The book of Numbers appears in the first major section of literature in the Bible, that section known as Torah or, in its Greek dress, the Pentateuch. The name of the book in English reflects the Greek title, arithmoi, and arises from various texts at the beginning of the book that refer to the numbers of people counted in a census of Israel (see 1.2). The title of the book in Jewish tradition, bĕmidbar (“in the wilderness”), appears as a key term in the first verse of the book and locates events about to be described. Indeed, the principal topic in the entire book is Moses' leadership of the people of Israel “in the wilderness” under the direction of God.
The book falls into two major sections, 1.1–10.10 and 10.11–36.13. The first section continues the tradition carried in the last part of the book of Exodus and the entire book of Leviticus by reporting items in the legal corpus associated with the gift of the Law at Sinai. The second section picks up the narrative tradition from Exodus 19, a tale that recounts the arrival of Israel at Sinai, by reporting Israel's departure from the holy mountain and the continuation of the wilderness journey. The narrative about the wilderness wanderings does not end with the close of the book of Numbers. Rather, it continues into Deuteronomy, ending with an account of the death of Moses while the people of Israel are poised before the Jordan. Indeed, one must ask whether the narrative does not move beyond the classical definition of Torah or Pentateuch in order to recount traditions about Israel's entry into the land of Canaan in the book of Joshua. In that case, the larger literary context for the book of Numbers would be the Hexateuch.
As a part of the received text of the Bible, the final form of the book of Numbers does not demand interpretation as an independent and distinct unit. It is an intrinsic part of a larger whole. Perhaps the most important point about the position of Numbers in the canonical shape of the Pentateuch/Hexateuch is the juxtaposition of law (Num. 1.1–10.10) and narrative (Num. 10.11–36.13). For the final shape of the book of Numbers, the law carried by the traditions about the events at Sinai cannot be separated from the narrative that declares God's leadership for Israel through the wilderness. Indeed, the legal corpus appears in Numbers and its larger Pentateuchal context simply as a part of the larger theme about Israel's journey in the wilderness. There is a remarkable unity between the book of Numbers and the larger Pentateuchal/Hexateuchal context. But there is a similar mark of unity within the book itself, a unity that binds 1.1–10.10 with 10.11–36.13. Despite its character as legislation that distinguishes it generically from its larger narrative context, the legal section belongs intrinsically with the narrative. It is simply the detail that identifies the importance of Sinai in the larger narrative about events at various sites in the wilderness.
Yet, despite the formal unity in the book of Numbers, some evidence of disunity in the text can nevertheless be detected. Literary analysis of the Pentateuch/Hexateuch has identified at least four strands of narration used in the composition of the text as it now appears. These four sources, identified classically by the labels J, E, D, and P, were used by editors, according to the hypothesis, to construct the present form of the Pentateuchal/Hexateuchal text. Some evidence for such different literary sources appears in Numbers, particularly in the second major section of the book. A clear distinction between the sources J and P emerges, for example, when one considers the character of literary unity in the story about the spies sent by Moses to explore the land that lay before the Israelites (Num. 13–14). On the other hand, little if any evidence for the sources D and E appears in the book of Numbers, nor is there any evidence for J in its first section. The issue of literary unity and the sources focuses on the narrative section in 10.11–36.13. But even at this point, problems posed by an editorial combination of the two sources do not detract from the sense of theological unity in the received text, a unity created by combining the law in the first section with the narrative in the second section. That sense of theological unity resides in the sources as well as in the final edition of the Torah.
The origin of the book of Numbers must be described not only in terms of a literary process of editing that combined the sources J and P but also in terms of a process that brought the traditions as story and law over the generations to the point that produced the written sources. Storytellers must have recited the traditions about Moses or Balaam, Baal Peor or Midian through generations before the written sources appeared.
The tools of the storyteller's trade appear clearly in the narratives of Numbers. The larger narrative context that connects Numbers with the story about Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness is a classic example of a heroic saga, an episodic narrative that moves the story of the hero from his birth (Exod. 2) to his death (Deut. 34). The episodes in the saga include tales such as those in Numbers 13–14 and 16 and legends such as those in 12 and 22–24. A tale describes an event that unfolds in the story around the dramatic structure of a plot. A legend describes a person without emphasis on the drama that embroils the person with other people in a series of events. Indeed, a legend emphasizes a virtue in the person's character that can be imitated by subsequent disciples of the hero. But in addition to the tales and legends of the saga, the narrative in the book of Numbers also contains a fable. In 22.21–35, the famous seer, Balaam, stands under judgment for mistreating his donkey, who can see better than he can. The fable typically demolishes overblown images of the great by showing them in their true colors.
It should be clear that the saga embraces not only the narrative episodes, the tales, legends, and the fable, but also the legal units. In 1.1–10.10, legal genres build the structure of the book just as narrative genres in 10.11–36.13 do. Indeed, some narrative genres appear in the legal section (Num. 6. 21–27); and some legal genres appear in the narrative section (Num. 26.1–65).
The legal genres, like the narrative genres, contribute to the process of developing group identity. The first section in the book, for example, is a legal definition of the people, a list of names that appears as the product of a census. The census no doubt allowed the people as a whole to conscript an army in the face of a crisis. But the more significant feature of the list is its definition of structure in the organization of the people. The twelve‐tribe unity of the people as a whole lies at the center of the tradition. The unit is important for the history of the tradition about the structure of the people, however, because Levi does not appear as a constitutive part of the whole. But in order to hold the number in the organization of the people at twelve, Ephraim takes over the position of Joseph, his father, and Manasseh, the brother of Ephraim, assumes the empty spot in the organization. Numbers 26 contains a parallel to the census text, another census of the people in the wilderness. Again Levi is not counted as one of the tribes in Israel, no doubt a reflection of the same stage in the history of the tradition that appears in chap. 1. In this case, Joseph remains as one of the formal units in the organization of the people. But the same entry, 26.28, breaks the tribe of Joseph into the two constitutive tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh. And 26.35 introduces the sons of Ephraim as a distinct factor in the tribal list. It is essentially the same tradition as the list in chap. 1. In both cases, the census list defines the structure of the people of Israel and thus contributes to specification of national identity, indeed, of legal structure in that national identity. (See Tribes of Israel.)
The concern for identity in terms of statistics continues in chaps. 3–4. Chap. 5 creates a legal structure for securing family stability. Chap. 6 defines the structure of life for the nazirites. In 6.22–27 the series of ordinances controlling domestic life is broken with a small narrative unit that contains the Aaronic blessing for the whole people. Then, 7.1–10.10 specifies cultic ordinances for the people, a significant qualification for Israelite worship. At the heart of these ordinances are specifications for Passover, 9.1–14, and for moving the camp, 9.15–10.36. The couplet in 10.35–36 reflects a formula for moving the ark in whatever context, doubtlessly an ancient formula, but given the meager role for the ark in these narratives, somewhat out of place.
The historical significance of the book of Numbers belongs to the larger context that embraces the book, the historical significance of the Pentateuch/Hexateuch. For the larger context and thus for the book of Numbers, value does not reside in historical accuracy or the lack of historical accuracy. It is not possible to determine, using the standards of verification basic to scholarship, whether a prophet named Balaam really confronted the Israelites with a plan to curse them. The value for the book lies more sharply in the ability of the narrator to paint a portrait of Israel struggling with Balaam, a product that captures by its aesthetic quality a significant witness to Israel's identity. Its aesthetic quality, its ability to depict identity not only for the Israelites in the wilderness under Moses' leadership but for all future disciples of Moses, gives the story value. Indeed, that very quality confirms the claim of the story as true. The book of Numbers is historically significant not because it recounts who Moses was and what he did for the children of Israel in the wilderness but rather because it tells the descendants of Israel, or any other disciples of Moses, who they are.
That historical significance merges in the book of Numbers, as it does in the larger Pentateuchal/Hexateuchal context, with distinctive theological significance. Both story and law tell the disciples of Moses that they belong not simply to Moses, but also to God. The overall structure for the narrative derives from an itinerary that shows the movement of Israel from Egypt to the Jordan. But the itinerary documents not only the movement of Israel along the way in the wilderness but also the leadership of God in that movement (see 10.11–13).
The emphasis falls, however, not only on the presence and leadership of God but also on the obedience of the people to that divine leadership. One facet of the tradition remembers Israel in the wilderness as faithful, obedient to God and to Moses (see Jer 2.2; Hos. 2.14–15). The focus of the legends on obedience to God's word (Num. 12.22–24) highlights this facet of the tradition. But in contrast, the narrative in Numbers reports that the people in the wilderness were rebels, rejecting Moses and the God whom he served. The double picture of Israelite response to God and Moses in the wilderness reflects Israel's struggles to understand its identity.
The story does not end with the end of the book of Numbers. The itinerary structure puts the Israelites on the plains of Moab by the Jordan, opposite Jericho. The conclusion combines that ending of the narrative structure for Numbers with the legal dimension: “These are the commandments and ordinances that the Lord commanded through Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho” (36.13). At the end of Numbers, the reader must ask: “Where do the people go from here? What will they do with the commandments and ordinances?” The book of Numbers necessarily depends not only on the narrative in Deuteronomy but also on the narrative in Joshua to complete the story. The ending calls for recognition of the major literary and theological context as the Hexateuch.
George W. Coats