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Numbers, Theology of
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
Integral to a discussion of the theology of Numbers is an understanding of the book's structure and its relationship to the rest of the Pentateuch. Chronologically Numbers covers Israel's thirty-eight-year wilderness period from the second year after the exodus (10:11-12) until the arrival at the border of the promised land (33:38) while geographically it moves from Mount Sinai to the plains of Moab. Yet neither of these aspects appears to supply the primary motivation for the book's structure. The earlier dates of 7:1,9:1 suggest that strict chronological arrangement was not the primary concern and the great visibility given to the beginning and end of the wilderness period while most of the thirty-eight years pass in silence suggests a reason other than geographical locations for its arrangement. The best position seems to be with those scholars who hold that the book was arranged primarily with theological concerns in mind.
Numbers is a book of practical theology and emphasizes the interaction between the sovereign God and his people as recent recipients of the covenant stipulations. Marked by direct address Numbers shows the people's dependence upon God for daily guidance and provisions. This fourth book of the Pentateuch continues many of the themes of the previous three books and anticipates the promised land that becomes so prevalent in the fifth. Therefore, any discussion of a theology of Numbers must be done in relationship to the rest of the Pentateuch.
Numbers portrays God as a God of order. Israel's quick release from Egyptian bondage into an unknown land necessitated a certain amount of structure for the tribes and their families. This book depicts the growth of order in Israel's society as a direct result of God's blessing. In Numbers the distinction between the priests and Levites is presented as the work of God (8:19; 18:1-20) as is the selection of seventy elders to lead the people (11:25). Furthermore, the people witness the transition of leadership from Aaron to Eleazer (20:25-28) and from Moses to Joshua (27:16-23) under God's direction. The theme of God's orderliness, apparent from the days of creation in Genesis, is also reflected in the census lists, camp arrangement, and the order of march.
At God's initiation, a census was taken before and after the wilderness wanderings. For the families and tribes these enumerations provided increased individual significance but for the reader they accentuate the fact that evil and rebellion will not ultimately deter the plan of God (11:23). The camp arrangement, also specified by God, provided order in the midst of a great number of people. It allowed for orderly assemblies that were called by trumpets, clear delineation of duties like those assigned to the levitical families, and military protection since the bulk of the men of arms encircled the Levites and tabernacle. The tabernacle in the midst of the camp and the ark in the tabernacle underscored the centrality of God.
Emphasis on covenant promises along with the blessings and curses of the covenant give further testimony to the continuity of Numbers with the rest of the Pentateuch. The multiplication of Israel, portrayed by the numbering of the people, along with the anticipation of the land remind the reader of the promises given by the Lord to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 17:4-8 ). Consistent with the covenant blessings and curses the Lord provided a way for the priests to bless the people (6:24-27) yet he cursed those who would disobey; whether unbelieving Israel in rebellion (14:29-35) or the nations who opposed his blessing of Israel (21:1-3). So indelible was this promise that the words of Balaam's mouth were guided to produce blessings rather than imprecations against Israel (24:8-9).
The covenant is also an expression of God's faithfulness to his own word. The first census provides an enumeration of those who left Egypt and Sinai but becomes a roster of unbelief (14:29) while the second census provides graphic testimony to the faithfulness of God in bringing his people through the wilderness despite their sin, for even with a shift of numbers among the tribes the total number of the new generation remains essentially the same (1:46; 26:51). God's sovereignty insured covenant stability (23:19).
Grumbling and rebellion are not new themes for Numbers. What is new is the accompanying discipline or judgment by God. God works with his people and holds them accountable for their actions. Instances of the people's rebellious actions permeate the text of Numbers, beginning with their departure from Sinai (11:1) and continuing to the border of Edom (21:4-9). This creates the desired effect that rebellion along with God's judgment was characteristic of the wilderness period. Both groups and individuals took part. Dissatisfaction arose from the people in general (14:1), the Levites (16:1), and even the leaders (12:1) underscoring the pervasiveness of disbelief.
God's reaction to Israel's rebellion was anger (11:1,10, 33; 12:9) or the manifestation of his glory (14:10; 16:19,42; 20:6). Results of the rebellions appear to be progressive in their severity beginning with some who were consumed at the edge of camp (11:1-3) and moving to increasing numbers who die (250 in 16:35; to 14,700 in 16:49). The final rebellion, however, is answered by God's merciful provision of a bronze snake lifted in their midst and accompanied by the instruction to look and live (21:4-9).
These tests by God were met by the people's continued failure whereas Moses responded with intercession for his people and an increasing awareness of God's work in their midst. Yet even Moses, distressed by the continued rebellion of his people, transgressed the limits of the Lord and was disciplined for it. For this violation of God's holiness Moses lost the privilege of leading Israel into the promised land (20:10-12).
One of the key theological themes of Numbers, continued from Exodus-Leviticus, is the holiness of God. It is this aspect of God's character, considered by some to be the central theme of the book, which provides the reason for many of the requirements and commands found in Numbers.
Holiness, directly associated with the presence of God (5:3; 35:34), necessitated that unclean persons (5:1; 19:11-20), events (5:6-7), or objects (31:22-23) be cleansed or be removed from the camp. In addition, priests and Levites, the divine caretakers and mediators of God's holiness, had to be purified before they could serve (8:21) and they alone were charged with the oversight of the holy things (4:4), which they could not touch (4:15) or even look at (4:20)! Violation of the holiness of God or his commands brought plague (8:19), exile (5:3; 12:14), or death (9:13; 15:35).
The grace of God, also evident in Numbers, should be understood in relationship to his holiness. His willingness to forgive Israel was seen as a manifestation of his grace but not in opposition to his holiness (14:18-19). The people were held responsible for their actions (14:22-23,40-41) and Moses' challenge"be sure that your sin will find you out" (32:23)was a reminder of their continued responsibility as they anticipated entering the land.
The Lord's presence, symbolized by the ark, was manifested by the cloud and fire that led Israel from place to place (9:17-18; 33:1-49). His desire for his people was for them to be holy but at least one group attempted to turn this holy calling against God's choice of Moses and Aaron in order to provoke a rebellion (16:3). God, however, provided the distinctions of holiness in choosing the priests to serve him (16:5) and in distinguishing between the clean and the unclean (18:15-17). God's people were called to echo that holiness in attitude and action (19:20; 25:11-13). Their desire to return to Egypt was an evidence of unbelief (14:3,11), a violation of their holy calling (32:11), and a rejection of the grace of his presence and provision (11:20).
Failure to obey and failure to evidence his holiness was sin, another key theme of Numbers. The sinfulness of God's people is emphasized in the book by the many rebellions and the ensuing judgment from God. The well-known thirty-eight years of wandering, a direct result of God's judgment upon their unbelief, is only one of many such lapses.
The major theological theme developed in the New Testament from Numbers is that sin and unbelief, especially rebellion, reap the judgment of God. First Corinthians specifically says (and Hebrews 3:7-4:13; strongly implies) that these events were written as examples for the believer to observe and avoid (1 Corinthians 10:6,11 ).
Numbers, however, affirms that sin and rebellion will not thwart the purposes of God. A generation is lost but the plan of God moves forward. God's intercessor speaks for the people and God forgives (14:19-20). The people rebel, repent, and rebel again but God continues to move them toward the promised land. Eventually the land comes in sight and they continue to witness the gracious provision of God.
Anticipation of the promised land is on the horizon throughout the Book of Numbers but it increasingly comes into focus as God's gift and the fulfillment of his promise toward the end of the wilderness journeys. The diversity of topics found in chapter 21 (after the deaths of Aaron and Miriam) conclude the rebellion narratives, announce movement toward the promised land, and anticipate the Balaam oracles where Israel's success over its enemies and the neighboring nations are prophetically stated. The main emphasis on the land is found in chapters 26-36. Here, matters of inheritance, land boundaries, and future regulations look forward to possession of the long-awaited gift from God.
Among the most intriguing passages in Numbers are the Balaam oracles. These chapters (22-24), which do not mention Moses, offer powerful testimony to the sovereignty of God. God controls the mouth of the donkey and the mouth of Balaam. Emphasizing the covenant of Abraham, the curse becomes a blessing (23:8,20, 25-26; 24:9), a fact which Balaam recognizes and a major theme of the oracles. In addition, the size, beauty, prosperity, strength, and victory of Israel, all alluded to by Balaam, attest to God's continued work with his people and the blessings which lie ahead. Balaam's oracles include a striking statement about the nature of God as being not human but truthful (23:19) and a promise linking the Messiah with the tribe of Judah (24:17). Such positive messages on the heels of the wilderness period bear witness to God's elective grace toward Israel.
In the canon, Numbers relates most directly to material from the Pentateuch but both the Old Testament and New Testament make frequent reference to the wilderness period and events from that time. Jesus himself uses the lifting of the serpent in the wilderness as a type of his crucifixion (John 3:14 ). The Old Testament assesses the wilderness wanderings from a dual perspective, understanding it both as a time of rebellion and sin and as a time of God's grace and provision. Both perspectives are true and are not to be set against each other but, instead, reveal God's relationship and work with his people as preparatorya perspective reflected by Moses' statement that "the Lord has promised good things to Israel" (10:29).
Robert D. Spender
Bibliography . P. J. Budd, Numbers; B. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture; G. W. Coats, Rebellion in the Wilderness; V. P. Hamilton, Handbook of the Pentateuch; R. K. Harrison, Numbers; J. Milgrom, Numbers; J. Oswalt, ZPEB, 4:462-68; G. J. Wenham, Numbers .
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Numbers, Theology of'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bed/​n/numbers-theology-of.html. 1996.