From the INTRODUCTION
1. Title and contents
Numbers is the English translation of the Greek title of the book Arithmoi, a title no doubt given to it because of the census returns found in chapters 1 - 4 and 26. The fifth word of the book, bemidbar `in the wilderness', constitutes its Hebrew title. This more aptly describes its contents, for it is wholly concerned with the forty years the tribes of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness between Mount Sinai and the plains of Moab.
Numbers begins with a series of directions organizing the people to march from Sinai to the promised land. The tribes are counted, their arrangement in the camp and on the march is specified, the unclean are expelled from the community, the altar and the Levites are dedicated to the service of God, and a second passover is celebrated. The nation is now ready to begin the advance towards Canaan (1:1 - 10:10). Twenty days later the journey begins, difficulties are encountered on the way, but Kadesh on the borders of Canaan is safely reached (10:11 - 12:16). From Kadesh twelve spies are sent out to inspect the land. Their report is so discouraging that the people propose returning to Egypt (13:1 - 14:4).God then threatens to annihilate the nation, but is persuaded by Moses' intercession to commute the sentence to forty years' wandering in the wilderness.
Chapter 15 contains laws about cereal offerings, libations, high-handed sins, and tassels on garments. Chapters 16 - 17 relate several rebellions against the prerogatives of the priests and Levites. Chapter 18 sets out the offerings they are to receive and chapter 19 the rules about purification after death.
In chapters 20 - 21, after an interval of nearly forty years, the movement towards the land resumes with conquests over Canaanites in the Negeb and Amorites in Transjordan.
The rest of the book (chapters 22 - 36) relates what happened to Israel as they waited to cross the Jordan opposite the city of Jericho. These chapters include Balaam's prophecies about Israel's future (22 - 24), idolatry at Baal Peor (25), another census (26), laws about land, festivals and vows (27 - 30). The defeat of the Midianites and the request of the tribes of Gad, Reuben and Manasseh to settle in Transjordan are the subject of 31 - 32. Finally there is the list of places at which Israel camped (33) and a group of laws dealing with the distribution of the promised land (34 - 36).
This brief summary of the contents of Numbers highlights one of the gravest problems it poses for commentators: how is the order, or disorder, of the material to be explained? Is there any reason for the apparently random juxtaposition of law and narrative, which makes Numbers look like `the junk room of the priestly code'. Most commentators offer no explanation except a source-critical one, suggesting that the laws come from a priestly source (P) whereas the narratives are for the most part derived from the epic JE traditions. That Numbers contains various sources is obvious, but this does not solve the mystery of the editor's method. Why should he have arranged his source material as he did, when the material itself shows he was a person deeply concerned with order and organization? ...
...The material in Numbers cannot be understood apart from what precedes it in Exodus and Leviticus. The three middle books of the Pentateuch hang closely together, with Genesis forming the prologue, and Deuteronomy the epilogue to the collection.