Here’s an overview of the book of Numbers, featuring the main idea and its explanation, the purpose and main themes of the book, and a section on what it means to us, along with some study questions.
On their way to the promised land, the people of Israel grumble, complain, and rebel (Num. 11:1, 4; 12:1; 13:32), and pay a stiff penalty (14:12, 33-35), while God continues to be faithful to His covenant (23:21-24; 24:5-9, 17).
Explanation of Main Idea
As they move out of Sinai, the people quickly begin complaining. In fact, the book of Numbers is organized around seven stories of grumbling and complaining. They complain about hardship (Num. 11:1-3), food (11:4-15), Moses’ leadership (12), going into the land (13-14), Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership (16), water (20:1-13), and bread and water (21:4-9).
Each of these mishaps is met with a judgment from God. When they complained about hardship, “fire from the LORD…consumed the outskirts of the camp” (11:1). When they grumbled about the food, they were “struck…with a very severe plague” (11:33). Jealous criticism of Moses resulted in a week’s worth of leprosy for Miriam (12:1-15). Refusing to enter the land brought forty years of wandering in the wilderness (14:1-35). Korah’s attempted mutiny landed him and his people in Sheol (16:1-33). Finally, when he misrepresented God, Moses’ harsh action of striking the rock twice kept him out of the promised land (20:1-13).
The most significant of the complaining episodes is the fourth, that of going into the land. As the people decide to appoint a new leader and head back to Egypt (14:4), God gives them what they want and they spend the next forty years wandering and eventually dying, in the wilderness (14:34-35).
Unbeknownst to any Israelite or even Moses, however, God’s faithfulness is being proclaimed to the pagan king, Balak, through the prophet Balaam (Num. 22-24). In these prophecies, Israel is proclaimed as being “not cursed” or “denounced” (23:8), but “blessed” (23:20), “beautiful” (24:5), and bountiful (23:10) and recipients of “great things God has done” (23:23). God doesn’t want them to experience “disaster” or “trouble” (23:21), but in fact will bring a King from them who will be victorious over many nations (24:17-19). In other words, God is fulfilling His covenant promise to Abraham from Genesis 12:2, “I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”
The book of Numbers was written to demonstrate that God’s covenant plan stays on track even when His people don’t. The instances of sinful complaining and rebellion and the resulting judgment are so pronounced and widespread that it seems like they will never make it (Num. 14:2-4, 26). But even their refusal to enter the land, couldn’t prevent God from accomplishing His plan even though He had to wait for the next generation.
After all of the death, plagues, faithlessness, rebellion, complaining, earth-swallowing, and fire-consuming, God’s faithfulness and covenant promise is proclaimed by the least likely individual: a pagan prophet (Num. 22-24). The sinful people are blessed not because of what they did or did not do, they are blessed because they are God’s people and He made a promise to them that He is going to keep.
- God is faithful to keep His covenant.
The entirety of the book of Numbers revolves around the Israelites heading to the promised land. They are going there in response to God’s word to Moses (Exod. 6:2-8) that He would give them the land of Canaan, which is a fulfillment of God’s word to Abraham in Genesis 12:2 that He would make him a great nation. While they experience many diversions, and God has every reason to wipe them out, He doesn’t. He is faithful.
- Complaining (and the like) is bad.
The Israelites complaining made God angry (Num. 11:1); it made Him “very angry” (11:10); His anger “burned against the people” (11:33). Complaining made Moses angry (11:10) and motivated him to misrepresent God (20:1-12). Their complaining led to sickness (12:10), weeping (14:1), wilderness wandering (14:33), rebellion (16:1-8), and death (16:32-33, 49). Nothing good came out of their complaining.
- Rebellion brings judgment; faith brings blessings.
Amidst all the judgment already cited, there are a couple of instances of blessings resulting from exercised faith. Because the book is dominated by scenes of failure and defeat, these expressions of belief in the Lord shine a bit brighter then they would otherwise. Not counting the faith of Moses throughout the book, the most notable event regarding faith is that of Joshua and Caleb in Numbers 13-14. When all the others were afraid of going into the land, these two knew that God would give them the victory if they only were to believe. Because of their faith, they did not die in the wilderness like the others. The other instance of faith is found in chapter 21 as God sends poisonous snakes to bite complainers. After interceding for the people, God revealed to Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Anywho would look at the snake would be healed. Looking at the snake, of course, would require faith.
- The Role of Leadership
Poor Moses! Many a pastor has been encouraged by reading about the difficulties experienced by this great leader. His role was to listen to the Lord and receive instructions from Him (Num. 1:1, 2:1, et. al.), communicate to the people, assemble a team (1:17; 11:16-17), pray for the people (11:2; 12:13; 14:5; 16:4, 21:7), and delegate tasks (20:14).
The first chapter of Numbers documents a census. Chapter two reveals how God wanted the people to camp in an organized way, each “under their respective banners beside the flags of their ancestral families” (2:2). The next several chapters layout specific duties and numberings of the Levites. Details of offerings are spelled out in Numbers 7:1-83. The book closes with specifically intended boundaries of the new land, criteria for cities of refuge, and important relationship laws. Clearly, God is organized; He is a God of order.
- God is faithful to keep His covenant.
How Does This Relate To Us?
Even the casual reader of the book of Numbers will notice the instances of complaining and grumbling and the consequential judgment. We have all complained. Numbers show us how toxic it can be — how our complaining can cripple our faith and that of those who agree with us. Complaining makes God angry because it does not involve faith and is, at its root, insulting to God because we are not trusting Him with the situation.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “Do everything without grumbling and arguing, so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God who are faultless in a crooked and perverted generation, among whom you shine like stars in the world” (Philip. 2:14-15). Even amidst complaining, we can rejoice because God is on the Throne and still in charge. We can be unbelieving and grumbling, but God’s agenda will still keep moving forward. We, though, like the ten spies without faith, will be the ones missing out!
Much is written today about leadership. There are principles and practices galore in what has become an entire industry. People who lead are constantly trying to grow, learning how to influence their organization, exercising strategic plans and visions. But what would happen if all that was set aside, and Christian leaders simply did what Moses did? They listened to the Lord, received their instruction from Him, assembled a godly team, communicated God’s way, and prayed for the people.
Joshua and Caleb believed that God could do what He had promised. They looked beyond their circumstance. As the bad report is circulating, Caleb “quieted the people…and said, ‘Let us go up now and take possession of the land because we can certainly conquer it!” (Num. 13:30, emphasis mine). Faith ignores the complaining and readies the will to act immediately as God leads.
God is a God of order; He has a plan and He is faithful. When He wants to do something, He will use the person of faith. There will always be those who complain themselves into uselessness. That makes God angry. He is looking for faith and courage.
- Numbers 6 provides instruction for the Nazirite vow. Why do you think someone would take such a vow?
- In Numbers 11, compare verses 1, 10, and 33. What made the Lord so angry? Do you think the same thing makes Him angry today?
- What did Moses do wrong in Numbers 20:1-13? Do you think his punishment was too severe? Why or why not?
- Compare Numbers 24:9 with Genesis 49:9. Do you think these passages are referring to the same person? Now compare Numbers 24:17 with Genesis 49:10. Who is being spoken about in these passages?
Life Application Questions
- Read Numbers 9:15-23, which describes how the Lord guided His people. How does He guide His people today? Do you wish that you could follow something like a cloud?
- There are many instances of complaining in the book of Numbers. Glance through chapters 11-14, and chapter 16 and list any that you find. What do you complain about? Why do you complain?
- Read Numbers 13:17-33. Have you ever experienced something in your life where your faith was challenged, where someone was asking you to do something that you didn’t think you could do? Or a situation where, like Caleb, you had the faith to do something, but those around you “threw a wet blanket” on the situation?
- Moses faced two really difficult challenges to his leadership. First, from his sister Miriam (Num. 12:1-15), and then from one the leaders, Korah (Num. 16). How did Moses deal with these situations? How should you deal with challenges to your leadership? What should you do if you have a problem with a leader?
Copyright © 2018 Pat Sieler