When Was the Last Time You Read the Book of Numbers?
I read the book to write this letter, of course, just so that I could have Uncle Sam point his finger at you! Seriously though, this book is worth reading. Whoever decided to publish it under the title “Numbers” did not understand much about marketing. Who but a mathematics aficionado would want to read about numbers?
Don’t be fooled by this title. There is a lot more in this book than numbers. Here are six reasons why this book is worth reading, and I am sure there are more.
Reading tip for Numbers: don’t read a verse or a paragraph at a time: read at least a chapter.
1. It Is My Wife’s Favourite Book
Ask Franziska what her favourite book in the Bible is and she may well answer: “Numbers!” (On some days, she may say there are about 66.) That means something. In case you don’t know here: if the book were boring, she wouldn’t bother with it. So take her word for it if you don’t believe me.
2. The Value of Organization and Order
Numbers contains an interesting case study of bringing organization and structure to a ragtag band of people. Too much structure is stifling, but the right dose makes things run much more smoothly.
In the first 10 chapters of Numbers, the camp is set in order, and with it, the marching order of the tribes is set as well (Nu. 2): on each side of the tabernacle, three tribes have their assigned place of encampment. The tents of the priests and Levites form an inner rectangle around the tabernacle. The duties of the Levites are specified (Nu. 3-4). Trumpets are fashioned to enable communication, either to call the people to gather or to set the camp in motion (Nu. 10:1-11). This must have made moving quite a bit more efficient.
3. Stop Murmuring!
Numbers contains a strong and repeated warning against murmuring and complaining. Not that I ever complain. Well, rarely. Not that often anyway. Only now and then. Not as often as other people. Okay, so I guess I do complain. But only about important things, like slow Internet. A slow computer. No Internet! About the weather. Cold. Heat. You know, things that really matter… kind of.
So if you are anything like me, you may need to hear this warning from time to time as well.
4. Beware of Unbelief (It Is As Bad As Idolatry)
Numbers contains a strong warning against unbelief in the story of the 12 spies. 10 of them do not believe that God is able to do what he had committed to do. For the second time (see Ex. 32), God is ready to wipe this people out and start all over with Moses and his descendants. It shows that this incidence is as serious as the idolatrous worship of the golden calf. In other words, unbelief is as bad as idolatry.
Unbelief is not the same as doubt, wavering, uncertainty. This is not little faith; this is no faith. It is blatant. We may therefore feel that this is not something we could become guilty of. However, there is no clear boundary between little faith and no faith. Let’s face it: Israel’s unbelief is a human reaction, and we are human too. This is why it is in the text: because it could happen to us.
I was struck by the response of both Moses and God in Numbers 14:13-20. Moses repeats the pattern of his intercession after the incident with the golden calf in Exodus. His first argument on both occasions boils down to: “What will people say?” It is about God’s honour and name among the nations. In Exodus, Moses proceeds to remind God of his promise to the patriarchs. In Numbers, Moses presents the self-revelation of God on that previous occasion as his second argument:
The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Ex 34:6f, ESV)
God relents; the resulting answer is instantaneous. It shows Moses had learned something about what God is like, especially when he expresses his wrath, and how he wants to be approached when that happens. Just remind him of his glory and of his goodness.
5. Balaam: A Fun Story (?)
Numbers includes the Balaam narrative. It’s a fun story: the prophet opens his mouth to speak a curse, and out comes blessing. And don’t forget that talking donkey, more than three thousand years before Shrek!
It is more than that, too, of course. It documents a vicious attack on God’s people and God’s plan, just before the decisive breakthrough. It demonstrates how real God’s protection is. Even when the people had no idea what was going on and were quite vulnerable, God was watching. The dangers coming from the outside, whether overt enemy attacks, covert actions like this one, or the lack of water and food in the desert were never critical. The real danger was – and is – the enemy within.
The Balaam narrative does not finish with Chapter 24. Numbers 25 is part of it as well, although you would not know this from the chapter itself. It is not until Numbers 31:16 that we find out what was behind the seduction by Moabite and Midianite women: “These, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor” (ESV).
6. Interesting Titbits
Numbers is an interesting mix of narratives and law text. Some of these laws are quite interesting, especially those that deal with women. At first sight they may shock our modern, ‘enlightened’ sensitivities, but if we place them in the context of those days, we realize that we should be shocked at how progressive they are.
The Nazirite vow is an option available to women as well as men.
The procedure for wives suspected of adultery in Numbers 5:11-31 has an unfair side to it: why is there not a similar procedure for adulterous males? Still, it is a harmless ritual, unless God intervenes. In other words, it assumes the woman’s innocence. This is the opposite of ‘normal’ forms of judgment by ordeal. A person would be placed in harm’s way in the form of fire, drowning, or poison, and would only survive if God miraculously intervened to save. In other words: the person was assumed guilty.
Numbers 27 recounts how the daughters of Zelophehad (a man who had no sons) approach Moses and the leaders of Israel to demand an inheritance. This is a daring thing to do. In this male-dominated society they stand up to stake their claim. And God takes their side: “The daughters of Zelophehad are right” (Nu. 27:7).
To provide you with some orientation for your wanderings through the wilderness of this book, let’s take a look at the big picture. There is both geography and chronology involved. The book begins with preparations at Mount Sinai (Nu. 1:1-10:10) and finishes with further preparations in the fields of Moab (Nu. 22-36). Two generations are involved. A crucial element in both locations is a census of the male Israelites of each generation to be included in the army. The intermediate part describes the 38 years of wandering through the desert. So we have:
Nu. 1:1-10:10 Sinai: preparation for the journey
Nu. 10:11-14:45 From Sinai to Kadesh: first generation fails
Nu. 15-19 First generation dies
Nu. 20-21 From Kadesh to Moab
Nu. 22-36 Moab: preparation for the conquest
This means a long period of time, 38 years, is covered in just five chapters (Nu. 15-19) – three of which contain instruction rather than narrative. As Gary Schnittjer (2006: 373) points out:
The point of the text-time ratio in the case of the thirty-eight years of wilderness wandering is theologically significant. Specifically, once the first generation of Israelites decisively rebel against God at Kadesh, their story is over. They disappear from the narrative. This observation hits still harder when the reader recognizes that the only events recorded from the thirty-eight “silent years” are the rebellion of Korah and his associates and its related aftermath, including the budding of Aaron’s staff (Nu. 16-17).
The Second Generation
An important chronological marker is somewhat hidden in the text. Numbers 20:29 mentions the death of Aaron. According to Numbers 33:38 this happened at the beginning of the 40th year after the exodus. This means that the Israelites involved in the events of chapter 20 and 21 for the most part belong to the second generation.
Together with Numbers 25, therefore, Numbers 20-21 makes clear that the second generation also shows a propensity to rebellion, disobedience, and complaining. Schnittjer argues that they are as sinful as their ancestors (2006: 426, 438f), or even worse (434, 441), and that it is only because of God’s grace that they get to enter the land.
This latter point no doubt is true, but I don’t think the portrait of the second generation is quite this negative. There has been a measure of transformation. They don’t seem to repeat the unbelief of their parents. When the people revel and indulge in immorality with the daughters of Moab and Midian, a scene not unlike the one described in Exodus 32, it is one of their own, Phinehas, who takes decisive action and stops the plague. During the incident with the golden calf, his father, Aaron, had failed to do the same.
In Numbers 32, Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh ask Moses for land east of the Jordan. Schnittjer takes this as evidence “that the younger generation was as sinful as the old generation” (438). After Moses confronts them, claiming they are about to repeat the sin of Kadesh, Schnittjer writes: “Fortunately, the two and a half tribes repented” (438). However, nothing in the text suggests that this is repentance or that there is a change of attitude. I would argue that they came with the right attitude from the start. This is not evidence that the second generation is as bad as the first. On the contrary, it shows that they are different. They have not shed their sinful nature, but at least they now respond with a measure of faith.
Still, Numbers, is not a happy book. At the end, Israel is poised to enter the land of promise. There is little doubt at this point that God will keep his side of the deal. But will Israel? After failing so consistently? Not likely.
One crucial insight needed to truly value the content of Numbers is: by nature I belong to the same race as they. Their problem was not that they were Israelites, but that they were human. Apart from the Spirit of God, I am no different, since I am made of the same stuff.
Or would you have done better than them under the circumstances?
Reading tip: don’t read a verse or a paragraph at a time: read at least a chapter – or more: reserve a couple of hours to read through the book in one or two session.
What have you enjoyed about the book of Numbers? Leave a comment!
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society, 2001)
G.E. Schnittjer, The Torah Story: An Apprenticeship on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006)
Illustration Attribution: Public Domain, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Unclesamwantyou.jpg
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. If you purchase anything through such a link, you help me cover the cost of Create a Learning Site.