The book of Numbers does not get its name from the census, however. Rather, the entire book is a compilation of important numbers, many changing the entire course of history.
In the Wilderness of Sinai, the Israelites celebrated the second Passover, commemorating their escape from Egypt one year before. But problems soon began to arise among that first generation. Those camped on the outskirts were consumed by the fire of the Lord because of their complaining (Numbers 11:1-3). Others wept aloud because of their cravings for meat, and fruits and vegetables, as if the manna God provided was not good enough.
Even Aaron and Miriam, the brother and sister of Moses, rose up against him and questioned his authority. But Korah, from the tribe of Levi, led an even greater revolt. He stood against Moses, claiming that each person in Israel was holy and could therefore minister before the Lord. He claimed that Moses was exalting himself by operating as the mouthpiece for God.
As a result of Korah's evil words, the ground opened up and swallowed him and his entire household. And yet, despite all of this, God remained merciful and wanted to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land.
Twelve men were sent to spy out the land of Canaan, including Caleb and Joshua. After 40 days, the spies not only brought back a cluster of grapes so large that it had to be suspended from a pole carried between two men, but they also brought with them a report that the inhabitants of Canaan were too enormous to conquer. While the land itself was lush and inviting, the intimidating presence of the Canaanites made invasion seem out of the question.
However, Joshua and Caleb gave a positive report. They had faith in God who had worked amazing miracles to bring them out of Egypt. But the negative report from the other 10 spies caused the entire nation of Israel to cry out in despair against Moses, wishing that they had died in the wilderness instead of at the hands of their enemies.
That first generation had gone too far. As a consequence of their unbelief and rebellion, God declared that for the next 40 years, one for each day the spies were in Canaan, the Israelites would wander until the bodies of the first generation fell in the wilderness. Ironically, they received what they had wished for. Instead, their children as the second generation would be the ones to inherit the Promised Land.
Immediately following this activity is an unusual account of a talking donkey. Three times her owner beat her with his staff for turning aside and refusing to continue along the road. But not until the donkey spoke did the owner's eyes open and he realized an angel of the Lord had been blocking his path. The man's name was Balaam, and had been summoned by Balak, king of the Moabites and enemy of Israel.
Balaam was on his way to curse the Israelites, a sort of diviner for hire arrangement. Balak, king of the Moabites, greatly feared the Israelites and hoped to destroy them by cursing them. But the angel of the Lord warned Balaam to speak only what the Lord told him. So rather than cursing the Israelites, four times Balaam blessed them. The fourth blessing held great significance.
Numbers 24:17 is the key to the entire book of Numbers. It is the scarlet thread that is found in every book of the Bible, the thread that connects every book with the one unifying theme of redemption. It reads, "I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and batter the brow of Moab, and destroy all the sons of tumult."
The Promised Seed of Genesis, the Passover Lamb of Exodus, and the High Priest of Leviticus was also the Star to come out of Jacob that will rise up and trample His enemies under his feet. The rebellion of the Israelites was not going to hinder the plan of God to bless all the nations through His people, nor would it cause Him to forget His promise of a coming Messiah. The covenant was re-established. Now the book of Deuteronomy begins.