Encountering the Old Testament, 3rd Edition

A Christian Survey

series: Encountering Biblical Studies


8. Numbers: Failure in the Desert

Chapter Intro Video

Chapter Objectives

  • Explain the apparent disorganization of the book of Numbers
  • Outline the basic content of the book of Numbers
  • Describe the difficulties of the journey from Mount Sinai to the desert of Paran
  • List Israel’s acts of rebellion and the consequences of those acts
  • Give examples from Numbers of humankind’s lack of faith
  • Describe the key events that took place in the Plains of Moab

Chapter Summary

  1. The book of Numbers relates Israel’s difficulty in obeying God and describes the consequences of that disobedience.
  2. The book of Numbers is arranged in three parts: the encampment at Mount Sinai, the forty years of desert wandering, and the encampment on the plains of Moab.
  3. The general theme in Numbers is preparation to leave Mount Sinai and to enter Canaan.
  4. The Israelites continually complained about their circumstances, forgetting that they were free and no longer enslaved in Egypt.
  5. The greatest failure of the Israelites was that they refused to enter the promised land when God offered it.
  6. Little is recorded about the details of the forty years of wandering in the desert.
  7. God listed laws for offerings that indicated that his will would be done regardless of the Israelites’ rebellions.
  8. Moses displayed his human nature at Kadesh, where he disobeyed God and showed his lack of faith.
  9. During their journey to the plains of Moab, the Israelites had to face the armies of the Amorites and Canaanites.
  10. The encampment at Moab was the final stop for the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan River.
  11. The message of disobedience in Numbers is used in the New Testament books of 1 Corinthians and Hebrews.

Study Questions

  1. What is the English translation of the Hebrew title of this book? How does this title describe the struggle that the book depicts?
  2. What are the geographical-chronological units of the book? What literary types of materials are dispersed throughout these units?
  3. What problem is presented in the book’s census reports?
  4. Describe the major subunits of Numbers 1:1–10:10. What is the literary climax of this unit? What part is not in chronological order?
  5. What time period is described in the next unit (10:11–20:21)? What inner attitude is borne out in the Israelites’ complaints? How does this attitude result in the forty years of desert wanderings? What does the placement of legal materials (chapters 15, 18–19) indicate about God’s plan for the next generation?
  6. What is the geographical location reflected in the final unit (20:22–36:13)? What image in this unit prefigures salvation through Jesus Christ? What are the miraculous elements of Numbers 22–24? How was the covenant relationship threatened in Numbers 25? How does God’s response show commitment to the covenant plan for the future?
  7. How does Paul draw on Numbers in speaking to the church at Corinth?
  8. What events in Numbers are mentioned in Hebrews? What point does the author of Hebrews illustrate through these events?