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!

Can Loanwords in the Hebrew Bible be the result of scribal updating?

My comment: debates can be difficult to close based on individual terms, but statistical patterns can be pretty telling, especially when examining suites of terms. E.g. when an individual Aramaic term becomes current amongst Hebrew speakers may be hard to establish, but the sudden ‘Cambrian explosion’ of Aramaic terms in exilic to postexilic texts is unmistakable. Persian terms are a real bellwether in my book, being very unlikely to enter Hebrew vocabulary prior to 550. The logical process in my mind is to demonstrate the high prevalence of a set of loanwords in texts that are uncontroversially postexilic, like Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, and then to ask whether they appear in the more debated cases. Sometimes they do (especially in, say, Song of Songs) and sometimes they don’t (e.g. rarely in supposedly post-exilic contributions to the Pentateuch). Repeating the process often builds up a pretty comprehensive picture of books and parts of books that appear to have arisen after the exile.

With Meagre Powers

A loanword is a word that originates in one language, but makes it into another language for common use.

The Hebrew Bible is replete with loanwords. These are interesting cases, because it makes us ask how and when these loanwords made it into Hebrew. They are often used as evidence for particular (usually late) dating of biblical texts.

I was recently asked whether it was possible for loanwords to have crept into biblical texts through editing. That is, could a later scribe, in the process of copying a text, have updated the language and replaced a Hebrew word in the early text with a loanword from another language? And if this is possible, what does this tell us about our methods of dating biblical texts?

Well, the scenario of later scribes inserting later loanwords into earlier texts is possible, but there is absolutely no way of verifying it without manuscript evidence of such a replacement occurring…

View original post 823 more words

Where are the Levites Mentioned? An Experiment in Visualization of Word Distribution in the Bible

I am experimenting with a template for visualizing the distribution of words and ideas in the Bible in a simple, at-a-glance format. Right now, with my limited IT skills, Prezi is the tool of choice. So here is a set of examples of how we might quickly and clearly show the distribution of a term or concept in the Bible. I’m using data on where Levites are mentioned in the New International Version, so it’s a simple English-language study, drawn from a search in BibleWorks.

The Pentateuch

Levite Refs in Pentateuch Sshot

What I notice here is that the book with Levites virtually in the name, ‘Leviticus’, barely mentions them! They don’t appear until ch. 25, almost at the end, and then only that chapter. So Leviticus is hardly about the Levites in any explicit way. But Numbers is loaded with references, as if it has Levites and their religious roles squarely in view. They appear among the underprivileged classes in many of the references to them in Deuteronomy, and they also appear significant in Exodus, especially in connection with Moses and Aaron as their patron figures.

The Historical Books

Levite Refs in Hist'l Books Sshot

Levites feature with some frequency in the historical books of the OT, with particular concentrations in the mildly bizarre story about the Levite and his concubine late in Judges and in 1-2 Chronicles, suggesting that Levites may have had a part in ancient Israelite society from very early on, but are a particular focus of interest after the exile.

The Prophets

Levite Refs in Prophets Sshot

Levites are distinct for their general absence in the (Latter) Prophets, appearing in just a single half-chapter in Jeremiah, and that being the section of Jeremiah, 33:14-26, that is absent from the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint or LXX. The Levites are only mentioned in the last few verses of Isaiah 66, once in the Twelve (Minor Prophets) in Malachi 3:3, and a number of times in Ezekiel’s temple vision in Ezekiel 40-48, with suggestions that Levites are to have a demoted status in Jewish religion. That’s a very limited range of texts, and arguably late in production in each case. The general impression is of an appearance of this topic in exilic and post-exilic times.

The Writings

Levite Refs in Writings Sshot

It perhaps isn’t surprising in some cases, given the nature and subject matter of some of these books, but the Levites are not mentioned anywhere in the Writings, including the Psalms (not shown), apart from post-exilic Ezra and Nehemiah, where they become very prominent indeed.

I’m no scholar about the Levites, and in my mind the big three features of post-exilic Jewish religious life are Torah, Sabbath and, moreso later, synagogue. But perhaps Levites, though the Judges story in particular may set their origin in Israelite society very early, to say nothing of the Exodus references, are primarily a prominent feature of post-exilic society, and most references to them in our Bibles come from the exile or later. There is of course an intersection here with older historical-critical concerns, but I’m not an expert on these either, and would like to keep scholarly hypotheses from too quickly shaping the data at hand.

Another good visual study would be references to the Sabbath, no?

Mini-Book Review: F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic

Okay, so it’s really old, published in 1973. This is one of those scholarly books that sits on the shelf of nearly every theological institution on the planet, but that is beginning to get a little dusty from disuse. It’s one of those books that any budding biblical scholar ought to have read, but some of us were like Linus in 1973, with our shorts nearly reaching the ground, and weren’t quite ready to read the works of scholars like Frank Moore Cross. So it has taken me a while to get to this.

But you ought to know that this is one of those books you ought to read if you want to understand the course of Old Testament scholarship in the last fifty years – one of Cross’s defining works, and thus a milestone for one of the leading scholars of the twentieth-century Albright school. It is a classic, a period piece, an effective marker of the state of anglophone thought on numerous Old Testament topics from Pentateuchal criticism and the Deuteronomistic History to the speciality of the Albright school, antique Hebrew poetry.

But remember…it is from 1973! It shouldn’t be read as contemporary research. But for the serious OT student with some introduction to critical issues, it should be read.

Distribution Chart for an Unusual Hebrew Pronominal Suffix (Technical)

“Hey Mo, don’t you worry ’bout goin’ down south,

I’ll be sayin’ every word that comes outta your mouth,

Just be doin’ your best, and pray that it’s blessed,

I’ll take care o’ the rest.”

– Keith Green, “He’ll Take Care of the Rest”

Noticing that Psalm 2 had in common with Exodus 15 (the Song of Moses) and a range of other texts an unusual form of the 3rd masc. plural (usually) pronominal suffix, ‘מוֹ’ (-mo), I became interested in just where those endings turned up, why they might exist, and whether any significant implications stem from these features.

So let me offer an Excel chart that shows their distribution and specific references:

Distribution Chart for -mo 3mp pronominal suffixes


-mo suffix chart image

The distribution of these endings is interesting.  It shows clusters of its use on verbs (esp. Exod 15), nouns (e.g. Ps 2:3) and prepositions (normally ‘עַל’ or ‘לְ’, once ‘אֶל’, Ps 2:5).  For instance, Exodus 15 features seven such suffixes, exclusively on verbs, whereas all the prophetic uses are on prepositions, and then only in Isaiah and once in Habakkuk.  A few more observations:

  • The suffix is normally plural but occasionally singular, as in the Genesis references.
  • The suffix can occur in parallel construction with the regular 3mp ending, as in Ps 49:11.
  • The form is almost always found in poetry, though the poetry/prose boundary is difficult to identify in prophetic discourse (affecting the Isaiah references).  Exod 23:31, however, is a prose use.

A point of interest for me is whether this is an archaic form or instead an ‘archaizing’ form, a stylistic touch implying traditional authority or fidelity, e.g. continued use of archaic English forms by churchgoers reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The Psalm 49 instance might suggest a stylistic use.  I suspect that some clusters are genuinely archaic, including Exodus 15.  Isaianic  usage probably reflects use of this suffix largely restricted to prepositions in the middle of the Old Testament period.  Some of the Psalms uses, especially later ones, occur in proximity to references to Israel’s distant past, e.g. 78:24, 66; 83:11; 99:7.

It is challenging to find where secondary sources discuss this phenomenon, but see Gesenius/Kautsch/Cowley #32m (pp. 107-8 in my edition), #58g (156-7) re verb suffixes, #91b, h, l (255-258) re noun suffixes, and #103f, o (301-2, 305) re suffixes on prepositions.  #91l debates the implications of such forms for dating, in the authors’ case, denying that they can be relied upon to be genuine signs of archaism, while those of the Albright school (e.g. Cross, Freedman) might take them as betraying the archaic nature of a poem like Exodus 15.  (See Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 86, for a sample reference to Exodus 15 and the beginning and ending of Deuteronomy 33 in these terms.  You’ll notice that all feature this suffix abundantly.)

I would assume that ancient Hebrew language like any other has a history and a course of development, and that it must be possible to arrive at some conclusions on the basis of phenomena such as the one mentioned here.  I believe that the authors behind Miller-Naudé, Cynthia L., and Ziony Zevit (eds.). Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012) would advocate this position, though I haven’t yet read the volume.  With the same proviso, I understand that the opposing position is put in Young, I., R. Rezetko, and M. Ehrensvärd. Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008).  Let’s all check them out!