Seven Interesting Things from the Book of Numbers

So it’s probably going to take a certain kind of Bible nerd type to get a buzz out of noticing new things in the book of Numbers. But in my personal quest to read the entire Bible through in the original languages, Numbers is about the fourth-last book, and I came to it expecting, maybe, some dull patches. Here are seven things I have found so far (in chapters 1-30);

  1. The names began flowing from 1:5, and something almost immediately took my interest. Lo and behold, not a name to be seen that is a compound of ‘Yah’ (from the name of God, Yahweh). If Numbers was a seventh- or sixth-century book or later, I’d expect the devotion to Yahweh that was (as far as I’m aware) increasingly dominant in the society in Judah to creep into the names lists somewhere, unless as a book from this era it faithfully records names known from an earlier time. Researching further I discovered that there is only one name anywhere in the Pentateuch that clearly seems to be a compound of ‘Yah’, and that is Jochebed, the name of the mother of Moses and Aaron in Exod. 6:20. Check out any of Richard Hess’s articles on personal names in the Old Testament (OT) for more information.
  2. So many things in Numbers correspond to something in the book of Exodus. There are the major correspondences, such as key failures of the Israelites, the Golden Calf incident in Exodus 32 and the failure to invade Canaan from the south in Numbers, both followed by a threat of destruction by the LORD, and reconstitution of a chosen people from Moses himself (Exod. 32:9-10; Num 14:11-12). In both cases Moses mediates for the people and judgment is mitigated. There are likewise two strikings of the rock for water, two rebellions, two battles with desert tribes, and besides many such narrative parallels, a lot of parallel laws. I dare you to check it out; there are dozens and dozens of connections. Mark Smith offers further ideas on this phenomenon in an essay called “Matters of Space and Time in Exodus and Numbers” found in a festschrift for Brevard Childs.
  3. The word for ‘spying’ on the land in Numbers 13-14 in Hebrew, funnily enough, sounds like the English ‘tour’. It is used mostly for this purpose, but in 10:33 it refers to the role of the Ark of the Covenant to go ahead of the people and ‘find’ a place of rest for them. And in 15:39 it is used to describe how the wayward heart of an Israelite might make him go astray – an interesting last use of the word in the book.
  4. The Balaam oracles in chapters 22-24 have long interested me. I did find an interesting connection between these chapters and the following chapter where the Israelites cross the line in some kind of fertility worship connected with Baal. But do you think I can find it now? Should’ve written it down somewhere!
  5. Following the failure at Kadesh Barnea, despite the sentence of wandering in the desert for (what is a stock figure, I believe) forty years, there is no other location mentioned to which the Israelites actually travel in the narrative. The next specific geographical reference on their itinerary is, once again, Kadesh Barnea in ch. 20. But the book gives us a sense of delay and the passage of time using an interesting device, the insertion of a lot of torah instruction in the intervening chapters, along with minor incident records such as Korah’s rebellion in ch. 16.
  6. Speaking of which, it is curious to find the ‘sons of Korah’ as the baddies in Numbers, while they are major contributors to the Psalms collection! They are Levites, and comparing Exodus 6 and Numbers 16 (and this can also be found in 1 Chronicles 6), we discover that Korah himself is implicitly a cousin of Moses and Aaron. So we’re dealing with an intra-Levitical conflict. Is this shades of a later dispute being narrated by proxy in the forebears’ story? But the two needn’t be mutually exclusive, of course.
  7. Speaking of relevance to a much later generation, wouldn’t the second-generation exiles of Judah in Babylon found a message for themselves in the story of a second generation of God’s people, raised in the desert, being numbered and readied for a return to the promised land? Their exile was strikingly near to a forty-year period, with 47 or 48 years passing between the 586 fall of Jerusalem and the 538 decree of Cyrus celebrated in Ezra 1. I know that the more sceptical critic would see the story as essentially crafted for the exiles’ needs. This is probably too much an either-or kind of thinking. I personally don’t struggle to believe in Israel’s ancient origins in the desert south of Canaan and, for that matter, an early captivity in Egypt. But it is a likely case of what I think of as “past-future feedback” in the Old Testament. The needs of a later generation often seem to lay there as motivation for the telling or recording of a story from earlier times.

Well, that was a bit haphazard, but I’m trying to watch a rather strange and quite eventful cricket match between Australia and India as I write this. There are catches being taken and dropped all over the place, and I can concentrate no more. I’ll leave the unexpectedly interesting book of Numbers with you, and knock off for the evening. Sayonara!

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