Michael D. Coogan: The Most Complicated Book of the Pentateuch

Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, third edition (OUP, 2014), 160.

Numbers is the most complicated book of the entire Pentateuch, in terms of both its content and its sources. It takes its name from the census at its beginning (chaps. 1; 3-4) and near its end (chap. 26); its Hebrew title is taken from one of its opening words, bemidbar, meaning “in the wilderness,” an accurate designation of the book’s narrative setting. After the census and other preparations, in Numbers 10.10 the Israelites leave Mount Sinai and head toward the Promised Land. The central portion of the book, chapters 11-25, describes incidents on their journey, and finally a series of appendixes gives final instructions by Moses and by Yahweh for the imminent entry into the land.

Within this framework, however, the book is a hodgepodge of disparate, sometimes contradictory material, only loosely held together by narrative and by chronology. Besides the censuses that give it its name, Numbers includes other lists, itineraries, folklore, etiologies, ritual regulations, battle accounts, laws, geographical descriptions, and genealogies. In addition to the sources, J, E, and P, it also has material from other sources, such as independent poems that in some cases at least are very ancient.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.