The book of Numbers opens with a long list of names and numbers, so it might surprise you to learn that the bulk of the scroll contains an epic life-or-death survival story. Food falls from the sky! Water bursts from a rock! Fire pillars trailblaze, spies forage, and giant enemies threaten!
This book is anything but boring. But it can also be confusing.
As you read, complex questions will come up. How does the story fit into the larger narratives of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)? Why is the book called “Numbers”? And what can the scroll teach us?
Book of Numbers Summary
Let’s remember, Egypt had enslaved the nation of Israel for 430 years. Yahweh provided a powerful exit, or exodus, from Egyptian oppression, and now Israel is free. But the men, women, and children are also exhausted and scared—they have only begun to live as free people. They have a lot to learn. So Yahweh has been camping with them at Mount Sinai for a year, teaching them to relate with him and one another. Now, he plans to lead them on a long journey toward the land he promised their ancestors.
Before they leave the mountain, Yahweh orders a headcount—a census to number all the people. Spoiler alert: those same people will die (we’ll get to that part in a second), and after their death, Yahweh counts the next generation. All of this people-numbering gives the scroll its title—Numbers. But beyond these census records, the book of Numbers teaches us about Israel’s grueling journey from Mount Sinai to the promised land.
Will these Israelites, whom Yahweh rescued, learn to trust him as he leads them through the wilderness and into the land? Or will they choose another way? The rest of the scroll holds the shocking answer.
Preparing to Travel (Numbers 1-12)
As the people prepare to travel, Yahweh arranges their camp in a formation that places the tabernacle, the site of his presence, right at the center. In Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, God repeatedly creates spaces where he can live with his people and then positions symbols of his presence front and center.
Yahweh wants to live with the Israelites in the lush land of promise, and he also wants to live every day with them while they trudge through the wilderness. He wants them to trust him through their hardships, centering every part of their lives on him. But the Israelites struggle to rely on God. They complain, despise the food he provides, and even wish they were back in Egypt—longing for the leeks, melons, and cucumbers they ate when they were enslaved!
Will this generation learn to trust Yahweh's good character?
Refusing to Enter (Numbers 13-25)
Full of fear, complaints, and doubts, the Israelites continue their trek toward the promised land. When they finally reach the border, 12 spies leave to scope out the terrain for 40 days. Ten spies return with horrifying reports of giant enemies, and Israel refuses to enter the occupied land.
The other two spies, Caleb and Joshua, can’t convince the people to trust that God will provide for them in the land. The majority are sure that God is out to get them—that he must be luring them into the land to kill them by the giants’ swords. They forget that God rescued them from slavery to give them life in the promised land (not to kill them when they got there). They conclude they’d rather die in the wilderness than enter the land (Num. 14:1-3).
Yahweh gives them what they want, closing the door to the promised land and assigning them 40 years to camp in the wilderness until the whole generation dies. However, Caleb, Joshua, and the children of the Exodus generation will remain. This tragic story still has hope.
Preparing to Enter (Numbers 26-36)
The last movement of Numbers begins with the next generation camped at the Jordan River, right at the edge of the land God promised to their ancestors. Yahweh again calls for a census, and he tells the people how to divide the land so that each tribe will have an inheritance and guaranteed stability once they settle. He gives them laws on how to live, all of which aim to bless the people in ways that God has intended since he first placed humans in the garden of Eden. These instructions are to ensure that the new land will not be oppressive like Egypt. If the people follow Yahweh’s commands, they’ll be able to enjoy the promised land and all of its goodness forever.
From the beginning stories of the Bible, God has been creating spaces where Heaven and Earth overlap, so humanity can be close to him and live by his wisdom. But humans often reject Yahweh’s wisdom, choosing rebellion that leads to death instead. And we see this tragic cycle again and again throughout the story of the Bible. So by the end of the Numbers scroll, readers are left to wonder: Will this new generation learn from the past generation’s mistakes?
And what about us? What life lessons can we learn from the book of Numbers? How do we see ourselves in the story? Can we relate to Israel’s distrust and fear? Will we learn from their mistakes and trust Yahweh’s life-giving character?
What does it mean to be truly free, and what will it mean to trust God fully as we move toward the future he has promised?
Begin a New Journey with the Numbers Scroll
The Numbers scroll contains a deep mine of wisdom for us to excavate—but it’s not easy. The ancient world of the Bible can be puzzling. So we provided a Torah journey packed with animated videos, podcasts, links, and more. If you’d like to dig deeper, join us as we navigate the staggering ups and downs of the book of Numbers, by downloading the BibleProject app for iPhone or Android today.