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!

Three Things I’ve Learned from Leviticus

Our pastor told us last Sunday that he was reading Leviticus and Numbers. And with all the stuff about sacrifices and so forth, he asked himself, “What can I take away from this?” Unsurprising point to reach, and our pastor’s conclusion was not a bad one: “God wants our very best!”

I too have been reading Leviticus, as part of my goal to read the Old Testament right through in the Hebrew. It has been a life-occupying surprise to find out how long that takes! I started when I first took Hebrew in 1998, and in 2015 I have a substantial portion to go. Hope I don’t die before I get the Septuagint read.

I haven’t minded reading about the sacrifices. I feel as if I’m slowly gaining a feel for the meaning of ceremonial purity and orthopraxy. But on reaching chapters 17-19, I feel as if I’ve gained a much clearer appreciation of three things:

Leviticus 17: I’ve appreciated how starkly the power of the sacrificial system was tied into the value attached to the blood of the animal. “The life of all flesh is its blood (Lev 17:14 NET Bible)” is the clear principle, and here in Leviticus, not only is blood not to be eaten, but for domestic animals at least, there is to be no such thing as ‘secular slaughter’. While a game animal or bird caught in the wild may be eaten so long as all of its blood is spilled out on the ground, the same is not true for a herd animal:

Blood guilt will be accounted to any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat inside the camp or outside the camp, (4) but has not brought it to the entrance of the Meeting Tent to present it as an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD. He has shed blood, so that man will be cut off from the midst of his people (Lev 17:3-4).

So blood is a holy thing, and as far as possible to be avoided in any ordinary animal slaughter. You may notice that by the time Deuteronomy’s sacrificial laws come along (significantly later, we are led to think), there is such as thing as ‘secular slaughter’:

If the place he chooses to locate his name is too far for you, you may slaughter any of your herd and flock he has given you just as I have stipulated; you may eat them in your villages just as you wish. (22) Like you eat the gazelle or ibex, so you may eat these; the ritually impure and pure alike may eat them. (23) However, by no means eat the blood, for the blood is life itself– you must not eat the life with the meat! (Deut 12:21-23).

It is this sanctity of blood that makes sense, within a Jewish and more general ancient world context, of the death of Christ as our New Testament authors explain it, while that death, in turn, paradoxically explains why no sacrificial system is needed any longer! The perfect sacrifice has come; there is no longer any sacrifice for sins (Heb 10:26)!

Leviticus 18, especially its initial verses, struck me as particularly programmatic for the book:

Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘I am the LORD your God! (3) You must not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you have been living, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan into which I am about to bring you; you must not walk in their statutes. (4) You must observe my regulations and you must be sure to walk in my statutes. I am the LORD your God. (5) So you must keep my statutes and my regulations; anyone who does so will live by keeping them. I am the LORD. (Lev 18:2-5 NET)

Interestingly, the remainder of the chapter is devoted to sexual ethics, particularly surrounding acceptable degrees of consanguinity. The implication seems to be that sexual ethics were lacking in the two cultures against which Israel could distinguish herself culturally and religiously, Egypt and Canaan. I had never made the connection between sexual ethics and the programmatic Pentateuchal statements about obeying Yahweh’s standards. Maybe it is important for how we understand books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy!

Leviticus 19 early on offers us an even more central statement for the meaning of the book: “You must be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2 NET). It is interesting what a mingled statement of principles follows in that chapter, combining Ten Commandments-style statements with statutes about ceremonial purity, sexual ethics, and Deuteronomy-like principles protecting the rights of the socially vulnerable. We are inclined to see these as very separate categories of life. It is interesting that being the people of the LORD involves holiness of diet, holiness of ethics, holiness of ceremony, holiness of sexual practice, Sabbath-keeping, avoidance of seances, indeed a wide range of interpenetrating spheres of life!

All that with vocabulary I don’t remember seeing elsewhere in the OT. There is interest in every corner of the Bible, read on its own terms.

Samaritan Korban Pesach Wikimedia Commons

Oh, on that vocabulary note, and so that you finally get a pic, here’s a picture of the ‘Korban Pesach’, the Passover ceremony still conducted annually by the Samaritans on old Mt. Gerizim, where this has been done for at least 3,000 years. ‘Korban’ [קָרְבָּן], ‘sacrificial offering’, is a word very distinctive of Leviticus & Numbers, which feature 78 out of its 82 OT occurrences, beginning in Lev 1:2.

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?

A Prezi related to Old Testament Ethics

Aid & Dev Prezi Screenshot

For those who are interested in Old Testament ethics, you might find this interesting.  Developed for a mid-year intensive session at MST in 2013, it is built on a word study of the term ‘ger‘, meaning something like ‘resident alien’, in the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch.  The rights enshrined in the laws of Deuteronomy protecting this class of people within the covenant society of Israel are quite striking – in a book that we sometimes think of as harsh!  Check it out: http://prezi.com/tkgwp1ekw_rf/aid-development-in-ot/