The Septuagint called this book Numbers because there is a numbering of the people at the beginning and at the end of the book. But in the Hebrew Scriptures the book is called, bamidbar which means “In The Wilderness.” This title comes from the first line of the book which says, “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:1). “In The Wilderness” is a more appropriate title because this book will describe Israel’s travel in the wilderness from Mount Sinai to the edge of the Promised Land. Numbers is the sequel to Exodus, which we can see by reading the first verse that we are picking up where we left off. The dating tells us that it has been one year since the exodus. They have been at Mount Sinai for 11 months. During those 11 months God has been teaching the people his laws, as revealed in the second half of the book of Exodus and all of the book of Leviticus.
The story of the book of Numbers is written about a people whose lives are lived between the accomplishing of their redemption and its consummation. They live between the exodus and the promised land. They live in between the times, enjoying the exodus but not yet enjoying the full realization of God’s promises and the promised land. It is so easy for us to declare these Old Testament books as irrelevant to our lives. They are stories of the past and we might sometimes see good points that we can learn from today. However, this is not the outlook that the New Testament has regarding these books, including the book of Numbers. After describing some of the events that are recorded in the book of Numbers, the apostle Paul declares:
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:11-12 ESV)
Notice that the apostle Paul says that these things were written down for us, not for them. Yes, they are examples for us. But the instructions in this book are directed at us. We live as they did, between salvation accomplished and salvation completed. We live between the work of God in accomplishing our salvation exodus at the cross and the time when that salvation will be brought to its consummation when Christ returns. God did not bring Israel out of Egypt to abandon them to make their own way through the wilderness. In the same way, God does not abandon us to make our own way to the promised land of eternity as we walk through this wilderness. Exodus is what God has done to set you free. Numbers is what God is doing to bring you to the promised land. Thus, the NT makes many references to the events that happen in the book of Numbers.
What are the chief temptations of living in the wilderness? The people of Israel were constantly tempted to doubt that there really was a promised land ahead. All they could see with their eyes was the barrenness of the desert. God did not just immediately take them into the promised land but took them on a journey of tests to prepare them for the goal. The book of Numbers contains the message of the need to live by faith while walking in the wilderness. Do not believe what you see with your eyes and abandon God. What was supposed to help them with faith while walking through the wilderness? The presence of God was ever before them. They needed to keep their eyes on the Lord who was leading them through the wilderness (Hebrews 12:1-2). They had the tabernacle constructed so that worship before God would happen on a regular basis, so as to not forget what God had done and where the people were going. Jesus tabernacled among us (John 1:14) for the same purpose: we have seen his glory. So it is one month after the tabernacle was erected. The people are getting ready to go to the promised land.
Tribal Census (1:1-54)
The book of Numbers opens with God speaking to Moses, instructing a census to be taken. Every male 20 years old and up who are able to go to war, excluding the tribe of Levi, was to be counted. Think about the implications of a census. Taking a census is not only a numbering of people but is a political act in which a ruler demarcates and makes a claim upon the people being numbered. God’s command shows that God is king and these are his elect people. You are numbered and you belong to God.
There is also an important theology to this census. When Israel and his family went down into Egypt they numbered 70 in all. Now as they leave Egypt the men of war number 603,550. We are witnessing the promises of God in process. God had promised Abraham that his offspring would be innumerable, like the stars of the sky. But these people can still be numbered. God’s promises are being fulfilled but are not complete yet. The nation is growing and growing. It is also useful to notice that the tribe of Judah is the largest tribe, pointing to the fulfillment of Jacob’s blessing in Genesis 49:8-10. We will come back to chapter 2 of Numbers in just a moment. It is a central point for this section of Numbers. So I want us to look at Numbers 3-4 next and then we will come back to chapter 2.
Levite Duties (3:1-4:49)
The Levites were left out of the census because they were given special responsibilities in their work as they served the Lord. First, in chapter 3 these are described as being an inner circle between the camps of the other tribes and the tabernacle of the Lord. They made a ring around the tabernacle, next to the tabernacle, between the congregation of the Israel and the tabernacle. In this way the Levites are described as a guard over the priests and the whole congregation (3:7-8). Then the sons of Levi are listed along with their duties. The sons of Kohath were to guard and transport the ark of the covenant, the table, the lampstand, the altars, and the vessels of the sanctuary (3:27-32). The sons of Gershon were to guard and transport the coverings for the tent, hangings of the courtyard, the screens for the doors and the altar and the cords (3:25-26). The sons of Merari were the guard and transport the frames of the tent, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and the accessories connected with these (3:36-37). Chapter 4 describes how they were to move these holy objects of the tabernacle. Aaron and the priests went into the tabernacle and covered every object and article in that tabernacle. Only then could these sons of Levi move the articles and if anyone touched these holy things they would die (4:15). In fact, they could not look at them or they would die (4:20). This section ends with something we were familiar reading in the final chapters of the book of Exodus: “Thus they were listed by him, as the Lord commanded Moses.”
Tribal Arrangements (2:1-34)
But the second chapter of Numbers is where we will spend our time because it is the focal point of the paragraph. The second chapter talks about how the tribes should set up their camp. Look at Numbers 2:2.
The people of Israel shall camp each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ houses. They shall camp facing the tent of meeting on every side. (Numbers 2:2 ESV)
The people were to face the tabernacle as they set their camp. When you came out of your tent, you would see the tabernacle of the Lord and the glory of the Lord as a cloud by day and fire by night resting above it. In fact, you would see the tabernacle of the Lord all day long based on the arrangement of the camp. As you look through chapter 2 you will see that three tribes were listed to camp toward the tabernacle on each side. Three tribes set their camps on the east side, three tribes on the north side, three tribes on the west side, and three tribes on the south side of the tabernacle, facing the tabernacle, so that the tabernacle was in the center of the assembly.
Do we see that God was sending as a message to the congregation of Israel? God is in the center. God must be in the center of your assembly. The presence of God must be in the middle of you. The place of atonement, the place of mercy, the dwelling place of God, the place where God was enthroned above the ark was to be the center of Israelite life. Everything revolved around God. God was to always be at the center.
This is the point of the book of Leviticus. We studied through Leviticus a couple years ago and saw how that book is also misnamed because it is not about the Levites but about the worship of God by the people and their need for holiness. Worship is the turning of our hearts away from ourselves and back to where our hearts should be all the time — toward God. Worship is to be the reorientation of our souls toward the center of the camp.
Christ must be our focus and our center. The focus is not on the church. The focus is not on ourselves. Jesus must always be our center. We come together to sing, pray, remember, and learn so that we turn our eyes toward Jesus again, not toward each other and not toward the world. This is what worship is for: to turn our hearts back to God. Worship is reestablishing Jesus as our center. Before we can go to the promised land, we need God in the center. God must be the focus and center of our lives.
I must say how sad it is that worship has become so focused on us. I do not simply mean in the denominational world but also among our brethren. Worship becomes self-centered. Worship becomes about how we feel. Did you feel good after worship? Do you feel encouraged? Do you feel happy? We turn worship into what we get out of it. This is why we see services shorted, services cancelled, and sermons shortened. We have lost our purpose in our gathering of putting Jesus back in the center. Our camp needs to be facing the presence of the Lord. When we come out of our homes and begin our day, we need to see the presence and the glory of the Lord in the life of Jesus so that we have him centered in our hearts as we work and live. We need to see him all day every day leading us, guiding us, caring for us, and providing for us. God is in our midst.
There are a number of ways that we lose Christ as our center that we must watch out for. One of the obvious things is when we allow the cares of this world and the riches of this life to take our eyes off of Jesus. We look at our things inside our tent rather than looking at God at the center of the camp. God is in our midst but we pay attention to our small plot of land and forget to look to the Lord who is leading us. We also lose Jesus as our center when we teach the rules rather than teach Jesus. This is not to say that there are not rules and laws that Jesus gives. But when we focus on the rules we lose sight of Jesus as the center. This again was what Jesus was teaching to the Pharisees repeatedly in the New Testament. They searched the scriptures but did not see Jesus. They kept the laws but did not see Jesus. Focusing on Jesus will cause us to focus on the laws and increase our desire for him and his laws. But if we focus on the laws then we will not see Jesus at all. We will miss our purpose. We will fail to see that God is in the center of our camp leading us.
What all of this is to do is to simply bring us to a heart check. Why do we come to church services? What are we living our lives for? What is the purpose of our lives? What do we desire most? What is the passion of our lives? All of these questions are different ways to ask this simple question: what is the center of your life?
I ask this question this way because I want to not only use the picture God gives us but also reorient our thinking. Sometimes we make the list as God is number one, family is number two, and then other things fill out the rest of our lists for passion and time. This can indicate that our lives are in compartments with one area not touching the other. But this is not the picture given to us. God is the center. God in the center means that he touches every area of our lives. God is the center for our families. God is the center for our work. God is the center for our home. God is the center for our community. God is the center of every thought and action. This is the picture given to us. God is the center. Everything in our lives revolves around God, not ourselves and not anything or anyone else. Before the people of Israel are ready to go to the promised land, they must get first things first. God must be in the center. So it also is with us for us to make the journey to the promised land of eternity.