Don’t you feel bad for the book of Numbers?

Seriously, the fourth book of the Bible gets no respect. I think the primary reason the book gets ignored is its name. Who wants to read about Numbers? Perhaps there are a few, the type of people who enjoy reading books by Stephen Hawking (i.e., my family), but other than that, most people avoid numbers and Numbers.

However, I’m teaching the book of Numbers right now, and I’ve been blessed, as I gain a greater appreciation for this much ignored text.

Curiously, the title for the book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible is bemidbar, or in English, “In the wilderness” which actually is a better title for the book, since the entire book is set in the wilderness. Yes, there is a census of the nation of Israel at the beginning of the book and at the end (Num. 1, 26), but most of the book is not about numbers. There are poetic sections, and legal sections, but the book is dominated by narrative sections (set in the wilderness). Many important stories, the ones where you ask, “Now where is that?” are located in the middle of Numbers:

  • The jealousy of Aaron and Miriam (Num. 12)
  • The refusal to enter the land (Num 13-14)
  • The Sabbath stick-gatherer (Num. 15)
  • The rebellion of Korah (Num. 16)
  • Aaron’s budding staff (Num. 17)
  • Moses strikes the rock, which keeps him from the Promised Land (Num. 20)
  • The bronze serpent, referenced by Jesus in John 3 (Num. 21)
  • Balaam, his donkey, and his blessing (Num. 22-24)

The section of Numbers many people are familiar with is the Blessing of Aaron (Num. 6:24-26), because we have heard it at the end of a worship service. Here is the blessing and a few verses on either side of it:

Numbers 6:22: The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 23 “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,
24 The LORD bless you and keep you;
25 the LORD make his face (pānāyw) to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD lift up his countenance (pānāyw) upon you and give you peace.
27 “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

What a great benediction! It’s all about the blessing. If the book of Numbers were renamed “Blessing” after this section (and blessing is a theme of Balaam’s section as well), more people would read the book.

Here are three things you may not know about this familiar blessing:

1) There are five generations of blessing: 1) The LORD (YHWH), 2) Moses, 3) Aaron, 4) Aaron’s sons (or combined with Aaron?) and 5) the People. Why doesn’t YHWH just bless the people directly himself? It appears that he wants to get everyone involved, because, after all, it is a blessing to be a blessing to others. The mission of God involves blessing.

2) The phrase translated typically as “his countenance” in Num. 6:26 is the same as the phrase translated as “his face” in Num. 6:25 (pānāyw). We don’t like repetition, but the original Hebrew had it, and curiously, of the major English translations, only the NIV keeps the “his face” in both verses. I like the literalness of the NIV here (more so than the ESV, NAS, NRSV, and KJV). I’d rather have God’s face shining on me than his countenance. Who knows what a countenance is, anyway?

3) In Hebrew, verse 24 is three words, verse 25 is five words, and verse 27 is seven words, so there’s a geometric pattern, getting longer by two words each time. One commentator I read (Wenham) thought that if you leave out the divine name YHWH, the pattern is 2, 4, 6, for a total of 12 words, representing one for each tribe. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but his idea is interesting. In any case, the blessing appears to expand, to lengthen, as we reflect on how great it will be to experience God’s face, his grace, his peace, his name—his blessing.

Bless someone today with the blessing of Numbers.