The fourth book in the OT; the title derives from the census (1: 1–46). The literary sources J, E, and P are all found in Numbers and behind them were numerous local traditions which they assimilated. Probably the book as finally edited has conflated a variety of tribal memories into a unity, accepted as its own by the whole nation. The book therefore represents Israel’s interpretation of her past.
God is faithful, notwithstanding the vacillating responses of the people, who move to and from apostasy and faithfulness—which indeed reflects the experiences of the readers of the book at its time of publication. There is, however, also the hope (22–4) of future prosperity put, remarkably, into the mouth of the foreigner Balaam.
The historical narrative of Numbers, around which other literary types have been collected, takes the progress of the Israelites from the entrance into the wilderness, through the wilderness from Sinai to Transjordan; it records conquests in that region, and finally the approach to Canaan. These events cannot be regarded as strictly historical reminiscences since Numbers in something like its present form was probably compiled much later, about 550 BCE.
Aaron’s blessing (6: 22–27) has often been used in Christian worship. But there is also much in the book that is unattractive to modern readers, such as the procedure (5: 14–31) to be initiated by a jealous husband for testing a wife’s fidelity.