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.
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
C. 20:1-21:35 Leaving the Wilderness:
verses 1-3: If you have been paying attention to the geography, you will notice that the location in these these verses doesn’t match the surrounding text’s geography. Remember Torah comes from several sources which were combined to give us the text we have. Geography wasn’t the most important item for the authors. More important is that these verses tell of God delivering Israel from a threatening situation.
herem “total destruction” meant that all property was given to God (via destruction) and nothing was kept as booty for the warriors. This war is not meant to be fought for self interest. Notice Moses is not mentioned. Some commentators contrast this war with the war in 14:39-45; also waged in Hormah.
Verses 4-9 this is the final “murmuring” story. Notice how similar it is to the first murmuring story in 11:1-3. Notice also that this final complaint doesn’t make any sense, claiming both there is no food and “detesting the miserable food”! The serpents serve an odd role as both killers and healers.
Verses 10-20 are travel notices (v10-13;16a;18b-20) which give specific locations and two songs (v14-15;17-18a). The travel locations are mentioned in two other places (Num 33 and Deut 2) and they do not match each other. This suggests that the purpose of these details is not geographic but rather they serve a theological purpose. In these verses notice how often “wilderness” is mentioned. This is to highlight that now Israel is leaving the wilderness. The song in verse 14-15 is the only poetry we have from “the Book of the Wars of Yahweh” and this appears (from the Hebrew language construction) to be a fragment of a poem.
The defeat of Sihon and Og the Amorite kings is told three times in the Old Testament. The basic outline of the stories is the same each time. The Ballad of Heshbon (v26-30) is difficult to interpret because it is an Amorite ballad about the defeat of the Moabites.
III. Numbers 22:1-36:13 On the Plains of Moab, Preparing for Canaan:This is the final section of Numbers and the emphasis now shifts. The first section was concerned with holiness, the second section was about the journey in the wilderness and now we are concerned with the final preparations of the second generation as they get ready to enter the promised land. As with the earlier sections of the book we have both pre priestly and priestly accounts.
A. 22:1-25:18 Threats to Israel: now instead of internal danger to Israel (figuring out how to live with holy God) the text tells us of danger from other nations.
22:1-24:25 Balaam’s blessing Israel is camped across the Jordan River from Jericho and is now so numerous so as to be a threat to Balak the king of Moab. ( does this remind you of the way the previous generation was a threat to Egypt?) Notice as you read this story that Israel is not a “character” in this story. Balak wants Balaam to curse Israel but Israel is unaware. God works to save Israel from the curse but Israel is unaware of God’s saving actions. In addition note that God works through a non Israelite! What do you think this means?
The story is told around a framework of four poems or oracles by Balaam. Notice what Balaam’s oracles say about Israel. The divine promises are the content of the oracles. Balaam is mostly presented favorably except for the story of the donkey, where Balaam is more blind to God than his donkey.
Ancient people believed that spoken blessings and curses have power. Calling on Balaam to curse Israel was not simply a ritual act, Balak believed that cursing Israel will weaken Israel.
Notice in 22:8-13 Balaam needs to seek direction from the God of Israel!God and a non Israelite are in relationship. Balaam refuses to curse Israel and Balak sends a second mission to Balaam. Then in v 22-35 we have this story inserted. It does not fit easily with the rest of the narrative. It is an odd, even funny story about a diviner who cannot see what is plain to even a donkey. The donkey saves Balaam’s life but Balaam does not realize it. Talking animals are not common in the Bible but Balaam does not seem to think it odd that the donkey speaks to him. In verse 36 the previous story resumes. Each of the three oracles has a similar structure. Seeing the object one is cursing is important. Notice that with each oracle, Balaam sees more of Israel. Notice that with the third oracle, Balaam is filled with the spirit of God. The final oracle is an oracle against Moab and Edom and other nations.
What do you think this story says about God, Israel, non Israelites (both human and animal), danger and salvation? How is God at work in the world?
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.