Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at. – Numbers 11:4-6
If you’ve ever read an Umberto Eco novel such as The Name of the Rose or Foucault’s Pendulum, you might understand why I find lists of arcane names inexplicably intriguing. There are so many little bits of strange lore that are stored in the back of our minds, or my mind at least, and even if we don’t know where we ever heard them or what they mean, we know they refer to something that our distant ancestors thought were important, or frightening, or powerful, or supernatural. Even for confirmed, lifelong atheists and skeptics such as myself, it’s hard not to pay special attention to those sorts of words and feelings. Foucault’s Pendulum is almost a literal encyclopedia of medieval superstitions, and Eco can rattle off dozens of eerie terms that I could swear I heard once before but can’t guess where, like “homunculi” and “Rosicrucians.” It’s a thrilling feeling even if, like Eco, you don’t buy into any of it.
The very name “Numbers” carries suggestions of what I’m talking about. And Numbers 1 starts off in that vein, with a census of the tribes that have followed Moses into the Sinai. ”Of the people of Dan, their generations, by their clans, by their father’s houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: those listed of the tribe of Dan were 62,700. Of the people of Asher, their generations, by their clans, by their father’s houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: those listed of the tribe of Asher were 41,500. Of the people of Naphtali, their generations, by their clans, by their father’s houses. . .” and so on and so on (Numbers 1:38-42). I like this kind of writing. There’s nothing obviously meaningful here, no parables or lessons, but the repetition and the ritualistic wording scream significance. The fact that we have to guess at what the significance is only makes it more intriguing.
Unfortunately Numbers dropped off after this. Most of the next several chapters continued God’s list of minute instructions to the Hebrews via Moses about how to arrange their tents and what sorts of fabrics to use and how much restitution to make for certain kinds of wrongdoing. It seems to me that Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers (and, I fear, Deuteronomy, but we shall see) could all have been one large book. I know that the first five books of the Bible are known as the Penteteuch, or the Torah, or the books of Moses, and apart from Genesis and the first few chapters of Exodus they certainly are of a piece. I look forward to comparing them to later books of the Old Testament.
Maybe it’s not too late for Moses’s story to get interesting again. When I opened the Kindle app to review Numbers 1-10 and write this entry, I read Numbers 11 as well. It seems the Hebrews and Moses are getting testy with their Lord, who occasionally consumes some of them with fire and who gives them nothing but manna to eat. Some of the Hebrews are even grumbling that things were better back in Egypt. Moses says to God, “If you will treat me like this, kill me at once” (Numbers 11:15). At the close of the chapter it seems that other leaders are emerging, calling themselves prophets, and preparing for a conflict with Moses. That should be exciting.