The Blessing of Numbers

The book of NumbersThe book of Numbers gets no respect.

Seriously, don’t you feel bad for Numbers?

It’s the fourth book of the Bible, but it gets ignored.

I think one of the reasons people avoid it is the name.

Check out my new blog, “The Blessing of Numbers” on the BTS website.

Yes, that’s my Bible (NRSV).


Holy Water, Jealous Husbands, and Dropping Uteruses

I received an email this morning from a current student.  Here is how he started,

“Since we talked about weird laws tonight, Numbers 5:11-31 has been deeply troubling to me.”

I don’t think he’s unique.  Let me summarize the law. Numbers 5, a husband is jealous, wondering if his wife has been fooling around, so there’s a test to figure out whether she’s guilty or not.  The priest gives her some holy water in a jar, with tabernacle floor dust sprinkled on top.  She has to take an oath and drink the water.  If her uterus drops then she’s guilty.  If not she’s innocent, and her husband should trust her. 

This is how I replied:

A lot of people wonder about this weird story, but not too many have asked me about it directly.  I’ll probably convert this email into a blog post.

No definitive answers, but here are six points to make.

First, Genesis 2 lays out the ideal for a husband and a wife.  A mutual partnership of trust, where they both help (ezer) each other.  I would argue it was an equal partnership, with no implicit authority.  But after the first sin (the forbidden fruit eating), he rules over her (Gen. 3:16).

Second, the man is clearly ruling in Numbers 5.  So, we’re not talking about the ideal.  It’s not Genesis 2, more like Genesis 3.

Third, this bizarre test is almost certainly an improvement on what would have normally happened back then.  A jealous husband would often just get rid of his wife, and she would have no security, and become either destitute or a prostitute.  Assuming she’s innocent, this test gives the woman a way to reclaim her reputation, and hold onto security.

Fourth, from a purely human level, how often is slightly dirty water going to cause a woman’s uterus to fall out?  It would seem like the default is innocence, barring some supernatural intervention.

Fifth, while I’m still troubled by this, I can see good in this law for the woman, but it does require a step of faith on my part to assume that the law is somehow designed to protect her.  Their culture and context were very different than ours, even more patriarchal and sexist than ours.

Sixth, why not a similar test for a jealous wife of a suspicious husband?  Good point.  I don’t have a good answer for that, but in my next book I look at adultery and rape laws.  The relevant OT laws are actually rather progressive, more so than our laws today in terms of giving women the benefit of the doubt in these types of situations.

Now, off to my faculty meeting for the next 3 hours.

What would you have said to my friend about Numbers 5? 

Expert discovers ancient Torah scroll in plain sight – CBS News

torah-scroll-large-AP782930_610x516Big news on the Old Testament scene, check it out here:

Expert discovers ancient Torah scroll in plain sight – CBS News.

The “re-discovered” scroll is of the Torah, or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).

The CBS news article says it’s a “Torah scroll of the Pentateuch”, but that’s redundant, since the Torah and the Pentateuch are different names for the same thing.

The best part of the story is that this library in Italy had the scroll for centuries, but incorrectly dated it, thinking it was only a couple hundred years old, when it was closer a thousand (about 1150 AD).

You might say, 1150, that’s not very close to the time of the Old Testament, and you’d be right, but the oldest complete manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible aren’t much older.  (Although the Dead Sea Scrolls are much older.)

This is what the Psalmist said about his Torah scroll:

I long for your salvation,
and your law (Torah) is my delight (Psalm 119:174).

The psalmist would not have miss-dated his Torah scroll.

The Immutably Mutable God

balaams ass“God is not man, that he should lie or a son of man that he should change his mind (naham)” (Num. 23:19).  Thus, Divine Immutability.

“So the LORD changed his mind (naham) about the harm which he said he would do to his people” (Exo. 32:14).  Thus, Divine Mutability.

So the Bible clearly teaches both that God doesn’t change his mind and that he does change his mind.  And both texts use the same Hebrew verb, naham.

If you’re uncomfortable with this translation of Exo. 32:14 (ESV), perhaps you’d prefer the King James Version which says “the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people”.  God had to repent of evil?  On 2nd thought, the KJV sounds worse.

So, how do we resolve this biblical tension?

In a word, “Context.”

I realize not all of you have read God Behaving Badly where I discuss this topic in chapter 7, so if you’re interested in my longer than one word answer, but you don’t want to fork out $11 to buy the book, you can listen to this sermon podcast here “Is God Rigid or Flexible? (30 minutes).  I preached at Grace Bible Church of Souderton (April 28, 2013).  The sound is a little weak for the first minute, but then gets much better.  The website also includes my sermon from the previous week, “Is God Angry or Loving?” (30 minutes; April 21, 2013).

I conclude that God is predictably flexible,  consistently changeable and immutably mutable in regards to showing mercy toward repentant sinners.  That’s good news for me.  I’m a sinner.  (But don’t tell my family–they haven’t realized that yet.)

What do you think, does God change?  

Image of ‘Balaam’s Ass” (from Numbers 22-24) by Rembrandt from