1. The Book of Numbers is not a book simply about numbers.
The Hebrew title of the book is “In the Wilderness,” which is a much more descriptive and engaging title. The book charts Israel’s experience from the time they left Mount Sinai after their exodus from Egypt until they arrived at the brink of the promised land. It should only have taken Israel a few weeks to cover the distance from Sinai to Canaan. The problem was that they sent twelve spies to check out the land, and the majority came back with a negative report: the inhabitants of the land were too big and their cities too well-defended. There was no chance of victory (Num. 13–14). Joshua and Caleb told a different story, arguing that if God fought for Israel, they could certainly take the land, but their minority report was voted down. As a result, the Lord condemned the people to wander in the wilderness for the next forty years, until all the adults had died. Only then would they be able to enter the land and receive what He had promised.
2. The most important number in the Book of Numbers is two.
There are quite a lot of numbers in the book of Numbers, as well as long lists of people in two separate censuses (Num. 1; 26). It can be easy to get lost in the lists of names and numbers, which seem as obscure as sports statistics to a non-sports fan or the business listings to a non-accountant. They all have their part to play in telling the story of Israel’s wilderness years, however.
The most important number in the entire book is two—as in, two generations. The book of Numbers is about an unbelieving generation that failed to trust God and paid the price of a lifetime of wandering in the wilderness, followed by a new generation that stood on the brink of entering the land. Would the new generation be like their parents and give in once again to unbelief? Or would they chart a new course of faith in the Lord and receive the land that God had promised the patriarchs? The signs were good, with some initial victories over the Canaanites (e.g., Num. 21), but the jury was still out. That enables the stories in this book to challenge us as well: to which generation do we belong—the people of unbelief, whose bodies were scattered in the desert, or the people of faith, who would press forward to inherit the land (see Heb. 3:7–19)?
3. The second most important number in the book is forty-two.
At first sight, Numbers 33 seems like a total waste of space: a long list of place names where Israel camped in the wilderness. Yet the Lord Himself commanded Moses to write this list (Num. 33:2), so it must be important. And if the book really is about Israel’s time in the wilderness, a list of campgrounds takes on new significance. To begin with, many of the places listed are locations where the Lord provided for His people in a special way. These are the places that have notes attached to remind Israel what the Lord did: Rameses, where the Israelites went out triumphantly (Num. 33:3), Pi-Hahiroth, where the Lord parted the sea (Num. 33:8), Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees (Num. 33:9). These are places to remember God’s faithfulness.
The second kind of location consists of the places where Israel rebelled against the Lord: Marah, the wilderness of Zin, Rephidim, and so on. Yet none of these failures is mentioned in this itinerary: it is as if the Lord has forgotten them completely (see Ps. 130:3–4). These places remind us of God’s gracious forgetfulness.
The third kind of location is where nothing at all happened, as far as we know. Some of these places are not mentioned elsewhere in the Pentateuch, but they are included here to remind us that our lives are not simply a progression of spiritual triumphs and failures; the other days count as well, when we simply do the ordinary things of life: showing up at work, taking care of the children, mowing the grass, doing the laundry.
The importance of these “plain vanilla” days is underlined by the fact that the total list of campgrounds in Numbers 33 is forty-two. The list is not comprehensive (there were other places Israel camped), nor is it merely a collection of the most important places, so the number forty-two is deliberately chosen. Why? Because forty-two is six times seven. In other words, at the end of this list—and at the end of the book of Numbers—Israel is on the brink of the seventh seven, the sabbath of rest, represented by entry into the promised land.
None of us knows where in our own personal list of wilderness campgrounds we may be. For some, we may have a way to go before campground number forty-two. However, we can all have confidence that the Lord Jesus has faithfully pioneered the perfect pathway through the wilderness in our place, and now He walks through the desert alongside us, reminding us of the Lord’s faithfulness and His forgetfulness. When necessary, He picks us up and carries us in His arms as the Good Shepherd, bringing us to the heavenly inheritance toward which the promised land pointed Israel.
This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.