By the Numbers: The Book of Numbers (Num. 1)

I think we both thought we would be progressing through the Bible faster than this—but here we are, at least, through three entire books of the Old Testament (and three rather important books to the whole of Judaism and Christianity) and on to the fourth, Numbers. From here, we can see the end of the Pentateuch!

A little bit of an introduction to Numbers might be helpful, here, as the book continues the story of Moses. It also adds some new wrinkles.

The name “Numbers” refers to the two censuses that occur at the beginning and end of the book (Num. 1 and Num. 26). The book mostly concerns the Israelites’ travails in the wilderness. It derives from a variety of sources, including both the “P” source and other sources. (I discussed this sourcing a bit in my last post.) The non-“P” stuff mostly predates the “P” stuff—but the “P” source predominates most of the text (to give a full rendering of what entails the “P” sections in Numbers would require some length citation—fortunately, if you have a copy of our recommended Bible, you can find such annotations in the preface to Numbers).

Broadly speaking, there are basically two parts to Numbers, although it could be split in a number of different ways.  There is the story part, which details how the Israelites travelled through the wilderness and eventually came to Canaan, and the legal/priestly portions, which detail more laws, rituals, and practices. The important things to remember: the story portion is most likely, like Exodus, entirely fiction. We’ll explore why that’s true (or not true) in future posts. The ritual/priestly stuff, however, is important for our theological discussion (including Ryan’s examination of God’s “pro-life” status), because it contains, as we’ve detailed, some disturbing ideas (whether it is “fiction” is beside the point, as clearly it was written down with the ideas that the rituals, beliefs, ideas, etc., should be followed…so whether they were actually done at the time isn’t important).

Before I end this post, and progress on to a more detailed look at Numbers—and while we’re on this theme—I will comment on the book’s beginning.  As stated, the book’s name derives from the two censuses that bookend the main chunk of the story/priestly material. These censuses are important for a number of reasons, but I would highlight two: one, they prefigure the census that begins the Gospel of Luke, which helps to explain why Jesus was born in Bethlehem but was “from” Nazareth*; and two, they connect Numbers to the previous books by noting the various tribes of Israel and the various organizations (one may recall this stemming from Jacob’s large family).

Numbers, of course, is more than just the censuses. There’s a wealth of interesting stuff in there—that we’ll get to in (we promise) good time.


*Since I am fascinated by this stuff, I can’t help but noting that this is one of those fishy things where it seems pretty likely the story of Jesus’ life was changed to fit a preconceived belief—the inconvenient fact that Jesus was known as a “Nazarean” but, in order to fit with Old Testament prophecies, had to be born in Bethlehem. Luke’s is the only gospel to have such a story about a census.

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One Response to By the Numbers: The Book of Numbers (Num. 1)

  1. Pingback: Baalam and the Talking Donkey (Num. 20) | Holey Books

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