Lessing, R. Reed & Andrew E. Steinmann. Prepare the Way of the Lord: An Introduction to the Old Testament. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2014. Chapter 6, “Numbers” pp. 115-130.
The book of Numbers, as noted by its Hebrew title, “in the wilderness,” takes place in a desolate area, not capable of sustaining humans (Lessing 2014, 115). The Greek version took the name of numbering from the accounting in various places of the book. The book makes many references to Moses receiving God’s words and writing. However, critics observe the lack of direct claims of Mosaic authorship.
Lessing notes the difficulty of deriving one definitive outline from the book (Lessing 2014, 116). The book can be subdivided in several coherent ways. The events in the book occur between 1446 and 1406 B.C. (Lessing 2014, 118). The first ten chapters deal with a two month period. The next 14 chapters cover 39 years. Lessing summarizes the different travels of Israel in Nubmers briefly (Lessing 2014, 119).
The census events in chapters one and 26 count men of military age (Lessing 2014, 120). The first census can be used to derive a total population of about three million. Lessing asks some important logistic questions, including why a large nation would fear small armies and nations (Lessing 2014, 120). He concludes that the numbers do seem to be intended as literal, though slightly rounded, numbers (Lessing 2014, 121).
There are various encounters with foreigners recorded in Numbers. In these encounters, “those who bless Israel are blessed while those who curse God’s people are cursed” (Lessing 2014, 121). Lessing details these encounters.
Among theological themes of Numbers, the primary discussion is the role of the Levites (Lessing 2014, 124). They are set aside for God’s service, though not all in the priesthood. Another important theme is the passing of the old generation and the growth of a new generation who would claim God’s promised land (Lessing 2014, 125). The unbelief of the old generation condemned it to death in the wilderness. A third important theme is Moses’ sin, which prevented his entrance into the promised land (Lessing 2014, 127). Lessing observes his claim of a miracle done by him rather than God (Numbers 20:10). Further, in the same passage, when told to speak to a rock, Moses struck the rock. Lessing considers Moses’ gestures and actions to be similar to the motions of the pagan magicians, which could also confuse people about the source of the miracles.
Jesus may be seen in Numbers as the people confess their sin and then look to a bronze serpent lifted up on a pole for salvation (Lessing 2014, 128). Jesus fulfills this role as the one lifted up for his people. He claims to be the bread from heaven, the fulfillment of the manna which Israel ate. The prophecies of Balaam in Numbers 23 make references to the Christ.
In Numbers Israel repeatedly wishes to return to Egypt, counter to God’s promise. God repeatedly shows grace and forgiveness (Lessing 2014, 128).