Book of Numbers


reproduced from A Survey of the Tanach for the Practical Messianic

Approximate date: 1440-1400 B.C.E. (Right); 1300-1200 B.C.E. (conservative-moderate); 500s B.C.E. (Left)

Time period: Israel in the wilderness

Author: Moses exclusively (Right); Moses, Joshua, and later editors (conservative-moderate); compiled traditions and mythologies (Left)

Location of author: wilderness journey after the Exodus (Right, conservative-moderate); Babylon and/or Land of Israel (Left)

Target audience and their location: people of Israel wandering in the desert (Right, conservative-moderate); Jewish exiles returning from Babylon (Left)

Theological Summary: The Hebrew title for the fourth book of the Torah is Bamidbar, meaning either “in the wilderness” or “in the desert” (1:1). Another Jewish designation in antiquity derived from 1:1 was V’ydaber or “and He spoke,” known to early Church figures such as Jerome and Epiphanaus.[1] Other titles included omesh happikkudim or “the ‘fifth’ of the census,” indicating that this text composed one-fifth of the Torah.[2] The Septuagint translation applied the Greek name Arithmoi to the text, derived from “according to the number of their names” (1:26, LXE). “This Greek name reflects an earlier Hebrew name for the book, well-attested in classical rabbinic sources, from a period when books of the Torah were named thematically rather than after one of their initial words”[3] (Jewish Study Bible), and was followed as Numeri in the Latin Vulgate. Many evangelical Christians have suggested that Bamidbar is a better title—effectively making the English title Wilderness or Desert—as it avoids the controversy of the debates surrounding Biblical numbering and instead focuses on the events that took place.[4]

The Book of Numbers may be easily divided into three broad sections: (1) Israel at Sinai, preparing to depart for the Promised Land (1:1-10:10); (2) Israel at Kadesh, delayed because of its rebellion (13:1-20:13); (3) Israel at the plains of Moab, anticipating conquest of the Promised Land (22:2-32:42). Numbers probably covers the broadest scope of the Torah (excluding Genesis), as it completes the 38-year journey of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness.

Important features appearing in Numbers include God delivering the instructions on how the Tabernacle was to be transported (chs. 1-10). Within this selection appears specific regulations for the Levites (chs. 3-4, 7-8), the banishment of those who are extremely impure (5:1-4), and how to deal with a defiled Nazirite (6:1-21). Further features detail the rebellion of the Israelites and their refusal to fully take the Land of Canaan (ch. 14), and the condemnation of those who would have to die in the wilderness because of their disbelief. Some of the most important chapters in Numbers are ch. 6, which includes the giving of the Aaronic Benediction, and ch. 9, the instructions concerning how Israel was to keep Passover.

Throughout Numbers, we see that God demonstrates a strong willingness to live with the Israelites, communicating to them through Moses (7:89). The Lord is a guide for the people (9:15-23), but Israel rebels against Him (ch. 15), and God shows a desire not to judge them all at first (16:20-22). God demonstrates a great deal of patience toward Israel, but ultimately in the defining part of the text (chs. 13-14) He must raise up a new generation of Israelites to replace the rebellious old generation.

There is a renewed interest today in both Judaism and Christianity to examine Numbers for encouraging a strong faith in God. We see the failure of Ancient Israel to obey or trust in Him, yet God is not remiss in punishing His own people, including Moses (ch. 20). God tests His people with false prophets such as Balaam (chs. 22-24), yet is able to issue a blessing through him (chs. 23-24). The Lord hates idolatry and sexual immorality (ch. 25). Many evangelical Christians are keen to admit that there has been a lack of interest among ministers to appropriate these important themes in preaching from Numbers, and desire to see this change.[5] Ultimately, we may consider Numbers to be a prime example of God’s ongoing Heilsgeschichte or salvation history.[6]

Some substantial historical issues are presented in Numbers with the census of Israel’s population, particularly in 1:46: “all the numbered men were 603,550.” Many conservative scholars take this number at face value, and extrapolate that there were as many as 2-3 million involved in the Exodus. Other conservatives have suggested that the Pentateuch uses terms such as “thousands” or “hundreds” more loosely than they would be used today, and offer some alternative views. They suggest that “a total population of two to three million…hardly seems appropriate” (ISBE).[7] While reducing Israel’s population, a lesser view still asserts that God’s promises to Abraham to multiply his seed was being fulfilled. The default position regarding Numbers 1:46 adhered to by many seems to be that 600,000 was more or less the exact population.[8]

Those who think that the numbering of 603,550 in Numbers 1:46 is something else will claim that the Hebrew term elef or “thousand,” can also mean “squad” when considering its Ugaritic and other Semitic cognates.[9] This could possibly mean that what is being referred to is 603 squads of 550, placing Israel’s fighting force at around 331,650, although some would estimate it being a bit on the lower end at around 35,000.[10] If the total population of Ancient Israel were only somewhere in the 20,000-35,000 range, it could have difficulties as 22,273 firstborn males are specifically described in 3:43, although this itself could mean 22 squads/groups of 273 firstborn, actually being somewhere around 6,006. Another alternative to consider is that the term elef was easily confused with alluf or “captain” in ancient times, so the 62,700 fighting men of Dan mentioned (1:39) could equate to being 60 captains and 2,700 men.[11] Ultimately, the debate over the actual numbers of Ancient Israel is in recognizing that the census techniques of the ancients are probably not those of today, and we have to allow for the possibility of things being a bit different.

If the census in Numbers is not as “exact” as we may want it to be, then the obvious conclusion drawn is that there may have not been “millions” of Israelites involved in the Exodus from Egypt. Many conservatives do adhere to an exact literal numbering, concluding, “if they fanned out with their flocks over a wide area, they could sustain themselves as did the large Nabatean kingdom in the same area in Roman times” (Harris, NIDB).[12] In response to this, other conservative interpreters may assert, “It is hard to imagine the difficulties attendant upon sustaining two to three million people living in the wilderness for forty years: food, sanitation, living space, morale” (ISBE).[13]

If we do see some kind of representative census in Numbers, then it would suggest that rather than there being 2-3 million Israelites involved in the Exodus, that there were likely only several hundred thousand, but no less than 100,000. Harrison makes the imperative point, “An understanding of the contemporary situation with reference to the population of Canaan is instructive in this respect, for it is evident from sources such as the Tell el-Amarna tablets, as well as from the excavation of Canaanite cities of the thirteenth century B.C., that the overall population of the Promised Land was itself well below three million people.”[14] Considering that the Torah indicates that the population of the Israelites was less than that of the Canaanites (Exodus 23:29; Deuteronomy 7:7, 17, 22), then we can safely assume that a different numbering system was used in Numbers than how we would conduct a census in the Twenty-First Century.[15]

The Book of Numbers and its various accountings divide theologians among three distinct groups: (1) those who think that the number totals cannot be trusted and are over exaggerated; (2) those who think that the numbers are not as exact as they would have to be today, and are possibly representative in some places, but are certainly not as low as one thousand representing “one”; (3) those who think that the numbers are exact, with no exception. Admittedly, many get confused and prefer to assert that we cannot know for certain how the Israelites took a tally of their population groups.[16]

If one falls into a conservative handling of the text, then the options that we have at our disposal are #2 and #3, as we would choose to consider the Israelites at the very least to number in the several hundred thousand. But ultimately, there may be no satisfactory answer to these questions with the current extant data we have on the Ancient Near East. It should not cause us to think that a miniscule amount of people were involved in the Exodus. These views do, however, challenge many Messianics who have been taught that there are only “exact numbers” in Scripture, and things may not be as “exact” as they may want them to be considering their ancient context.

Regarding the composition of Numbers, conservatives do assert principal Mosaic authorship, based on statements that indicate Moses’ writing activity (33:1-2), also based on the strong assumption of the literary unity of the Torah.[17] In this, we see that there are varied commandments given to Moses and Aaron (1:1; 3:44; 6:1; 8:1, et. al.). “According to the book the original impetus for the recording of much of the material was from Moses. It indicates numerous times that Moses received instructions from God” (ISBE).[18] However, we should not conclude exclusive Mosaic authorship of Numbers. While Moses recorded the names of the various places Israel journeyed (33:2), Numbers is likely some combination of Mosaic and scribal writing.[19]

There are some signs of redaction in Numbers and additions by Israel’s historians. Conservatives will often assert that Numbers “is essentially Mosaic but includes source material and glosses” (Dillard and Longman).[20] Perhaps the most significant example of a post-Mosaic addition to the Torah appears in 12:3: “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.” Conservatives have always pointed out that if Moses were indeed the most humble human being who ever lived—he could have never written this about himself! Harrison summarizes,

“In light of what is known about processes of scribal revision in Egypt and certain other areas of the ancient Near East, there appears to be no difficulty whatever in assuming that the reference in Numbers 12:3 concerning the modesty of Moses constitutes an addition by a later hand, quite possibly either that of Joshua or Samuel.”[21]

Another redaction may include the mention of the “Book of the Wars of the LORD” (21:14), “a genuine Pentateuchal source” (Harrison),[22] or a later source that a scribe added information from. Even though all conservatives strongly assert principal Mosaic involvement in the composition of Numbers, other textual additions would have included the census lists,[23] or possibly other slight additions during the time of the Israelite monarchy or via the authorization of Ezra the Priest after the Babylonian exile.[24] The general dating of Numbers would be tied to one’s timing of the Exodus, which for conservatives would fall between the Fifteenth or Thirteenth Centuries B.C.E. (see Exodus entry for a summary of the dating issues). Admittedly, thinking that anybody but Moses was involved in the composition of Numbers is difficult for many Messianics to acknowledge, even though it seems quite certain.

Affirming the antiquity of the Book of Numbers, conservative scholars such as Harrison and Kitchen point out that the arrangement of the Israelites around the Tabernacle in Numbers 2:2 conforms to the strategic layout of the Egyptian army during the reign of Ramses II.[25] Certainly, if Moses had been a member of the Egyptian royal house, and as Stephen attests, “a man of power in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22), he could have learned Egyptian military strategy and incorporated it in his leading Israel. Furthermore, we see that the use of silver trumpets (10:1-2) was common in Egyptian ceremonies of the Thirteenth Century.[26]

In stark contrast to conservative theologians who affirm prime Mosaic involvement in the composition of Numbers, liberal theologians would argue for the final form of the text existing only after the Jewish exile to Babylon in 587 B.C.E., and possibly even that it foreshadows the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel in 539 B.C.E. Liberals commonly argue that the story depicted in Numbers would have strong significance for the exiles returning from Babylon, but strongly doubt its historicity. IDB indicates, “It is the large amount of purely statistical material incorporated in Numbers which makes much of it seem tedious to the modern reader…Some of it seems purely idealistic and unhistorical.”[27] Liberals will frequently claim that the events in Numbers seem too strange to have actually occurred, such as Balaam’s donkey talking (ch. 22), and instead frequently suggest that all that is necessary is some kind of literary explanation for the journeys of Israel. Any kind of unity in Numbers is regarded as being entirely “artificial” (IDB).[28]

In the liberal scheme of Numbers’ composition, the bulk of the material is attributed to the P source or so-called Priestly writer, with incorporated additions by J and E,[29] and likely also D[30] (see Genesis entry for a summarization of the JEDP documentary hypothesis). While conservatives frequently respond to liberal critiques with literary explanations of Numbers’ supposed discrepancies, liberals are right to point out that there are source materials present in the text. The Book of Numbers cannot be read with any naiveté,[31] and even a conservative reading requires a fair bit of critical examination. Even though we might disagree with liberal presuppositions surrounding Numbers, liberals will validly point out that its “OT story is intended to be read as history and not as myth. The ancient Hebrew mind was not mythopoeic” (IDB),[32] affirming some kind of theological integrity for the book.

From a textual point of view, the Hebrew Masoretic Text of Numbers is fairly secure, with few disputations or major variances from the Samaritan Pentateuch or Greek Septuagint. This does not mean that the SP and LXX do not reflect some interpretations of commandments, but these are relatively minor. The text of Numbers has not been preserved as well as Leviticus,[33] likely because of the large accountings of people. But if there are any major differences in the accountings of people, they are ancient problems that go back too far in history to fix, and answers to these problems must be reconciled historically. “The very large numbers in the two census lists (Num 1-4; 26) do not betray corruption of numbers. Thus those who resort to the solution of the problem of the large numbers by suggesting textual corruption have to assume that such problems are very ancient” (Allen, EXP).[34]

The message that Numbers communicates to us today is primarily that God is merciful, yet He is also just. “Of all of God’s attributes, it is on his ḥesed that Moses bases his plea that God not destroy Israel (14:18-20). The word ḥesed stands for God’s constancy, his fidelity to his covenant with Israel” (Milgrom, ABD).[35] The Lord does not leave Israel in the wilderness, but does wait for a proper generation to be raised up which can accomplish His tasks. He provides food for His people with the manna (ch. 11), but also strikes Miriam, Moses’ sister, with leprosy (ch. 12), and punishes Moses for striking the rock (ch. 20).

Throughout Numbers, we see God demonstrating His presence, discipline, and holiness.[36] The Book of Numbers “forms an essential link in that forward-directedness from Adam to Jesus” (Allen, EXP).[37] A challenge that anyone who really wants to study Numbers often faces is that he or she must have great patience. Allen points out, “In a day marked by pop art, quick fixes, and fast foods, the Book of Numbers is particularly troublesome. It simply does not appeal to the person who is unwilling to invest time and energy in the study of Scripture” (EXP),[38] and we certainly see the lack of patience in the Israelites’ behavior in Numbers. At the end of Numbers, the people of Israel are ready and prepared to enter into the Promised Land. “It is on this note of expectant hope that the book ends. Note that the hope never turns into certainty. That is, the hope of the second generation is an untried hope. This generation too will face severe threats to its faith (see Joshua), and it remains to be seen how they will respond” (Dillard and Longman).[39] To an extent, every generation of Believers should place themselves into the situation of Numbers.[40]

The current Messianic handling of Numbers is not that dissimilar from its handling of Leviticus. Like Leviticus, many of the commandments in Numbers cannot be presently observed without a working Tabernacle or Temple. But whereas Leviticus comprises mostly a code of conduct, Numbers does ask us some serious questions about the relationship of God toward His people. When we see Moses strike the rock against God’s explicit command, there are consequences that he must face (20:11-12). A few Messianics, who may have made Moses into some kind of demagogue, are confronted with the reality that he was human and that he did sin.

Perhaps more significant for the emerging Messianic movement is the fact that the Book of Numbers challenges us to become a self-critical movement that is not afraid to admit some of its problems. Certainly if we cannot identify with some of the grumbling attitudes of the Ancient Israelites, then are we to admit that we are instead “perfect”? Surely not. Furthermore, when we consider the numerical accounts in the text, we need to be willing to admit that there are things in the Torah that are not as “black and white” as we may want them to be, such as knowing how many people were exactly involved in the Exodus. We have to remember that there was probably a different numbering system in place in 1400-1200 B.C.E. that is largely foreign to our Twenty-First Century computer mindset.

With these things said, there is a large need for today’s Messianic community to engage more with conservative-critical scholarship of Numbers that considers the historical framework of the Ancient Near East. Unfortunately, as with too much of the Tanach, sectors of the Messianic movement often give credence to ultra Orthodox and Chassidic Jewish views of Numbers, at the expense of its legitimate historicity. With the message of Numbers in view, will it take a long time for a generation of Messianic Believers to be raised up to be used effectively for the Lord? We may not know. But it does teach us that we are to endure through whatever trials may take place. As it concerns our studies of Numbers, it should include how we react properly to criticisms of the text, and whether or not we can involve ourselves with the larger theological conversations going on.


Allen, Ronald B. “Numbers,” in EXP, 2:657-1008.
Carpenter, E.E. “Numbers, Book of,” in ISBE, 3:561-567.
Dentan, R.C. “Numbers, Book of,” in IDB, 3:567-571.
Dillard, Raymond B., and Tremper Longman III. “Numbers,” in An Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 83-90.
Fox, Nili S. “Numbers,” in Jewish Study Bible, pp 281-355.
Harris, R. Laird. “Numbers, Book of,” in NIDB, pp 713-714.
Harrison, R.K. “The Book of Numbers,” in Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 614-634.
Levine, B.A. “Numbers, Book of,” in IDBSup, pp 631-635.
Milgrom, Jacob. “Numbers, Book of,” in ABD, 4:1146-1155.
Olson, Dennis T. “Numbers,” in New Interpreter’s Study Bible, pp 189-240.
Thompson, J.A. “Numbers,” in NBCR, pp 168-200.


[1] R.C. Dentan, “Numbers, Book of,” in IDB, 3:567; cf. Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers,” in EXP, 2:662.

[2] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 614; B.A. Levine, “Numbers, Book of,” IDBSup, 631; Jacob Milgrom, “Numbers, Book of,” in ABD, 4:1146.

[3] Nili S. Fox, “Numbers,” in Jewish Study Bible, 281.

[4] J.A. Thompson, “Numbers,” in NBCR, 168; E.E. Carpenter, “Numbers, Book of,” in ISBE, 3:561.

[5] Allen, in EXP, 2:660.

[6] Ibid., 2:657.

[7] Carpenter, “Numbers, Book of,” ISBE, 3:565.

[8] Allen, in EXP, 2:686-691.

[9] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 632-633; Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2001), 1:59-60.

[10] R. Laird Harris, “Numbers, Book of,” in NIDB, 713; Allen, in EXP, 2:682-683.

[11] J.A. Thompson, “Numbers,” in NBCR, 169.

[12] Harris, “Numbers, Book of,” in NIDB, 714; cf. Allen, EXP, 2:680-681.

[13] Carpenter, “Numbers, Book of,” in ISBE, 3:565.

[14] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 632.

[15] For a further review, consult the FAQ on the Messianic Apologetics website “Exodus, numbers of.”

[16] Garrett, Archaeological Study Bible, 197.

[17] Carpenter, “Numbers, Book of,” in ISBE, 3:562; Allen, EXP, 2:663-668.

[18] Carpenter, “Numbers, Book of,” in ISBE, 3:562.

[19] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 617.

[20] Dillard and Longman, 84.

[21] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 616.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., pp 618-619.

[24] Thompson, in NBCR, 168; Carpenter, “Numbers, Book of,” in ISBE, 3:562.

[25] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 622-623.

[26] Ibid., 623.

[27] Dentan, “Numbers, Book of,” in IDB, 3:570.

[28] Ibid., 3:568.

[29] Dentan, “Numbers, Book of,” in IDB, 3:568; Thompson, in NBCR, pp 168-169; Levine, “Numbers, Book of,” in IDBSup, 631-632; Carpenter, “Numbers, Book of,” in ISBE, 3:562-563; Milgrom, “Numbers, Book of,” in ABD; 4:1148-1150; Fox, in Jewish Study Bible, 281.

[30] Dentan, “Numbers, Book of,” in IDB, 3:567.

[31] Allen, in EXP, 2:663.

[32] Dentan, in IDB, 3:571.

[33] Harrison, Introduction to Old Testament, 634.

[34] Allen, in EXP, 2:661.

[35] Milgrom, “Numbers, Book of,” in ABD, 4:1151.

[36] Thompson, in NBCR, 170.

[37] Allen, in EXP, 2:657.

[38] Ibid., 2:658.

[39] Dillard and Longman, 89.

[40] Ibid., 90.

About J.K. McKee 759 Articles
J.K. McKee (B.A., University of Oklahoma; M.A., Asbury Theological Seminary) is the editor of Messianic Apologetics (, a division of Outreach Israel Ministries ( He is a 2009 recipient of the Zondervan Biblical Languages Award for Greek. He is author of numerous books and commentaries, dealing with a wide range of topics that are important for today’s Messianic Believers.

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