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Friday Bible Blogging - Numbers 1 to Numbers 10

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

BibleThis week I start on my fourth book of the Bible, Numbers. While Numbers cover a portion of the Jewish legend that people are somewhat familiar with - wandering the desert for 40 years - it's not the same type of instantly recognizable stories like those found in Genesis or Exodus. Numbers takes its name from a series of censuses that were supposedly conducted and recorded in this book.

Numbers, Chapter 1

Chapter 1 starts right off with the Lord commanding the Israelites to conduct a census, "Take a census of the whole congregation of Israelites, in their clans, by ancestral houses, according to the number of names, every male individually; 3 from twenty years old and upwards, everyone in Israel able to go to war." Note that it was only males who were to be counted. Then came a list of the representatives from each tribe to help with the census, then the results of the census itself from eleven tribes (the Levites weren't counted). It was tedious, with the wording being nearly identical for each tribe, with just the names and numbers changed. The result of the census - "from twenty years old and upwards, everyone able to go to war in Israel-- 46 their whole number was six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty." Even the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) called that number impossible.

The chapter closed with instructions to the Levites on taking care of the tabernacle. They were supposed to set up their tents surrounding the tabernacle to keep the rest of the Israelites away, "so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the Israelites". Any one who got close was supposed to be put to death.

Numbers, Chapter 2

This chapter gave instructions on where each of the tribes were supposed to set up their individual camps in the context of the grand encampment. The tabernacle went in the center, surrounded by the Levites, with the other tribes set up around them. There were also specific instructions on what order the tribes were supposed to go in when the camp moved from one location to another.

Numbers, Chapter 3

This chapter dealt mostly with the Levites - how they were to help Aaron and his descendents, particularly at the tent of meeting and the tabernacle, but not as priests themselves. God referred back to his claim of all the firstborn that he made in Exodus, "I hereby accept the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the firstborn that open the womb among the Israelites. The Levites shall be mine, 13 for all the firstborn are mine; when I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both human and animal; they shall be mine. I am the Lord." Next was a breakdown of all the clans of the Levites and their duties to perform. The Kohathites were given the most important task, being responsible for the ark. Then it was back to the claim on the first born. All the firstborn male Israelites over a month old were tallied. There were 22,273 of them - 273 more of them than total Levite males. So, most of them were redeemed one for one by the Levites, but 273 had to pay 5 shekels apiece. It makes you wonder how they figured out who were the ones who had to pay.

Numbers, Chapter 4

This chapter contained more detail on the tasks assigned to each of the clans of the Levites. It got pretty detailed, down to table cloths and utensils. The Kohathites were warned that even though it was their task to work in the most holy section of the tabernacle and to carry the most sacred objects, they were never to look at the objects or touch them, lest they would die. Just to be clear, Aaron and the priests would cover the objects before the camp set out again, so that the Kohathites could carry them by the handles without actually looking at them.

Numbers, Chapter 5

This chapter started with a few miscellaneous rules. First were instructions to keep outside the camp all lepers, anyone who had a discharge, or who became unclean by touching a corpse. The were instructions on how to make restitution when one person had done someone else wrong (of course, it involved an animal sacrifice).

The majority of the chapter dealt with a ritual to be performed if a husband suspected his wife of cheating. He took her to the priest, who performed the ritual inside the tabernacle. It included mixing into water dust from the floor of the tabernacle and the rinsed off ink that had been used to write a curse, and making the woman drink it. If she was innocent, nothing would happen, but if she was guilty, she would miscarry if she was pregnant and become barren. According to the NOAB, while some people see this is a trial by ordeal, others don't think it was especially dangerous to the woman, and that the Israelites trusted God to enact any punishments. Seen from a modern perspective, it makes you feel bad for innocent women who just happened to miscarry after this ritual. And the whole thing just comes off as remarkably sexist - numerous times the it's said that the woman is under the husband's authority. And its telling that the ritual is only for a woman. There wasn't a similar ritual for men, and in fact, men were allowed to have multiple wives.

Numbers, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 was all about nazirites. These were people who took a special vow, and had to follow numerous rules to keep that vow. They weren't allowed to cut their hair, nor go near corpses (even their family), and there were special rituals and sacrifices they had to perform. There doesn't appear to be a lot of consensus among modern scholars as to just exactly what the role of nazirites was.

Numbers, Chapter 7

Once the tabernacle was completed and consecrated, the tribes all brought their offerings. It was the exact same offering every day for twelve days straight, from pretty much the same groups named in the census. In the end, there were the 12 wagons the offerings were delivered with, 12 silver plates, 12 silver basins, 12 gold dishes, bulls, rams, lamps, goats, grain offerings, and more.

Numbers, Chapter 8

This was a pretty short chapter. The first part dealt with details on how to setup the lamps in the tabernacle. The rest of the chapter was on cleansing the Levites to make the worthy to serve the Lord. There were animal sacrifices, grain offerings, and rituals. There was one statement that caught my eye (though similar to previous statements), "Moreover, I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the Israelites, to do the service for the Israelites at the tent of meeting, and to make atonement for the Israelites, in order that there may be no plague among the Israelites for coming too close to the sanctuary." The presence of God was a dangerous thing in the Old Testament.

Numbers, Chapter 9

The Lord commanded the Israelites to celebrate the Passover. There were a couple clarifications to previous rules concerning the celebration. People who were unclean at the appointed time were allowed to keep the Passover a month later. And people who were journeying were not required to celebrate the Passover.

The last several verses of the chapter repeated a description of the routine that the Israelites would follow while wandering the desert. The Lord would appear as a cloud of fire. When he remained over the tabernacle, they would stay camped there, sometimes for a single day, sometimes for months. When he left the tent, the Israelites would pack up camp and follow him.

Numbers, Chapter 10

At the beginning of Chapter 10, the Lord gave the Israelites instructions to make two silver trumpets to use to signal various occasions. One trumpet being blown signaled an assembly of the Israelite leaders. Both trumpets meant it was time to break camp and set out on a journey. The horns were also to be used before going into battle "so that you may be remembered before the Lord your God and be saved from your enemies", as if God needed reminding. There were also to be used for celebrations

In verse 11, they broke camp for the first time after arriving at Mt. Sinai. Everybody followed their roles that they had been instructed in. Moses also convinced his father-in-law to travel with them, since his father-in-law knew the wilderness and would be able to help them on their journeys.


So far, Numbers has been mostly rules and lists of people and objects. At least there was a little bit of a continuation of the narrative.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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