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!

Mini-Book Review: Sivertsen’s The Parting of the Sea

Book: Sivertsen, Barbara J. The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of Exodus (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Looks like: Sivertsen - Parting of the Sea

Subject matter: largely the connection between tectonic and volcanic factors, like volcanic eruptions in western Arabia (the ‘harrat’) and dual eruptions of Mediterranean volcanoes (one, famously, the huge eruption of Thera/Santorini in the Aegean Sea about 1600 BC), and…

  • The plagues of Egypt described in Exodus 7-11;
  • The Red Sea crossing;
  • Events surrounding Mount Sinai, described in Exodus 19-24 and beyond;
  • Other wilderness experiences;
  • The defeat of Jericho, and other events related to the (now much-disputed) conquest of Canaan associated with Joshua;
  • And thus, to resolve the question of the dating of the Exodus events.

Pluses:

  • Solid research in the relevant fields, as it seemed to me, including studies in Exodus, OT historiography and the geology of the region of Palestine
  • Awareness of what I think is a real factor in Israel’s history as described in the OT, that is, the place of tectonic/volcanic events. These seem to be a rich source of OT metaphors (e.g. in Psalm 46, or early in Micah 1), which suggests some real experience of such events by Israel or her ancestors.
  • An instinct for integrating disparate facts into a coherent whole
  • An at times apt feel for the way cultures may represent past experiences in story form
  • The courage not to abandon, as many biblical scholars have, any quest for real historical background to the earlier narratives of the OT. It is difficult, admittedly, to clarify the historical scenes lying behind the narratives of Exodus, or Numbers, or Joshua. But it represents a kind of cowardly resignation, if that isn’t too strong, to simply declare these narratives utterly unrelated to history. It’s a petulant alternative to having to admit to not knowing as much as we’d like to know.

Minuses:

  • An inclination to utilize almost exclusively naturalistic explanations. I think to do justice to OT presentations of the ‘signs’ of God’s dramatic work on his people’s behalf, we must neither prohibit natural factors, since I don’t think that biblical writers drew a sharp line here the way we do, nor limit ourselves exclusively to natural factors, since they certainly didn’t do that either. I felt as if Sivertsen was undertaking a program of demythologization.
  • A desire to explain too much, i.e. to leave no overlap of mystery. I’m always a little suspicious when a scheme presents as removing all mystery from what must, at such a historical remove, remain somewhat mysterious. It comes out too ‘neat’ in my opinion.
  • A complex explanation, of “two volcanic eruptions and two exoduses related to the Exodus found in the Bible” (p. 148)
  • A speculative explanation, that relies too much on a hypothetical reconstruction of events that is difficult to either verify or falsify.

Outro: a great book for introduction to the issues involved in seeking historical connections, causes and explanations for the narratives of Exodus to Joshua. You can learn a lot from Sivertsen’s solid grasp of the data, but I would advise caution about accepting her conclusions.