Our story begins in the desert. In the Sinai Peninsula to be exact. This is the exact same place where the Israelites have been hanging out since God freed them from slavery back in Exodus. They've been in this same spot for about a year and now they're getting ready to start out on their journey to this land flowing with milk and honey that God keeps talking about. Tents packed? Then let's go.
Oh, not so fast. We're gonna need to do some housekeeping first. God tells Moses and his brother, Aaron, to take a census. Count up all the guys from the twelve tribes of Israel who are twenty and older. Then, all the men over one month old, but just from the tribe of Levi. Then, all the firstborn sons. Then, all the Levites between thirty and fifty years old. The point is there's a lot of counting involved. Who knew the Bible loved math so much?
These numbers (hey, that's a pretty good title for this book) are gonna come in handy later. The Israelite men over twenty will be expected to go to war. No use burning your ancient draft cards, gents, you've already been counted. The Levites, on the other hand, will be in charge of the tabernacle, which is a tent that serves as God's dwelling place while everyone is en route to the Promised Land. And, boy, is the Lord finicky about how this place is handled. Only priests can go inside and only Levites can carry it from place to place. The penalty for disobedience is death. God's a real stickler.
But God doesn't just have guidelines for his tent. He's got something to say about every aspect of the community. Got a skin disease? You're out of here! Want to make a vow? Then give up grapes! Committed some sins? There's an offering for that. Touched a dead body lately? Unclean! Unclean!
Once all this is settled, the Israelites set on out the road with the help of a floating cloud which tells them where to go. Nice touch, God. But things pretty quickly go to heck when the people start kvetching about the trip. There's no food! It's too hot! My feet hurt! Nahshon pushed me! Wah! Needless to say, God is not amused and he occasionally rains down plagues just to show everyone who's in charge. That'll learn 'em.
When the group finally gets to the Promised Land, Moses sends twelve spies to check out exactly how amazing this new home of theirs is gonna be. Even though two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, are psyched to take over their new home, the rest of the spies and the community aren't so tickled. It seems that they're gonna have to go to war against some pretty burly dudes to get a hold of this new real estate. The people aren't sure they can pull this one off.
God is pretty offended that the Israelites don't think he can help them win the war. So, he comes up with the punishment of all punishments. Because they've been such doubters, God won't allow any of the people counted in the first census to set foot in the Promised Land. That means they're gonna wander in the wilderness for forty years until everyone dies off. Total downer.
So, the group mills around for an entire generation. More Israelites rebel against God. He smites them. They fight in wars and win (yay!). Aaron dies. Moses appoints Joshua as his successor. And then there're more laws. Lots and lots of laws.
And just as we're about to venture into the Promised Land, the curtain closes. Just like that. Better luck next book? Nope, we're all gonna have to wait until the Book of Joshua to taste some of that sweet milk and honey. Oh, well.