The English title, Numbers, comes from the Greek and Latin versions of the Old Testament: the Greek translation (Septuagint) has Arithmoi (‘numbers’), which Jerome translated as Numeri in the Latin Vulgate. While the title clearly refers to the censuses of the twelve tribes of Israel and the various Levitical groups (1:20-47; 3:21-39; 4:34-49; 26:1-65), it cannot be said to be a particularly apt description of the contents of the book as a whole, since only a few chapters are concerned with the numbering of the people. The Hebrew title bammiḏbār (‘in the wilderness’), which is the fifth word in the book’s opening verse, is arguably a more appropriate and accurate description of its content, for all the events recorded in Numbers do, indeed, take place ‘in the wilderness,’ as the tribes of Israel journey from Mount Sinai to the plains of Moab.
The first ten chapters, covering a period of nineteen days, record events which happened while the people were encamped in the Wilderness of Sinai. The first section of Numbers (1:1–10:10) contains various rules and regulations, concerning such matters as the exclusion of unclean people from the camp (5:1-4), the procedure to be followed in the case of a woman suspected of adultery (5:11-31), and the procedure for the consecration of the Nazirite (6:1-21). It also contains instructions for the forthcoming journey (10:1-10), a journey which begins in earnest in 10:11-12.
The remainder of Numbers (10:11–36:13) recounts the fortunes of the Israelites after leaving Sinai up to the point when they are ready to enter and conquer the Promised Land. Chapters 11–20 record a number of stories of rebellion which broadly follow a standard pattern: the people complain against Moses (or against God), whereupon YHWH punishes them, and the punishment is only halted or reduced as a result of Moses’ intercession on their behalf. At one point God threatens to annihilate the entire people (14:11-12), and only after Moses’ intervention (14:13-19) does he relent and modify the punishment: the first generation of Israelites are condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years, and only the second generation will enter the Promised Land (14:20-35). The first victories on the other side of Jordan are recorded in 21:10-35, and this is followed by stories about Balaam, a foreign seer hired by the king of Moab to curse Israel and precipitate its military defeat (chapters 22–24). Chapters 27–36 contain a further mixture of various laws, such as the inheritance rights of daughters (27:1-11) and narratives (such as the defeat of Midian and the division of the spoils, 31:1-54). The book ends with the people of Israel encamped in the plains of Moab, ready to enter the Promised Land.
Date and authorship
The general consensus regarding the composition of Numbers that held sway from the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th century was that the book was composed of three independent sources (identified as J, E, and P), which were combined at some point and then revised and supplemented by a succession of editors until about the 5th century BCE. Although advocates of the so-called Documentary Hypothesis were reluctant to suggest the precise dates for the different sources, it was generally agreed that J, so-called because this source uses the traditional name of God in Hebrew (YHWH, or Jehovah in early modern English), belonged to the 19th century, that E, who uses the term Elohim to refer to God, belonged to the 8th century, and that P (the Priestly source) should be dated in the exilic or early post-exilic period. The first part of Numbers (1:1–10:10) was widely viewed as representing a coherent literary unit which derived entirely from the P source, whereas the remaining chapters consisted of a complex mixture of the two earlier sources (J and E) and the later Priestly strand (e.g., chapters 13–14, 16–17, 20–21).
In recent decades, however, serious reservations have been raised concerning the classical source-critical analysis of Numbers, and those reservations arose, at least in part, because of profound disagreements as to which verses should be assigned to which source. Moreover, some had expressed doubts regarding the nature and scope of the E source, and had even questioned whether E ever existed as an independent tradition, arguing instead that the passages usually assigned to E were merely secondary glosses on the J source. There was also considerable disquiet about the criteria traditionally employed to determine the various literary strands. While the Priestly material could, for the most part, be identified with comparative ease, the separation of the J and E sources was more problematic than had often been supposed. There was also much disagreement concerning the dating of the sources. Some scholars questioned the traditional dating of J in the period of the monarchy and argued, instead, that the source should be dated in the 7th or 6th century BCE, or even later. While some critics assigned the Priestly source to the exilic or early post-exilic date, others argued that this source contained some quite early material and may well have taken shape over a protracted period beginning in late pre-exilic times. Such disagreements led some scholars to discard the view that Numbers was composed of three different sources (J, E, and P) and to argue that the composition of the Pentateuch could better be explained on the assumption that several blocks of tradition (such as the primeval history, the patriarchal stories, the exodus narrative, the wilderness tradition, and the entry into the land) had originally existed as more or less self-contained entities, until they were eventually joined together by a later editor. At present, however, there is no consensus as to how the books of the Pentateuch came to be formed, and this situation is likely to continue for some time to come.
The book of Numbers seeks to offer answers to some of the perennial problems faced by humankind. What does it mean to be a truly liberated people? How can a nation secure its economic stability and its religious freedom? What principles should govern the life of a settled people? How should they participate in a collective life with a distinct set of rules and values? Such questions are answered in Numbers by means of a powerful metaphor: that of a journey through the wilderness. Far from being an aimless wandering through an arid desert, this was to be a triumphal march with a definite goal in view. But it was a journey that involved mistakes, false starts, uncertainties, hunger, thirst, and rebellion. Indeed, it was precisely because of the disobedience and rebellion of the people that entry into the Promised Land was postponed, and a journey that could have been undertaken in a relatively short time took forty years, a whole generation. Despite the death of an entire generation in the wilderness, the book of Numbers contains a positive message for a new generation, for the story of the march towards the Promised Land is ultimately the story of a journey from bondage to freedom, from despair to hope. It is the story of a new generation struggling to learn the lessons from the failures of the past and looking forward to visions of a renewed life in a land ‘flowing with milk and honey.’
The book of Numbers can probably boast the dubious distinction of being one of the least read and most neglected books in the entire Bible. In some respects, this is hardly surprising, for the book at times appears to be tediously and needlessly repetitive, and much of its content appears irrelevant to issues of contemporary concern. In view of this, it is hardly surprising that one of the early Church Fathers, Origen, writing in the 3rd century CE, should observe that the book was widely neglected in his day and that it was generally regarded as having little or no relevance for Christian faith and practice. “It seemed,” said Origen, “to contain nothing that was either helpful . . . or a benefit for the salvation of the soul.” Origen, however, argued that such a perception was misguided, and he mounted a spirited defence of the book’s enduring value, arguing that it was full of wisdom and insight which could serve as a valuable guide for communities of faith. Moreover, two centuries earlier, the apostle Paul, writing to members of the church in Corinth, argued that the stories of the wilderness generation contained important lessons for the church in his own day, for these narratives were ‘written for our instruction’ (1 Cor 10:11). Other New Testament writers referred to incidents recorded in Numbers. Thus, for example, John 3:14-15 compares the lifting up of the Son of Man to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness (Num 21:8-9); Heb 9:13-14 refers to sprinkling the ashes of the red heifer in order to purify those who had been defiled, a clear reference to the ritual recorded in Num 19:1-10.
Moreover, some of the rituals and traditions practiced in contemporary communities of faith may be illuminated by – and perhaps even owe their origin to – passages in the book of Numbers. The cycle of daily, weekly, and annual observances outlined in Num 28–29 has played an important part in Jewish religious life throughout the centuries. The law regarding the wearing of tassels in 15:37-40 reflects a custom which still survives today among orthodox Jews, who continue to wear the ‘tallith.’ The ritual of ‘laying on of hands,’ mentioned in 8:10-12, is still practiced in some churches. The reference to tithes presented by the people to the Levites in 18:21-24 reflects a custom which has persisted in some quarters of the Christian church to this day, the setting aside of a tenth of one’s income being viewed as an ideal by which Christians measure their giving. One of the best known and most loved passages in the entire Bible, the Aaronic blessing, occurs in Num 6:22-27. The words of this blessing (‘The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace’) have formed an important part of Jewish and Christian worship throughout the centuries.
Bellinger, W. H., Jr. Leviticus, Numbers. New International Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament 3. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001.
Budd, Philip J. Numbers. Word Bible Commentary 5. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1984.
Davies, Eryl W. Numbers. New Century Bible Commentary. London: Marshall Pickering, 1995.