Numbers, the most boring book?
We call a thing boring if it doesn’t hold our attention. A thing doesn’t hold our attention when it doesn’t reward our investment or, at least, when it is less rewarding than other things that are going on at the same time. Some literature is like that. Some biblical literature is like that. The book of Numbers is a bit like that, with its reams of names that are hard to pronounce and lots of laws that mean nothing to a modern reader. Even if the names were easy to pronounce, we don’t know the people and so they hold no interest for us. It’s like reading a telephone book. Much of the information in the book of Numbers was out of date even for ancient Israel once they entered the land of Canaan and what wasn’t out of date would have meant little to a generation that had never experienced the various stations in the Wilderness wandering.
As a novel a book like Numbers wouldn’t sell. As a history book it wouldn’t be readable and would lack all kinds of things that a history book calls for. As a tour guide it would be tossed aside and as a sheer information source it would be as useful as a 1950’s bus schedule. How did a book like that get into the Bible? How did it remain there all these centuries? The answer’s complex and ranges from saying that God wanted it there to saying it is an integral piece of a larger whole to saying it has riches that a modern reader with a short and limited attention span has no interest in.
And it doesn’t help English readers to notice that the book is named Numbers (the Greek is Arithmoi). Unless you’re an accountant or a mathematician you—.
The Hebrew name is Bamidbar ("in the wilderness") and the Hebrew name is more appropriate. For it’s when we remember that the events all take place in the wilderness that our appreciation of what happens there is sharpened.
One of the appropriate criticisms I’ve heard of a lot of writing is that it leaves nothing to the imagination. The reader must be told every single thought in a character’s mind and detailed explanations or descriptions must be offered for every scene. I suspect that hurts our capacity to read and imagine. We’re supposed to use our imagination in reading the Bible and our imagination is nowhere more fruitful than when reading a book like Numbers (Bamidbar).
With only a little imagination we can imagine Abraham and Sarah standing on a high hill somewhere, looking down on the assembled and organized nation and remembering the call of God. A man old in body and his wife unable to have children and yet this vast family below them is their family.
With only a little imagination as we look at the nation encamped below we can imagine a series of circles within circles (or squares within squares). In the center is the sovereign and holy Lord who is exalted above all, encircled by priests who no longer are numbered with the tribes of Israel but who in standing between God and the people protect the people from the wrath of God. And priests who "protect" God from the profanation of the people who would tend to become too familiar with him. Familiarity may not breed contempt but it can weaken one’s sense of awe.
With only a little imagination we can see God at the physical center of the entire encampment and nation and by that we’re told that that is the place he not only deserves but the place Israel must acknowledge him to deserve. If they do not, they are in mortal danger from many destructive inner enemies.
With only a little imagination we can read the names and divisions in the book of Numbers and see the army of the living God. We’ve seen epic movies like Spartacus or Braveheart or The Gladiator and were awed by the size and power and unity of the divisions. It draws the reader or viewer into that world of purpose and mission and they become part of that enterprise. In the New Testament the Hebrew writer does that very thing (and more) when he reminds the believers what they had become part of (see 12:22-24). There’s something about that that gives us added strength and assurance. Knowing that we’re standing and marching shoulder to shoulder with a vast company of others and that we all have a single purpose and destiny gives us a strong sense of belonging. To know that others are "laying their lives on the line" give us the courage to do the same.
With only a little imagination we can guess at how astonished we would be to see such a thriving multitude of living, worshipping people surviving—and more than mere "surviving"—in such an impossible environment. We’d note the chaos of the wilderness and the harmony of the encamped or marching people. The very "impossibility" of it would make us wonder at how they could be there and thrive there; we would wonder how it was accomplished and how they came to be there and that would lead us to the larger Story. And if God can gather and sustain a nation in the chaos of the Sinai wilderness maybe he can gather and sustain a nation in the chaos of the nations.
Bamidbar (Numbers) is about a people that forgot both the power and faithfulness of their God. They forgot that he created wilderness and that he was the Lord of it (he turned Egypt into a wilderness—see Exodus chapters 7—11). They forgot that it was his faithfulness to his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that led him to deliver Israel from oppression in Egypt. [Contrast 22:6 with Genesis 12:3.]
Bamidbar (Numbers) is about a generation that was too afraid and too tired and too trustless to follow the dream (the promise) and reap the benefits.
Bamidbar (Numbers) is about a generation that prized basic essentials in slavery greater than freedom and hope through hard times. [See 11:4-6 and 33 where they desired Egypt again for its meat and got its plagues. See too 16:13 where they called Egypt a land flowing with milk and honey. Contast this with Exodus 3:8.]
Bamidbar (Numbers) cures us of our over-eager tendency to side with sinners against God. In this way it exposes our own (perhaps) subconscious tendency to murmur that things aren’t going as we would like them. We note their wilderness conditions and "understand" too easily Israel’s complaining; we feel sorry for Moses that he didn’t get into Canaan; we’re inclined to think God was harsh in excluding that entire generation, including more than 14,000 in the Korah rebellion and 24,000 at Peor (25:9). But Bamidbar (Numbers) while it is pervaded with grace as the ground for Israel’s very existence has little time for excusing constant and trustless moaning against God and his ways and the flagrant rebellion that such a spirit often leads to.
Bamidbar (Numbers) is about the importance of God-appointed leaders. Leaders are to understand that they represent God and must honor him before the people (see 20:1-12, 24 and 27:13). Leadership must not be seized or sought out of jealousy or discontent with the way things are going (see 12:1-15 and 16:1-50 and especially 17:5,10 and "grumbling"). When God appointed leaders the people were expected to obey them (27:12-22 and 17:5).
Bamidbar (Numbers) is about various forms of legislation that shaped and enabled Israel as a single people to express its faith. Bamidbar (Numbers) concerns itself with Israel proclaiming in act and structure what it believes and not just how "nice" they are. The book says there is more to being God’s people than being nice and kind and upright. God’s people is to be a community of witness to whom the Lord is, to what he has done, is doing and will do. By living in the structured way they did the entire nation proclaimed a single faith. Ordinances and ritual have power that mustn’t be belittled or dismissed. There must be devoted hearts and individual commitment but the people of God must not be splintered into thousands of individual free-standing units. Ordinances and structures help to see that that doesn’t occur and that God’s people offer a united witness to the world.
We don't have to pretend that everything in the book of Numbers makes exciting reading to recognize that there's more in there than easily bored people are able to see. Maybe the problem isn't with the book. Didn't one man look at a masterpiece and say, "I don't see anything in that"? And didn't someone beside him say, "And don't you wish you could?"