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Introduction to Numbers – Cornerstone Biblical Commentary

I’m trying to return to my pattern of posting short notes from my morning reading.  My schedule has been disrupted recently to the extent that my “morning” reading sometimes has taken place in the evening.  But today I moved from Leviticus to Numbers in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary), and I read the introduction.

I have my standard complaint about most commentaries on books in which there are substantial critical issues, which certainly includes any book in the Pentateuch, which is that whatever the author’s approach, the introduction and notes rarely take the time to get to the nuts and bolts.  I have to assume that this is audience driven.  Not that many people will take the time to hear the arguments of why an author accepts or rejects sources; they just want to hear the view proclaimed in a scholarly tone.

As a result, many non-specialists who nonetheless do considerable reading on biblical topics simply assume that whatever their community and church culture accepts is pretty much established.  This applies, in my experience, to both conservatives and liberals.  Any of these scholars could address these issues, I’m sure, but they don’t do it all that often.  This even reflects my experience in undergraduate Bible classes in which, for example, I learned what the two and four source hypotheses were for the gospels, but didn’t learn just how one would go about demonstrating the validity of those views.

Thus Dale Brueggemann dismisses JEDP in the course of two paragraphs (admittedly substantial ones), while establishing a relatively moderate position that claims substantial rooting in historical sources and even eyewitness accounts, but allows for added material and redactional effort.  I can’t really call this a criticism of his work, however, because those two paragraphs are better done, in my opinion, than the average for such material in a commentary not addressed primarily to experts.

He goes on with an excellent introduction to the structure of the book, literary style, and major themes, and provides a welcome presentation of the large numbers in the book, which covers a wide variety of arguments and solutions, occupying six pages overall.  It’s interesting to see the difference in the amount of space dedicated to this issue as opposed to source and redaction criticism, but again I would say this is audience driven.  In my experience people want a yes/no answer on Pentateuchal sources.  They want to hear more about those big numbers.

While I like the discussion, I would object to one part of the solution.  On page 226, Brueggemann states:

… Any solution shold work for the high numbers elsewhere in the Bible, especially analogous numbers (e.g. military counts), …

The problem I have with this is that it is quite possible that words like ‘elep might be used differently at different periods in Israel’s history.  I think it would be foolish to assume that the language remained the same over the several hundred years between this census (if one assumes it derives from a source near the time of the exodus itself, as Brueggemann seems to do) and the census in the time of David, or various military reports during the divided kingdom.  I am nowhere near clear enough on this to assert that the solution must be different; I simply don’t see sufficient reason to require that the same solution fit all.

I’m being fairly nitpicky here, as I enjoy interacting with commentaries as I read, but despite my picky comments, I regard this as an excellent introduction to Numbers, especially for the pastor or teacher at the popular level.  You’ll get the material that your congregation or class members are most likely to be looking for.

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