The English name of the fourth book of the Bible, “Numbers,” is a disservice to the book. So named because the first few chapters discuss a census, the book addresses much more poignant topics.
Numbers describes the last part of the Israelites’ journey out of slavery in Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land (Canaan). The Israelites refuse to enter and God angrily punishes them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, during which nearly all of the generations that refused to enter die. Finally, Numbers briefly describes those 40 years and the Israelites’ return to the edge of the Promised Land.
It is not a happy book, as most of it describes people not doing what God asks, not having faith despite God demonstrating his presence and power to them over and over, and not being grateful for what God provided—and God punishing them for it.
Here are 7 interesting things about Numbers that came up in relation to my Old Testament Interpretation class at Wake Divinity:
1. The book says “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.”
Why do fundamentalists insist that Moses wrote the first four books of the Bible when those books do not claim to be written by Moses and there are statements like this one throughout those four books that it is very, very difficult imagining that Moses himself wrote? Who says “I am the most humble man on earth”? There is some indication that Moses said or wrote some parts of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), but why insist that Moses wrote all of the Torah?
2. God supplied the Israelites every need, was present and visible to them (in a cloud and pillar of fire that led them), and demonstrated his power multiple times. Yet, as they approached the Promised Land, the Israelites complained about God. They complained about the lack of variety of food God provided. God punished them for it.
Were they punished for complaining or for their lack of gratefulness? What does God indicate when he says he is punishing because the Israelites “rejected the Lord who is among you, by whining before Him and saying, ‘Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt!”?
3. When complaining about what God provided to eat (manna), the Israelites said “[i]f only we had meat to eat!” God told Moses to tell the people “The Lord will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat not one day, not two, not even 5 days or 10 or 20, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.”
Does God ever do this today? Do we ever do this to ourselves … with things besides food or with people? They become loathsome or detrimental to us?
4. God told the Israelites to go into the Promised Land, but they became afraid that people already there would kill them. Saying it “would be better for us to go back to Egypt!,” they refused to go in. God decided to punish the Israelites by having them wander the wilderness for 40 years before being allowed to enter the Promised Land.
What I think is one of the sadder scenes in the Bible follows: When the Israelites heard their punishment, they “were overcome by grief. Early the next morning, they set out toward the [Promised Land], saying ‘We are prepared to go up to the place the Lord has spoken of, for we were wrong.’ But Moses said, ‘… Do not go up, lest you be routed by your enemies, for the Lord is not in your midst. … Yet defiantly they marched …. And the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that hill country came down and dealt them a shattering blow ….”
God seems to tolerate lots of doubt and complaining in other situations described in the Bible. How does one know when one has reached the edge of that tolerance? Can one reach the edge of that tolerance today, after Christ’s sacrifice?
5. At one point, God says he is going to strike the Israelites with pestilence and disown all of them except Moses. Moses argues with God, arguing that God should pardon the Israelites. God finds Moses persuasive and decides not to do what God first said.
Why do some fundamentalists assert that God never changes his mind?
6. While the Israelites traveled through the dry wilderness, God tells Moses that he and his brother Aaron should “take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them.” They called everyone together in front of the rock, and Moses “said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?’ And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water ….”
But because Moses struck the rock instead of “order[ing] the rock to yield its water,” as God said, God punished him by telling him that he (Moses) will not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.
Doesn’t this seem harsh? Why such a severe punishment when Moses had led the Israelites all this way through difficult circumstances?
7. It gets harsher. Not far from reaching the Promised Land again after 40 years of wandering, God “said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Let Aaron [die]: he is not to enter the land that I have assigned to the Israelite people, because you disobeyed my command about the waters ….”
Because Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it, Aaron is to die before the Israelites enter the Promised Land?
Sorry to end the post on such a down note, but Numbers is largely about the Israelites not doing what God asks and God punishing them as a result. Sometimes the punishment seems not to fit the deed. It is a difficult read.
Numbers is one of those parts of the Old Testament that increases my appreciation for Christ’s mediating presence between us and God today. Living in the close presence and with the focused attention of a wild and unpredictable God was very difficult for the Israelites, and I imagine it would be equally difficult for us. We have it much easier now than the Israelites had it then.
Christ’s sacrifice on the cross makes all the difference.
(Picture: This is a picture of a sunset over the Mediterranean that I took from the rooftop of the Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa, Israel, in late December 2016.)
The Jewish Study Bible 2d ed. 2014. Oxford: University Press (Tanakh Translation).
1. Numbers 12:3
2. Numbers 11:1-15
3. Numbers 11:18-20
4. Numbers 14:1-7, 26-44
5. Numbers 14:12-20.
6. Numbers 20:8-13
7. Numbers 20:23-29