Sunday, January 23, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Numbers

As the title suggests, the fourth book of the Old Testament deals a lot with counting. It starts (and ends) with a census, numbering the people of Israel by tribes. There are over 600,000 people counted in the first census, but it only counts the men who are over 20 years old and able to go to war, so the population including women and children is much larger. The tribe of Levi's population is also left out of the reckoning because the Levites, as outlined in Leviticus, take care of the holy things and aren't intended to go to war—they're kind of like a whole tribe of clergymen, and though not all of them are priests, all of them have special work to do. The tribes get assigned specific places to camp and move in formation, because organization is important when a nation-sized people group is moving across the desert.

After this, we get procedurals for the Levites in setting up the tabernacle, more laws (including some that I find extra-strange like the “law of jealousies”), instructions on how Nazarite vows work (there aren't many Nazarites in the Bible, perhaps because the rules of observance were so strict—Samson is the one that most people remember, and I think John the Baptist also counts). In Chapter 7, the leaders of each tribe of Israel give very exact offerings to the Lord, and the book is full of other scattered laws and rules and offerings, but mostly this is the book where bad things happen on the road to the promised land.

The Israelites complain and get punished over and over, and their complaints don't even really make sense because they're talking about how wonderful life was in Egypt, the very place they were begging to leave a short while before. Even Moses gets fed up with them and tell God that he doesn't like babysitting these folks. Leadership is not the least bit enjoyable for Moses, but God helps him delegate authority to others so he's not as burdened. The biggest disobedience in the book is when the Israelites are too frightened to go into the promised land of Canaan, so they're punished by having to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

This isn't easy reading, what with all the lists, numbers, and names of people who were obviously mentioned for an important reason but who don't speak or seem to actively affect any of the happenings in the book. But out of the seldom-mentioned characters, a few become important later on, like Joshua and Caleb who were the only two scouts who said that the Israelites should go ahead and enter Canaan, and were the only two men of their generation who got to survive the 40 years of wandering. I also like the story of Zelophehad's daughters, five sisters who petition Moses so they can inherit their father's property since he didn't have any male heirs.

Despite all the plagues and setbacks the Israelites experience, they're still protected as a nation. They fight a few battles and conquer some mighty people, so they are still a nation to reckon with in this harsh world where big mistakes have even bigger consequences.

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