I have not discovered an easy way to divide up the book. The narrative of Numbers, like Exodus, does not appear to be structured in any patterns. Exodus was organized thematically around salvation, law, and worship. And some try to divide the text of Numbers by discussing what wilderness they were in or going toward, but there is no consensus to my knowledge on even how one might do that. Thus the divisions we have and will observe may be somewhat artificial but necessary for such a long text.
Yet chapter 15 itself has some of the structural phrases we saw in Leviticus. Sections begin with YHWH speaking to Moses and saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land…” (Num 15:1-2, 17-18 and a shorter intro in Num 15:37-38). The phrase “a pleasing aroma to YHWH” sometimes marking paragraph endings in the first section (Num 15:7, 10). And the whole chapter closing: “I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am YHWH your God” (Num 15:41). Thus ending with a double “I am YHWH your God” similar to parts of Leviticus.
Thus in the context of having pronounced judgment on Moses, Miriam and Aaron, and the twelve tribes (not including Levi), the narrative republishes the law. This is a blessing because the laws begin affirming that Israel will be inhabiting the Promised Land. The phrase, “When you come into the land” is not new (Lev 14:4, 19:23, 23:10, 25:2). In fact, this whole section republishing the law includes familiar phrases like, “a pleasing aroma to YHWH” (Num 15:3, 7, 10, 13, 14, 24, 18:17, cf. Exo 29:18, 25, 41, Lev 1:9, 13, 17, 2:2, 9, 12, 3:5, 16, 4:31, 6:15, 21, 8:21, 28, 17:6, 23:13, 18). We see the principle: “One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you” (Num 15:16, 29 cf. Exo 12:49, Lev 17:8, 12, 18:26, 19:34, especially Lev 24:22 and Num 9:14). The idea that there will be “native born” Israelites also accents the hope of this passage as they will come into the land. The phrase “a statute forever throughout your generations” is also familiar (Num 15:15, 19:21 also see Num 15:21, cf. Exo 12:14, 17, 27:21, 28:43, 29:9, 30:21, Lev 3:17, 10:9, 16:31, 34, 17:7, 23:14, 21, 31, 41, 24:3).
These are not the only familiar themes. One prevalent in Torah is the idea, of ‘observing’ “all these commandments that YHWH has spoken to Moses, all that YHWH has commanded you by Moses” (Num 15:22-23). The chapter even closes with this idea. Telling the people “to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations…for you to look at and remember all the commandments of YHWH, to do them, not to follow [footnote: to spy out] after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments [cf. Matt 28:20], and be holy to your God” (Num 15:38-40). The people are to be holy being another common theme. And the idea common in Leviticus of the priest offering atonement for the sins of the people is also in Num 15:25, 28.
Something that seems particularly accented is the unity of the people before God. Unintentional sins involve the whole population (Num 15:25-26) regardless of whether they are native Israelites or foreign sojourners in the land (Num 15:29). “But the person who does anything with a high hand…shall be cut off…his iniquity shall be on him” (Num 15:30-31). A live demonstration following with the execution of a Sabbath breaker (Num 15:32-36) where “all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as YHWH commanded Moses” (Num 15:36). These themes are about to be played out in Num 16:1ff and it is fitting that these regulations come before this incident. As I noted earlier, God has pronounced judgments on Moses, Miriam and Aaron, and the twelve tribes (not including Levi), thus now we will see a revolt led by Korah of the tribe of Levi and their judgment.
More accurately this was a revolt of Korah, son of Kohath, son of Levi and Reubenites Dathan, Abiram, and On (Num 16:1). This makes sense when you remember the way that Israel camped around the tabernacle — the Kohathites and the Reubenites were on the south side. The issue is just that — they were on the south side, and not on the east — that is, their complaint is that they are not at the top of the society. They sound democratic (Num 16:3) but in reality they are only concerned about themselves being elevated to the place of the priests for the Kohathites (Num 16:10) and Judah for the Reubenites. These men despised YHWH (Num 15:31, 16:30). And the earth swalllowed them. Not surprisingly, then the people grumbled against Moses and Aaron (Num 16:41) and there was yet another plague (Num 16:46-50).
In the next chapter, the staff for Levi, the staff of Aaron, budded and was placed before the testimony “as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die” (Num 17:10) and the people said to Moses, “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of YHWH, shall die. Are we all to perish?” (Num 17:13). This was the wrong response. The staff was an almond tree bearing fruit. Likewise, the lampstand in the tabernacle was an almond tree with symbolic fruit on it. This is an image of the tree of life, Duguid notes, and it is an almond tree because they bear fruit early so that it shows the season of spring is coming. Thus this almond tree bearing fruit demonstrates that the nation will soon be fruitful.
As a fitting addition to these things, the following chapter lays out the duties of the priests and other Levites so that the people might not die. Again the priests and the other Levites will be guarding each other and guarding the people. The idea, “I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel” being repeated (Num 18:20, 23, 24). And the idea that they would have a perpetual due is repeated (Num 18:8, 11, 19, cf. Exo 29:28, Lev 7:34, 36, 24:9). And the priests would tithe their tithe (Num 18:26) as we saw in Leviticus.
An organizing phrase appears to be variations on YHWH spoke to Moses or Aaron or Moses and Aaron. We saw that in chapter 15, in chapter 16 the phrase is missing on purpose because Korah and the Reubenite rebels were acting presumptuously, but we see it in Num 16:20, 36, 17:1, 18:1, 8, 25, and 19:1. But chapter 19 is organized differently. The first section begins, “This is the statute of the law that YHWH has commanded” (Num 19:2) and ends saying, “And this shall be a perpetual statute for the people of Israel, and for the stranger who sojourns among them” (Num 19:10) right after explaining the period of uncleanness. And then there are two “whoever” explanations (Num 19:11-12, 13) depending on whether one cleansed themselves after touching a dead body. The rest of the chapter opens, “This is the law (torah) when…” (Num 19:14). Here again we see familiar themes of clean and unclean, periods of seven days, sacrificing an animal without defect or blemish, etc.
In chapter 20 we see the deaths of Miriam and Aaron. The first when they were in Kadesh aka the wilderness of Zin (Num 20:1) and then Aaron after they left (Num 20:22). In an effort to pay attention to movement in the wilderness we are stopping just short of the death of Aaron, but it is intimately connected to the preceding narrative in as much as he will not enter the land “because you [Moses] rebelled against my [YHWH’s] command at the waters of Meribah” (Num 20:24). Before this, we are told that Miriam died at Kadesh and was buried there (Num 20:1). Being buried outside of the land is highly significant since it meant that they were not buried in an inheritance. There was no water and as could be expected by this point with this rebellious generation the people assembled together against Moses and Aaron and quarreled with Moses (Num 20:2-3). Again the accusation of unbelief is leveled that they were brought into the wilderness to die (Num 20:4-5). Moses and Aaron were to tell the rock, that is Christ, to yield its water for the congregation of Israel and their cattle but instead Moses struck the rock with his staff twice. Thus YHWH told Moses and Aaron, Because you did not believe in me, … therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Num 20:12). The precise nature of what they did wrong has been glossed over as unbelief. Their lack of faith kept them from entering the land. And here we see Edom refuse passage to their brothers (Num 20:18-21). But more on all this next time.