The fourth book of the Bible is Numbers. And, as its title suggests the book contains a lot of numbers. Two censuses of Israel’s population are taken and then seemingly countless other lists of a variety of things are recorded. But, is that really what the book is about? Is the book of Numbers really a compilation of technical lists? No. The book is a continuation of Israel’s history as the book’s Hebrew title – “In the wilderness” – communicates. This artistic and pictorial phrase sums the entire setting of the book. The Israelites move from Sinai into the wilderness of the Paran, up to Kadesh, and then through to the plains of Moab. Through the story of this geographic wandering, Numbers narrates the transition from the old generation of Israelites that left Egypt in the Exodus and sinned in the wilderness to the new generation that stands on the brink of the Promised Land. It presents us with a vision of new beginnings and hope.
A Purposeful Story Full of Truths
To adequately understand this book, we must remember the context in which it was written. It was recorded as the Israelites camped in the plains of Moab preparing to enter the Promised Land after their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The first generation of Israelites who had experienced firsthand the delivering power of God in the Exodus had died out as a result of their disobedience. The second generation of Israelites who had simply heard the stories God’s gracious deliverance were preparing to enter the Promised Land by the command of God with his promise of victory. Therefore, Numbers serves to call these second-generation Israelites to serve God as his holy arm in the conquest of the Promised Land and to avoid the failures of the previous generation by remaining faithful to God directives.
This story, then, reveals three main truths from which this second generation would have benefited. These truths are:
One Story in Two Parts
Numbers is a story with two parts. The first is about the generation of Israelites who rebelled against God and ultimately died under the judgment of God without seeing the Promised Land. And, part 2 is about the second generation of Israelites as God prepares them to enter the Promised Land, complete with promises of victory and his expectations of their holiness. The dividing line between the two parts is found between chapters 25 and 26. Chapter 25 ends with the Israelites contracting a plague that resulted from their continued idolatry, their worship of Baal at Peor, and their sexual impurity with Moabite women, which defiled Israel in God’s eyes. But, chapter 26 begins with a new beginning, a census of the second generation. At this time Israel was purged of the rebellious men and women of the first generation by God’s gracious judgment.
Does Numbers Prepare Us for the New Testament and Jesus? Yes.
Numbers carries on the themes seen throughout the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible. Three of them are:
The first generation of the Israelites rebelled against God, the God who had miraculously delivered them from Egyptian slavery. This could have led to the end of redemption history. God certainly would have been justified if he had he simply destroyed his people. But, as he showed with Adam and Eve and countless others, he refuses to abandon his people even in their rebellion and sin. He loves them and seeks them out to restore them in his grace. The principle character of the book of Numbers is the same principle character of the rest of the Bible – the Lord God himself. He keeps his covenant with his people, guides them through the wilderness, continues to provide for them, and remains personally involved in their covenant life because of his covenant love for them. This is but a foretaste of the way in which he will seek out his people in the Lord Jesus Christ. He not only does not abandon his children; he provides hope for them in the salvation offered by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Numbers continues the theme of holiness that we first encountered in Exodus. God requires his people to maintain holiness. He seeks to dwell with them. Therefore, they must be holy as he is holy in order to interact with him. This is a call for us to be obedient in our faith. God has provided the holy one, Jesus, through whom and in whom we have the blessing of his presence. But the call is to be holy as he is holy in Christ.
The Israelites prepared, failed, and then prepared again for the holy war in Canaan. This reminds us of the ultimate battle of the holy war between Heaven and Hell through which Christ will win the new heavens and the new earth. Christ began the last battle with his life, death and resurrection. He continues this battle by the preaching of the gospel and through the church today. And, he will complete the war when he returns. Don’t lose heart. Christ is supreme!
Numbers asks a Final Question
As we read the last sentence of chapter 36, we notice that the story of Numbers is incomplete. The future of Israel is in question. Will the second generation be faithful and so receive the blessed promises of God? Or, will they follow in their parents’ steps and rebel against God and thus receive his just judgment? That’s a question each follower of Christ has to answer for himself or herself. Will I be faithful to the call?
 Reformation Study Bible (NIV).