This fourth book of the Torah is mixed material. It begins with a detailed census of the people who found themselves at the foot of Mount Sinai, being entered into a serious covenant with the God of their forefathers. This was done in the second year after the escape from Egypt, and counts a surprising 603,550 fighting men (not counting women and children). The registry also notes the names of tribal and clan chieftains in that early period and the marching order of the tribes, for the community was still mobile, travelling from place to place in the desert. When they ended that march and set up camp, there was a detailed prescription based on compass points for the building of the tribal camps (all this in the first two chapters of the book).
Aaron, the brother of Moses, now appears as the appointed high-priest. The members of their tribe, the Levites, were to be the servants of Aaron’s family, which alone provided priests for the new rites. The major Levitical clans included those of Gerson, Caath and Merari. The Levites were consecrated in a special way, with all their possessions, as God’s very own, set apart as the first-borns of the entire community. Moreover, they were not to be fighting men, but entirely given over to the care of the sacred: the bearing of the tabernacle and all its associated equipment. The book sets out the details of the dedication gifts given to the tabernacle, for the hallowing of the altar, etc. Let’s put that down here, to provide an idea of what this ancient accounting system looked like. This is only for the tribe of Judah, but chapter seven sees it fit to repeat the lines for every tribe (although the offering was the same in every case):
“The first day, Nahasson son of Aminadab, of Juda, made his offering; a silver dish of a hundred and thirty, and a silver bowl of seventy sicles’ weight, by sanctuary reckoning, both full of flour kneaded with oil for sacrifice; a gold saucer weighing ten sicles, full of incense; a bullock, a ram, and a yearling he-lamb for burnt-sacrifice; a goat to make amends for fault; and for a welcome-offering, two oxen, five rams, five goats, and five yearling he-lambs. Such was the gift of Nahasson son of Aminadab…”Numbers, 7: 12-17
There is significant ritual material in Numbers. For example, chapter five is a detailed rite of the humiliation of a woman (but not a man…) suspected of adultery, and chapter six details the solemn Nazirite vow of consecration that characterised the lives of famous men like Samson and Samuel, and probably Christ Himself. Chapter fifteen produces general ritual detail for sacrifices, and chapter twenty-eight and twenty-nine provide particular ritual detail for daily, monthly and regular sacrifices. Chapter nineteen details the preparation of lustral water, which was intended to purify people and property that had somehow been defiled, such as by contact with dead bodies.
Moses’ trouble with government of the people becomes evident, as there were far too many of them seeking interpretations of the Law from him continuously and grumbling endlessly about the monotonous nature of the food in the desert and the discomfort of constant travelling. Each group sedition was accompanied by horrible plagues that caused much death among the community, and finally resulted in their wandering through the wilderness until a whole generation of people had passed away. Moses own brother and sister, Aaron and Myriam, at one point challenged his leadership of the people (chapter twelve). With regard to guiding them through the wilderness, Moses had sought the assistance of his brother-in-law, Hobab son of Raguel (Jethro), a professional desert wanderer. Later, seventy-two elders were chosen to share the government of the people with Moses (chapter eleven). The troubles continued to grow. After Moses sent scouts into the Holy Land to provide an account of what could be expected before the Israelite invasion began; almost every returning scout (apart from Caleb and Iosue/Joshua) discouraged the people, who were once more aching to return to the comforts of Egypt. The result was calamitous:
“Then the Lord said, ‘At thy request, I forgive. But as I am the living Lord, whose glory must spread wide as earth, these men who have been witnesses of my greatness, of all the marvellous deeds I did, in Egypt and in the desert, yet must needs challenge My power half a score of times, and disobey My will, these shall never see the land I promised to their fathers; it shall never be enjoyed by those who slighted me. My servant Caleb was of another mind; he took My part, and I will allow him to enter the land which he surveyed, and leave his race an inheritance there. The sons of Amalec and Chanaan may rest secure in their mountain glens; to-morrow you must move camp, and go back to the desert by the Red Sea.”Numbers, 14: 20-25
This was not enough for a small band of Levites, who also resented Moses’ leadership of the people. Core/Korah, together with Dathan and Abiron. The whole episode is presented in chapter sixteen, and the dreadful sequel – the seditionists found themselves falling into the depths as the ground opened up beneath their camp – this event was designed to imprint the challenge in the people’s minds for generations. Other Levites, who wished to usurp the priesthood of Aaron’s family, were incinerated. An unspecified plague followed and the chapter ends with the claim that 14,700 had died in just this altercation. Another rebellion took place when the people had arrived at Cades, and were in great thirst – at this point Moses and Aaron themselves lost faith and were cursed to not enter the Promised Land themselves (chapter twenty) – nevertheless, water famously burst forth from a rock when they found a new spring. The final rebellion mentioned here is in chapter twenty-one, where the people tire of the march and call to return to Egypt again; poisonous serpents and (in a story referenced by Christ in the Gospels) Moses fashions the famous bronze serpent to cure them.
The remainder of the book consists of the attempts to arrive at the Holy Land from the south, attempts that were frustrated by native tribes like the Edomites. Other tribes, like the Aradites and the Amorrhites and the people of Basan, were destroyed. Chapters twenty-two through twenty-four tell the tale of the prophet Balaam, a tale representing the fear of the Moabite king Balac, in whose lands the Israelites were now arriving in copious numbers, swollen with their conquests. By the end of the book of Numbers, the Madianites had been destroyed and Moabite land had been entirely taken by Israel, to the point where the Israelite tribes of Ruben, Gad and Manasses claimed these territories as their own (chapter thirty-two). Moses began a new census (chapter twenty-six) of the people as they camp in the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho and the Holy Land. Surprisingly, after all the plagues, and the wandering through the desert, etc. the number compares favourably with that from the beginning of the book: 601,730 fighting men (excluding women and children).
The final notes cover the people’s itinerary through the wilderness, from Egypt to the plains of Moab (chapter thirty-three), the divinely-provided boundaries of the land of Israel, once the invasions have taken place and a list of men who would one day divide up this conquered land among the tribes (chapter thirty-four). The last chapters of the book deal with the care of the Levites, who alone among all the tribes would not inherit land, their existence being entirely tied up with the care of the sacred, (chapter thirty-five) and marriage being confined to persons within the same tribe, to preserved tribal inheritance of property (chapter thirty-six).
It’s an eventful book and central to the identity of the Hebrews and the Jews.