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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Numbers - Introduction

The book of Numbers, named for its census lists, is the most complex of the books of the Pentateuch. This can be seen in the variety of types of literature represented, e.g. lists, itineraries, various statutes, ritual and priestly prescriptions, poetic oracles, songs, wilderness stories, and even a well-known benediction ( 6:22–7 ). The interweaving of law and narrative characteristic of Exodus and Deuteronomy is most evident in Numbers; specific statutes again and again emerge from specific life situations, revealing a dynamic relationship of law and life.

Moreover, some of these texts border on the bizarre, with talking donkeys, curses from a non-Israelite diviner turned into blessings that have messianic implications, the earth swallowing up people, copper snakes that have healing powers, an almond-producing rod, an execution for picking up sticks on the sabbath, Miriam turning leprous, and repulsive instructions for discerning a wife's faithfulness. One is tempted to claim that these strange goings-on were constructed to match the incredible character of Israel's response to its God. To complicate these matters, God is often depicted in ways that challenge traditional understandings; at times it seems that God's identity is in the process of being shaped too.

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