Are numbers in the Hebrew Bible literal? Is it dangerous to adapt God’s laws? Does Israel’s conquest of Canaan justify other historical conquests? In this episode, Tim and Jon explore audience questions about the Numbers scroll. Thanks to our audience for your insightful questions.
What’s happening with adaptations of the law is not reinventing the covenant relationship—it’s the honor. It’s an attempt to honor the covenant relationship and be as faithful to the laws as possible even in a totally different setting so that God is honored.
Jonny from the United Kingdom (1:20)
You've shown how the Pentateuch's writers arranged it in patterns and sequences, for instance, the seven rebellions. That number, seven, keeps coming up. My question is, do you think it happened exactly like that, or did the writers embellish things or maybe even leave out certain rebellions to keep the number at a nice round and symbolic seven?
Questions regarding whether numbers in the Hebrew Bible are literal or imbued with metaphorical significance are especially important to Christian traditions in which the historical accuracy of the Bible is critical. Some traditions consider it paramount that the events mentioned in the Bible happened exactly the way they are described without any creativity on the part of the authors.
This is an important (and complex) question. For an in-depth exploration of this topic, check out Joshua Berman’s book in the Referenced Resources list.
In short, there is likely a combination of literal numeric figures and symbolic numbers used for literary effect. Biblical authors were concerned with representing history accurately, and they also employed literary creativity to help readers understand the meaning of those historical events. In the biblical authors’ ancient context, literary creativity and historical accuracy were not at odds. But they are at odds for many modern readers. If we’re looking for the “surveillance footage” version of events—that’s not what we’ll find in the Bible. What we will find is an intricate and creative depiction of God’s relationship with humanity that we can trust.
Carl from Wisconsin (16:25)
In the Numbers scroll, while Israel wanders in the wilderness, a census is taken twice: once at Mount Sinai and once as they're about to enter the promised land. At Mount Sinai, they count well over 603,000, while 40 years later as they're about to enter the land, they only count 601,000. What are we supposed to take from this? It doesn't seem like they've been “fruitful and multiplying” like God's promise would indicate.
While the author of Numbers doesn’t explain the difference between these two numbers, the main theme during the accounts of Israel’s years in the Sinai wilderness is their continued rebellion against Yahweh. Their consistent refusal to trust God’s promises landed them in exile for forty more years outside the land of Canaan. The diminished population numbers are likely a reflection of the toll Israel’s rebellion has had on them, resulting in loss of life—a sign of being outside Eden.
Dina from Washington (21:45)
Throughout the Exodus and wilderness series, you mention Moses hits a rock for water to come out. Does this connect to Jesus when he calls himself both “the rock” and “living water”? And does God telling him to strike it the first time and speak to it instead the second time have any significance?
Chris from Connecticut (22:11)
In 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul says that the Israelites “drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” How might this passage comment on the narrative of Moses striking the rock in Numbers 20? Paul calls it a “spiritual rock,” but the Israelites drank water from a tangible rock that Moses could hit. Is Paul suggesting that Moses struck the pre-incarnate Jesus with his staff when he struck the rock?
The language Dina brought up is particularly prevalent in the Gospel of John. In John 7 and John 4, Jesus refers to himself as the source of living water. In John 19, when the soldiers pierce Jesus’ side as he hangs on the cross, blood and water flow out of him. Similarly, Jesus identifies himself as the temple in John 2, and the temple was always depicted as a micro-Eden, a garden out of which flowed a river (the river of life). The narrative image of the water recurs frequently throughout the Bible—it’s a physical image depicting a metaphysical reality. Namely, all of the life we see in our physical surroundings, nourished and made possible by water, is ultimately sourced by the God who orders and sustains all life. Jesus is saying he is that God who sustains all life.
The stories of Israel in the wilderness receiving water from the rock are about Yahweh making the same claim and revealing himself as the same sustainer of life that Jesus identifies himself to be. Water from the rock, then, becomes an Eden moment—a moment where God sustains the life of his servants in a direct and powerful way that can’t be explained by any other circumstances.
The rock too is a mirror of the mountain garden of Eden, and it is associated with safety from the enemies and chaotic waters below. “The rock” becomes a name for God throughout the Hebrew Bible, so when Paul calls Jesus the rock, he’s drawing attention to the fact that Jesus is the same rock and source of safety and life that Israel encountered in the wilderness.
Jon from USA (34:34)
On Episode 319 [Five Women and Yahweh’s New Law – Numbers E7], you discussed Numbers 27:1-11 where God creates a new law so that daughters can inherit land when a father has no sons to give it to. It seems like God's law can change and adapt to new situations. How does this make sense with what God tells Israel in Deuteronomy 4:1-2 where they are strictly commanded not to add to or change the law God had given them? (Deuteronomy 13:1-5 warns Israel to stone someone who does signs and wonders to get them to rebel.) Doesn't Numbers 27 open up a dangerous door where God's law can be manipulated?
This is an important concept to wrestle with. If Moses adapts the law in Numbers 27 (and Deuteronomy is one long exercise in Moses adapting the law), what do we do with the commandment to not change the law in any way?
One important thing to note is that the commandment in Deuteronomy 4:1-2 picks up common opening language for ancient Near Eastern law codes. The function of these treaty introductions is to make known that the following covenant terms couldn’t simply be changed at will. The laws in the Torah are the terms of Yahweh’s covenant relationship with Israel, and Israel did not have authority to change them. In Numbers 27 and throughout Deuteronomy, Moses isn’t changing the covenant terms—he’s adapting how Israel can be faithful to the covenant in a new setting. In this way, the adaptations are about continued faithfulness, not manipulating a way out of something God has commanded. The apostles practice similar principles throughout Acts as they pursue the most faithful way to incorporate Gentiles into the family of God.
Katie from Canada (47:35)
God promises to give his chosen family of Israel a land. After wandering through the wilderness, they come to Canaan, the land God had promised them, but the land is already populated. This theme of the Lord giving Israel the land has been used over and over in history in very terrible ways. In my own country of Canada, this was seen when the settlers took the land and culture from indigenous people. How do we reconcile the Hebrew Scriptures' portrait of "taking the land" and the damage caused throughout history by cultures and Christians using those same texts?
Humans taking land from each other—and claiming the divine right to do so—is unfortunately a reality as old as the human story. Frankly, there’s no way to reconcile the stories of Israelite conquest with later peoples applying those texts to their own efforts at conquest. It is a misuse of the Hebrew Scriptures to do so.
For followers of Jesus, it’s important to note that Jesus envisioned the arrival of his own Kingdom not as laying claim to a geographical region at the expense of others but as his people living in communities and praying for their enemies. He saw his true enemies as the spiritual powers of darkness. It’s possible that the stories of Israel’s conquest are trying to communicate the same message as Jesus and Paul, which is why the Canaanite enemies are almost always linked to the giant sons of the gods who rebelled in Genesis 6.
Femi from California (55:22)
I was wondering if we're supposed to be seeing a pattern of ten versus two—as in the ten spies that didn't want to go into the promised land versus the two that trusted God, the two-and-a-half tribes that were on the east side of the Jordan River versus the ten-and-a-half that were inside the promised land, and (earlier in Genesis) the ten older sons of Jacob who were pitted against the two younger sons of Jacob. Later in the biblical story, there’s also a split between the ten northern tribes of Israel and the two southern tribes of Judah. Is there a pattern that the biblical authors are highlighting, and is there a meaning behind it?
This is definitely an intentional pattern. Interestingly, whenever the tribes are split into groups of ten and two, each time the grouping of the tribes is a little different, but Joseph and Judah are always prominent. This is probably tied to the biblical theme of the firstborn, in which God repeatedly elevates the “underdog” or the person/tribe you’d least expect. In so doing, God forces the surrounding brothers into a decision—they can celebrate the surprising work of God or give into sin and the resulting division.
Caleb from Kentucky (01:01:58)
In the podcast, you mentioned several authors who have helped you recognize the repetition of Edenic themes throughout the Torah. Could you cite some specific works or even signals within the texts that would help me to better understand and see the repetition of Edenic themes within the Torah?
Tim cites several of his favorite resources for identifying themes in the Hebrew Bible:
In addition to reading these books, the best thing to do is immerse yourself in Genesis 1-11. (We also offer free classes on Genesis 1-11 on BibleProject Classroom.) As we read more, we begin to pick up on repeated vocabulary in these stories that often identifies recurring themes.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz with Associate Producer Lindsey Ponder. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by Hannah Woo. Audience questions compiled by Christopher Maier.
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