Book summary

Once God has finished instructing Moses on atonement and holy living in Leviticus, the Israelites prepare to leave Mount Sinai to continue their journey to the Promised Land (also called Canaan). This is where Numbers picks up the story.

Unfortunately, after leaving Mount Sinai the Israelites aren’t obedient to God. He punishes them for their rebellion and they must wander in the wilderness for forty years before they are allowed to enter Canaan.

This book describes Israel’s experiences while wandering in the wilderness. The Hebrew title is Bemidbar, which means “in the desert”. The book finishes with God’s instructions on how they should divide the land once they enter Canaan.

Chapters 1:1 to 10:10 — A disobedient generation prepares to inherit Canaan

Ch 1-4 — First census and organizing the tribes

Ch 1 — First census
  • [God said to Moses,] “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one. You and Aaron are to count according to their divisions all the men in Israel who are twenty years old or more and able to serve in the army.” (Num. 1:2-3)

Ch 2 — Arranging the camps
  • “The Israelites are to camp around the tent of meeting some distance from it, each of them under their standard and holding the banners of their family.” (Num. 2:2)

Ch 3-4 — Organizing the Levites
  • “Bring the tribe of Levi and present them to Aaron the priest to assist him. They are to perform duties for him and for the whole community at the tent of meeting by doing the work of the tabernacle.” (Num. 3:6-7)

Ch 5:1 to 10:10 — Purifying God’s people

The Nazirite vow
  • “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins. During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long…’” (Num. 6:2-5)

Chapters 10:11 to 25:18 — A disobedient generation is punished

Ch 10:11 to 12:16 — They leave Sinai and begin complaining

Ch 10:11-36 — The Israelites leave Sinai
  • On the twentieth day of the second month of the second year, the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle of the covenant law. Then the Israelites set out from the Desert of Sinai and traveled from place to place until the cloud came to rest in the Desert of Paran. (Num. 10:11-12)

Ch 11:1-3 — Fire from the Lord
  • Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the Lord and the fire died down. (Num. 11:1-2)

Ch 11:4-35 — Quail from the Lord
  • The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost — also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Num. 11:4-5)

Ch 12 — Miriam and Aaron oppose Moses
  • Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” And the Lord heard this. (Num. 12:1-2)

Ch 13-14 — Rebellion at Kadesh

Ch 13 — Moses sends men to explore the Promised Land and report back
  • They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.” (Num. 13:27-28)

  • But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. (Num. 13:31-32)

Ch 14:1-20 — The people rebel
  • All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (Num. 14:2-3)

Ch 14:26-45 — God punishes them to forty years in the wilderness
  • The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: “How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites.” (Num. 14:26-27)

  • “… for forty years — one year for each of the forty days you explored the land — you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.” (Num. 14:34)

Ch 15-19 — Rebellion in the wilderness

Ch 15 — Laws on offerings, the Sabbath, and garments
  • “But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel.” (Num. 15:30)

Ch 16 — Rebellion of Korah and his allies
  • [Korah and his allies] became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (Num. 16:1-3)

Ch 17 — The budding of Aaron’s staff
  • The next day Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds. (Num. 17:8)

  • The Lord said to Moses, “Put back Aaron’s staff in front of the ark of the covenant law, to be kept as a sign to the rebellious. This will put an end to their grumbling against me, so that they will not die.” (Num. 17:10)

Ch 18-19 — Laws on priesthood and ceremonial cleansing
  • The Lord said to Aaron, “You, your sons and your family are to bear the responsibility for offenses connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons alone are to bear the responsibility for offenses connected with the priesthood.” (Num. 18:1)

Ch 20-25 — Rebellion on the way to Moab

Ch 20:1-13 — Moses strikes the rock instead of speaking as God instructed
  • The Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.” (Num. 20:7-8)

  • Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” (Num. 20:11-12)

Ch 20:14-21 — Edom denies Israel passage
  • But Edom answered: “You may not pass through here; if you try, we will march out and attack you with the sword.” (Num. 20:18)

Ch 20:22-29 — Aaron dies and his son Eleazar succeeds him
  • “Aaron will be gathered to his people. He will not enter the land I give the Israelites, because both of you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah. Get Aaron and his son Eleazar and take them up Mount Hor. Remove Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar, for Aaron will be gathered to his people; he will die there.” (Num. 20:24-26)

Ch 21 — The bronze snake, and victory over enemies
  • [The Israelites complained again.] Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” (Num. 21:5-8)

  • … Og king of Bashan and his whole army marched out to meet them in battle at Edrei. The Lord said to Moses, “Do not be afraid of him, for I have delivered him into your hands…” So they struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army, leaving them no survivors. And they took possession of his land. (Num. 21:33-34,35)

Ch 22:1-20 — Balak summons Balaam, a pagan diviner, to curse the Israelites
  • “Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me.” (Num. 22:6)

  • But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.” The next morning Balaam got up and said to Balak’s officials, “Go back to your own country, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” (Num. 22:12-13)

Ch 22:21-41 — Balaam’s donkey speaks
  • Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” (Num. 22:28)

Ch 23-24 — Balaam’s seven messages
  • Then Balaam spoke his message: “Balak brought me from Aram, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains. ‘Come,’ he said, ‘curse Jacob for me; come, denounce Israel.’ How can I curse those whom God has not cursed?” (Num. 23:7-8)

Ch 25 — Moab seduces Israel
  • While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them. (Num. 25:1-3)

Chapters 26-36 — A new generation prepares to inherit Canaan

Ch 26 — Second census

  • [God said to Moses and Eleazar,] “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by families — all those twenty years old or more who are able to serve in the army of Israel.” (Num. 26:2)

Ch 27-30 — Instructions for the new generation

Ch 27:1-11 — Zelophehad’s daughters
  • [The daughters of Zelophehad of the tribe of Manasseh said to Moses and the other leaders,] “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” (Num. 27:3-4)

Ch 27:12-23 — Joshua to succeed Moses
  • So the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit of leadership, and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him.” (Num. 27:18-20)

Ch 28-30 — Instructions on offerings, festivals, the Day of Atonement, and vows
  • “This is what the Lord commands: When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.” (Num. 30:1-2)

Ch 31 — Israel defeats the Midianites and they divide the spoils

  • They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba — the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. (Num. 31:7-8)

Ch 32 — Request to settle outside the Promised Land

  • The Reubenites and Gadites, who had very large herds and flocks, saw that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were suitable for livestock. So they came to Moses and Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the community, and said, “… let this land be given to your servants as our possession. Do not make us cross the Jordan.” (Num. 32:1-2,5)

  • Then Moses gave to the Gadites, the Reubenites and the half-tribe of Manasseh son of Joseph the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan — the whole land with its cities and the territory around them. (Num. 32:33)

Ch 33-36 — Final preparations

  • [God said to Moses,] “… Distribute the land by lot, according to your clans. To a larger group give a larger inheritance, and to a smaller group a smaller one. Whatever falls to them by lot will be theirs. Distribute it according to your ancestral tribes. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.” (Num. 33:54-55)