Book of Numbers

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

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"Biblical fundamentalism, whether Jewish or Christian, cannot learn from the past because in so many respects the defense of presently accepted ideas about religion is thought to be the only purpose of biblical narrative. It must, therefore, support ideas of comparatively recent origin‑-ones that usually have nothing to do with the original meaning or intention of biblical narrative because the context is so radically different…"

Religious Ideas in Numbers:  Falling Short and Forging a Nation

The major locale of the book is the desert, that is, the Sinai Peninsula, and especially its eastern part, the Negev. The environment is harsh, but God deems it necessary for Israel's spiritual development. The desert is the place where the people's failures are punished… This is the "desert motif" that underlies the Book of Numbers, which continues from where Exodus left off. Israel is God's people and is therefore subject to special obligations and laws which are designed to safeguard its holiness.

The book tells us how Israel continued to fall short of its divinely appointed goals; how, because of its murmurings, rebellions, and transgressions of various kinds, God was time and again disappointed in His people. Still, though individuals were punished and a whole generation was condemned to die in the wilderness, the covenant was not abrogated: the sanctuary--with its divine manifestations--remained in the midst of the camp, and God never ceased to guide and protect His chosen ones. The period of wanderings may be seen as a trial of faith, and at the end of the book there emerges the vision of a new nation which will take possession of the Holy Land and do so as a holy people.

The Name of the Book

The name of the book is an English rendering of the Latin Numeri, which in turn was a translation of the Greek Arithmoi, chosen in recognition of the extensive statistical material which opens the book. The name is probably related to an earlier Hebrew appellation for the book, Humash Hapikudim (Mishnah Menachot 4:3). The book was occasionally also referred to by its first Hebrew word, (Sefer) Vayedaber. Its popular Hebrew name is Bemidbar (in the wilderness), so called after bemidbar Sinai, the fifth and sixth words in the opening chapter, a fitting title for a book that relates the major events from Sinai to the Plains of Moab.

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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.