The case for reading the book of Numbers (no, seriously)

Some things just do exactly what it says on the tin. The book of Numbers includes the results of two censuses so the first thing it is, is honest. The second thing it is, so popular opinion goes…is really boring.

I would beg to differ though. Numbers is one of my favourite books of the Old Testament. Let me tell you why:

  1. Only bits of it are boring. OK, chapter 1-4 are deadly dull, chapter 7 is hard going and chapters 26, 33-35 make you want to sob with boredom but the other 27 chapters are a rollicking good read;
  2. It can be difficult to follow given that narrative is interspersed with laws – to the point where some commentators have called Numbers “the junk room of the priestly code”. But there is method in the structure and content with the laws drawing out meaning from the narratives and vice versa;
  3. Numbers’ setting is the wilderness and takes us from Sinai to the Plains of Moab, at the borders of the Promised Land. It gives us another viewpoint into those years in the wilderness which shows some fascinating insights;
  4. It gives insights into the character of God and the people of God, and how ritual (and the external rhythms of faith) organised their lives while still impacting their interior spiritual world;
  5. There are some amazing stories that are found nowhere else in the Bible that deepen our knowledge and understanding of God.

It’s OK to glaze over a bit in the boring parts, but I highly recommend getting through those so you can access the riches in the stories of the beginning of the Israelite hatred of Edom, the battles against the Amorites, the prophecies of Balaam (and Balaam’s talking donkey).

You’ll find some of the Numbers material repeated in Deuteronomy which adds another layer of boredom…uh..I mean…interest. The key is to keep reading though. Why are those elements remembered twice? There is importance in what is included and what is not.

Numbers, as it sits between Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is part of the rhythm of the journey of the Israelites. The first five books of the Old Testament particularly are like a grand river that ebbs and flows and twists and turns through a great valley. Numbers is part of the movement of the river. It is powerful and sweet, exciting and mysterious. It was given to us by God so that we might journey that river to discover things along the way, and to lead us towards the final destination.

So even though sections of it might be challenging, it is a profound and significant part of the journey. But leaving aside the short taxing sections, there is a depth and variety in the book of Numbers that enriches our understanding of God and the arc of the Bible as a whole.

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