By the end of the book of Leviticus one is more than halfway through the Pentateuch. It seems a good spot to stop and briefly review what we have so far seen.
Looking back from the standpoint of the end of Leviticus, we can see that, broadly speaking, the Pentateuch is unfolding a continuous storyline. It ranges from creation through the crisis of the flood to the ancestors of Israel, thence to the emergence of Israel as a people, their deliverance from oppression in Egypt, the covenant with God at Sinai, and the construction of a portable sanctuary to enable Israel to worship their God on their journey from Sinai to the promised land.
We can also discern patterns in this storyline in which a sequence of themes or theological ideas recurs. The context may change (e.g., from individual ancestors to the people of Israel) but the recurring patterns are recognisable.
A prominent one is the repeated inability of human beings to respond appropriately to God’s initiatives. It begins with the garden story and reaches a classic example in the golden calf episode that follows God’s establishment of the covenant at Sinai.
Associated with this is another pattern; the text repeatedly claims that God is loyal even though human beings prove disloyal. In this pattern the theology of God’s mercy is to the fore. But, as we observed, this theology or idea of God rubs shoulders with another idea of God as the just judge who is intolerant of evil and who will punish evildoers, as exemplified in the flood story.
One could say that the Torah’s portrayal of God’s continued commitment to the chosen ones despite their failures is a signal that it favours the idea of a merciful God overall. But the judging God stands as a powerful and challenging counter theme.
Intriguingly, the Old Testament never spells out definitively how the two theologies are to be related. The reader is left, or invited, to ponder their relationship as part of the mystery that is God.
Story-telling in the Ancient Near East
If the Torah thus far has portrayed God as completely committed to Israel, what about its portrayal of non-Israelites? The book of Genesis paints quite a positive picture of Egyptian Pharoahs in 12:10-20 and in the story of Joseph and his brothers; similarly Abimelech the Philistine king is a decent chap in his dealings with Abraham and Isaac
In Exodus however, the Pharaoh is cast in a bad light so that he deserves everything he gets. God is portrayed in 17:16 promising unrelenting punishment of the Amalekites for daring to attack Israel; in contrast the text is kind and even deferential to Moses’ Midianite father-in-law and wife.
My preferred explanation of these varying portrayals is that they have been shaped to serve the plot of each story. Moreover, as normally minor characters in a story about Israelites, their characterisations tend to be one dimensional—good or bad.
When telling stories about good and evil in society someone, as we know, has to play the ‘bad guy’. The ancient Near East (Middle East in modern terms) was frequently a war zone and the violence of battle, the joy of victory, the suffering of defeat, were part and parcel of Israel and its neighbours’ lives.
Storytellers did not have to look far for suitable characters to enter their ‘bad guy’ repertoire: no doubt the neighbours at times saw Israel as the bad egg in their basket. In our politically correct age with its instant world media we are perhaps more aware of the impact of national and religious propaganda.
Perhaps this is why in many movies aliens from space now play the role of the traditional ‘bad guys’.
The Torah as Inviting Thought
Despite the images of violence that modern readers may find distasteful, we have seen that ancient Israelite storytellers were sophisticated and subtle operators.
They were capable of powerful characterisations and scene-setting with an amazing economy of words; they were nimble at dodging around things that could ruin their storyline; they were able teachers who communicated just enough to engage and challenge their listeners.
The Torah is more an invitation to think than the imposition of thought.
Ancient Israel’s legislators were equally skilled, able to shape law texts to play a key catechetical or ‘Torah’ function.
As scholars have long debated, were the law texts meant to function as state legislation, as theological or catechetical treatises, or perhaps both?
Disparate Material Combined in the Torah
Finally, as we look back from the vantage point of Leviticus, it is worth noting how the Torah at times combines quite disparate and even conflicting material.
This is evident in the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1-3, the two versions combined in the flood story, the two covenants with Abraham in Genesis 15 and 17, the two versions of the deliverance at the sea in Exodus 14.
The construction of one overall storyline enabled Israel’s storytellers to combine within this ‘framework’ a variety of theologies and traditions.
It is a testament to their ingenuity.
Earlier critical scholarship described the various traditions as Yahwist (J, from the German spelling) and Elohist (E) after their preferred terms for God, Priestly (P), exemplified in Leviticus, and Deuteronomy (D). This was summed up as the famous JEDP hypothesis.
Current opinion tends to favour two principal theologies in the Pentateuch: Priestly and Deuteronomic. The shifting ground of critical scholarship should alert us that its theories about the formation and meaning of the Pentateuch are theories, valuable but still theories. Nothing can be proved.
As well, the changes signal that these theories reflect the particular historical and cultural circumstances of the practitioners: until recently, mainly European and American men.
Each one views the text from a certain angle but inevitably fails to see the whole. It is what we call the subjective factor. This will limit my reading of the text, as it does all reading of texts. Keep this in mind as we begin to read the book of Numbers.
The Book of Numbers
In many ways Numbers is not an easy book to read and it has proved frustrating for modern critical study, interested in unearthing how it was composed. The first ten chapters with their long lists of ‘who’s who’ around the camp of Israel are not immediately engaging for most readers. On top of this, it contains stories in which God cuts a swathe through the rebellious people (the famous or infamous ‘murmuring in the wilderness’ stories). Not reassuring.
Adherents of the classic source hypothesis—that the Pentateuch is a combination of four independent sources from different times and locales (Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly and Deuteronomic)—found it difficult to identify them here. The German scholar, Martin Noth, lamented that the book of Numbers ‘lacks unity, and it is difficult to see any pattern in its construction’.
A more upbeat note is sounded by Mary Douglas who says there is a pattern in the book: narrative sections are normally followed by instruction (Torah).
This pattern can already be observed in the books of Exodus and Leviticus where narratives about the covenant at Sinai, the golden calf apostasy, and the construction of the sanctuary are each followed by instructions.
According to Douglas, this pattern is repeated several times in Numbers on a smaller scale. It can be seen, for example, in the first ten chapters:
Numbers 1-2 Narrative—about the census of the tribes and their position around sanctuary Numbers 3-4 Narrative—about the census of the Levites and Kohatites Numbers 5-6 Instructions—concerning various offences (5) and vows (6) Numbers 7-8 Narrative—about offerings/gifts and the special ‘offering’ of the Levites Numbers 9:1-14 Instructions—concerning the celebration of Passover Numbers 9:15-23 Narrative—about the guidance of the cloud Numbers:1-10 Instructions—concerning how and when the camp is to move Numbers 10:11-36 Narrative—about Israel ‘setting out’ for the promised land.
Another Proposed Division
The census of Israel may explain why the book is called ‘Arithmoi’ in Greek (Numbers). The Hebrew title is ‘bamidbar’ (‘in the wilderness’: perhaps a more appropriate one).
Denis Olson believes a major turning point in the book is the plague that strikes in Numbers 25.
As the census that is taken immediately afterwards in chapter 26 reveals, not one of those counted by Moses and Aaron at Sinai (i.e. in Numbers 1-2) is still alive: they have all perished in the wilderness as God promised they would because of their rebellion (cf. Num 14:26-35).
Only the loyal Caleb and Joshua survive.
Olson therefore divides the book into two main parts: the story of the rebellious Exodus generation in Numbers 1-25 and the story of the subsequent (conquest) generation in Numbers 26-36.
The smaller patterns observed by Douglas may help us find our way through these two major parts of the book.
One has to be careful about this sort of procedure. In a desire to ‘master’ the text we can force it to fit our structure and distort its meaning.
Fortunately, the Bible displays an uncanny ability to escape our clutches and reappear as puzzling and intriguing to the next generation of readers.
The Unfolding of Numbers
If we base ourselves on the work of Douglas and Olson, how does the book of Numbers unfold?
The first 10 chapters may be described as preparations for the journey to the land. The tribes are numbered and set in their places around the sanctuary; various instructions associated with this order are given , the sanctuary is dismantled, and the Israelite host sets out from Sinai.
The text is highly stylised, presenting Israel as the perfectly ordered and obedient community, perhaps in order to sharpen the contrast with what follows.
From Numbers 11 to the end of 14 we find a series of ‘murmuring stories’, of Israel and its leaders at odds with God and one another (a familiar Torah theme). It climaxes with God’s announcement in Num 14:26-35 that this rebellious generation will not see the promised land.
For Olson, this signals the high point or middle of the first part of the book. Douglas prefers to see the story of the Korah rebellion in Numbers 16-17 as pivotal.
Without trying to resolve their disagreement, we may note how both stories are followed by instructions (Numbers 15 and 18-19).
Numbers 20-21 tells further stories of Israelite rebellion (and even of Moses and Aaron’s failure in faith!) but these are now interspersed with stories of conquest of land east of Jordan—a distant signal of the conquest of the whole land that is to come?
The signal becomes clearer in the account of the foreign prophet Balaam in Numbers 22-24 who, despite the best efforts of his minders, prophesies blessing for all those who accept Israel’s destiny (a clear echo of Gen 12:3 in Num 24:9).
However, the rebellious generation must first pass away—as their apostasy in Numbers 25 makes abundantly clear. A plague conveniently removes them and the second major part of the book commences in chapter 26 with a census like the one taken in chapters 1-2.
In Numbers 27, Joshua is commissioned to replace Moses as leader when he dies. In line with Douglas’s pattern, instructions follow in Numbers 28-30; Numbers 31 narrates how revenge is taken on the Midianites for seducing Israel into apostasy in chapter 25, while Numbers 32 reports how the tribes of Reuben and Gad, contrary to what happened in Numbers 13-14, remain loyal rather than foment division.
This generation will not fail God or Moses. With Israel camped in the plains of Moab at Jordan’s edge, the journey to the land is almost over. Numbers 33 retraces the steps of the journey so far and the book draws to a close in chapters 34-36 with further instructions for Israel’s settlement and life in the land.
This overview reveals a more-or-less continuous storyline but a closer look is now needed, and so we will look at Numbers 1-10 next.
To begin our analysis of Numbers 1-10 it’s worth recalling the division of these chapters:
Numbers 1-2 Narrative—about the census and position of the tribes around sanctuary.
Numbers 3-4 Narrative—about the census of the Levites.
Numbers 5-6 Instructions—concerning various offences (5) and vows (6).
Numbers 7-8 Narrative—about offerings/gifts and the special ‘offering’ of the Levites.
Numbers 9:1-14 Instructions—concerning the celebration of Passover.
Numbers 9:15-23 Narrative—about the guidance of the cloud.
Numbers 10:1-10 Instructions—concerning how and when the camp is to move.
Numbers 10:11-36 Narrative—about Israel ‘setting out’ for the promised land.
There is a significant difference in the order of the tribes in chapters 1 and 2.
In the former, Reuben and Simeon, descendants of Jacob’s oldest sons, are numbered first as one would expect.
Notice too that this chapter is a census of warriors not worshippers (v. 3).
The text looks back to the sanctuary in Leviticus and forward to the conquest of the land.
In chapter 2, which describes the arrangement of the tribes around the sanctuary, Judah is listed first and located in the privileged spot, east, toward the sunrise.
The priestly tribe of Levi is numbered separately in chapters 3–4.
Why these differences?
Why these differences? Modern historical analysis would argue that Numbers was probably compiled in post-exilic Judah. This, plus the Judean ancestry of the Davidic dynasty led to it being given the privileged position.
However, another reason may be found in Genesis. When Jacob blesses his sons in Genesis 49, he curses Reuben for ‘defiling’ his bed (cf. 35:21) and Simeon and Levi for their violence in avenging Dinah (cf. 34:25-31).
Judah gets off to a bad start in Genesis 37-38 but redeems himself admirably in 44:18-34: this could explain why Jacob declares that the sceptre will always remain with his descendants (cf. 49:9-11).
The authors of Numbers ‘reveal’ the ‘fulfilment’ of these blessings/promises by giving Judah the top spot, by relegating the older brothers to an inferior position south of the sanctuary and by excluding Levi from becoming warriors and so from inheritance in the land.
Their vocation will be to serve the Lord in the sanctuary. To underline this, they are numbered and arranged separately in chapters 3-4 and the relationship between laity and clergy is symbolised in their spatial arrangement.
The two explanations are compatible. Religion and politics were no doubt influential in the production of the present text.
Instructions in Numbers 5-6
The instructions in Numbers 5-6 make some sense in this context. This well ordered and loyal community of Israel needs to be taught how to maintain order and loyalty.
Hence lepers need to be isolated to avoid contagion (5:1-4), one who wrongs another needs to make appropriate restitution (5:5-10), an accusation of adultery against a wife, something that could cause grave disorder, needs a procedure that will resolve it (5:11-31).
Chapter 6 shows that the Torah seeks to embrace not only the sick and sinful but also the deeply devoted. Those who take special vows (the nazirites) need guidance otherwise they too may damage the good order of the society.
The trial by ordeal in Numbers 5 is grim reading. Douglas thinks the accused woman may symbolise Israel (cf. Israel as God’s ‘unfaithful wife’ in Hosea) but this seems unlikely.
Significantly, there is no requirement in the Torah for a husband to undergo such a trial. The instructions end with the famous blessing in v. 22-27—good catechesis to end on a positive note!
Numbers 7-8 and 9:1-14
Numbers 7-8 and 9:1-14 provide the next set of narrative and instructions. In the earlier chapters, God instructed Moses to number and arrange the people in ‘perfect’ order.
Chapter 7 now tells how the tribes, on their own initiative, brought a ‘perfect’ number of offerings and gifts for God’s sanctuary. The well-ordered society is a completely loyal society.
Chapter 8 is devoted to the Levites who comprise a special ‘offering’ to God for a special service at the sanctuary. Note how this text distinguishes the offering or ordination of the ‘Levites’ from the Aaronide priesthood (cf. Leviticus).
The Levites belong to a lesser order and Numbers may reflect their demotion in the power struggles that took place during the post-exilic restoration (see the condemnation of Levites in Ezekiel 44:9-27 in favour of the Zadokites, another claimant to priestly status in the OT).
Numbers 9:1-14 is a set of instructions for Passover. The logic in this section is evident.
It begins in chapters 7 and 8 with an account of offerings brought to the sanctuary by the tribes: this is followed by instructions for the Levites who are to be completely consecrated to God.
The two chapters emphasise the complete commitment to God by both laity and clergy.
On the basis of this, the Passover legislated for in 9:1-14 can be fittingly celebrated.
Within the larger context, the Passover in Exodus 12 signaled Israel’s immanent deliverance from oppression.
This Passover in Numbers signals Israel’s immanent departure from Sinai for the promised land.
Numbers 9:15-23 and 10:1-36
The last narrative-instruction sequence comprises Numbers 9:15-23, a narrative about the guidance of the cloud, and 10:1-10, a set of instructions for the camp’s assembly and movement.
Both literary forms share the theme of the journey to the land. The cloud provides the assurance of God’s guidance on the journey through the wilderness; the trumpets serve to ensure that the vast, ordered camp follows God’s in an orderly way, both on the journey and in the land.
Numbers 10:11-36 describes the first stage of this journey. Note how it makes a general statement in vv. 11-12 and then fills in the details in the rest of the chapter.
This is a common technique in Hebrew narrative.
The refrains attributed to Moses in vv. 35-36 are about war and conquest: this first section of Numbers began with a census of warriors for conquest; it ends by resuming this theme.
This splendid order, so carefully established, will quickly unravel in the ‘murmuring stories’ in Numbers 11-15.
‘Murmuring’ in the Wilderness
One of the puzzling things about the book of Numbers is that we hardly hear of the great desert sanctuary again after chapter 10. The elaborate description of its erection, dismantling and journey occurs once.
Did the authors think that once was enough: to repeat the description would diminish the grandeur and impact of the sanctuary on the reader?
Would more text about the sanctuary clutter the following narratives that are about Israel’s journey to the land?
Is it a sign, as some hold, that Numbers is a loose collection of once independent pieces?
The text does not tell us why. Readers are invited to make up their mind and their images of God may be a factor—clear and ordered or elusive and mysterious, or both?
The stories of Israel’s ‘murmuring in the wilderness’, as they have come to be called, form a sharp contrast to the order and purpose of chapters 1-10.
Murmuring and rebellion cause deep fractures in the well-ordered society. We have four episodes or stories of murmuring in chapters 11-14 (11:1-3; 11:4-35; 12; 13-14). If we take them together, we can trace a growing divide between Moses and his people.
Given that Moses is God’s representative and ‘voice’ to the people, the rift between the people and Moses is a sign of a deeper rift between the people and God.
The stories are followed by instructions in Numbers 15 that relate to this crisis. Here will look at Numbers 11-12.
The 'Murmuring' Stories
Numbers 11 contains two accounts of ‘murmuring’. The first three verses are a brief report that serves as a kind of outline of what is to come. There is a complaint (unspecified), God’s reaction, Moses’ intercession, and a resolution. It constitutes a bare skeleton that could be fleshed out in oral performance. Numbers 11:4-35 turns the basic outline into a full-blown story with a number of themes.
In 11:4-6 the people compare God’s manna unfavourably with what they claim to have eaten in Egypt. In short, they were better off as slaves of Egyptians than as free children of God. But, nowhere in the book of Exodus are we told that the people enjoyed such things. I therefore read this as an ironic comment on how inordinate desire distorts one’s perception, a theme first aired in the garden story. What is good (from God) is seen as evil and vice-versa. A similar theme runs through the Gospels. The Torah is aimed at correcting such distorted vision through its stories and instructions.
A second key theme in this story is the divide between Moses and the people (the brief first episode sets this up by portraying Moses in his customary role as Israel’s loyal intercessor). The people have now become a burden that Moses is unable to bear (vv. 10-15). One senses a touch of Jewish humour here with Moses’ complaint couched in the imagery of motherhood. Men, even of Moses’ calibre, are incapable of being mothers but God, of course, is not gender challenged and can provide a solution.
Moses’ spirit will be shared among 70 men (so many to do a mother’s job). There is some awkwardness as the text switches between the people’s complaint and the appointment of these elders, suggesting that two stories have been woven together here. Despite this, the overall storyline seems clear enough.
Moses is instructed to register the elders and his choice is confirmed by God’s bestowal of the spirit. This, plus the transitory nature of their ecstatic experience, indicates that they remain Moses’ delegates, under his authority. Debates about prophetic authority and its relationship to Moses may lie behind this text. Moses’ attitude to Eldad and Medad, who did not assemble with the others, reveals his opposition to discord in the community, a telling contrast to the people’s murmuring.
At this point, the story returns to the people for an ironic ending to their murmuring. God provides a superabundance of meat (quails) but their greedy reaction shows no change to their distorted perception of things. They are punished by plague; not the same word as in Exodus but a connection is hard to resist. The former slaves have become as bad as their former owner.
An alert reader would notice that elements in Numbers 11 echo similar ones in Exodus 16 (manna and quails). This provides a good example of how ancient authors were able to put valued traditions to several uses. The story of complaint about lack of food in Exodus 16, unlike Numbers 11, does not end in punishment.
The difference is probably due to what happens between the two texts: the covenant at Sinai. The people committed themselves to a relationship in which there are rights and responsibilities. Abuse of their responsibility to be loyal and trusting disciples of YHWH brings judgement and retribution.
In Exodus 16, the merciful image of God is to the fore; in Numbers 11 it is the just judge. The logic of the arrangement (I am presuming some overall order) requires punishment for the offence, in this case the plague.
Numbers 12 deepens the sense of division with the story of Miriam and Aaron’s challenge to Moses’ authority. Conflict now embroils Israel’s leadership. God intervenes to back Moses and the crisis is resolved. But, we are left with the images of Miriam the prophet (cf. Exod 15:20) stricken with leprosy and Aaron the priest whose intercession on her behalf fails. Not good omens.
As a final comment on Numbers 12, we can note how historical analysis argues that it deals with the often vexed question of authority by ranking prophets and priests in relation to Moses, who embraces but transcends the categories of prophet, priest, lawgiver, and judge.
Linked to this is the ranking of Torah in relation to prophecy. The Hebrew canon gives priority to Torah with Prophecy its authentic interpretation.
The Definitive ‘Murmuring Story’
Numbers 13-14, the famous ‘spy story’, constitutes what we might call the definitive example of Israel’s murmuring in the wilderness.
The relationship between God and the people, between Moses and the people, becomes so divisive that the whole ‘exodus generation’ is sentenced to die outside the promised land.
Only the loyal Joshua and Caleb will live to see it. Note how in such stories some good person or group survives the crisis of evil to carry the story forward.
A classic example is the flood story: it is a storyteller’s way of conveying the conviction that good can endure the worst evil and emerge victorious. It is also practical, if you want to continue your story you need survivors.
The issue that triggers the crisis is the conflicting reports the spies give when they return from their reconnoitre of the land. The bad spies claim it is an evil land that ‘devours its inhabitants’ (13:32).
This amounts to a repudiation of God on two counts. They reject God as Israel’s saviour by implying that God is doing evil by leading it from Egypt to the promised land. They also reject God as creator by claiming that the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ (cf. Exod 3:8; Num 13:27) is an evil land that devours its inhabitants.
The good spies, Joshua and Caleb, give a good report but the people, in line with other murmuring stories, make a mess of things. They side with the bad spies, they complain, they reject Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb and even threaten their lives (14:1-10).
As a story composed and edited in Israel, it is incredibly self-critical, confessing that Israel rejected the great gift of the land at the very moment God was giving it to them.
When faith goes awry it can become awfully blind.
One can trace the basic outline of the murmuring type of story here—the complaint, God’s reaction, Moses’ intervention, and resolution.
However, probably because of what is at stake, this story expends considerable effort wrestling with justice and mercy and the role of Moses as intercessor.
These issues are tackled in the extended exchange between Moses and God in 14:11-35.
The exchange takes place at the ‘tent of meeting’ that recalls the same tent in Exodus 33 rather than the grand desert sanctuary. Evidence of different traditions in the Pentateuch.
The significance of this link may lie in the fact that Exodus 33 forms part of the story of the golden calf; Israel’s most serious sin to this point.
There, Moses successfully interceded on Israel’s behalf. Here, Moses again pleads for his people and in v. 18 appeals for support to the ‘code’ of divine conduct that God enunciated in the wake of the calf story (Exod 34:6-7).
If you compare the two you will find that the Numbers’ version lacks some of the Exodus statements about God’s mercy but retains most of the ones about God’s punishment of the guilty—even the children of the guilty to the third and fourth generation.
God's justice and mercy
In v. 20, God accedes to Moses’ plea and forgives the rebellious people, but then goes on to announce that they will not live to enter the land. This looks somewhat odd to us but it is part of the overall theological argument unfolding in the story. God had earlier resolved to destroy the rebellious generation, in the words of Moses, ‘all at one time’ (14:15).
However, as a result of Moses’ intercession God now relents and sentences the rebels instead to 40 years’ wandering in the wilderness until they die (presumably of natural causes). The justice of God is thus tempered with mercy.
In 14:33, God states that the wicked generation’s children will be shepherds in the wilderness for 40 years until their parents’ demise. Punishment will affect only one generation of children and not to the third or fourth generation as provided for in 14:18.
God is portrayed here applying the divine code of conduct in a merciful manner. It may not be a theology that gladdens every heart but, given Israel’s theologians had to incorporate the tradition of 40 years’ wilderness wandering and a change of generations, this was how they integrated it with the ‘code’ or Torah enunciated in Exod 34:6-7 (a teaching that recurs in a number of places in the OT).
After the long exchange between God and Moses, the story moves to its conclusion.
The wicked spies pay for their sins in 14:36-38; their deaths serve as a sign for the people of the fate awaiting them.
Either spooked by this into desperate action, or as a sign of repentance (in v. 40 they confess ‘we have sinned’), the people proclaim their commitment to the original plan of Numbers 13.
They hope that this may move God to cancel the sentence. Moses warns against it and his warning is vindicated when they are defeated.
Only Moses can intercede for the people and his intercession in this case has been played out. God’s word is final.
Numbers 15, the collection of instructions that follows the spy story, is a sign that God’s purpose will not be thwarted by human sin.
Instructions for the worship of God in the land are given in much the same way as in Leviticus and the first 10 chapters of Numbers.
The overall storyline is resumed: the land will eventually be settled and so further provisions are made for the worship of God there.
Towards the end of the chapter, the Israelites are instructed to sew blue cords on their garments to remind them, as the Hebrew puts it ‘not to spy/lust after your own heart and eyes as you whore after them’ (i.e., the objects of your heart and eyes).
These are the same two verbs used in 14:33-34 to condemn Israel’s rebellion.
Thus the instructions also serve as a countermeasure against a repeat of the disastrous rebellion of Numbers 13-14.
The clergy stir up trouble
In this section of the book of Numbers, four chapters are devoted to sorting out the strife that grips the clergy (the house of Levi). Chapters 16-17 tell the story of ‘murmuring’ and its resolution; chapters 18-19 provide legislation that seems designed to avoid such strife.
Although the primary interest of these chapters is in the house of Levi, both narrative and legislation cleverly combine sacred and civil by weaving in references to the larger community of Israel.
The interweaving is signalled right at the beginning, with its mention of Korah, son of Levi (sacred), and Dathan and Abiram, descendants of Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob (civil).
It is quite likely that the present text was assembled from a variety of traditions, the priestly tradition no doubt being one of them. As I noted earlier, scholars debate whether this or the preceding spy story provides the climactic account of the so-called ‘murmuring in the wilderness’.
Readers will make their choices but we need to be careful about imposing our ideas of order on the text: perhaps this is not a matter that concerned the editors of the Torah.
Division amongst rival groups
The murmuring story follows the basic pattern identified in preceding examples: there is the complaint, the reaction of Moses, God’s intervention, punishment of the offenders and conclusion of the story.
However, as with preceding examples, the basic pattern has been tweaked to incorporate a number of issues.
Chief among these is conflict within the house of Levi. The history of Old Testament priesthood is obscure but there is enough evidence to suggest that, at various times, conflict developed between rival groups.
Our story reflects disputes between Aaronides (descendants of Aaron) and other non-Aaronide Levites, represented by Korah and his kind. It claims that the priestly office is reserved for the descendants of Aaron.
A story projected back to the foundations of Israel has the ‘authority’ to settle such disputes. It is a narrative form of instruction, of Torah.
The number of psalms attributed ‘to the sons of Korah’ in the Psalter suggests that this clan, despite being completely ‘destroyed’ in our story, had a long and distinguished career as temple musicians.
Such inconsistencies are not a problem for a storytelling culture where the emphasis is on the persuasive power of a story, not its historical accuracy.
Note that Ezekiel 44:25 gives the priestly office to the descendants of Zadok, another Levite who is linked to Aaron in 1 Chron 6:53.
The censers of insence
The test that the narrator has Moses devise to resolve the dispute is well suited to the storyline. It’s feasible to line up 250 clergy swinging their censers and watch what happens, whereas to carry out a test via a full liturgy is too impractical.
The introduction of the censers early in the story also prepares for Aaron’s liturgical intervention later on (16:46-50). Furthermore, incense provides a fitting symbol of ‘holiness’ (what is set apart for God), a key issue in the story.
Surprisingly, the censer test disappears for a bit as the dramatic scene in which the earth swallows up the rebels takes over (cf. the complaint in 13:32 that the land devours its inhabitants).
Here apparently, the sacred and civil storylines converge, as is shown by the way Korah initially sets the ‘whole congregation’ against Moses and Aaron (16:19), only to have Moses successfully intercede for the people in the following verses so that God spares them.
Hence, only the civil ringleaders, Dathan and Abiram, and their clans accompany Korah to Sheol: justice and mercy have, in the plot of this story, been satisfied.
The censers reappear, albeit a little late, in 16:35 and in the following verses where they are hammered into altar coverings to remind Israel of the folly of such challenges (another piece of Torah).
Aaron's unique status
Aaron, the high priest and a key figure in the dispute, has so far played no active role—for a strategic reason.
The narrator now crafts a scene that showcases his unique priestly status and intercessory powers.
According to 16:41-50, the whole congregation rebels in the wake of Korah’s demise and Aaron is the one who, at Moses’ bidding, saves them.
Unlike Korah and his clan, Aaron’s incense is efficacious and halts the plague. The message or Torah is clear.
However, as we have seen beforehand, OT storytellers are fond of the number 3. We have had the destruction of Aaron’s challengers in 16:23-35 and the demonstration of Aaron’s priestly powers in 16:41-50.
In Numbers 17, the narrator devises a further test or sign to underscore the unique status of Aaron and his line. Each of the 12 tribes places an initialled staff before God and Aaron’s alone buds and bears fruit (a burst of life in the wake of death).
Like the bronze censers, Aaron’s staff will be kept to deter rebellion against the divinely established order of Numbers 1-10 (a third piece of Torah).
Note in that order the arrangement of the Reubenites in the outer circle with the Levites occupying the inner circle.
The two chapters of narrative are followed by two chapters of legislation. The thrust of Chapter 18 is clear enough.
It seeks to secure the distinction between the Aaronide priesthood and the larger tribe of Levites by outlining their respective rights and responsibilities. Torah as legislation backs up Torah as story and vice-versa: the story invites the kind of legislation that will enable the community to avoid such conflict.
The relationship of Chapter 19 to the preceding is however, not so immediately evident.
It involves the ritual slaughter of a red heifer that is then burned to ashes. The red may symbolise blood (life). The ashes are to be used for cleansing those who have become ritually unclean through contact with the dead.
Avoiding such contact was crucial for priests; if they became unclean they could not officiate at the liturgy.
On the one hand therefore, this legislation seems designed to safeguard the ritual status of priests.
On the other hand, it is a rite that any clean Israelite can administer. In this area therefore, the people do not need a priest in order to become ‘holy’.
Numbers 20-24: Israel Emerges from the Wilderness
We are told back in Numbers 10:12 that the first stop on Israel’s journey from Sinai to the promised land was the wilderness of Paran. Only now in 20:1 do they move on from there to the wilderness of Zin.
The implication is that Israel’s ‘murmuring in the wilderness’ (Numbers 11-19) brought progress to a thudding halt: one can see this desert journey as a powerful symbol of another challenging journey—of faith in God.
Although the people resume their march in Numbers 20-24, they are destined by God’s decree to die in the wilderness. They will not see the land; their children will. Two key themes related to this are here woven together: God’s purpose for Israel and just punishment of the wicked.
Our biblical authors have combined these themes via a deft juxtaposition of murmuring stories, journeys, accounts of victory and battle songs, and promises (via the foreign prophet Balaam in chs. 22-24).
The two themes are neatly juxtaposed in the opening verse of ch. 20 which reports the resumption of the journey (positive) and the death of Miriam the prophet (negative). She is the first of the trio to die outside the land.
The Failure of Leadership
Miriam’s death is followed by a murmuring story, triggered by lack of water. At first glance, it looks to be a re-run of Exodus 15:22-26 and 17.
But a crucial difference here is that Moses and Aaron fail both God and the people. As if to intensify the focus on the failure of leadership, the narrator bypasses the expected motif of punishment for the rebellious people. It is Moses and Aaron who must now bear the same sentence of death in the wilderness as the people.
As noted before, the Old Testament rarely allows its leaders, revered though they are, to escape our flawed human condition.
Moses’ abortive attempt to pass through Edom (20:14-21) provides a further illustration of the point. The negotiations are Moses’ initiative, not God’s, and he is rebuffed.
There is an intriguing allusion here to the fraught relationship between Jacob and Esau/Edom in Genesis. According to Num 20:22-29, God has a different agenda to that of Moses, namely the death of Aaron on Mt. Hor and the transfer of his priesthood to Eleazar.
Aaron’s death is a prelude to Moses’ own death on Mt. Nebo in Deuteronomy 34. Deuteronomy takes a somewhat softer line on Moses, claiming that God was angry with him because of the people’s failings rather than his own (Deut 1:37; 3:26; 4:21).
Murmuring against God and Moses
Things seem to improve in Num 21:1-3 which recounts a successful counter-attack against marauding Canaanites, presumably because this time the people (not Moses!) ask for God’s help first. Hormah, where they suffered their first defeat (14:45), becomes the site of their first victory in this section of text.
The positive journey and conquest themes surge to the fore as Israel presses on towards the land and, on the way, conquers the east Jordan kings, Sihon of the Amorites and Og of Bashan (21:21-35).
But, just to make sure we do not forget the accompanying theme of punishment for the wicked, vv. 4-9 tell one final story of murmuring in the wilderness (there are 7 in Numbers). The stock gripes about water and food are there but the element that sets this story apart is the complaint ‘against God and against Moses’ (v. 5).
This is the only time the people have murmured directly against God. It vindicates the sentence of death proclaimed against this generation.
But, perhaps more importantly, the story also provides an occasion to remind readers about important attributes of God such as justice, mercy and transforming power. God’s justice comes in the form of fiery serpents that have the desired effect of bringing about repentance (the Hebrew term for fiery is ‘seraph’ from which comes the later term for an order of angels).
God’s mercy towards a repentant people is then revealed through the motif of the bronze serpent. This in turn shows how God’s transforming power can turn what is death-dealing and repulsive into its opposite.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus draws a parallel between the life-giving serpent and his own life-giving death on the cross.
Comic relief in the Plains of Moab
In Num 22:1 the people arrive in the plains of Moab (just east of the Jordan) and there they stay until the end of the Pentateuch. There are three principal campsites on Israel’s journey to the promised land: Sinai, the wilderness of Paran, the plains of Moab.
Relevant stories and legislation are clustered around each of these key sites. A fascinating story set in the plains of Moab is the failed attempt by king Balak of Moab to get Balaam the prophet to curse Israel (Numbers 22-24).
It occurs just before the demise of the exodus generation in ch. 25. Balaam’s prophecies look beyond this to what Israel is destined to achieve in the conquest and occupation of the land.
Also, as Israel nears journey’s end, the text endorses the promise of blessing given to ancestor Abraham—24:9 is almost a direct quote from Genesis 12:3.
In classic storytelling style, Numbers 22-24 unfolds in cycles of three: Balaam’s three encounters with God (22:1-40); Balak’s three attempts to have Israel cursed, foiled by Balaam’s three blessings (22:41- 24:12). To drive home the message there is a fourth and final blessing in 24:15-24.
So, completely unbeknown to the Israelites in the story, a foreign prophet proclaims to foreigners that this unlikely mob will be a source of divine blessing for all who acknowledge its God-given mission. The contrast with the bleak, intra-Israelite, murmuring stories could hardly be more dramatic.
As if to lighten things a little, the story provides some comic relief, albeit at the expense of the foreigners involved—there is the idiotic Moabite king, the (initially) dopey prophet, and his talking donkey. The role of this ‘dumb’ animal is to show just how dumb human beings can be, even one on a mission from God!
Out with the Old, In with the New
Exodus 32-34 tells the story of Israel’s apostasy to the golden calf at Mt. Sinai. It was not a good beginning for a people about to journey with God to the promised land. Their end is just as bad. According to Numbers 25, this same generation, camped on the edge of the land, once more abandons YHWH for the worship of Baal, a Canaanite fertility god.
The two apostasies form a frame around the sorry tale of Israel in the wilderness. Their message? Disloyalty to God above all things is what brings Israel undone. Chapter 25 is the last story about the failed exodus generation and marks the end of the first part of the book of Numbers.
The text of ch 25 is complex with a number of interwoven issues. God’s initial command in v. 4 that Moses impale all the chiefs is not carried out. Instead, Phinehas the priest neatly impales one copulating couple and this halts a rampaging plague (a common motif in murmuring stories).
For his zeal, this grandson of Aaron who disgraced himself at Sinai is granted a perpetual priesthood. God then orders Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites who seduced Israel: again, the command is not carried out, at least not until ch. 31.
One senses in this complex of motifs a certain diminution of Moses in favour of the new generation, represented by Phinehas.
Like the Moses of old, he can intervene successfully to stay God’s punishing wrath, maintaining the at times tense balance between justice and mercy; like the Moses of old, he is not corrupted by the people’s sin.
God still speaks to and through Moses but the signs of a fading generation and leadership are there.
Moses is instructed to take a second census in ch. 26 and in vv. 63-65 we learn the reason why. Not one of those in the original census of Numbers 1-4 has survived, except the loyal Caleb and Joshua.
God’s sentence against the exodus generation in Numbers 14 has been fully realised: a telling lesson for the new generation.
The story of Zelophehad's daughters and corresponding legislation
We have seen in preceding chapters how narrative or story is followed by legislation. The same pattern can be observed in 27:1-11, where new legislation follows the census that ‘reveals’ the emergence of a new generation.
The daughters of Zelophehad raise the issue of who inherits if one of the deceased generation has no male heir.
Their request and the subsequent change in legislation have possession of the land in mind.
Notice how in a storytelling culture there is no embarrassment about having the character God concede a point and change a law accordingly. This gives it authority.
At the end of the book, the daughters’ situation is again invoked to protect the inheritance of future generations in the land.
The account of the new generation is effectively framed by laws about life in the land: a positive outlook that contrasts sharply with the demise of the exodus generation.
Moses' place in the continuing story
Moses of course remains in the story and needs to be there until the end of Deuteronomy. But the text keeps his ‘sentence’ before our eyes at two points.
The first is 27:12-23 where his impending death reveals the need for a successor. Like the daughters of Zelophehad, Moses points out the need to God and God takes steps to meet it.
In this way Joshua, Moses’ successor, receives divine legitimation: God chose him, not Moses. The second is the battle against the Midianites in ch. 31, the order for which was given in 25:16-18.
The new generation’s first victory is to be Moses’ last. Here the figure of Moses is again somewhat diminished. He castigates the troops for failing to impose fully the holy war ban on the Midianites, but this requirement occurs only later in Deuteronomy 20.
There is no report of Moses’ command being implemented and Eleazar the priest seems to upstage him with instructions of his own about disposal of war booty (31:21-24).
God intervenes in vv. 25-30 but makes no mention of executing women and children. Only the very oblique report in v. 35 may hint at something. Is Moses being overruled?
Another puzzle in this chapter is the negative portrait of Balaam (cf. 31:8, 16), a sharp contrast to Numbers 22-24 and evidence of variant traditions. A measure of the theology driving the story of the marvellous new generation is that there are no casualties in the war: in fact no one dies between chs. 26 and 36!
Victory over the Midianites is followed, as you might guess, by the theme of possession of land (ch. 32). In this case, the Reubenites and Gadites desire to settle in east-Jordan territory conquered in Numbers 21.
Moses’ attitude is similar to ch. 31: he castigates the two tribes as a ‘brood of sinners’ (32:14) who will repeat the disastrous divisions of Numbers 13-14.
Again, we have a sense of Moses being somewhat out of touch. This is a new and loyal generation: three times the tribes proclaim their loyalty to God and Israel and, as we know, three times in the Bible proves it (cf. vv. 16-19, 25-27, 31-32).
There will be no repeat of the previous generation’s folly.
The structure of Numbers 26-36 has two chapters at the centre that deal with conquest and possession by the new generation (chs. 31-32), with framing chapters in 27 and 36 that echo them.
Each set of texts contrasts, either directly or by implication, the old generation with the new.
This back and forward-looking technique can also be seen in the intervening chapters. Numbers 28-30 recalls legislation in the book of Leviticus but with a focus on festivals and vows (expressions of loyalty).
Numbers 33 also glances back, providing a list of the way-stations on Israel’s journey.
For its part, Numbers 34-35 is more forward looking, drawing the boundaries of the land to be conquered, making special provision for the Levites, and establishing cities of refuge to prevent the kind of revenge killings that would fatally divide Israel.
Copyright © Mark O'Brien Catholic Institute of Sydney