Thursday, July 5, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers Introduction

Alright!  Well I am excited to be moving into the fourth book of the bible, the book of Numbers.  The Hebrew title of this book is "bamidbar", meaning "in the desert".

The name "numbers" is derived from the first chapter of Numbers which is a census of all the fighting age men in the camp who are capable of going to war.  From the name I always thought that Numbers would be one of the more boring books ("oh no, it's just a bunch of genealogies again!"), but it's actually not.  There are two major censuses in the book, but most of the text is story-oriented as the people journey on from Sinai towards the promised land.

Most scholars propose a shared authorship and date of composition for the first five books of the OT, called the Pentateuch, or the book of Moses, or the Torah.  The second name, the book of Moses, reflects the presumption of Mosaic authorship and the heavy role that Moses plays in recounting most of the laws of the various books, starting with Exodus.  Since I have already written at length about the composition of the Pentateuch in my introduction to Genesis, I simply direct any interested readers to that discussion.

Moving on, the book of Numbers seems to have two broad themes.  The first and most significant is the rising usage of militaristic language and symbolism, which begins in the very first chapter with a census of all the fighting age men in the twelve tribes.  The second broad theme is the continuing rebellion of the Israelites against the LORD, and the LORD's increasingly harsh retaliations.  The remainder of the book is chiefly composed of more priestly and Levitical ordinances which are very similar in temperament to the laws we read about in Leviticus.  These priestly laws cover a variety of miscellanea such as the work assignments for the Levites, regulations for ritual washing, sacrifices and so forth.

So far we have read the books of Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus.

Genesis told us the story of the creation of the world and the patriarchs, bringing us the covenant of Abraham with God and the historical foundations of the Israelite nation as they descend to Egypt under the guidance of Joseph and Jacob.

The book of Exodus told us about the departure from Egypt, the emergence of Moses as the leader of the people, himself under the leadership of the LORD, and the creation of a new covenant between the whole people and the LORD.  This new covenant followed the pattern of Abraham's covenant, but contained many new laws and established the exclusivity of the LORD as the nation's deity and sovereign king.  In the book of Exodus we were told the purpose of this great journey is to return to the promised land and claim the inheritance of Abraham, given to him by God.  We also saw the rumblings of discontent amongst the people as they were shocked by the harsh life of desert nomadism.  We saw the immaturity of their faith to the LORD as they constructed a gold idol, contrary to the laws of their covenant.

The book of Leviticus was a bit of an interruption in the story to give us many laws relating to sacrifices, dietary restrictions, and the identification and treatment of skin diseases and various molds.  Leviticus concludes with a melange of ceremonial and moral laws prohibiting incest, human sacrifice, and exploitation of the poor, governance of the tabernacle and so forth.

The book of Numbers, then, chiefly picks up the story where we left it in Exodus as the people resume their journey towards the promised land.  Remember that the bulk of what we have been reading in Exodus 20 through Leviticus (ostensibly) took place while Moses and the people were camped at Mount Sinai.  So while they may have been camped for about a year, they did not make any real progress on their journey.  We will see in Numbers the people celebrate their first Passover, so we know in fact they did camp for slightly more than a year before leaving Mt. Sinai.

Exodus had several episodes where the people rebelled against the LORD, and that pattern grows even stronger in Numbers.  The people rebel over and over and the LORD metes out harsh punishment for their disobedience (in accordance with the warning of Lev 26).  This concludes with one of the most notorious episodes in the OT, the people's refusal to enter the promised land and the LORD's subsequent punishment that they wander the desert for 40 years until the entire generation has died.  Condemning an entire generation to die outside of the promised land has to be one of the most tragic punishments in the OT considering how significant that promise is to the Hebrew psyche.  We also see a brief episode where Moses and Aaron do not follow the instructions of the LORD and are denied passage into the promised land themselves.  It is pitiful to watch Moses asking to simply enter the land to see it, without possessing it, and then die, but he is refused.

Exodus also contained brief seeds of warfare, most notably when the Amalekites came out to fight Israel in Ex 17.  We were also told in Ex 13:17-18 that the LORD was trying to take Israelites away from war for a bit, but that the people marched out prepared for war, in martial array.  One of the recurring themes of these books is the various tribes of Canaan, whether it be 6, 7 or 10.  Either way, we know that the promised land of Canaan is densely populated and the obvious implication is that the Israelites will have to sweep all these tribes away to take the land promised to Abraham.  If Exodus contained the seeds of warfare, this book contains the fruits of warfare as the people invade the east bank of the Jordan and destroy two nations, the kingdoms of the Amorites and Bashan.

Importantly, the people do not enter the promised land in this book (with the exception of twelve spies they send into the land).  In fact, the Israelites never enter the promised land in the entire Pentateuch, but instead only enter it starting in the book of Joshua (the sixth book of the OT).  This is significant thematically, because to a reader of the Pentateuch, it will leave him or her always on the cusp of entering, but never entering.  This engenders an attitude of perpetual waiting and longing to enter into the promise of God.

Intermixed with the escalating warfare and rebellion are sections of priestly law that seem like they fit better in Leviticus than here.  This again demonstrates the flexibility of the author to put various types of material together or apart, seemingly at will.  It irks my organized sensibility to put Levitical law here rather than in, say, Leviticus, but that simply teaches us that either 1) the author was not concerned with thematic organization, or 2) Numbers is organized by some different theme which I probably don't understand.  I'm inclined more towards the latter, and hopefully we can discover more about the organization of Numbers as we read through it.

With that, I will proceed to discuss Numbers 1.

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