October 22, 2020

Two Books of the Bible Nobody (really) Likes to Read (Part 2)


Moses and the Tablets of the Law (detail), Chagall

“When the Gospels or the Apostle or the Psalms are read, another person joyfully receives them, gladly embraces them….But if the book of Numbers is read to him, and especially those passages we have now in hand, he will judge that there is nothing helpful, nothing as a remedy for his weakness or a benefit for the salvation of his soul. He will constantly spit them out as heavy and burdensome food.”

– Origen

* * *

In his Interpretation commentary, Dennis T. Olson notes that some call Numbers, “the junk room of the Bible,” with a structure and combination of materials that they consider nearly indecipherable. Olson proceeds to show that there is indeed a coherent plan to this book, though it may not be as obvious as the patterns of the other books in the Torah.

Olson says that the primary structure and theme for the book of Numbers involves the transition from the old generation of Israelites in the wilderness after Mt. Sinai to the new generation of hope and promise who camped on the edge of the Promised Land. He has an extensive list of parallels that shows how each part of the book both echoes and parallels the other part. For example:

  • Stories of the old generation are told in the first half of the book (1-25), the new generation in the second half (26-36).
  • Each generation, respectively, is introduced by a census list of the twelve tribes (Numbers 1, 26).
  • In both sections there are laws and instructions about various offerings and ceremonies, and provisions for the Levites.
  • However, the first half records stories about the failures of the first generation, whereas the second part is “uniformly hopeful and positive in tone” with accounts of legal disputes resolved, victories won, and crises averted.

The following simple chart further divides the first part of Numbers into two sections. The story of the wilderness generation is portrayed (1) as they were getting ready to leave Mt. Sinai, and then (2) as they wandered in the wilderness.

  • The first ten chapters portray the preparations for leaving Sinai, and they are orderly and organized.
  • However, chapters 11-25 describe Israel’s journey in the wilderness: a section that is characterized by rebellion, plagues, and death, though there are some glimmers of hope along the way.

The narratives about the new generation are presented in one cohesive section. They are no longer in the wilderness, but gathered together “in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho” (Num. 26:3). They have reached the edge of the Promised Land, ready to be counted anew before they enter the place God promised them.

The Old Generation I

An Obedient Beginning

Numbers 1-10

The Old Generation II

A Rebellious Journey

Numbers 11-25

The New Generation

A Fresh Beginning

Numbers 26-36

Let me share with you just a couple of lessons I have come to appreciate from this book that many of us tend to ignore.

Moses receiving the tablets of the law, Chagall

Moses receiving the tablets of the law, Chagall

1. The Custodial Function of the Law

One of the most difficult things about reading Numbers is wading through the almost mind-numbing lists of census records (1, 26), camp arrangements (2), priestly personnel and duties (3-4), contribution records (7), and so on. What is the point of including all these details?

First of all, these extensive organizational details remind us of God’s faithfulness in allowing his people to “be fruitful and multiply.” From one couple, Abraham and Sarah, Israel had now reached a stage where they could count 603,550 men of military age (1:46)!

Furthermore, the early chapters of Numbers testify to how the Law had brought order to God’s people. In Exodus 32, when Israel fell into sin with the golden calf, the people were pictured as “running wild” — chaos and disorder marked them (Ex. 32:25). In response, God added the laws of Exodus and Leviticus, which organized them into a structured community life, so that by the time of Numbers, we see them “lined up” before the Lord, ready to proceed to the Land.

This fits with Paul’s teaching about one of the Law’s main functions (Galatians 3). In Gal. 3:23 he writes, “But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.” Paul says the Law was like the slave in a Greek household who disciplined the children until they were of age. This is what the Law did, in a positive sense, for Israel. Though it could not change their hearts, it nevertheless set them apart and kept them generally within boundaries, separate from other nations, protecting them until Messiah came to fulfill God’s promises.

2. The Inevitable Failure of the Law

The central chapters of Numbers (11-25) contain a relentless record of spiritual rebellion. It is interesting to note some of the parallels between these stories and the narratives in Exodus that describe Israel’s first “wilderness journey” after they had been redeemed from Egypt and made their way to Sinai.


Before the Law at Sinai


After the Law at Sinai

  • Guided by the cloud (13:21-22)
  • Song of victory (15:1-19)
  • Miriam’s praise (15:20-21)
  • Complaint—Water made sweet (15:22-26)
  • Complaint—Manna and quails (16)
  • Complaint—Water from Rock (17:1-7)
  • Victory over Amalek (17:8-16)
  • Guided by the cloud (Num 10:33-34)
  • Song of victory (10:35-36)
  • Miriam’s rebellion (12)
  • Complaint—Judged by fire (11:1-3)
  • Complaint—Manna and quails (11:4-35)
  • Complaint—Water from Rock (20:2-13)
  • Defeat against Amalek (14:39-45)


Moses and the serpent, Chagall

Moses and the serpent, Chagall

By drawing a contrast between Israel’s experience before and after the giving of the Law, Moses is making a a commentary on what the Law does. Though it does have some positive effects (see point 1), in the end it cannot change our hearts or enable us to live in faithful obedience to God. Indeed, it tends to do just the opposite (the point of Romans 7).

Before the Law, Israel walked in newness of life. They had been saved and set free from slavery. God was leading them and they were following by faith. They certainly were not perfect—they were immature, and they complained and misbehaved like children all the way to Mt. Sinai. There, when it became clear that they would not go any further with God on his terms, he began adding his laws one by one, starting with the Ten Commandments (Gal. 3:19). Yet with every new batch of laws only came more failure. By then, however, this was not the ignorant misbehavior of children, it was the knowing rebellion of those who knew the rules. Law brought about more sin, which brought about more punishment and death.

To Moses this was more than a principle of theology; it was also a heartbreaking personal testimony. For even he, under the Law, was kept from entering the Promised Land (Num 20:12).


  1. Mary Anne Dutton says

    This is excellent instruction that provides insight which facilitates deeper reverence for Israel’s God.
    Thank you…keep it up. We need to continue to learn and revere.

  2. Thank you CM for your solid, insightful teaching. You are always my first stop on the internet each day.

  3. Excellent CM,

    That gives me much to think on. I very much appreciate your thoughtful posts.

    I have one little question. Wouldn’t it be better to speak of how we can structure and theme the book rather than how the book is structured? By pointing to “the primary structure” we may be overlooking other ways of reading Numbers.

    • Well, I think we are noticing structures that are really there, but you have a good point. There is always more there and we mustn’t let our interpretations become blinders.

  4. Without getting too philosophical, it seems to me that locating “really there” has it own set of problems. Do we mean that the author intentionally structured Numbers this way? What if some discovery showed that to be false. Would that take away from the value of Olson’s reading and insights? I agree structure is objective. We can’t just read a text anyway we want. Some readings are much better than others. Even so, we play an active role in structuring a text as we read.

    Thanks for indulging me. I know I’m a little off topic. I certainly don’t want to take anything away from a very helpful post.

  5. “Though it (the Law) does have some positive effects (see point 1), in the end it cannot change our hearts or enable us to live in faithful obedience to God. Indeed, it tends to do just the opposite (the point of Romans 7).”

    I need to keep this statement in my hip-pocket for my “law-focused” Christian brothers and sisters! Thanks, CM.