The title of this book in the Hebrew Bible comes from its first word, Bemidbar, meaning “in the desert.” But the English title is taken from the Greek Septuagint Bible, where it is called Arithmoi, a Greek word meaning “numbers,” and referring to the census taken by Moses at Mount Sinai. As the book begins, the Israelites are camped in the Sinai Desert, and what follows tells the story of their wandering journey over a forty-year period, eventually heading toward Canaan, the land God promised to their ancestor Abraham. Before starting out, Moses conducts a census of the people to determine the size of the various tribal groups that make up the people of Israel. Following the census-taking and some further instructions for traveling and for worship, the great caravan of the Israelite tribes sets forth from Mount Sinai through the region of Kadesh. All throughout the book the steadfast care of God can be seen, as well as the competent—though often impatient and frustrated—leadership of Moses.
After a failed attempt to enter the land of Canaan from the south, the Israelites proceed eastward, skirting around Edom, and eventually ending up in the north of Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan River, poised for crossing over into Canaan. Joshua is selected to succeed Moses as leader when it becomes clear that Moses will not live to make the crossing. Interspersed through the travel narration are also various instructions and regulations, as well as repeated reports of the people's “murmuring” discontent and grumbling complaints about this life on the move, a great vexation to Moses.
The Israelites Encamped at Mount Sinai (1.1—10.10)
The Israelites Journey from Mount Sinai to Moab (10.11—21.35)
The Camp in Moab: Preparing to Enter into Canaan (22.1—36.13)