Making Numbers Relevant to the 21st Century

The book of Numbers can be a challenging read - but it still has insight for today!

Have you ever read through the Bible? Perhaps chronologically, or straight through, or a mishmash? I’m taking my second chronological turn through the Bible, and recently finished the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible). Thank you, Lord. Numbers nearly did me in, and I expect I’m not alone in that!

Hebrew scroll. Perhaps this is what Numbers looks like in the original language?

I routinely struggle reading the books of the Law — from an editing perspective (how many ways can one explain wave versus grain offerings?) and plot (let’s face it, they don’t read like a fiction novel, amirite?). Thus, I asked God several times to show me, please, why and how Numbers was relevant to a reader 3,000 years later. (Dangerous question.)

Repetition and Relevance in Numbers and Beyond

Below are 3 non-exhaustive insights I gained this time round into Numbers’ repetition and relevance. Scads of additional resources abound; several are noted at the end of the post.

  1. The culture at that time was primarily oral.

God graciously wrote the two tablets of testimony for Moses (Exodus 31) – and yet, these were the only copies. Printing presses and iPhone apps didn’t exist! So in order for the approximately 600,000 Israelites to know the Law – they depended on oral – you guessed it – repetition. Restating a concept in the same and slightly different ways helped the Israelites remind themselves and each other of the Law’s tenets.

How many times have you asked for something to be repeated, and then wrote it down so you wouldn’t forget? (I have to do this all the time, and still forget things.) We’ve made progress in 3,000 years, but let’s face it, our memories are imperfect.

  1. Hebrew is much more concise than — and very different from — English.

I love studying languages, so was intrigued to note that the Law’s translation into English made it much more wordy. This note on the Biblical Hermeneutics StackExchange thread gives a perfect example:

“If you spoke Hebrew, and read the same passage in Hebrew it would be shorter and sound a lot less redundant [than its English counterpart]. A typical example phrase from Numbers 7, ‘And for a sacrifice of peace offerings’ instead of being 7 words becomes only 2 words in Hebrew (וּלְזֶבַח הַשְּׁלָמִים, or transliterated, ûl’zevach haSH’lämiym).”

Hebrew writings

The Hebrew language reads right to left, and many of the Old Testament texts contained tabular styles that a present-day English publisher may not carry over. Several Psalmists, for example, wrote their songs as acrostics (i.e. Psalm 119); similarly, Numbers’ lists scan much more easily in the original Hebrew than our English.

  1. Numbers (and indeed the entire Pentateuch) provides important historical records.

God called out His people and established a covenantal relationship with them. The books of the Law lend significant insight into this time period and an understanding of what made Israel unique. Repetition confirms what authors write! Numbers and Deuteronomy’s similar material, for example, bears witness to God’s intent and purpose.

Similarly, the synoptic Gospels tell the same stories from slightly different perspectives. Identical stories would lessen credibility, but the different emphases and details only confirm it.

Weigh in!

What do you think? Does this help your reading of the more boring parts of the Bible? Leave a comment with your thoughts!

Additional Resources on Numbers and Beyond

For further reading, consider these posts:

Leave a Reply