Why bother studying the book of Numbers?

Many people feel the Old Testament is so ancient and culturally removed from us that it hardly bears studying. There may be the occasional story of interest, and certainly snippets of insight, but many simply feel, to quote Morrissey, it says nothing to me about my life. If this is true of the Old Testament in general, how much more true is it of an ancient set of censuses and positional instructions for standing around a tent?

I appreciate it is hard to stir up interest in a book named after its least interesting feature. Census information is boring at the best of times, so what on earth could a list of names and numbers, relating to a people we’ve never heard of, from c. 3500 years ago have to say to us today? Is there any value in studying the book of Numbers? I’m going to suggest four reasons why we should (and why we are going to at Oldham Bethel Church).

Jesus & the apostles valued Numbers

Jesus referenced teaching in Numbers seven times in the gospels. Though some of his teaching doesn’t directly allude to the book, there are clear parallels to be drawn. However, Jesus specifically lands on Numbers in John 3:14 and sees it directly relevant to the efficacy of his own death.

When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he saw the book of Numbers as particularly relevant for believers living in a licentious city (cf. 1 Cor 6:9-11, 10:5-12). Similarly, Jude, Peter, John and the writer of Hebrews all see Numbers as similarly relevant.

If Jesus and the apostles saw Numbers are culturally relevant 1500 years later, and we see their writing as culturally relevant 2000 years later than that, should we be so quick to dismiss the relevance of the book of Numbers today?

Everyone has an interest in numbers

Our issue with the book of Numbers isn’t the numbers themselves, it’s that we don’t know what the numbers mean. Everybody takes an interest in numbers sometimes. What determines our interest is not whether somebody gives us numbers, it’s whether we know what to do with them and we know what they’re about.

The daily newspapers are choc-a-bloc with lists of names and numbers. Turn to the football pages and you will read lists of team names followed by series of numbers. The papers wouldn’t keep printing them if people simply switched off whenever they saw a list of numbers. When you know this list is the Premier League table, and the numbers show the points, goal difference and games played we are able to make sense of what is being shown. If you’re not into football, you may be more interested in the business pages showing the FTSE 100. If you have a pension, or you have made investments, you become very interested in these lists of numbers. If that’s not your bag, you may be more interested in the list of names and numbers on an Amazon shopping page showing you items to buy and how much they cost. The point is all of us take an interest in numbers at times.

When we come to the book of Numbers, the issue isn’t the list of names and numbers itself. The issue is that we often don’t know what to do with them or how to interpret them. This means, rather than ignoring them and letting our eyes glaze over, we should grapple with them and come to understand what they really represent.

God reveals himself in Numbers

Far too often, we read the Bible as though it is a book from which we are to mine moral lessons. Whilst the Bible certainly does speak to morality, that is not principally the way we ought to read it. The Bible is God’s revelation of himself to all humankind. Long before we begin drawing moral lessons from the text, we really ought to be asking what does the text reveal about God. Whatever else we may want to say about Numbers, it exists to reveal something about God to humankind. This means, to ignore it, is to dismiss something that God wants us to know about himself.

We also know from the New Testament that Jesus is the one who most fully reveals God. If God is revealing himself in scripture, and Jesus is the one who most fully makes God known, asking what this reveals about God should come with a follow up question: how does this point me to Christ? Again, we miss something about God’s character and of the person of Jesus Christ if we sideline bits of the Old Testament. We should take an interest in Numbers because it reveals something of God and points us to Jesus.

Numbers isn’t really about numbers

The unfortunate English title of the book Numbers doesn’t really tell us what the book is about. The English name comes from the censuses listed in chapters 1-4. But the Hebrew name for the book translates as In the Wilderness, which is more accurate about the contents. The focus in Numbers is not on the censuses but on the faithfulness and holiness of God, how Israel implemented God’s standard of holiness within the nation, and the response of two different Israelite generations to it.

Though the census information has something to say to us on these things, the emphasis does not lie on the censuses themselves. These are just the opening four chapters that lead us into more detail about Israel’s response to a holy God. The arrangement of the camp show Israel’s separation from the holy God in their midst. It points us to Christ who is the one able to break down the dividing wall between man and God. The ongoing events of the book speak to a faithless generation who do not believe in God’s promises and a faithful generation who act in faith and prepare to enter the Promised Land of which they own precisely none.

This tells us something about the character of God, the person of Christ and how we – in the modern church – ought to respond to them. That makes the book of Numbers manifestly relevant and worth studying, even if we do have to pour over some census figures to get to grips with it.