The dates for Numbers encompass the entire 40 years in the wilderness, following the Exodus in 1440 B.C.—and it extends throughout that 40 year period. The name of the book comes from the fact that it contains the results of two censuses.
To the modern reader, the book can seem like something of a jumble. There are narrative sections, there are random laws, there are census lists, there is the prophetic word given by the pagan prophet Balaam, and though he was a true prophet, he was not a true man. But there is a structure to the whole thing.
“And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Num. 21:5–9).
Summary of the Text:
The two census lists are given prior to two invasions, one abortive and one more effectual. The results of the censuses are roughly the same—around 600,000 fighting men. The people traveled first from Egypt to Sinai, and from Sinai to Kadesh. To invade Canaan from the south would be more natural, and Kadesh was that place. But the people gave way to fear in response to the negative report of the ten spies, and then when they attempted to invade, they were ignominiously defeated. But by the end of the book, they are poised to invade Canaan from the east, across the Jordan, from the plains of Moab. The first travel narrative is found in 9:15-14:45 and the second is found in 20:1-22.
One theme of this book has to do with leadership, and challenges to that leadership that arose. You would think that someone who had wrecked Egypt, divided the Red Sea, and drowned Pharaoh, would have a secure spot as a leader. But not so with Moses (16-17). Selfish ambition always blindly takes what the grace of God has given as a starting point.
While Korah’s rebellion was a big deal, there were also challenges to the leadership of Moses that were a little closer to home. Numbers 12 tells us that Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of a “Cushite woman” he had married. This is a bit obscure, but Josephus tells us the back story, and it might even be true. When Moses was still a prince of Egypt, he once besieged a city in Ethiopia named Saba. The queen of that city fell in love with Moses from the city wall, and offered to surrender the city if he married her, which he did. If that were the case, and this woman belatedly showed up in the Israelite camp in the wilderness one day, one can easily imagine how it would disrupt the organizational flow chart, and not to Miriam’s liking.