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
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: These chapters are important, they tell why the first generation dies in the wilderness and the second generation, by the end of the book, is at the brink of entering the promised land. In these chapters we are introduced to a particular way to telling the story where the biblical writers use more than one interpretation to tell one story. This occurs other places in the OT as well: the flood story (Gen 6-9), the exodus story (Exodus 1-15) and the revelation of God and creation of the covenant (Exodus 19-34 and Deut. 4-5). For this particular story, it is told in one form in Deut 1:19-46 and there are two versions of the story here in Numbers. Numbers has a pre priestly story and a priestly story. The pre-priestly story is found in 13:17b-20,22-24, part of 26, 27-30; 14:1b,3-4, part of 5, 8-10a, 11-25,39-45. the priestly story includes 13:1-3,17a,21,25, part of 26,32-33; 14:1a,2,5, part of 6,17,10b,26-38;15:1-41. Listed this way seems confusing but as we read through the text it will be easier to see how these two versions are woven together. Differences between the two versions includes differences in the land explores, and differences in the spy’s report about their mission.The pre priestly story tells of God’s desire to destroy Israel and Moses intercession. The priestly story includes a new law which looks ahead to Israel’s future possession of the land.
13:1-20: the priestly writers in v1-3 and 17 give us a divine command and reinterpret the spies mission. The pre priestly version begins with Moses giving instructions to the spies. Notice the priestly writers focus on the land rather than the inhabitants of the land. They are not focused on conquest but on the gift of the land.
13:21-33: Verse 21 is the priestly story. Verses 22-24 is the pre-priestly story, notice the giants. Verses 25-33 gives two accounts of the spies. The pre priestly story is v26 and 27-31. The land “flows with milk and honey” but notice their emphasis on the strength of the inhabitant. Caleb is singled out from the other spies. The priestly version includes part of v 26 and verses 32-33. Here the report about the land is different. The land receives a bad report, they go so far as to state the land eats its inhabitants. This version does agree about the size of the inhabitants. Remember how the priestly accounts are concerned with maintaining proper boundaries. The Nephilim blur proper boundaries. They are not simply big humans but blur the boundaries between human and divine. Only creatures as “odd” as the Nephilim could live in a land that eats its inhabitants.
14:1-38, In 1-4, in both versions the people react similarly, wishing they had died in Egypt or the wilderness. In verse 5 Moses and Aaron fall on their faces. This is an act of anger against the people. In 6-10a Joshua and Caleb respond. This is mostly pre priestly material. 10b-38 God appears and reacts to the spies report and the peoples murmuring. Verses 11-25 are pre priestly and 10b,26-38 are priestly. Notice the repetition of “How long…” Verse 11-25 God is upset that the people have rejected him. Notice the people want to chose their own leader and return to Egypt, undoing what God has done. Moses intercedes with two arguments; first that if God kills them before they enter the land other nations will think God was not up to fulfilling his promise. Secondly Moses argues for God’s ability to change and forgive. Notice Moses quotes (selectively) Exodus 34:6-7. The Exodus story reflects the culture of the time which believed in collective guilt and responsibility. So this deferment of punishment was seen as evidence of God’s forgiving nature. Now rather than deferment, forgiveness is asked for and given. Now the responsible generation is punished and later generations are spared. “Divine forgiveness in the pre-priestly story means that the promise of land to Israel is deferred to a later generation, and not the punishment due to their faithless ancestors.” (Dozeman,125).
Verses 26-38 are the priestly interpretation of God’s response. Notice how the conversation between God and Moses is retold. Here, God punishes, not the generation, but the individuals responsible and those who murmur.
14:39-45 A pre-priestly account of the people inappropriately going to war.
15:1-41. This chapter seems out of place to modern readers, but this is the priestly writers giving a sign of hope. These laws are for when Israel is in the promised land. The focus is on Israel’s future. Notice that alien’s are included. What does this say about Israel’s understanding of itself? Do they see themselves as aliens in a land owned by God? Do they recall their time in Egypt when they were aliens? There are regulations for sacrifices for when the community unintentionally sins, when individuals unintentionally sin and when sin is intentional. “high handed” implies intentional or premeditated. Verses 32-41 tell of a particular case. It seems odd that they don’t know what to do since Sabbath rules have been set out in Exodus. Some commentators think the issue was uncertainty about what the punishment should be. Others think the case reflects an uncertainty about what specifically constituted work. Others suggest that the question was about whether Sabbath observance was in place only in the promised land or if the Sabbath was to be observed everywhere. The chapter ends with the reasons why Israel is to sew blue tassels on the corners of their garments.
It might be fruitful to consider the destructive role fear played in chapters 13-15. “Fear blinds the first generation to God’s leading. Fear turns salvation into a foolhardy enterprise that will ensure the death of children. Fear changes the good gift of the land into a place of death. Fear transforms other humans into monsters (Anakim) and freaks of nature (Nephilim. And an immature response to fear leads to a suicidal war. Fear in each case is a form of death. God has the power to defeat it, but not independent of the Israelites. Thus the first generation dies in the wilderness because they refuse to let go of their fear and give it to God.” (Dozeman, 130).
16:1-17:13 Conflict over priestly leadership: These chapters examine priestly leadership by way of a series of challenges to Moses and Aaron. In Numbers 11-12 charismatic leadership is explored. Here non charismatic leadership- priestly leadership is examined. Priestly leadership emerges in response to holiness. The priests are to protect the people from the danger of God’s holiness and provide a safe way to worship God. Aaronide priests are not charismatic, they are born into their roles, not called. In chapter 16 several persons are in conflict with Moses. The story of Dathan and Abiram is also found in Deut. 11:6. This story is reworked by the priestly writers in Numbers and the story of Korah is added. The priestly story is concerned with who can approach God at the alter.
Verses 16:1-40 are the story of leaders challenging priestly leadership and 16:41-17:13 are the story of the people challenging priestly leadership. The challenge is led by a levitical priest (remember they are subordinate to Aaronic priests) Korah and Dathan, Abiran and 250 lay members. Probably more than one tradition is combined in telling this story. This story confirms and continues the faithlessness of the first generation. The challengers want to challenge the hierarchy of the priesthood and want a more egalitarian way of approaching God. The phrase “to exalt oneself above” implies oppression. Moses, again, falls on his face in anger. The challengers do not accept God’s choice of Moses and Aaron and want to inappropriately use their status as a holy people. Moses addresses the challengers in three sections, v5-7,16-19 and (to Dathan and Abiram) in verses 12-15. Notice Dathan and Abiram reject Moses leadership by refusing to appear before Moses. Notice they reverse what actually happened by saying Moses took them out of a land of mild and hone. In verse 15 Moses doesn’t judge or avoid but turns the matter over to God. In verses 5-17 there is an example of “resumptive repetion”. verses 5-11 and 16-17 frame another episode in verses 12-15. The issue becomes not who can lead but who God will accept as priests. They light censors with incense to offer to God as priests do, but not all are accepted.
Verses 16:18-35 are again resumptive repetition.the Priestly origen verses 18-23 and 35 frame the pre priestly story of verses 24-34. Notice how God shows up and Moses and Aaron intercede. Verses 36-40 tells the story of where the hammered plates on the alter came from.
In verses 41 the people challenge Moses and Aaron’s leadership the day after Korah and the others die. Again there is an appearance by God and intercession by Moses and Aaron. (If something is repeated, it is important). Notice that Aaron is commanded by Moses to do the very thing that caused the deaths of Korah and the others.
18:1-19:22 Guidelines for approaching God
C. 20:1-21:35 Leaving the Wilderness
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.