The Bible in and as History: Numbers

Two initial observations after having finished the book of Numbers:  It felt really really long.  It’s historical narrative is both fascinating and problematic, in that it strikes me as having been written again to explain a particular historical circumstance, but that outside of that context it can be troubling.

The book itself starts with a numbering(hence the title) of the Men of Israel.  Enumerating the warriors of Israel before detailing the progress of this mass migration through towards the land of Canaan, which are the land promised to them by god.  Within the text you basically have the accounting and than a series of events which basically repeats like this; The Multitudes get pissed off and begin to doubt Aaron and Moses.  The Priests and Moses go to God with this, God says “Alright, despite the fact I took you guys out of Egypt, your doubting me” and than inflicts some punishment on a portion of the Isreali’s, rinse and repeat.  This happens again, and again.  There are other interludes that make it very apparent this is written for a particular audience with particular intent.  The over-reaching theme here seems to be the continued disobedience of the Israelites to God and their punishment there-in.  That they basically go to Canaan, the promised land, send in some spies and the spies come out talking about how there are Giants there and there is no way they can conquer it, so they are punished to ‘wander in the wilderness for 40 years’.

Speaking of actual history events we run into issues of Historicity.  That is there really isn’t much evidence for these events, and a considerable amount against it.  Besides the fact that a moving city of hundreds of thousands of people through the Area of the Levant would leave quite a historical mark, the story itself seems a bit particular in it’s execution.  Examining Biblical scholarship I’ve seen that this particular text is ascribed in it’s ‘present’ form during the Babylonian Captivity, centuries after the events are suppose to have taken place.  Like Exodus than it appears less as an articulation of historical events, but as a usage of those events to historical purpose.  Again the theme being ‘If we uphold our end of the bargain, god will uphold his, if we don’t, bad stuff will happen’.  Also reinforcing the authority of Moses and the Priesthood in the person of Aaron and his descendants, as well as the Levites.

The Text, way beyond even Leviticus, shows it’s historical markers as to being written by a particular people.  The mass murder of the midian’s is held out as an exemplary action, the fault laid agains the Israeli men for not than slaughter all the male children and non-virgin women as well before taking the virgin women and girls as slaves.  I’m not sure at the intent of the initial moral message… perhaps something in regards the assimilation of your enemies?  Regardless it comes across horrifically to modern sensibilities, and squarely places it among other Bronze-Age texts which place victory over ones enemies as a moral good.

Apart from what Numbers is about, and who it was written for, how has it been held?  Until the three previous books numbers has no general spread into the popular consciousness save for the ’40 years in the wilderness’.  It’s clear by this point that ’40’ is obviously important in Hebrew numerology like say ‘4’ and ‘10,000’ are in Chinese, or 7 and 13 are in England.  There have been quite a few references to the number forty and this is just the most recent.  Given it’s content I’m not surprised it doesn’t come up more often.  To this casual reader, as I said, it came off as rather long and repetitive.  It didn’t have alot to say and I think at least in terms of Christianity, it’s content is some-what at odds with the messages propagated by later Church’s.  This is ‘old testament’ God in full act, but above and beyond the broad judgements of Genesis or the particular proscriptions of Leviticus.  I am some-what curious if Numbers gets quoted very much?  Any readers want to help me out with that?

Well with numbers out of the way we are hitting the end of the traditional Jewish Torah and shortly their will be alot more of these posts.  Deciding to do these by book has meant that these early ones have been pretty spaced out, but soon enough the books get alot shorter.  Still thought.  Next time; Deuteronomy…


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