The Book of Numbers takes its English name from the Greek Septuagint title, a description of the census-taking in its first four chapters. The Hebrew title is a bit more descriptive, bemidbar sinai, “in the wilderness of Sinai.” Note the time in 1:1. Two years have passed. In 14:29-33, God decrees that that generation, everyone over 20 will die in the wilderness and their children will suffer because of their unfaithfulness.
A rough outline of Numbers looks like this.
- 1-10 preparation to leave Sinai
- 12-22 long march from Sinai to Moab.
- 13-14 Spies sent into the land of Canaan
- 16-17 Korah’s rebellion
- 22-36 encampment in Moab, preparation to enter the land.
The chapters today record a series of complaints, some reasonable, some less so. Note, however, that the Israelites are not alone. When they left Egypt, they were accompanied by a “mixed multitude,” a large mixed group. (Exo 12:38). This group has remained with them, and initiate one of the complaints, which is quickly picked up by the Israelites. “And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?” Or,”The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat!” (Num 11:4 NRSV) Spiritualizing a bit, we can’t separate ourselves entirely from Egypt, because we always bring Egypt with us. We can’t really separate “us” from “them,” because we ARE them! Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote,
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
Note that while the KJV translates identically in Exodus and Numbers as “mixed multitude” two different Hebrew words are used. Numbers uses a hapax legomenon (a word that occurs only once in the whole Old Testament), and Exodus a rare word. They’re clearly referring to the same group, but Numbers is suggestively pejorative, leading to a translation as “riffraff” (Jewish Publication Society translation) or “rabble” (NRSV). One scholar has suggested that these two mentions represent the memory of a historical detail, and connects it to an Egyptian inscription by Hatshepsut, which describes the expulsion of the “Canaanite” Hyksos along with the “foreigners” who lived among them. This Bible Review article gets into the details.
Something else of note in that verse is that the food they miss is described as “flesh.” The KJV represents English usage that was already somewhat archaic at the time of its translation; it uses “flesh” to refer to meat/protein whereas “meat” refers to food in general. When we read about the lists of offerings, then, the “meat offering” is actually vegetarian, and translated in modern versions as “grain offering” (Leviticus 2 and elsewhere). This is also the case in the oft-quoted verse 1Co 3:2, in which Paul tells the Corinthians that he “fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.” The difference here is not milk vs steak, but milk vs solid food. Paul scolds the Corinthians for still being immature, unable to move on to solid food. Milk is the appropriate and nourishing food for newborns, but solid food starts being mixed in at a young age.
Below are the notes that accompany my old podcast on this lesson, which you can listen to here.
(These notes go along with the podcast, and don’t make much sense without it.)
Septuagint =LXX =70, begun in Alexandria c.250-200 BCE. Bible Dictionary
Chaim Potok, author of The Chosen, The Promise, My Name is Asher Lev, Davita’s Harp, and others. Highly recommended.
Moses= Moshe, Eve= chawwah (ch= a gutteral h sound) Judah= Yehudah, Isaiah= Yeshayah, Hezekiah=chizqiyyahu
Genesis= buh-ray-sheet/bereshit = “in the beginning of…”
Numbers= bemidbar sin-eye= “in the wilderness of Sinai”
Covenant and complaining–
Pres. George Q. Cannon- “You can’t sin so cheap now as you could before you [made these covenants.]”- Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1986): 118.
Israelites want meat “freely” as they did in Egypt, that is, they want it provided for them at no cost to themselves. (11:5)
KJV “flesh” =meat, like German fleisch BUT
KJV “meat”= food or solid food
Num 11:34 Kibroth-hatta’avah = “the graves of lust”
Bible Review and Biblical Archaeology Review have now been combined, homepage at bib-arch.org
The Anchor Bible Dictionary (once quoted in General Conference) says, “most scholars agree that Heb keleb [“dog”] is used in certain letters, hymns, etc., to express a servant’s faithfulness, like that of a faithful watchdog… with the primary connotation of self-abasement, and probably also a secondary connotation of “faithful servant.”
Numbers 13:6 Oshea=Hoshea= “salvation”; Renamed Joshua =” Jehovah [is] salvation”
Joshua= Hoshea +theophoric (“god-bearing”) element yo/yeho/ya
Hebrew mostly uses el (cf. elohim)as in DaniEL or NathaniEl or ya/yo/yahu (from Jehovah/yahweh) as in IsaiYAH or JeremiYAH.
Theophoric elements can come at the beginning or end of the name, so we have both NathaniEL and ELnathan, as well as JOnathan. The nathan part is the same, meaning “has given” but the theophoric element and placement varies.
Jesus= Greekized form of Joshua, hence KJV Hebrews 4:8 “If Jesus had given them rest…” when it’s actually talking about Joshua and the Israelites.
Land of Canaan and Giants
Canaan≠ Cain+an. Canaan= kena’an, kn’ whereas Cain= qayin, qyn. Kenites= tribe of qyn.
Nephilim≠ Nephi+ lim. Nephilim= root npl + masculine plural suffix –im pronounced –eeym, not –im like “him.”
Semitic languages based on roots with 3 consontants. Nephilim= npl but Nephi = (presumably) npy. The last one is a “weak consonant” meaning it’s sometimes w, sometimes y, and sometimes an “ah” sound.
Nephilim first appear in Genesis 6.
Miriam/Aaron complain against Moses
1) Is Cush = Ethiopia/Nubia? or the Cushan located in Midian of Hab. 3:7? One wife or two?
2) Why is only Miriam punished? Not sure, but the verb and order suggest Miriam took part in a way Aaron didn’t.
3) What’s leprosy?- Heb. tsara’ or tsara’at ≠ Hansen’s Disease. See Leviticus 13:47 onwards for regulations about leprosy on houses and fabrics.
IF there are two wives and IF the comparison to snow is meant to invoke the color, then there’s some irony in Miriam’s punishment. She complains about a black woman, and is turned white. If on the other hand, there is either no second wife or the comparison to snow is meant to refer to the flakiness, there’s no irony or humor in the punishment.
(Or, I coulda had Samuel L. Jackson on this podcast if I’d thought of it earlier. Settle for Indiana Jones instead.)
1 Nephi 17:41– “fiery FLYING snakes”
On the duality of snake symbolism, see
- Andrew Skinner, “Savior, Satan and Serpent: The Duality of a Symbol in the Scriptures.” In The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000): 359-84.
- James H. Charlesworth, The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized (2010 Yale Press)
“bronze serpent” = Heb. nachash nechoshet, named Nechushtan in 2 Kings 18:4
On the snake = cobra, see Provençal, Philippe. “Regarding the Noun [saraph] in the Hebrew Bible.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 29, no. 3 (2005): 371-79.
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