Numbers Part One: Deep Dive

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| DR KYLE KEIMER

The book of Numbers is a challenging mish-mash of material. But this mish-mash is full of layer upon layer of meaning. As one gets into the book various patterns start to appear, but these are not mutually exclusive nor are they wholly related. How the book is structured can fall along any of the following lines:

1. By Geography:

    1:1-10:10 In Sinai (modern-day Egypt)

    10:11-22:1 Near Kadesh Barnea (modern-day Egypt)

    22:2-36:13 At the Plains of Moab (modern-day central Jordan)

2. By Generation:

1-25 The generation who came out of Egypt and dies in the wilderness due to their disobedience and rebellion

26-36 The generation born in the Wilderness and who enter the “Promised” Land

When we read about the two generations of Israelites in the book of Numbers, we see that each underwent a census, and interestingly, the type of material recorded in Numbers is roughly mirrored in each generation as can be seen in the chart below. The parallelism we see here adds to the author’s theology and heightens the tension in the story. Imagine reading Numbers for the first time. You wouldn’t know what was about to happen any more than you would if you were reading a mystery novel. The author of Numbers uses specific literary devices and structures to draw us into the story. Parallelism is one way to highlight both connection between what has come before and what comes next, and to heighten tension. We are left wondering, “will the second generation live up to their end of the covenant (see below), or will they suffer the same fate as the first generation?” Will their journey and experiences be characterized by complaining and rebellion over things large and small (i.e., they want meat to eat, not just miraculous bread from heaven—manna, Num 11:1-14), or will they submit themselves to God and humbly trust in His guidance even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds?

 
TABLE1
 

3. By Process (preparation, journey/failure, preparation)

    1-10 Preparation to move from Sinai to Canaan

    11-25 Journeying to Canaan, with grumbling, failure, and rebellion

    26-36 Preparation to inherit Canaan, the land of the Canaanites and Amorites (see Deut 1:7)

4. By Action, Speeches, and Laws

 
TABLE2
 

Reading the book along each of these lines will give us a different perspective of the material and the point(s) that the author is trying to make (additional, more nuanced distinctions are discussed in various commentaries but see the New Bible Commentary and/or Alexander 2012 for good overviews). And while various points can be drawn out, the one related thread that unifies them all is relationship. God wants to be in a relationship with Israel (and ultimately, us). And the thing is, they have agreed to be in such a relationship (Ex 24:3). Yet, they fall short on their part. Despite this, God remains consistent. And because he made covenants with Abraham (Gen 15:5-6, 7, 18; 17:1-2, 4, 6-8, 10-11; including earlier promises: Gen 12:2-3, 7;13:14-16), he keeps these promises even when people do their best to get in the way (cf. Joseph and his brothers, Gen 45).

The book of Numbers relates God’s faithfulness to His promises to Abraham, particularly in that He will be the God of the Israelites and that they will inherit the land of Canaan. Recognizing the themes of relationship and inheritance opens up the book of Numbers for us. It allows us to see God’s grace in that He gave a sacrificial system whereby the Israelites could atone for their sins and remain in relationship with Him (He even makes it easy for them in Num 21:8-9; all they have to do is look at the bronze serpent erected on the pole and they will live. This image is where we get the caduceus so recognizable on many hospital emblems today, and it is a prefiguring of Christ on the cross in the NT). And it moves us geographically closer to the land of Canaan; Israel is perched on the border, looking over the Jordan Valley into Canaan by the close of the book. We must continue on to Deuteronomy to see how Moses, who, in a series of speeches that walk the Israelites back through their history and relationship with God, adjures Israel to stick to their covenant agreement with God. By looking backward and remembering what has come before, Moses and the Israelites prepare for what comes next with confidence.

The book of Numbers, and Leviticus before it, are often minimally utilized today. Perhaps this is because of the seemingly random structure of the book, or because of the numerous laws. But, the book of Hebrews in the NT draws heavily upon these two books in particular in illustrating the nature and purpose of Jesus Christ. Without a solid understanding of Leviticus and Numbers, we stand to miss the significance of why Jesus did what he did.

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Dr Kyle Keimer

Dr Keimer is a Lecturer in the Archaeology of Ancient Israel. He received a B.A. in anthropology from the Ohio State University, an M.A. from Wheaton College in Biblical Archaeology, and a Ph.D. from UCLA in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, with a specialization in the archaeology of the southern Levant. He was both the George A. Barton Fellow and an E.C.A. Fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

Dr Keimer has excavated remains from the Middle Bronze Age to the Ottoman period in Israel and Cyprus, digging at: Hazor, Beersheba, Jaffa, Khirbet Qeiyafa, Caesarea Maritima, and Idalion. In addition to excavating, he has led numerous study tours in Israel with a focus on the historical geography of the land. His research interests include ancient Near Eastern warfare and its relationship to geopolitical and socioeconomic developments, historical geography, state formation in the ancient Near East, and the Hebrew Bible, in particular the Pentateuch and the book of Isaiah.

Bibliography

Alexander, T. Desmond, 2012, From Paradise to the Promised Land: an Introduction to the Pentateuch, 3rd Edition (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, MI).

Carson, D.A., France, R. T., Motyer, J. A., and Wenham, G. J. (eds.) 1994 The New Bible Commentary, 4th Edition (Inter-Varsity Press: London)

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