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.
II Numbers 10:11-21:35 The Wilderness Journey of the First Generation
A. 10:11-36 Leaving Sinai
B. 11:1-19:22 Murmuring and Death in the Wilderness
11:1-12:16 Conflict over prophetic leadership
13:1-15:41 Conflict over land
16:1-17:13 Conflict over priestly leadership: Chapter 17 is the story of Aaron’s budding staff. Scholars have several ideas about why almonds were chosen. Perhaps almonds are a sign of watchfulness (Jer1:11) or the white bud might symbolize holiness and purity. Or the budding staff indicates the reality that Aaronite priests are the ones who may approach God and live. Chapters 16 and 17 give us a warning about and indicate God’s choice for the priesthood.
18:1-19:22 Guidelines for approaching God: Now there are guidelines for approaching God. The first verses, 1-7 are a response to Israel fear of 17:12-13. Notice here God speaks to Aaron rather than Moses (as is more common). Verses 5 and 7 explain the priesthood’s function. Notice again the Levites serve the Aaronide priests. Verses 8-19 explain the priest’s compensation for their duties. The word translated at “devoted things” in verse 14 is from the Hebrew word meaning “to separate” or “to set aside” and so is used to designate holiness. The word can have either a positive or negative connotation as in property that is seized by the temple (Lev 27:16-25). Priests cannot own land. Then beginning at v21 is a discussion about the Levites and their compensation. In chapter 19 the focus shifts from priests to ordinary persons and the problem of contamination from corpses. Remember that some ancient cultures believed the dead lived on as ghosts and there were burial rituals and food and drink offerings to the dead. Here is a move away for the worship of the dead or of giving the ghosts of the dead any authority in the community. The chapter seems to contain three sections, v1-10a, 10b-13 and 14-22. Notice that this chapter sets dead over against holiness. Death is not compatible with the holiness of God and so defiles. But the defilement of death is overcome by the “sacraments of atonement” (Dozeman, 152).
C. 20:1-21:35 Leaving the Wilderness: These two chapters are located in three places, Kadesh, Mt. Hor, and Transjordan. In Kadesh, Miriam dies and Moses and Aaron have a failure of leadership and in addition, there is a conflict with the Edomites. Mount Hor is where Aaron dies and a Canaanite king is defeated. As Israel travels around Edom there is an attack by fiery serpents. In Transjordan, Israel defeats Amorite kings. In these chapters the story of Israel changes from a story of wandering and death to successful holy war.
Kadesh has been a place were several negative events happened in chapters 13,14 and 16. Miriam’s death is briefly told but recall that she is one of the leaders of the exodus. In verses 2-13 Moses and Aaron are disobedient and thus are not allowed into the promised land. This contrasts with earlier stories where Moses is a strong leader. Scholars debate exactly what the nature of Moses’ sin was, the text is not clear. But it seems to involve both actions and words. Moses does not follow God’s instructions for how to act. He also speaks angrily to the people.The rod connects this story to the disobedience at Korah in 17:12-13. Notice that here the people “murmur” but they are not punished. Does this suggest that Israel has complained in an appropriate way?
In verses 14-21Israel asks permission to cross through the land of Edom. Recall that Jacob/Israel was the brother of Esau/Edom. Consider the story of Jacob and Esau as you read this story.
In verses 22-29 Israel arrives at Mt. Hor. Aaron dies. The second of the leaders has died. This time we are told Israel mourned 30 days for Aaron. Eleazar succeeds Aaron as high priest.
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.