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The Expositor's Bible Commentary
Copyright © 2012 Ronald B. Allen
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Chapter One NUMBERS
RONALD B. ALLEN
2. The Book of Numbers as Scripture
3. The Book of Numbers as Torah
5. Historical Background and Purpose
6. Authorship and Date
7. Unity and Organization
8. Theological Themes
9. The Problem of the Large Numbers
10. The Large Numbers—Toward a Solution
Commentators on the book of Numbers tend to begin with a survey of the problems this book presents and even express a sense of ennui concerning the matter of the numbers in the book. At the beginning of his sterling work, Raymond Brown admits, "Numbers might not score a high rating in a 'favourite book of the Bible' competition." Nonetheless, we begin where Arnold M. Goldberg concludes. In his summary he asserts the importance of the book of Numbers to Heilsgeschichte, the "salvation history" of the people of God. Going beyond him we contend that the book of Numbers is sublime. It forms an essential link in that forward-directedness from Adam to Jesus. In the most unusual of ways, it heightens our appreciation of and response to the person of Yahweh. For Christians this book is rewarding, for in it we find ourselves confronting in new ways the meaning of our salvation in Jesus Christ. He who is the goal of all history is the goal of the book of Numbers.
God has time; the wilderness has sand. In this aphorism we find the heart of the book of Numbers. All true biblical understanding is based on a solid conviction of the overwhelming grace of God (see Ex 34:5–7). When the people of Israel whom God had redeemed, those whom he had delivered from Egypt and made alive in him—when these people rebelled against him in the wilderness, when they said "No" to action and "No thanks" to his leadership, they risked destruction. But God, who is rich in mercy, did not annihilate them. He did not make an end of them. Rather, he allowed his erring people to live out the rest of their lives in the wilderness—for God has time. And he allowed their children to bury them—for the wilderness has sand.
Then, to the next generation the challenge was to be given: Would they like their parents say "No" to God? Or would they follow him as he would lead them into the land of promise? Well, God has time and the wilderness has sand. If the second generation behaved as their mothers and fathers had, then they too would be buried in the sands of the wilderness. But one day there would be a generation that would rise up and follow God, follow him all the way to Canaan. This idea is the heart of the book of Numbers. It describes how God chastened in wrath his disobedient people, while he waited for their children to accept the challenge of his gracious gift in leading them to Canaan.
Worship is an emphasis in the book of Numbers that has not been given sufficient attention. It is generally known that the book contains important materials for the worship patterns of Israel. Documentary-critical scholars, for example, are convinced that much of the book is the work of priests, so pervasive are "priestly" elements in this book. But it is not just that the book of Numbers contains worship materials such as the celebrated Aaronic Benediction (Nu 6) or instructions about Passover (Nu 9). In the end we may discover that the pulse of the book is worship; the book of Numbers may be viewed as a worship document. It was a text for the worship of God by Moses and those who aligned themselves with him. By God's grace it may become a book of worship for us as well.
However, before the book of Numbers will become a book of worship for us, we will find it to be a book of trouble. The introduction to this book is longer than some in this series because of the (sometimes baffling) problems it presents to the modern reader.
The book of Numbers yields significant rewards for the patient reader. In a day marked by pop art, quick fixes, and fast foods, the book of Numbers is troublesome. It simply does not appeal to the person who is unwilling to invest time and energy in the study of Scripture. The modern reader will be discouraged first just by the name of the book. "Numbers" seems to be a particularly inappropriate title for a part of the revelation of God. The title seems as interesting as a book named, for example, "Telephone Directory." A suspicion of increasing dullness may settle in long before the reader finishes the first chapter. By the fifth chapter he or she may have dropped out altogether. Numbers is not "fast food" literature! Indeed, some wonder whether it is any kind of literature at all. Ashley notes, "The Book of Numbers will never replace the Psalms at the heart of Christian devotion nor the Gospel of John and the Epistle to the Romans at the heart of Christian theology, nor should it." But he continues, "The book of Numbers tells a story." The story is the thing, for the chief actor is God.
Once a reader braves these murky waters, she or he will discover that there are four major problems to face in the book of Numbers: (1) its seeming lack of coherence as a book, (2) the dizzying variety of its contents, (3) the problematic large numbers of the tribes of Israel, and (4) the fascinating but confusing story of Balaam (Nu 22–24). These factors may combine to arrest the interest of even the most pious readers.
In the nonevangelical, critical study of the Bible—the schools of European, British, and American biblical scholarship that have pursued "J-E-D-P source criticism" in the Pentateuch, or some of the more recent forms of redaction criticism—the book of Numbers has provided a fruitful source for analysis. The book is something of a "garden of flowers," each to be plucked, placed in a different vase, and then labeled according to critical ideas of source criticism. Many of the commentaries on the book of Numbers attempt to trace several supposed sources in the varied materials in the book. Surprisingly, a commentary on the book of Numbers published by a major evangelical house is one of the most critical of all. Philip J. Budd's commentary is marked by an aggressive appeal to source criticism and a theology that appears to be Unitarian in nature. He is entirely negative concerning the historical value of the book of Numbers. Budd writes, "The book appears to lack the kind of information the historian of the second millenium [sic] requires." In view of these difficulties, then, it is not surprising that many Bible readers do not come to the book of Numbers with noticeable enthusiasm.
This commentary seeks to provide a modest reason for a reassessment of the book of Numbers as an important contribution to the Torah, as an integral part of Holy Scripture, and as a necessary component in the building of a balanced and informed biblical theology. It also endeavors to rescue this book for worshiping believers. We need to rediscover reverence, recital, and reality as elements of our worship today.
2. THE BOOK OF NUMBERS AS SCRIPTURE
For those who take the concepts of Scripture and canon seriously, the book of Numbers may take on increasing significance. Evangelical Christian theologians have long announced the conviction that the Scriptures are the result of the outbreathing of God, or "inspiration." Indeed, we stand or fall on this conviction. There are churches, denominations, Bible schools, seminaries, and even scholarly societies that hold together on the basic premise of the inspiration of Scripture and its concomitant inerrancy. One of the texts cited repeatedly to buttress this point of view is 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is God-breathed." These words are used at times as a prooftext for the divine origin of the Bible—not an inconsiderable issue!
But as important as they are, these words are not the principal assertion of Paul in this well-known passage. They are the assumption. Paul argues that since Timothy knows that the Scriptures are the outbreathing of God himself, therefore he—and we—should regard them as eminently worthwhile. The Holy Scriptures, which have the ability to make one wise to salvation (2Ti 3:15) and are the product of the outbreathing of God (3:16a), are profitable for "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righ teous ness" (3:16b). Indeed, they are the means for the full equipping of the Christian for doing every good work of God (3:17).
Furthermore, the "holy Scriptures" (2Ti 3:15) and "all Scripture" (3:16) to which these verses directly refer comprise the Hebrew Scriptures, or what is commonly known today as the "Old Testament." To be sure, by extension the designations in 2 Tim othy include the NT writings, but these are not the passage's principal concern. At the time Paul was writing, the NT was not complete, and many believers did not have access to what was written. The Scriptures that Timothy had studied from his earliest youth were not the writings of Paul or the gospels. Timothy was a student of Moses, Isaiah, and David—particularly of Moses. In classical Jewish thought, the Scriptures are first the books of Torah, followed by the Prophets and the Writings. (An emphasis on Torah at the expense of the rest of the OT developed in Judaism following the Council of Jamnia in AD 90.)
Thus the principal teaching of this classic NT passage on inspiration focuses on the role of the Torah in Christian living. Moreover, Paul's familiar command to "preach the Word" (2Ti 4:2) continues the postulate of 2 Tim othy 3:16–17 (the chapter division notwithstanding). Interestingly, numerous theologians and preachers who from these verses make much of the importance of the inspiration of Scripture fail to recognize the importance of the Torah as the foundational document of biblical faith. The logic of the passage sounds as follows:
Since the Scriptures make you wise to salvation, continue in them as you have from your youth. Since they are the outbreathing of God, these Scriptures are eminently useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. Indeed, they may equip the person of God for every good work. So preach the Word, a task that begins with the preaching of Torah.
When one discovers the significance of the book of Numbers as a creditable unit in the unfolding of the whole of Scripture, its material becomes essential to building a biblical theology. This commentary proceeds along these lines. Even though the title "Numbers" seems uninspiring, and despite those aspects of the book that the modern reader may consider to be less than scintillating, this book of Torah can make one wise to salvation and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteous ness. The book of Numbers is an essential part of the Holy Scriptures of God. God's people dare not ignore its teachings.
3. THE BOOK OF NUMBERS AS TORAH
The book of Numbers is not only a part of Scripture and, hence, inspired, inerrant, and relevant for doctrine, guidance, and instruction in righteous living; it is also an essential part of the Torah, the Pentateuch of Moses. While many acknowledge the foundational nature of the Torah to the development of Scripture, it would seem that there is rarely a serious consideration of its contributions as authoritative and informing Scripture in the practical outworking of evangelical theology. Aside from a few celebrated texts on creation and the fall, selections dealing with the names and ascriptions of deity, and passages presenting the basic ideas of covenant, the Torah is generally neglected. True, passages are chosen from time to time to illustrate truths already affirmed in the NT, but rarely do theologians build theological propositions solidly on Torah truth. Frequently a few passages that are regarded as messianic are selected for study. But the rest of the text seems to be regarded as just "filler." Genesis, understandably, is read more than the rest of the books of the Torah; Numbers, however, is read very little for basic theology.
Yet the Bible only holds together insofar as it is seen as an organic development from the beginning forward. The books of the Torah are like the full-bud stage of a rose: the entire flower is present—everything the flower will become—but not all of its inner beauty is visible. The Prophets and the Writings are akin to the opening of the rose. They do not so much present new truth as develop and clarify truth that has been already expressed in the books of the Torah.
In the teaching of Jesus we find the rose of Scripture, as it were, in the full-bloom stage. His words reveal more fully than ever what God has meant from the beginning in his revelation. In a sense we may say that the teaching of Jesus is the full blossom of Torah truth. The letters in the NT are akin to the rose in the full-blown stage. In this stage of the flower, the bloom is still intact, but the petals are opened to their fullest extent. In this stage much attention is given to the fine detail of a given petal, but there is a danger in losing a sense of the form and contours of the flower.
To begin a study of Scripture in the NT letters poses the danger of proceeding on the basis of a great deal that is not known. Since the texture of Scripture is so detailed, the balance of teaching the whole of Scripture on a given topic may be lost. This issue is particularly problematic among those evangelicals who believe that only the letters are "church truth," and that the OT is truly "old," connected only with the Hebrew people in the past but not really of any real value to God's people today. Equally disastrous is for the reader to view the Bible as a "flat book" (Walter C. Kaiser's phrase), devoid of development whatsoever. This view sees the book of Genesis and the book of John as presenting the same theological ideas with the same precision and on the same level. These "gospelizers" of the Torah inadvertently make the early books irrelevant; for if the Torah teaches precisely, and on the same level, what the Gospels teach, then the Torah is not needed. It is merely quaintly redundant.
This commentary proceeds on the premise that the Torah is foundational to the entirety of Scripture, that the rest of the Bible cannot be understood correctly apart from a solid basis in Torah. Further, this commentary also proceeds on the theses that the book of Numbers is truly a "book," that it has a sense of coherence, and that its problematic use of large numbers is capable of solution. Indeed, the numbers when viewed correctly may become its glory!
The Hebrew text (the MT) of the book of Numbers is relatively free of difficulty. Since the Torah was especially revered in ancient times, its transmission seems to be cleaner than that of many other biblical books. Periodically in the commentary that follows, attention will be given to special textual difficulties, particularly in the poetic sections; and comparisons will be made with the Samaritan recension and the LXX. A few times I will suggest emendations of the MT, new meanings for disputed words, or unusual meanings to more common words. I observe (perhaps with some surprise) that the presence of many numbers in the two census lists (Nu 1–4; 26) do not betray corruption in the process of transmission; thus, those who resort to the solution of the problem of the large numbers by suggesting textual corruption have to assume that such problems are very ancient (pre-Masoretic). The Hebrew text used throughout the commentary is BHS.
5. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND AND PURPOSE
The book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Pentateuch, is traditionally ascribed to Moses. The name of the book in the English versions comes from the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), through the Vulgate (Latin), and is based on the census lists that are found in chs. 1–4 and 26. The Greek name for the book, an attempt to describe the prominence of the numerical listings of the tribes of Israel, is Arithmoi. The Latin translation in the Vulgate is Numeri, the basis for the title "Numbers" in standard English translations.
Eusebius mentions that Jewish designations for the book include the Hebrew phrase seper misparîm ("The Book of Numbers"). More commonly, however, we think of two other Hebrew names for the book. One comes from the first word of Numbers 1:1, wayedabber ("And [Yahweh] spoke [to Moses]"). This term is significant in that it is a characteristic phrasing that marks section after section in this Torah scroll as the revelation of the Lord to Moses. An even more descriptive Hebrew name for the book is taken from the fourth word in verse 1, bemidbar ("In the Desert," or "In the Wilderness"). This name is generally regarded as more descriptive of its contents. The book is set in the thirty-eight-year period of Israel's experience in the Wilderness of Sinai following the exodus from Egypt. Hence "In the Wilderness" seems to be a particularly apt description of its contents. This term is not only fitting for the experience of Israel in this part of her early history, but it is also a metaphor for the condition of judgment that fell on the people who refused to enter the land of rest. We will argue, however, that the word "Numbers" really is the superior title for the book as a whole—and that it is in its numbers that the book has significant power.
Excerpted from Numbers-Ruth Copyright © 2012 by Ronald B. Allen. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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