In the Wilderness Numbers

The book of Numbers returns to the narrative theme, describing the journey from Egypt to Canaan. In Numbers 10 the Israelites finally resume their course after their prolonged stay in Sinai. The most important material in Numbers appears in chapters 11–25, which feature accounts of the incidents that happened during the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, followed by a series of appendixes and divine instructions. Overall Numbers is the most complicated book in the Pentateuch textually, having been composed from the sources of the Documentary Hypothesis and a number of other sources.

Census and Arrangement of the Camp

The book of Numbers begins and ends with a census of the Israelites, and it is from these events that the book of Numbers got its name. The first census gives a count of the adult males who came out of Egypt, while the second lists those who had been born since the Exodus began. As we have already seen in Exodus 12.37, the biblical writers often inflated census statistics; therefore it is not surprising that the population statistics found in Numbers are also unrealistically high. Although no reasonable interpretation for this inflation has ever been presented, it is possible that P is incorporating numbers from a variety of sources in order to demonstrate that the divine promise of descendants had been fulfilled.

            Numbers 2 discusses the way that the Israelite camp was arranged around the tent of meeting in the wilderness. The account does not discuss actual geography and is probably an idealized depiction of ancient Israel provided by the P source. The main theme is to demonstrate the way the tribes were situated according to their holiness. Nearest to the entrance were Moses, Aaron, and his sons, followed by the dominant tribe of Judah, which was then flanked by Judah’s brothers Zebulun and Issachar.

Law, Ritual, and Purity

Similar to the books that preceded it, Numbers features a variety of legal directives regarding rituals and purity that are sprinkled throughout the narrative. Much of the legal material duplicates or supplements the rules and rituals already presented in Exodus and Leviticus. Examples include a variant description of the Passover (9.1–14) and the ritual calendar as a whole (28–29), as well as commands concerning purity and rituals (5–10.15). 

            In addition to these, some new legal directives concerning law, ritual, and purity also appear in Numbers. Among the law cases are procedures relating to wives suspected of adultery, asylum for those who have taken human life, and inheritance when there is no male heir. A common thread of these laws is that all of them reflect the patriarchal society out of which they developed as they are designed to protect male honor and property. Besides these legal matters, there are ritual guidelines covering the governance of vows and the role of priests. Most notably, Numbers, like Exodus and Leviticus, also emphasizes the privileged status of the priests. Last, Numbers relates the strange purification ritual involving the red cow. This ritual, which was meant to purify those who had come in contact with a corpse, is apparently a very old ritual that was later incorporated into the sacrificial system. As with the Passover lamb or the “goat for Azazel,” the cow was an apparent substitute for the human, whose life is preserved through the cow’s death.

Chronology and Geography

According to the biblical chronology, a little over a year had passed from the time that Moses left Midian until the Israelites departed from Sinai. In addition, it was supposed to take the Israelites forty years from the time of the Exodus until they were finally allowed to enter the Promised Land. Therefore, this wandering in the wilderness establishes the geographical framework for these events. Unfortunately, the sources for these events differ on both chronology and geography. The main difference is that the J source claims that the Israelites were only at Kadesh for a short time, while the P source claims that they were at Kadesh for nearly all of the forty-year period. Also, P uses itineraries to move along the narrative, giving specific locations where the Israelites stopped along the way. However, P’s itineraries are not completely consistent with J or with the book of Deuteronomy. Furthermore, the focus on Kadesh provides additional problems, as the location of this city cannot be determined accurately.


On several occasions in Numbers, rebellion breaks out among the Israelites. In these instances the people turn against both Moses and God himself, resulting in serious consequences for Israel. The rebellions begin immediately after the Israelites have left Sinai. With the Israelites grumbling about their situation, God sends fire that consumes some outlying parts of the camp. Only through the intercession of Moses is the fire stopped. This theme of Israelite sin, divine anger, and intercession through Moses recurs several times before the Israelites reach Canaan. These repeated instances of rebellion explain why the wilderness episode took so long, and it functions as another example of the final editor’s work. P included all of these variant traditions within the narrative because they were seen as important even if they are at times repetitive or contradictory.

            Although all of the rebellion scenes are similar in form, each focuses on a different issue and shapes the narrative in its own way. Numbers 12 presents a surprising revolt by Aaron and Miriam. They question Moses’s authority and claim that his marriage to a Cushite woman was inappropriate. Ultimately Moses is established as the divinely chosen leader of Israel once again. This scene is followed by the episode of the spies, which combines J and P. Here the Israelites refuse to enter Canaan because they feel that it is too well fortified. Angered by this, God proclaims that none of the generation who fled from Egypt would enter the Promised Land. Thus, this episode is provided to explain some loose ends. The repeated rebellions demonstrate why the journey from Egypt to Canaan took so long. Second, we are told why Judah became the dominant tribe in the south; as a member of this tribe, Caleb was the spy who believed that God would help them to enter Canaan. Last, this episode helps explain why Joshua became Moses’s successor.

            In Numbers 16–17, the J and P sources present accounts that describe rebellions by priests. In the first account, Dathan and Abiram, who are priests from the tribe of Reuben, question Moses’s authority by claiming that he led them to ruin in the wilderness. The punishment of Dathan and Abiram is an etiology explaining the ultimate decline of the tribe of Reuben. In the second account, Korah argues that all of Israel is holy and therefore Moses and Aaron do not deserve their special status. This event and the other episodes that describe transgressions and rebellions by the priests are retrojections of later rivalries between priestly houses and also serve to legitimate the authority of Aaron as high priest.

            The scene at Meribah represents the culmination of all of the rebellion narratives. This account is a doublet of the Meribah story that was presented in Exodus 17; however, in this version the results are much more serious. Before the water springs forth from the rock, Moses becomes angry with the people, and Yahweh condemns both Moses and Aaron by announcing that they will not be allowed to enter Canaan. Thus, all of the previous rebellion scenes have led to this point, where even Moses and Aaron cannot escape God’s wrath. Ultimately, this episode was included as a means of explaining why the divinely appointed messenger of God was not allowed to see the Promised Land. 

Opposition on the Journey

In addition to the repeated divine punishments against Israel, the peoples living in and around the Promised Land also posed a serious problem to the Israelites. In the episode of the scouts, the Israelites do battle with both Amalekites and Canaanites, and there are several other conflicts that take place in the latter part of Numbers as well. With the help of God, Israel is able to defeat the Canaanites, the Amorites, and the Midianites even though each of these nations had superior numbers. In the end these battles may not belong to the time of Moses but are probably retrojections from much later Israelite history. Specifically, these encounters may recount conflicts between Israel and its neighbors between the end of the second millennium BCE and the first half of the first millennium BCE.

Balaam the Seer

The narrative featuring Balaam the seer is one of the most complicated passages in Numbers, and no consensus exists on its origin or date. The core of the narrative appears to come from the sources of the Documentary Hypothesis. In addition to these sources, there are several poems that are interspersed throughout the account. These poems probably were separate sources that were incorporated into the biblical text later. Another possibility is that the surrounding narrative was created in order to incorporate these poems into Numbers.

            Whatever the origin of the text, the scene is generally important to the narrative overall. Balaam was hired to curse the Israelites but ended up blessing them instead. Also, he received a revelation from God and delivered it. Despite these positive events, Balaam is characterized negatively through most of the Bible. He is denounced as a “diviner” (Josh 13.22) whom the Israelites later killed, according to the book of Joshua and the P source. Worst of all, he is blamed for the episode at Baal Peor. This scene, which is yet another instance of Israelite rebellion, resulted in sexual relations between the Israelite men and Moabite women and the worship of Baal instead of Yahweh.

            Perhaps what is most interesting about the Balaam story is that the figure of Balaam, son of Beor, is also mentioned in a nonbiblical source. This is important since there are so few supporting sources for early biblical history, making the Balaam texts from Deir Alla so critical. In these texts Balaam is described as a seer who received a revelation of doom. Apparently aware of this tradition, biblical writers altered these accounts for their own purposes, turning a Transjordanian seer into a pro-Israelite prophet.

Final Preparations

The final chapters of Numbers describe the events before the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land. A second census is taken and Joshua is appointed as Moses’s successor. Provisions are also made for the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and eastern Manasseh, all of which settled outside of the Promised Land east of the Jordan River. This narrative does have some historical import as well since it is probably recalling a time when Israel included some tribes east of the Jordan that were later absorbed by other peoples, such as Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites.

Implications for Our Study

By the end of the book of Numbers, the stage is finally set for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. The journey from Egypt to the plains of Moab on the Jordan River has taken up forty years and much of the book of Exodus as well as all of Leviticus and Numbers. This migration not only tested the Israelites repeatedly but also served as the backdrop for the revelation of God’s law. In sum, the book of Numbers explains why the time in the wilderness was so long and why the Exodus generation did not live to see the Promised Land. Furthermore, it introduces us to many of Israel’s rivals in and around the land of Canaan, many of whom will continue to play an important role in later books of the Bible.