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

Structure.

1.

The structure of Numbers, often thought to be non-existent, is best seen from two angles, those of the census lists and the geography of a journey.

2. The Census Lists

(for detail, see Olson 1985 ). The over-arching structure of the book is laid out in terms of its two census lists (chs. 1; 26 ). The first registers the generation that experienced the Exodus and the giving of the law at Sinai, which is prepared to move towards the land of promise. When faced with dangers, however, the people do not trust the promise; they experience God's judgement ( 14:32–3 ) and finally, in the wake of apostasy, die off in a plague ( 25:9 ). Even Moses and Aaron mistrust God and are prohibited from entering the land ( 20:12 ); only the faithful scouts, Caleb and Joshua, and the young ( 14:29 ) are allowed to do so. The oracles of Balaam (chs. 22–4 ) provide a hopeful sign of things to come, as God blesses the insiders through this outsider.

3.

The second census (ch. 26 ) lists the members of the new generation (though no births are reported in Numbers). They are a sign of God's continuing faithfulness to ancestral promises and will enter the land. The following texts (chs. 27–36 ) raise issues focused on the future in the land. No deaths, no murmurings, and no rebellions against the leadership are in view, while various hopeful signs are presented. This new generation is the audience for Deuteronomy.

4.

Generally speaking, the censuses include representatives from each of the twelve tribes. This inclusiveness may have functioned in the wake of various devastating events in Israel's history as an assurance that all tribes were included among the chosen (see Douglas 1993 ).

5. The Geography of a Journey.

The movement through Numbers can also be tracked in terms of three stages of a journey toward the fulfilment of the land promise, with all the problems encountered along the way in spite of careful preparations. The itinerary of 33:2–49 emphasizes the importance of the journey as such, apart from specific occasions. Laws are integrated into the story, providing for an ongoing ordering of the community as it encounters new situations. The positive opening and closing sections enclose a sharply negative picture.

(a) Numbers begins with the people still situated at Sinai, preparing to leave ( 1:1–10:10 ). That includes the organization of the camp and various statutes, especially regarding the sanctuary and its leadership. A somewhat idealistic picture emerges: a community ordered in all ways appropriate to God's dwelling in the centre of the camp, and the precise obedience to every divine command (e.g. 1:17–19, 54 ). The reader may wonder how anything could go wrong.

(b) In episodic fashion, Israel moves through the wilderness from Sinai to Transjordan ( 10:11–25:18 ). The disjunction with the opening (and closing) chapters is remarkable: obedience to God's command turns to rebellion; trust becomes mistrust; the holy is profaned; order becomes disorder; the future of the people of God is threatened. Continuities with the wilderness journey story in Ex 15:22–19:1 are seen in the gifts of quail and manna, the ongoing complaints, and military victory; but discontinuities are also sharply presented, evident especially in the conflict among leaders, sin, and divine judgement. Integrated with these journey reports are miscellaneous statutes (chs. 15; 18; 19 ), focused on purification and leadership support, the need for which grows out of these experiences.

(c) The journey concludes in the plains of Moab ( 26:1–36:13 ). This is an entirely positive stage. Conflicts are resolved through negotiation and compromise and land begins to be settled. Various statutes anticipate the future in the land; the community is to so order its life that this new dwelling-place of both God and people will not be polluted.

6.

These three stages may also be characterized in terms of Israel's changing relationship with God, moving from fidelity to unfaithfulness and back to fidelity. But, through all these developments, God remains faithful and does not turn back from the ancestral promises to Israel (articulated most clearly by Balaam). Though Israel's journey involves judgement, that judgement is finally in the service of God's objectives of blessing and salvation.

7.

Such a portrayal mirrors the situation of the implied (exilic) readers of the Pentateuch (for details, see the proposal in Fretheim 1996: 40–65). Israel's apostasy and experience of divine judgement lie in their recent past; signs of a hopeful future are articulated in both law and promise. The paradigm of old generation and new generation would be especially pertinent during the years of exile in a situation which could be seen to have parallels with that of the Israelites in the wilderness.

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