Study Guide

Book of Numbers

Book of Numbers Introduction

Did someone say ROAD TRIP?!

Oh yeah. Pack your bags and gas up the station wagon (metaphorically, of course) because we're going on a biblical adventure. See, the Book of Numbers isn't just some super ancient story with weird laws and tips for which offerings make the most pleasing odor for the Lord. Well, it is all those things. But Numbers is also about one of the most epic road trips ever taken. Think The Muppet Movie. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. National Lampoon's Vacation. Except this little tale has way more dead goats and oxen. Oddly enough, not one single moose is harmed.

The story starts out where Exodus left the Israelites—in the middle of the desert after having escaped from slavery in Egypt. See, God has promised these guys a land flowing with milk and honey. Sounds delicious, right? But first they've got to make it there. On foot. Kind of like the hobbits on their way to Mordor. And just like those hobbits, the ancient Israelites can't get any giant eagles (or God) to just carry them to the Promised Land. It's a real bummer.

Once they set out on the road, the Israelites' story pretty quickly turns to Thelma and Louise territory when they start breaking the law. God's law. And the Big Guy is one sheriff you don't want to mess with. But unlike Thelma and Louise, the Israelites get caught. Then God forces them to wander around in the desert for forty years until all the old sinners have died off. We're guessing driving into the Grand Canyon would have looked pretty good to them.

So are you ready to head out? We here at Shmoop are all set to take the wheel and guide everyone in this vehicle safely to their destination—The Magical Land of Biblical Interpretation. But remember: behave yourselves or, so help us, we'll turn this Learning Guide around right now.

What is Book of Numbers About and Why Should I Care?

As a wise man once said—parents just don't understand. But if you think the Fresh Prince's folks are buzz kills, then you seriously need to check out God in the Book of Numbers.

See, the Big Guy is kind of like the world's strictest dad. With him, it's Yahweh or the highway. He has tons of rules. Rules for hanging out (not by the tabernacle!). Rules for who you can date (don't even think about bringing that Midianite girl home). And, of course, rules for exactly how old the female lamb you bring as a sin offering has to be. Okay, so not everything has a modern parallel.

But if God is the controlling parent, the Israelites are like the whiniest bunch of teenagers on the planet. They complain about the long trip ("Are we there yet?!"). They moan constantly about the food ("Not manna from heaven again!"). They even wish that they were still back in Egypt where they were slaves. Hey, at least Pharaoh didn't freak out if you broke curfew once in a while. See, even 3,000 years ago, things were always better at someone else's house.

And trust us, God does not take this back talk lightly. When the Israelites commit the ultimate sin—doubting God—the Almighty Father breaks out his worst punishment yet. Remember that time you got grounded for the weekend and missed that awesome party? Well, the Israelites got grounded for forty years and weren't allowed to set foot in the Promised Land until half the community had died off. Yup. This daddy does not play around.

But even though God can dole out consequences with the best of them, it's also clear that he loves his little rugrats to pieces. He sets limits for them because they're his chosen people and he wants them to be the best they can be. Aww. Sniff. Honestly, Israelites, God only sends poisonous snakes to bite you because he loves you.

So next time your parents aren't acting as cool as you know they could be, just remember, it could be way worse. At least when you get a little sassy, they don't send you to your room without dinner for the next forty years.

Book of Numbers Resources

Websites

The Brick Testament
Wandering through the wilderness for forty years can be fun… when you're watching little Lego men do it!

Movie or TV Productions

Moses
This 1995 TV movie tells the full story of Moses (played by Ben Kingsley), but the last part covers the events of Numbers… the wandering. Oh, the wandering.

The Ten Commandments
The very end of this 1956 film featuring Charlton Heston as Moses deals with the Israelites wandering in the desert and the death of Moses. We believe his last words are, "You can pry this Promised Land from my cold, dead hands…"

"Exodus"
The second episode of the Bible series on the History Channel focuses on the events of Exodus through Joshua (that means Numbers is tucked in there, too!).

Historical Documents

The Book Of Numbers
The New Revised Standard translation of this epic road trip. Read, interpret, and enjoy.

The Deir 'Alla Inscription
This story, discovered in Jordan in 1967, talks about Bala'am, son of Be'or, who just might be the same guy that's mentioned in Numbers 22-24. This time, he's linked with a bunch of random gods and Yahweh is nowhere to be found.

Video

Under The Prayer Shawl: Secrets Of The Priestly Blessing
A super short documentary on blessings—and the priestly blessing in Judaism in particular. You even get a peek of a kohen saying the blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Oh, goody!

Moses Und Aron
This video is a full version of this opera based (in part) on the relationship between Moses and his brother Aaron. Sure, it's almost two hours long and it's all in German, but it looks really amazing. This synopsis (in English) will give you a better idea of what's going on.

Audio

"The Lord Bless You And Keep You" By John Rutter
This song, based on Numbers 6:24-26, is sung by the angelic voices of the Westminster Abbey Choir. How heavenly.

The Book Of Numbers: Complete Audio
Not such a big fan of reading? For shame! But the good news is you can have Numbers read to you. Listen to the book in full here.

Images

A View Of The Tabernacle
Just what did that whole "tent of meeting" thing look like? Well, here's a handy dandy chart to show you.

Can You Tell Me How To Get To Canaan?
A map of the twisty-turny road to the Promised Land.

The Beginning Of Morse Code
In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first ever message via telegraph—"What hath God wrought"—a quote from Numbers 23:23. What indeed.