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Book of Numbers


Author and Date

The book has traditionally been ascribed to Moses. This conclusion is based on:

See Introduction to Genesis: Author and Date of Writing.

It is not necessary, however, to claim that Numbers came from Moses' hand complete and in final form. Portions of the book were probably added by scribes or editors from later periods of Israel's history. For example, the protestation of the humility of Moses . would hardly be convincing if it came from his own mouth. But it seems reasonable to assume that Moses wrote the essential content of the book.

Theological Theme and Message
In telling the story of Israel's desert wanderings, Numbers offers much that is theologically significant. During the first year after Israel's deliverance from Egypt, the nation entered into covenant with the Lord at Sinai to be the people of his kingdom, among whom he pitched his royal tent (the tabernacle) -- this is the story of Exodus. As the account of Numbers begins, the Lord organizes Israel into a military camp. Leaving Sinai, they march forth as his conquering army,with the Lord at the head, to establish his kingdom in the promised land in the midst of the nations. The book graphically portrays Israel's identity as the Lord's redeemed covenant people and its vocation as the servant people of God, charged with establishing his kingdom on earth. God's purpose in history is implicitly disclosed: to invade the arena of fallen humanity and effect the redemption of his creation -- the mission in which his people are also to be totally engaged.

Numbers also presents the chastening wrath of God against his disobedient people. Because of their rebellion (and especially the nation's refusal to undertake the conquest of Canaan), Israel was in breach of covenant. The fourth book of the Pentateuch presents a sobering reality: The God who had entered into covenant with Abraham ( , ) who had delivered his people from bondage in the exodus( ) who had brought Israel into covenant with himself as his "treasured possession" -- see especially and who had revealed his holiness and the gracious means of approaching him() was also a God of wrath. His wrath extended to his errant children as well as to the enemy nations of Egypt and Canaan.

Even Moses, the great prophet and servant of the Lord,was not exempt from God's wrath when he disobeyed God. , which records his error, begins with the notice of Miriam's death ( ) and concludes with the record of Aaron's death ( ). Here is the passing of the old guard. Those whom God has used to establish the nation are dying before the nation has come into its own.

The questions arise: Is God finished with the nation as a whole (cf. ? Are his promises a thing of the past? In one of the most remarkable sections of the Bible -- the account of Balaam, the pagan diviner (chs. ; ) -- the reply is given. The Lord, working in a providential and direct way, proclaims his continued faithfulness to his purpose for his people despite their unfaithfulness to him.

Balaam is Moab's answer to Moses, the man of God. He is an internationally known prophet who shares the pagan belief that the God of Israel is like any other deity who might be manipulated by acts of magic or sorcery. But from the early part of the narrative, when Balaam first encounters the one true God in visions, and in the narrative of the journey on the donkey (ch. ), he begins to learn that dealing with the true God is fundamentally different from anything he has ever known. When he attempts to curse Israel at the instigation of Balak king of Moab, Balaam finds his mouth unable to express the curse he desires to pronounce. Instead, from his lips come blessings on Israel and curses on its enemies (chs. - .

In his seven prophetic oracles, Balaam proclaims God's great blessing for his people (see ). Though the immediate enjoyment of this blessing will always depend on the faithfulness of his people, the ultimate realization of God's blessing is sure -- because of the character of God (see ). Thus Numbers reaffirms the ongoing purposes of God. Despite his judgment on his rebellious people, God is still determined to bring Israel into the land of promise. His blessing to Israel rests in his sovereign will.

The teaching of the book has lasting significance for Israel and for the church (cf. - ) . God does display his wrath even against his errant people, but his grace is renewed as surely as is the dawn and his redemptive purpose will not be thwarted.