Jehovah’s Word Is Alive

Highlights From the Book of Numbers

FOLLOWING their Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were organized into a nation. Shortly thereafter, they could have entered the Promised Land, but they did not. Instead, they had to wander for some four decades in a “great and fear-inspiring wilderness.” (Deuteronomy 8:15) Why? The historical narrative in the Bible book of Numbers tells us what happened. It should impress upon us the need to obey Jehovah God and respect his representatives.

Written by Moses in the wilderness and on the Plains of Moab, the book of Numbers covers a period of 38 years and 9 months​—from 1512 B.C.E. to 1473 B.C.E. (Numbers 1:1; Deuteronomy 1:3) Its name is derived from the two censuses of the Israelites, taken some 38 years apart. (Chapters 1-4, 26) The narrative is divided into three sections. The first part relates events that happened at Mount Sinai. The second covers what took place during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. And the final section considers events on the Plains of Moab. As you read this account, you may want to ask yourself: ‘What do these incidents teach me? Are there principles in this book that can benefit me today?’


(Numbers 1:1–10:10)

The first of the two numberings takes place while the Israelites are still at the base of Mount Sinai. Males 20 years old and upward, except the Levites, total 603,550. The census is evidently taken for military purposes. The entire camp, including women, children, and the Levites, may amount to over three million people.

Following the census, the Israelites receive instructions regarding the order of march, details concerning the duties of Levites and tabernacle service, commands on quarantine, and laws relating to cases of jealousy and vows made by Nazirites. Chapter 7 contains information about offerings made by tribal chieftains in connection with the inauguration of the altar, and chapter 9 discusses the Passover observance. The assembly is also given instructions about setting up and breaking camp.

Scriptural Questions Answered:

2:1, 2—What were “the signs” around which the three-tribe divisions were to encamp in the wilderness? The Bible does not give a description of what these signs were. However, they were not regarded as sacred symbols or given religious significance. The signs were used for a practical purpose​—to help a person find his proper place in the camp.

5:27—What is meant by the ‘falling away of the thigh’ of a wife guilty of adultery? The term “thigh” is used here to denote the procreative organs. (Genesis 46:26) The ‘falling away’ of it suggests the degeneration of these organs, so that conception would be impossible.

Lessons for Us:

6:1-7Nazirites were to abstain from the product of the vine and all intoxicating beverages, requiring self-denial. They were to let their hair grow long​—a sign of submission to Jehovah, just as women were to be in subjection to their husbands or fathers. The Nazirites were to remain clean by staying away  from any dead body, even that of a close relative. Full-time servants today show a spirit of self-sacrifice when it comes to self-denial and submission to Jehovah and his arrangement. Some assignments may involve going to a distant land, which may even make it difficult or impossible to return home for the funeral of a close family member.

8:25, 26To fill the positions of the Levite service properly, and out of consideration for their age, older men were commanded to retire from compulsory service. However, they could volunteer to assist other Levites. While there is no retirement from being a Kingdom proclaimer today, the principle of this law teaches a valuable lesson. If because of advanced age a Christian cannot fulfill certain obligations, he may engage in a form of service that is within his power to perform.


(Numbers 10:11–21:35)

When the cloud above the tabernacle eventually rises, the Israelites begin a march that will bring them to the desert plains of Moab 38 years and one or two months later. You may find it beneficial to follow their route on the map on page 9 of the brochure “See the Good Land,” published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On the way to Kadesh, in the Wilderness of Paran, there are at least three cases of complaint. The first one is quelled when Jehovah sends a fire to consume some of the people. Then the Israelites cry out for meat, and Jehovah supplies quail. Miriam and Aaron’s complaint against Moses results in Miriam being temporarily stricken with leprosy.

While camping at Kadesh, Moses sends out 12 men to spy out the Promised Land. They return 40 days later. Believing the bad report of ten of the spies, the people want to stone Moses, Aaron, and the faithful spies Joshua and Caleb. Jehovah proposes to strike the people with pestilence, but Moses intercedes, and God declares that they will become wanderers in the wilderness for 40 years​—until those numbered have died.

Jehovah gives additional regulations. Korah and others rebel against Moses and Aaron, but the rebels are destroyed by fire or are swallowed up by the earth. The following day the entire assembly murmurs against Moses and Aaron. As a result, 14,700 die in a scourge from Jehovah. To make his selection of high priest known, God causes Aaron’s rod to bud. Jehovah then gives further laws pertaining to Levite obligations and the cleansing of the people. The use of red-cow ashes prefigures the cleansing through Jesus’ sacrifice.​—Hebrews 9:13, 14.

The sons of Israel return to Kadesh, where Miriam dies. The assembly again complains against Moses and Aaron. Their reason? Lack of water.  Because Moses and Aaron fail to sanctify Jehovah’s name when miraculously providing water, they lose out on entering the Promised Land. Israel pulls away from Kadesh, and Aaron dies at Mount Hor. While going around Edom, the Israelites tire out and speak against God and Moses. Jehovah sends poisonous serpents to punish them. Moses once again intercedes, and God instructs him to make a copper serpent and set it upon a pole so that those bitten are cured by gazing at it. The serpent foreshadows the impalement of Jesus Christ for our eternal benefit. (John 3:14, 15) Israel defeats Amorite Kings Sihon and Og and takes possession of their lands.

Scriptural Questions Answered:

12:1—Why did Miriam and Aaron complain against Moses? The real reason for their complaint was apparently Miriam’s desire for greater power. When Moses’ wife, Zipporah, rejoined him in the wilderness, Miriam might have feared that she would no longer be viewed as leading lady in the camp.​—Exodus 18:1-5.

12:9-11—Why was only Miriam stricken with leprosy? Very likely, she was the one who instigated the complaint and persuaded Aaron to join her. Aaron displayed a right attitude by confessing his wrong.

21:14, 15—What was the book mentioned here? The Scriptures refer to various books that the Bible writers used as source material. (Joshua 10:12, 13; 1 Kings 11:41; 14:19, 29) “The book of the Wars of Jehovah” was such a writing. It contained a historical account of the wars of Jehovah’s people.

Lessons for Us:

11:27-29Moses provides an excellent example regarding how we should respond when others receive privileges in Jehovah’s service. Rather than jealously seeking glory for himself, Moses was happy when Eldad and Medad began acting as prophets.

12:2, 9, 10; 16:1-3, 12-14, 31-35, 41, 46-50Jehovah expects his worshipers to show respect for God-given authority.

14:24. A key to resisting worldly pressures toward wrongdoing is to develop “a different spirit,” or mental attitude. It must be one that is not like that of the world.

15:37-41The unique fringe of the Israelites’ dress was intended to remind them that they were a people set apart to worship God and to obey his commandments. Should we not also live by God’s standards and stand out as different from the world?


(Numbers 22:1–36:13)

As the sons of Israel encamp on the desert plains of Moab, the Moabites feel a sickening dread of them. Moab’s King Balak,  therefore, hires Balaam to curse the Israelites. But Jehovah forces Balaam to bless them. Moabite and Midianite women are then used to lure Israelite men into immorality and idolatry. As a result, Jehovah destroys 24,000 wrongdoers. The scourge finally ends when Phinehas demonstrates that he tolerates no rivalry toward Jehovah.

The second census reveals that none of the men counted in the first are still alive, except for Joshua and Caleb. Joshua is commissioned to be Moses’ successor. The Israelites receive procedures for various offerings and instructions on the making of vows. The people of Israel also take vengeance upon the Midianites. Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh settle east of the Jordan River. Israel is given instructions on crossing the Jordan and taking possession of the land. Detailed boundaries of the land are defined. The inheritance is to be decided by lot. Levites are assigned 48 cities, and 6 of these are to serve as cities of refuge.

Scriptural Questions Answered:

22:20-22—Why did Jehovah’s anger blaze against Balaam? Jehovah had told the prophet Balaam that he should not curse the Israelites. (Numbers 22:12) However, the prophet went with Balak’s men with the full intention of cursing Israel. Balaam wanted to please the Moabite king and receive a reward from him. (2 Peter 2:15, 16; Jude 11) Even when Balaam was forced to bless rather than curse Israel, he sought the king’s favor by suggesting that Baal-worshiping women be used to seduce Israelite men. (Numbers 31:15, 16) Thus, the reason for God’s anger against Balaam was the prophet’s unscrupulous greed.

30:6-8—Can a Christian man set aside his wife’s vows? With regard to vows, Jehovah now deals with his worshipers individually. For example, dedication to Jehovah is a personal vow. (Galatians 6:5) A husband does not have the authority to set aside or cancel such a vow. A wife, though, should avoid making a vow that conflicts with God’s Word or her duties toward her husband.

Lessons for Us:

25:11. What an example of zeal for Jehovah’s worship Phinehas set for us! Should not the desire to keep the congregation clean move us to report any knowledge of gross immorality to Christian elders?

35:9-29The fact that an unintentional manslayer had to leave his home and flee to a city of refuge for a period of time teaches us that life is sacred and that we must have respect for it.

35:33. The earth polluted by the spilled blood of the innocent can be atoned for only by the blood of those spilling it. How appropriate that Jehovah will destroy the wicked before the earth is transformed into a paradise!​—Proverbs 2:21, 22; Daniel 2:44.

God’s Word Exerts Power

We must show respect for Jehovah and for those appointed to positions of responsibility among his people. The book of Numbers makes this truth ever clearer. What an important lesson for maintaining peace and unity in the congregation today!

The incidents related in Numbers show how easily those who neglect their spirituality can fall into wrongdoing, such as murmuring, immorality, and idolatry. Some of the examples and lessons from this Bible book can serve as a basis for local needs parts on the Service Meeting at congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Indeed, “the word of God is alive and exerts power” in our life.​—Hebrews 4:12.

[Picture on page 24, 25]

By means of a miraculous cloud over the tabernacle, Jehovah directed the setting up and breaking of the Israelite camp

[Pictures on page 26]

Jehovah deserves our obedience and expects us to respect his representatives