The Book of Numbers is more than numbers. This is really the continuation of the story of what happened to the Israelites after they left Mount Sinai and before they entered the Promised Land. This is the story of the time in the wilderness. There were many ups and downs in this story.
The first section is really the census or the actual counting of the Israelite males. There never was any counting of females or children. The 12 tribes started counting males from the age of 20. The two descendants of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh were considered separate tribes, but the sons of Levi were not considered among the 12 tribes ready for war. The result of the census of the 12 tribes was over 600,000 males over the age of 20. Each tribe had a special place to camp in the settlement. This probably made for good order. This would make a group of around 2,000,000 people if you count women and children.
The Levites had a separate census. They counted their males from the age of 1 month instead of from 20 years old. Thus the Levites had 22,000 males. They also camped closest to the tent of meeting. There were specific roles for the three major clans of Levi, Gershon, Kohath and Merari. Each clan had to carry a certain part of the tent of meeting and the sanctuary. No one else could do this work. The Levites were special to Yahweh. In fact they were the substitutes for the first-born males of all the other clans. There was just about enough Levites to cover this.
There were some special laws that may have been among other ancient people, but received a special Mosaic value. There were regulations about how and when the impure or unclean people had to leave the camp. Restitution with the next of kin was important. If there was no one alive to make restitution, the restitution would go to the priest. The jealousy offering was a strange law about how any jealous husband could accuse his wife of infidelity. She then had to go before the priest and drink a special water to see if she was faithful or not. The Nazirite vows for a short period of time meant separation from others, letting your hair grow, and not having anything to do with grapes or its product wine. Finally there was the beautiful priestly blessing.
The tribal leaders gave great offerings to the sanctuary for the dedication of the altar. The date of the Passover was fixed, the 14th day of the 1st month, with special rules for those who could be excused from the Passover feast. The divine cloud covered the camp. This cloud led them forward and told them when to stop and rest. The trumpets were used to command the Israelites when to move or not move. They finally got their marching orders from Yahweh. Moses with the Israelites set out on the long trek to the Promised Land.
The complaints began to emerge, first about the manna and then about Moses himself. Yahweh was upset that the people were not listening to Moses. Yahweh sent an effusion of his Spirit among the various elders and leaders of the Israelites to help Moses. Then Yahweh sent the quails for meat all around the camp. Miriam and Aaron began to complain against their brother Moses. Guess what, Yahweh was not pleased. Miriam had leprosy for a month, after the intercession of Aaron and Moses saved her life.
Moses sent out a reconnaissance crew to spy on Canaan. The report back was that the task would be difficult. The Canaanites were tall and strong. They lived in fortified towns. The Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt. Once again Yahweh was angry and wanted to kill them all and just start with Moses alone. Finally, he stopped the plague among the Israelites. Moses used the bronze snake to stop a plague. There punishment was that no one living would see the Promised Land, only their children would. Thus they spent 40 years wandering in the desert until all the complainers had died. The first battle for the Holy Land was not a success since Yahweh was not with them.
There were various worship regulations, especially about presenting the first fruits of the harvest. There were clear guidelines about inadvertent and intentional law breaking, as well the punishment for violating the Sabbath. There was a mention of the tassels on garments.
Of course, there was the revolt of Korah and the 250 men. Their punishment was to be taken alive with their families. Those who complained that Moses was taking too much credit ended up with burning censers destroying them. The story of Aaron and his blossoming branches showed Yahweh’s love of Aaron.
There was a clear division of the responsibilities between the Levites and priests. The priests or sons of Aaron had more responsibilities than the ordinary Levites. Tithing was essential to all religious life in Israel. The unique burning of the red heifer and the water cleansing ritual were also important. There was always the reminder of about touching the dead and the 7 days of impurity. Both Miriam and Aaron died before they reached the land flowing with milk and honey.
After they reached Kadesh, they began their movement towards Canaan. Moses got water from a rock at Meribah. However, Edom refused passage on the King’s Highway. The first battle was the taking of Hormah. Then they defeated the Amorites.
The King of Moab Balak appealed to Balaam, a Babylonian oracle to curse the Israelites. The satirical story of Balaam’s talking donkey reminded Balaam to follow the will of Yahweh. When Balaam and Balak met, Balaam blessed the Israelites instead of cursing them with his famous oracles.
They took another census where some tribes had big changes and the other tribes minimal as they prepared to invade Canaan. They also took another census of the Levites and solved the female inheritance problem.
Joshua was made the head of the community by Moses as he prepared to die. Meanwhile there was the reminder of the various offerings and sacrifices, the daily sacrifices, the Sabbath, the monthly sacrifices, Passover, the Unleavened Bread Feast, the Festival of Weeks, the Acclamation Feast, the Day of Atonement and the Festival of Tents. There were commandments about taking vows for men and women.
The Holy War against the Midianites began with no Israelite loses. Moses was angry that they had not massacred all the women who had tempted the Israelite men at Peor. After the battle the warriors had to be purified. They divided up the booty of gold and presented them to Moses and Eleazar.
They then divided up the Transjordan area between the Reubenites and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh. They talked about how to divide Canaan and what the borders should be after the capture of Canaan. They also talked about the refugee towns and the towns for the Israelites.
Numbers is really a wonderful series of stories of the Israelites in the wilderness between Mount Sinai and the invasion of Canaan. Within the stories there are the various prescriptions about how to present the sacrificial animal offerings in worship, as well as everyday life ordinances. It was better than I thought that it would be.