Bibliotheca Sacra 111 (441) (Jan. 1954): 47-53

[Copyright © 1954 Dallas Theological Seminary; cited with permission;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon College]  

 

Department of English Bible Exposition

 

THE BOOK CALLED "NUMBERS"

 

BY ALLAN A. MACRAE, PH.D.

 

            Too many Christians, have been diverted from giving the

fourth book of the Bible the amount of study that it deserves

by the unattractiveness of its title and the dull impression

which they have received from a glance at its opening

chapters.

An unfortunate habit has developed in American pub-

lishing in recent years, of giving books flashy titles, which

often tell nothing about their actual contents. These titles

may help in securing sales for a book when it first appears,

but probably in the long run they cause less attention to be

paid to it than would be the case if the title pointed clearly

to the real subject of the book. In relation to the Book of

Numbers, something even worse has occurred. A dull title

has been affixed, which gives little idea of the subject of the

book as a whole, and therefore has been doubly effective

in keeping Bible students from reaping the rich treasures

which the book contains.

 

      NAMING THE BOOKS OF MOSES

 

A truly scientific approach to the Bible, as to any other

subject requires that we examine each separate feature

carefully in order to determine exactly what it means and

how dependable and authentic it is. It thus becomes impor-

tant for us to ask whether the names of the Old Testament

books are, like their contents, a part of the inspired Word

of God. Many of our English titles are taken from the Greek

translation and were not in the Hebrew Old Testament at

all.  It would seem most likely that there were no titles on

any of the books when first written, and that the titles were

added later. This is certainly true in the case of the Penta-

teuch. The Jews have ordinarily spoken of these five books

 

(47 )





48                                Bibliotheca Sacra

 

as the Law of Moses, and sometimes have referred to them

as "the five fifths." In our printed Hebrew Bibles, the head-

ing placed before each book of the Pentateuch simply con-

sists of one or more of the words with which it begins. This

seems hardly consistent with the idea that these headings

were titles put in by the original author. It would look rather

in the direction of their being merely identifying labels,

added by some later copyist.

The Greek translation of the Pentateuch, which is known

as the Septuagint, was made in Egypt at some time between

300 and 200 B.C. In it new titles are placed over the five

books of Moses. Four of these titles are good descriptions of

the books, and some of them are decided improvements over

the headings used in the Hebrew Bible. It is quite different,

unfortunately, in the case of the Book of Numbers.

Printed Hebrew Bibles place over the Book of Genesis a

Hebrew word which means "in the beginning." This is

simply the first word of the book. The Greek translation

bears the title Genesis, "beginning," which in this case is

almost an exact translation of the Hebrew word and is also

a good description of the actual contents of the book.

Similarly, in our printed Hebrew Bibles, the second book

of Moses bears as a heading the two Hebrew words with

which it begins. These words may be translated "and these

are the names." Sometimes the book is designated simply

by the second of these words and called "Names." This

Hebrew title, however, gives no idea of the contents of the

book. While the book begins by naming the sons of Jacob

who went down into Egypt, this is purely introductory. In

the Greek translation a descriptive title was substituted,

consisting of the Greek word Exodos, which means "going

out." This title is an excellent description of the contents of

the book, and is clearly an improvement over the Hebrew

designation.

In the Hebrew Bible, the title of the third book consists

of its first word, "and he called." This gives practically no

idea of its contents. In the Greek translation the word

Leuitikon was substituted, indicating that the book contains

 



The Book Called "Numbers"                         49

 

directions or the activities of the Levitical priests and their

Levitical assistants.

Skipping over the fourth book for a moment, we note

that the fifth book is designated in the Hebrew by means of

its first two words "and these are the words." This is very

similar to the title of Exodus, "and these are the names," or

of Leviticus, "and he called." The Greek version has sub-

stituted the title Deuteronomion, which means "Second Law."

The book consists almost entirely of the addresses which

Moses gave to the people shortly before their entrance into

Canaan, reiterating and repeating the great Law of God,

which had already been presented in Exodus and making

certain changes in it to fit their circumstances after they

would settle in the promised land. Thus, the Greek title

aptly describes the contents of the book, and is very appropri-

ate.

In three of these four instances, the Greek title is clearly

an improvement over the Hebrew title, while in the case of

Genesis the two are substantially identical. In all four cases,

our English Bibles use a simple transliteration of the Greek

word. Surely it would have been better if these titles had

been translated into English instead of being merely trans-

literated from the Greek.

Although the word genesis is something used in common

English to mean "beginning," it would probably be easier

for the mass of English speaking people if the word had

been translated into English, and the book entitled "The

Book of Beginnings."

Similarly the word exodus is occasionally used as a

common term in modern English, but it would be more

easily understood by many of our people if the book were

entitled "The Departure of the Israelites from Egypt," or

perhaps still better, "The Deliverance of the Israelites from

Egypt."

Leviticus designates the third book fairly well, but it

might be even better if we were to lengthen the title a little

and call it "The Levitical Legislation," or "Rules for the

Priests."

 



50                                Bibliotheca Sacra

 

            Most English readers have little idea what the name

Deuteronomy means.  It is “all Greek” to them.  Would it not

have been better if in English this book had borne such a

title as “Moses’ Farewell,” or “The Final Advice of the

Great Leader”?

 

                        PROBLEM OF NAMING “NUMBERS”

 

            Returning to the fourth book, we find that the situation

is altogether different. In the Hebrew Bible, it is not its

first word, but its fourth, that is used as a title. This word

forms an admirable description of the contents of the book.

The Greek translators gave it a descriptive title, which

instead of fitting excellently, as in the case of the other four

books, is not at all well selected.  In English, instead of trans-

literating the Greek title, we have in this sole instance trans-

lated it, thus compounding the injury done by the poor

selection of the title in the Greek.

            The Greek title of the book is Arithmoi, the word from

which our English word arithmetic is derived. Probably less

damage would have been done if this word had been trans-

literated, so that most English readers would simply take it

as a meaningless title and look into the book to see what it

contains.  Unfortunately, the misleading title has been trans-

lated, and the average reader gains the impression that the

book is simply a dry list of statistics.  It is true that its first

two chapters describe the taking of a census, and another

census is described in chapter 26. Yet if a few chapters

were taken out, there would be less numbers remaining than

in many another book of the Bible.

            The Hebrew title, “in the wilderness,” aptly describes

the contents of this book, since it deals with the wilderness

journey of the Israelites from Mt. Sinai to the borders of

the promised land.  It begins with the preparation for the

journey; it goes on to tell of many interesting and impor-

tant events along the way; finally, it describes the prepara-

tions for entrance into Canaan itself.

            What a shame that in the one case where the Greek has

made a poor selection of a title, this title should not only

have been taken over into the English version, but actually


 


The Book Called "Numbers"                         51

 

translated instead of being merely transliterated, as was

done in the other four cases. This has doubtless led to much

neglect of a book which, as a matter of fact, is as vital and

important for the Christian today as any book in the entire

Old Testament.

This may seem to be a rather extreme statement, but

proves not to be so when we examine the situation. Genesis

describes the creation of the world and the beginning of the

conditions which face us here. This is very interesting and

worthwhile, and yet its interest to us may seem to be some-

what indirect. We face a situation; it is valuable to know

how it came about, but we are more interested in knowing

what to do about it now.

Exodus describes how the Israelites were delivered from

Egypt. This illustrates, in many ways, the experience of the

Christian in being delivered from the domain of sin and

redeemed by the death of Christ. Exodus is extremely im-

portant to the non-Christian who desires to learn how he

may be redeemed. It is valuable in strengthening the under-

standing of the Christian as he looks back over the marvel-

ous salvation which the Lord has given him. This crucial

event in the life of every Christian is strikingly typified in

Exodus by the Passover, with its shedding of the blood of

the lamb without spot or blemish, and the placing of the

blood of the lamb on the lintel of the door. Nevertheless,

for the Christian, all of this represents something that is al-

ready in the past. Vital and important as it is for him, it

is the background of his present life rather than the situa-

tion which he now faces.

 

  CHRISTIAN APPLICATION OF "NUMBERS"

 

The Book of Numbers, however, describes the journey of

people who have already been redeemed and delivered from

Egypt, as they went their way toward the promised land.

It exactly corresponds to the situation of the Christian in

this age. He has been redeemed through the blood of Christ.

He has left Egypt. He has been brought out from the control

of the powers of sin and of darkness. However, he has not

yet entered the promised land. There is still a rest awaiting

 



52                                Bibliotheca Sacra

 

the people of God, a rest toward which we are pushing

forward. The Christian is on a pilgrim journey. He is press-

ing forward to the great prize ahead of him. This was exactly

the situation of the Israelites in the Book of Numbers. No

other book of the Old Testament contains so much that is

exactly parallel to the pilgrim journey of the Christian in

the present age.

A correct understanding on this point can be of real

value for every Christian. Many a Christian thinks of himself

as back in the experience described in the early part of

Exodus. He is constantly worrying about his past sins,

fretting about whether he really is a child of God or not.

He needs to realize that if he has truly looked to Christ for

salvation and been born again by simple faith in Him, he

has been delivered from Egypt and is now a child of God,

headed for the promised land. He needs to learn to possess

the possessions which God has given him, and to rejoice in

them. He must never forget that his sins are under the blood;

Jesus has died for him; the transaction is completed; he is

now launched on his pilgrim journey.

Other Christians tend to make the opposite mistake. They

think themselves to be already in the promised land. This

can lead to an exaggerated idea of the extent of one's

sanctification, or to undue discouragement along the way.

We need to realize that we are pilgrims, and that this world

is still Satan's territory. We must constantly look to Christ

for protection and guidance. The Book of Numbers is the

book that typifies our present situation. All through it we

find illustrations marvelously planned to show us what

we need.

The Christian, then, needs to study this wonderful book.

In its first part, 1:1 to 10:10, he reads of the preparation

of the Israelites for their wilderness journey. All of this is

meaningful for his own life. It shows the orderliness, sepa-

ration from uncleanness, and constant reliance on divine

protection and leadership, which are so vital if he is to go

forward in his pilgrim journey.

The actual journey begins in 10:11, and the plains of



The Book Called "Numbers"                         53

 

Moab are reached in 22:1, These chapters are full of lessons

for us (cf. 1 Cor, 10:1-11).  In the mistakes and rebellions of

the Israelites we see the very errors into which we ourselves

may fall, if we fail to keep our eyes fixed on our Leader. At

every stage the divine provision for nourishment and pro-

tection is wonderfully illustrated, typifying the supernatural

assistance so necessary for our own pilgrim journey.

The Balaam incident (22:2-25:18) is rather unique, and

yet it illustrates the type of spiritual opposition which we

must face, and shows how capably our Lord can turn back

the clever plans of Satan to destroy us.

In the final section of Numbers, the promised land is

just ahead, Israel is forbidden to settle where it is. Plans

must be laid for entering Canaan. The Christian, also, must

not become satisfied with the present age. He is a citizen of

another kingdom, and must always keep this in mind. De-

tailed study of this part of the book shows that it, like the

earlier section, is filled with lessons that we need to ponder

and to heed.

What a shame that an ill-chosen title should have hin-

dered Christians from receiving the many rich blessings and

important lessons which God has placed in this marvelous

fourth book of the Bible!

 

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204

www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu