Book of Numbers

The harsh environment of the wilderness lead to Israel's spiritual development as a nation.

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The third section (22:2-24:25) is the "Book of Balaam," which according to some was once a separate book by that name.

The final part (25:1-36:13) begins with events immediately preceding the invasion of Canaan: the elevation of Phinehas, the holding of a new census, and the first land distribution. The boundaries of the Promised Land are set and final instructions before the crossing are given.

Literary Aspects:  The End of the Beginning

In effect, the Book of Numbers tells of the end of the journey begun in Egypt or, in the wider sense, begun in the hour of creation. Everything points to this moment when Israel is at last poised to take possession of its inheritance. Based on this and other considerations, it has been suggested that the first four books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) originally formed a four‑part unit called Tetrateuch by modern scholars, while Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings constituted another separate complex …

While reference is made repeatedly to critical analysis as an important aid to the understanding of the Torah, the text is generally treated as a literary unit, not because it always was of one piece (it was not), but because in the final editing process it was so treated and because ever since the readers of the Torah have approached it in this fashion.

Numbers and History: Is It Accurate?

What historical accuracy in the modern sense can we ascribe to Numbers? It is not possible to answer this question precisely because the entire Torah is essentially a document of faith, that is to say, reality is viewed as an aspect of divine and human interaction. Memories and traditions of events (which we might describe as "history") were intermingled with cultic and symbolic elements.

From this grew a vision of the past as it might have been and as it was later believed to have been in fact. In this way, myth and legend helped both to create and fashion "history." The need to view the biblical narrative on its own terms rather than ours has been cogently stated by George E. Mendenhall (in The Tenth Generation):

"The biblical narratives rarely if ever give any description of the real‑life context of the event described in words... As a result, every bit of data in an ancient narrative must be viewed against all the evidence we can muster for the purpose of finding the range of ideas and associations which that item of historical fact had in ancient life.

"It is for this reason that the comparative method is not only legitimate, it is essential. After all, every translation of the Bible into modern English is based upon an unconscious presupposition that the range of meaning of an ancient word or act compares often enough with the range of meaning of modern words to make translation possible. The extent to which we deceive ourselves in this unconscious presupposition is not known until we become aware of hitherto unknown contrasts in meaning between the two vocabularies.

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Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

W. Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) was a leading figure in modern Reform Judaism. He was rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. Rabbi Plaut is the author of numerous books including The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Haftarah Commentary.