Bible in 90 Days: As I barrel toward Deuteronomy in my reading, I’m working through Numbers. Here is Eugene Peterson’s introduction to Numbers from The Message:
Becoming a truly human community is a long, complex, messy business. Simply growing up as a man or woman demands all the wisdom and patience and courage that we can muster. But growing up with others, parents and siblings and neighbors, to say nothing of odd strangers and mean enemies, immensely complicates the growing up.
The book of Numbers plunges us into the mess of growing up. The pages in this section of the biblical story give us a realistic feel for what is involved in being included in the people of God, which is to say, a human community that honors God, lives out love and justice in daily affairs, learns how to deal with sin in oneself and others, and follows God’s commands into a future of blessing. And all this without illusions.
Many of us fondle a romanticized spirituality in our imaginations. The “God’s in his heaven/all’s right with the world” sort of thing. When things don’t go “right” we blame others or ourselves, muddle through as best we can, often with considerable crankiness, and wish that we had been born at a different time—”Bible times” maybe!—when living a holy life was so much easier. That’s odd because the Bible, our primary text for showing us what it means to be a human being created by God and called to a life of obedient faith and sacrificial love, nowhere suggests that life is simple or even “natural.” We need a lot of help.
We need organizational help. When people live together in community, jobs have to be assigned, leaders appointed, inventories kept. Counting and list-making and rosters are as much a part of being a community of God as prayer and instruction and justice. Accurate arithmetic is an aspect of becoming a people of God.
And we need relational help. The people who find themselves called and led and commanded by God find themselves in the company of men and women who sin a lot— quarrel, bicker, grumble, rebel, fornicate, steal—you name it, we do it. We need help in getting along with each other. Wise discipline is required in becoming a people of God.
It follows that counting and quarreling take up considerable space in the book of Numbers. Because they also continue to be unavoidable aspects of our becoming the people of God, this book is essential in training our imaginations to take in some of these less-than-romantic details by which we are formed into the people of God.