Reading Numbers

Oxford University is believed to be the world’s second-oldest university. Some records show classes as early as 1096, but the establishment of the university isn’t altogether clear. Around the year 1230, they began appointing a vice-chancellor to run the school. In 2015, after 785 years, the first woman was nominated to be vice-chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson. Given the rise in women’s suffrage in the early twentieth century, and many laws granting women equality in the ’60s and ’70s, you might have thought that this day would have arrived sooner. Yet, as we always say, “better late than never.” Some might say, “That took longer than it should have.” 

When you think about the Book of Numbers, think, “That took longer than it should have.” From Exodus 19 all the way through Numbers 10, Israel is in Sinai. From Sinai to the Promised Land is a two-week journey, but Israel will wander in the wilderness for forty years. It takes longer than it should. The name of this book in Hebrews is not “Numbers,” but bamidbar, which translates to, “In the wilderness.” The book can be broken up into three sections: chapters 1-10 are in Sinai; chapters 13-19 are in Paran; chapters 22-36 are in Moab. The chapters not mentioned in this list are the chapters of their traveling from place to place. 

Why is it called the Book of Numbers? In the opening of the book, God orders that Israel be numbered. He even tells Moses how to organize the people in the camp. God’s presence is central to the people, His dwelling place being in the tabernacle (Num. 2:17). Surrounding him are the Levites and priests, and surrounding them are the rest of the tribes. God’s presence in the center of the nation is meant to convey that He is central to their existence. Over the tabernacle is a cloud indicative of His presence, and when the cloud moves, they move (Num. 9:15-19). The Levites break down and carry the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant (Num. 1:47-53). The ark leads the way to communicate that God leads Israel, and the tribe of Judah follows immediately behind with the other tribes in tow. 

So why did it take longer than it should have? Because Israel followed God, and God hindered them from the Promised Land. This book is about why, and the why, simply answered, is Israel’s unbelief and sin. 

Chapters 1-10

Notice, first, where we are in time. We are two years removed from the Exodus (Num. 1:1). God has Moses organize and number the entire nation, which we can guess took some time. Then, He orders for the special role of the Levites (Num. 3:5-13). From there onward, the Levites as a whole are numbered, and the various heads of the families of the Levites are given their special roles. The sons of Kohath were responsible for carrying the holy furniture of the tabernacle (Num. 4:1-20). The sons of Gershon were to carry the structure of the tabernacle (Num. 4:21-28). The sons of Merari were to carry, if you will, the nuts and bolts of the tabernacle (Num. 4:29-33). Imagine a package arrives for a new desk, but it’s one you have to build. In one bag are the nuts and bolts, then there are the actual parts of the desk, and, finally, the things you put in and on it. This is sort of the division of the Levites as it regarded the tabernacle. They were charged with maintaining the sacred space. 

God gives instructions regarding lepers, restitution, and unfaithful wives (ch. 5). Then, He gives the outline for the law of the Nazarite, a person who wanted to consecrate themselves to God for a specified period. One specific aspect of this vow, among others, was that a Nazarite’s hair was to remain uncut while keeping the vow (e.g. Samson). Aaron is given the word of the Lord as to how he can bless the children of Israel (Num. 6:22-27). Hereafter, the leaders of Israel present offerings to the Lord and they celebrate their second Passover. Afterward, God ordered two silver trumpets, shofars, made to sound to call Israel to relocate and in battle. Then, they leave Sinai. 

Everything seems to be going well. That is until Israel begins to complain only after three days of travel. These people seem to be more of a settled than moving people. They complain because they miss the land of slavery’s food, and they’re sick of manna (Num. 11:4-6). Even Moses becomes exasperated (Num. 11:11-15). Leadership isn’t always pomp and circumstance. The only time many leaders hear from people is when there are complaints. Be sure that you don’t only go to the elders of ministers when you’re unhappy. I’ll tell you now if that’s all you approach me for, it won’t be long before I actually quit listening to you and you’ll lose any effectiveness you may have. Complaining isn’t a spiritual gift, so don’t use it as one. 

God gave Moses aid in seventy elders on whom He gave His Spirit. One man shouldn’t bear the burden alone. Even seventy among the many of Israel is too little, but it’s better than nothing. Then, he listened to the people and promised to give them meat for one month, to the point that they loathed it. How quickly we go from zeal to dissatisfaction. Only because circumstances change and we aren’t as comfortable as we once were. Sometimes following God and His plan takes us out of our comfort zone and makes us move. Israel wasn’t meant to reside at Sinai, and they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. God was taking them to a wonderful land, a place better than where they were and had been. But, getting there was too hard. Don’t be afraid to put in the work. Don’t allow comfort to paralyze you. If it seems or is known to be God’s plan, trust Him and go.

Meeting God at Sinai

Three months have passed since Israel left Egypt. Since they left bondage. Now, the sign that God promised to Moses is coming to fruition (Exod. 3:12). On this mountain, they were to “serve” God. This is a cognate of “tend” (ovda) in Genesis 2:15, which denotes priestly service (cf. Num. 3:7–10). This is fitting because God tells Israel that He intends for them to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:6). God’s royal decree to Adam and Eve was to “subdue [the earth]; have dominion” over every living thing (Gen. 1:28). God gave the first humans both a royal and priestly service. The fall interrupted their ability to carry it out. He has now passed that service to Israel. Priests mediate humans to the divine and the divine to humans. As a “holy nation,” if they keep God’s commands, they would mediate between God and the nations, a promise God had made to Abraham (Gen. 12:3). As far as a timeline of events goes, beginning in Exodus 19—through Leviticus—and ending in Numbers 10 is one year of Israel camping at Mt. Sinai.[1]

Meeting God

Thus far, Moses and God have spoken with one another. Moses goes and informs the people of what God has said, and he returns to God to relay their affirmation of these very things. Then, God is preparing to appear in the presence of the Israelites, but before they do so, they are to prepare (Exod. 19:10–13). This would occur over three days. We have to imagine that they’ve been traveling for a few months and probably haven’t bathed or changed clothes. Perhaps they stunk and needed to do laundry. Still, the cleanness they were to appear as was appropriate for appearing before God. Boundaries are established around the mountain to show the demarcation between the sacred and the common. Wherever God is, there is holiness. Were sinful commoners to approach such holiness, the result would be catastrophic. When the third day came, Israel saw a frightful sight (Exod. 19:16–19). God once more orders Moses to remind Israel to respect the boundaries set.

The following few chapters demonstrate God’s ordering of society. Various commands, general and specific, are given—the most famous of which is the Ten Commandments. The first three have to do with respecting God, and the last seven have to do with one’s neighbor. Thus we see the first and greatest command reflected here and the second, which is like unto the first. After that, specificity reigns until chapter 24 and is referred to as the Book of the Covenant. Afterward, Moses, his brother and nephews, and seventy elders go up the mountain. Moses recounted all of God’s words, and the people assent to His law.

Early in the morning, Moses built an altar at the base of the mountain. He set up twelve columns for the twelve tribes of Israel. Offerings and sacrifices were made, the blood was taken and used to cleanse the altar and the people. Then, he and those bid to come up the mountain do so. They see God and eat and drink. Sacrifice was always followed by a communal meal of the worshippers. Notice the similarities of these events to Christianity: the Word of God is given, recorded, read, and assented to by God’s people. The sacrifice of Jesus, His body and blood, are what we partake of every Lord’s Day as a community of God’s people. We, too, eat and drink, and we do so in God’s presence. The continuity is astounding.

The preacher of Hebrews informs us of our New Covenant in light of this first covenant (Heb. 9:18–20). These sacrifices, however, were ineffective at the atonement of humanity to God (Heb. 10:1–4). Those can never take away sins like the blood of Christ (Heb. 10:11–14). God set up this system to prepare us for that which was to come. We eat from an altar far superior to the one given to Moses and Israel (Heb. 13:10). Under the Old Testament, priests were given portions of most sacrifices, but laypeople couldn’t partake. As Christians, we all partake.

[1] Enns, Exodus for Normal People, 22–23.

What Exodus Has To Do With Creation

A recurring theme in Genesis was the threat of famine that sent the Hebrews to Egypt for food (Gen. 12:10; 26:1–2; 42:1; 46:1–4). The last time it occurred in Genesis, the entire family of Israel wound up there due to the seven-year famine Pharaoh dreamt about. That sojourn ultimately led them to settle in the land of Goshen. What began as an effort to sustain themselves would turn into a reversal of fortune. Somewhere along the continuum of time, things changed, but this is expected since Yahweh had promised Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years (Gen. 15:13–14). Yet, He would bring them back to the land of Canaan after the fourth generation. Before they’d return, things would get worse before they got better.

What Moses is Showing Us

In the early chapters of Exodus, we notice a retelling of the creation story in a sense, but through the history of Israel. Israel is depicted to the ancient reader as fulfilling the vocation of humanity from the beginning. The first evidence being the divine order to fill the earth and subdue it (Exod. 1:7; cf. Gen. 1:20, 28; 9:1; 17:6). Whereas it was commanded of Adam/Eve and Noah, God told Abraham that He would make it happen for him. In each instance, God is narrowing down His purpose for creation through specific ones. He began with Adam (human) and Eve (life). After their expulsion from Eden because of sin, the line was narrowed through Seth, and the mandate was once again given to Noah. As sin persisted, the vocation was given to Abraham to be realized in Israel. They had multiplied and filled the land.

Israel is God’s vessel for demonstrating His creative purposes. It’s meant to be through them that humanity comes to know the God of creation and form a relationship with Him. When we read at the beginning that they “increased abundantly” (Exod. 1:7), it might be better that we substitute that translation with “abounded.” This is the same word used to describe the sea creatures in Gen. 1:21, and it’s also used post-flood in 8:17; 9:7. These usages point initially to the creation and, then, to recreation. The author hints that a new creation is being carried out through Israel, and it is accomplished in part by their multiplication.

Fulfilling God’s divine vocation resulted in the Egyptians taking notice. To Pharaoh, the growing number of Israelites was a threat. However, the more he tried to stop it, the little it did to accomplish his goal. If anything, Pharaoh’s oppression intensified Israel’s growth (Exod. 1:12). With Pharaoh wanting Israel to diminish and God wishing them to fill the earth, a show-off and clash are sure to result. The last time such an occasion reared its ugly head was at the Tower of Babel. Those present had pitted themselves against God, and He scattered them. Pharaoh is about to do the same, and those of us who know the story know it won’t end well for the King of Egypt.

Rather than Israel subduing the land, they were stopped (enslaved). Humanity was suppressed by sin resulting in the fall. Being further subdued resulted in the flood, so the enslavement warrants a liberation just as God had previously given. As Israel continued growing and evil pervaded in their enslavement and oppression, Pharaoh ordered the murder of all male newborns. Of course, the scheme didn’t work because the Hebrew midwives kept it from happening (Exod. 1:17, 21). One specific Levite couple had a “beautiful” son. Literally, this is the same word translated as “good” seven times in Genesis 1—tov. This reminder points to the fact that this son will be used in God’s scheme of recreation.

Pharaoh began ordered newborn males to drown in the Nile. This boy’s parents put him in “an ark of bulrushes” (Exod. 2:3). In Genesis, the flood destroyed the whole human race. Still, in Exodus, Pharaoh wanted male children drowned in the Nile, threatening to destroy Israel. As the ark saved Noah, so an ark saved Moses. Noah saved humanity; Moses would save Israel. Sadly, this wasn’t the story for everyone and likely explains why God later takes the firstborn among Egypt and drowned the Egyptians in the Sea. Moreover, as God parted the chaotic waters above a vault and below as the sea, so He’d part the waters of the Red Sea for Israel’s escape. As the flood destroyed the earth’s inhabitants, God’s releasing of the parted sea would drown the Egyptians.

Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s court, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. He kills an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. Afterward, he tries to play peacemaker between two other Hebrews who make it known that they are aware of what he had done to the Egyptian. Pharaoh also learns and seeks Moses’ life, so Moses flees. He finds women being harassed at a well and rescues them, one of whom would become his wife after the manner of Isaac and Jacob. He meets a Midianite priest who becomes his father-in-law, and chapter two ends with a simple verse that our English complicates. “God saw the Israelites. God knew.”

Hebrew Numerology, Archaeology, and Exodus

Around 1800 BCE, people from the land of Canaan had already made their way to Egypt and established a dynasty. This comes to us from historical and archaeological evidence. It isn’t specified that these people were Israelites. Still, they may have been given the timeline of the sojourn in Egypt and the lifetime of Moses. The Israelites were to be slaves in the land of Egypt for 400 years, so this would line up rather nicely with the traditional lifetime of Moses and the writing of the books of Moses (1450–1400 BCE). However, around 1650 BCE, a group called “Hyksos” invaded Egypt and ran things until about 1550 BCE. They’re presumed to have been from Asia.

The traditional dating of Exodus is 1446 BCE, which is given to us from a literal reading of 1 Kings 6:1, which placed the building of Solomon’s temple at 966 BCE, 480 years after the Exodus. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to know if the numbers are used literally or symbolically. The Israelites and ancient peoples of the east believed numbers had symbolic and, therefore, religious meanings. In this case, if we were to read it symbolically, we’d begin with the number 40, which is a go-to number symbolizing a complete or appropriate period. Moses’ life is broken up into three periods of 40 years. Israel would spend 40 years in the wilderness wondering. Jesus fasted for 40 days and was tempted. Are we to understand these numbers literally or symbolically? 40 times 12 gives us 480—twelve symbolizing the tribes of Israel. According to the numbers, these symbolic numbers held religious connotations, which would have been viewed as a divine period of time. There can be problems reading the numbers as literal numbers rather than symbolically as they might have.

This is always something I caution when reading the Old Testament. Some who read these books read everything literally, and that’s a product of our Western Civilization, especially for us living in the twenty-first century who’ve inherited the Enlightenment way of processing information. They thought and told stories differently than we do, so we have to try to get in their minds as best as possible. This can be hard, but it makes studying the Old Testament so much more enjoyable once we’re there.  

When Did Exodus Occur?

Archaeology points to a mass Hebrew settlement in the land of Canaan in the 12th century BCE. When you look at it that way, it will make for a massive discrepancy between the actual historical exodus and the conquest of Canaan. Some figures suggest a disparity of 200–300 years. We know that much time didn’t elapse between the departure and conquest, so what are we to make of this gap of centuries between the two based on archaeological evidence?

First, just because this was when the settlements appear doesn’t mean that’s when Israelites arrived in the land of Canaan. They could have been there sooner. The settlements may point to a period of economic prosperity more than arrival in the land. Second, because the Pharaohs are unnamed in the book of Exodus, it may point us to an actual, historical conflict that occurred in the 16th century BCE between a divided Egypt. This second point is what I’ll focus on here.

From Genesis, Israelites settled in Goshen, which was located in northern Egypt. Interestingly enough, Northern Egypt is referred to as “Lower Egypt” while Southern Egypt is referred to as “Upper Egypt.” Anyway, in the sixteenth century BCE, Egypt was divided, culturally and politically. Northern Egypt was ruled by the Hyksos. Some historians believe that the Hebrews were their slaves during this period. Perhaps as we see from the story of Exodus, Pharaoh grew concerned by their numbers and that they may ally themselves with Southern Egypt against them, which would unify the country.

Near the end of the 16th century, the Southern Egyptians began a campaign to unify Egypt. There’s a notable coinciding abandonment of Semitic people, which the Israelites were, around the same time. Before these events, Egyptian sources report natural disasters that afflicted Egypt, including abnormal weather conditions and disease. Could these have been the plagues? That sounds like it. The discrepancy of dates is more about how the data is read than anything. There is a plausible explanation, and this is it.

The Scribe in the ANE

The first instance of recording Scripture occurs at Moses’s hand at the covenant’s inauguration between YHWH and Israel (Exod. 24:4–8). Scholars mostly agree that the Book of the Covenant mentioned there entailed chapters 21–23 of Exodus, but opinions vary.1 Moses’ upbringing in Egypt explains how he became a scribe in the first place,2 because they placed a high amount of esteem and respect on the scribe. They believed that a scribe was his own boss and the highest of trades to which one could aspire.3 Moses obviously had scribal training in Egypt in the first forty years of his life in the higher echelons of society, and that skill would serve him well as the leader of Israel. 

Even in Israel’s later history, we see the scribe as one moving in royal circles ( 2 Chron. 24:11; Esth. 3:12). The scribal chamber was within the palace (Jer. 36:12), and their work often detailed the exploits of the monarchs they served (1 Kings 11:41) as well as the reign of the monarchy itself (1 Kings 14:19, 29). They also served by writing the decrees ordered (Dan. 6:8) and taking dictation (Jer. 36:32). Some might be sent to record the military skirmishes the realm was engaged in (Jer. 52.25), and a useful skill for the scribe to possess in later times was to be bilingual (2 Kings 18:26).4 Following the station of Moses as a prophet were other prophets who recorded books or records here or there (Josh 24:26; 1 Sam 10:25). Later, we even read about some later holy people referring to what had been written (Dan. 9:2; Neh. 8:1). 

This process led what we know as the Old Testament to be formed around 400 BCE,5 with some arguing that the Law, or Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible), itself was authoritative by that time if not earlier. By 200 BCE or earlier, the prophets were canonized (cf. Is. 34:16; Jer. 36:6ff).6 Unlike our Christian Bibles where the Old and New Testaments are major divisions, the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) grouped its books differently. There are three groupings of books: 

  1. The Law (Torah)
    1. Gen–Deut. 
  2. Prophets (Nevi’im)
    1. Josh, Judg., Samuel and Kings (Former Prophets)
    2. Isaiah, Jer., Ezek., and the Twelve (Latter Prophets)
  3. Writings (Ketuvim). 
    1. Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther (Five Megillot)
    2. Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Chronicles. 

This tripartite division is reflected from Ben Sira, who was the first to refer to it in this way (180–175 BCE), but may be earlier than him. 

Centuries before this time, King Josiah (622 BCE) found a copy of the Law in the temple, and his subsequent reverence of it as such demonstrates its authority in the life of Israelite society (2 Kings 22:3–20). After captivity, Ezra had a copy of the Law in which to lead the nation (Ezra 7:6; Neh. 8:1ff). Centuries before them, Joshua (13th century BCE) read the same (Josh 8:34–35), and King David was to have had a personal copy (Deut. 17:18–20; cf. Deut. 31:9, 25–26). We know David consulted it after Uzzah died (2 Sam. 6:1–10; cf. 1 Chron. 15:1–13), but it’s obvious that it wasn’t central at all times.  

The interlude from the reading of Joshua until the next reading is a noted period of silence of public readings. During that time, the united kingdom of Israel was divided, and the northern kingdom following an idolatrous path while the southern kingdom sinned as well, but with periods of reformation. The next public reading came after the high priest Hilkiah found the Book of the Law in the temple during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Hilkiah took the book to the king’s secretary who then took it to the King. Upon hearing the words of the Book of the Law, King Josiah grieved and sent to inquire of the Lord because all the curses of the book were to be rendered to the unfaithful people of Judah (2 Kings 22–23; 2 Chron. 34). When Josiah assembled the people to have the Book of the Law read in their hearing, Josiah led a covenant renewal to which the people consented. However, because of so many years of apostasy that began with King Solomon, changing the trajectory of Judah was unrealized because of so many years of neglecting to read the Law. Therefore, the land was purged of its inhabitants so that it could undergo a period of cleansing (cf. Lev. 18:28; 20:22).

This points us to the authority the Law and Prophets had. What we find was that those who were well regarded, adhered to the Law. We also note that the absence of it from the life of Israel resulted in an ignorance that permitted apostasy.  

1 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004), 456.

2 The education of Moses is recorded in Philo, De Vita Mosis I 20–24, 32.

3 Christopher A. Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 87.

4 Ibid., 88–89.

5 Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, rev. ed. (Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press, 1986), 8.

6 Jack P. Lewis, Between the Testaments (Nashville: 21st Century Christian, Publishing, 2014), 92–93.

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