This book may be divided into three parts:
The period comprehended in the history extends from the second month of the second year after the Exodus to the beginning of the eleventh month of the fortieth year, in all about thirty-eight years and ten months; a dreary period of wanderings. They were fewer in number at the end of their wanderings than when they left the land of Egypt.
According to tradition, Moses authored all five books of the Torah. According to the documentary hypothesis, Numbers, with its dry style and emphasis on censuses, derives from the priestly source, c. 550-400 BC, and was combined with the other three sources to create the Torah c. 400.
God prescribes the formation of the camp around the Tabernacle, each tribe being distinguished by its chosen banner. Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun encamp to the east of the Tabernacle; Reuben, Simeon, and Gad to the south; Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin to the west; and Dan, Asher, and Naphtali to the north. The same order is to be preserved for the march.
Moses is ordered to consecrate the Levites for the service of the Tabernacle in the place of the first-born sons, who hitherto had performed that service. The Levites are divided into three families, the Gershonites, the Kohathites, and the Merarites, each under a chief, and all headed by one prince, Eleazar, son of Aaron.
The Levites who are suited for the service of the Tabernacle—those from thirty to fifty years of age—were then numbered.
Preparations are then made for resuming the march to the Promised Land. Various ordinances and laws are decreed.
The spies are sent out into the lands and come back to report to Moses. The spies have to see how fertile the ground is, how fortified the cites are and how strong the people are. Joshua and Caleb, two of the spies, argue that the land is abundant and is "flowing with milk and honey." The other spies say that it is inhabited by strong and evil men, which causes the Israelites to want to return to Egypt. The Lord talks to Moses and says he will kill all of the Israelites. Moses pleads with God, saying that others would think badly of God for leading his people to the wilderness and abandoning them there. God speaks to Aaron of having to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.
Moses is ordered to make plates to cover the altar with the two hundred fifty censers left after the destruction of Korah's band. The children of Israel murmur against Moses and Aaron on account of the death of Korah's men and are stricken with the plague, with 14,700 perishing; Aaron's rod is used to quell the destruction.
Aaron and his family are declared by God to be responsible for any iniquity committed in connection with the sanctuary. The Levites are again appointed to help him in the keeping of the Tabernacle. The Levites are ordered to surrender to the priests a part of the tithes taken by them.
The new census, taken just before the entry into the land of Canaan, gives the total number of males from twenty years and upward as 601,730, the number of the Levites from a month old and upward as 23,000. The land shall be divided by lot. The daughters of Zelophehad, their father having no sons, share in the allotment. Moses is ordered to appoint Joshua as his successor.
Prescriptions for the observance of the feasts, and the offerings for different occasions are remunerated: every day; the Sabbath; the first day of the month; the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread; the day of first-fruits; the day of the trumpets; the Day of Atonement; the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles; the day of solemn assembly.
The conquest of Midian by the Israelites and the massacre of the Midian population is recounted. The Reubenites and the Gadites request Moses to assign them the land east of the Jordan. After their promise to go before the army to help in the conquest of the land west of the Jordan, Moses grants their request. The land east of the Jordan is divided among the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh.
The stations at which the Israelites halted during their forty years' wanderings in the wilderness are enumerated. While in the plains of Moab the Israelites are told that, after crossing the Jordan, they should expel the Canaanites and destroy their idols. The boundaries of the land of which the Israelites are about to take possession are spelled out. The land is to be divided among the tribes under the superintendence of Eleazar, Joshua, and twelve princes, one of each tribe.