Introductions: Numbers

from Feb 22, 2012 Category: Articles

Who wrote it? When was it written and why?

These are some of the important questions to answer as you explore any book of the Bible. To aid you in your study of God’s Word we have been adapting and posting some of the detailed book introductions found in The Reformation Study Bible. Today, we continue a series through the Pentateuch. 

Please allow The Reformation Study Bible to introduce you to…

The Book of Numbers

Author | Date & Occasion | Characteristics & Themes


Author


Numbers has traditionally been ascribed to Moses.

Together with the rest of the Pentateuch, Numbers has traditionally been ascribed to Moses. This conclusion is based upon the unitary character of the Pentateuch and upon the clear witness of both the Old and New Testaments ascribing these books to Moses. It is further supported by the obvious antiquity of the materials contained in the Pentateuch. The Book of Numbers itself refers to Moses’ activity chronicling the events described in the book (33:2). That much of the book comes from Moses’ hand does not rule out the possibility of later editorial activity and the likelihood that some portions were added after Moses’ death (e.g., 12:3; and Moses’ obituary in Deut. 34).


Date and Occasion


Numbers was evidently written as a warning to the generation of Israelites born in the wilderness, that they should persevere in faith and obedience where their parents had not.

We may reasonably date the composition of the book to the period after the wilderness wandering (which followed the Exodus) and before the death of Moses in about 1406 B.C. The book begins with the preparations for the march across the wilderness, tells of experiences along the way, describes the failure of faith that led the exodus generation of Israelites to refuse to undertake the conquest of the Promised Land, tells of the forty years of waiting until a whole generation would die, and ends with the preparation for entering Canaan. Given its content, Numbers was evidently written as a warning to the generation of Israelites born in the wilderness, that they should persevere in faith and obedience where their parents had not. For future generations of God’s people, the book would speak a similar message.

In the Hebrew Bible it was customary to designate each of the five books of Moses by the word with which it began. For Numbers, this practice was modified by using the fifth Hebrew word as a title. This word, translated “in the wilderness,” is an apt description of the book’s content, since it describes the nation’s experience during forty years in the wilderness.

When the Bible was translated into Greek, its books were given Greek names. In the case of Numbers, the Greek translation abandoned the excellent Hebrew name, and used a Greek word meaning “numbers” (arithmoi) that actually describes only a few of its chapters. This somewhat inappropriate Greek title was carried over by translation into the English Bible tradition.


Characteristics and Themes


Even the best of persons are still sinners and are saved only through the merits of Christ—salvation comes only through the grace of God.

Two themes—the gracious faithfulness and the sovereign power of Israel’s covenant God—are vital to the message of Numbers. The events of Numbers vividly portray the faithfulness of the covenant God despite the failures of an erring humanity. God directs His people as they prepare for their journey through the wilderness, comforts them in difficulties, deals with their fears and failures, and rebukes or punishes them when necessary.

This portrayal of God’s covenant faithfulness is in sharp contrast with the book’s repeated depiction of human faithlessness, the utter failure of humanity to meet God’s standards by its own strength. Human failures are clearly portrayed and contrasted with the wise measures of the ever-faithful covenant God. Even Moses, the greatest leader of all, sinned and was not permitted to enter the Promised Land, although he saw it from a distance (20:9–11 note; 27:12–14). This shows that even the best of persons are still sinners and are saved only through the merits of Christ—salvation comes only through the grace of God.


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Adapted from The Reformation Study Bible, © 2005 Ligonier Ministries.