Numbers: Organisation and Leadership

Written on: September 2, 2023

Article by: Thayer Salisbury

Thayer Salisbury

It is unfortunate that the Book of Numbers is so little studied today. Numbers is a book with a message much needed. It is thought of as a book with boring lists of names and numbers. There is much more to the book than this.

The theme of Numbers is organisation and leadership. This book reminds us that God’s people need more than knowledge about spiritual matters. God’s people also need leadership and organisation. Moses was expected to plan the movements of Israel, and we are expected to plan the work of the church today. In many places churches are failing because of a failure to plan. The church leaders know a lot of Bible verses. Most church leaders know what a person needs to do to accept God’s gift of salvation. But without plans and organisation of the work, the church often fails.

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God’s People Need Organisation

Most modern countries take a census every ten years. Israel had no such practice. There was no regular time at which to count the Israelites. But twice during the wilderness wandering God ordered a census of the people. This counting (numbering) of the Israelites is how the book gets its name.

Census figures can be rather boring to read. But a census serves a useful purpose in any country or even in a business or a church. If leaders do not know how many people there are they cannot plan properly for roads, police posts, or any of the basic services of government. Moses was not concerned with building roads across the wilderness, but he did need to plan. The Israelites lived in tents and moved these with them as they travelled. Without careful planning, setting up even a single tent can be very confusing. The Israelites needed hundreds of tents. In the first chapter of Numbers the people are counted. In the second chapter instructions are given for how the people will camp. They are to be arranged around the tabernacle (their tent of worship) with nearly equal numbers on each side. Nothing like this could have been arranged without first counting the people.

The nation as a whole needed organisation, but each tribe also needed organisation. There are several places where the leaders of the various tribes are mentioned. This indicates that each tribe was organised in some way. The most carefully organised tribe in Israel was the tribe of Levi. Chapters three and four give directions for how the Levites were to do the work connected with the tabernacle. Each clan within Levi is assigned a certain portion of the work. The assigning of this work is done after the size of each clan has been decided by the census. Once again the purpose of the census is made clear and the importance of organising the work is emphasised. It is interesting to notice that the work of the tabernacle is more carefully organised than anything else in Israel. Today we usually see careful organisation in the military and in big businesses. Most people do not think that the organisation of church work is very important. But in Israel, it was the work of the priestly tribe that was most carefully organised.

Even their giving was carefully organised. Chapter seven tells of the offering made to the tabernacle. The people did not all rush forward at once to give their offering. Instead each tribe sent forward their leaders, one at a time, to give their offering.

The invasion of the land was also supposed to be organised. Moses sent men ahead to spy out the land so that they could plan how they would attack (chapter 13). Unfortunately some of these men were not faithful to the Lord and their bad report led to trouble. Still we can see that in sending spies Moses was trying to keep the people organised in what they were doing.

Organising people once does not mean that they will stay organised forever. As time goes by there is a need to reorganise. Chapter twenty-six tells us that another census was taken after the wilderness wanderings. By that time the numbers in the various tribes might have changed greatly, and there might be a need to change some of the plans. We should remember that plans do need to be reviewed from time to time.

God’s People Need Leaders

To have organisation we must have leaders. No group of people can be organised without leaders. If official leaders do not exist then leaders will emerge over time. Israel had a clearly appointed leader. Moses was the leader the Lord had chosen for them. We must have leaders, yet whenever we have leaders there are dangers.


One danger is that people will be jealous of the leaders. This certainly was a problem in Israel. There are three chapters in Numbers about jealousy toward Israel’s leaders. Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ own sister and brother, challenged his authority (chapter 12). A man named Korah, together with some other men, challenged Moses’ authority and the right of Aaron as priest (chapters 16 & 17). In both cases God responds with miracles that are designed to match the sin being rebuked. In chapter twelve Miriam seems to have been offended that Moses had a dark skinned wife, so God makes Miriam “a snow white leper.” In chapter 16 Korah emphasises that all the people are “holy” (separate 16:3), so God orders that everyone “separate” themselves from Korah and his friends (16:24ff). The Lord then opens up the earth to swallow those who had led this rebellion. He also sends fire to consume those of them who demanded to be made priests. The claim that leadership should be equal among all the tribes is answered by demanding that each tribal leader send his staff (the symbol of his authority). These are placed before the Lord and only the staff of Levi is shown to have any life in it (chapter 17).

Failure to Share the Leadership

A second danger is that the leaders will try to do too much. Instead of assigning tasks to other people, many leaders try to do much of the work themselves. This is one of the most common errors of leaders. Moses seems to make this mistake, possibly more than once. Numbers 11 tells us that Moses felt as if the whole burden of the people was on him. God orders him to call out leaders from each tribe and share the leadership with them. The Lord even places a spirit of leadership on these men so that they can help Moses lead the people.


Numbers 11 also introduces us to the third major danger of leadership, the danger of pride. Two of the leaders chosen to assist Moses are reported to be prophesying in the camp. They are not with Moses. They are exercising their God-given spirit apart from him. Joshua is upset about this. He does not want anyone working independently of Moses. On this occasion Moses is not proud. He is glad to know that the Lord is working through others. Throughout the early years of Moses’ leadership, he seems to have avoided the danger of pride. Unfortunately, Moses did have a problem related to pride on another occasion.

Many Christians think that it was for striking the rock that Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land. The Bible never says that. Moses is never rebuked for striking the rock. He is rebuked for failing to give God the glory. It is what Moses says that is the difficulty, according to the scriptures. Moses says, “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” (20:10). This implies that he and Aaron are the ones performing this miracle for the people. God does not say to Moses, “Why did you strike the rock instead of speaking to it?” God says, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (20:12) The problem is a failure in faith leading to a failure to honour God. This is also what is emphasised in the other biblical accounts of this event. Numbers 27:14 emphasises the failure of Moses and Aaron to honour God. Psalm 106:33 makes it plain that it was the “rashly spoken words” of Moses that were the sin.

Moses’ failure on this occasion is a warning to all leaders. Pride is a tremendous danger for those given leadership positions among God’s people. It is not a danger that ever goes away. In fact this temptation may increase as we grow older and lead longer. We must always remember that God is working through us. It is not by our own strength that we lead. We must not take the glory for ourselves. We must always lead in a way that honours God.


The Book of Numbers is not like any other Bible book. It does not have the foundational teaching of Genesis or the careful explanation of salvation that we find in Romans. But this book has a place in our study. There is much that the church could learn from the Book of Numbers. Israel needed leadership and organisation. The church needs leadership and organisation. We should not neglect the study of Numbers.

1 For more excellent insights on organisation and leadership in Numbers, see Thayer’s very helpful book God’s Mission Begins: Vol 2: Leviticus – Deuteronomy. Available as a Kindle Book at

Matsapha, Eswatini, Southern Africa