The book of Numbers presents two sets of challenges for readers. The first involves a diversity of material and thematic complexity. The wilderness narrative—which spans the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers—is widely recognized as a repository for ancient Israel’s formative traditions. As such, it contains a variety of genres—administrative, legal, folkloristic, prophetic—which are not always well integrated, and in no book is this more true than Numbers. Thematically, material in Numbers deals with
- social structure and hierarchy, especially as it pertains to a vision of a temple-centered society
- priestly, prophetic, and judicial leadership roles
- the relationship between Yahweh and Israel; the nature and extent of land promised to Israel
- Israel’s relationship to Transjordan, both geographically and ethnically
- laws and instructions that are related to but different from those articulated in other places (e.g., Passover, unintentional sin, the ritual calendar, cities of refuge)
- and a number of laws pertaining to women (e.g., women and land inheritance in Numbers 27 and 36)
And texts in Numbers do not always offer a consistent view on these themes. The primary goal of this commentary will be to help a wide range of intellectually curious readers navigate this literature in terms of its themes, genre, plot development, characterization, and intertextual relationship with other biblical (and some extrabiblical) texts.
The second set of challenges for readers of Numbers emerges from the artificiality of its bookness. It has no narrative arc of its own; it is unintelligible without Exodus on the one hand and, to some extent, Deuteronomy and Joshua on the other. The commentary will discuss what we know about how it came to be distinguished from these other books. The storyline in Numbers frequently breaks down, either with the intrusion of legal material or with narrative episodes that are not clearly linked. And in some places, Numbers is barely readable. The conflict between itinerary routes around versus through Transjordan near the end of the book, not to mention lack of clarity about whether the Israelites enter the land from the south or from the east, are notorious as points where the narrative coherence of the Pentateuch breaks down and begs for some sort of historical explanation.
These features of Numbers are themselves literary problems. The insights of historical criticism, then, are significant not merely for scholars interested in text criticism and composition history but also for any reader wishing to meaningfully navigate this literature. But this is not the only way history is relevant. It is common to come to the text with questions of “Is it history or isn’t it?” The character of the wilderness narrative as a repository of ancient Israel’s formative traditions defies simple answers to such questions. Time in the book of Numbers is what Mikhail Bakhtin called “valorized time,” not historical time—a time separated from history precisely so that its contents can have a formative authority. Its separation from history does not, however, mean it lacks all connection to Israelite history, geography, and social realities which we can learn about through the study of archaeology and extrabiblical texts. This commentary will explore those connections in earnest and show the complex and refracted character of the historicity of Numbers. It will help readers transcend the binary of “Is it history or isn’t it?” by challenging them to understand how text relates to context not in terms of the correspondence model so often assumed, but in terms of embeddedness in culture (New Historicism), and by helping them understand the relevance of historical and cultural data for interpretation.
About the New Cambridge Bible Commentary (NCBC) series:
Like the original Cambridge Bible Commentary (CBC) – a collection of exegetical volumes widely read and studied in the 1960s and 1970s – the New Cambridge Bible Commentary (NCBC) series aims to elucidate the Hebrew and Christian scriptures for a wide range of intellectually curious individuals. Commentaries in the NCBC thus will be academically rigorous but will not assume the reader has a great deal of specialized theological knowledge or an impressive command of the Hebrew, Aramaic, or biblical Greek. Unlike the earlier CBC, however, the new series will take advantage of many of the rewards provided by scholarly research over the last three decades. While not mistaking trendiness for truth, volumes in the NCBC will make accessible and build upon many of the advances in theory and theology produced in universities and seminaries during the last thirty years. Utilizing recent gains in rhetorical criticism, social scientific study of the scriptures, narrative criticism and other developing disciplines, this series intends to provide a fresh look at biblical texts, taking advantage of the growing edges in Biblical Studies.