Numbers – Confronting Biblical Inerrancy

Numbers – Confronting Biblical Inerrancy August 7, 2016

(For full effect, play this before you read.)

After thousands upon thousands of words of laws, people wandering through deserts, and too-dumb-to-live Israelites turning their backs on God at the drop of a hat, Numbers begins with the riveting account of…

…Moses and Aaron taking a census.  And then getting everyone in formation.  And then taking another census.  Yeah, now I finally understand why this book is called “Numbers.”


It’s worth getting through that part, though, because now Israel is finally drawing near to the promised land of Canaan, and the stories that unfold are filled with espionage, intrigue, betrayal, prophecy, violence, and even a talking donkey (yes, I read the donkey’s lines in Eddie Murphy’s voice.  You should too).  Numbers feels like the penultimate episode of a season of a great dramatic television show, where everything is put into place for the grand finale next week.

My big textbook on the Bible informs me that Numbers marks the end of both the Priestly and Yahwist material, and its chapter on Numbers concludes with an overview of the theological picture created from the merging of these two sources, seen from the beginning in Genesis 1 and 2.  The Yahwist material (which is earlier) portrays a merciful, forgiving God who is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (14:18).  The Priestly writer builds upon this foundation and portrays God, as Kugler and Hartin put it, “[providing] an earthly means of being present to [God’s] willful and rebellious creation.”

Perhaps it’s my mistrust of people in positions of power, but I see the Priestly writer’s material as having a slightly more sinister purpose.  Yes, partially it had to do with maintaining Israel’s self-esteem and promising order in the wake of the Babylonian Captivity (the censuses and formations, for example), but throughout the first four books of the Hebrew Bible P engages constantly in Levitical apologetics and attacks anyone else who might dare to claim priestly authority (the revolt in Num. 16; Phinehas in 25:10, etc).

It seems to me as though it is very likely that as the Jews returned to the promised land after the Exile was over, disputes arose among either different factions of those returning, or those returning and those who had remained behind, about the priesthood.  P seems to have taken the J material and added to it a hefty dose of apologetics in order to maintain the hold the Levites had on the priesthood.

Another thing that became glaringly clear in Numbers was the absolute cruelty and barbarism, by our modern standards, of Yahweh.  He punishes his own people with poisonous serpents, earthquakes, and impaling, among other things (sometimes for such transgressions as complaining about having to subside on nothing but bread for literally years at a time).  To the inhabitants of the lands he has supposedly given to Israel (let’s all keep in mind the Israelites are an invading army at this point with no actual claim to the land) he shows not an ounce of mercy:  every single person is to be slaughtered except for virgin women, who are taken as slaves.

Of course, that was how war was done in ancient times.  And yes, ancient peoples would in general not be bothered with theological questions of how “good” God is; all that mattered was that he was “great.”

But what further evidence does one need that this material was written by human beings and reflects the viewpoints of those human beings in a specific time and place?  Certainly even most biblical literalists don’t truly believe in the deepest corners of their hearts that thousands of innocent people deserved to die or be raped or sold into slavery simply because they lost a divine lottery (although, yes, statistically there are probably some who believe that).

So yes, Numbers reflects the values of the time it was written in.  That should surprise nobody.  Its God is terrifying and monstrous and not any being I would ever worship, no matter how much water he made come out of a stone.

But Numbers also contains that God of steadfast love, slow to anger and full of mercy, buried beneath the cruel worldview of the authors.

As Christians who take the Bible seriously, we must decide:  which God do we worship?  Which God do we follow?  Which God are we made in the image of?  Which God rules over the Kingdom?

If you know Jesus, then the answer is abundantly clear.  The God of love and mercy and forgiveness is the one we must follow, which means that the cruel, violent God of the Priestly and Yahwist authors’ imaginations must be discarded, no matter how pure their intentions were.

If you can do that, then you’ve already rejected Biblical literalism.  Welcome to the club.


Next week:  Dueteronomy!  I want to invite you again to read it with me sometime over the week and share your thoughts in the comments on Sunday.  

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  • Iain Lovejoy

    From my limited reading on the issue there seems to be a lot of dispute as to whether P is exilic or post-exilic. Stories of God’s harshness towards Israel and of the total destruction of the Canaanites seem to me most appropriate to an exilic context.
    A book written by or about a Jewish nation destroyed by God it seems to me would naturally emphasise stories recording earlier times where God had seemingly decided to make an end of the Israelites and relented following repentance – in prosperity we see rhe harshness of God but in disaster they would see the ultimate mercy and vindication, and that they were eventually despite their backsliding installed in the promised land.
    In stories of how the Canaanites were defeated and destroyed the now defeated and destroyed Israelites may well have been invited to see themselves. There are prophetic warnings recorded at the time about both making alliances with foreign kings and against rebellion and defiance of powerful neighbours to whom Israel had become tributary, and it is notable how many times the Canaanites are described aa forming grand alliances of great power which Israel simply rolls over because God is fighting against them. It is also notable how many times the Canaanites (and others) are said to have refused to make peace or to allow the Israelites to pass through and are destroyed as a result. The only survivors are the Gibeonites who make peace and agree to become tributaries of Israel. The emphasis on the complete death and destruction of the Canaanites perhaps as much about emphasising that the Babylonians had through God’s mercy by contrast spared the Israelites lives, and thus they hoped not abandoned them entirely.

  • Michael Corey

    > too-dumb-to-live Israelites turning their backs on God at the drop of a hat

    …said the “Christian Athiest” who bends over backwards to dismiss the Word of God the second it conflicts with his progressive world view.

    • Fallulah

      Most Christians do this to get along in society. When is the last time you stoned someone for wearing mixed fabrics? Most believers are more moral than their holy book.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      Actually, I just don’t consider the Bible to be the “Word of God.” Nowhere is that a condition for being a Christian.

      Anyways, you can’t deny that in a lot of these stories the Israelites are cowardly and unfaithful to Yahweh, even after ample demonstration of His power and authority. That’s actually the entire point of some of the stories (like the famous Golden Calf). I don’t think calling them dumb is going too far.

      Believe me, if I ever see someone part the waters of a massive sea, I’ll change my tune.

  • Megan Crawford

    You sound a bit like John Dominic Crossan (a hero of mine). He wrote the book “how to read the Bible and still be a Christian” and, my favorite book, “The Birth of Christianity”. We are not called to worship the Bible, we are called to follow Christ. We are not “Biblians”, we are Christians. And God did not write the Bible, humans with agendas (often competing agendas) did.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      Hi Megan!

      So, actually, “How to Read the Bible and Still Be A Christian” is my favorite non-fiction book of all time. Crossan is one of my heroes as well, and evidently a huge influence on me.

      I haven’t gotten to The Birth of Christianity yet, but I’ll make sure to do so! I’m extremely flattered to have been compared to one of my favorite writers.

  • Fallulah

    Be careful…actually reading the bible had led many to atheism, myself included.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      I already consider myself a Christian atheist, so no worries there!

      • Fallulah

        ummmmm……a wha? That’s like being a meat eating vegetarian.

        • Christian Chiakulas

          I disagree, but understand why you think that way. I submit that being a Christian requires only that I follow the example of Christ, not that I “believe in” any type of deity.

          • Fallulah

            So you just think Christ is some good man who’s example you follow? I always learned (from when I myself was an evangelical christian) that you have to accept Jesus into your heart and acknowledge he died for your sins. I would think that would point more to his divinity. I guess it is possible to just respect jesus’s teachings but would that REALLY make you a Christian? I respect Dawkins writings but I would never call myself a Dawkinian .
            But wait a minute…you kind of contradict yourself in this above article. “As Christians who take the Bible seriously, we must decide: which God do we worship? Which God do we follow? Which God are we made in the image of? Which God rules over the Kingdom?
            If you know Jesus, then the answer is abundantly clear. The God of love and mercy and forgiveness is the one we must follow, which means that the cruel, violent God of the Priestly and Yahwist authors’ imaginations must be discarded, no matter how pure their intentions were.” Well which is it…do you NOT believe in god or do you follow the god of love and mercy etc.
            I don’t get it. An atheist would never assert which god “we” are to follow.

  • F Joe Harris

    Historical conext. You simply cannot take a group of people (in that time) who pillage, rape, add kill, like we watch football, and transfer them to loving, kind individuals who don’t even use sarcasm against their mother-in-law, overnight. It takes centuries, and is still ongoing. Of course God could “wave His magic wand,” and correct it all in an instant but that would defeat the Prime Directive: Free Will. There is also the issue of looking at God as some type of Watson Analytics algorithm, which He was not and is not. True love demands justice. If a man has a little girl who is viciously raped and tortured, then killed by a monster, would it be wrong for the man to demand justice? Would it be wrong for the man to produce justice? What would you say about the man’s feelings for his daugher, if he were not moved at all?

  • Kimbrough Leslie

    In at least the settlement narratives, the command to slaughter all the “inhabitants” is a mistranslation of “yoshevim” meaning “those enthroned,” which paints a very different picture of the “conquest.” Likewise, you find two competing and very different narrative strands about settlement and resettlement in the context of rationalizing the exile in terms of the violation of purity vs. justice. The former position is all the more likely to read back into and redact the account to allow no degree of compromise or mercy.