The title of The Book of Numbers refers to—what else—all the numbers contained in it. God commands Moses to take a census in the opening pages of the book and again forty years later. Chapters and chapter of big numbers follow. We like to think of the title as a little warning—read this with a calculator nearby (Source 167).
Numbers is all about a journey. The Israelites have been trying to get to the Promised Land for the last forty years. Now here they are, literally looking down on this land flowing with milk and honey, when the book ends with this:
These are the commandments and the ordinances that the Lord commanded through Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. (36:13)
Yup. You read that right. The group is standing on the plains of Moab. Right about to cross the Jordan River. Right next to Jericho. After all that build up, Numbers ends and not one single person has set foot in the Promised Land.
It's actually quite the cliffhanger. Here we are on the steps leading up to Mordor and suddenly the hobbits decide to sit down and rest. But because the battle to claim the Promised Land is so epic itself, it really does deserve its own book. Deuteronomy? Nope. You're gonna have to wait until we get to The Book of Joshua to see Israel kick some butt and take some names in Canaan.
All the action in The Book of Numbers takes place in the vast, open desert wilderness between Egypt and Canaan (which would—spoiler alert—one day become Israel). Though the Israelites spend the story wandering in the desert, they're also occupied by their past lives as slaves in Egypt and their dreams of a future in a fantastic new place—the Promised Land.
The pre-story to Numbers takes place in Egypt (see Exodus for all the epic details). The Israelites were slaves there and God (with some help from Moses) gets them out. Yay, right? Not quite. See, the Israelite people have traded a life of forced servitude (bad) for a life of danger and uncertainty in the wilderness (also bad).
It seems it's so awful there, that the people can't help looking back on their time in Egypt and comparing it to now:
"If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at." (11:4-6)
"Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?" (14:2-3)
"Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink." (20:4-5)
"Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." (21:5)
Apparently, you can take the people out of Egypt, but not the Egypt out of the people. In other words, even though they've been free from a lifetime of slavery, the people just don't know how to go about living as free people (Source 111). God even has to remind these guys that he "brought [them] out of the land of Egypt to be [their] God" (15:41). He went through a lot of trouble for you guys, so just knock off the complaining.
So, how bad is the wilderness that even slavery looks better compared to it? Well, not as awful as you might think. The place that the Bible calls a "wilderness" is actually an area known as the Sinai Peninsula today, which is part of modern day Egypt. Sure, it's hot there during the day. And it can get really cold at night. There's lots of sand and rocks, but there's also some plants and animals wandering around. It's no picnic, but the climate and land wasn't really that different from the rest of the region at the time.
What's really the big issue with the wilderness? Well, mainly the uncertainty about what's out there. At least in Egypt, the people knew what to expect. Get up, build pyramids, eat, and go back to sleep. Repeat until you're dead. But in the wilderness anything could happen:
A square meal, bed of straw, and forced servitude are starting to look pretty good right about now.
So, just how long are the Israelites gonna have to stay out here? Well, we're glad you asked (because we just love answering questions). See, at first God is gonna take them directly to the Promised Land. But when the people get there and see who they have to fight, they get cold feet.
This makes God very, very angry, so he sentences the people to his harshest punishment yet:
"Your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure." (14:32-34)
Uh-huh. No slaps on the wrist here. God does not play.
Okay, so what does this forty years wandering in the desert actually mean? Well, it probably doesn't literally mean forty years. God basically sentences the older generation to exile from the Promised Land. That means that anyone over twenty years old doesn't get to cross the Jordan. Essentially, the number forty is just shorthand here for a single generation. Sorry guys.
The number forty is also sometimes used as shorthand in the Bible for "a really long time." In Genesis, it rained "forty days and forty nights" (Genesis 7:12). Moses stayed up on Mount Sinai with God for "forty days and forty nights" (Exodus 24:18). Later, Jesus would fast "in the wilderness for forty days" (Mark 1:13). Sure, that's pretty good, but try doing any of those things for forty years and see how you're feeling by the end.
So, you've just been told you'll wander in a dangerous, quasi-barren desert for the next forty years. What do you do? Well, it helps to have some hopes and dreams. Hey, that's how Andy made it out of Shawshank, too.
The Israelites are mainly looking forward to a future in the Promised Land. This place is, essentially, where modern day Israel is located (and where people are still fighting over the land.) Though it's never actually called "The Promised Land" in the Bible, it gets the name because God promised it to his people. Over and over again:
"When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance." (Exodus 12:25)
'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors.' (Numbers 11:12)
"The Lord your God will put the fear and dread of you on all the land on which you set foot, as he promised you." (Deuteronomy 11:25)
You get the picture. God gave it. The Israelites are gonna take it. So, what is this super special divinely gifted land like?
So, right now, it's a mixed bag. But overall, the land is good. Or it will be once they finally get up the guts to go over there. The basic point is that this place is lush and fertile and perfect for raising a great nation. This is exactly what God has promised them and what gets them through those long, cold nights wandering in the wilderness.
Don't worry. They'll get there eventually. It might not be in Numbers, but eventually Israel is gonna make good on God's promise. For now, we leave them standing by the River Jordan, empty milk jugs and honey pots in hand. Here's hoping.
Over the course of the Bible, the Israelites move from slavery in Egypt to a permanent home in Israel. But why do they have to make this journey?
That's a pretty good question. Some people have wondered why God doesn't just make the wilderness comfortable all the time (food and water for everyone!). Or why God doesn't just stop being a meanie and help the people get the land he's been talking about since the beginning of this whole Bible thing. Is God a total jerk or is there some bigger plan at work here?
One theory is that the people needed those forty years in the desert in order to become the people God wanted them to be. Think about it. They had just been freed from a lifetime of servitude. They were imprisoned and told what to do every second of their lives. Now, God has offered them freedom. And, for some crazy reason, they hate it.
They don't trust in God or believe that he can help them. They want to go back to the ways things were instead of working towards an uncertain future. God has to show them that he's there for them. And he is. Every step of the way. In both good times and bad, God is always looking over their shoulder to shape them into the people of action who are willing to fight to make a better life for themselves.
In the end, they finally get it. That doesn't mean the people don't ever mess up again. But it does mean that by the time all this wandering in the wilderness is over, the people have changed. They've become new creations and finally have the chutzpah to be God's chosen people (Source 111). It's pretty darn awesome.
Okay, now, onto the Promised Land!
In case you haven't noticed so far, the tabernacle is kind of a big deal in the Bible. We'd say it's basically just a tent with a fence around it that could be easily moved around the desert, but to the ancient Israelites, the tabernacle was way more.
The word tabernacle (which is also called "the tent of meeting") literally means "residence" or "dwelling." And who lives there? Why, God himself, of course. He's even seen there in the form of a cloud that hovers around the tent:
On the day the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the covenant; and from evening until morning it was over the tabernacle, having the appearance of fire. It was always so: the cloud covered it by day and the appearance of fire by night. Whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, then the Israelites would set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the Israelites would camp. At the command of the Lord the Israelites would set out, and at the command of the Lord they would camp. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they would remain in camp. (9:15-18)
Wow, that cloud is good with directions!
So, like any place that's fit for a god, the tabernacle gets a whole lot of attention in the Bible. Back in Exodus, God gave Moses super-specific instructions on how to build it. In Leviticus, he doled out lots of rules on how people should worship there and what kinds of sacrifices he liked to smell wafting through the tent flaps.
Now, since we're gonna be on the move in Numbers, God has tons of thoughts to share about how exactly he'd like the Israelites to schlep this huge thing through the desert every so often. There are chapters and chapters giving very specific details about who is in charge of packing away the incense and who gets the privilege of carrying the tent poles through the wilderness.
This might seem like overkill at first, but not when you think about the significance of this place. This was God's literal home. It's the place he comes to dwell with the people and be in their midst. The Israelites can't risk making God unhappy—he might decide to move out of their neighborhood. Property values would definitely plummet.
And whenever there's something that important in a community, you can bet people are fighting over it. Who gets to go inside the tent? Who gets to sleep right by it? Who gets to carry the Ark of the Covenant through the desert? People would be lining up to do these very prestigious and important jobs.
So, God makes it clear who's gonna do what:
Numbers also lays out specific sleeping arrangements for the whole community. Basically, everyone sets up camp with the tabernacle in the center (2:2). When they pack up to head out for their next stop, the tabernacle also moves along in the middle of the processional. This makes sense when you consider that the tabernacle would be flanked on either side by warriors in case anyone wanted to try any funny business.
The central location of the tabernacle also makes it a really good gathering place. God and Moses are constantly telling people to meet up there:
They shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting. (6:10)
"The whole congregation shall assemble before you at the entrance of the tent of meeting." (10:3)
The Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent. (12:5)
Korah assembled the whole congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the Lord appeared to the whole congregation. (16:19)
Moses and Aaron went away from the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting; they fell on their faces, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. (20:6)
They were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. (25:6)
They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting. (27:2)
You get the idea. Basically, the tabernacle doubled as a town hall. Since it was a place that was well known and important to the community, it was a good space to go when there were issues that needed to be addressed and divinely appointed leaders to be challenged.
Once the Israelites get to the Promised Land, the tabernacle isn't needed anymore. When King Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem around 957 BCE, that became God's new dwelling place. Sadly, in 70 CE, the latest version of the temple was destroyed by the Romans. Rumor has it that the Ark of the Covenant was later recovered by one Dr. Henry Jones. That's what we heard in this one movie at least.
Numbers isn't just the title of this biblical book—it's a major symbol in the story. This tale not only contains tons of mind-boggling census figures along with specific details on exactly how many lambs you should sacrifice for Passover—seven—it's got all kinds of other numbers with symbolic meanings.
Probably one the most significant numbers in the story is forty. The spies go out to check out the Promised Land and are gone for forty days (13:25). And, when the people decide they're not so sure about this whole going-to-war-for-land thing, God sentences them to forty years in the wilderness. One year for each day the spies were out (14:34). Yikes.
So, does that mean the Israelites had an alarm set to go off at exactly forty years after God's declaration? Probably not. In the Bible, the number forty is usually just shorthand for "a really long time." It also is generally tied to some kind of trial or challenge that God wants to complete:
Today, we still use the number forty to mean a lot. Ali Baba came across forty thieves. If you get forty winks, you're doing pretty well for yourself. Free slaves thought they might get forty acres and a mule and be sent on their way. Sadly, it didn't quite happen like that.
This is also a pretty significant number in the story, if only because there are twelve tribes of Israel and their names get repeated constantly so you'll never, ever forget them. God is also fond of appointing twelve people to oversee all major projects—one from each tribe.
Twelve kind of has the same vibe as forty, in that it usually signifies totality and completeness. Twelve tribes is all the tribes in Israel. Picking one man from each tribe means all the people are represented. Sounds like a good plan to us.
Christianity really runs with the whole twelve-of-something-makes-life-good idea in the New Testament. Jesus has twelve disciples. In Revelation, 144,000 people are brought up into Heaven after Earth is laid to waste (Revelation 7:4). That's 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel. Act now. Spots are going very fast.
So, it's probably no surprise then that a modern jury has twelve members. Who better to judge you than twelve random folks who represent the whole of society? The U.S. also has twelve Federal Reserve districts. And a dozen donuts? Well, that's just completely delicious.
The number seven is usually all about perfection. Specifically, God's perfection. Or else rituals for becoming more perfect. After all, it took seven days for God to create the whole world. Six would have been lazy. Eight would have been overkill. And, in the end, God saw that it was good and that sounds pretty darn perfect to us.
In Numbers, there are tons of sevens everywhere:
Clearly, going through a cycle of seven makes someone more perfect and holy. The seven lampstands also stand for God's perfection and awesomeness. The author of Revelation liked this idea so much that he inserted it into his book, too. When John of Patmos sees his vision of Heaven, there's Jesus standing amidst "seven golden lampstands" (Revelation 1:12). Who'da thunk?
Sevens are no joke in the rest of the world either. There's the Magnificent Seven. Snow White had seven dwarves to help her out. There are seven habits of highly effective people. Highly ineffective people, naturally, have none. At Hogwarts, students go through seven years of wizarding school. In fact, Harry Potter is born in the seventh month, Quidditch has seven players, and Voldemort even makes seven horcruxes, too.
Who would think an odd little number like that could make such a difference. You go, seven.
When you're wandering around in a desert for forty years, food and water are gonna be hard to come by. Even though the Sinai Peninsula of the time did have vegetation, animals, and water, finding suitable meals and liquid refreshment could sometimes be a problem. Looks like we're gonna need some food-related miracles.
When the people start freaking out about not having any water to drink in the desert (seriously, guys? Is slowly dehydrating to death in the hot sun that bad?), God tells Moses to get to work:
"Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock." (20:8)
Miracles on tap! This isn't the first time God has pulled off this particular miracle. In Exodus, God tells Moses to do the same trick (Exodus 17:6). So, if the people had seen this before why aren't they clamoring for rock water at every stop? Hmm…
But water isn't the only miraculous food that God gives to the people in the wilderness. There's also manna. Ever heard the term "manna from Heaven"? Well, this is where it comes from. God first passes on the miraculous manna in Exodus, but by Numbers, the people are complaining about it:
"Our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at." Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its color was like the color of gum resin. The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. When the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna would fall with it. (11:4-9)
Sounds pretty darn delicious to us. But we can understand why the people were starting to get sick of it. You might love bacon, but would you want to eat bacon for every meal for the rest of your life? (Hint: the answer is "Yes!") But really, manna is no bacon.
So, the people want meat, right? Well, God is happy to give it to them. In the form of quails. Lots and lots of quails:
Then a wind went out from the Lord, and it brought quails from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day's journey on this side and a day's journey on the other side, all around the camp, about two cubits deep on the ground. So the people worked all that day and night and all the next day, gathering the quails; the least anyone gathered was ten homers; and they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. (11:31-32)
Um, that's a lot of quails. Plus, Numbers is starting to take a turn towards Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs territory. What's next? Cheeseburgers from Heaven?
So, what does all this divine meal intervention mean? Well, like most miracles, these heavenly helpings are symbols of God's power (he can make it rain dinner, people!) and generosity (he's real sorry you're dying of dehydration).
It's significant also that, even though God has given the Israelites food and drink in the wilderness, they still keep complaining about how jerky he's been:
"If only we had meat to eat!" (11:4)
"Why have you brought us[…] to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink." (20:5)
"Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." (21:5)
But in reality, God does have sympathy for them. He wants his people to keep going and keep getting better. And food is a major part of that. So, eat up everyone!
Miraculous gifts of food and drink don't just come up in the Bible. They're everywhere:
Back in Exodus, Moses and Aaron's staffs performed some pretty heavy-duty miracles. God turned Moses's into a snake and back again (Exodus 4:3-4). Later, Aaron's staff did the same thing in front of Pharaoh (Exodus 7:10). Their staffs also activated the Ten Plagues on Egypt (Exodus 7-11). And parted the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16). All in a day's work.
That's a lot of heavy lifting for a couple of simple little walking canes. But the miracles aren't over yet. No sir. In Numbers, God uses Aaron's staff to show exactly who's in charge:
Moses spoke to the Israelites; and all their leaders gave him staffs, one for each leader, according to their ancestral houses, twelve staffs; and the staff of Aaron was among theirs. So Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the covenant. When Moses went into the tent of the covenant on the next day, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted. It put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds. (17:6-8)
That's right. The guy holding the fancy staff is the one you should be listening to, everyone. Moses also uses his staff to get water out of the rock in Meriba:
Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. (20:11)
Why all the staffs? Well, a big stick can be seen as a symbol of authority. Shepherds carry staffs as they lead their sheep around. Plus, there's the whole phallic nature of them. Yup. Walking around with a big rod in your hand seems a lot like you're trying to advertise your male superiority, if you know what we mean. (Penises. That's what we mean.)
Basically, if you were walking down the street and you saw a guy carrying a giant stick, you'd think twice before crossing him. And that's why Moses and Aaron get to do all kinds of really cool stuff with their rods. (Ew. Get your mind out of the gutter.)
But Moses and Aaron aren't the only ones who get to carry around super special and spiritually powerful staffs:
For a nice little story about a road trip, Numbers can get pretty gory. There's not much in the way of drugs and sex (unless you count all those warnings against adultery), but violence? Whoa. The last half is pretty much a death-fest. God manages to slowly kill off the majority of his people through plagues, disease, snake bites, and good old-fashioned smiting. When Israel goes to war, you'll also read about soldiers dying, babies being slaughtered, and women who are imprisoned and raped. This book will definitely not give you the warm fuzzies.
Paradiso by Dante Alighieri
Dante gets a peek at Joshua, whose reward in the afterlife comes in the form of hanging out in the fifth sphere of Heaven on Mars. Hey, it beats wandering in the desert, right, Joshua?
His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman
Lord Asriel gets his name from Numbers 26:31—it's the same name as the Angel of the Lord, who is basically, the Angel of Death. Pullman's Asriel doesn't turn out to be such a swell guy either.
And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time by William Blake
At the end of his poem, Blake adds a quote from Numbers 11:29—"Would to God that all the Lord's people were prophets." You and Moses both, William Blake.
Aaron's Rod by D.H. Lawrence
This 1922 novel, named for the super special rod that Aaron gets in Numbers 17, is about a man who tries to find fame and fortune with a rod of his own—a flute.
The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine
Paine attacks the Bible as "a book of lies," citing Numbers 31:13-47. It's that part where Moses sanctions the murder of children and rape of virgins. Hey, we can't say we blame him for feeling kind of creeped out by those passages.
And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave
This Southern Gothic novel features a tormented main character who sees visions of angels. The title, of course, refers to Balaam's donkey who sees the Angel of the Lord standing in the road, while Balaam has other things on his mind.
Joshua, Son of None by Nancy Freedman
A boy cloned from the genetic material of the late President Kennedy must figure out his own destiny. The real Joshua (son of Nun) must have known how it felt to stand in a famous leader's shadow.
Leonard Nimoy said that he got the idea for the Vulcan Hand Salute from his Jewish background. As a kid, he saw the kohen do a two-handed version of this famous hand signal while he recited the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24-26) during an Orthodox service. May the Lord make you live long and prosper.
Indians Jones and the Temple of Doom
The Ark of the Covenant makes an appearance at the end of this movie when the Nazis try to open it. Seriously, guys. God was not kidding when he said hands off!
This 1974 Bob Dylan song begins by quoting a version of Numbers 6:24—"May God bless and keep you always."
Right before a giant world-destroying comet is about to hit Earth, everyone's favorite fictional president (Morgan Freeman) offers the blessing from Numbers 6:24-26 as a little added inspiration. Basically, they're all gonna die.
"I've Been To The Mountaintop"
Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't talking about climbing Everest when he gave his final speech in 1968. He was giving a little shout-out to Moses. King ends his speech with this allusion to Numbers 27:12-14—"I've been to the mountaintop… And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!" Like Moses, Dr. King was exactly right. Sadly, the next day, he was assassinated at his hotel in Memphis.