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Introduction to the Book of Numbers

Fourth Book of the Bible & of the Pentateuch


What is The Book of Numbers?

The Book of Numbers continues the narrative of the Israelites: they once lived in Canaan, travelled to Egypt where they were enslaved, and now return to Canaan to take control of the land. They have received the Levitical laws so are prepared to be God's Chosen People. Upon arrival at Canaan, though, they are too afraid to go to war so the parents are condemned to die in the wilderness while the children are given a second chance.


Facts About the Book of Numbers

  • Numbers is the fourth book the Bible, the Torah and, the Pentateuch
  • Numbers has 36 chapters & 1,288 verses
  • Chapter & verse divisions are of Christian origin
  • Numbers covers about 39 years


Important Characters in Numbers

  • Moses: Leader of the Israelites
  • Aaron: Moses' older brother, High Priest of the Israelites
  • Eleazar: Aaron's son, inherits the office of High Priest
  • Balaam: Prophet who puts a curse on the Israelites


Who Wrote the Book of Numbers?

Traditionally the authorship of Book of Numbers was, like the rest of the Pentateuch, ascribed to Moses. Today scholars reject this and believe that Numbers was constructed out of multiple earlier sources. In fact, Numbers actually references some likely sources, including a "Book of the Wars of the Lord" and popular songs.

According to the Documentary Hypothesis, much of the Book of Numbers comes from the Priestly Source, which might explain the amount of time devoted to priestly concerns at the beginning. Other sources, like the Yahwist and Elohist, may have be represented through ancient epic traditions.


When Was the Book of Numbers Written?

Although some of the sources of the Book of Numbers are probably quite old, scholars believe that it acquired it's final form (more or less) in the 5th century BCE. This was at the time when the Persians conquered the Babylonian Empire and ended the Exile, allowing the Israelites to return home if they wished.


Book of Numbers Summary

Numbers 1-12: The Book of Numbers picks up after the extensive, legalistic interlude of Leviticus: now that the Israelites have all the laws and regulations they need to be a special, chosen people, so they are ready march off from Mt. Sinai to Canaan. Apparently, nearly a year passed at Mt. Sinai. First, though, a census is done to better organize everyone.

Numbers 13-14: Once the Israelites arrive at Moab, though, they learn that Canaan is controlled by very powerful people who are unlikely to just give it up simply because some travelers claim that a god gave that land to a distant ancestor. The Israelites thus refuse to march into Canaan, which outrages God because this demonstrates a deplorable lack of faith in his ability to take other people's land from them.

Numbers 15-25: God orders the Israelites to march around in circles in the desert for about 40 years, or until everyone over 20 has died. This allows God to give Canaan to the children of the Israelites who had been freed from slavery. Presumable the children would be raised without enough fanatical faith — and fear of the consequence of disobedience — that they would gladly follow God's command to take Canaan from its current inhabitants.

Numbers 26-36: The Israelites arrive at Moab again and conduct a new census to reorganize. Joshua becomes the new leader. Moses is set aside as leader of the Israelites because of his failure to completely obey God; while he can see Canaan, he won't be allowed to enter. This time the Israelites don't hesitate to invade Canaan and even divide up the spoils before beginning the war. The inhabitants of Canaan are to be slaughtered in large numbers, though sometimes women are spared so they can be divided up as spoils.


Book of Numbers Themes

Wilderness: The Book of Numbers takes place entirely in the wilderness and that's why the Jewish name for this text is simply "Wilderness." Travelling through the wilderness makes it possible for the Israelites to travel from the psychological state of slavery to the psychological state of taking control of their own destiny. The importance of the wilderness to make transformations possible recurs throughout the Bible

Covenants: Numbers explores the consequences of a number of covenants, starting all the way back in Genesis with Abraham and continuing down through the time of the Exodus out of Egypt. God is portrayed as consistently upholding his end of the covenants, even if it takes a long time, whereas the Israelites are portrayed as consistently faith-less.

Divine Guidance: Moses may lead the people of Israel, but it's God who is responsible for their deliverance from slavery, God who is responsible for their survival in the wilderness, and God who will give them a new land to call home. God even "lives" among the Israelites in the Tabernacle he tells them to construct.

Every step of the way, the people are entirely dependent upon God for everything — a situation which arguably contradicts the idea that they are undergoing a transformation away from the psychology of slavery. This contradiction is exacerbated by the fact that upon invasion, the Israelites are to offer their enemies the chance to become slaves instead of being slaughtered.

Holiness: The concept of holiness and ritual purity is established in Leviticus; in Numbers, we see the consequences as the Israelites are required to be "holy," which means to live up to the high standards set by God. It requires bigger acts like avoiding sin and it requires little acts like not eating or wearing certain things. Most fundamentally, being holy and pure means following God's commands — all of them.

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