In English, we know the fourth book in the Old Testament by the name Numbers, taken from the two national censuses recounted in chapters 1 and 26. The Hebrew title for this book means “In the Wilderness” or “In the Desert,” an apt description of the account of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness after God delivered them from bondage in Egypt.
This book is the narrative of a journey that ended where it started: the border of Canaan, the Promised Land. In addition to the conflicts and tests of faith that make up much of the story, the book of Numbers is also in part a religious instruction manual, reviewing key regulations from the Law given at Mount Sinai. The narrative and religious instruction sections are intertwined in a back-and-forth pattern that highlight Israel’s obedience or disobedience alongside God’s unchanging faithfulness. Other themes include worship, leadership, holiness, justice, and God’s promises and sovereignty.
Some Bible skeptics think the census in chapter 1 is a problem. The figure of 603,550 men ages 20 to 60, who could be soldiers (not including Levites) indicates a total population of about two million people (v. 46). How could such a large migrant population be sustained in the desert? But these numbers are in line with both earlier and later censuses (see Ex. 38:26; Num. 26:51). Scripture remains consistent even in these details, and as we study this book we see how God continued to miraculously care for and provide for His people even when they were disobedient.
For Israel, taking a national census was an important step for these former slaves to renew their sense of identity and chosenness. It was also a demonstration of obedience to God’s command (v. 2).