Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏹️

The wilderness of Paran possibly looked like this. Photograph in the public domain

And the Lord spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying, Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls;
Numbers 1:1-2

The Book of Numbers picks up the narrative where it was left off in Exodus, exactly one month after the completion of the tabernacle, And it came to pass in the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, that the tabernacle was reared up.1 The first four chapters of Numbers (introduced here with Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel...) is where the book gets its name from, essentially a long roll call of all the tribes of Israel, in preparation for their march across the desert towards the promised land. Interestingly, the original Hebrew name for the book is drawn from the opening word of verse 1 of the text, Bemidbar meaning "in the wilderness". The book is a mix of census, law and narrative. It is the narrative aspect, the wilderness wanderings, that I find especially attractive—quite naturally perhaps, given that story is at the heart of all civilisation.

In some ways the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, or Pentateuch, describe the birth and growth of a nation as we might describe the birth and growth of an individual person. Genesis is conception, Exodus gestation in the form of slavery in Egypt, followed by birth as the nation escapes the safety of the womb—not without some fear and regret. We also have the early childhood years described in the second part of Exodus, the Israelites being as children, needing to be fed and cared for, complaining and grumbling, and needing a firm parental hand, which is extended into Leviticus, with its extensive set of laws to live by. Numbers takes the nation into adolescence, and a great deal more disgruntlement and rebellion such that God frequently steps in to chastise and punish. The wilderness years is an apt description of adolescence. I remember my own, which carried on way past the normal teenage years and into my early thirties, a life of vague wandering, lacking direction and purpose, fuelled by alcohol and other substances, and shot through with dissatisfaction, indignation and resentment. I was a child of the desert, craving the good things of life without knowing how to put in the work, and blaming others for my lot. All this, and more is described in the book Numbers.

The narrative takes us through to the brink of adulthood, the borders of Canaan, where the nation balks. Crossing from adolescence into adulthood is scary, and not necessarily desirable. The Israelite nation is not able to make it on the first try. They needed (just as many of us do) an extended period of wilderness wandering: it required the birth of a new generation, a new attitude, before the nation is ready.

1 Exodus 40:17