God tells Moses to prepare for war against "Israel" (presumably meaning Canaan - never count your chickens before they are hatched), as the Canaanites might reasonably be expected to disagree about the Israelites' allegedly divine right to their land. The "princes of Israel" (heads of the tribes) draft an army of 603.550 men (I promise to be careful with numbers here for fear of exhaustion). Interesting detail: the Levites (the clan of Moses & Aaron) are not to join the war, but have to defend the tabernacle in case of attack. To this extent, they are placed right in the middle of the army, how convenient. After counting, it transpires there are 273 more firstborn Israelites than there are Levites. These have to pay 5 shekels each to... Aaron & $ons. God gives elaborate instructions about how to wrap up the holy things in the sanctum for transport. After some more commandments (about lepers & women, unsurprisingly), all offerings to "god" (read: Aaron) are listed - enough to make Smaug green with envy (reading Numbers, I thought of a brilliant reason why the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert: god talked non-stop most of the time. But this aside). Very slowly, the party moves forward, moving only if god (in the shape of a "cloud upon the tabernacle") moves. Sometimes the cloud hangs over the tent for days, so they are forced to wait... at long last, they exchange the wilderness of Sinai for that of Paran (must be hard to spot the difference). Many people still complain about all this pointless wandering around in the desert; god usually silences those by torching them. A sore point is the dietary monotony: they only have manna to eat, and after 20 years of eating the stuff I can imagine they yearn for something - anything - else (not mentioning pernicious side effects like scurvy). Longingly, they think about the "flesh pots of Egypt". This pisses god off no end, so he promises them meat "for a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you"... and indeed, a wind brings a profusion of quails; the people diligently gather the birds and prepare for a feast, but "while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed... the lord smote the people with a very great plague". Take THAT for lusting after meat, you suckers.
Miriam, Moses' and Aaron's sister, complains about the Ethiopian woman Moses married (they are still famed for their beauty; one can't blame him). God appears, "stood in the door of the tabernacle" and takes offence at her big mouth. Next day, she has leprosy... that'll teach her, nosy beeyatch. As she is now unclean, she has to leave the camp for 7 days.
Spies are sent out to Canaan (so it can't be that far away; I still don't get it why they spent 40 bloody years in that desert). When they return, there's good news and bad news: Canaan is indeed a land of "milk & honey", but a lot of people live there, too many to slaughter (they have to do the dirty work themselves this time; god is not helping out, possibly sulking in some corner of his tabernacle). According to the spies, there are even giants! ("the sons of Anak" - Hagrid's forefathers?) The people weep & some suggest a return to Egypt. God appears, once more irked at their complaints. Moses calms him down, reasoning as follows: if you kill 'em now, it looks bad for you, coz you failed in leading them to the promised land; word will get around. Amazingly, god buys this argument & calms down. Some people insist on leaving anyway; when setting out, they are soon massacred. Told ya.
God once more stresses the importance of obeying his laws. A man found gathering sticks on a sabbath is duly stoned. Warned you... god actually suggests clothes with a fringe & at the borders "a ribband of blue" for people to remember his commandments, so funny.
A group of 250 men, leaders of the assembly, impeach Moses and Aaron of power abuse (finally, they are getting it!). M&A complain to god, the ground opens up & swallows all 250. Don't fuck with the dude. The people rebel, murmur about murder and repression. God has another paroxysm and sends a plague that kills 14.700 men. I. SAID. STOP. FUCKING. WHINING. Amazingly, they shut up (for a bit, at least), but the seeds of discord have been sown. To counter the rumours of favoritism, all tribes hand in a rod inscribed with the name of their tribe. All are put in a pot; only one stick will blossom, meaning this family will prosper. And hey, what do you know: Aaron's rod blossoms & brings forth almonds. Glad we sorted that one out. Just to play it safe however, security is cranked up a couple of notches: only Aaron's family is to approach the holy altar, everybody else will be killed. Also, all other clans have to pay tithes to him (this sounds more & more like North Korea).
More clean/unclean rules are repeated (the bible excels in mindless repeats, probably to really drive home the point). Miriam dies, presumably still leprous. As the people once more complain about the lack of water, Moses repeats his magic rod trick & draws water from a rock (been there, done that, made the coconut joke). Aaron, god suddenly decides, did something wrong at some point (and I have no fucking idea what; it's never stated. Kafka's The Trial comes to mind), so he will not reach the holy land. Exit Aaron.
The Canaanite king Arad imprisons some Israelites. God frees them, then "utterly destroys" the Canaanites & their cities (so why prepare for war? It's so easy for him to smite). As the people, against all better judgement, keep complaining, god sends a plague of snakes. Many die, but Moses fashions a "serpent of brass" and puts it on a pole: anyone with a snakebite will survive just by looking at it (I know, the golden calf was idolatry. Don't try to understand). The journey continues predictably: everywhere they come, they kill everybody & grab all valuables. Balaam, another ruler, is warned by god to let the Israelites pass unmolested. Ignoring this, he rides out on his ass (donkey!), so god puts an angel in his way. Balaam doesn't see it, but his clever asinine companion does and tries to avoid it. Balaam, annoyed at the animal's seemingly irrational behaviour, beats it repeatedly until the faithful ass speaks (yeah sure) & gently rebukes him. Balaam's eyes are opened & he returns home (Nick Cave is another one who read the bible; I can heartily recommend his harrowing novel "And the ass saw the angel").
Arriving in Shittim, the Israelites "begun to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab" - needless to say, god has another fit. One of Aaron's sons kills 24.000 men & women - god is pleased at his zeal (he would have made a great crusader). All conquered land is to be divided under the tribes according to numbers (some rather boring inheritance legislation follows). The Midianites are attacked; all men, including Balaam, are slaughtered, all women & children taken hostage (I wonder what happened to that poor donkey). When the Israelites return, Moses is angry at them, and orders them to kill, and I quote, "every male among the little ones, and every woman that hath known man". Nice, isn't it. Even worse: "But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves". What a sick fuck. The spoils are divided; Aaron's family gets a fair share, despite not partaking in the attack. Some Israelites, seeing a nice spot of land, suggest settling down there to farm. It's getting really predictable, but, yeah well, you know by now, god gets pissed, etc.
The route they took is described in great detail. God once more tells Moses they should take Canaan & kill everybody there, and delineates the borders of Canaan (the Levites are to have 48 "cities to dwell in"). Some muddled "laws" about murderers follow, and the book closes with the prudent rule that all marriages should take place within tribes only, so as not to lose any inheritance. Three cheers for Team Incest.