The Hebrew title for the fourth book of the Bible is “In the Wilderness,” a much more appropriate title than “Numbers”, which doesn’t tell you much about the book. Numbers takes up in the second year after Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. It begins with a census of the people at Sinai and continues with Israel’s move to enter the Promised Land. It gives us the details of her refusal to enter the land, and then provides us with a chronicle of her forty year wandering in punishment for her disobedience. At the end of the 40 years, there was another census (chapter 26) and a review of some of the laws Israel was to give attention to when she finally entered Canaan.
Every one of the first five books of the Bible serves to emphasize something about God. Genesis emphasizes his power and grace. Exodus His deliverance. Leviticus His holiness, and Deuteronomy his jealousy. Numbers is about God’s presence.
Everyone numbered in the census of Israel was counted as a member of the community of God. God delivered Israel to be one “community.” There are more references to that community in Numbers than in any other book of the Bible. The worst thing that could happen to anyone in Israel was to be placed outside the community, known in Numbers as “outside the camp.”
Three thousand years after Moses, Numbers remains a relevant message to the people of God. The God who was a constant presence for Israel is a constant presence for us. He knows our number, and walks with us. He is present when we rebel, and present, working out his will and protecting us, in ways we cannot see. In a way, we are all traveling through the wilderness looking to enter the promised land. Until we do, we must allow God to be our leader and guide, and we must, as the Church, stick together as the people of God.
So how did the title “Numbers” come about? When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, then Latin, those census reports stood out in the translators minds. The Greeks called it “arithmoi,” and in Latin, it became “Numeri.” From there, it was but a short hop to “Numbers” in English.