The fourth book of the Pentateuch is directly related to the books preceding it and following it. In Exodus God delivers the Israelites from Egyptian oppression and gives them the law at Mount Sinai. Leviticus looks at these laws in some detail, and in Numbers we have the 40 years of wilderness wanderings from Mount Sinai to the Jordan as they get ready to enter into Canaan.
Gordon Wenham offers us this to see the place of the book in the larger narrative structure:
Exodus concentrates on the deliverance from Egypt, the covenant at Sinai and the erection of the tabernacle. Leviticus highlights the nature of true worship and holiness. Numbers focuses on the land of promise and Israel’s journey towards it. God’s character and his reactions to Israel’s behaviour are constant throughout these books, but different aspects come to the fore in different books. If Leviticus emphasizes the importance of holiness and cleanness, Numbers reiterates the value of faith and obedience. Whereas Leviticus stresses the role of sacrifice in creating and maintaining right relations between God and man, Numbers accentuates the indispensability of the priesthood for preserving the nation’s spiritual health.
Numbers 33 offers us the details of the various stages in Israel’s lengthy journey through the wilderness. As to a rough outline of the book, Hubbard and Dearman offer these as the four main parts of the story of Numbers:
Number 1-10 How the Israelites began preparations to depart from Sinai and head toward Canaan
Number 10-21 How the Israelites grumble their way across the desert and how Yahweh angrily condemns the exodus generation to die in the desert
Number 22-24 How the prophecies on the non-Israelite Balaam reaffirm that God’s blessing rests on them and frustrates the king of Moab’s plans to curse them
Number 25-36 How on the plains of Moab Yahweh and Moses ready the Israelites to conquer and settle in Canaan and even allot two-and-a-half tribes their inheritance east of the Jordan
And Michael Glodo says this about the book and its place in the biblical canon:
The book of Numbers fulfills an essential role in the foundations of the Old Testament. Along with Exodus and Deuteronomy, it recounts the history of God’s faithful acts toward his covenant people, whom he redeemed from slavery in Egypt according to the promises made to the patriarchs. It gave Israel its shape both as a congregation ordered around the divine presence and as a holy army on the march with its divine Warrior-King in the lead. . . . It also provides a grand object lesson on unbelief and its consequences.
Various responses are given when scholars are asked what some of the major themes of the book are. Timothy Ashley is short and to the point when he writes: “The themes of obedience, disobedience, holiness, and the presence of God are the keys to understanding the book of Numbers.”
R. Dennis Cole puts it this way: “The overarching theme of the Book of Numbers is that Yahweh reveals himself to his people as the faithful God of Israel through word and deed. In word and deed he demonstrates his loyalty and faithfulness to his people, challenging them to be faithful to the special covenant relationship he has revealed and established with them.”
As for the title of the book, the numbers have to do with the two military censuses recorded there. The story of the forty-year wilderness wanderings is “essentially the story of two generations” as Iain Duguid states. He is worth quoting at length here:
Each generation undergoes a census in the book: the first generation at the beginning of the book, and the second generation in Numbers 26. Numbers 1-25 is the story of the first generation – a story of unbelief, rebellion, despair, and death. It shows us what happens to the generation that refuses to place their trust in the Lord in spite of his manifest trustworthiness: they are unable to enter his rest, and their bodies are scattered over the wilderness. Numbers 17-36, though, starts the story of the next generation, a story that begins and ends with Zelophehad’s daughters, whose appeal for an inheritance is the first issue to be addressed in the beginning of that story in Numbers 27 and the last to be covered as the book concludes in Numbers 36. These women of faith are emblematic of the new generation because they were deeply concerned about ensuring that their descendants would have an inheritance in the Promised Land – even though not one inch of it had yet been won by Israel at the time when they first raised the issue in Numbers 27. Zelophehad’s daughters believed firmly in the promises of God, and so they acted in faith on those promises, claiming a share in the future inheritance of God’s people for themselves and for their children too. So, in broad terms we may say that the story of the book of Numbers is the story of two consecutive generations, a generation of unbelief that leads to death and a generation of faith that will lead to life.
Or as Warren Wiersbe puts it: “The book of Numbers opens with a count of all the fighting men in the camp. They were counted, but they couldn’t be counted on, because all but two of them died during Israel’s march through the wilderness. Then the new generation was counted, and they were people that the Lord could “count on.” They trusted His Word, entered the Promised Land, and claimed it for their inheritance.”
David Stubbs notes the relevance of the book for believers today:
Numbers is a book that focuses on the vocation of the people of God and the sins that constantly work to keep Israel from fulfilling it. Because of this, Numbers is a wonderful book for the Christian church to reflect on in the midst of important contemporary discussions about the nature and mission of the church. Numbers pushes the Christian church towards an incredibly high view of its calling, while at the same time being utterly realistic about the ways in which people fail to fully live into it. It pushes us to be a people of zeal and hope and of humility and honesty.
And Adrian Reynolds also notes the importance of this book for contemporary Christians:
Both Old and New Testament writers look back to the book of Numbers as an important part of the believers’ instruction; it foreshadows Christ more clearly than perhaps any of the Pentateuch (though, of course, all of Scripture does this wonderfully); and its lessons are still relevant for a wandering generation today as we make our way towards our promised land. It ends on a high note with those we could call the heroines of the book, Zelophehad’s five daughters, the women who walked by faith.
Indeed, there are plenty of spiritual and theological truths to be found in this book, fully relevant for Christians today. In this earlier article I look at Numbers 13 and 33: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/08/lessons-from-numbers/
And in this piece I examine some of the important spiritual truths found in Numbers 32: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/02/04/lessons-book-numbers/
That second article centres around the question Moses asked the Israelites, but could also be asked of Christians today: “Moses said to the Gadites and Reubenites, ‘Should your fellow Israelites go to war while you sit here? Why do you discourage the Israelites from crossing over into the land the LORD has given them?'” (Numbers 32:6-7)
Here are some helpful commentaries on this book, mainly reflecting a conservative and/or evangelical point of view:
Numbers expository commentaries
Duguid, Iain, Numbers (PTW, 2006)
Reynolds, Adrian, Teaching Numbers (TBS, 2012)
Weirsbe, Warren, Be Counted (David C. Cook, 1999, 2010)
Numbers critical commentaries
Ashley, Timothy, The Book of Numbers (NICOT, 1993)
Bellinger, W. H., Leviticus, Numbers (UBC, 2001, 2012)
Brown, Raymond, The Message of Numbers (BST, 2002)
Cole, R. Dennis, Numbers (NAC, 2000)
Davies, Eryl, Numbers (NCB, 1995)
Gane, Roy, Leviticus, Numbers (NIVAC, 2004)
Stubbs, David, Numbers (BTCB, 2009)
Wenham, Gordan, Numbers (TOTC, 1981)
As to preferred commentaries, perhaps I might select Ashley, Brown, Cole and Duguid.
Happy studying and reading.