Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Study Guide

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Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Numbers | Summary

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Summary

Numbers is often discussed in three sections. In the first (Chapters 1–10) the Israelites receive a final collection of instructions and regulations before they leave Mount Sinai. The second section (Chapters 11–25) concern problems during their journey. The final section (Chapters 26–36) provides further miscellaneous regulations and looks forward to the apportionment of the land of Canaan between the tribes of Israel.

Chapters 1–10

  • A census is taken of adult men from all the 12 tribes—the descendants of each of the 12 sons of Jacob—with a total count surpassing 600,000.
  • Many new regulations (supplementing those in Leviticus) are listed, including an arrangement for the camp of the Israelites, the duties of the priests, guidelines for special vows, determining guilt in cases of adultery, making offerings, and observing Passover.
  • Final instructions for departure are given, and the Israelites break camp and resume their journey.

Chapters 11–25

  • These chapters chronicle the people's wandering in the wilderness. Many short narratives relate problems encountered, the people's complaints, and Yahweh's solutions:
    • Lacking food, Yahweh provides quail to eat.
    • Lacking water, Moses and Aaron strike a rock with Aaron's staff, and water flows out from it to solve the crisis, but something about this displeases Yahweh who condemns them to die before entering the promised land. Aaron dies shortly after.
    • Venomous snakes plague the people, but Moses makes a bronze serpent that can cure the potentially lethal effects of the snakebites.
  • The people despair after spies report that the inhabitants of Canaan look too strong to be defeated and have fortified towns.
  • The people's faithlessness angers Yahweh, who declares that none of the adults living among the people shall enter the promised land except for Joshua and Caleb, two spies who maintained faith. The people must wander in the wilderness for 40 years until the rest of the generation perishes.
  • Various additional regulations are recorded, as well as a rebellion challenging the leadership of Moses and Aaron, which is put down.
  • Balak, the king of Moab, hires a prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam involuntarily blesses them instead.
  • The Israelites disobey Yahweh by marrying foreign Moabite and Midianite women and worshipping a local deity, prompting a devastating plague.

Chapters 26–36

  • Yahweh commands a second census, which reveals that only Moses, Caleb, and Joshua remain of the adult generation that was forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, but the adult male population of all the tribes together still tops 600,000.
  • Joshua is formally appointed to be Moses's successor as leader of the people.
  • Additional regulations for offerings, vows, and inheritance are provided.
  • The Israelites conquer Midian, providing land for the people east of the Jordan River.
  • Instructions for dividing the land of Canaan, yet to be conquered, among the tribes occupy the final chapters of Numbers.

Analysis

The contents of the book of Numbers are remarkably diverse. Unlike Leviticus, which effectively pauses the narrative progression of the Torah while listing large blocks of legal material and cultic regulations, Numbers intersperses narrative and nonnarrative sections throughout. The wide variety of material in Numbers provides revealing glimpses of the diversity of religious practices in ancient Israel and its environs.

The case of the woman accused of adultery in Numbers 5 describes a kind of trial by ritual/ordeal with magical overtones. Presented before the altar of Yahweh, the woman must swear to her innocence and drink the "water of bitterness," in which the ink of a written curse has been washed. If she is guilty, the curse causes some sort of physical harm to the woman, possibly a miscarriage. This ritual is reminiscent of other trials by "ordeal" known from the ancient Near East, such as the river ordeal mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi. In cases where accusations could not be proven, an individual would jump in the river. Survival proved innocence, while drowning indicated guilt.

The portrayal of Balaam in Numbers 22–24 as a professional prophet reflects the broader practice of prophecy in the ancient Near East. Numerous references to prophets and diviners working in the service of political rulers are found in ancient texts from Mesopotamia and Syria. At the archaeological site of Deir Alla, located on the east side of the Jordan River valley in modern Jordan, inscriptions written on plastered walls were found that also mention a person named Balaam described as a "seer" or prophet. These inscriptions can be securely dated to the 8th century BCE, and suggest that this portion of Numbers is portraying a known figure of that time period.

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