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Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible. The name “Numbers” comes from the Septuagint (Arithmoi) and the Vulgate (Numeri). The Masoretic Text’s title and its popular Hebrew name is “in the wilderness” (bemidbar)  is from the fifth and sixth words of the opening chapter. The title “Numbers” reflects the two censuses, one at the beginning of the book and the other towards the end which serve to divide the book into two sections. Chapter 1-25 follow the “old generation” that leaves Egypt and chapters 26 (with the second census) to 36 follow the next generation. The first 25 chapters have stories of rebellion, the next chapters focus on the hope of the next generation.

The wilderness theme, alluded to by the “in the wilderness” title focuses on the setting of the book. Looking at location, the book can be divided into three sections. 1:1-10:10 the formation of the community, 10:11-21:35 is about the journey of the first generation, and 22:1-36:13 tells of the second generation as they get ready for Canaan.

The narrative of Numbers begins one month after Exodus ends. Exodus ends with the construction of the tabernacle and Numbers begins with the census taken one month later- just about a year after leaving Egypt. Numbers is the story of their time in the wilderness. But most of the focus of Numbers is on the beginning and the end of the wilderness journey. The middle 38 years receive little or no attention.

Often people wonder about the historical accuracy of Numbers. It is good to remember that Numbers, like the rest of the Old Testament is a document of faith first and history (in modern terms) is not the primary focus. That is not to say that events in Numbers did not happen. It is to say that wondering about the historicity of events  will not be our main concern. But also notice that Numbers ( and the rest of the Old Testament also) does not glamorize the story. The heroes are fallible. Things are not perfect or rough times are not smoothed over. There is a truthfulness to Numbers that encompasses and transcends facts.

The literary formation of the book appears to be complex and scholars are not of one mind on the text’s development. It does seem that the book has a long history of composition and redaction. Recall that many books in the Old Testament don’t take their final shape until the exile or just after, and Numbers appears to be one of those books. So the wilderness experience is also interpreted in light of the Babylonian exile.

There are a variety of types of literature in Numbers; history, poetry. stories, records, law, archive, letter and more. We will try to make some sense of this in our blog as we read the book. The majority of literature in Numbers belongs to what scholars call the “priestly history”. Priestly history, while adding its own work to the text also redacts parts of the text which were written earlier. Because the priestly history is such an important part of Numbers, we’ll spend a couple of paragraphs on the topic.

According to Thomas Dozeman, the “[c]entral themes of the priestly history include creation as the primary context for interpreting salvation, the relationship of creation and covenant, the unfulfilled promise of land, the holiness of God and the demand that it places on Israel to be holy like God, the importance of the sanctuary, the revelation of law, the atoning power of cultic ritual, the need for a sanctified priesthood, the danger of impurity, and the idealization of Moses as a priestly mediator. (11). Priestly history is concerned with the exile, when Israel lost its land to the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The priestly writers are wrestling with how Israel can be God’s people in exile and so they are thinking and rethinking their history.

One thing that makes reading Numbers and other Old Testament books difficult is the amount of ritual law there is. It is difficult for us because the meaning of the rituals is not explained, it is assumed that every reader understands the meaning. We of course, don’t understand the meaning without effort on our part. But the ritual laws, for the thoughtful reader, reveal Israel’s deepest values. Rather than look at any one law in isolation, we need to think about the interrelationship of all the laws. So we need to think “big” and look for a comprehensive worldview that the ritual expresses symbolically. Priestly law focuses on the order of creation. Holy God is the source of life and the one who creates order in the world. The well ordered creation allows for life to flourish. Disorder allows impurity and threatens life and holiness. Doxeman, again,”Priestly law is meant to safeguard the holiness of God from contagious impurity by reinforcing the order of creation.” (13). So therefore, what one eats matters as does the organization and layout of the Israelite camp.

Another difference between the way we view the world and the way ancient Israel viewed the world is our view of our relationship with God. Modern people think of God as our friend and therefore we cultivate a close, personal  relationship with God. Ancient people focused more on the gulf between holy God and humanity. Holiness distinguishes and separates God from humans. Often the holiness of God is symbolized as fire. Holiness has to do with health, purity and life, as opposed to death, disease and impurity. This contrast is important. The purpose or goal of the priestly religion of Israel is to bring holy God and profane (common) people together through the tabernacle cult. Notice the tension between holiness and covenant and how that affects both God and Israel.  The rituals help Israel become a holy people. The relationship is not so much friendship as epic story/drama. The epic scale of Israel’s story is due to the holiness of God. God is the source of life but also God is seen as consuming fire. The relationship, the interaction between God and the people is not casual and spontaneous. It needs priestly intercessors. It is communal not individual. The Temple and, before it, the tabernacle are the place where God dwells, where God comes to meet God’s people. It connects heaven and earth. That is one reason temples are on mountains. Mountains, in scripture often symbolize the presence of God. The sacrifices and rituals that take place in the tabernacle are done because God is present. The rituals do not cause God to appear.

Wilderness is a complex theme in Numbers.  The wilderness is the geographical setting of the book but that setting also has several theological implications. The wilderness is Israel’s birthplace, it is it’s place of testing and growth. The wilderness is also dangerous and a homeless place outside of civilization. At the same time the wilderness is the new creation, a place of miracles.

An Outline of Numbers

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

II Numbers 10:11-21:35 The Wilderness Journey of the First Generation

A. 10:11-36 Leaving Sinai

B. 11:1-19:22 Murmuring and Death in the Wilderness

11:1-12:16 Conflict over prophetic leadership

13:1-15:41 Conflict over land

16:1-17:13 Conflict over priestly leadership

18:1-19:22 Guidelines for approaching God

C. 20:1-21:35 Leaving the Wilderness

III. Numbers 22:1-36:13 On the Plains of Moab, Preparing for Canaan

A. 22:1-25:18 Threats to Israel

22:1-24:25 Balaam’s blessing

25:1-19 The sin at Baal Peor

B. 26:1-36:13 Instructions for Inheritance

26:1-65 The census of the second generation

27:1-23 Inheritance, Death, and Succession

28:1-30:16 Priestly offerings, calendar and lay vows

31:1-33:56 Holy War

34:1-36:13 Life in the Land


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.