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Dr. J. Vernon McGee :: Notes for Numbers

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(Called Arithmoi in the Septuagint, meaning “arithmetic”)

WRITER: Moses (see outline of Genesis)

THEME: “PILGRIM’S PROGRESS” — walking, wandering, working, warring, witnessing, and worshiping. It is a handbook for pilgrims. “Chart and compass come from Thee.” It is a roadmap for the wilderness of this world.

For whatever things were written in earlier times were written for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of the scriptures, might have hope. (Romans 15:4)

Now all these things happened unto them for examples, and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come. (1 Corinthians 10:11)

These all died in faith, not having received the promises but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. (Hebrews 11:13)

Dearly beloved, I beseech you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul. (1 Peter 2:11)

I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. (John 17:14,15)

FORWARD MARCH: In the Book of Numbers, we see the children of Israel depart from Mt. Sinai and march to Kadesh-barnea. At Kadesh-barnea, the attitude of unbelief is crystallized into actual disobedience. The light is focused on faith, and they failed. “So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19). After Kadesh-barnea, they began to wander until that entire generation died in the wilderness (two notable exceptions were Joshua and Caleb). The years of wandering were a veritable saga of suffering, a trek of tragedy, and a story of straying.
Numbers gets its name from the two censuses recorded in chapters 1 and 26. C. H. Mackintosh called it “a divine history of the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness for about 38 years and 10 months, commencing with the first movement of the camp after the tabernacle was reared.”

KEY PASSAGE: Numbers 14:29-31

Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness; and all who were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against me, doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I swore to make you dwell therein, except Caleb, the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua, the son of Nun. But your little ones, whom ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised.

These verses outline the experiences of the children of Israel during the time of wandering until the new generation came to the east bank of the Jordan in the land of Moab.

COMMENT: It was 150 to 200 miles from Mt. Sinai to Kadeshbarnea — a journey in that time of 11 days (Deuteronomy 1:2). They spent 30 days at Kibroth. That means they spent 40 years on a journey that should have taken 40 days. At Kadesh-barnea, walking was turned to wandering. They did not advance an inch after Kadesh-barnea; at the end of the wanderings they came back to the same place (Numbers 20:1).

That their number was decimated is seen by a comparison of the two censuses:

603,550 fighting men (Numbers 1:46)
601,730 fighting men (Numbers 26:51)
    1,820 loss (They were told to “be fruitful and multiply.”)

The census in the first chapter furnishes a yardstick by which a total figure can be estimated. Dr. Melvin Grove Kyle gave to his students this approximation, which he considered a conservative figure.

   600,000 fighting men (Numbers 1:46)
   400,000 women
   200,000 older men
   800,000 children
   100,000 mixed multitude
2,100,000 TOTAL (tribe of Levi not included)

From Egypt to Mt. Sinai

The first 10 chapters deal with the order of the camp. Israel was not a mob crossing the desert. Every man had to know who he was and where he belonged in the camp.

From Mt. Sinai Onward

The tabernacle was the center of the camp, and the twelve tribes were arranged according to the situation of the tabernacle. They marched according to their position. The tribe of Levi was directly around the tabernacle according to their families.

Chart of Israel's Encampment

The 40 years of wandering and the unbelief at Kadesh-barnea are not recorded in the “faith” chapter of Hebrews (chapter 11). The record of their unbelief is recorded in Hebrews 3:7-19. This is the “doubting chapter.”

The Order the Israelites Marched

The years of wandering were not exactly wasted. God taught them many precious lessons during this period — among them:

1. The rebellion of Korah led to the confirmation of the priesthood of Aaron by the budding of the almond rod. This has become a picture of the priesthood of Christ, which is based on His resurrection.

2. The offering of the red heifer in chapter 19 sets forth the method God uses to keep believers clean. Chapters 16 through 19 all have to do with the priesthood.

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)

3. The constant complaining of the people led to the judgment by serpents and the provision of the serpent of brass as the remedy. This teaches us that Christ was made sin for us.

Numbers 22 — 25 give us the account of Balaam, one of the bad men of the Bible, a rogue of revelation, a scoundrel of Scripture, a villain of the volume. He was a strange character. He was a heathen prophet with magical powers (Numbers 22:6). He is specifically labeled a soothsayer (Joshua 13:22). He received the rewards of “divination” (Numbers 22:7). He confessed that he used these methods (Numbers 23:23).
He gave four of the most remarkable prophecies in the Scriptures regarding Israel:

1st prophecy — Numbers 23:8-10
2nd prophecy — Numbers 23:20-24
3rd prophecy — Numbers 24:5-9
4th prophecy — Numbers 24:17-24 (This is a source from which the wise men could have known about the star.)

Balaam had some knowledge of God, and God used him (Numbers 22:9, 20, 22, 31). He is a strange anomaly. The Scriptures have a great deal to say about him — see Numbers 31:16; Deuteronomy 23:4, 5; Joshua 13:22; Joshua 24:9, 10; Nehemiah 13:2; Micah 6:5; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11; Revelation 2:14.
Every preacher of any consequence has preached on Balaam. Here are a few observations from some of these men. Bishop Butler: “Self-deception — Balaam persuaded himself that his sin could be brought into rules of conscience and revelation.” Cardinal Newman: “The dark shadow cast over a noble course by standing always on the ladder of advancement and by the suspense of a worldly ambition never satisfied.” Charles Spurgeon: “Double-minded man — he could see the right, and yet his lower nature turned him from it.” B. H. Carroll: “He had but one real mind — greed and power. Religion — a stalking-horse.”
Scripture distinguishes between the way of Balaam, the error of Balaam, and the doctrine of Balaam:

“The way of Balaam” (2 Peter 2:15) was that he prostituted his gift for gain, he was covetous, he commercialized his office.

“The error of Balaam” (Jude 11) was that he concluded a righteous God must curse Israel. He was unaware of the grace of God revealed in God’s redemption of Israel out of Egypt.

“The doctrine of Balaam” (Revelation 2:14) was his counsel to Balak. Finding that he could not curse Israel, he showed Balak how to break down the wall of separation by marriage with women of Moab (Numbers 31:15, 16).

At chapter 26, the new generation has come of age. The generation that came out of Egypt has died in the wilderness. Preparation is made for entering the promised land.


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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