How to Read Numbers

The Book of Numbers


Planting a garden requires the right tools. And so does interpreting the Bible. But instead of shovels, rakes, and weeders, we use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application. 

Numbers tells the story of the Israelites' journey from Sinai to the Promised Land. This video from The Bible Project provides an overview of the book.The goal of this post is not to replace your personal study of the Bible. Rather, it is to help you navigate the story of Numbers, discover what it teaches, dive into how it fits into the rest of the Bible, and look at how it applies to your life. Use the questions below as a guide as you watch this video. 



Now that you have an overview of  Numbers in mind, you can apply what you know to interpret specific passages in Numbers. Read God's response and Moses' intercession when the spies returned and riled up the Israelites in Numbers 14:11–23. Utilize observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application to dissect the meaning of this passage. Use the ideas from the video to inform your answers to the following questions about Numbers 14:11–23.  

Numbers 14:11-23 (ESV)

11And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?12I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”

Moses Intercedes for the People

13But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them,14and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.15Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say,16‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’17And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying,18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’19Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”

God Promises Judgment

20Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.21But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord,22 none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice,23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



Observation asks the basic question: who, what, where, and when. It examines the passage at a surface level—the characters, events, themes, culture, and genre. Observations may seem obvious at first, but they open the door to the meaning of any part of the Bible. Be careful to not jump ahead to interpreting the observations, or assigning them meaning. Just list them. 

Example: God listened to and answered Moses' prayer.


Observe: As you read the passage, what observations did you make about Numbers 14:11–23? (Consider the major characters, plot points, locations, cities, landmarks, time period, background information, cultural aspects, genre, themes, and actions of the characters. Also, take note of any information offered in the video.)
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Where an observation determines what the passage says, interpretation takes the next step to find out what the passage means. We’ve asked what the passage says about God and humanity, and now we ask what that means. Look at the themes and ask what they mean as well.

Example: (Observation) God listened to and answered Moses' prayer. (Interpretation) God hears and answers the prayers of His people.


Interpret: What is significant about each of the observations you made above? What is the main message of Numbers 14:11–23? How does its message connect with the main message of all of Numbers? (Think about what this book teaches about God and humanity and what that teaching means, as well as the meaning of the themes. Consider insights from the video as well.)
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Contextualization looks at how the passage fits into the rest of the book and into the story of the Bible. It connects the themes that pop up throughout the story of Scripture and sees how the book fits into the biblical narrative.   

Example: God listens to and answers the prayers of His people throughout Scripture. He heard Moses' other prayers in Numbers, as well as his prayers in Exodus. God also answered the prayers of other biblical characters such as Elijah, Hannah, David, Jesus, and Paul.


Contextualize: What themes does Numbers 14:11–23 seem to establish? How do those themes connect with the rest of the book of Numbers? What themes would you say have potential to carry forward into other books of the Bible? What themes connect back to Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus?
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Application asks, “So what?” It considers how the meaning of this passage applies to our day-to-day lives. The point of reading Scripture isn’t to become puffed up with knowledge, but to be transformed. Ask God to show you how you can specifically put the truths from this book into practice. Brainstorm ways you can live out what you learned throughout your day.

Example:  Since God hears and answers my prayers, I can approach Him with confidence. Even when it seems like my prayers bounce off the ceiling, unheard by God, I can trust that He hears and will answer. His answer may not be what I want or in my timing, but I should still pray in all circumstances—when I buy groceries, share the gospel with a family member, or decide to move to a new city.


Apply: How does the truth from Numbers 14:11–23 affect you and your relationship with God and others? What are some specific actions you could take to live out the truths found in this book this week? If you're having trouble coming up with an application of this particular passage, how could you apply the main message of Numbers to your life this week?
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The last step in reading the Bible helps wrap everything up. We take the time to summarize the main message and implications of the book. As you summarize what you learned, it solidifies what God taught you through this video.  

Share: Now that you’ve spent time learning about Numbers, how would you explain the main points of this book to a friend? If you were going to explain what you learned to a friend, what would you say? What would you be sure to include? Why?
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Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be like weeding a garden. You can find great joy in learning about God through His Word. Read through Numbers this week. As you study, use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application as a guide. Take the next step and put what you learn into practice.



To learn more about The Bible Project, click here.