Numbers – Coffman Commentaries on the Bible
by Arend Remmers & James Coffman
1. Author and Time of Writing
The book of Leviticus as well as the book of Numbers follow immediately after the book of Exodus. The book of Numbers begins with the words “And the Lord spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinaï, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt.” (Compare Exodus 40:17)
The Lord Jesus includes the book of Numbers in His words when explaining to His disciples all that was written concerning Himself (“in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms.” Luke 24:44).
2. Purpose of Writing
In Numbers the history of Israel during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness from Egypt to Canaan is described. It is a sad history of continual failure. The long period of 40 years was the punishment of God for the disobedience of His people and it was not according to His counsel.
The wandering in the wilderness is depicted in the New Testament as to take warning from for the Christians (1 Corinthians 10:1-22; Hebrews 3; Hebrews 4). The wilderness is a picture of earthly circumstances wherein faith is tested.
The Levites and their service play an important role in this book. This ought to show us that the Christian also is responsible to reveal the testimony of Christ, his Lord, in the world.
After receiving the law at mount Sinaï the people went through a census which was repeated after the wandering in the wilderness (chaps 1 and 26). In chapters 1 to 10 instructions on the service and consecration of the Levites and the Nazarite precede the description of the journeying of the camps. After a short time the people reach the boundaries of the south of Canaan and there the twelve spies are sent forth. But ten of the spies have so little faith that they discourage the people and make them rebellious. God answers by punishing them: The people have to wander another 38 years in the wilderness until all (except for Joshua and Caleb) who have come out of Egypt have died (chaps 13 to 14).
Then follow the rising up of Korah (chaps 16 and 17), the failure of Moses and Aaron (ch. 20) and renewed murmuring of the people and the plague of fiery serpents, where Moses had to erect the serpent of brass in chapter 21. The Lord Jesus mentions the serpent as a symbol of His death on the cross (John 3:14-15). Then Israel comes into contact with the enemy. First they meet Balaam, who according to the will of the Moabites ought to condemn Israel but then has to bless it instead (chapters 22-25). After that various people in the land of eastern Jordan were conquered until at the end of Numbers Israel finally arrives at the boundary river Jordan.
The book of Numbers finds its parallels in the New Testament in the Epistles to the Corinthians which describe the order and the conduct of the assembly of God.
a) Very little is mentioned about the nearly 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. In chapter 10:11 the camp sets forward for the first time on the twentieth day of the second month in the second year of the exodus out of Egypt. In chapter 20:1 we read already of the fortieth year (compare Aaron’s death in chap. 20:28 with 33:38).Different grave sins of individuals or of the people of Israel as a company are mentioned:
Murmuring of the people (chap. 11:1-2)
Murmuring of the mixed multitude because of the manna (chap. 11:4-9)
Miriam and Aaron’s speaking against Moses (chap. 12:1-16)
The ten spies bring an evil report of the land of Canaan (chaps. 13:31-14:10).
Rising up of Korah against Moses (chap. 16)
Murmuring of the people at Meribah (chap. 20)
The fiery serpent (chap. 21)
Committing fornication with the daughters of Moab (chap. 25)
b) The instructions of the law in Numbers are in connection with the wandering in the wilderness and the failure of the people, such as:
The law of the Nazarite (chap. 6) shows the desire of full commitment to God amidst a people who had departed from God.
The water of cleansing (or the offering of the red heifer in chap. 19) is necessary because man is in constant danger of defilement.
4. Overview of Contents
I. Numbers 1-9; Numbers 10:1-10 : The camp of the people of Israel at Sinaï
Census of the People of Israel
Order of Camping and Marching
Separation and Numbering of the Tribe of Levi
Instructions of Service for the Levites
Laws of Uncleanness, Trespassing and the unfaithful Wife
Law of the Nazarite
Offerings of the Twelve Princes of Israel for the Dedicating of the Altar
Light of the Sanctuary and Dedication of the Levites
Passover in the Wilderness; the Cloud as Guide of the People
The Two Trumpets of Silver
II.Numbers 10:11-36; Numbers 11-20 : The 38 years of Wandering in the Wilderness
First Setting Forward of the Camp
Murmuring of Israel because of the Manna and the Punishment of God; Appointment of 70 Elders
Miriam’s Speaking against Moses and her Leprosy
Sending out of the Twelve Spies
Murmuring of the People and God’s Punishment: the Forty Years of Wandering in the Wilderness
Various Laws: Instructions for Offering in Canaan; Breaking of the Sabbath;
Rising up of Korah and his Punishment (compare Jude 1:11)
Aaron is confirmed as High Priest
Instructions for Levites and their Position in Israel
Law of the Red Heifer or the Water of Purification
Moses’ Sin; the Death of Miriam and Aaron
III.Numbers 21-32 : The Sojourning on River Jordan
The Serpent of Brass (compare John 3:14); Victory over Sihon and Og
Balak calls for Balaam to curse Israel
Balaam’s Four Parables of Blessing over Israel
Fornication and Idolatry of Israel and the Zeal of Phinehas for Jehovah
Second Numbering of the People of Israel
The Daughters of Zelophehad; Joshua is Called to be Moses’ Successor
Offerings at the Feasts of Jehovah
Laws of Vows
Israel’s Vengeance of the Midianites
Two and a Half Tribes beyond Jordan (Reuben, Gad and Manasseh)
IV.Numbers 33-36 : Retrospect and Forecast
Israel’s Route of Wandering
Cities of the Levites and Cities of Refuge
Daughters of Zelophehad and Law of Succession for Women