While not neatly divided into sections, there are really two themes in the book of Numbers*: ledgers and travelogues. Plus a really disturbingly positive view on genocide.
This book is appropriately named Numbers because it’s chock full of them. We have the results of two census, instructions on camp layout, a donation ledger, descriptions of a bunch of maps, plus a lot of additional instructions for how to make sacrifices.
The camp layout and census information was long and detailed enough that I thought it would be useful to create an info graphic, to get a sense of what all the numbers mean. You can see the results below:
The donations ledger was both detailed and incredibly repetitive. Each day for twelve days, the exact same offerings/sacrifices were made, in the same order and for the same amounts. And over the course of 77 verses, those offerings/sacrifices were listed twelve times. I decided that this needed an infographic too, so I’ve included one below:
There are also a bunch of stories about different characters. These stories are each so complex and yet so concise that there’s not much point in summarizing them. They include several failed rebellions against Moses’ leadership, several stopped (or at least restricted) massacres by God of the Israelites**, and a foreign magician who is repeatedly hired to curse the Israelites but blesses them each time instead.
The one story that really stood out to me*** was in Numbers 20:14-21. This is the first time I felt any real sense of apprehension about the events. Moses sends a message to the King of Edom requesting permission to pass through the lands of Edom. The message is all nice and sweet, asking for permission and promising to do no harm, and I just thought to myself: say ‘no’, something terrible will happen to you if you say ‘yes’. And luckily Edom said ‘no’—politely, firmly, and without insult or excuse—and the Israelites traveled a different way and I felt so much relief for Edom managing the avoid so many travesties.
Not many other people were able to avoid the repercussions of coming into contact with them.
Keep in mind that at this point the Israelites are a landless, traveling army-nation of between 603,550 and 601,730 warriors along with their families and their herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. God is appearing to them as a fire at night and a dark cloud during the day. When the dark cloud moves, the whole army nation packs up and moves too, settling down only when the dark cloud stops and they can settle the temple around/under God.
And this God has given them many rules to live by but also promised them a land of milk and honey that already belongs to other people, with the instructions that they will simply take that land from those other people.
Which brings us to the prevalence of genocide.
While there’s many examples of genocide in this book, Numbers 21:3**** and Numbers 21:34-35***** are good examples of casual slaughters, Numbers 31 contains the one I find the most horrific because it’s the most specific.
Back in Numbers 25, we discover that some of the men of Israel had started to date some of the women of Moab and been invited into Moab homes and temples. God was infuriated and started a plague that killed 24,000 Israelites and only ended when one of the Israelite priests skewered an Israelite man and a Moabite woman on a spear in the man’s tent.
Well, in Numbers 31, God demands “revenge” on Moab, apparently for their women dating the men of Israel. So Moses calls together a war party of 12,000. These soldiers go into Moab kill every last man and burn to the ground every last town, but took back with them all the treasure they could carry, all the herds of animals, and all the women and children.
When the war party returns to the Israelite encampment, Moses is enraged because the soldiers hadn’t killed enough people. They weren’t supposed to take the women and children captive, they are only allowed to take the female children captive.
Numbers 31:17-18: Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.
And because this is the Book of Numbers, we know the numbers: once the soldiers were done slaughtering their prisoners, there were still 32,000 virgin girls as prisoners to distribute to the various tribes. Making the (somewhat dubious) assumption that the Moab population consisted of equal numbers of adult men, adult women, male children, and female children, this means that the soldiers invaded and killed 32,000 Moab men in the land of Moab, and then killed an additional 64,000 of their prisoners (adult women and male children) at the border of the Israelite camp.
I’ve actually been researching various genocides of the 20th century for my day job and there are some pretty horrifying details. And knowing the details of some of those genocides gives me a more realistic perspective on these biblical genocides which I might have been able to skim past when I was much younger.
I really want some door-to-door missionaries to come around soon so I can ask them about their take on the Old Testament and then possibly yell at them.
Summary: God is a micromanager and the Israelites are a landless army-nation that is traveling across the land killing wherever they go.
Moral: You want as little to do with God as you can get away with.
* I’ve switched translations from the English Standard Version Bible (that I was reading on my kindle) over to The New Revised Standard Version Bible (for which I have a hardcopy.)
** The argument that really seems to hold weight with God regarding why he shouldn’t just kill all the Israelites is that so many people saw God claim the Israelites as his own and God would be seen as weak and ungodly if they were to all die. (Numbers 14 and 16)
*** Although Numbers 23:19 actually made me laugh out loud, because Balaam (the magician) speaks his prophesy and talks about how God never changes his mind. God changes his mind all the time, mostly about whether or not to kill all of his chosen people.
**** Numbers 21: 3 The Lord listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah.
***** Numbers 21:34-35: But the Lord said to Moses, “Do not be afraid of him; for I have given him into your hand, with all his people and all his land. You shall do to him as you did to King Shihon of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon.” So they killed him, his sons, and all his people, until there was no survivor left; and they took possession of his land.
Next up: Deuteronomy