Numbers 1: Is Numbers Necessary?
Welcome to my new Bible blog-series on the book of Numbers. Why am I bothering with Numbers? Isn’t this one of the most boring books in the Bible? Wasn’t it written so long ago that it can’t possibly be relevant today? Isn’t it just downright weird? If you’re asking these questions, you’re not alone, and I’m not surprised. I’ve asked all of them myself over the years, and the very reason I’m writing this is because I believe I’ve found some satisfactory answers. Although you might rank Numbers up there with Leviticus as one of the books of the Bible best avoided – in fact you could probably be a perfectly good Christian and never read either book – the truth is that this book is well worth reading.
To be honest a lot of those same questions and doubts also came up when I was writing about Leviticus, and if you read any of that series I hope you’ll see that there is value behind the weirdness. Nor are these questions new – Christians have been asking them for many centuries. Even the great Christian teacher Origen, as early as the 3rd century AD, spoke of Numbers as ‘heavy and burdensome food’. If you struggle with Numbers, I hope it makes you feel better to know that such a spiritual giant in church history struggled too.
This book has acquired a bad reputation, partly through having a bad name. ‘Numbers’ makes it sound like it’s just a book of lists, something only accountants would enjoy. Its Hebrew name is both more interesting and more accurate: Bemidbar means ‘In the Desert/Wilderness’ – this is a book about the adventures, and misadventures, of the Israelites in the desert. Unlike Leviticus, It contains a lot of narrative and that storytelling actually makes a really good read. Another Hebrew name literally picks up on the first few words: Wayedabber, meaning ‘And He [the Lord] spoke’ – this is a book about God speaking. And when God speaks, it’s always worth paying attention. He speaks a lot to Moses in this book, words intended both for the Israelites back then, but also for us now.
Numbers is not an easy book and it’s not as heart-warming as, say, Philippians. It’s long, and there are lists. The tribes of Israel are listed in chapter 1, chapter 7 is one long repetitive list of offerings and chapter 26 is another list of names. There’s also a fairly dull travel itinerary in chapter 33. But that’s only four chapters out of 36. You see, Numbers does have lists, but it’s not all about the lists. And yes, it does have weird bits. We’ve got the bizarre ritual for marital unfaithfulness in chapter 5, a bronze snake in chapter 21 and a talking donkey in chapter 22. Surely read this book just for the talking donkey? (though I’m pretty sure he doesn’t sound like Donkey in Shrek…)
Actually Numbers is full of great stories and incredible drama. After some lengthy intro we get successive rebellions, spy missions and the ground opening up and swallowing people in an epic showdown. We have great victories and tragic defeats, curses and blessings, bread from heaven and water from the rock. This is an epic tale of a nation’s struggle to reach the Promised Land. At the start it’s only the second year since the Exodus, but by the end, 40 years later, the first tribes are starting to settle in the Promised Land. It may take them a long time, it may involve many mistakes and mis-steps along the way, but gradually the grace of God guides them and starts to fulfill those promises about the land, given so long ago to Abraham (Gen 12:7).
Jesus Himself looks back on the events of Numbers and shows how He is the ultimate fulfilment of some of them (John 3:14). Paul too looks back on Numbers at the start of 1 Corinthians 10, warning us to learn from this common history so we can avoid making the same mistakes the Israelites did. If Jesus and Paul were mindful of Numbers, we should be mindful too. The Old Testament has enduring relevance as the essential backdrop to Jesus and guidance on how to follow God. Numbers is no different from other Old Testament books in that it reveals much about God and contains many clues about Jesus.
Numbers is made up of law, history and dialogue. It’s an epic journey, a tragic story and a testament to God’s grace and faithfulness, no matter how faithless His people are. It shows us the need to hold fast to God’s promises and how important it is to trust Him no matter what the obstacles. It reveals the rewards of those who persevere in following God and the fate of the faithless. There’s so much we can learn from this book. If you want an easy read, don’t read Numbers. If you’re only interested in an easy Christianity, Numbers will come as a big shock. But if you’re on your own epic journey and struggling to keep trusting God through the storms of life, then this book is essential reading.
“The Lord spoke…” (1:1) – let Him speak to you as we explore this book together. Come back next week for more.
- A bit of a disclaimer. This blog-series is not intended to be a commentary or to thoroughly unpack everything in Numbers. If you want that, the best book I can recommend is Raymond Brown’s The Message of Numbersin the IVP Bible Speaks Todayseries. Instead my blogs pick up on things that stood out to me and that I wanted to explore. What I’m trying to do here is make Numbers accessible for beginners, to clear away some hurdles and help people see the incredible riches in this book. If I succeed hopefully you’ll read Numbers differently from now on and maybe want to go and learn more. Whatever happens, I hope you enjoy the series and benefit from it. God bless.