The English title “Numbers” comes from the Greek (LXX) and Latin (Vg.) versions.1 This designation is based on the numberings that are a major focus of chaps. 1–4 and 26. The most common Hebrew title comes from the fifth word in the Hebrew text of 1:1, “in the wilderness [of].” This name is much more descriptive of the total contents of the book, which recount the history of Israel during almost 39 years of wandering in the wilderness. Another Hebrew title, favored by some early church Fathers, is based on the first word of the Hebrew text of 1:1, “and He spoke.” This designation emphasizes that the book records the Word of God to Israel.
Numbers chronicles the experiences of two generations of the nation of Israel. The first generation participated in the Exodus from Egypt. Their story begins in Ex. 2:23 and continues through Leviticus and into the first 14 chapters of Numbers. This generation was numbered for the war of conquest in Canaan (1:1–46). However, when the people arrived at the southern edge of Canaan, they refused to enter the Land (14:1–10). Because of their rebellion against the Lord, all the adults 20 and over (except Caleb and Joshua) were sentenced to die in the wilderness (14:26–38). In chaps. 15–25, the first and second generations overlap; the first died out as the second grew to adulthood. A secondnumbering of the people commenced the history of this second generation (26:1–56). These Israelites did go to war (26:2) and inherited the land (26:52–56). The story of this second generation, beginning in Numbers 26:1, continues through the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua.
Three theological themes permeate Numbers. First, the Lord Himself communicated to Israel through Moses (1:1; 7:89; 12:6–8), so the words of Moses had divine authority. Israel’s response to Moses mirrored her obedience or disobedience to the Lord. Numbers contains three distinct divisions based on Israel’s response to the word of the Lord: obedience (chaps. 1–10), disobedience (chaps. 11–25), and renewed obedience (chaps. 26–36). The second theme is that the Lord is the God of judgment. Throughout Numbers, the “anger” of the Lord was aroused in response to Israel’s sin (11:1, 10, 33; 12:9; 14:18; 25:3, 4; 32:10, 13, 14). Third, the faithfulness of the Lord to keep His promise to give the seed of Abraham the land of Canaan is emphasized (15:2; 26:52–56; 27:12; 33:50–56; 34:1–29).