The English title “Numbers” is carried over from the Septuagint's Arithmoi and the Vulgate's Numeri. This might suggest, mistakenly, that Numbers focuses on statistics as much as on anything. This is hardly the case. In point of fact, only five out of thirty-six chapters (chs. 1-4, 26) are “numbers” chapters, centering as they do on censuses. The remainder have nothing to do with numbers at all. And while these censuses are indeed critical to an understanding of the book's structure and theology, they comprise approximately only one-seventh of the book.
The Hebrew title “In the Wilderness” is taken from the fifth Hebrew word of 1:1. All action in Numbers took place in the wilderness, either at Sinai (1:1-10:10) or beyond Sinai (10:11-36:13), but never beyond the wilderness. The wilderness is a place of transition, somewhat bleak and threatening, a territory between promise and fulfillment. It is through this wilderness that God's people must pursue a geographical itinerary, but more importantly a spiritual pilgrimage. Thus “wilderness” functions at both literal and metaphorical levels.