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PENTATEUCH or TORAH: Numbers

“Very well, God will give you meat to eat.
You will eat it not for one day, or two, or five, or ten, or twenty,
but for a whole month, until it comes out your nostrils and sickens you. . .”
– Numbers 11:18-20

In the Book of Numbers, the Israelites, still en route from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, pump up the volume on their complaints to God. Wandering in the desert for a while now, they’ve just about had it! And so has God. While he was relatively patient with their foibles and moaning in Exodus, he starts to lose it in Numbers. Over and over again, the Israelites pine for the good old days in Egypt— never mind that they were slaves. They had food— a beautiful panoply of food— not this monotonous diet of manna bread that God has rained down. God is miffed by this ingratitude, and so, when they ask for meat, he stuffs them to the gourd with quails and makes them sick.

This episode, which takes place in Numbers 11:16-23, is a good summary of the rebellion theme that runs through the entire book. Every time you turn the page, the Israelites are doing something displeasing to God. If they’re not kvetching about the harsh conditions of the desert, they’re sacrificing to other gods and sleeping with pagan women (Numbers 25). This rebellion naturally gives rise to another major theme in Numbers: God’s punishment of them for their faithlessness. He sends them plagues (11:33), he blows up their camp (11:1-3), and— worst of all — he extends their stay in the desert to 40 years (14:31-35). This means the generation who left Egypt will never see the Promised Land, but will die in the desert. Only their children will be allowed to enter. The prolonged trip is the bread and butter of the Book of Numbers— a voyage from Mount Sinai in the desert all the way to the Promised Land. The story is interrupted periodically by lists of laws, most of them repeats from earlier books. Click here to learn more about God and punishment.

The name “Numbers” comes from the Greek arithmoi, describing the census in chapter one. Numbers is the fourth book in the Old Testament and is a composite of material from various people from various times.

 
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