We have arrived at the fourth book of Moses – Numbers. This month, as we learn from this book, we are probably most familiar with it because of the two-recorded censuses1. The title of the book has been a reflection of these two censuses since the Septuagint (LXX) translators took the Hebrew into Greek. However, the Hebrew title is Bemidbar and has no particular emphasis on these enumerations, instead the Hebrew title means in the wilderness2.
When we recall that the wilderness is the backdrop for this book (the location and the time spent by Israel between their deliverance from Egypt and their entrance into Canaan), the Hebrew name actually becomes more meaningful. It is meaningful because the Hebrew name carries a completely different implication and tone than that of Numbers. Granted some people are interested in numerical history, but honestly, how easy has it become to dismiss this book and lack the motivation to read it because of the census emphasis?
While the English title betrays the value of in the wilderness, this is a book that records some of the hard lessons learned by the nation of Israel. It truly is a book about orientation. Dictionary.com provides various definitions for orientation but the relevant definition for our study is that orientation is the identification of one’s true position with respect to attitudes, judgments and the awareness of a situation regarding time, place and identity. This is the type of orientation found in Numbers. We see the orientation of males of fighting age,3 the orientation of the tribes around the tabernacle,4 the orientation of the priests and their duties,5 but also the orientation of Israel’s faithful obedience to Jehovah.
While the physical aspects of orientation are essential,6 it is the spiritual orientation that is of the utmost importance. Numbers records several spiritual orientations, or re-orientations as it were. The first re-orientation is regarding Israel’s lustful craving for meat7. The next is found in Miriam and Aaron’s rebellion against God’s ordained authority as represented by Moses8. A third is found in the spies’ apprehension and self-doubt that influenced the entire nation to rebel against Moses9. What should be very sobering is that these examples are pulled from back-to-back verses beginning with chapter 11.
In the wilderness is a phrase that represents not just the Israelites, but also each person in their walk before Jehovah. Each person experiences their own version of wilderness wanderings. In the wilderness is not where one wants to be. In the wilderness one can only find hopelessness and unhappiness. The lesson Israel had to learn is the same lesson each person must learn – God is the only source for a person to achieve proper identification of self and awareness of one’s situation while being a pilgrim on this globe.
1 Numbers 1.1-49; 26.1-62
2 Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Book of Numbers; p. 1198; ISBN 080542836-4.
3 Numbers 1.1-49
4 Numbers 2.1-34
5 Numbers 3.1-4.49
6 military might, dwelling location around the tabernacle, and the priestly duties and responsibilities
7 Numbers 11.1-35
8 Numbers 12.1-16
9 Numbers 13.1-14.4