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Count Me Out! Numbers 1

We finished Leviticus. This was no small feat, and I appreciate all of you who hung with the extended time that took. On a personal note, I am finishing up the three most intense school terms I think I have had or will have (at least until the next academic level) and so will hopefully be more brain-able to write on a regular basis.

We come now to Numbers. A great deal of time could be spent on authorship for Numbers, just as it could for all the other books of the Pentateuch. I think there is evidence to consider regarding whether or not Moses is truly the sole author of these books, but that evidence is not strong enough to cast aside that traditional view. Given that the New Testament upholds in Luke, John, Acts, Romans, and more the general idea of Moses as the ‘author’ of the Law, then I think we can hold it as the right view. I do not think this precludes later editing. I recent wrote some articles for the Arkansas Baptist News. A very wonderful editor (actually, an assistant editor, I know Tim didn’t do it) helped it make sense. Yet does she get credit? No, it went in the paper with my name on it. So, some later edits, like updated place names, are not incompatible with Mosaic authorship for the Pentateuch.

With Moses in mind, taking notes as he goes about leading the people from Egypt to the Promised Land, what have we in Numbers?

Other than, of course, one of the more maligned books of the Old Testament. After all, it’s just a bunch of ‘begats’ in the KJV and that doesn’t make good reading. All those names you can’t pronounce, all those statistics. It’s a bore.

Actually, it’s not a bore. True, the genealogies are a hill to climb for reading. They are also helpful for practicing your Bible-name pronunciation. Just work through them, slowly. Use a newer Bible translation, and sound the word out as you were taught in school. Don’t be intimidated: the problem is more in your mind than with the word. It won’t be long and you’ll wish your favorite ballplayers were named  Ammishaddai and Pedahzur.

There are two major things I want to highlight in Numbers 1. The first is something to tuck away for future reference: take note of the sizes of the tribes and the whole community at the beginning of the book. There will be comings and goings and issues arriving in the narrative that should greatly reduce the population. However, the final count is within five percent of the original count. That’s pretty good retention.

The other matter that is worth your attention is this number: zero. None. Nada. Zilch.

You get the point. This is how many Levites were counted by Moses in the census. Not a single one. This matters because of the job of the Levites in ancient Israel. The Levites were responsible for caring for the worship materials of the nation and for teaching God’s Word to the people.

Yet they go uncounted. There could have been a lot of them. There could have been a few of them. The numbers are just not present. Why should we care? After all, we need not a Tabernacle nor an Ark of the Covenant in these years since the Cross. I think we can take some ideas here without overblowing the symbolism. Here are a few thoughts:

1. The Levites were to do the work of God no matter their numbers. While a census of fighting men shows who you should, and shouldn’t, tangle with, the work of teaching and sharing about the grace of God must be done, even if you find yourself short-staffed and overmatched.

2. The Levites were to do the work of God and He was able to bring it to fruition. A reliance on themselves would be counterproductive: the point was that God worked through them and in them.

3. The Levites were a precursor to, well, us. Christians are a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5) and bear a similar responsibility to this world that the Levites bore to the nation of Israel. They were to teach the Word and show the way to worship. They were to be examples of passion for God and righteousness lived-out.

This is us. We are to be, as the Levites, the unnumbered multitude that sets out to do the work of spreading the Word of God. This will not always go smoothly, and sometimes we will feel scattered out. The Levites were, too, as we see in Numbers: they do not receive a “territory” but instead get cities scattered throughout the Land. Additionally, they get the six cities for murderous criminals and accidental killers to flee into as well.

If we as Christian people would focus our efforts on worshiping fully, living out our faith, teaching the Word of God, and being a place of redemption and justice, we might find our time better spent than when we are haggling about census-taking. If the Levites could do it, so can we.

Today’s Nerd Note: There are issues to consider dealing with the large numbers in the book of Numbers. If these numbers are to be taken as literally as we would take a population count today, then the size of the people of Israel gets pretty unwieldy. Additionally, given the city sizes in the land of Canaan, there should have been no fear for Israel compared to each individual city: they would have massively outnumbered each separate foe.

Our options are:

1. Toss the numbers in Numbers. This is not an acceptable decision to me, as there is no textual ground to cut holes in the scroll and leave out what was recorded.

2. Allegorize the numbers in Numbers. Or treat them in some other non-literal fashion, that these numbers represent something, not that they represent the true count of Israelites. I’m not a fan of this idea. While it is possible, it certainly appears that the intent is to provide an accurate, if rounded, count of Israelite warriors.

3. Take the numbers in Numbers literally. In other words, treat 10,000 like it means….10,000. This is the simplest solution and should be the default position for any section of Scripture that we find hard to accept. We accept it unless proper study of the material gives another textually-derived and compatible idea. While the logistics of the huge Israelite migration would be hard, it is not impossible and there is no over-compelling reason to abandon this view.

4. Take the numbers in Numbers literally….but watch the words. The Hebrew of Scripture uses letters for numbers (not uncommon in those days) and then adds words to make things like “42 thousands.” It is possible that “thousands” could be taken as a military term, like “legion” or “battalion” or “platoon.” Why would that matter? Well, 42 thousands, for example, is then possibly not 42,000. It could be 42 platoons. Which becomes a flexible number, because even today’s military units use differing sizes for those unit types.

I see the logic in this fourth view, and it is textually-derived. If the overall view of the Hebrew terms is found to support that concept, I would be glad to see Bibles use this form for translation.

Until then, I’m hesitant to stake a decision between view 3 and view 4. In an academic setting, I would lean towards 4 but would not make it a point of preaching. What about you?


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