If you are using a Study Bible or a Bible that give you an introduction to the Book, I would encourage you to take time to read the introduction to the chapter provided in your Bible to bring new insight. I use The New Oxford Annotated Bible as my study Bible. There are a few nuggets of helpful insight that it conveys that I want to pass along to you.
First, the English title “Numbers” is based primarily on the numbering or census of the people related in chapter 1-4 and again in chapter 26. The census and the organization of the tribes reminds me of my own family origins—what sets us apart or makes us unique and what keeps us all connected? How do we stay connected and how do we relate to one another? These are important questions for families but also communities as we grow and change and journey through the wilderness with one another.
Second, while five of the 36 chapters of Numbers outline the censuses of the people, the other chapters are filled with stories and narratives that portray a people who found that, in the strange providence of God, the journey from promise to fulfillment led them through the wilderness. In the Hebrew Bible, the book is appropriately called “In the Wilderness,” referring to the long period, traditionally forty years, the people of Israel spent in the wilderness. So, don’t let the name fool you or cause you to skip through this book.
Third, again, the introduction of my study Bible implores that the narrative in Numbers do not idealize the wilderness period. Again and again the people complained, sensing the contrast between the relative security of slavery in Egypt and the precarious insecurity of freedom in the wilderness. You will see the power struggles among the leaders. You will see the crises that threatened faith in God’s presence in the midst and God’s guidance into the future. Ultimately, you will see that God is faithful to God’s promises made to Israel’s ancestors.
The less than idyllic depiction of Israel’s time in the wilderness exposes several questions you may have struggled with in relation to the Bible and issues of power, violence and God. The passage from Numbers 31:25-54 draws specific attention to the issue of how to treat the “other.” The Israelites have captured a land and claimed “all persons, oxen, donkeys, sheep, and goats” as part of the war-time spoils dividing them up and offering a portion as sacrifice. This is not the first and especially not the last time we will read about God ordaining the destruction of another people. What are the dangers of relating God and violence so closely? How is God used in this story and in our own cultural story to make meaning out of violence?
When reading texts such as these in the Old Testament we sometimes run the danger of two extremes. On the one end we are tempted to dismiss such writing as distant to us, thinking “oh, that was then” or “that’s an ancient practice, we don’t do that.” Placing distance on the text keeps these uncomfortable moments at bay and the questions that come along with it like: where is God in violent situations? On the other end of the spectrum, we can identify too closely with such violent text, projecting our current situations onto them. This is dangerous because we can often lose the voice of the text to hear what we want the text to say. Between these two poles of reading is a third reading of the text that recognizes the context of the Israelite people, but also recognizes that it is a human story about human people, thus we may at times be able to see ourselves in the text. Reflecting on the text also involves reflecting on what you bring to the text and how it influences your reading.