Numbers - Introduction
THE FOURTH BOOK OF THE TORAH, Numbers, recounts memorable events of the Israelite wanderings from Sinai, God's mountain, to the plains of Moab, just opposite the promised land. Thus, Numbers continues the story begun in Exodus and continued in Leviticus of the escape from Egyptian servitude, the desert journey to Mount Sinai, the revelation at Sinai and giving of the law, and the building of the Tabernacle with instruction on its operation. The Hebrew name of this book, Bemidbar, “in the wilderness [of Sinai],” taken from the fifth Hebrew word in chapter 1 , reflects this theme. In contrast, the English name, Numbers, derives from the Greek translation, the Septuagint, which titled the book after the censuses mentioned in the first four chapters. This Greek name reflects an earlier Hebrew name for the book, well‐attested in classical rabbinic sources, from a period when books of the Torah were named thematically rather than after one of their initial words.
Numbers is a complex collection of texts containing an assortment of interwoven literary genres: historical narratives, legal texts, ritual prescriptions, and poetic folk traditions. Its final form reflects a long and intricate literary history. Modern critical scholarship—based on stylistic, linguistic, and contextual criteria—identifies separate sources underlying the final version of the book. (See essay “Modern Study of the Bible,” pp. 2084–96.) Primarily, the texts derive from various layers of the Priestly school (P), with additional texts from the two older narrative sources, the Yahwist (J) and Elohist (E). The predominant Priestly material often functions to expand, supplement, or recast ideologically the earlier (JE) texts to fit the agenda of Priestly circles. The lengthy Balaam pericope (chs 22–24 ) in its entirety stands untouched by the Priestly writer and may represent the hand of yet another author(s), neither J, E, or P. Jewish tradition, on the other hand, views the seemingly disparate texts in Numbers as a single work written by Moses. Although critical scholarship does not recognize Mosaic authorship, it has begun to emphasize the merits of a holistic approach, one that studies the parts in the context of the whole.
The book of Numbers can easily be divided by subject and other criteria into several primary units; these can be further subdivided into smaller sections and subsections. It is, however, often difficult to determine the relationship between contiguous segments. Based on geographical criteria and ideological motifs, three major units can be distinguished, reflecting a literary sandwich of sorts: ( 1 ) the final encampment at Sinai andpreparation to resume the wilderness trek ( 1.1–10.10 ); ( 2 ) the generation‐long march in the desert from Sinai to Moab ( 10.11–22.1 ); ( 3 ) the encampment on the plains of Moab and preparation to enter Canaan ( 22.2–36.13 ). Unit one marks the period when Israel, with God's law in hand, readies itself for the desert march to its final destination. This is the first time that the people enter the wilderness while they are bonded by covenant to the LORD. The wanderings in the second unit form a bridge between the first and last units. The slave generation dies in the desert and a new generation matures. In unit three this new generation prepares to embark on a journey once more, this time to enter the promised land as a free‐born national entity.