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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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Lawrence Boadt

The Nature of the Book of Numbers

The name “Numbers” is taken directly from the title of the book in the Septuagint Greek translation: Arithmoi. It refers to the importance of taking the census of Israelites in both chapters 1 and 26 . This probably reflects the early Hebrew title for the book as well, although later Jewish tradition has identified it by the name bemidbar (“In the desert”), the first words of the book. Generally, commentators have had trouble agreeing on the organization and purpose of the book of Numbers. They identify a rough outline of three divisions, but judge that the materials in each section are not well ordered and seem to be loose collections of topics and events that do not belong anywhere else. This approach, however, does not help us to study the book easily, and it probably reflects the difficulties that modern minds have with ancient ways of thinking, rather than being an accurate assessment of what the authors and editors of the book of Numbers thought they were doing. Several considerations might help us find more purpose and order in the book than would appear in a hasty reading.

  • 1. Numbers Links the Mountain of Sinai and the Promised Land. It stands between the events described in Exodus and Leviticus and the situation found in Deuteronomy. It is about a journey that moves the people from Mount Sinai (Exodus and Leviticus) to the border of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy). The focus of all the stories and legal lists is either on preparations for the journey, or on problems encountered on the journey, or on attitudes that threaten the journey.

  • 2. It Is Paired Thematically with the Book of Exodus. In the overall drama of the Pentateuch, Genesis matches Deuteronomy as first and last book because both focus on life in the land itself; Exodus matches Numbers in the second and fourth positions on both sides of Leviticus in the middle: Exodus leads up to Sinai, and Numbers away from it. Many incidents are repeated in both, such as the manna scene and Moses bringing water from a rock, but Numbers judges Israel's response differently and more judgmentally because in Numbers the Israelites have accepted the covenant and Torah and must live obediently.

  • 3. Its Themes Build on the Laws of Leviticus. Numbers naturally flows from the materials treated in Leviticus. The central theme of Leviticus is holiness in the ordinary areas of life, such as food, clothing, sickness, moral ethics of society, and regular worship. Numbers intensifies the expectations of holiness by stressing the need for dedication and total commitment to God, in order for Israel to succeed as a nation if its goal is to live prosperously in the Holy Land. To do so, it must be obedient to divine commands and so Numbers treats rebellion and hard‐heartedness as worthy of punishment.

  • 4. Like Exodus and Leviticus, It Combines Narratives and Laws. The book contains a combination of narratives and laws just as do Exodus and Leviticus. Each collection of laws relates to the experiences and lessons learned from the past. Israel enjoyed reading these living connections that remembered the deeds of their ancestors in light of the laws they still lived by today.

  • 5. This Is No Ordinary Journey but a Solemn March. It is a military campaign of Israel as an army advancing against the enemy. It is a journey of conquest, and it will not be completed until the end of the book of Joshua when the people have rest in the Promised Land. Most of the laws, as well as the elaborate preparations for leaving Sinai and the detailed descriptions of battles on the eastern side of the Jordan River, are framed around proper “military” behavior. This is a metaphor for obedient religious observance: a soldier in God's army must be holy and single‐minded. Special aspects of this emphasized in Numbers include loyalty to Moses, rejection of paganism and pagan nations, and willingness to sacrifice for God.

  • 6. Numbers Prepares for Deuteronomy by Centering on the Promise of the Land. The people are on the move as a great and fearsome force; they no longer need worry about the promise of a son that was the central concern in the stories of Genesis. Now the land dominates their thinking. It dominates as a hope for prosperity that will be in stark contrast to the deprivation and suffering of their time in the desert. And it dominates in the reflections and legal directives on how to live faithfully and loyally in the land as a people of the covenant.

The Outline of the Book of Numbers

The most common division of the book is into three large blocs that correspond to major stages of the journey narrative:

  • Nm 1, 1–10, 10 The proper preparation of a military expedition in a holy war.

  • Nm 10, 11–20, 13 The journey through the desert and the trials of the people's faith in God.

  • Nm 20, 14–36, 13 Final directions and campaigns to prepare for assault on the Promised Land.

This breakdown of the book's order highlights that it remains controlled by the overall sense of movement toward the divinely promised goal of the land first stated at Genesis 12, 1–3 . The first bloc is a flurry of activity in getting ready to depart; the second is an actual journey from Sinai to the oasis of Kadesh Barnea; and the third division has the people move on through the Transjordan area of Edom, Moab, and the Amorites to arrive in battle array across the river from the major Canaanite stronghold of Jericho. Numbers 33 summarizes the movements of the Israelites from Egypt until they reach the edge of the Jordan by listing the stopping places where they camped. Such a record of the stages by which they traveled calls attention to the fact that, at each one, God gave special guidance and assistance, and that no movement took place without the divine initiative. But each major division of this journey contains those ritual and legal concerns that seem to fit best at that spot (see chart on RG 135 ).

The Development of the Major Themes in Numbers

To help us appreciate a little more the dramatic flow of the book, it might be useful to describe it narratively:

Numbers 1, 1–10, 10

The book opens with the census of all males able to go to war ( 1, 45 ). Levites, who serve in the sanctuary, are exempted. In chapter 2 these newly commissioned soldiers are then organized into a military camp prepared for defense as well as for a quick march in time of danger. The book then turns to the special role of the Levites who are to dwell around the tent and ark at the center of

Chapter Chapter Chapter
1 Census of males for armed service 10 The battle order: the Ark is first 20 Move through Edom; death of Aaron
2 Order of the camp 11 Two occasions of rebellion 21 More victories and more murmuring
3 Special role for Levites 12 Miriam and Aaron oppose Moses 22–24 Balaam tries to stop Israel
4 Levitcal roles in bearing the Ark 13 The spies scout the Promised Land 25 The people abandon God at Baal of Peor
5 Laws of purification for battle 14 People resist taking the land 26 The census repeated and land promised
6 Vows of Nazirite dedication 15 Laws relating to possessing land 27–30 Laws on inheritence, vows, and worship
7 Sacrifices and gifts for leaving 16 Levite rebellion against Aaron 31 The Midianites are defeated
8 Levites anointed for service 17 Aaron's authority restored 32 Transjordan conquests of two and a half tribes
9 Passover celebration; camp is broken 18 Proper portions for priests and Levites 33–34 Stages of the march and boundaries
10 The trumpets sound the departure 19 Atonement for any uncleanness 35 Special Levitical cities and laws
20 Murmuring over water 36 Inheritance laws and conclusion
camp; they represent God's ransom of all firstborn males ( 3, 5–12 ). In this way, all the fighting force becomes a consecrated army linked to holy service of the Lord through the Levitical substitutes. Then follow the duties of the Levites for moving the sanctified objects of the sanctuary when on the march (4), and a set of laws on uncleanness, theft, adultery, and other sins that would defile the army's holy status to fight for God (5). Chapter 6 completes this preparation of the camp by giving rules for those (the Nazirites) who take extra vows of rigor. Chapters 1–6 end with the blessing of Aaron over the camp ( 6, 22–27 ).

Chapters 7 through 10 then move on to the questions of proper ritual actions for the sanctuary itself, including the giving of gifts (7); the care of the lampstands, the purification of the Levites for service in the tent, and time limits for their years of duty (8); and finally the solemn celebration of the first Passover since leaving Egypt, which is to take place on the first anniversary of the miracle itself ( 9, 1–14 ). This larger division then concludes with a notice that the divine pillars of cloud and fire would move with the people, and they are to be summoned to departure by the silver trumpets ( 9, 15–10, 10 ).

Numbers 10, 11–20, 13

This traces the actual journey from Sinai toward the land of Canaan. The cloud moves, the tribes set out in marching order, all appears to be proper. But trouble immediately looms with the repetition of the grumbling of the people that had so characterized the period between their deliverance in Egypt and their arrival at Sinai in Exodus 13–18 . Many of the chapters in Numbers repeat and duplicate the same grumblings recorded in the Exodus narratives. First, people complain about the lack of meat (11) and are punished by fire; but Moses intercedes and saves them. At this point, too, some of Moses' authority is shared with the elders ( 11, 24–30 ). In the next chapter, even Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses' authority and are struck with leprosy, but again Moses intercedes successfully. Next they arrive near the southern boundaries of the Promised Land and are able to advance straight into it. The scouts return with glowing reports of its bounty, but only Joshua and Caleb are fearless enough to want to attack the inhabitants. The people cringe in fear and reject Moses' leadership. God wishes to destroy them all, but Moses once again intercedes and God once again relents. But he does decree that not one shall enter the Promised Land from this generation except Caleb and Joshua, who were loyal ( 13–14 ).

Here the editors insert laws that will be required when Israel gains possession of the land (15). But again, rebellion flares up as several Levites now refuse to follow Moses. They receive death as their punishment (16), and Aaron then assumes the priestly role of reconciling and purifying the people in their relationship to God (17). This in turn is followed by a number of laws that regulate the proper payment due to priests and Levites for their services to the sanctuary, and which, to the minds of the ancient editors, fitted perfectly here after the discussion of Aaron's role.

Since uncleanness has been a major theme of these narratives, especially in the case of those who go near God's sanctuary unworthily, chapter 19 follows with a ritual that uses the ashes of a red heifer for preparing a permanent holy water to sanctify those found in an unclean state. This whole division now ends with a final case of grumbling over the lack of water in which even Moses and Aaron fail in their trust in God, and they are told that they, too, cannot enter the Promised Land.

The materials from chapters 10 to 20 have thus emphasized the fragility of the people's loyalty to the Lord, even in their state of military awareness. They also underline the need for constant purification of action and loyalty to God, if Israel is to succeed in possessing the land. Above all, they emphasize the central role of the priests and Levites in that process of purification, and their role in developing complete fidelity through proper ritual and holiness.

Numbers 20, 14–36, 13

The action now turns to the actual conquest of the land. Their march takes them around the land of Edom and up the desert highway along the east side of the Transjordan plateau. They bypass the land of Moab and attack the Amorites farther north. This victory in chapter 21 leads the king of Moab to try to stop them. He hires a famous prophet, Balaam, to curse them. Chapters 22 through 24 consist of a very old series of stories about Balaam's efforts and his failure. They do provide a climactic statement to the patriarch's promise, as Balaam foresees the greatness of Israel in the centuries ahead.

In sharp contrast to this future greatness, however, the very next chapter records how Israel betrayed even the first commandment and fell into idolatry and the orgiastic practices of the Canaanites. All who participated are executed (25). This sets the stage for a renewed military dedication to the cause of the Lord, symbolized by taking a second census in chapter 26 to summon forth the fighting men for the war ahead.

But before any battles are fought, there is an interlude of four chapters (27–30) in which another series of regulations and laws are set forth that pertain to the organization of Israelite society when it is settled in an agricultural and urban type of life. These laws are triggered by the problem of relations between families and their obligations to one another, which the taking of the census leaves unanswered. They cover inheritance laws for the widows and daughters of men who might be slain in battle or who die prematurely. They also involve the proper rules for celebration of the feast days in a new land, and the rules governing different types of vows made by different classes of people.

Finally, fighting resumes with a major victory over Midian, which is interpreted as revenge for the Midianites' part in the idolatrous acts at Baal of Peor (31). Shortly thereafter, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh conquer territory on the eastern side of the Jordan River (32). This is permitted only with deep reservations since it may mean accepting less than the Promised Land itself. But those tribes promise to do their part in the conquest of Palestine when the moment comes.

The final chapters of Numbers sum up. chapter 33 lists all the camps through which Israel had journeyed, ending with the final stopping place on the river across from Jericho. They are given a solemn command to take the land, drive out its inhabitants ( 33, 53–56 ), and divide the land among the tribes so that they fill the generous boundaries that Moses describes ( 34, 1–15 ). The book closes with a series of laws that reflect the tricky problems of legal boundaries and multiple jurisdictions. These include laws on special cities for the Levites, towns set aside as asylums for accused persons, murders in open territory between tribes, and property rights for women and the defenseless. Once again the laws illustrate the nature of the narrative that had immediately preceded them.


The developmental pattern of Numbers not only tells a story of adventure and difficulty, it ties this story to lessons that must be applied when the people live a totally different type of life in the Promised Land. Laws and regulations that would never apply in nomadic or seminomadic situations will become crucial when the circumstances change dramatically and the people become a settled population. The book, however, manages to unite the dramatic history of the Israelites' time in the wilderness as a people on the move—without home or power—with the later needs and practices that characterized their life in Canaan in the years following.

There are few parallels to this type of writing in modern literature, but we can learn to value and even enjoy this intense combining of (boring) laws with historical adventures, if we think of it as the answer to a profound question: How does a people preserve the lessons of the great days of salvation and guidance in the desert without losing them in later ages? They remember both the stories of the desert and the laws that came from them…and then observe the laws!

The Literary Unity of Numbers

Like Leviticus, Numbers reflects throughout the hand of the Priestly source guiding its order and structure. In only a few sections can we find the J and E sources from the older tradition still present: (1) in the narrative stories of chapters 11, 13–14, 16; 21, 25, and 32 ; and (2) in the Balaam cycle in chapters 22–24 . The major themes of J and E focus on challenges to Moses' authority and punishment for rebels who don't trust in God, as well as preparing Israel for occupation of the Promised Land. P, however, adds numerous laws that extend the reach of those already seen in Leviticus and also to make the J and E warnings even more definitive. P sections also emphasize the proper ordering of Israel's tribes, and the roles of Priests and Levites, by adding many ritual lists. Many commentators think that P is developing a response not only to J and E but also to the laws of Deuteronomy, thus placing the P sections after the Exile in the last stages of Pentateuch development. For example, the description of major feast days in Numbers 28–29 would reflect the latest development level of the many levels in the Pentateuch.

Major Priestly Religious Concerns in Numbers

These Priestly editors have emphasized certain themes above others while keeping the journey narrative moving ahead. Certainly ritual matters were important to them, for scattered references to various states of uncleanness and the rites to overcome them occur frequently in chapters 13–20 . So also, numerous passages distinguish particular duties of Priests and Levites in chapters 26–36 . Legal regulations for various social areas of conflict, which would arise when land is involved, are also interspersed at fitting places in the text.

And finally, the theological themes that center on God's power to bring about the promise are continued from the books of Genesis and Exodus. These include: (1) questions about the authority of leaders, namely Moses, Aaron, and the elders; (2) murmuring and lack of trust on the part of the people; (3) in the Balaam stories, the power of the prophetic word to bring about God's will; (4) the role of Joshua as sole leader to succeed Moses; and (5) the decisive victories God bestows in battle.

In order to better grasp the main religious message of these various topics scattered throughout the book, it is worth listing some of the groupings in more detail:

Priests and Levites. Genesis 34, 24–31 and 49, 5–7 both view Levi as a violent and renegade tribe; the book of Exodus, however, not only notes that Moses and Aaron are from the tribe of Levi but also praises the Levites in 32, 25–29 as the only tribe that remained faithful to the Lord during the golden calf incident. The tribe of Levi is therefore worthy of priestly service to the Lord. Deuteronomy 33, 8–11 adds that the Levites alone were faithful at Massah and Meribah when Moses struck water from the rock, although the two accounts (Ex 17, 1–7; Nm 20, 2–13 ) never mention any Levitical role. There may have been two separate traditions about the Levites, one positive and one negative. Certainly there is some reason to wonder, since in several places such as Deuteronomy, Joshua, and a few prophetic texts (Ez 43, 19–44, 15; Mal 2, 4 ), the Levites are referred to as priests; while in the majority of other references they are an auxiliary group to help in the Temple but are distinct from the priests, who can come only from the house of Aaron. Perhaps these conflicting reports stem from the historical reality that originally Levites were priestly in character but became subordinated to a particular branch of the family of Aaron after the Exile in 586 BC.

In Numbers, however, the Levites receive very high honor, even though the book takes the position that they are not the same as the priests and must not seek to perform priestly offices. Four sets of regulations pertain to the Levites:

  • • They alone have the privilege of carrying the ark of the covenant ( 1, 49–53 ), and they are also responsible for the other sacred objects in the sanctuary and for its transport during the desert years ( 4, 1–49 ).

  • • They are honored to be set aside as a ransom for each firstborn male among the people as a whole. Thus they are consecrated to God and may not have military roles or possess land ( 3, 5–20; 3, 40–51; 8, 3–24; see Dt 18, 1–5 ).

  • • In Numbers 16–17 , some Levites under Korah rebel against Aaron and Moses, and demand equal priestly rights. God punishes them severely, and the story serves as a motive for why Levites are not allowed to do priestly ministry.

  • • Certain cities are set aside by Moses in Numbers 35, 2–8 as refuge centers for people suspected of crimes. This contradicts claims in other books that Levites had no title to land. It also provides a basis for seeing an important role for the Levites in the local administration of justice in Israel; probably they also serve as local religious leaders who functioned as priests in the small communities far from Jerusalem.

The Holy War. There is always a great amount of uneasiness when modern readers hear the stories of sacred campaigns in which the enemy—men, women, and children—are doomed and executed if Israel is victorious. Such a campaign takes place in Numbers 21, 1–3 when Israel fights Arad, and again in Numbers 31, 1–54 , in the battle against the Midianites. Similar military campaigns are described in Joshua, Judges, and the books of Samuel. It is worth noting about these, however, that to the Israelite reader of the Bible who lived many years after the days of Moses, Joshua, and the judges, these accounts then belonged back in the founding days. They had a special character because it had been a life‐and‐death struggle between the Lord and the Canaanite gods that demanded drastic action. They knew that in their earliest traditions, God was a warrior who fought on their behalf against overwhelming odds; note in particular the description of God as a warrior in the oldest poem in the Pentateuch, Exodus 15 .

Numbers gives one of the fullest explanations of Holy War theory in the passage on the Midianites in chapter 31 . It is quite fierce. But in another account from about the same time as Numbers or a little earlier, Deuteronomy 20 , a number of restrictions are put on such a war so that it is less than a total massacre. So, too, the first chapters of Numbers try to expand the concept of the Holy War to include the whole people as an army of the Lord on the move to Palestine. Purity and obedience are the keynotes of this army, not vengeance, and we might safely assume that already the editors of Numbers wanted to soften the stories of the old total war. They suggested, instead, that now this concept could be lived out by a total commitment of life to the way of the Lord. The battles against Arad, Midian, and finally Canaan, were still stirring episodes from the past, but they were not the way of the present! This would fit the picture painted by several prophets that war was not the way to do God's will; peace and faith were (see Is 7, 1–14; Hos 10, 13f; Jer 21, 3–10; 21, 3–10 34, 1–5 ). There was a development in theology and attitude over the centuries, and Numbers at least shows some of both viewpoints mixed together.

The Murmuring Tradition. One striking aspect of the stories in Numbers 10, 11–20, 13 is the recurrence of so many incidents of grumbling and rebellion against God by the people in the desert that resemble accounts in Exodus 14–18 . Note the following:

  • Nm 11, 1 People grumble against Moses at Taberah; fire comes down.

  • Nm 11, 4f People grumble about the lack of meat at Kibroth‐hattaavah; God sends a plague, but then a gift of quail for food.

  • Nm 12, 1–16 Miriam and Aaron rebel against the sole authority of Moses; Miriam becomes a leper, but God later heals her.

  • Nm 14, 1–38 The people refuse to attack Canaan; God will make them die in the desert and their children wander for forty years.

  • Nm 16, 1–36 Korah, Dathan, and Abiram all rebel against Aaron's authority; they are consumed by fire from heaven.

  • Nm 17, 6–15 The people again grumble against Moses and Aaron; the scourge of punishment is lifted by Aaron's actions.

  • Nm 20, 2–13 The people complain about lack of water; God has Moses strike the rock for water but keeps him from entering the Promised Land.

  • Nm 21, 4–9 The people again grumble about food, and God sends fiery serpents to bite them; they are saved by a bronze serpent made by Moses.

These incidents may be compared to similar examples from the book of Exodus: Exodus 14, 10; 15, 23; 16, 13; and 17, 5–7 . The last case is a duplicate of Numbers 20, 1–13 in which Moses strikes the rock for water. Numbers 11, 31 seems to be the same as Exodus 16, 13 , in which God sends the people quail to eat. These two cases may actually borrow material from J or E sources. The other examples in Numbers, however, all seem to have a similar interest in how God punished the people and then allowed Moses or Aaron to intercede and restore them.

Numbers, true to its priestly concern, wishes to emphasize the need of the community to atone for its sin and rebellion, and turn back to God through liturgy and purification. Even the bronze serpent in Numbers 21 implies healing through some ritual action. According to 2 Kings 18, 4 this object was receiving special veneration right up to the time that King Hezekiah reformed the religion in 715 BC and smashed the bronze serpent. Numbers tells the story—despite the obvious danger that it might be considered magically powerful—to illustrate the need to turn to God for healing.

The Roles of the Twelve Tribes in the Conquest Plan. The end of Numbers records the controversies among the tribes over whether they all must enter the land, or whether Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh may live on the Transjordan side of the river. A similar suggestion that harmony did not always prevail among the tribes stands out in the conflict between Joshua, Caleb, and the other scouts in Numbers 13–14 . In fact, such divisions within the twelve tribes appear frequently in the books of Joshua and Judges as well. There are also numerous differences within the lists of the tribes themselves that suggest the tradition was not always uniform about which tribes made up the original people of Israel. There are seven separate listings of the tribes in the book of Numbers, and they do not always agree (see table on RG 140 ).

In Numbers 34 , the two tribes that stayed across the Jordan, Reuben and Gad, are omitted; otherwise every list includes twelve tribes. None of these, however, mentions Levi, although he is included in all lists in Genesis and Exodus (Gn 29, 31–30, 22 plus 35, 16–20; 35, 22–26, 46, 8–25; 49, 2–27; Ex 1, 1–5 ). In his place, the lists in Numbers always give Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as two tribes that replace those of their father, Joseph, and Levi. Several lists begin with Reuben, the firstborn son of Jacob; others begin with Judah, the chief tribe in the Priestly view. Moreover, the tribes occur in varied orders throughout the seven lists, as well as in lists in other books.

Each list came down with its own purposes in mind, of course. Numbers 2, 3–29 , for example, reordered tribes to fit in a neat square around the tent and ark. We will not be too confused if we pay attention to the divergent materials and viewpoints that have been collected in Numbers and in other texts that deal with how the conquest of Palestine took place. They had no modern historians on the scene, so that much of the traditional narration of these events was in the form

The Tribal lists in the Book of Numbers

Nm 1 Nm 1 Nm 2 Nm 7 Nm 13 Nm 26 Nm 34
5–15 20–43 3–29 12–83 4–15 5–50 19–28
Reuben Reuben Judah Judah Reuben Reuben Judah
Simeon Simeon Issachar Issachar Simeon Simeon Simeon
Judah Gad Zebulun Zebulun Judah Gad Benjamin
Issachar Judah Reuben Reuben Issachar Judah Dan
Zebulun Issachar Simeon Simeon Ephraim Issachar Manasseh
Ephraim Zebulun Gad Gad Benjamin Zebulun Ephraim
Manasseh Ephraim Ephraim Ephraim Zebulun Manasseh Zebulun
Benjamin Manasseh Manasseh Manasseh Manasseh Ephraim Issachar
Dan Benjamin Benjamin Benjamin Dan Benjamin Asher
Asher Dan Dan Dan Asher Dan Naphtali
Gad Asher Asher Asher Naphtali Asher
Naphtali Naphtali Naphtali Naphtali Gad Naphtali
of hero stories, great legendary actions of the tribes, and local memories preserved by one tribe or another. They have been organized with more neatness and more attention to continuity than may have actually been the way the events themselves happened.

No doubt some tribal groups entered Palestine separately from the main body of attackers under Joshua, while some tribes may have had large numbers of their members already in the land. Finally, the constant substitution of Ephraim and Manassah for Joseph may indicate that it was these two tribes in particular that did most of the fighting and conquering with Joshua. Indeed, to support this view, we can note that the book of Joshua indicates the action against the Canaanites largely took place in the territory of those two tribes. And the controversy with the two and a half tribes that did not want to go with the rest may only be the tip of a very large iceberg, in which the much larger hidden part is the reality of how few actually joined the invasion with Joshua.

The Balaam Oracles. The story of Balaam, the mysterious prophet summoned from the East to curse Israel, is perhaps the most fascinating part of the book of Numbers. It contains some of the older materials derived from the J and E sources that have been incorporated into the Priestly view of the conquest. In studying this part of the book, several points should be noted:

There are mixed views of Balaam in the Bible. Numbers 22, 1–24, 25 presents Balaam as a prophet from Mesopotamia who is hired to curse Israel and then forced by God to bless them. Indeed, the folk story about Balaam and his ass in chapter 22 presents him as willing to do whatever the Lord wants. Thus one might conclude that he is presented sympathetically and perhaps even as an instrument of God. But later on in Numbers 31, 8 and 16 , Balaam is slaughtered by the Israelites as a Midianite king because he led people astray at Baal of Peor. This must stem from a separate tradition than that of Numbers 22–24 . This double view reappears in the book of Joshua where Balaam is the seer who curses Israel in 24, 9–10 , but who was among the Midianites in 13, 22 . Deuteronomy 23, 4f; Micah 6, 5 , and Nehemiah 13, 2 all view Balaam as the seer. On the other side, Genesis 36, 32 describes him, under the name of Bela, as a king of Midian (also known as Edom).

Interestingly enough, the New Testament picks up a still later tradition that Balaam was greedy for money. 2 Peter 2, 16; Jude 11; Revelation 2, 14 all see him as a false teacher motivated by greed. The real Balaam may never be known, but he seems to have been famous as a prophet in other nations than Israel. A sixth‐century BC Aramaic text speaks of him in this vein. So at least the basic point of Numbers 22–24 seems to be based on very old tradition.

There are four oracles in chapters 23 and 24 . Most scholars hold that the two oracles in chapter 23 are from the Elohist (E) source, and the two in chapter 24 are from the Yahwist (J). Look at them closely and note the elaborate formulas of introduction in 24, 3f and 24, 15f that imply a very formal manner in which prophets in Judah may have normally spoken. These also stress the glory of the king ( 24, 7.17 ), a viewpoint typical of the Davidic monarchy. On the other hand, the oracles from the E tradition lack such elaborate formulas and stress the blessing on the whole people given by God.

Some scholars believe the words of Balaam formed the endings to both the J and the E narrative sources. In this view, the prophet looks ahead to the fulfillment of the promise in the days of the monarchy many years hence. If chapter 23 does end the E story, and chapter 24 the J story, then further stories of the conquest in Numbers 32 and in the book of Joshua that have concerns similar to those of J and E would have to be explained. We could at least say this much—that the final form of the book of Numbers sees the Balaam prophecies as important. They confirm with a divine word the coming victory of Israel's battle for the lands on both sides of the Jordan.

The Theology of the Priestly Writers

The P source probably had many earlier written pieces to draw on in putting together its descriptions in Numbers. Such might have been lists of tribal leaders (Nm 1, 5–15; 2, 3–31; 7, 12–88; 10, 14–28 ); the descriptions of the battle camp in chapters 2 and 10 ; census lists of some kind for chapters 1 and 26 ; Sinai place‐names in Numbers 33; and, of course, J and E for such passages as Numbers 13–14, 22–24, and 32 .

The P school has already stated its primary emphasis for Israel's life in Exodus 25–40 : the divine presence will be known in Israel in the sanctuary (a tent in the desert years, a temple later) and will manifest its glory there. The proper response of Israel will be observance of sacrifice and the laws of holiness. This “holy” community is given its final climactic description at the end of Leviticus in chapter 26 , in the form of a warning speech.

To this, the P authors have added in Numbers some important specifications about how this holiness can be carried out through national institutions and in the relations among the tribes with respect to their possession of the land. Moreover, the cultic organization of Israel's life must be observed even in a state of exile (the idea of the battle camp in the wilderness), and even when the proper order is threatened and broken down by disobedience (the meaning of the numerous rebellions against Moses in chapters 11–21 ). God will certainly punish this disobedience, but the mediation of priests and leaders (Aaron and Moses) can turn away God's wrath and restore blessing. Most of all, nothing will deter the divine fulfillment; yet at the same time, God does not depend on any one leader no matter how great (even Moses can be denied entry to the Promised Land!). Although the people have no land or home now, they have all the necessary means of worship and obedience to hold on until the divine promise is fulfilled just a short time ahead.

Seen in this light, Numbers is the final statement of the Priestly theology in the Pentateuch. Now Moses can depart (note how his death should follow at the end of Numbers 36 , but it is delayed until Deuteronomy 34 for editorial reasons), and the conquest begin. But first, an interlude with the book of Deuteronomy.

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