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!

A Few Thoughts on the Book of Joshua

It’s funny what occurs to you when you read different books of the Bible simultaneously.

I’ve just finished reading Joshua in the Hebrew, in my grand quest to read the whole OT in Hebrew, and finished Leviticus prior to that. At the same time, a Greek reading group I’m involved with at our college, Melbourne School of Theology, has been working through the Gospel of John.

What I find in such parallel reading experiences is that you see new and exciting connections between the different books.

So, for the record, here are three connections I’d suggest for the book of Joshua:

  1. Scholars often talk about a ‘Deuteronomistic History’, that is, who would describe Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings as an ultimately unified historical work strongly conditioned by the theology that is most systematically articulated in Deuteronomy. This can be construed in a very diachronic way, i.e. almost purely in terms of how these books originated, or in a more synchronic way, seeking the theological and thematic continuities. In my mind both of these angles are interesting and relevant. But I would simply say here that this is an enlightening way to read Joshua. Chapter 1 is clearly designed to correspond to the later chapters of Deuteronomy, esp. ch. 31, or vice versa, with common language about the succession of Joshua for Moses and the importance of discarding fear. Chapter 8 features the covenant-making ceremony recalling the instructions given in Deuteronomy 27. Joshua 22 details at length a controversy about an altar built near the Jordan by the eastern tribes that recalls the instructions about a single altar in Deuteronomy 12 (e.g. see Josh. 22:29). And the historical recollection that prefaces the covenant ceremony of Joshua 24 in its consciousness of having roots ‘across the River’ in Mesopotamia reminds me of the famous confession of Deut. 26:5, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” So I see a clear Deuteronomic influence in Joshua that may be read in terms of a theology and in terms of an editorial stratum, and I don’t think these two angles are mutually exclusive. But that’s not what was new to me!
  2. Reading Joshua after Leviticus showed me just how ‘priestly’ the book of Joshua is. Priests lead the crossing of the Jordan. Even the infamous ‘ḥērem’ or program of extermination (‘ideal’ though it be) of the Canaanite occupants of the land seems to me to be conducted (or portrayed) in a very priestly and ceremonial manner, along with the punishment of its violation by Achan. On a similar note, but now contrasting with Leviticus, the Levites suddenly make their appearance in Josh. 13:14. Priestly action is unaccompanied by any mention of Levites to this point in Joshua. This is not unlike the Pentateuch: Leviticus does not so much as mention a Levite until ch. 25, and then only in two verses, Lev 25:32-33! It is, ironically, the book of Numbers that teems with references to the Levites. So it is in Joshua: no mention of Levites, but much to priests, in Joshua 1-12; then quite a focus on Levites and their part in the land distribution. While they are denied an inheritance like that of the other tribes, a region to call their own, Joshua 21 offers detailed description of the towns allocated to them to reside in. So I found these priestly/levitical connections interesting, and felt as though all of the historical reportage of Joshua has a kind of priestly, ceremonial frame.
  3. This might surprise you. I find Joshua akin to the Gospel of John. They might seem quite contrary: John all about how God “loved the world in such a way,” with a love that extends in a sense universally; Joshua making it clearer whom God hates than whom He loves, if that isn’t too pointy a phrasing. But they are Jekyll-and-Hyde alter egos of one another. Both are very theologically geared, more so than their neighbours. Theology constrains the telling of history much more in Joshua than in Judges or Samuel, I feel, and I would say the same about John in comparison with Matthew, Mark and Luke. The result is a much more schematic book in both cases, less shaped by the flow of events and far more by the theological truths needing to be conveyed. The two share a very simple vocabulary too: Joshua a good book for a new reader of biblical Hebrew, and John famously so for a new reader of NT Greek. Yet both offer a profound and quite challenging theology that belies the simplicity of their terminology. Perhaps we could be simplistic ourselves here and give a motto for each book’s message:
    1. Joshua: “Who ya gonna serve?”
    2. John: “Who ya gonna trust?”

Time for the real work of the day, but maybe this will challenge your thinking about these three biblical books.

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.

Prezi for Luke Chapter 1 and Forward; Two Miracle Babies, Jesus & John the Baptist

This is a first draft prezi done for a sermon of mine at my home church yesterday. It attempts to visually map the relative roles of Jesus and John the Baptist at the gestation stage of their respective careers, and thus of their parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Mary and stand-in Joseph. Just a first draft, but see what you think.

Dawn of New Day Luke 1 Scr'shot

https://prezi.com/zkmxhkbehlyg/dawn-of-a-new-day-luke-1/

I told people they could google for it, but for some reason, it’s very difficult for your online prezi material to be found by others in this way, unfortunately.

Comments are welcome.

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?

Samuel – A Temple Slave?

Two quick questions raised by a single verse, 1 Samuel 1:28, and in fact, a single word…

  1. In response to her answered prayer, Hannah brings the very young Samuel back to the Shiloh temple to be devoted to the LORD’s service for life. Now multiple times in Ezra-Nehemiah, albeit books that narrate a much later time, we encounter a category of the post-exilic population called ‘Nethinim’, the ‘given ones’, apparently meaning a kind of dedicated person, a temple slave of some kind. The word occurs in 1 Chr. 9:2; Ezr. 2:43, 58, 70; 7:7; 8:17, 20; Neh. 3:26, 31; 7:46, 60, 72; 10:29; 11:3, 21, and nowhere else in the Old Testament. Ezra 8:20 attributes the formation of this class of persons to David, though there is no reference to them in narratives of pre-exilic times. So my first question is, should we view the character Samuel in these terms, as one of the ‘given ones’, a ‘nātîn‘ or temple slave? He is certainly something like it, though the formal category may come later.
  2. However, the word for ‘given’ (in all English versions I’ve checked) is different in 1 Samuel 1:28. It is ‘šāʾûl‘. Look familiar? It should, for it is identical to a name that occurs numerous times in the same book from 9:2 and following: Saul. At one level this is odd, because the Hebrew form is the qal passive, which I would expect normally to mean ‘requested’, or ‘asked’. Its meaning in its context can be debated: I haven’t yet looked into it in detail. But my second question is this: Why does the story so carefully connect Samuel to Saul through this distinct anticipation of his name so early in the book? The English reader can’t see it, but it’s obvious in the Hebrew. Samuel himself is the first ‘shaul’ in the book of Samuel. To conclude, here is the BibleWorks chart showing occurrences of this word form in the Old Testament. Aside from its use as Saul’s name, this form is extremely rare. Its occurrence in 1 Samuel 1:28 in description of Samuel is no accident!

'Shaul' in Genesis to 2 Samuel 4'Shaul' in 2 Samuel 5 to end OT

The Workings of Hebrew Narrative in the Hezekiah Stories in 2 Kings

My kids have just come home from school with the fact that the world’s best-selling book is the Bible and not any part of the Harry Potter series, or even Lord of the Rings.

It isn’t surprising when we look closely at the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (to say nothing of the all-important Final Quarter).  I’m constantly amazed at the artistry and profundity of both poetic and narrative texts of the OT.  And some of it escapes us until we read the Hebrew.

Having reached the end of 2 Kings 20 this morning, let me mention a couple of great little nuggets from 2 Kings 18-20, those riveting and sometimes perplexing stories about Hezekiah.  (Pretty well all of these things will apply also to Isaiah 36-39, but I am not taking the time to check each detail there right now.)

  • There is a fundamental tension within the story of the Assyrian crisis when Sennacherib invades.  Here it comes out in Christopher J. H. Wright’s brief historical survey in The Message of Jeremiah, Bible Speaks Today Series (2014), p. 18:

“When Sennacherib marched west to put down the rebellion in 701 BC, he invaded and ravaged Judah fiercely and then besieged Jerusalem itself.  Panic once again in Jerusalem.  This time Isaiah’s counsel prevailed, Hezekiah sought the Lord, and the city was spared with a miraculous deliverance (though Hezekiah did in fact submit to heavy tribute).”

That is a clear tension in the story, and the submission is narrated first, before the story of miraculous deliverance!  There’s no concealment or gilding the lily at this point.  But even the silence about conquest evident in the Sennacherib Prism might suggest that the failure to actually take Jerusalem is the elephant in Sennacherib’s room: “(Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city.”

  • There is a good example of ‘repetition with variation’ in Hebrew narrative.  The first message from Sennacherib’s chronies in 2 Kings 18:19-25 is seemingly careful not to incite the enmity of Yahweh, instead (disingenuously) claiming that Hezekiah’s centralization of worship to Jerusalem makes him less faithful to Yahweh than Sennacherib himself is, who has come to invade Judah, he says, on Yahweh’s instructions!  In v. 29 he adds, “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you from my hand.”  But notice the word of the second backup threat to Hezekiah in 19:10: “”Do not let the god you depend on deceive you when he says, ‘Jerusalem will not be handed over to the kind of Assyria.’  …Did the gods of the nations that were destroyed by my forefathers deliver them…?  Much of the wording is identical, but in place of ‘Hezekiah’, now it is Yahweh’s competence being questioned.  Perhaps that is why the second prophetic denunciation through Isaiah is so much the stronger than the first!  Can I emphasize that this is a principle for understanding all OT narrative?  Pay attention to the little variations within the repetition!  They make the big points!  (This is also what makes good music good!)
  • Isaiah’s first, much briefer message in 19:6-7 uses a great word that I hadn’t noticed before:

6 Isaiah said to them, “Tell your master, ‘This is what the LORD says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard– those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me.
7 Listen! When he hears a certain report, I will make him want to return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword. ‘” (2Ki 19:6-7 NIV)

The word rendered ‘underlings’ is one Hebrew word for children or teenagers, and can by derivation mean ‘servants..  It’s effectively labeling Sennacherib’s highest officials as his ‘boys’, trivial figures who just say and do what they’re told.  It’s a Churchillian one-word put-down.

By the way, Isaiah’s first message, as brief as it is, is links to the final judgment on Sennacherib, his eventual assassination (2 Kings 19:37).  Enclosed within this prophecy and fulfilment is another, the larger oracle/s of Isaiah (19:21-34) and their fulfilment in the plague that drives the Assyrians from the walls of Jerusalem (19:35-36).

Here are some of the things that feature twice in the narrative in 2 Kings 18-20; see if you can locate the two aspects of each feature:

Inclusios or Doublets in 2 Kings 18-20

  • And to illustrate just one brief example of the many deliberate doublets in this narrative: the account of Hezekiah’s career finishes where the Assyrian crisis began in 2 Kings 18:17 – at the aqueduct of the upper pool…a piece of infrastructure that 2 Kings 20:20 finally tells us was a key achievement of Hezekiah.  And, characteristically for Hebrew narrative, the two Hebrew terms for this structure are mentioned in reverse in the Hebrew text!  The book of Isaiah does even more with this particular narrative setting, but that’s another story.