5 Reasons You Should Think Twice Before Skipping the Book of Numbers

The fourth book of the Bible gets a bad rap. First, there’s the title. The word “numbers” scares away math phobic people to begin with. And even if you’re not afraid of arithmetic, who would want to read an entire book called Numbers?

Jazmin Quaynor

For those brave enough to crack open its pages, many still will turn away after realizing what it’s all about: a census. Imagine downloading the US Census data and reading the names of every person with the last name Smith. Yeah, it’s kind of like that. At least that’s how Numbers begins. Even for someone like me who happens to love the book, all those names often leave me dizzy or comatose. But if you can muscle through the censuses and genealogies, you’ll be rewarded by one of the richest and most bizarre narratives in the entire Bible. From talking donkeys to spontaneous serpent outbreaks, here are five reasons you should think twice before skipping the book of Numbers.

1. Insurrections

Perhaps most intriguing are the two challenges to Moses’s power among Israel. First in Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam, Moses’s own siblings questioned his authority in regard to his marriage to a “Cushite.” Little detail is provided us, but critics such as Charles Ellicott and Albert Barnes suggest this Cushite was a new wife whom Moses married after the death of Zipporah.[1] If so, Miriam probably expected a greater role of power with Zipporah’s passing, which led to jealousy upon his remarriage. For her sin, God made her skin leprous.

The second rebellion is more famous because of the resultant fallout. In the 16th chapter, Korah, a descendant of Levi, gathered up 250 leaders of the Israelites in opposition to Moses and Aaron. Korah was jealous and resented Moses’s and Aaron’s authority over Israel. As tension mounted, Moses convinced Korah and his posse to show up the next day so God could choose who should lead. When they did the earth opened up, swallowing Korah and his cohorts along with their families and possessions. If that wasn’t enough of an endorsement of Moses, God also rained fire that consumed the 250 leaders involved in the rebellion.

2. Report on the Exploration of Canaan

From Sinai to the edge of the Promised Land by foot is an eleven-day journey[2], and yet the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years. Numbers 13 and 14 show us why. On the edge of Canaan, Moses sent out spies to check out the land. Upon returning, the spies drummed up fear by telling the assembly the land was good, but filled with mighty warriors: “But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. . . We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes” (v. 28, 33). Only Caleb and Joshua held firm and tried to assuage the fears of the Israelites by reminding them of God’s providence. Instead of heeding such advice, the Israelites rebelled and discussed a return to Egypt. In response, God said no one but Caleb and Joshua would enter the Promised Land, leading to the forty-year wandering (Num. 14:24).

3. Moses’s Error

As you read Exodus through Deuteronomy, you get a sense for just how close of a relationship Moses had with God. The pair had innumerable audible conversations “as one speaks to a friend” (Exo. 33:11), including when Moses received the Ten Commandments on Sinai. But as close as they were, Moses still committed a grievous sin against his Maker in chapter 20 when the people demanded water. At this point Moses’s frustration and fatigue is palpable. The Israelites had botched their entrance to the Promised Land because of fear and had complained every step of the way. To top it off, Moses’s sister, Miriam, had just died. So when the people grumble yet again, this time for water, Moses had had enough.

God tells Moses to speak to a rock and water would come forth. Instead he strikes the rock twice with his staff. He said, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” (20:10). Moses took credit for supplying the water, and did not follow God’s instructions. As a result, God said Moses would not bring Israel into the Promised Land.

4. Moses and the Serpents

Another critical story revolves around the disobedience of the Israelites. On journey around Edom, the Israelites became impatient, and—you guessed it—complained against God and Moses. In response God sent serpents loose in the camp, killing many of the complainers. Moses constructed a bronze serpent and raised it up on pole. Any who looked at the creation were spared. This event served as a symbol for Jesus who said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15).

5. Balaam’s Advice

You might be familiar with the donkey who pleads with his master to avoid slaughter at the hands of an angel in chapter 22, but that’s only part of the story. Balaam actually has a crucial role in the downfall of Israel. Although he refuses to curse Israel saying, “I can’t say whatever I please. I must speak only what God puts in my mouth” (Num. 22:38), Balaam does provide king Balak with the key do Israel’s undoing: Moabite women who bring with them false gods and idolatry. Numbers does not include this detail in the narrative, but Moses refers to it later on in chapter 31.

These are just five of many reasons you should not skip over the fourth book of the Bible. The narrative contained therein provides critical insight into the formation of the nation of Israel, and can teach both Christians and Jews a thing or two about how to rely on God for provision.

1. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/numbers/12-1.htm
2. Deuteronomy 1:2

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