The book of Numbers is a study in contrasts. On the one hand are routine records of travel, such as the censuses (Num. 1-2 and 26) and the itinerary (Num. 33). On the other are episodes of high drama, such as Miriam and Aaron's opposition to Moses (Num. 12) or the wars of conquest (Num. 21, 31) On one hand are laws, such as the test for a faithful wife (Num. 5), rules for sacrifices (Num. 15, 28-29), or the water of cleansing (Num. 19). On the other, there is rebellion against those laws (Num. 25, for example). In the end, the text charts in broad brushstrokes the journey of the Israelites for forty years, from the time they left Mount Sinai to their arrival on the borders of Canaan, poised for conquest.
One recurring theme, found again and again, is that the Israelites rebel against God, and God punishes them. To give a very brief summary of the highlights:
- Num. 11:1-3, the people complain, and God sends a fire to consume the outskirts of the camp. Moses intercedes on their behalf and stops the fire.
- Num. 11:4-34, the people complain that they have no meat. Moses and God are both mad, but God eventually sends enough quail to pile three feet high, for a day's walk all around the camp. As the Israelites eat it for the first time, God sends a "very great" plague against them.
- Num. 12:1-15, Miriam and Aaron oppose Moses' Ethiopian wife. God tells them that Moses is no ordinary prophet and they should not doubt him. God then afflicts Miriam with leprosy, which only ends when Aaron intercedes with Moses, who intercedes with God.
- Num. 14:1-45, upon the scouts' report that there are giants in Canaan, the people rebel and don't want to enter. God wants to kill the entire congregation, but Moses intercedes on their behalf and God agrees to pardon them. Instead, he forbids the people from entering the land and charges them with wandering in the desert for 40 years. The people try to enter anyway, and die in the ensuing battle. The scouts who brought the negative report die by plague.
- Num. 16:1-40, Korah the Levite, Dathan and Abiram the Reubenites, and 250 men claim that Moses and Aaron are setting themselves apart as holier than the rest of the community. God threatens to kill the entire community of Israel, but Moses intercedes on their behalf. God instead sends an earthquake to kill Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and fire to kill their 250 followers.
- Num. 16:41-50, in response to the incident just mentioned, the congregation complains and God threatens to destroy them all. Moses tells Aaron to make atonement for the congregation, which he does, stopping God's plague, which had so far killed 14,700 people.
- Num. 20:1-13, the people complain that there is no water. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock. They instead put on airs and strike the rock. For their insubordination, God tells Moses and Aaron that they will never enter Canaan.
- Num. 21:5-9, the people complain that there is no bread or water. God sends serpents to kill many people. Moses intercedes on their behalf, and God tells him how to cure those who have been wounded.
- Num. 25:1-5, the people have been practising adultery with Moabite women and worshipping their gods. God is angry at them and commands Moses to kill the ring-leaders, which he does.
- Num. 25:6-18, an Israelite man brings his Midianite girlfriend before the tabernacle. Phineas, son of the high priest, runs them both through with a javelin, thus ending the plague that had already killed 24,000 Israelites. God commands the Israelites to kill the Midianites.
For those who are counting, that's ten instances of rebellion in fifteen chapters. Looking at the list, we would almost be forced to ask, "did the Israelites do anything but complain?"
However, this is a glib assessment. Looked at another way, these fifteen chapters cover the course of forty years, which makes the average one rebellion every four years. True, this is still not a stellar track record for a holy people of God, but it is far from a perpetual state of rebellion. In fact, it's probably on-par with most societies.
We must ask ourselves, then, why the text choses to focus on these relatively uncommon occurrences. Why focus on the times of trouble, when the Israelites seem to have been fairly loyal for the majority of the time? The answer is likely, "rebellion makes more interesting reading." While there are certainly people who would be interested in reading long lists of, "things went well; nothing to report," these are not the sorts of records that usually endure.
To put it another way, if you read any history textbook, about any era, you are likely to think the entirety of a nation's history involves wars and conflicts. This is naturally what people tend to write about when writing history. Similarly with the redactors of the Bible: they chose to focus on the times of conflict, because these are both the most interesting and the most edifying. If you want to teach your people how to act, it is far easier to show them what not to do and the consequences if they do it.
In short, then, Numbers might be misleading. Reading it through, the Israelites seem to be constantly complaining and unhappy. God seems to be constantly threatening to destroy them or sending all manner of natural disasters to thin the populace. On the other hand, if we look at the testimony of the Moabite prophet Balaam (Num. 22-24), we remember that the Israelites were blessed and God's chosen people. No matter the occasional uprisings, they persevered and arrived at the entrance to Canaan.
And now, in Deuteronomy, Moses is about to give us a book-long recap of everything we've done to date.