Introduction to Numbers

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

The book of Numbers contributes significantly to our understanding and practice of work. It shows us God’s people, Israel, struggling to work in accordance with God’s purposes in challenging times. In their struggles, they experience conflicts about identity, authority, and leadership as they work their way across the wilderness toward God’s Promised Land. Most of the insight we can gain for our work comes by example, where we see what pleases God and what does not, rather than by a series of commands.

The book is called “Numbers” in English because it records a series of censuses that Moses took of the tribes of Israel. Censuses were taken to quantify the human and natural resources available for the economic and governmental affairs, including military service (Num. 1:2-3; 26:2-4), religious duties (Num. 4:2-3, 22-23), taxation (Num. 3:40-48), and agriculture (Num. 26:53-54). Effective resource alloca­tion depends on good data. But these censuses serve as a framework for a narrative that goes beyond merely reporting the numbers. In the narratives, the statistics are often misused leading to dissent, rebellion, and social unrest. Quantitative reasoning itself is not the problem—God himself orders censuses (Num. 1:1-2). But when numerical analysis is used as a pretext for deviating from the word of the Lord, disaster follows (Num. 14:20-25). A distant echo of this manipulation of numbers as a substitute for genuine moral reasoning can be heard in today’s accounting scandals and financial crises.

Numbers takes place in that wilderness region that is neither Egypt nor the Promised Land. The Hebrew title of the book, bemidbar, is shorthand for the phrase “in the wilderness of Sinai” (Num. 1:1), which describes the main action in the book—Israel’s journey through the wilderness. The nation progresses from Sinai toward the Promised Land, concluding with Israel in the region east of the Jordan River. They came to be in this location because God’s “mighty hand” (Exod. 6:1) had liberated them from slavery in Egypt, the story told in the book of Exodus. Getting the people out of slavery was one matter; getting the slavery out of the people would prove to be quite another. In short, the book of Numbers is about life with God during the journey to the destination of his promises, a journey we as God’s people are still undertaking. From Israel’s experience in the wilderness, we find resources for challenges in our life and work today, and we can draw encouragement from God’s ever-present help.