Numbers :: Catholic News Agency

Author: Unknown

Date Written: c. 1450 BC - 517 BC


The book of Numbers is named for the two censuses of the people which the book contains (1, 26).  It begins a year and a month after the people left Egypt (1:1).  Then it flashes back to the day Moses erected the tabernacle a month earlier (Exod 40:17; Num 7:1-10:10).  After the flashback it resumes the story (Num 10:11).  The storyline follows the death of the old generation which came out of Egypt (ch. 1-25) and then the succession of the new generation which will take the promised land (ch. 26-36).  The setting begins at Mt. Sinai where the people celebrate the Passover and then depart for the promised land (9).


Numbers narrates the tensions in Israel's relationship with the Lord.  First, the people complain about the lack of meat (11).  Second, they reject the idea of conquering the promised land (14).  Third, Korah and his companions reject the priesthood established by God (16). Fourth, the people rebel against God when they lack water at Meribah (20).  Finally, the Israelites worship a false god, Baal of Peor (25).


When the people complain for lack of meat, the Lord is angered and sends them not only meat, in the form of quail, but a plague which kills many of them (11).  After this incident, the people send 12 spies into the promised land of Canaan (14).  When the spies return and report the presence of giants in the land, the people refuse to believe God will help them conquer the land.  God nearly destroys the people but Moses intercedes for them much like he had in Exod 32.  While the Lord relents from destroying them, he does not permit them to enter the land and condemns them to wander in the wilderness another 40 years so that all the adults who rebelled would die before the entry.  The only adults from that generation allowed to enter were Joshua and Caleb because they advocated conquering the land.


The Lord had separated out the Levites as his ministers because of the people's apostasy at the golden calf (Exod 32).  Since the Levites did not commit idolatry but actually executed the Lord's judgment, he chose them to be set apart instead of all the first born of Israel (Exod 32:26ff; Num 3:12).  Among the Levites, the Lord chooses Aaron and his sons to be priests.  Korah, who was a Levite, and other Israelites rebel against Aaron's priesthood.  They are unhappy because they want to be chosen instead.  When they try to do a priestly act (offering incense), the Lord consumes them with fire, swallows their homes into the ground and sends a plague upon the people which only Aaron, the real priest, can stop (16).  The Lord reaffirms his choice of Aaron as priest by causing Aaron's rod to blossom when all the rods of the leaders of Israel are placed in the tabernacle (17).



The rebellion at Meribah, where the people complain for lack of water, is significant enough to be mentioned several times in the Bible (Deut 32:51; Ps 81:7, 95:8, 106:32).


The final act of rebellion in Numbers is the worship of Baal of Peor, which includes sexual sins with the people of Moab (25).  The Lord sends a plague upon the people which kills 24,000 which is only stopped when the priest, Phinehas, a grandson of Aaron, kills an adulterous couple.   


Included in the story of Israel's relationship with the Lord, we find rules about priestly washings, punishments for crimes, tabernacle equipment, offerings, vows, leadership and daughters' inheritance rights.  Numbers also lists the campsites of Israel's journey from Egypt (33) and tells of the beginnings of the conquest of the promised land (31).  Numbers takes the story of Israel from Mt. Sinai through the troubles of the wilderness to the plains of Moab where Moses gives the teachings of Deuteronomy to the people.


By Mark Giszczak


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