In any poll of Christian opinion as to the most boring biblical book, Numbers would come second only to Leviticus. Its lengthy census lists, legislation for sacrifices and descriptions of priestly duties do not warm the hearts of most of us.
However, it would be unfortunate if we assumed that any biblical book could speak to us directly across the centuries without the need for cultural translation. Numbers is no exception and the following weeks of study will provide ample opportunity for that. The purpose of this week’s commentary is to gain a perspective on the book as a whole: its narrative context, structure, content and possible application to our contemporary Adventist context.
It is important to see that Numbers occupies a particular place in the biblical story line that has been running since God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. These form the basis for the trajectory of the entire narrative from there to Numbers and beyond. Abraham received three main promises: a) he would become a great nation; b) his relationship with God would be characterized by blessing; c) his descendants would receive the Promised Land.
Every episode in the following story line emphasizes one or more of these promises. Genesis 12-50 picks up the nation promise, as it moves from the birth of Isaac to the enlarged family of Jacob moving to Egypt. Exodus and Leviticus are concerned mostly with God’s relationship to the descendants of Abraham – the legislation of these books is concerned entirely with regulating this relationship. Numbers and Deuteronomy have the promise of land center stage.
The fulfillment of the land promise is no more straightforward than any of the other promises given to Abraham. For example, throughout the Pentateuch’s story the future of the promised nation is threatened by barren wives, alternative “sons”, famines in Canaan, murderous Pharaohs, etc. By the time we arrive at Numbers, therefore, it should hardly come as a surprise that the realization of the land promise is not straightforward either. That is made immediately obvious by the census in chapter 1, the purpose of which is to know the number of men available to fight (1:3). The need for an army shows the land promise will be resisted by the land’s current inhabitants.
However, the biggest challenge comes from within Israel and is illustrated by the overall structure of the book. The first ten chapters are full of anticipation as the people prepare to move forward and possess the land. If one didn’t know the path taken by the story before Numbers, one might well be surprised by the abrupt shift from faithful anticipation to outright rebellion that takes place at the beginning of ch. 11 and continues to ch. 21. Nothing less than waiting for that whole generation to die away is needed before chs. 22-36 steady the ship and Israel is once more Canaan bound. The wilderness experience, it seems, has been a period of testing. But testing for whom? It seems that the Israelites tested God as much as he did them.
Indeed, it is this theme of testing which the gospels appropriate as they reflect on how Numbers coincides with the ministry of Jesus. It is not simply that Christ’s forty days of testing in the wilderness recalls Israel’s forty years of testing in Sinai, in which Christ’s success contrasts with Israel’s failures. The nature of Christ’s temptations also reflects the essence of Israel’s experience. The temptation to turn stones into bread (Matt 4:3-4) recalls the Israelites’ lusting after Egyptian food. Satan’s temptation to test God, a re-run of the Numbers experience, is at the heart of inviting Christ to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple (Matt 4:5-7). Accepting Satan’s offer of the kingdoms of this world (Matt 4:8-10) would be a re-working of Israel’s failure to believe that God could deliver up Canaan.
While there is much in Numbers which could be used for personal, individual application, let us not forget that the book itself is concerned with the corporate experience of Israel. So, how might Numbers speak to us as a community of Adventists?
At an elementary level we might reflect on the similar experience of disappointed expectations. The first generations of Adventists expected to enter into the fulfillment of the biblical promises, but we, their heirs, are still camped east of the Jordan. And why is that? Have we inherited the spirit of unbelief, like those spies who cowered in the shadow of the Canaanite’s mighty city walls, and likewise find ourselves under the judgment of God? Or, should we cast our biblical net a little wider in looking for reasons for “delay”? Biblical promises were not always postponed because of Israel’s unfaithfulness. For example, the four hundred-year delay in fulfilling the land promise had more to do with the sinfulness of Canaan than it did with the faithlessness of Israel, according to Gen 15:12-16. Others seek an explanation for delay by indulging in sanctified nostalgia—reminiscing about how things used to be. But for Numbers, hope is found in the new generation with its fresh perspectives and new commitment. Could the same be true of Adventism?
And finally, when all is said and done about delayed promises and their causes, could deferred fulfillment be less of a problem and more of a spiritual opportunity? The Hebrew title for this book, “In the Wilderness”, is truer to its content than is our modern English title, “Numbers.” The wilderness is not only a place for testing or punishment, but also for encountering God and spiritual growth. Witness, among many other examples, Hagar’s encounter with the angel and Moses before the burning bush. The painfully slow progress of promises throughout Scripture might well indicate that delay is often necessary. Promises which too easily convert to fulfillment can be midwives at the birth of superficial spirituality. The longer journey provides more scope for a mature spiritual life.