Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett

in The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Published in print February 1998 | ISBN: 9780192835253
Published online April 2009 |

Series: Oxford World's Classics


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The story of Israel's journey through the wilderness between Egypt and the promised land continues in the fourth scroll of Moses. The title ‘Numbers’ reflects the contents of ch. 1 where the people are numbered by their families. This census applies only to all the males of the kin groups who are 20 years old and upward. It is a census for war because it is defined in terms of ‘all that were able to go forth to war’ (1: 45). The census reveals a potential army of 603,550 men, without counting the men of the priestly tribe of Levi. A similar number of men had marched out of Egypt in armed formation (Exod. 12: 37; 13: 18), so, if we take these figures seriously, the population of Israel in the wilderness must have been between at least 2 million and 4 million. One characteristic feature of biblical ‘historical’ narratives (i.e. Exodus–Chronicles) is their tendency to deal in very large numbers: a reminder, if one were needed, that we are not dealing with realistic accounts in our post-Enlightenment sense. Similarly, the idea of the ‘miraculous’ could not exist in a world with no notion of natural laws. There is not even a word for ‘nature’ in classical Hebrew. Thus millions of people can spend forty years in the wilderness and be adequately clothed, fed, and watered there; even their shoes and clothes do not wear out during the forty years of trekking through extremely rough desert lands (Deut. 8: 4). Some scholars23 have argued, partly from archeological data of the period, that the ‘Israelites’ emerged as a separate people somewhere around 1200 bce, perhaps largely made up of refugee peasants or slaves fleeing into the highland areas of Palestine from oppressive conditions in the city-states. These may have been joined by nomadic groups, whose traditions, including an escape from bondage in Egypt, contributed to the later belief that the people as a whole were immigrants. Certainly many of the rituals prescribed in these books are designed to create strong communal bonding. Most of the material in Numbers contributes to the regulations for the construction of the cultic community so typical of the primary narrative of Exodus–Deuteronomy. A close reading of these four scrolls shows how such ritual communities are constructed and function. Here are the roots of the world-view developed much later by Jewish communities after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.

Chapter.  721 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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