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Book of Numbers

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Book of Numbers (from Greek Ἀριθμοί, Arithmoi; Hebrew: בְּמִדְבַּר, Bəmiḏbar, "In the desert [of]") is the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible, and the fourth of five books of the Jewish Torah.[1] The book has a long and complex history, but its final form is probably due to a Priestly redaction (i.e., editing) of a Yahwistic source made some time in the early Persian period (5th century BCE).[2] The name of the book comes from the two censuses taken of the Israelites.

Numbers begins at Mount Sinai, where the Israelites have received their laws and covenant from God and God has taken up residence among them in the sanctuary.[3] The task before them is to take possession of the Promised Land. The people are counted and preparations are made for resuming their march. The Israelites begin the journey, but they "murmur" at the hardships along the way, and about the authority of Moses and Aaron. For these acts, God destroys approximately 15,000 of them through various means. They arrive at the borders of Canaan and send spies into the land. Upon hearing the spies' fearful report concerning the conditions in Canaan, the Israelites refuse to take possession of it. God condemns them to death in the wilderness until a new generation can grow up and carry out the task. The book ends with the new generation of Israelites in the Plain of Moab ready for the crossing of the Jordan River.[4]

Numbers is the culmination of the story of Israel's exodus from oppression in Egypt and their journey to take possession of the land God promised their fathers. As such it draws to a conclusion the themes introduced in Genesis and played out in Exodus and Leviticus: God has promised the Israelites that they shall become a great (i.e. numerous) nation, that they will have a special relationship with Yahweh their god, and that they shall take possession of the land of Canaan. Numbers also demonstrates the importance of holiness, faithfulness and trust: despite God's presence and his priests, Israel lacks faith and the possession of the land is left to a new generation.[2]

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  • ✪ The Book of Numbers
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Jon: The book of Numbers gets overlooked, partly because it has a really boring name... Tim: which is a shame, in Hebrew tradition the book’s name is “bamidbar” ( במדבר) which means, “in the wilderness”. Numbers is an epic travel log of Israel’s journey through the desert on their way to the land promised to Abraham. Jon: Now, this pilgrimage should only have taken about 2 weeks on foot. Tim: But instead it takes them forty years. Jon: That’s crazy. practically half of someone’s lifetime. Tim: Yeah, it’s a very long camping trip with lots of interesting stories, BUT, lets remember, it’s most helpful to start with how the book is designed. Jon: Right. Tim: So, the book is broken up into five sections. There are three different wilderness locations, broken up by two road trips that link it all together. Jon: OK, so the story starts in the wilderness at Mt Sinai, right here on the map. Tim: Then in the second section they travel towards a region called Paran. Jon: and then a whole bunch of things happen there, in the wilderness of Paran. Tim: Then, in this fourth section, Israel’s road trip to Moab. Jon: The book ends with a large section in the wilderness of Moab, right across the Jordan river from the promised land. Tim Now, through all these sections, the storyline flows like gripping, dramatic movie: everything starts great, then the trip goes horribly wrong. But it ends with a final redemptive moment, a surprising act of God’s grace. Jon: So lets begin with the first act, Israel is at the wilderness at Mt. Sinai. We’ve become really familiar with this Mt. Tim: Yeah, if you remember Israel came here after Egypt, they formed a Covenant with God here, got the 10 commandments here, built the tabernacle here, they’ve been here for one full year. Jon: and now they take a census to number the people as they prepare to leave. Tim: right, and then they’re are given instructions for how organize themselves in the camp: God’s presence in the tabernacle, then the tribe of Levi and the priests around it, then the rest of the tribes around them. This pattern is a visual symbol of how God’s holiness is at the center of their existence as a people. Jon: And they are told that when the cloud of God’s presence moves on they are to pack up and travel with it. Tim: The ark of the covenant carried by the Levites is in front, then the tribe of Judah and on and on. This order also a symbol how God’s holy presence is their leader and guide. Jon: So we begin the second section of this book with enthusiasm as they leave the Sinai wilderness and travel up to Paran- God’s with them, everything is organized, everything is going to be great!... Tim: ...but it’s not great. After just three days on the road they start to complaining about their hunger and thirst, and even Moses’ brother and sister start badmouthing him in front of everyone... Jon: Not a great start. But now we’re in the 3rd section - the wilderness of Paran - this is where they send 12 spies to scout out the promised land, two of the spies come back really optimistic.. Tim: but the other ten are freaked out, they don’t trust God and say “we’re gonna get annihilated” So they start a mutiny, and they try to appoint a new leader who will take them back to Egypt. Basically, they are refusing to go into the promised land and so God honors their choice and says that this generation of people will wander for 40 years and die in the wilderness, and only their kids will get to enter the promised land. Jon: You know, this story gets brought many times in the Bible by different authors... Tim: and always a reminder that while God remains faithful to his people, he will honor their choices and let them waste their whole lives if they choose to live in rebellion. Jon: OK, so this trip’s been a disaster so far. Tim: it gets worse in this fourth section as they travel to Moab - even Moses has a moment of rebellion, and is disqualified from entering the promised land. There’s another rebellion among the people, the results in a snake attack And what makes all these rebellions even worse, is that every step of the way, God’s been providing, he offers forgiveness, he provides them food, water, and this crazy stuff called ‘manna’... Jon: What is that stuff? Tim: No idea! But in spite of this they they complain and say they wish they had died in Egypt. Jon: If I was God I would give up on these guys Tim: You would think, and that is what makes this story in the final section so surprising. Israel just arrived in Moab. The King of Moab is freaked out that this huge of people traveling through his land, so he hires this pagan sorcerer named Balaam to pronounce curses on them. Jon: This dude means business. Tim: yah, and Balaam says, “I’ll pray to the Hebrew God and we’ll see what happens”. And three different times he attempts to curse them, but each time he finds he can only utter blessing. Most surprising is the last blessing in which he prophesies that out of Israel will arise a victorious king, and this King is somehow connected to God’s promise to Abraham to bless all nations thru this family. So, here is Israel rebelling down in the camp, totally unaware that up in the hills God is protecting and blessing them. Jon: So, the book ends here in Moab. They are ready to go into the promised land. They count everyone up, again like at the beginning, as they leave behind the old generation including Moses Tim: But before they leave Moses, he leaves them his last words of warning and wisdom and that speech is what the next book, Deuteronomy is all about. the next book, Deuteronomy, is all about.



Most commentators divide Numbers into three sections based on locale (Mount Sinai, Kadesh-Barnea and the plains of Moab), linked by two travel sections;[5] an alternative is to see it as structured around the two generations of those condemned to die in the wilderness and the new generation who will enter Canaan, making a theological distinction between the disobedience of the first generation and the obedience of the second.[6]


Priest, Levite, and furnishings of the Tabernacle
Priest, Levite, and furnishings of the Tabernacle

God orders Moses, in the wilderness of Sinai, to number those able to bear arms—of all the men "from twenty years old and upward," and to appoint princes over each tribe. A total of 603,550 Israelites are found to be fit for military service. The tribe of Levi is exempted from military service and therefore not included in the census. Moses consecrates the Levites for the service of the Tabernacle in the place of the first-born sons, who hitherto had performed that service. The Levites are divided into three families, the Gershonites, the Kohathites, and the Merarites, each under a chief. The Kohathites were headed by Eleazar, son of Aaron, while the Gershonites and Merarites were headed by Aaron's other son, Ithamar. Preparations are then made for resuming the march to the Promised Land. Various ordinances and laws are decreed.

The Israelites set out from Sinai. The people murmur against God and are punished by fire; Moses complains of their stubbornness and is ordered to choose seventy elders to assist him in the government of the people. Miriam and Aaron insult Moses at Hazeroth, which angers God; Miriam is punished with leprosy and is shut out of camp for seven days, at the end of which the Israelites proceed to the desert of Paran on the border of Canaan. Twelve spies are sent out into Canaan and come back to report to Moses. Joshua and Caleb, two of the spies, report that the land is abundant and is "flowing with milk and honey", but the other spies say that it is inhabited by giants, and the Israelites refuse to enter the land. Yahweh decrees that the Israelites will be punished for their loss of faith by having to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

Moses is ordered by God to make plates to cover the altar. The children of Israel murmur against Moses and Aaron on account of the destruction of Korah's men and are stricken with the plague, with 14,700 perishing. Aaron and his family are declared by God to be responsible for any iniquity committed in connection with the sanctuary. The Levites are again appointed to help in the keeping of the Tabernacle. The Levites are ordered to surrender to the priests a part of the tithes taken to them.

Miriam dies at Kadesh Barnea and the Israelites set out for Moab, on Canaan's eastern border. The Israelites blame Moses for the lack of water. Moses is ordered by God to speak to a rock but initially disobeys, and is punished by the announcement that he shall not enter Canaan. The king of Edom refuses permission to pass through his land and they go around it. Aaron dies on Mount Hor. The Israelites are bitten by Fiery flying serpents for speaking against God and Moses. A brazen serpent is made to ward off these serpents.

The Israelites arrive on the plains of Moab. A new census gives the total number of males from twenty years and upward as 601,730, and the number of the Levites from the age of one month and upward as 23,000. The land shall be divided by lot. The daughters of Zelophehad, who had no sons, are to share in the allotment. Moses is ordered to appoint Joshua as his successor. Prescriptions for the observance of the feasts and the offerings for different occasions are enumerated. Moses orders the Israelites to massacre the people of Midian. The Reubenites and the Gadites request Moses to assign them the land east of the Jordan. Moses grants their request after they promise to help in the conquest of the land west of the Jordan. The land east of the Jordan is divided among the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. Moses recalls the stations at which the Israelites halted during their forty years' wanderings and instructs the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites and destroy their idols. The boundaries of the land are spelled out; the land is to be divided under the supervision of Eleazar, Joshua, and twelve princes, one of each tribe.


Balaam and the Angel (illustration from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle)
Balaam and the Angel (illustration from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle)

The majority of modern biblical scholars believe that the Torah (the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) reached its present form in the post-Exilic period (i.e., after c.520 BCE), based on pre-existing written and oral traditions, as well as contemporary geographical and political realities.[7][8][9] The discovery of scrolls at Ketef Hinnom, dating to the 7th to 6th centuries BCE and containing the Priestly Blessing from the Book of Numbers, has shown that at least some of the material found in Numbers, and the Five Books of Moses, existed in the First Temple period.[10] The five books are often described as being drawn from four "sources" - schools of writers rather than individuals - the Yahwist and the Elohist (frequently treated as a single source), the Priestly source and the Deuteronomist.[11] There is an ongoing dispute over the origins of the non-Priestly source(s), but it is generally agreed that the Priestly source is post-exilic.[12]

  • Genesis is made up of Priestly and non-Priestly material.[12]
  • Exodus is an anthology drawn from nearly all periods of Israel's history.[13]
  • Leviticus is entirely Priestly and dates from the exilic/post-exilic period.[14]
  • Numbers is a Priestly redaction (i.e., editing) of a non-Priestly original.[2]
  • Deuteronomy, now the last book of the Torah, began as the set of religious laws (these make up the bulk of the book), was extended in the early part of the 6th century BCE to serve as the introduction to the Deuteronomistic history (the books from Joshua to Kings), and later still was detached from that history, extended and edited again, and attached to the Torah.[15]


A Plague Inflicted on Israel While Eating the Quail (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible)
A Plague Inflicted on Israel While Eating the Quail (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible)

David A. Clines, in his influential The Themes of the Pentateuch (1978), identified the overarching theme of the five books as the partial fulfilment of a promise made by God to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The promise has three elements: posterity (i.e., descendants – Abraham is told that his descendants will be as innumerable as the stars), divine-human relationship (Israel is to be God's chosen people), and land (the land of Canaan, cursed by Noah immediately after the Deluge).[16]

The theme of the divine-human relationship is expressed, or managed, through a series of covenants (meaning treaties, legally binding agreements) stretching from Genesis to Deuteronomy and beyond. The first is the covenant between God and Noah immediately after the Deluge in which God agrees never again to destroy the Earth with water. The next is between God and Abraham, and the third between God and all Israel at Mount Sinai. In this third covenant, unlike the first two, God hands down an elaborate set of laws (scattered through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers), which the Israelites are to observe; they are also to remain faithful to Yahweh, the god of Israel, meaning, among other things, that they must put their trust in his help.[17]

The theme of descendants marks the first event in Numbers, the census of Israel's fighting men: the huge number which results (over 600,000) demonstrates the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham of innumerable descendants, as well as serving as God's guarantee of victory in Canaan.[18] As chapters 1–10 progress, the theme of God's presence with Israel comes to the fore: these chapters describe how Israel is to be organized around the Sanctuary, God's dwelling-place in their midst, under the charge of the Levites and priests, in preparation for the conquest of the land.[19]

The Israelites then set out to conquer the land, but almost immediately they refuse to enter it, and Yahweh condemns the whole generation who left Egypt to die in the wilderness. The message is clear: failure was not due to any fault in the preparation, because Yahweh had foreseen everything, but to Israel's sin of unfaithfulness. In the final section, the Israelites of the new generation follow Yahweh's instructions as given through Moses and are successful in all they attempt.[19] The last five chapters are exclusively concerned with land: instructions for the extermination of the Canaanites, the demarcation of the boundaries of the land, how the land is to be divided, holy cities for the Levites and "cities of refuge", the problem of pollution of the land by blood, and regulations for inheritance when a male heir is lacking.[20]

Weekly Torah portions

  • Bemidbar, on Numbers 1–4: First census, priestly duties
  • Naso, on Numbers 4–7: Priestly duties, the camp, unfaithfulness, and the Nazirite, Tabernacle consecration
  • Behaalotecha, on Numbers 8–12: Levites, journeying by cloud and fire, complaints, questioning of Moses
  • Shlach, on Numbers 13–15: Mixed report of the scouts and Israel's response, libations, bread, idol worship, fringes
  • Korach, on Numbers 16–18: Korah’s rebellion, plague, Aaron’s staff buds, duties of the Levites
  • Chukat, on Numbers 19–21: Red heifer, water from a rock, Miriam's and Aaron's deaths, victories, serpents
  • Balak, on Numbers 22–25: Balaam's donkey and blessing
  • Pinechas, on Numbers 25–29: Phinehas, second census, inheritance, Moses' successor, offerings and holidays
  • Matot, on Numbers 30–32: Vows, Midian, dividing booty, land for Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh
  • Masei, on Numbers 33–36: Stations of the Israelites’ journeys, instructions for conquest, cities for Levites

See also



  1. ^ Ashley 1993, p. 1.
  2. ^ a b c McDermott 2002, p. 21.
  3. ^ Olson 1996, p. 9.
  4. ^ Stubbs 2009, p. 19–20.
  5. ^ Ashley 1993, p. 2-3.
  6. ^ Knierim 1995, p. 381.
  7. ^ Enns 2012, p. 5.
  8. ^ Finkelstein, I., Silberman, NA., The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, p.68-69
  9. ^ McDermott, John J., (2002). Reading the Pentateuch: a historical introduction. Pauline Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-8091-4082-4. Retrieved 2010-10-03.
  10. ^ Barkay, Gabriel, et al., "The Challenges of Ketef Hinnom: Using Advanced Technologies to Recover the Earliest Biblical Texts and their Context", Near Eastern Archaeology, 66/4 (Dec. 2003): 162-171.
  11. ^ Coogan, Brettler & Newsom 2007, p. 6.
  12. ^ a b Carr 2000, p. 492.
  13. ^ Dozeman 2000, p. 443.
  14. ^ Houston 2003, p. 102.
  15. ^ Van Seters 2004, p. 93.
  16. ^ Clines 1997, p. 29.
  17. ^ Bandstra 2004, p. 28-29.
  18. ^ Olson 1996, p. 14.
  19. ^ a b Ska 2006, p. 38.
  20. ^ Clines 1997, p. 62.


Further reading

External links


Jewish translations:

Christian translations:

Book of Numbers
Preceded by
Hebrew Bible Succeeded by
Old Testament
This page was last edited on 15 April 2019, at 12:18
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