Numbers 2: Orientation.
I hope you’ve seen from my first post in this series that Numbers is definitely worth reading and that it’s not just a boring set of lists and endless names. What I want to do in this second post is a bit of orientation, to help us find our way around. One of the big problems in reading Numbers is knowing where you are, both historically and within the book itself. It’s the same for any large book in the Bible – it’s easy to get lost when reading it and forget where you’ve come from or not realise what’s coming next. It’s helpful to have a structure in mind, to help you know where you are in the course of the book and how the bit you’re reading fits into the whole.
It’s also helpful to know a bit about where the Israelites were and what was going on at the time – history, geography and chronology all help to build up the context and help you navigate. I remember reading Numbers when I was younger and getting really confused by the passage of time – it seemed to speed up and slow down without warning. For chapters on end time seems to be creeping by and then suddenly it hits fast forward and boom, 40 years have gone by.
So, what I’m going to do here is briefly explore the When, Where, Who, What and Why of Numbers, to help give some of this context. Then I’ll add a basic structure to give you a framework for approaching the book. I hope all this helps, but if you’ve still got questions afterwards, send them in!
The biggest clue for timing comes in the very first verse, where we’re told that the book begins on ‘the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt’ (1:1). So, Numbers starts 13 months after the Exodus. That means the second half of Exodus and the whole of Leviticus have taken place in just over a year, which is pretty quick when you consider that Genesis covers all the time between Creation and the death of Joseph and that there’s roughly a 300-year gap between Genesis and Exodus. The Israelites took about two months to reach Mt. Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were given, and then they stayed there until a quarter of the way through Numbers. So, they’ve been camped in this one place for about a year.
Our next clue comes in chapter 10 verse 11 when the Israelites set out from Sinai and we’re told that it’s on the ‘twentieth day of the second month of the second year’, that is 19 days after the book started. So, the preliminary stuff in Numbers 1-10 takes 19 days. Then we’ve got a period of a few weeks, covering chapters 10-20, where the narrative heats up but the pace remains slow. This is the journey from Sinai to Kadesh and the epic rebellion and showdown at Kadesh. This is the turning point in the whole book, where the Israelites mess up so much that an entire generation is condemned to wander in the desert till they die.
We all know that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years – it’s mentioned several times later in the Bible – but it’s not immediately obvious where these 40 years come in the narrative of Numbers. In fact, it’s between chapters 18 & 21, after the dramatic rebellion of chapter 16 but before they settle in Moab in chapter 21. By the time the Israelites settle on the plains of Moab at the end of chapter 21 these 40 years have passed. We know that because 33:38 tells us that Aaron died in the ‘fifth month of the fortieth year’ and Aaron died in chapter 20 v. 28 on Mt. Hor. Not only that, but after the interlude with Balaam the second census tells that not one of the original generation that was counted in chapter 1 is left. Bar Moses, Caleb and Joshua, they’ve all died (26:64-65).
So, Numbers goes really slowly, covering about a month in the first 17 chapters, then speeds up suddenly to cover 40 years in a handful of chapters. Then it slows down again so that the last 15 chapters take place over just a few weeks. Those few weeks are a pause before the conquest of the Promised Land, with the Israelites poised just across the Jordan from their final destination. They remain here for these 15 chapters and the whole of Deuteronomy too, because they’re not ready to go in just yet. So much has gone wrong, so many new faces are around, that they need to take stock and get taught by Moses all over again before the action can resume in the Book of Joshua.
In terms of exact dates according to our modern chronology of history, most scholars seem agreed that it took place in the second half of the 15th century BC, that is roughly 1450-1400 BC. In rough terms that’s about 500-600 years since the time of Abraham, a little over 400 years before the reign of King David and almost a thousand years before the Exile to Babylon. I hope that helps you place it a bit.
Where is also tricky, because although we’re given a detailed itinerary of their journey in chapter 33, very few of these places can be pinpointed on a modern map. They start at Mt. Sinai, usually identified as modern-day Jebel Musa at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula. Having travelled down the western side of the Sinai peninsula in Exodus and then camped out at Mt. Sinai throughout Leviticus and into Numbers, they set out from Mt. Sinai in chapter 10 and get as far as Kadesh on the southern boundary of Canaan. This route would have taken them up the eastern side of the Sinai peninsula, parallel to the Gulf of Aqaba between modern-day Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But for their disobedience, they could have continued north and been in the Promised Land in a matter of days.
Instead they have to wander around in circles in the deserts of Sinai for 40 years. When they finally move on, they swing round to the south and east, pausing at Ezion Geber which is near the modern town of Aqaba at the top of the Gulf of Aqaba, squeezed between the quadruple four-way border of Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The action of the rest of the book then takes place east of the Promised Land in the kingdoms of Edom and Moab, both of which are in modern Jordan. They skirt round Edom and then fight their way through Moab, past the Dead Sea and finally coming to the Plains of Moab, a flat stretch of land on the eastern bank of the Jordan opposite Jericho.
This is a very rough approximation of their route on Google Maps.
The easy answer here is the nation of Israel, led by Moses, precisely counted in chapter 1 and with a few other named leaders and heads of the 12 tribes. But the crucial thing to remember is that we’ve got a completely different cast by the end of the book. The generation counted in chapter 1 all die over the course of the book and a whole new generation is counted in chapter 26. These are the children of the first generation, those too young to have participated in the rebellion that cost their parents their place in the Promised Land. It is this younger generation who fight their way to the Jordan, who get taught in Deuteronomy, and who eventually seize the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua. Only three people survive the entire book: Moses, Joshua and Caleb.
Numbers is a mixture of different genres all wrapped up in one book. It’s not simple history and certainly not a novel-like narrative, but neither is it just lists and administration. There are lists, like in chapters 1, 7 and 26, plus a travelogue in chapter 33. There is narrative interspersed throughout, including some genuinely dramatic action in chapters 12-14, 16 and 21 and 31. We get a semi-narrative/semi-prophetic interlude with Balaam in chapters 22-24, complete with talking donkey. Then there’s also passages of teaching throughout the book, which reflects God teaching His people as they go, including having to re-iterate some things that have been ignored or for the benefit of new ears. There are examples of teaching passages in chapters 2, 5-6, 8-9, 15, 18-19, 28-30 and 34-36.
This is surely the most important question of all. We’ve covered when, where, who and what, to build up our geographical, historical and literary context, but why is the question that underpins them all. Why was Numbers written? Why should we read it? I’ve covered a lot of this in my first post – ‘Why is Numbers Necessary?’ – but it’s worth re-iterating some important points. Numbers shows us how faithful God is to His promises, bringing His people to where they needed to be despite sin and disobedience along the way. But it also shows how disobedience can forfeit the blessing and how crucial it is for us to trust God and follow Him where He leads, not getting scared by the giants and obstacles that we see in the way. Numbers shows us God’s patient provision, even for sinners, His holiness and just judgement in dealing with sin, and also how He cares about every single person. Numbers is fascinating in its own right, but it can be applied today in important ways when it comes to trusting and following God, relying on His provision, obeying His words and finding your way back onto the right road even after you’ve wandered off it.
You should definitely read this book. Keep the context in mind and be ready to learn from where the Israelites went wrong, so that you can get it right. With the help of the Holy Spirit, may you learn to follow God wholeheartedly and trust Him long enough for Him to lead you to into all His fulfilled promises for you.
Simple Structure for Numbers
- Israel at Sinai (1:1-10:10)
- The Journey to Kadesh (10:10-12:16)
- The Rebellion at Kadesh (13:1-16:50)
- The Big Delay (17:1-20:21)
- The Journey to Moab (20:22-22:35)
- Balaam’s Prophecies (22:36-24:25)
- New Mistakes and Old Lessons in Moab (25:1-36:13)