Numbers is the most puzzling of the names given to the books of the Chumash. Genesis means beginning, which makes sense. Exodus means leaving – the Exodus from Egypt being the focal point of the book. Leviticus deals with all the priestly matters, which is what most of the book is about. Deuteronomy means ‘second telling’ – a reference to the fact that the entire book is a rehashing of the events that happened to the Israelites since the Exodus and many of the laws that were given. But Numbers just doesn’t fit in anywhere. Are there numbers in this book? Is it about numbers?
It turns out that there are numbers in two places. There are two censuses taken in the course of this book, one at the beginning and one towards the end. They take quite a while to go through and they do not seem to be the most important of events, but they are there nevertheless. Hence, the name of the book in Greek.
Thankfully, the Hebrew name, Bamidbar (In the Wilderness) fits a little better. While it may sound like some trek into the wilds of Alaska or Australia, it actually refers to the journeys through the wilderness of Sinai and the southern portion of modern Israel and the western part of modern Jordan, up to the modern Golan Heights. These journeys, though not all that long by today’s standards, were vast by Biblical standards. The Biblical world consisted of the Middle East – Egypt and a little to the west and south of it, the northern areas of Arabia, the Sinai and the southern part of Israel, the entire Fertile Crescent through Lebanon, modern Syria and Iraq, and the western portion of Iran. Almost everything else was terra incognita. To travel with a large group, taking along little children and animals along this largely uncharted route, was to take an epic journey worthy of a book in the Bible.
The journeys begin right after the Exodus from Egypt. Before any journeys are described, a census is taken. This census covers all the males older than 20. The final tally, including the Levites who were counted separately, comes to a little over 600,000. Adding women and children to the mix and we have a population that likely topped 2 million. This number is nothing short of astounding for what is believed about ancient times. Populations over 10,000 in any area were considered huge. The entire world population at the time is currently estimated to have been at around 50 million. Thus the Israelites would constitute about 4% of the world population. Needless to say, this is pretty unlikely. Even if we say the number 600,000 somehow included the females and the children, the number is still way out of line. Instead of 4% it would be a little over 1%. Either the current estimates are very off, or this number from Numbers has to go.
The Bible critics say that these numbers were really from much later on in Israelite history. Perhaps when the final editing of the documents was going on these numbers were possible (though even then they are quite unlikely). Most academic approaches see all this as typical Biblical hyperbole – huge rounded off numbers that had nothing to do with reality. These were a small collection of tribes escaping slavery in Egypt wandering around in some vague direction towards some vague Promised Land. How many could there possibly have been?
These questions have no compelling answers, at least for now. Regardless of this modern problem, the Torah pushes on. After a couple of long sections dealing with detailed Biblical rituals, the Kohanim are instructed on how they are to bless the people. This short blessing, one of the few examples of Biblical prayer still in use, is known as the Priestly Blessing. It is about as ancient as it gets in Judaism. It also reveals the first image of God that we shall encounter in this book. Along with the Priests comes the Ark of the Covenant, the holiest object of the Bible. What exactly it was and what happened to it remain among the biggest mysteries of the Bible. This will be our second image.
A little later comes the infamous episode of the Spies. On the outer edges of the Promised Land, the people demand that Moshe send out spies to scope out the lay of the land that they are to conquer. Despite the important status of the men chosen for this task, or possibly because of it, ten of these twelve spies come back with a disastrous report. They claim that conquering this land will be impossible, God or no God on their side. The catastrophic consequence for this lack of guts is 40 years of wandering in the wilderness until the entire generation dies off. This seems to be an even harsher punishment than was afflicted following the Golden Calf. An image of God emerges from this upheaval – an image of wrath and absolute will.
Despite the harsh decree, almost immediately after this event there is yet another rebellion. This is the Rebellion of Korach, a Levite who felt he had been slighted in the division of authority within his tribe. His real complaint is against Moshe and Aaron, but he manages to invoke more wrath of God. After another plague and a clear demonstration of Moshe’s authority, his rebellion ends in crashing failure and eternal infamy.
When things pick up again they are in the 40th year of wandering in the area southeast of the Dead Sea. Miriam dies there and there are more complaints, this time about lack of water. In a curious sequence of events, both Moshe and Aaron, despite following Hashem’s instructions to get water from a rocky area, are punished by Hashem for not having adequate faith to sanctify Hashem. The fateful decree upon them is that they will not be able to enter the Promised Land.
A long interruption kicks in at this point. It is so out of place that some have suggested that it was at one time a separate book that was incorporated into the Bible. This is the section dealing with the prophet Balaam (Bilaam to those more familiar with the Hebrew). This highly mysterious character doesn’t really seem to fit in anywhere on the classic Biblical good guy/bad guy divide. His prophecies are far-reaching and every bit as mysterious as he is. But it is in his encounters with an angel while on the way to attempt to curse the Israelites that we will be interested in. This will be our first in depth look at a divine image that is not of God, but of angels. Angels, whom we have already come across several times, are difficult to place in the God/creation divide. Are they lower versions of God (heretical by rabbinic standards) or are they just glorified creations only a little higher than human beings on the spiritual scale (heretical by Biblical standards)? We shall see.
Following this is another census. This is the final count before entering the Promised Land which will be divided up according to tribes and according to family divisions. Around this point, Moshe is told that he will soon die. He requests of Hashem that He choose a successor to lead the Israelites. God tells him that his successor shall be Joshua, his faithful servant who has played a significant role in the story up to now. His request, as we shall see, reveals another image of God – the God of spirits. This image played a brief appearance in the rebellion of Korach. It is an image that differs from what we have seen before in a subtle, almost undetectable manner.
The book closes with a recap of all the journeys through the wilderness and the explicit command to conquer the Promised Land. The borders of the land are delineated in some detail that unfortunately is subject to great debate. These borders roughly resemble modern day Israel without most of the southern Negev portion. It also seems to include a good deal of present-day Lebanon. The ramifications of all this may yet play a role in the tempestuous politics of the modern Middle East.
The Bible critics consider this book to be largely under the authorship of the ‘E’ group. They have their reasons for selecting ‘E’ over ‘J’, but those reasons, as usual, are highly debatable. To the traditional reader, it is just a continuation of the narrative after the Golden Calf story in Exodus. The long Exodus sections dealing with the Mishkan and all the priestly matters of Leviticus form a rather dry interlude in between these narratives.
God is there every step of the way along these journeys. These wanderings through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land have formed a kind of microcosm of life for many readers of the Bible. Wandering on a frustratingly slow journey through patches that seem endless, lacking food and water and other comforts that we consider to be essential, is an essential step in reaching any spiritual goal. The complaints are the low points, the divine punishments are always lurking, but so are the blessings. If one sticks to the journey through thick and thin, weathering the enemies and the snakes and the hunger and the thirst, taking curses and fighting rebellions, but staying on the path, the Promised Land will be reached. Divine images change with the various challenges of this journey, from the Source of blessing, to the power behind the Ark, to the wrath of the divine will, to the God of spirits, to the mystery of angels. Numbers is not about numbers. It is really about journeys in the wilderness.
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