Numbers has been a stumbling block for me, and I wonder if you have had a similar experience? Yes, I cringed and yawned plenty through certain parts of Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus, but nothing has felt quite so alien (and grace-less) as the Book of Numbers. Like the other Priestly texts, Numbers has a distinctive outlook, and that’s why we see the lists- names and offerings and obscure laws- that identify a clearly defined world as seen through the eyes of this particular group.
And if you tried to read Numbers without a commentary, I can’t even begin to imagine how confused and frustrated you must be feeling. There is a lack of narrative continuity; there are multiple redundancies; and there are bits of ancient tradition spliced into the narrative with no clear logic. From an anthropological standpoint, Numbers might be seen as a curious oddity, worth a second glance. As faithful Christians on a journey, Numbers just doesn’t have a lot to offer.
In the grand arc of the Pentateuch, Numbers describes the Israelites in the Wilderness, on the cusp of their entry into Canaan. The wilderness generation has proven unfaithful time and again, and they will not reach the Promised Land themselves, but for the faithful Caleb and Joshua. Aaron dies on a mountainside; Moses sins against God (by taking credit for a water miracle) and is told that he, too, will not reach the Promised Land. Countless thousands are ‘destroyed’ for their infidelities. And in a disturbing story toward the end of the book (chapter 31), Moses sends the Israelites troops back into the territory of the Midianites to kill off the women and children. As Robert Alter describes, this is “an instance in which the biblical outlook sadly failed to transcend its historical contexts.” I think it’s worth holding on to that quote as we move forward in our reading. Rather than engage in unconvincing apologetics, we might be more faithful to hold the tension of narratives that simply fail to transcend historical context. That is to say, there are some texts that we may have to conclude are irredeemable.
The only truly memorable story in the Book of Numbers is the narrative of Balaam’s Ass. It’s a strange story, utterly dissimilar to the whole biblical narrative. Other than the serpent in Genesis, this is the only instance of a talking animal. And it is meant as satire- the powerful, polytheistic soothsayer, Balaam, becomes Yahweh’s instrument, blessing the Israelites instead of cursing them (as he was hired by Balak to do).
So this is your Book of Numbers shortcut, people! Read the story of Balaam, beginning with his talking ass in Chapter 22.