The Pentateuch: Numbers

God Reorders

During the month of August, we will examine themes found in the first five books of the Bible: the Pentateuch. These themes will tell us about God, humanity, faith, and the world. Join us each week as we discuss each book in the Pentateuch.

If you are lucky or stubborn enough to have made it through the end of Exodus and through the book of Leviticus, you will arrive at the book of Numbers. And while you might think that a reprieve is coming from what we often consider to be “dull” reading with the start of a new book after lengthy instructions about how to build a tent and how to live according to God’s laws, unfortunately, Numbers does not begin the way that you might hope. 

In fact, the book gets its name from these opening chapters as well as further on in the book. We move from reading architectural plans, to reading law code, to reading about a census. God directs Moses to number the people of Israel by each tribe, clan, and house, only counting the men who are of age 20 and above. And what we find is that the people of Israel have grown to tremendous numbers. 

(There are vast resources out there that cover a variety of topics about the veracity of the numbers that are claimed here, or how to best understand the numbers that are presented to us as modern readers. Here is one such resource: A Thousand or A Contingent.)

And as I think about the book of Numbers that both begins and essentially ends with census numbers being counted by Moses and the people, I have to think that it is important to know that God orders us, and when needed, reorders us. 

Augustine, a Doctor of the Church who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries, described a problem with humanity: we have disordered loves. Essentially, Augustine’s point in saying this was to make clear that we give our hearts to the wrong things. Sometimes, the things we give our hearts to may even be good things and not evil, but if they are out of order, then our lives become disordered. That’s when we need God to step in and order us or reorder us. 

I think, to some extent, that is what God is doing in the book of Numbers. He is trying to order his people so that they will know how to live and be in the world.

He has given them the promise of entering and taking possession of the Promised Land, and now he is setting them up to be able to do so. That’s why there are also stories and examples of how to live well, how to follow the law, and stories of people who can’t get it right.

One of the most famous examples is the prequel to the movie Shrek. (I bet you didn’t know that the Disney movie Shrek is based on the book of Numbers! Albeit, loosely…But they both have a talking donkey!) But in Numbers 22, we encounter a prophet for hire named Balaam. And Balaam is working against God and God’s people. As Balaam is going down the road, God sends an angel to stand in Balaam’s way. The only thing is that Balaam can’t see the angel. Only the donkey Balaam is riding can. And so the donkey stops. It goes this way and that way to try to go away from the angel of the Lord. And after Balaam urges the donkey to get moving multiple times, the donkey speaks up for itself to let Balaam know what’s going on. Balaam finally can see God’s messenger standing in his way.

Balaam’s loves were disordered. His priorities were wrong. He was more interested in making a profit than in serving God. And so Balaam’s donkey helps to get him back on the right path. 

And this is a lesson for us this week: God reorders us. We must be open to God using unlikely events, people, even donkeys! to get us back on track. 

And so, this week, my prayer is that we will order our lives and our loves with God first and everything else after. I pray and hope that our lives will be aligned with God’s love for us and for the world.