Wednesday, 18 June 2003

The fourth book in the Torah is Numbers. What a strange name for a book because it might imply an arithmatics book. The name came about from the name of the book in the Greek translation. Looking for a suitable name to describe the contents of the book, the Greek-speaking Jews decided on the name 'Arithmoi' (which is Greek for 'numbers'). This was because of the two censuses in the book, one at the beginning and the other near the end of the book.

The book begins with the people still at the foot of Mount Sinai. They have received the laws and made a covenant with God and are ready to depart for the Promised Land. Preparations are made which include observations like passover, circumcision etc. Then Moses takes a census of all the fighting men (around 605,000). The people set out and the middle block of the book details the 38 years of wandering in the wilderness. Stories here include the grumblings of the people, rebellion, leadership struggles, the spying of the land etc. The last portion of the books ends with the stories of Balak and Balaam. The setting is the Plains of Moab where the people of God had arrived, at the edge of the Promised Land. Here Moses is called to take another census of the fighting men. The reason is simple - the old generation had all died out one by one in the desert, except for Moses, Joshua and Caleb. The children of the older generation had now grown up in the 38 years of wandering. The census was needed to show how faithful God was to his people. Even though one generation had died, they are replaced by an equally big number (around 603,000).

Hence, with the two censuses and the concern for the number of God's people, the name 'Arithmoi' is an adequate and relevant name. From the Greek, the Latin translation took the word 'Numeri' and this has come to our English translation as 'Numbers'. Now you know why we call the fourth book in the Torah as 'Numbers'. It is indeed about numbers. The book makes good reading as a parallel of our own spiritual life. Just as the Israelites left Egypt, we have left the kingdom of darkness. As they travelled in the wilderness on their journey to the Promised Land, so we journey on this earth as pilgrims on our way to Heaven. Along the way, the people of God went through numerous trials and testings. So do we in our journey on this earth. They grumble against Moses and the leaders, so do we grumble at our church leadership! Try reading this excellent book by reflecting on our own spiritual walk. You may be surprised at how relevant and contemporary this book of Numbers is.