Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Numbers 1-4: Let's Talk Math

It took me a while to get this far, because honestly, this book gave me some trouble from the beginning. I kept getting distracted by the fact that there were so many dang Israelites, and I didn't know if the numbers in the Bible were reasonable. I since found a site that really helped me out (click here).

Anyway. This is a difficult book for me to read when I'm trying to learn things about God. Why? Because so far it's a lot of lists and counts and repetition. It's very easy to start skimming and write it off as not important. I mean, how many sermons have you ever heard on any of the first four of Numbers? Speaking for myself, I haven't heard any (although I'm sure there have been some - my parents' church is reading through the Bible in a year and the sermons each Sunday reflect the week's readings).

I was going to do the first six chapters in this post, but chapters 5 and 6 are really on a different subject, so I'll do those next.

Here's the first four chapters of this book in a nutshell:

  • Chapter 1: All the men in Israel who are of fighting age (20 or older) are counted. The heads of each tribe and the number of fighting men in each tribe is given. The Levites aren't numbered because they don't fight.
  • Chapter 2: God tells Moses where each tribe should camp (north side, west side, etc.), and it tells you again who the head of each tribe is and how many fighting men are in each tribe, in case you had forgotten.
  • Chapter 3: Now the Levites get numbered (all the males 1 month old and up), but they are given jobs in the tabernacle. Each clan has a different area of focus. Then all the firstborn sons of Israel are numbered, and the numbers of the Levites are supposed to match up, but there are 273 fewer Levites so the Levites get 5 shekels for every man they lack. This is part of the redemption of the firstborn thing that I'll come back to.
  • Chapter 4: The duties of each of the three Levite clans are explained, and they're counted again but only the men between ages 30-50.
So as you can see, not a lot happens. What can we learn about God from this passage? What does the author, Moses or whoever, want us to know from reading this?

I think the first and most obvious answer is history. Judaism revolves around the exodus from Egypt. What happened between Goshen and Canaan is not only the basis their holidays, dietary customs, and moral code; it is their heritage. My family has this book of genealogical records that reads like this:
  1. (first and last name) and wife, (first and last name).
    1. (1st kid's name)
    2. (2nd kid's name)
    3. (3rd kid's name, etc.)
  2. (1st kid's name) and wife, (first and last name).
    1. (1st kid's name)
    2. (2nd kid's name)
You get the picture. That's all the book is. Why the heck would somebody want to write about that? Because it's history. It tells me where I came from and to whom I belong. There's not a single complete sentence, or even a verb, in the whole thing, but from reading it I learn a lot about my past. I think Numbers is kind of the same way.

In keeping with that, I think another main point of Numbers is that it's history, not fantasy. The numbers in this book are intended as real numbers. Figurative and symbolic numbers in the Bible are generally 3, 7, 10, 12, and 40 (and a few multiples), along with "ten thousand times ten thousand" and "seventy times seven." The author of this book intends for the audience to know that what they are reading is a real story.

Let's keep going with that thought. When God spoke to Abraham and promised to make him a great nation, He gave a figurative number as well: "as numerous as the stars in the sky, and as countless as the sand on the seashore" - that's how many descendants Abraham would have, right? Now in Numbers, we see that God has turned that figurative number into a real number. The promise that existed only as an idea for so long has become a reality, and we can see that the Hebrews are a huge group of people, perhaps 2 million or more in total. God was faithful to Abraham in making his descendants numerous, and because of that, we can trust that God will be faithful to give Abraham's descendants the land He promised them as well, even though we won't see it happen for a few more books.

Now I would like to talk about the redemption of the firstborn. This seems to come up a lot in the Torah, and always under different circumstances. We first saw in Exodus 13 that God said the firstborn of every human and animal belonged to Him and was sanctified (set apart), because of the plague of the firstborn that freed the Hebrews from slavery. Because of this, every firstborn had to be redeemed (bought back). The animals and the sons were redeemed by sacrificing a lamb. Next, in Exodus 22:29-30, we see God mention giving the firstborn of their sons to Him again. Exodus 34 repeats what we saw in chapter 13. Finally here, in Numbers 3:40-51, it says that the firstborn sons are redeemed moreover by the Levites, who do not own any land or fight in battle but are constantly serving as priests, intercessors between God and man. That's why there were supposed to be as many Levites as there were firstborn sons, but they were just short so they had to substitute with money.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what all the symbolism behind this concept means. On the surface, it's plain that God wanted the people to know they belonged to Him, and that their possessions - whether livestock or their own children - were a gift that He had given and could take away, as He took the firstborn of all Egypt. I feel like there's more to this, but I don't know what. If anybody has studied this passage, please elaborate on it for me.

Numbers is a difficult book because it appears so surfacey. I think, though, that there's a lot more depth to it, and that the more I read it the more I will understand. As I posted in my Xanga the other day, I'm glad that I don't understand this book very well, because it reminds me of how much more the Bible has to teach me.