Commments & Feedback Welcome:


Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament

Jim Moyers


The name of this book in the Christian OT comes from the several censuses which it records.  But in Tanak it is “In the Wilderness,” which better describes it as a record of the forty years between the departure from Egypt and the arrival in the Promised Land of Canaan.  The structure of the book, like the rest of the Pentateuch, is a bit of a jumble.  Narratives are mixed, without transitionary explanation or apparent order, with chapters describing census counts (which can seem endless and way too detailed for anyone who isn't a dedicated biblical scholar trying to untangle the mystery behind the text), legal matters, detailed descriptions of the Levites in relation to the tabernacle and their cultic duties, the camp layout with the tabernacle at the center (unlike Exodus where it is outside the camp), and plans for occupying Canaan.  The narrative concludes with the conquest of several nations on the border of Canaan, the settlement of two tribes outside of Canaan on the eastern side of the Jordan River, and preparations for the invasion of Canaan followed by what seem to have been left-over legal matters tacked on to the end of the book.

Chapter twenty one contains three songs/psalms celebrating events that occurred as the Israelites neared the Promised Land.  One cites “The Book of the Wars of Yahve.”  Another leads off with “Therefore the ballad singers say, . . .”  I wonder what else was in that lost book and what other songs those ballad singers sang.  What other now unknown sources did the compilers of the OT use?  Much OT scholarship seems to revolve around attempts to reconstruct sources which at best can be no more than hypotheses.  So much of the past will always be unknown.

I was surprised to discover that about thirty-five of the forty years “in the wilderness” were spent at an oasis.  In addition the Israelites were at Sinai for almost a year.  So they weren’t actually wandering about the Sinai peninsula for the full forty years.

There are repeated counts of various groupings of males above twenty years of age, “every man able to go to war.”  Exodus’ improbable total of more than 600,000 is twice repeated.  The Levities (22,000 - another doubtful figure) were counted separately in relation to their sacred duties.  Aaron and his sons presided as priests over sacrifices in the tabernacle; the rest of the male members of the tribe of Levi were assigned various tasks involved in transporting, setting up, and maintaining the tabernacle.  First-born sons from the other tribes belonged to Yahve, but were redeemed by an equal number of Levites who substituted for them.  As there were more first-borns in the other tribes than there were male Levites, the leftover first-borns had to be redeemed via an offering.

It is clear that women didn’t have the same legal rights as men.  A vow made by a woman could be cancelled if her father or husband objected; but no one could change a vow made by a man (30).  A trial by ordeal was prescribed for a woman accused of adultery (5:11-28); there is no corresponding ordeal for a man so accused.  


Much of the narrative in Numbers involves repeated instances of complaining about the hardships of life in the wilderness, repeating the same accusations of being brought out of Egypt to die that occur in Exodus.  In response Yahve sent plagues of various kinds that killed many of the rebellious people.  In one instant Moses reached the limit of his patience and asked Yahve to kill him so he would no longer have to deal with such difficult people (11:10).  

Spies sent to check out Canaan came back overwhelmed by what they saw.  Of the twelve spies all but two, Caleb and Joshua, reported that the inhabitants of Canaan (the mighty Nephilim last heard from in Genesis reportedly lived there) would be too much for the Israelites, who again begin wailing that it would have been better to have died in Egypt.  Yahve threatened to kill them all (as in the story of the flood there were limits to his patience) and make Moses “a great nation” in their stead.  Moses talked him out of it by once more pointing out that it would hurt Yahve's reputation in other nations(14:13-19).  Yahve relented, but decreed that, except for Caleb and Joshua, the generation that left Egypt would have to die before the Israelites would be permitted to enter Canaan, hence the forty years in the wilderness.  The ten fearful spies were killed by a plague.  Not exactly content with their sentence of eventual death in the wilderness, some of the Israelites attempted to storm into Canaan but were driven back (14:39-45).  In a latter incident Moses, exasperated by the continual complaints, struck a rock to bring forth water, disobeying Yahve’s direction to “speak” to the rock, whereupon he too was barred from entering Canaan (20).

Chapters 16 relates an account that seems to conflate two differing versions of revolt against the authority of Moses and Aaron.  In one the rebels were swallowed up by the earth; in the other they were consumed by fire.  When others protested the deaths, Yahve sent a plague that killed over fourteen thousand people.  In the following chapter Aaron’s appointment as high priest was challenged and put to the test by leaving “rods” from each tribe along with one from Aaron overnight in the tent of meeting/tabernacle.  In the morning Aaron’s rod alone had sprouted, producing blossoms and almonds, thus confirming his divine appointment.

Even Moses’ siblings complained about him.  Aaron and Miriam didn’t like Moses’ Cushite wife.  (Cush was an African nation south of Egypt which was for a time ruled by Cushites.  The relation of the Cushite to Moses’ Midianite wife in Exodus is unclear as is the connection between the siblings objection to her and their complaint against Moses).  They challenged their brother’s special status with God: “Has Yahve indeed spoken only through Moses?  Has he not spoken through us also?”  Yahve summoned the three siblings to the tent of meeting where he stood in the door to say that he spoke “mouth to mouth” only with Moses who alone of all people beheld “the form of Yahve” (a contrast to the incident at Sinai in which Moses wasn’t allowed to see Yahve’s face.  I also wonder how he stood in the door but wasn’t seen by Aaron and Miriam).  Miriam was punished with leprosy which, thanks to Moses intercession with Yahve, lasted only a week.  There is no mention of Aaron also being punished (12).

As the wanderers neared Canaan they again began complaining about Moses’ leadership and their hardships which included “this worthless food” of manna.  This time Yahve sent “fiery serpents among the people” who then came to Moses saying that they had sinned.  In one of the stranger accounts in the OT, Moses was told to make a bronze “fiery serpent” elevated on a pole which would heal those who had been bitten when they looked upon it (21:6-9).  This seems more like a remnant of some idolatrous magical tradition than something that belongs among the OT’s  prohibitions against worship of idols.  According to 2 Kings 18:4, the bronze serpent was preserved to become an object of worship which was destroyed during the reforms of King Hezekiah.

Chapters 22-24 present one of the best known incidents in the Israelites’ journey with the story of Balaam, usually referred to as “Balaam and the Ass.”  The detailed telling of the tale, especially the humorous incident with the ass, has a decidedly different style from the rest of Numbers.  Balaam seems to have been a sort of freelance prophet for hire.  A fragmented inscription from the eighth century BCE discovered in modern Jordan describes a vision of Balaam son of Beor, the same title as the prophet in Numbers, in which he attended the divine assembly of El (a divine name translated as “God” in the English Bible), indicating that some kind of tradition of Balaam existed apart from that in the Bible.  

There seem to be two conflicting attitudes towards Balaam in Numbers, likely indicating the merger of differing accounts.  In one he seems to be a devout worshipper of Yahve; in the other he is a mercenary rogue.  Whichever Balaam may have been, the king of Moab, fearful of invasion by the large force that had appeared near the border, asked him to curse the Israelites.  Balaam consulted Yahve who told him not to do it, so Balaam sent the king’s envoys away with his refusal.  But the king persisted, repeating his request.  Again Balaam asked Yahve to tell him what to do and was told him to go with the men but to do only what Yahve would tell him.

So Balaam went off with the king’s men.  But Yahve apparently changed his mind, sending an angel with a sword to stop Balaam.  Balaam’s mount saw the angel blocking the way and refused to go forward.  When Balaam began beating the ass, it spoke up, asking why he was beating her.  Balaam, apparently not surprised by an ass speaking, replied that he wished he had a sword to kill his mount for “having made sport of me.”  The ass asked Balaam if he had ever known her to do such a thing.  He replied, “No,” whereupon his eyes were opened to see the angel who told him that the ass had saved his life.  If he had gone forward the angel would have killed him.  Balaam said he would turn back.  But the angel, somewhat confusingly after nearly killing him, directed him to go on, only not to say anything except what he would be told.

Four times the persistent and perhaps not too bright king took Balaam, who warned him that he would utter nothing except what Yahve told him to say, to a high place from which he could view the encamped Israelites.  At Balaam’s direction the king built seven altars on each of which he offered a bull and ram.  Each time “the Spirit of Yahve” came upon Balaam and he blessed rather than cursed Israel, much to the king’s dismay.  The final time Balaam prophesied the  destruction of Israel’s enemies including Moab.  After which the king and Balaam went their separate ways.  The text doesn’t say whether Balaam was paid.

As they neared Canaan, the Israelites “began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab,” who invited them to their festivals of sacrifice to Baal.  In response Yahve told Moses to hang all the “chiefs of the people.”  Moses ordered his administrators to kill everyone who had joined in the worship of Baal.  A man who had brought a Midianite (who seem to be associated with Moab) woman into the camp was killed along with the woman by one of Aaron’s sons.  (I wonder about Moses’ Midianite wife!).  Their deaths brought an end to a plague (not mentioned before - again there seems to be a weaving together of different accounts) that had killed twenty four thousand people (25).

After several chapters of census and legal maters, Numbers continues with the aftermath of the episode of idolatry. Yahve orders the destruction of the people of Moab/Midian (Midian seems to replace Moab in the account of revenge).  Every Midian adult male, including Balaam who was blamed for encouraging the Israelites to join in the festivities honoring Baal ((31: 8, 16) was killed.  The women and children were taken captive.  When Moses saw the captives he was angry, demanding that “every male among the little ones” and “every woman who has known man by lying with him” also be killed.  “But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves” (31:17-18).  In a list of the spoils of war the captive Median virgins are enumerated as thirty two thousand (32:35).

Many years ago, when I was still a believing SDA in my teens, I came across a book by Mark Twain in which he cited this incident as evidence of the depravity of God as depicted in the Bible.  I don’t think I had been aware of the fate of the Midianites before reading that book but it stayed with me.  While it is perhaps one of the more shocking narratives, it is not the only story in Numbers which doesn’t correspond very well with what I was taught about God as a loving being.  A man gathering sticks on the sabbath was stoned to death (15:32-36).  Yahve repeatedly killed large numbers of his people for complaining and, as in other places in the Pentateuch, seemed more concerned about his reputation “among the nations” than he was with the well-being of his people. Again I think of Carl Jung’s Answer to Job argument that the God of ancient Israel was a far from conscious being capable of taking responsibility for his actions, something that, in Jung’s thinking, happened only with the death of Jesus.  

Still, among the stories, shocking incidents, elaborate instructions for sacrifices of a bewildering variety, legal concerns, and assorted counts of the Israelites, Numbers contains one of the most beautiful texts in the Bible, the Priestly Blessing which Aaron and his sons were to bestow on Israel.  It is also preserved in the oldest known text of a portion of the Bible, inscribed on fragments of two tiny silver scroll amulets found in 1979 and dated to just before the 586/7 BCE Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (

     The Lord bless and keep you;

     The Lord make his face to shine upon you,

     And be gracious to you;

     The Lord lift up his countenance upon you,     

     And give you peace.

                    Numbers 6:22-26

© 2021 James Moyers