A few comments before jumping into a thoughtful reading of NUMBERS.
FIRST, some background. NUMBERS is the fourth of five Books in the Pentateuch–The Law–the Law of Moses—the first five Books of the Old Testament and the Bible. These writings include NUMBERS and are foundational to our faith.
Moses is considered by most Jews and Christians to have been the essential author of NUMBERS. Limited editing and additions do not compromise the Divine authorship of the Book.
The Exodus from Egypt took place about 1446 BC; the entrance to the Promised Land (Canaan) about 1406 BC. The NUMBERS narrative begins one year after the Exodus and wraps up just before Israel crosses the Jordan River (i.e. 1445-1405 BC) to begin the conquest of Canaan The basic material of NUMBERS was composed and collected by 1407-1406 BC.
The content of NUMBERS records several important events during Israel’s wanderings in the desert. That’s what we want to look at as we read through the Book.
SECOND, for those of us who apply 2 Timothy 3:15-17 to NUMBERS, the reading of the Book is not casual. We assume God wants to speak to us in these pages. We expect to read while listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying. We expect to arrive at a clearer perception of God and his ways. With that clearer perception, we expect to arrive at a clearer perception of our own lives as children of God.
THIRD, in the scholarly community there is a problem with NUMBERS. Many scholars have difficulty with the apparent size of the Israelite community. According to the census in chapters 1-6, the total population of Hebrews was between three and four million. This contradicts the belief of some influential scholars who declare The Exodus—if it happened at all—to have involved only a few hundred or a few thousand nomads leaving Egypt. And, they suppose, millions of people couldn’t survive in the harsh desert environment for 40 years anyway.
Such ‘scholarship’ presupposes a God who would not confront Pharaoh in a series of power encounters to free his People from slavery; a God who could not bring them through the Red Sea; and a God who certainly could not supernaturally maintain such a numerous people in a barren desert.
Such thinking seems to say more about the unbelief of those scholars than is does about the extreme nature and mighty acts of Bible-God!
But do the numbers work? Could the Hebrews have grown from a nomadic band of a couple of hundred to an emerging nation of 3 to 4 million people in just 400 years? Exodus 1 certainly records that the Egyptians feared the growing size of the Hebrew community. And it says the Hebrew women did not find childbirth particularly difficult (in contrast to the Egyptian women who did).
But are the numbers believable? There is recent history that says, yes. The population of East Africa in the late 1800s, when Britain brought an end to slavery and the slave trade, was estimated to be about 2 million people. In the next 150 years, the population of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda grew to some 100 million!
When Betty and I moved to Mombasa, Kenya in 1981, the annual growth rate was 4%. A growth rate less than 4% would have easily produced the census in NUMBERS. Those numbers are actually what we might expect. I have no problem viewing the census in NUMBERS as accurate.
FOURTH, as with the reading of any Old Testament material, the Christian has the task of ‘baptizing’ the universal, eternal truth of Old Covenant Scripture into the New. (John 1:17)
There is universal, eternal truth to be appropriated from the Old Testament Law. Nevertheless, we should remind ourselves that The Law was specifically written to create and maintain the ancient Jewish nation of Israel. Most of us are not Jews, the ancient nation of Israel no longer exists, and in any event, followers of Jesus live under a New Covenant superior to and supplanting the Old. And in a head-up comparison, the freedom, power and possibilities of life under the New Covenant eclipse those of the Old!
Paul deals often with the issue of continuity/discontinuity. See Galatians 1-6, Romans 1-8, Colossians 1-3. See also Hebrews (esp. chapters 3-5 and 12:14-29) whose author is concerned with Old vs. New.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 7) Jesus contrasts Law-based religious life with healthy religious expression under the New based on grace and truth.
He discusses how the Old should be ‘baptized’ into the New with his examples of adultery and murder (Matthew 5): the New radically redefines sin and establishes a far higher expectation of righteousness—righteousness unattainable apart from the indwelling Holy Spirit.
So, while many specifics of NUMBERS concern Israel of old, the essential nature and the intentions of God for His People revealed in these pages have not and will never change. A better understanding of God’s nature and purpose may give us greater insight into what God is trying to do within and among us today.
So, let’s read NUMBERS 1-6 together. I’ll be back in a couple of days, Lord willing, to reflect on what I’m discovering. You can share what you are ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.