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Book of Numbers

The Book of Numbers is the fourth of the books of the Pentateuch, called in the Hebrew be-midbar, i.e., "in the wilderness." In the Septuagint version it is called "Numbers," and this name is now the usual title of the book. It is so called because it contains a record of the numbering of the people in the wilderness of Sinai (1-4), and of their numbering afterwards on the plain of Moab (26).

This book is of special historical interest as furnishing us with details as to the route of the Israelites in the wilderness and their principal encampments. It may be divided into three parts:

  1. The numbering of the people at Sinai, and preparations for their resuming their march (1-10:10). The sixth chapter gives an account of the vow of a Nazirite.
  2. An account of the journey from Sinai to Moab, the sending out of the spies and the report they brought back, and the murmurings (eight times) of the people at the hardships by the way (10:11-21:20).
  3. The transactions in the plain of Moab before crossing the Jordan River (21:21-ch. 36).

The period comprehended in the history extends from the second month of the second year after the Exodus to the beginning of the eleventh month of the fortieth year, in all about thirty-eight years and ten months; a dreary period of wanderings. They were fewer in number at the end of their wanderings than when they left the land of Egypt.

The expression "the book of the wars of the Lord," occurring in 21:14, has given rise to much discussion. But, after all, "what this book was is uncertain, whether some writing of Israel not now extant, or some writing of the Amorites which contained songs and triumphs of their king Sihon's victories, out of which Moses may cite this testimony, as Paul sometimes does out of heathen poets (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12)."

Table of contents
1 Summary


Chapter 1

God orders Moses, in the wilderness of Sinai, to take the number of those able to bear arms—of all the men "from twenty years old and upward," the tribe of Levi being excepted, and to appoint princes over each tribe. The result of the numbering is that 603,550 Israelites are found to be fit for military service. Moses is ordered to assign to the Levites exclusively the service of the Tabernacle.

Chapter 2

God prescribes the formation of the camp around the Tabernacle, each tribe being distinguished by its chosen banner. Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun encamp to the east of the Tabernacle; Reuben, Simeon, and Gad to the south; Ephraim and Manasseh to the west; and Dan, Asher, and Naphtali to the north. The same order is to be preserved on the march.

Chapter 3

Of Aaron's sons and of the death of Nadab and Abihu. Moses is ordered to consecrate the Levites for the service of the Tabernacle in the place of the first-born sons, who hitherto had performed that service. The Levites are divided into three families, the Gershonites, the Kohathites, and the Merarites, each under a chief, and all headed by one prince, Eleazar, son of Aaron.

Chapter 4-6

The numbering of those Levites who are suited for the service of the Tabernacle—those from thirty to fifty years of age.

Ordinances and laws concerning lepers and other ritually unclean persons who are excluded from the camp; concerning reparation for common sins; concerning an unfaithful wife, her trial by the priest, and her atonement; concerning the Nazarite, and the ceremony performed at the expiration of his vow; the formal blessing of the people.

Chapters 7,8 and 9

The offerings of the princes of the twelve tribes at the dedication of the altar. The lighting of the candlestick; the separation of the Levites and the ceremony of their consecration; their term of service—from twenty-five to fifty years of age. Deferred Passover sacrifices; the cloud which directed the halts and journeys of the Israelites.

Chapter 10-12

Moses is ordered to make two silver trumpets for convoking the congregation and announcing the recommencement of a journey; the various occasions for the use of the trumpets; the first journey of the Israelites after the Tabernacle had been constructed; Moses requests Hobab to be their leader. The people murmur against God and are punished by fire; Moses complains of the stubbornness of the Israelites and is ordered to choose seventy elders to assist him in the government of the people; account of Eldad and Medad, of the shower of quails, and of the epidemic at Kibroth-hattaavah. Miriam and Aaron insult Moses at Hazeroth, and Miriam is punished with leprosy for seven days, at the end of which the Israelites proceed to the wilderness of Paran.

Chapter 13-14

The spies and the outcome of their mission.

Chapter 15-17

Ordinances to be observed in Canaan; different kinds of offerings; "hallah," or the priest's share of the dough; the atonement for involuntary sins; concerning the man found gathering sticks on the Sabbath-day; the law of fringes (see Fringes); the rebellion and punishment of Korah and his 250 adherents.

Moses ordered to make plates to cover the altar with the two hundred and fifty censers left after the destruction of Korah's band. The children of Israel murmur against Moses and Aaron on account of the death of Korah's men, and are stricken with the plague, 14,700 perishing; Aaron's rod.

Chapters 18-19

Aaron and his family are declared by God to be responsible for any iniquity committed in connection with the sanctuary. The Levites are again appointed to help him in the keeping of the Tabernacle. Concerning the priestly portions and the tithes given the Levites. The Levites are ordered to surrender to the priests a part of the tithes taken by them. The law of the red heifer.

Chaopter 20, 21

After Miriam's death at Kadesh, the Israelites blame Moses for the lack of water. Moses, ordered by God to speak to the rock, disobeys by striking it, and is punished by the announcement that he shall not enter Canaan. The King of Edom refuses permission to the Israelites to pass through his land. Aaron's death on Mount Hor.

Defeat of King Arad the Canaanite by the Israelites. The Israelites bitten by serpents for speaking against God and Moses. The brazen serpent. The wanderings of the Israelites prior to reaching the valley of Moab. Battles with and defeat of Sihon and Og.

Chapter 22-24

The episode of Balak and Balaam.

Chapter 25-27

The Israelites encamped at Shittim commit abominations with the daughters of Moab and join Baal-peor. A plague carries off 24,000 Israelites. Phinehas slays Zimri. The new census, taken just before the entry into the land of Canaan, gives the total number of males from twenty years and upward as 601,730, the number of the Levites from a month old and upward as 23,000. The land shall be divided by lot. The daughters of Zelophehad, their father having no sons, share in the allotment. Moses is ordered to appoint Joshua as his successor.

Chapters 28-29

Prescriptions for the observance of the feasts, and the offerings for different occasions: every day; the Sabbath; the first day of the month; the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread; the day of first-fruits; the day of the trumpets; the Day of Atonement; the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles; the day of solemn assembly.

Chapters 30-32

Laws concerning vows of men and of married and unmarried women. The conquest of Midian by the Israelites. The Reubenites and the Gadites request Moses to assign them the land east of the Jordan. After their promise to go before the army to help in the conquest of the land west of the Jordan, Moses grants their request. The land east of the Jordan is divided among the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. The cities built by these tribes.

Chapter 33-36

Enumeration of the stations at which the Israelites halted during their forty years' wanderings in the wilderness. While in the plains of Moab the Israelites are told that, after crossing the Jordan, they should expel the Canaanites and destroy their idols.

The boundaries of the land of which the Israelites are about to take possession. The land is to be divided among the tribes under the superintendence of Eleazar, Joshua, and twelve princes, one of each tribe.

The forty-eight cities assigned to the Levites, and the six cities of refuge. Laws concerning murder and the cities of refuge, and female inheritance.

See also: Torah, Balaam