Feb. 5, 2004
Some people, including some Biblical scholars, wonder, says Calvin professor of religion Won Lee, if anything good can come out of the book of Numbers.
For Lee the unambiguous answer is: "Of course!" In fact, for Lee, particularly Numbers 13 and 14 is one of the most important passages in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.
Lee recently wrote a book on what he calls the amazing story of Numbers.
Punishment and Forgiveness in Israel's Migratory Campaign (Eerdmans, 2003) examines 26 chapters (Number 10 to Number 36) of what some have called arguably the most diverse book of the Old Testament, but a book that lacks any obvious structure or organization. Lee finds structure where none appears to be, fitting Numbers into the rest of the Pentateuch, but also fitting 36 distinct sections or sub-units of Numbers into an overarching theology for Numbers as a whole.
The story in Numbers 13 and 14 is a familiar one to most anyone with even a passing knowledge the Bible: God tells Moses to send a party of men to explore the land of Canaan, the land promised by God to Abraham. For 40 days the twelve men spy out the land, returning with samples of its fruit and reporting of the bountiful flow in Canaan of milk and honey. But, they add, the people who live in Canaan are powerful and the cities are large and fortified. Taking Canaan, they recommend, would be foolhardy. At this news the people weep aloud and raise their voices against Moses and Aaron, even suggesting that they would be better off returning to Egypt with a new leader. At hearing this the Lord prepares to strike down the Israelites. But Moses intervenes and the Lord forgives the people, but he does not allow those he brought to Canaan's very doorstep to enter the promised land. He punishes them for their unbelief and they die in the desert over the next 40 years. Their children, however, do enter the promised land after 40 years.
Lee says the two chapters of Numbers are essential for understanding the message of the Pentateuch. Contained therein, he says, is the story of a God who punishes the rebellious people, but also a God who forgives them.
Lee notes that Numbers tends to be one of the least studied books of the Pentateuch, or the whole Bible for that matter. Many scholars study the Creation story, Israel's ancestral history, the Exodus event and the regulations of sacrifice and holy life, but few deal with the story of the wilderness journey, seeing it instead simply as a connecting piece to a more important book, Deuteronomy. Lee hopes his book will fill that gap.
One reviewer of the book said simply that: "By treating the structure of the text as the central problem in its interpretation and presenting a proposal grounded in solid exegesis, Lee demonstrates that despite the diverse, disparate material found in Numbers this text is in fact a self-contained, well-organized, and coherent unit with an important theological message."
"My problem was," says Lee, "that if you can't find a coherence (in Numbers) you cannot find a unifying purpose or message. This is a problem. So I sought to find coherence in Numbers, particularly from Numbers 10 to Numbers 36. What are the stories? What ties them together? And how does the coherent message interact with the rest of the Pentateuch?"
Lee, contrary to some scholars' conclusions, says that Numbers reveals a God who neither plans to test the Israelites in the wilderness nor want them to fail. Instead, Lee discovers that God in Numbers wanted to bring them to the promised land as quickly as possible. But when the people sinned God could not forgive without consequence.
"Yet," he says, "though he punished Israel he is gracious and forgives them too. The Exodus generation died, but the next generation would enter the promised land, which shows God's promise to its ancestors is still valid."
In this interpretation, Lee says, he differs from other Biblical scholars, including his mentor at Princeton Theological Seminary. Other scholars believe that the Exodus generation sinned and was punished, while the next generation obeyed and was rewarded. Lee does not agree with that assessment. God's bringing Israel into the promised land does not depend on their responses to God. Both generations sinned, he says. But only the new generation was allowed to enter the promised land. God is faithful to his own promise.
"God kept the promise he made to Abraham," says Lee.