If you have never read Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative you have missed out. In this book Alter makes observations about why biblical passages are arranged they way they are to make specific subtle points in the narrative. I wanted to offer one particular example of my own from the book of Numbers.There is a well documented pattern in the book of Numbers that alternates between Narrative and Regulation.
Narrative – Chapters 1-4 the census
Regulation – Chapters 5-6 various regulations
Narrative – Chapters 7-14 Dedicating the tabernacle to the edge of the promised land.
Regulation – Chapter 15 Additional Offerings and regulations
Narrative – Chapters 16-17 Aaron’s authority
Regulation – Chapters 18-19 Priests, Levites, and Cleansing
Narrative – Chapters 20-27 Various narratives of their journey
Regulation – Chapters 28-30 Offerings and Fesitvals
Narrative – Chapters 31-36 Beginnings of Victory and arriving at the Jordan.
The arrangement of these sections are not haphazard or random but make subtle points that advance the story in a significant way. I want to look at the link between the narrative of chapters 7-14 and the regulations found in chapter 15. Chapters 7-14 end with the story of the spies entering the promised land and their report to the people describing the contents of Canaan and the people’s rebellion.
Moses gives the spies a list of things to find out in 13:17ff:
- What the land is like
- Strong or weak
- Few or many
- What kind of land
- Good or bad
- What kinds of towns
- Walled or fortified
- Fertile or poor soil
- Trees or not
- Bring back some fruit
The spies report in 13:26ff follows Moses request:
- What the land is like – flows with milk and honey
- Strong or weak – people are powerful
- Few or many – lists many different types of people
- What kind of land – flows with milk and honey
- Good or bad – good
- What kinds of towns – very large
- Walls or fortified – fortified
- Fertile or poor soil – Fertile
- Trees or not – had pomegranates = trees
- Bring back some fruit – yes
A series of important events unfold that point toward their future in the promised land:
14:2 – they grumble and complain, not wanting to enter the land belieiving it is too dangerous.
14:26 – God responds with a curse on those who were 20 years old or more in the census that they will fall in the wilderness.
14:39 – the people respond with mourning and decide to take action. They say, “Now we are ready to go up to the land the Lord promised. Surely we have sinned! They go into the hill country without Moses or the ark (14:44) and get a beating from the Amalekites and Canaanites.
15:1 – all of a sudden we are met with a bunch of regulations. That seems a little abrupt when you are reading through Numbers, although you begin to expect that due to the cycle mentioned above. It is God who speaks next in the story, what point is God trying to make here?
In 15:1 God lays out regulations they are to perform, introducing it by saying “After you enter the land I am giving you as a home…” What are the regulations about? Their children making offerings to God from their new home. Isn’t that a beautiful picture that shouts a story of hope for the future? Again in 15:18 – “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat the food of the land…” In the midst of their rebellion and defeat in trying to enter the land on their own terms God specifically tells them that there will be a time they will be in that land (through their children, no less). They will be able to cross the Jordan with the ark and there will be a time they will sacrifice to Yahweh on the other side of the river. They will eat the produce of the land. God has a plan and he will make good on it. Although they have just faced defeat, it is not the final word…”After you enter the land…”
On a side note it is interesting that here God speaks to the parents of those who will inherit the land as “you” – “when you enter the land” even though only Caleb and Joshua and the children will be able to do so. On the flip side in Deuteronomy Moses tells the children stories of their rebellious parents in the second person as if they were the ones – See especially Deut 1:26 – “you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled” and chapter 9 in the story of the golden calf as if this generation had been there. The generations are so connected that they are fully identified with each other.
In a sense Numbers 15 reminds me of Jeremiah 32. In Numbers this generation looks ahead to possessing the land. In Jeremiah the people who have possessed the land are facing the reality of losing this same land.
32:1 – “This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. The army of the king of Babylon was then besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was confined in the courtyard of the guard in the royal palace of Judah…” Doesn’t sound very hopeful does it?
32:6 – God tells Jeremiah to buy a field. Doesn’t sound like a wise investment in the midst of a Babylonian seige!
32:26-41 – God predicts utter devastation on the land
But God bookends this prophesy of destruction with a promise of hope 32:15,43 – “once more fields will be bought in this land of which you say, ‘It is a desolate waste…”
Hope in the most unlikely of places. In Numbers 15 we have hope found in the midst of beaten and bruised Israelites. While standing back in the camp along on the plains of Moab looking across the Jordan into the land God has promised they hear the hopeful words of God, “After you enter the land…”. Hope that the Amalekites and Canaanites will not have the final say. Hope in realizing that they will indeed fall in the desert but understanding their children will inherit the land for generations to come.
In Jeremiah we find hope in the land that was promised but now under seige and will be stripped away. Hope that the Babylonians will not have the final say. Hope that just as Jeremiah now possesses his small tract of land that God’s people will indeed keep possession of their inheritance. Whether it is in a list or regulations on the wrong side of the Jordan or on a stamped deed to some property on the other side of the Babylonian lines, God offers hope in the most unlikely places and in the most unlikely ways. How has God demonstrated his creativity in offering you Hope in the Most Unlikely Places? What places has God seen you through? How does his faithfulness in the past influence our attitude toward present difficulties?
Thanks for the insights into Numbers. I just finished reading it on my daily reading schedule. Yes, I’m off from everyone else. I always colored outside the lines.