As we begin our reading of Numbers, here’s some helpful information from David Guzik’s Commentaries on the Bible:
A. Background to the Book of Numbers.
1. Israel has come out of Egypt, God setting them free in spectacular fashion; they have come through the Red Sea, and saw God provide through the desert wilderness. They have come to Mount Sinai, where God appeared to them in a spectacular way; where Moses went up on the mountain to meet with God and receive the law in a spectacular way; and where they embraced an idolatrous image of a golden calf in a spectacular way.
a. Encamped at Mount Sinai, Israel has built a tabernacle; they have established a priesthood, and received God’s plan for the priests and the nation at large in Leviticus. At the end of Leviticus, they have been out of Egypt for a little more than a year.
b. Exodus covered a year; Leviticus only a month – but Numbers encompasses more than 38 years.
2. What happened during those 38 years? The Hebrew title of the book helps us; in Hebrew, it is not called Numbers (surely an unattractive title), but instead, In the Wilderness.
a. The wilderness was never the destination point for Israel; God meant to bring them into the Promised Land of Canaan. The wilderness was intended to be a temporary place, a place to move through, not to live in.
i. “The Hebrew word for wilderness (midbar) means a place for driving flocks. It is not a completely arid desert, but contains little vegetation and a few trees. The rainfall in such areas is too light, a few inches per year, to support cultivation.” (Wenham)
i. “The theme of the book of Numbers is the journey to the Promised Land of Canaan. Its opening ten chapters, covering a mere fifty days, describe how Moses organized Israel for the march from Sinai to the Promised Land.” (Wenham)
c. Numbers helps give us a big vision: Where is God taking us? What will it take of us to get there? What inward qualities will God develop and demand in us along the way?
i. Promised Land people are very different from slave people; Israel emerged from Egypt a slave people. How would God transform them into a promised-land people?
ii. “So the Israelites had been slaves in the land of Goshen; their tasks were appointed, and their taskmasters compelled their obedience. Their difficulties had been great, their bondage cruel, but they were free from the necessity of thought and arrangement. Having escaped from their taskmaster, they imagined that freedom meant escape from rule. They had been taught in their year of encampment under the shadow of the mountain that they had to submit to law, and it was irksome to them, and they became discontented. This discontent resulted from lack of perfect confidence in God.” (Morgan)
d. The book of Numbers approaches it all God’s way. When we are in the wilderness, we are tempted to launch a hundred different schemes and plans to get out. But only God’s way really works; and the book of Numbers gives us God’s way. The idea that the Lord spoke to Moses is repeated more than 150 times and more than 20 different ways in Numbers.