You will find and introduction and an outline to Numbers, here.
A prayer before reading:From the liturgy of John Chrysostom, 4th century:
Shine within our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our minds that we may comprehend the message of your Gospel. Instill in us, also, reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the light of our souls and bodies, and to You we give glory together with Your Father who is without beginning and Your all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
I. Numbers 1:1-10:10 Forming a Community at Sinai: The main theme of these chapters is holiness. God is holy, but humans are not and this difficulty is what the priestly writers are trying to resolve.How can holy God be present with humankind?
A. 1:1-6:27 Holiness and the Camp: How should Israel organize itself, as a community, around God who dwells in the sanctuary?
1:1-2:34 The first census and the arrangement of the camp: Chapter 1 describes the organization of Israel as 12 tribes and chapter 2 describes how the camp is arranged. Chapter 1 begins the Lord instructing Moses and ends with a statement that the instructions were followed. Chapter 2 begins and ends similarly. The setting and the date of these instructions ties this book together with Exodus 19-40 and with Leviticus. The words “clans” probably means groups larger than nuclear families and may be an association of families with a tribe or perhaps a tribe. “Ancestral houses” probably means and extended family of parents, children, married sons with wives and unmarried daughters along with resident aliens. These terms are not static and sometimes the meaning changes, for example in verse 4 Ancestral house means something similar to tribe. Both words refer to kinship ties. “Congregation” does not refer to family ties. The word comes from the Hebrew word which means “to appoint” , “to meet” or “to gather by appointment”. So the congregation is the group of people who gather around the tent of meeting. As we read through Numbers we will see that the congregation had some particular functions. (Num 14, 5,7,27,35,36; 15:24-26; 31:16; 35:12, 24-25).
The census ties back to Exodus 30:11-16 and the sanctuary tax but it also serves to prepare and organize the community for war.
The census numbers are large. To have this number of men over 20 years of age would suggest a total population of over 2 million. Scholars believe this many people would overwhelm, environmentally speaking, the Sinai peninsula. There are other intra biblical sources which give a much lower number of fighting men (Judg 5:8). So what are we to think? One possibility is that these numbers had a symbolic and theological importance for the original audience which we, now, do not understand. Perhaps these numbers in some way function as a sign of the fulfillment of the blessing of fertility promised to Abraham, or as an indication that Israel has become “a great nation” as promised.
Notice how the Levites are separated out from the rest of the Israelites because of their particular role.
In chapter 2 the tribes are situation in four groups of three around the Tent of Meeting and the Levites. Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan are named as lead tribes.
Notice how the tabernacle is the center of the camp, both physically and theologically. Notice also the continuing concern for order. Israel is doing/becoming a new community but within the framework of order.
Part of the writers concern with order is to protect the people from, as Dozeman writes, “harmful consequences of living with God. Divine wrath results from any casual approach to God. Divine wrath is not divine anger. The Israelites are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. They are redeemed humans who now live in the presence of the divine. They have access to power beyond their imagination. Such power is dangerous, because it will always effect change. Thus is must be approached carefully. The starting point of the priestly writers is the power of God to transform and make new. The wrath of God is a necessary by-product of such power. Electricity provides a partial analogy. The flow of generated electricity is constant. When properly wired, it can light and heat our homes. But when an exposed cord is touched with the bare hand, electricity has the power to kill.” (Dozeman,40).
3:1-4:49 The Role of the Levites in cult, camp and on the march: Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the Levites rather than the entire congregation of Israel. These chapters follow the pattern of divine command and fulfillment.You will notice a distinction between Aaronide priests and Levites. (3: 5-10) The genealogy and organization can be difficult to follow. In general, Aaronide priests are consecrated as their rite of ordination. Levites are purified for their role of guarding the tabernacle. Levites are in between Aaronide priests and the congregation of Israel in terms of holiness. The consecration of Aaronide priests is the topic in Leviticus. The purification of Levites is the focus in Numbers.
Notice again the focus on order. Recall that for the priestly writers, there is a separation between God and humans and thus particular persons are selected for particular service. They are selected to serve the larger community.
Read More About It.
The following are several good general reference works to aid your reading of the Torah.
Anderson, Bernhard W. “Leviticus” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books Metzger, Bruce M., Roland E. Murphy, eds.(New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Dozeman, Thomas B. “The Book of Numbers”, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 2 Keck, Leander E., ed. (Nashville”Abingdon Press) 1994.
Hallo, William W. “Numbers and Ancient Near Eastern Literature” in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.
Olson, Dennis T. “Numbers” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Plaut, W. Gunther “Numbers” in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.