The book of Numbers continues the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, the covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai, and the journey to Canaan. Much like a child, Israel’s spiritual maturity is lacking significantly. Israel is being led by the Lord who is acting like a disciplining parent, concerned with the maturing of His small child. Numbers seeks to describe the wilderness testing and rebellion of God’s chosen people.
Scholars have largely regarded Numbers to be a compilation of four literary sources: P, E, J and two other priestly traditions. Though there are dissenting opinions about the dating of the book, scholars agree that substantial portions of the history and legislation of Numbers originated with Moses during the thirty-eight years of desert wandering. Later redactions and additions may have occurred at the hands of the priests until the canonization of the book in its final form. The literary composition of Numbers seeks to recount the early days of Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh. The struggle for the promise land is one of the major theological high points of the work. The theological purpose of Numbers is to preserve the accounts of the initial phases of the practical outworking of God’s recently established covenant with Israel. God’s holiness is presented, juxtaposed with the sinfulness of humanity, revealing the necessity for obedience to the commands of Yahweh.
The practical purpose of the work is to organize the Hebrews into an organized community for the fulfillment of the covenant. The purpose of the census in Numbers was threefold: recruiting manpower for war, allotting work assignments and establishing a tax base. Though scholars do not agree on whether the census numbers are symbolic or literal, they do agree that these numbers confirm the fears of Pharaoh in Exodus 1:7 “but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.”
God, through Numbers, is proven to be a God who is patient and faithful, even in the midst of ungratefulness and rebellion. Second, the true nature and character of Yahweh is revealed in the ways in which He chooses to respond to His people. Through the desert experience, God acts as both disciplinarian and provider. The Israelites are forced to rely on the Lord for manna, provided to them daily by the Lord. However, their unbelief and lack of faith causes the Lord to constantly refine and test their faith. Thus, a warning against disobedience is preserved for the Hebrew nation.
The modern reader of Numbers should take into account that Moses appeals to who God is and what God has promised throughout the book of Numbers. God respects and appreciates human culture, choosing to work through it rather than above it. Through Numbers, Yahweh is presented as a parental figure, disciplining his children when they disobey. The Lord tests the faith of His people, refining them like a metallurgist refines iron. The Lord also disciplines, such as in chapter 20 verse 12, “but the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” Thus, the reader can deduce that God is gracious and all-powerful, requiring obedience to the covenant established with his chosen people. Second, a modern reader can ascertain that when anyone tests God, it is a statement of their lack of faith. Though Israel remains insubordinate and restless despite the provisions from God, the Lord does not turn His back on them. It is evident from the unrest in Numbers 11:1-15 and rebellion in chapters 16-17 that the Hebrew people did not possess enough faith to trust Yahweh. The Lord reminds the Israelites, just like he reminds people today, that he is a faithful God, and that they are a blessed people to whom He is constantly maturing and refining their spirituality.