It’s unfortunate, really. Almost a shame that it got stuck with the name, “Numbers.” It’s not about math. It has no complex formulas. And while it does start out by opening with a few chapters of “census data,” which counts out the sons of Israel and their tribes — the book of Numbers picks up steam. Fast. Because Numbers isn’t really about “numbers.”
The word “Numbers” comes from the Greek title for the book, “Arithmoi.” If it sounds like arithmetic, well, it’s because that’s where we get that word. But what a shame that a name connected to math is what stuck to the book of Numbers. The Hebrew title, meanwhile, is MUCH better, and much better at describing what follows in the words on its pages: “In the Wilderness.”
To me, that sounds more interesting. More inviting. And it has the added benefit of being truer to the content of this book we call “Numbers.” For that is what this book is about: Israel, wandering in the wilderness. And, as it turns out, Numbers is hard to read — and not because of the math. Because of the mess. Israel is truly in the wilderness, struggling to find its way — and complaining most of the time.
Israel struggles with Moses. Israel struggles with her situation. She struggles with manna, having to live by bread alone.
But most of all, Israel struggles with God.
And in the midst of the struggle, there is a lot of death. It seems as if there are bodies strewn all over the desert. For me, this is the hardest part of getting In The Wilderness; all this death. I can’t explain it; all I know to say is this: Israel was being formed in the wilderness, and the book of Numbers — far from being a book we want to avoid, ends up being a book about the human condition. Will Israel trust God when it has to live day-by-day, moment-by-moment? Will Israel follow God when it can’t see the outcome? In short, will Israel find its identity in God, and God alone? In that regard, In The Wilderness is the perfect name for this book, and the perfect setting for this book. For it’s in the wilderness, stripped of everything and anything that it wants to hold onto, Israel has to decide: Is God really enough?
Someone has pointed out that the one thing where the title “Numbers” fits is when we look at how the book is laid out. The book includes two censuses (censi?). The first (chapters 1 & 2) introduces the generation of the Israelites that chooses not to trust God; and the second (chapter 26) introduces the generation that ends up taking the land. The first is largely faithless; the second seems ready to go where God is taking them.
In short, Numbers is a book about us — and what we do when we are in the wilderness. Do we trust God, or not? When life is rough, do we trust that God is at work, even in the desert? It’s not that we can’t doubt, or get discouraged. Ultimately, I think, the problem of the first generation is not their dissent, but their distrust. They simply won’t trust God in the midst of their doubts, their disagreements, and their dissent. And so they choose to turn away from God, In The Wilderness, where, in fact, they need God the most.
In the end, that’s the challenge — and the opportunity — for when you and I are In The Wilderness. Do we, in the midst of the struggles, trust God — all the way through the Desert Days?