Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – Numbers

God so Loved the World

In a well-known passage in the Gospel of John, chapter 3, Jesus teaches Nicodemus, a religious leader of the Jews, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). It is out of divine love that God gives God’s only Son to be crucified. In the larger context of the chapter, Jesus uses the story from Numbers 21 of the bronze serpent to speak of himself being lifted up, which means physically lifted up on the cross. Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent on a pole in the wilderness (Numbers 21:1-9) in order to restore snake-bitten people to health, so Jesus will be lifted up on the cross to save sin-stricken people. In the story of the bronze serpent, people look at the serpent and are given life by being restored to health. In the story of the crucified Jesus, people are given life when they are brought to faith. It is the love of God, radically given in the crucifixion of Jesus, that can evoke faith in the people of the world. And when the love of God evokes faith, it brings the world back into a right relationship with its maker. That relationship is true life in everyone’s wilderness journey.

Sin boldly

In Numbers 15:22-31, the text makes a distinction between intentional and unintentional sins. Unintentional breaking of God’s commandments can be forgiven through an atoning sacrifice. Intentional sin, however, cannot.

Interestingly, the term for intentional or “high-handed” (Hebrew) sin is sometimes translated “boldly”: in the Exodus, the Israelites were going out “boldly” or “high-handedly” (Exodus 14:8; Numbers 33:3). Though the verbal link is perhaps accidental, some readers may be reminded of Martin Luther’s well-known counsel to “sin boldly.” Luther, of course, was not urging “high-handed” sin, but precisely the “bold” entry into God’s journey that characterized the Exodus. In a 1521 letter to Philip Melanchthon, Luther wrote:

“God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [in many translations, “sin boldly”], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter, are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.” 

(Translation by Erika Bullman Flores at https://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/letsinsbe.txt).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood both Luther and the spirit of Israel’s “bold” entry into the Exodus, when he wrote:

“‘Sin boldly’–that could be for Luther only the very last bit of pastoral advice, of consolation for those who along the path of discipleship have come to know that they cannot become sin-free, who out of fear despair of God’s grace. For them, “sin boldly” is not something like a fundamental affirmation of their disobedient lives. Rather, it is the gospel of God’s grace, in the presence of which we are sinners always and at every place.” 

(Bonhoeffer, Discipleship [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003] 52)

That same divine grace is present in God’s providing for ritual atonement in Numbers 15 and in God’s re-creation of the repentant sinner, apart from sacrifice, in Psalm 51.


Nahshon ben Amminadab was the first tribal prince of the tribe of Judah. He is notable in the biblical text for being the ancestor of David (Ruth 4:20), and also of Jesus (Matthew 1:4; Luke 3:32). His sister, Elisheba, was married to Aaron, the high priest (Exodus 6:23). She was introduced by her father’s and brother’s name, indicating Nahshon’s fame. 

In Numbers 7, Nahshon presents the offering on behalf of Judah first, cementing that tribe’s primacy. Because of a couple of spelling differences from the otherwise similar offerings, later rabbis (Sifre Numbers 48) suppose that Nahshon presented the offering on behalf of Judah from his own wealth, whereas all the other offerings were a collection from the entire tribe. 

Rabbinic commentary notes that during the Exodus, the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea in the Greek tradition) did not part at once, but that the wind blew all night (Exodus 14:21).

They interpreted this to mean that the wind blew with little immediate effect until Nahshon obeyed God’s order to Moses that the Israelites should move forward (Exodus 14:15). According to this rabbinic interpretation, Nahshon entered an un-split sea, and waded forward until the water was above his nostrils and he might have drowned. At that moment, God’s Spirit came down and split the sea to save the most obedient Israelite. It was because of his faithfulness in obeying God and entering the Sea first, that he was chosen to present the first offering (BT Sotah 37a, Numbers Rabbah 12:26). 

In Jewish tradition, Nahshon is the righteous ancestor of David, Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael [sometimes better known by their slave names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego], Daniel, and ultimately the Messiah

In modern interpretation, Nahshon is sometimes thought of as a model for parents forming welcoming descendants. Nahshon’s son, Salmon, married Rahab the Canaanite, and his grandson, Boaz, married Ruth the Moabite. Both women were known to be foreigners, non-virgins, and at the time of their marriages, relatively less prosperous than their princely Israelite husbands. There’s nothing specifically in the biblical text to support that Nahshon was responsible for raising particularly open minded offspring. But it is a lovely characterization of an important, if not well known, biblical person.

Wilderness Experience as Polyvalent

Numbers is frequently and understandably depicted as a collection of tales of disobedience and complaining. Yet God will look back at the wilderness years as a sort of honeymoon after the divine wedding of God and God’s people at Sinai (Jeremiah 2:2; Hosea 2:14-15). The daily orientation of the people was to God, as they waited for their marching orders each morning (Numbers 9:15-23). The wilderness was, with rather notable exceptions, characterized by daily faithfulness that is quite enviable. In fact, the death of the Exodus generation was caused not by the wilderness-complaining about manna, but because of the lack of desire to leave the wilderness and enter the dangerous Promised Land.

To be sure, Numbers has many stories about Israelites and those accompanying them complaining about provision and complaining about Moses’ and his family’s leadership. The wilderness was filled with the corpses of struck-down rebellious Israelites. But many more Israelites, according to the text, came to the end of their natural lives, after being fed and clothed by God, who faithfully provided for their needs in the wilderness. They died outside the Promised Land, but were still very much loved by God. The people, like their leader Moses, were both faithless and faithful in the wilderness.

The journey of faith in the wilderness “in-between place” has been a potent metaphor for Christian mystics, reformers, theologians, and saints. Certainly, Martin Luther’s journey from an Augustinian monk to the head of the Protestant Reformation was a difficult journey with many experiences of wilderness. 

The wilderness experience of being “already [freed], and not yet [home]”, to borrow the thinking of Princeton professor Gerhardus Vos, is the seminal experience of the Christian in this life. 

God’s Presence

The wilderness was home to God’s beloved people, who ate daily bread from the hand of God, could see God’s presence in their midst every day, and followed God dutifully. This amount of daily intimacy and leading by God of the people would not be seen again until the incarnation of Jesus.

The people were able to inquire of Moses, who could find an answer from God to their questions or complaints relatively quickly. God’s tent at the center of the camp was a place of repeated assembly, to hear the word of God, while standing under the pillar of God’s presence.  

Indeed, the pillar of fire that gave the Israelite camp light at night seems to have been a localized foretaste of God’s eternal presence that will allow no shadow or darkness (Revelation 21:23, 22:5). Frequently, the Israelites of Numbers are mocked, pitied, or repudiated as faithless, but their experience of God’s daily presence is one of the most intimate in the Bible.

Christian mystics, charismatics, and spiritual renewers look to the experience of the wilderness generation for inspiration in the daily orientation of self and journey to God, slowing down movement and decision-making to simply follow God’s leading.  

Cities of Refuge and Sanctuary Cities

In Numbers 35, the Levites were responsible for keeping six cities of refuge, where those guilty of causing accidental death could find sanctuary and refuge from retributive

justice. The notion of holy places, like churches, being sanctuaries, where the accused, and even the guilty, could flee to avoid persecution/prosecution has captured popular imagination since that time. As but one example, in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame,  Esmeralda’s claim to sanctuary in Notre Dame cathedral after being [falsely] accused of murder is a central plot-point.

In the 21stt century, churches and cities as places of refuge and sanctuary have become more popular in response to anti-immigration policing. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services defines a sanctuary city as “…a community with a policy, written or unwritten, that discourages local law enforcement from reporting the immigration status of individuals unless it involves investigation of a serious crime.” Numerous churches have opened their doors to act as places of refuge for undocumented people, relying on law-enforcement reticence to forcibly seize people from sensitive locations. 

In the cities of refuge in Numbers, those who claimed sanctuary were judged guilty of killing someone, but without malice or intention. They waited until the death of the high priest and the emergence of the new high priest to safely emerge from their refuge. In modern sanctuary cities and sanctuary churches, people who do not have documentation of their legal immigration status similarly wait for new leaders who may free them from their need to claim sanctuary.

Numbers 13: Holy Land Tourism and Souvenirs

In 2014, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism finally updated their decades-old logo. Both the old and new logo depict, in differing artistic forms, two spies carrying a giant cluster of grapes on a pole between them. This image comes directly from Numbers 13:23. The ministry of the Modern State of Israel chose a somewhat surprising episode (Numbers 13 didn’t really work out so well…) to highlight that people have always come to the land, and wanted to bring something back to show their friends at home who have not made the journey (yet). 

Today, Christian pilgrims to Israel sometimes receive tattoos. Olivewood carvings are incredibly popular.  People buy copies of “the widow’s mite” (Mark 12:41-44). And there are many crosses. In prior centuries, pilgrims would buy or steal millions of slivers of “the true cross,” saints’ bones, Bethlehem straw [for making their own mangers], and any other thing that might show people at home what a transformational journey they had been on. Like those original spies in the land of Canaan, pilgrims to the Holy Land for millennia have sought to bring the experience home with them.

Ritual Test as Liberation (Numbers 5)

Numbers 5 describes the ritual of husbands’ jealousy without proof. It is easy to read this ritual as an anti-woman acquiescence to patriarchal longing for complete control of women’s sexuality, even when there is no evidence of misdeeds. Much of Christian interpretation has gone this way. 

Jewish interpretation is fascinated with this ritual. However, very early on in Jewish interpretation, it was noted that this practice never seems to convict women. How, if God is testifying to innocence or guilt, could this be? Rabbis differed in their thoughts. One school said that God would never convict a woman alone while her paramour remained free and unconvicted. Another said that God would never convict women who study Torah, irrespective of their innocence or guilt. Another said that God refused to be a witness against women when there was no other witness. Capital guilt was established on no less than two witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6), and God would not accuse alone. In any case, the 1st century CE rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai ordered that the procedure should cease and never be conducted again, because it was needlessly putting women through ordeals, with a conviction rate of zero.  

Prior to its abolition, the rabbis understood that the ritual was consensual for the woman, and that she could never be forced to drink the water against her will. That is why she says “amen” twice in the ritual, to make absolutely sure that she wants to prove her innocence. In the Mishnah, it was remembered that the priests were to beg the woman simply to divorce her husband rather than go through with the ritual. The priests did not want to write God’s holy name [the Tetragrammaton], and then have it washed into water that a human would drink, and then eventually urinate out. This is profoundly unbecoming for God’s holiness. God’s insistence that the divine name be washed away in proving a woman’s innocence elicits the following midrash (a kind of creative rabbinic interpretation):

Rabbi Meir used to give night classes to anyone who wanted to come, including women. One woman habitually stayed late on the sabbath, and her husband became jealous. Of course, he had no proof that the rabbi was engaged in anything untoward, and in fact there were many witnesses who watched the rabbi teach the classes and then return to his own family. However, the woman’s husband became so jealous one night that he locked her out of the house. Despite her cries that she had only been learning Torah, the man showed no pity. Instead, the husband said that he would not open the door until his wife spat in the eyes of the rabbi. The neighbors told Rabbi Meir at once, and he came up with a plan. Rabbi Meir left his house in the middle of the night, screaming that

he had gone blind suddenly. Soon, a large crowd was gathered, following the rabbi as he stumbled through the streets, wailing and tripping for good effect. Soon, he came to the house of the woman, and said, “God has shown me in a vision that I need such-and-such woman to spit in my eyes seven times in order that I may see again.” The woman stood, approached the rabbi, asked if he was sure, and then proceeded to spit in his eyes seven times. Rabbi Meir opened his eyes, exclaimed that he could see again, and returned home. The neighbors told the husband how his wife had spit on Rabbi Meir not once, but seven times. The husband welcomed his wife back and ceased to be jealous. Later on, Rabbi Meir’s disciples were incensed – how dare that woman spit on their beloved rabbi, even at his request. Rabbi Meir reminded them that if the Holy One allowed the divine name to be washed away into water and swallowed in order to reconcile a jealous husband to his wife, how could Rabbi Meir refuse a little spit? (Leviticus Rabbah 9:9)

The point of the story is that God was willing to diminish God’s honor in order to prevent women from being falsely accused.

Nazirite Hair and Priesthood

The Nazirite vows offered an alternative path to sanctification in the wilderness community and after for those not born into priestly families. Like the priests, Nazirites had regulations prohibiting hair cutting (Leviticus 21:5, Numbers 6:5). Like priests, the Nazirite was prohibited from approaching dead bodies (Leviticus 21:1-3, Numbers 6:6-8). And like priests, the Nazirite was prohibited from drinking strong drink (Leviticus 10:8-11, Numbers 6:1-4). In each of these instances, the Nazirites prohibition was more exacting than that of the priests. But why open this alternative path to public holiness for people who will not function as priests [with the exception of Samuel, who was a Kohathite Levite, dwelling in the territory of Ephraim (1 Chronicles 6:33-34)]? It seems that the Nazirites were to be a daily reminder to the people that they were all a holy nation (Deuteronomy 7:6; Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:9). Even when people did not see the priests, they saw the Nazirites living among them, and remembered that all are called to holiness, and not just leaders. 

In modern days, there are multiple applications of the Nazirite vows. Rastafarians and others do not cut their hair as a sort of Nazirite vow. Instagram influencers vaunt the “Nazirite method” for regrowing “Long, Strong, Healthy, Holy Hair.” But within the church, how do we think about those who take alternative paths to spiritual leadership? What does it mean to live as everyday saints, testifying by lifestyle to the holiness that God calls everyone to embrace, equally? Shane Claiborne’s, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s, and Enuma Okoro’s Daily Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, comes out of the New Monastic movement and seeks to be a guide for modern Nazirites, who would live peculiar holiness among neighbors.

Miriam the Prophet

Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses, was a prophet in her own right (Exodus 15:20). Jewish interpretation holds that the rock that accompanied the Israelites from Exodus 17:5-6 to Numbers 20 gave water on account of Miriam’s merit (BT Ta’anit 9a). When Miriam died, the water which had come from the accompanying rock dried up (See 1 Corinthians 10:4). Moses, in his grief, struck the rock twice, dooming himself and Aaron to deaths outside the Promised Land, with their sister Miriam. 

Miriam led the women to take up the Song of the Sea, after Moses taught the men (Exodus 15:20; 15:1). 

Jewish interpretation holds that when Miriam spoke against Moses on account of his wife in Numbers 12, she was speaking up for the neglected marital rights of Zipporah. In claiming that God had spoken through her as well as through, Moses, she tried to offer Moses a conjugal vacation with his wife, rather than trying to seek power for herself (Sifrei 99; Tanhuma, Zav 13). Although Miriam was punished for speaking against Moses, God personally acted as Miriam’s certifying priest and acknowledged her as daughter (Numbers 12:14).

The rabbis also see Miriam’s hand in seeking to reconcile how Miriam and Aaron could be Moses’ older siblings. The text of Exodus says that Amram and Jochebed married and gave birth to Moses (2:1). When were Miriam and Aaron born? The rabbis answered that after hearing Pharaoh’s decree that all male children of the Israelites should be killed, Amram divorced Jochebed because he could not bear the thought of one of his sons being murdered by Egyptians. Amram already had a son (Aaron) and a daughter (Miriam), so why risk having other kids? Amram’s example quickly spread to the rest of the Israelite community, fulfilling Pharaoh’s desire that the Israelites be reduced in numbers. Miriam the prophet spoke up to her father, saying that Pharaoh had decreed that only the boys would be killed, but Amram’s decision to refrain from marital relations with his wife prevented the births of both the boys and girls, thus the

decision was twice as evil as Pharaoh’s. Promptly Amram married Jochebed, and they had a son (Exodus 2:1). (BT Sotah 12b). 

Because of her role in insisting that women worship, fighting for marital rights for deprived women, and meriting water in the wilderness, Miriam became and remains a Jewish feminist icon in Scripture. Miriam is frequently invoked in women’s solidarity movements because of her support for Zipporah’s rights when her own brother denied them.