The English title of this book, Numbers, is translated from the Greek title “Arithmoi”, meaning, you know, numbers (we obviously see this same root word in our modern “arithmetic”. This is certainly titled as such in reference to the multiple censuses that occur, including at the very beginning of the book. The Hebrew title, “bemidbar”, however, is a better broad title as it translates from the fifth word in the book meaning “in the wilderness”. This narrative focuses on God’s people over the 40 years travelling in the wilderness between Mt. Sinai, through the Wilderness of Paran to Kadesh, and ultimately to the promised land of Canaan (or in this case, just outside in the plans of Moab).
To that point, like the books that come before and after it, Numbers is the continued story of God keeping his promises to Abraham, through His people and His faithfulness. As could likely be expected, however, all of this also reveals the tendency of man to rebel against God’s good intention for them, curse the means through which His mercy comes, and react with skepticism and disbelief even after being personal witness to God’s faithfulness many, many times at this point. Every point of this journey is met with some form of protest, a subsequent combination of judgment and mercy (restoration), and additional provision of law to meet the needs of new situations that are arising for His people.
Numbers moves the reminders of God’s holiness and provision of the laws that reflect both it and the role of Israel as God’s people (to be holy as He is holy and to act as the kingdom of priests) from Leviticus and puts them into a live environment, transitioning knowledge to opportunity for faith and obedience. Like many of the New Testament writers did, we should see ourselves in this transition as well and likely subject to the same fickle and non-sensical reactions. Also like Leviticus, there are periods of additional law-giving and descriptions of rituals. We need to be careful not to move too quickly past these things as they are not only a central means through which the Israelites deal with living with the holy presence of YHWH in their midst, but are also the means through which they remain faithful to His character in their day to day lives. For us, who live on the other side of the sacrifice of Jesus, it is the undergirding reasons for these laws, less so than the exact expression of them, that continues to influence our lives and relationship with YHWH.
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