Numbers Introduction to the Book
Whereas the book of Exodus covered a period of about one year and Leviticus about a month, the book of Numbers covers a time period of about 39 years; from the end of the first year after the Israelites left Egypt, up until just before their entry into the land of Canaan—their promised land. The title Numbers comes from the “sum” (census or numbering) of the people of Israel, as addressed in chapters 1 and 26.
By the way, are these high population figures accurate? Many have doubted them, and we have no way to know for sure, but one scholar/blogger has posted: “The Israelites ‘multiplied greatly’ during their 430 years in Egypt and ‘became so numerous that the land was filled with them’ (Exodus 1:7). The Egyptian Pharaoh was so concerned with their population increase that he attempted to reduce the slave numbers by pressuring the Hebrew midwives to kill the newborn sons (Exodus 1:8, 15)…. The census in Numbers 1, which only included men 20 years old and older, suggests that the total number of Hebrews could have exceeded 2 million people. While this is indeed a large number, it is not impossible. It would require a population growth rate of 2.6 percent—extraordinarily high, but not too far above the 2.2 percent growth rate seen worldwide in the middle of the twentieth century. If each generation averaged six children [per family], a growth from 70 people to 2 million people in 400 years is not unreasonable” (https://www.gotquestions.org/numbers-Bible-accurate.html).
In the census, the Levites were not counted as foot-men (soldiers) because they were assigned to set up, take down, and transport the tabernacle, and to officiate as priests (see Numbers 1:47-53; 3:5-10). But there were still twelve tribes, because Joseph counted as two (through his sons Ephraim and Manasseh; see Numbers 1:32-35).
Numbers 11-14 Murmuring and Its Consequences
Based on your study, what impressions do you have about the children of Israel since their departure from Egypt? What do you think is their basic problem (or problems)? Do you see any correlations in your own life, that you may take as a lesson for personal improvement? Numbers 11-14 contains accounts of people who complain and murmur, and what happened as a result:
- In 11:1-2, we don’t know who “the people” were, nor what they complained about, but how did the Lord respond? Why such drastic consequences? To bring up a people who will listen and obey, for their own spiritual welfare in mortality and eternity. Those put to death are simply taken into the spirit world, where the Lord can work with them there.
- In 11:4-6, 10-23, 31-34, what did the people complain about? How did the Lord respond? (Their rejection of manna can be considered symbolic of rejecting Christ, the Bread of Life.)
- As an aside, in 11:24-29, we see something that is also featured in the latter-day church, wherein others are called to assist the prophet and they too receive gifts of the Spirit in their ministries. In addition to prophets, it can be said that “we all get into the act” of doing God’s work. And, we are to seek our own revelation and guidance, without expecting all life’s answers to come from those who lead us.
- In 12:1-15, what was the complaint of Miriam and Aaron? How did the Lord respond? (Perhaps Aaron was not smitten in the same manner, because he was needed to officiate as high priest.)
- In 13:1-2, 17-33, the men sent to investigate the land of Canaan—in preparation for the Israelites to enter—came back with a complaining attitude about their chances for success in taking the land. They had forgotten the Lord’s great promises in Exodus 23 and Leviticus 26, regarding what He would do for them, if they would but follow Him. Has there been something in your life that you were afraid to do, but you did it and it worked out?
- In 14:1-4, what did “all the congregation” complain about? How did Joshua and Caleb respond, and what did the people want to do to them? (verses 5-10). How did the Lord respond? (verses 11-12). This is followed by what can be considered a beautiful intercessory prayer by Moses, in verses 13-19. How did the Lord respond to Moses’s prayer? (verses 20-24, 29-38).
The attitude of the Israelites caused a delay of an additional 39 years before their entry into the promised land; the Lord stating that those age 20 and over when they left Egypt would die in the wilderness and not enter the promised land (see also Numbers 26:63-65). After learning all this, the people still insisted on their own way of doing things, deciding to try to enter Canaan immediately (which was against what the Lord had just told them), resulting in failure and more deaths (verses 40-45). Are you feeling weary of these people? See how patient God is? Is He patient with you?
Numbers 20 More Murmuring
Once again, the people complained (20:2-5). This is followed in verses 6-11 by the episode wherein Moses smote a rock (a symbol of Jesus Christ) and “water came out abundantly.” Verse 12 says that the Lord told Moses that his lack of faith and obedience would be punished by his lost opportunity to lead the children of Israel into Canaan (this is also mentioned in Numbers 27:12-14; Deuteronomy 1:37; 3:25-28; 32:48-52). This is questionable and likely a mistake in textual translation or transmission, which becomes apparent by reading Alma 45:19; D&C 84:23-27 (see also Deuteronomy 34:5-6 Articles of Faith 1:8).
Numbers 21 Fiery Flying Serpents
In chapter 21, after the Lord empowered the Israelites to defeat some Canaanites who attacked them (verses 1-3), there follows another instance of murmuring, this time related to the difficulty of travel, lack of water, and (once again), the manna (verses 4-5). This brings upon the Israelites the famous occurrence of fiery flying serpents, which becomes an emblematic episode for generations. Read verses 6-9, and read also John 3:14-16; 1 Nephi 17:40-41; Alma 33:18-22; and Helaman 8:13-16, and summarize for yourself the lessons learned. How hard can it be to simply look? All along, the children of Israel have been taught in various ways about Jehovah; their Lord Jesus Christ—what will it take?
Numbers 22-24 Balaam and Balak
As the Israelites approach their entry into Canaan, a most interesting account develops, involving Balak (the king of Moab, where Israel is camped) and Balaam (a “prophet” or holy man who was living near Moab):
- What did Balak ask Balaam to do? (22:1-6). How did Balaam respond? (verses 7-8).
- How did the Lord respond to Balaam? (verses 9-14). How did Balak respond in turn? (verses 15-17). What was Balaam’s next answer? (verse 18). Like Balak, Satan is relentless in his attempts to persuade us, offering worldly promises in exchange for our misbehavior.
- Read the unusual events in verses 21-35. Let us not curse that which may actually be helping us (such as when Balaam cursed the ass). Why was Balaam seemingly unimpressed by the fact that the ass was speaking? Why did Balaam fail to see the angel? Was he blinded by his anger against the ass?
- In chapter 23, Balaam meets Balak in person. What did Balaam say to him? (verses 8-10). How did Balak respond? (verse 11). And in turn, how did Balaam reply to that? (verses 12, 20-23; see also 24:10-13).
- Unfortunately, there is more to the story. Read Numbers 25:1-3; 31:16; Joshua 13:22; 2 Peter 2:15-16; Jude 1:11; Revelation 2:14. Even a holy man can fall, if he gives in to worldly wiles and fails to follow the God of Israel.
The Book of Numbers Additional Verses of Interest
The curriculum calls for chapters 11-14, 20-24; however, thought-provoking things in other chapters include:
- 6:1-21—Instructions for those taking upon themselves the way of a Nazarite (likely including Samson, the prophet Samuel, and John the Baptist).
- 6:22-27—A beautiful blessing pronounced upon the children of Israel.
- 7:89—The Lord speaks to Moses from the mercy seat in the holy of holies.
- 9:15-17, 22—How the Lord guided the children of Israel in the wilderness, with a cloud and a pillar of fire.
- 10:29-32—Moses recruited Hobab, his brother-in-law, to be a guide for the Israelites as they traveled, promising him blessings along with the House of Israel. We too can invite others to join us in the Lord’s cause.
- 15:37-41—The Lord’s instruction that resulted in the Jews’ practice of wearing a “tallit” (prayer shawl), which includes 613 “fringes” or “tzitzit” (tassels); representing the 613 “commandments” of the law of Moses.
- 16:1-50; 17:1-13—A rebellion against Moses and Aaron, and the Lord’s miraculous resolution of the problem; teaching us a great lesson about the importance of sustaining and following our prophet-leaders.
- 25:1-9—Adultery and the worship of false gods lead to the deaths of 24,000 rebellious Israelites.
- 27:18-23—Moses follows the Lord’s instruction to set apart Joshua as his successor.
- 32:1-31—The tribes of Reuben and Gad choose land east of the Jordan River (not in the land of promise) because there is more room for their large herds; but Moses asks them to promise to help the other tribes in conquering the Canaanites—as the Lord commanded them to do—so that Israel could take full possession of the promised land. Do the tribes of Reuben and Gad think they have found something better than what their God is offering them? Do we ever look for alternatives that we think may improve upon the ways of the Lord?
- 33:50-56—the Lord’s command to fully dispossess the wicked Canaanites of the land (which was promised to Abraham and his descendants), followed by dire warnings of what would happen if they failed to do so. We too are commanded to drive out all evil from our lives (see 2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
- 35:34—God commands the Israelites not to pollute nor defile the land into which He was leading them, declaring: “For I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel.” The land promised to Abraham’s covenant descendants was to be their “Zion,” and the Lord would help them obtain it and truly convert it into a “holy land,” if they would obey and follow Him.