers
The actual numbers given to us in this book provide two important insights:
- The magnitude of God’s provision and discipline
- The orderly and wise nature of God
In chapter one, we are given the numbers of “their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, all who were able to go to war…” The repetition of this phrase throughout this chapter suggests that each tribe adhered to the same numbering standard.
The total fighting force (not including the Levites) was 603,550. If we add the 8,580 Levites from 30-50 years old listed in chapter four (4.47-48), the number rises to at least 612,130 men in the 20+ range.
In chapter 14 we learn that these 612,128 people (I subtracted Caleb & Joshua from the original number) were condemned after their rebelliousness:
“your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all 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.”
Numbers 14.29-30, ESV (emphasis mine)
At least 612,128 people will die in the wilderness over a 40 year period (this does not reflect the losses from their reckless foray into Canaan… or Korah’s rebellion… or the plague initiated by their incessant whining…)
If we estimate women over 20 and add it to that number, the figure is closer to 1.2 million people.
If we don’t add women and don’t subtract those who died in various disobedience disasters, the 40-year death sentence (14,600 days) would have resulted in approximately 41 people dying per day.
God had been feeding and watering over 1.2 million adults, not including ravenously hungry teenage boys or growing children. God established order and assigned duties for those within the camp. We learn from these numbers and instructions that God is orderly and purposeful. Moving this massive number of people through the wilderness was nothing short of miraculous. The numbers help us understand the scale on which these things happened.
The Significance of the Grumbling
In spite of all the Lord did for the Israelites, their ingratitude is persistent!
- Chapter 11 – complaints about “this worthless manna” (because the food was so much better in Egypt when one ignores the inconvenient bit about slavery)
- Chapter 12 – Miriam and Aaron (Moses’ own family) complain against Moses from spite and envy.
- Chapter 14 – The people panic over the terrifying prospect of (gasp) fighting a bunch of city-states that God already said He would defeat.
- Chapter 16 – Some Levites crave greater importance/leadership. More grumbling against Moses and Aaron.
- Chapter 20 – Let’s gripe about water. Again.
- Chapter 21 – More complaining. And a plague. And a Bronze Serpent…
What should we learn from this embarrassing list?
- Practice gratitude. Daily. We always have something for which to be thankful. (Start with Jesus!)
- Do not despise God’s blessings!
- Thanklessness leads to faithlessness.
- Muttering about people is destructive. Muttering against God can be fatal.
- Grumbling against our leaders weakens their effectiveness and weakens us as a church!
The significance of what we learn about God
In every study of scripture, our aim should be to know God and be transformed in the light of His truth. So what do we learn about God in Numbers?
God is the same throughout the scriptures.
The Old Testament scriptures provide vast insight into the nature of God. Next to His fathomless love and perfect justice, the most important lesson we learn is that God never changes. God isn’t all fire and brimstone in the Old Testament and roses and hearts in the New Testament. He is the same—just, jealous, and generous in His grace.
Check out this passage from Hebrews:
“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
Hebrews 12:28-29 ESV
It doesn’t say, “our God was a consuming fire;” it says our God is a consuming fire. In Numbers (11.1, 16.35) and Leviticus (9.24, 10.1-3) it speaks of fire coming out from the Lord and consuming the people. He still want us to worship Him acceptably and there are consequences if we disobey or despise Him!
Discipline does not equal condemnation
Moses made a massive mistake when he said, “shall we bring you water from this rock?” He failed to give glory to God and as a result, he was not permitted to enter the promised land. This might seem harsh considering his track record of of meekness and long-suffering, but God knew that this was a necessary caution not just to Moses, but the Israelites as well. In spite of this discipline, Moses is still spoken of in glowing terms in the New Testament. The Hebrew writer said he was “faithful in all God’s house” (Heb. 3.2).; he appeared with Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration; he was commended for his faith in Hebrews 11.
In spite of his error, God did not cease to love Moses. He gave him the strength to carry on until the time had come for the new generation to enter Canaan. It’s also significant that Moses stood on the mount of transfiguration with Jesus and Elijah. Moses was able to see the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan through Christ. He received entrance to “the city with foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”
Just as God has always been just, He has also shown great patience and mercy since the creation of the world.
God is orderly.
As mentioned in the Numbers above, the Israelites were not merely a minuscule group of nomads. This was a nation of approximately 1.2 million people! If God had not set in place designated campsites and assigned duties to the various people, the chaos would have been catastrophic. Instead, he gives directions, duties, and departure instructions. God’s creation, His laws for the nation of Israel, His meticulous plan to bring about Christ—these all show His orderly nature.
I’ve only scratched the surface in this post, but I hope this helps you as you read through Numbers. Numbers and Leviticus seem to be the sticking point for those seeking to read through the Bible in a year and I want to encourage you to keep reading!
If you’d like a list of questions for most of the chapters along with a list of words to define for yourself or your children, download this free, printable PDF: Numbers Quick Reference for Study PDF
If you have questions or additional tips, please share them in the comments below so we can help one another grow in our knowledge of God.
7 thoughts on “How Do I Read Through the Book of Numbers?”
Thanks for this.. I’m somewhere in the middle of Numbers at the moment and needed this insightful encouragement 😅
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Thanks, Jeanette! You can do it! My kids and I just finished Numbers on Monday. It was a challenge, but they learned something and a had a few chuckles in the process. They particularly like the part when Moses tells God, “I haven’t taken one donkey from them.” 😂
Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.
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Thank you, Vincent!
You’re very welcome Elihu 😁
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Way to go, Marie!!
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Thanks, Ida! 😊