You will find and introduction and an outline to Numbers, here.
A prayer before reading:From the liturgy of John Chrysostom, 4th century:
Shine within our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our minds that we may comprehend the message of your Gospel. Instill in us, also, reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the light of our souls and bodies, and to You we give glory together with Your Father who is without beginning and Your all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
I. Numbers 1:1-10:10 Forming a Community at Sinai
A. 1:1-6:27 Holiness and the Camp
1:1-2:34 The first census and the arrangement of the camp
3:1-4:49 The Role of the Levites in cult, camp and on the march
5:1-6:27 Camp legislation to prevent defilement
B. 7:1-10:10 Holiness and the Tabernacle
7:1-8:26 The dedication of the Tabernacle and the Levites
9:1-10:10 Passover and preparation for the wilderness journey: These two chapters form a transition from the organization of the camp to the wilderness march. Notice that the formation of the camp concludes with a celebration of Passover. Recall that Passover originally occurs just before Israel leaves the slavery of Egypt. It is the celebration that defines Israel. The discussion resident aliens in verse 14 is odd. There were not resident aliens in the wilderness. There were of course aliens once Israel was settled in Canaan. This section is from the Priestly history and thus given its final form much later than the events narrated. But also consider what the inclusion of the resident alien means- Israel is not a closed group but remains open to outsiders. Verse 13 emphasizes the importance of Passover as the defining feast. 9:15-23 the cloud is a common symbol in the ancient Near East of the divine presence. The cloud both symbolizes God’s presence and hides God’s presence from the view of the people. Halos in paintings of Jesus and saints is another form of this ancient symbol of the divine. Consider the times the image of a cloud has been used in the Bible. In addition to Exodus and Numbers, recall the transfiguration of Jesus (Matt 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36) and the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:6-11). How do these events interpret each other?
Notice that this section closes with another revelation of the divine name.
II Numbers 10:11-21:35 The Wilderness Journey of the First Generation: This chapters are full of conflicts. Watch for them.
A. 10:11-36 Leaving Sinai: There are two accounts of the departure here. v11-28 focus on the congregation, verses 29-36 focus on God’s guidance. Commentators think that the first account is the priestly version and the second account is the pre-priestly version. What does each account tell us about this event? Remember that a “neutral” recital of historical events is not Torah’s primary purpose. Torah is concerned to give us the theological interpretation of events.
In 10:29-32 Moses’ father-in-law reappears. You will notice his is given yet another name- his third in Torah. All the stories of Moses’ father-in-law are pre-priestly and a good explanation for the three names is difficult to uncover. Notice that Moses’ father-in-law also frames the stories of revelation at the mountain in Exodus 18 and now here. Commentators suggest that his refusal to lead Israel into the wilderness is not abandonment as much as a transfer of leadership to God.In the pre-priestly text without Exodus 25-31;35-40;Leviticus; and Numbers 1-10, the stories would have been told close together. Notice, also, in the pre-priestly version that the ark leads Israel where as in the priestly account the ark is in the middle of the procession. Why do you think that is?
B. 11:1-19:22 Murmuring and Death in the Wilderness: Now we come to the story of the first generation. There are three main conflicts where Israel rebels against God and rebels against Moses’ leadership. The two main themes involve death in the wilderness and the leadership of Moses. The complaints are known at the murmuring stories. Israel has murmured before, during the exodus but in those stories God shows patience and help. Now, after the covenant and formation of the tabernacle, God’s response to murmuring is judgment.
11:1-12:16 Conflict over prophetic leadership: Verses 1-3 the mood of this story is a sharp contrast to what has come before. Notice that the divine fire was at “the outskirts of the camp”. Remember the organization of the camp from the earlier chapters- God is in the center of the camp and God’s holiness spreads out from there. Outside the camp is where the unclean are. The actions of the complaining people have located them at the margins of the camp. The divine fire seems to set boundaries for the community. Yet Moses prays for them and his prayer is heard. Verses 4-15 again, those who complain, “the rabble”, are not the entire camp, yet their actions affect the entire camp. The desire for meat is a rejection of manna, God’s provision for Israel. Notice the imagery in verse 12 of breast feeding, this contrasts with the desire for more “grown up” food- meat. Also notice Moses’ frustration with his situation and his honest conversation with God. God grants Israel’s request for meat, but the answer to their prayer is not what they expected. At the same time God lifts some of the burden of leadership from Moses by giving God’s spirit to the 70 elders. What does it mean that two, Eldad and Medad, (the only named elders) are not with the others and yet receive the spirit? What does this say about God?
Two cubits deep is about 36-44 inches. A lot of quail!
The transition between chapter 11 and 12 is awkward to modern readers. In chapter 11 Moses tells Joshua that he wishes all were prophets and then Miriam and Aaron contest Moses’ role. Commentators wonder why Moses’ position is a “problem” for them and there is no simple answer. It might be related to Moses marriage to a foreign woman. In the post-exilic period, marriage to foreigners was forbidden. Perhaps that situation is reflected in this story. Moses is in conflict with tradition. The description of Moses as “humble” is not a psychological statement but a statement about Moses’ status before God. The humble are faithful. (Ps 22,34,63,10,76,149). As with Eldad and Medad, God is not bound by convention with respect to Moses’ marriage. To modern readers, it seems unfair that Miriam is stricken with a skin disease and made unclean and Aaron “escapes” punishment. Rabbinic commentary suggests that Aaron suffered emotionally by seeing his sister suffer for his actions and by having to acknowledge their sin and ask for forgiveness. Other commentators think Aaron was added secondarily to the story or some believe Aaron was not stricken because it was unacceptable for the high priest to be unclean with leprosy. Notice again the efficacy of Moses’ prayers.
Read More About It.
The following are several good general reference works to aid your reading of the Torah.
Anderson, Bernhard W. “Leviticus” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books Metzger, Bruce M., Roland E. Murphy, eds.(New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Dozeman, Thomas B. “The Book of Numbers”, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 2 Keck, Leander E., ed. (Nashville”Abingdon Press) 1994.
Hallo, William W. “Numbers and Ancient Near Eastern Literature” in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.
Olson, Dennis T. “Numbers” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Plaut, W. Gunther “Numbers” in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.