Numbers could be considered, “Exodus Part II.” The Israelite's have left Egypt and already camped at Mount Sinai where they received the 10 commandments and many more instructions for life together in God’s presence (written down in Leviticus). Now after a LONG intermission, God leads his people through the wilderness toward the promised land.
The Hebrew name for this book is “In the Wilderness," whereas Numbers received its name from the census. One census is taken in chapter 1, and by the second census (ch. 26), only three people from the original census survived. It is a whole new generation entering the promised land.
How should I read it?
Numbers is a collection of stories, battle reports, worship instructions, laws, and poetry. It tells the founding story of Israel, much like the First Thanksgiving is a founding story of America. In each instance, historicity isn’t as important as its meaning. Old Testament scholar, Fred Gaiser encourages us to “read [it] as part of a historical saga written for a theological purpose: as a warning against disobedience and a promise of God's faithful guidance toward new life.”*
Part I: Camp at Sinai (Num. 1-10)
Camp is organized, priests are established, and legislation is enacted to ensure holiness.
Part II: Journey to the Promised Land (Num. 11-20)
Journey is full of challenges, rebellion, and death.
Part III: On the Edge of the Promised Land at Moab (Num. 21-37)
On the plains, new threats loom with neighboring enemies, but God remains faithful.
Israel must wander in the wilderness for as long as it takes for there to be a change of heart so they trust God instead of longing for “the good ol’ days” (which weren’t so good) back in Egypt. In this case, it took 40 years, or an entire generation. While the nation Israel lived in a physical wilderness, this theme of wilderness as a place of testing, chaos, and inbetween-ness reoccurs throughout scripture and in faith.
As the people complain, rebel, and disobey God, his anger kindles against them. But aren't we taught that God is a loving God slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? Fred Gaiser offers a helpful response on Enter the Bible.com:
"The wrath of God in Numbers is not a personal emotion of anger or hatred, but the weighty consequence of disobedience and rebellion. Defying God brings the divine wrath, that is, the disastrous results of turning away from God and God's good purposes."*
* Gaiser, Fred. “Numbers.” Enter the Bible, http://www.enterthebible.org/ oldtestament.aspx?rid=24, Accessed 26, February 2017.