Numbers - Introduction
Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah or Pentateuch, is concerned with events during the Israelites’ travels in the wilderness. Its English name, which derives from that of the early Greek translation, refers to the censuses that occur at the beginning and end of the wilderness period (chs 1 and 26 ).
The book consists of laws and regulations woven around a narrative thread. It has two main sources: the Priestly writings (chs 1–9; 15; 17–19; 26–31; 34–36; and parts of 10; 13–14; 16; 20; 25; 32–33 ), mostly legal in character but having their own basic narrative; and a non‐Priestly narrative source (the remaining portions). Neither of these is a single, unified body of work. The Priestly materials consist of the “Priestly Torah” (PT) and the “Holiness School” (HS). Of the two, HS largely predominates. Some of the chief concerns of the HS include the centrality of the sanctuary and, with this, God's presence among the people, and the installation of the Levites as sanctuary servants. The non‐Priestly narrative sections have been ascribed to a combination of the Yahwist (Jahwist) and Elohist sources (JE), which are not easily distinguished in Numbers. For possible dates of PT and HS, see the Introduction to Leviticus. Though the date and extent of the non‐Priestly material is debated by scholars, it predates the Priestly Torah/Holiness School portions.
The book has three main sections.
(1) Preparations for travel in the wilderness (chs 1–10 ). This section is mainly prescriptive. Its focus is the census and camp arrangement of the Israelites (chs 1–2; 5.1–4 ); the census, camp arrangement, duties, and consecration of the Levites (chs 3–4; 7–8 ); and the arrangement of the tribes and sanctuary while on the march ( 9.15–10.36 ). Interspersed in this are various prescriptions or descriptions concerning the guilt offering, suspected adultery, the nazirite vow, and the priestly blessing ( 5.5–6.27 ); and the delayed passover ( 9.1–4 ). It is not always clear why these laws are placed where they are now found. The section is almost entirely Priestly in origin.
(2) Travels in the wilderness (chs 11–25 ). This is mostly narrative, and combines Priestly and non‐Priestly material. The narrative elements include rebellions and complaints by Israelites, Miriam and Aaron, and by the scouts (chs 11–14 ); the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (chs 16–17 ); and Israel's encounters with various enemies, Balaam's blessing, and the Baal‐peor incident (chs 20–25 ). Sections of prescription interspersed among these chapters include rules on offerings, sabbath violation (in a narrative context), and wearing fringes (ch 15 ); priesthood and Levitical duties (ch 18 ); and corpse contamination (ch 19 ).
(3) The end of the wilderness travels and preparations for entering the land of Canaan (chs 26–36 ). This section is mostly prescriptive. Portions that are closely connected with the narrative flow or the topic of acquiring the land of Canaan include the second census (ch 26 ); laws on female inheritance ( 27.1–11 ); the transfer of civil leadership to Joshua ( 27.12–23 ); revenge against the Midianites (ch 31 ); the distribution of the Transjordan land (ch 32 ); a summary of wilderness travels (ch 33 ); the boundaries of the land of Canaan (ch 34 ); Levitical cities and homicide laws (ch 35 ); and a supplement to laws of female inheritance (ch 36 ). Portions less visibly connected with the narrative context are the ritual calendar (chs 28–29 ); and rules about women's vows (ch 30 ). This section is almost entirely Priestly in origin.
When first reading the book one might begin with the main narrative, chs 1; 10–14; 16–17; 20–27;31–33 . The legal sections are more difficult to understand, and may best be read according to different topics: the Levites (chs 3–4; 7–8; 18; 35 ); priestly and Levitical duties (chs 3–4; 16–17; 18; 35 ); the arrangement of camp (chs 2–3; 10 ); laws pertaining to women (ch 5; 27.1–11; chs 30; 36 ); holy days ( 9.1–14; 15.32–36; chs 28–29 ); impurity and holiness ( 5.1–4; chs 6; 16–17; 19; 35 ); sacrifices and offerings (chs 7; 15; 28–29 ); and distribution of the land ( 27.1–11; chs 32; 34–36 ). For suggestions on reading the legal sections, see the Introduction to the book of Leviticus. Any reading of the legal material in Numbers must ultimately be done in the larger context of the Priestly writings in Leviticus and Exodus. Numbers also contains a few poetic passages. Some of these are especially difficult, and might be studied together and in connection with the style of the Psalms ( 6.24–26; 10.35–36; 20.14–15,17–18,27–30; 23.7–10,18–24; 24.3–9,15–24 ).