Sailhamer, John H. The Pentateuch As Narrative. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.
Chapter 4, “Numbers” pp. 369-422.
This is a long post. Sailhamer breaks his comments into a number of very short sections. Rather than have such a series of brief posts I’m going to let it be one pretty long one.
The English title “Numbers” “is based on the ‘numbering,’ or census, of the people in the first chapters (and in chap. 26)” (Sailhamer 1992, 369). The arrangement of the book seems often topical, but sometimes chronological. In general the book divides at the end of chapter 14, as Israel is unbelieving and is defeated by the Amalekites (Sailhamer 1992, 370). Sailhamer views the specific laws of God as central to order. “Within the narratives of the Pentateuch there is a noticeable contrast between the orderly movement of the tribes from Sinai, as is shown in the present text, and the picture of the people ‘running wild’ in the account of the golden calf (Ex. 32:25). Thus the narrative shows that the laws God gave to Israel at Sinai, which are listed between these two accounts, were necessary and had a salutary effect on the people” (Sailhamer 1992, 370).
At the outset, a census is taken of all the tribes except Levi. They are encamped by tribe with the Levites and the tabernacle in the middle. As the encampment moves the tribe of Judah, which will later bring salvation through Jesus, goes first. Among the tribe of Levi the priests go first. The Levites, set aside for service, represent all the firstborn of Israel. They are dedicated to the Lord in a special way (Sailhamer 1992, 373).
In Numbers there are clear distinctions between all the Levites and the descendants of Aaron. While all are set aside for God’s service, only the Aaronic family has priestly duties (Sailhamer 1992, 375).
Chapter 5 of Numbers has a main theme of purity and responsibility. It shows God as personally involved in cleansing and forgiveness. This theme of purity continues as, on p. 377, Sailhamer moves on to Numbers 6 and the Nazirite vow. Here we have regulations for the vow, not instructions implementing some new thing.
Numbers 7 moves us back in time to the dedication of the temple as described in Exodus 40. The lamps are now lit, the Levites are dedicated, and the Passover is celebrated. On p. 380 Sailhamer observes the involvement of the people in consecrating the Levites, as opposed to the consecration of priests, where the people are spectators. In chapter 10 the people leave Sinai on their way to the promised land. Who led them? On pp. 382-383 Sailhamer discusses the difficulties of the name of Moses’ father-in-law and the timing and mode of departure. He is not definite in his conclusion but seems inclined to father-in-law did not remain with Israel.
In commenting on Numbers 11:1-3, the incident of fire from the Lord, Sailhamer points us to Exodus 4 and Genesis 32 where resistance to God’s stated purpose results in God relenting from planned judgment (Sailhamer 1992, 384). Sailhamer views these incidents as important turning points in the narrative structures. Here the people begin with complaints, God gives miraculous provision, executes his judgment on those who complained, and pours out his Spirit on the elders of Israel. The question of Moses’ leadership continues to arise, but God has already shown clearly that he is able to lead the people, whether using Moses or another instrument of his choice (Sailhamer 1992, 386).
Numbers 13-14 is critical in the narrative as it shows God’s faithfulness despite man’s unfaithfulness. The people of Israel do not believe that God will keep his pro’s response is that those who doubted will not receive the benefit of his promise, though he will care for their needs the rest of their lives (Sailhamer 1992, 387-389).
Numbers chapter 15 interrupts with instructions for various offerings. This may be indicative of the time of waiting in the wilderness. In any case, Sailhamer does not think these offerings are re-statements of those from the start of Leviticus (Sailhamer 1992, 390).
The making of tassles in Numbers 15 is to help people remember God’s law. Sailhamer observes that many through history have commented on God’s involvement with every area of life. “There is an intentional selection behind the collections of laws found throughout the Pentateuch. The purpose of that selection appears clear enough. In reading through these laws we can readily see that God is concerned about every detail of human life. Nothing is too small or unimportant. It all has to be made available and dedicated to him” (Sailhamer 1992, 391). Yet the multiplication of laws does not mean the people are less rebellious or more satisfied (Sailhamer 1992, 391.
On pp. 394-395 Sailhamer draws the connection between the grumbling of the people and the preparation of the water of cleansing in Numbers 19. The result of sin and defilement is death. The red heifer is offered, much like a sin offering, but outside the camp. The significance is not laid out in Numbers 19, only the procedure. Sailhamer concludes that there is a connection between dust and death, water and life, and that Numbers 19 refers specifically to God bringing life from the dust.
Numbers chapter 20 brings us into the last year of Israel’s time in the wilderness (Sailhamer 1992, 396). The old leaders of Israel were dying in the wilderness rather than entering the land of promise. God reminds Moses and Aaron that they will not enter the land due to unbelief.
The remainder of Numbers 20-21 causes some chronological uncertainty. Sailhamer discusses various possible sequences of events as Israel leaves Kadesh, fails to gain permission to pass through Edom, visits Mount Hor, and goes by way of the Red Sea to the Promised Land. With the death of Aaron his son Eleazar is appointed as high priest, a fact Sailhamer uses for a discourse (Sailhamer 1992, 400-401) about coming trends in both the priesthood and kingdom in Israel. The narrative of the bronze serpent appears at various other places in Scripture, showing that God can choose to rescue his people according to his means (Sailhamer 1992, 403). Remaining events in Numbers 21 are concluded quite briefly.
In Numbers 22 the attention turns to Balaam. The narrative here is used to show that God’s desire is to bless his people He even uses Balaam, hired to curse Israel, as an instrument of blessing. Balaam’s blessings of Israel draw parallels to the fruitfulness of the creation and God’s blessing of population growth (Sailhamer 1992, 407). The narrative closes with prophecies looking to the future of Israel (Sailhamer 1992, 409).
In Numbers 25 the author shows Israel’s men taking Moabite women, both in marriage and in adultery. This is a sign of unfaithfulness to God. Chapter 26 gives a new census of the people, resuming the idea of preparations for the inheritances in the Promised Land (Sailhamer 1992, 411). Along with these matters of inheritance we see the succession of the prophetic and priestly offices, preparing for Israel’s ongoing governance (Sailhamer 1992, 413).
In Numbers 28-29 there is a fairly comprehensive list of the feasts of Israel. The life of Israel is centered around offerings for each day, week, and month as well as the Passover, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Feast of Tabernacles. Chapter 30 concludes the segment with a discussion of the serious nature of vows (Sailhamer 1992, 418).
At chapter 31 Israel engages in battle with Midian. It is clear that the people are to cleanse themselves after battle. Chapter 32 discusses the desire of Reuben and Gad to settle across the Jordan from the rest of Israel. They make it clear that their desire is to help the other tribes but settle where there is more grazing land (Sailhamer 1992, 419).
The closing chapters of Numbers restate God’s priority that His people overthrow Canaan thoroughly. The borders of the inheritances are laid out, as are the cities for Levites and the cities of refuge. God’s people are prepared to inherit the land (Sailhamer 1992, 419-421).