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.
III. Numbers 22:1-36:13 On the Plains of Moab, Preparing for Canaan
A. 22:1-25:18 Threats to Israel
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: Scholars think chapter 33 acts as a transition in Numbers. Here the story looks back to review God’s leading of Israel from Egypt to Canaan by way of listing stopping points. This list of places does not match well with other lists in the Old Testament of the wilderness journey. Scholars are unsure whether this chapter is an older or later text. Either way it presents the wilderness journey in the form of a military march.
34:1-36:13 Life in the Land: This section comes from the priestly writers. The priestly writers also gave us the overall structure of chapters 26-36, which starts with the second census and focuses on the second generation reception of the divine promise. Recall that land was part of the promise. These chapters express a view somewhere between utopia and the historical reality- what can and should be and what was.
Chapter 34 outlines the boundaries of the promised land and lists the leaders who will distribute the land. This listing of the land does not match any known boundaries of Israel at any time in its history. This is probably an ideal vision of land as divine gift. Ten leaders are named to help Eleazar and Joshua divide the land. Recall that the tribes of Reuben and Gad chose to inherit land east of the Jordan.
Chapter 35 gives us a list of cities given to the Levites and the laws about cities of refuge. Notice that the Levites are separated from the other tribes in the land as they were in the wilderness camp. The Levites do not receive land but they do receive particular cities which are located throughout the land. Recall that in the camp the Levites functioned to protect the tabernacle. Now they are distributed throughout the land as protectors. There are some discrepancies between what is described here and other places in the Old Testament, especially Deuteronomy and Ezekiel. We do not know with certainty which description is most historically accurate. Remember that for biblical writers the theological aspects were more important than the historical aspects. Notice how the cites of refuge serve as places of asylum until the guilt or innocence of the person who killed is determined. Also notice that even if the killing is determined to be unintentional there is still guilt. The person must stay in the refuge.
“Priestly writers’ laws of homicide arise from their vision of a new creation. Life has sanctity, and blood defiles the earth. Life in God’s land is intended to transform human relationships. All shedding of blood pollutes the land. No amount of money can atone for such bloodshed. Murder is far more than an act against society. It is a violation against creation, inducing a debt to the land. Even accidental death defiles the land. Not a single life is expendable in God’s land, according to the priestly writers. Every death must be accounted for in the land economy of the priestly writers.” (Dozeman, 267)
Chapter 36 returns to problems around inheritance and the daughters of Zelophehad (27:1-11). The problem is that if daughters inherit their father’s land and then marry, the land would transfer to the husband’s tribe. The inheritance of land must keep the land within the tribe. God owns the land and as a gift gives the land to Israel. Each tribe has a right to live in the land.
36:13 concludes the book in a way similar to Leviticus 27:34.
What about Numbers was most interesting to you? What was most surprising?
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.