Lectionary Year B
March 30, 2003
Numbers 21:4-9

Step III: Composition

A. Immediate Context

(JFC) Pre - Numbers 21:1-3 reports the nomads going by way of Atherim where the Canaanites were preparing to prevent their planned passage, except they prayed for God to lead them to capture some of them and destroy their villages and when God did so, they named the area, Hormah, meaning, "Destruction".

Post - The rest of Numbers 21 (verses 10-35) narrates their sojourn east of Moab, where the author(s) quote a poem from "The Book of the Wars of the Lord" and a song about an oasis, for they were short of water, again, evidently, for they then promised to leave undisturbed any fields or wells if the Amorites would let them pass through their land. However, King Sihon of the Amorites refused them passage so Israel defeated the towns and villages of the Ammonites. Then they sang a victory song and settled in the territory of the Amorites whose lands Moses also captured as God enabled him to do to Bashan, the next area as well. These accounts seem unrelated in subject matter, perhaps later added one to another.

B. Organization of Compositional Whole

(JFC) The Book of Numbers got named so because of the census listings in chapters 1-4 and 26, the first 25 chapters of which "relate how the entire first Exodus generation, which murmured against God in the wilderness and refused to take the land, died off, except for Moses and the two faithful spies, Joshua and Caleb; (and) (2) chs. 26-36, beginning with another census, deal with a new generation that God led toward the promised land under Moses' leadership," as the Introduction to the Book in the NRSV states it. It narrates how the wilderness wanderers discovered God's providence after and during many complaints, power struggles by leaders and questioning who spoke for God. It tells of "the traditions of the Exodus and the Sinai covenant (that) became creative of and normative for the theology of the entire united federation of tribes that preceded the monarchy," as Harvey H. Guthrie, Jr., puts it in The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary Of The Bible. Napier's Song of the Vineyard divides the Book into 3 parts: 1) 1:1-10:10, "Varied torah as part of the total Yahweh-Moses-Sinai law", 2) 10:11-20:13, "Traditions and torah of the wilderness period" and 3) 20:14-36:13, "Toward the land: from Kadesh to Moab". Another ordering appears in The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, which designates 10:11-21:35 as "On the way from Sinai . . ." As challenging as the trek was, the people seemingly were learning to trust God as Provider, Sustainer and Leader for life's inevitable trials yet to be faced. Some of the narratives of the travelogues get interrupted by stories of conflicts and victories of God's people, some decrees, rules, ordinances from God through Moses to the people and some are "cultic-ritual regulations", as Noth terms them in his OTL Commentary.

C. Issues of Authorship

(JFC) The earliest parts of the Book of Numbers seem, certainly, by most scholars to be of Priestly origin. Their lists of numbers, details of organizations of tribes and areas of encampments and much to do with religious experiences, duties and care of the sanctuaries occupy many sentences, paragraphs and conversations even with God, etc. It might be thought that many edicts recited, orally at first, later in written form, comprise a constitution-like document for Israel's relations to God, to each other and each other's tribes and to all other peoples they encounter as their future unfolds. Some, if not most, of the later chapters in the Book seem to come from J and E (including as early as 21:21-31, according to Noth's OTL) sources, given the 2 divine names used there and the beginnings of some mentioning of the conquest (of Canaan, the Promised Land) theme.

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