Thursday 12 March 2009

Dennis T. Olson on the Theology of Numbers

Dennis T. Olson, ‘Negotiating Boundaries: The Old and New Generations and the Theology of Numbers’, Interpretation 51, 3 (1997), 229-40.

Hosea 9:10 alludes to the story of Israel’s worship of Baal Peor, narrated in Numbers 25, which ‘marks the transition from an old generation of rebellion to a new generation of hope’ (229).

Olson sees the transition from old to new generation as providing the main structure and theme of Numbers as a whole. The structure is marked by two major census lists (in chapters 1 and 26), dividing the book into the story of an old generation of death (chs. 1-25) and a new generation of hope (chs. 26-36).

The story of apostasy in Numbers 25 is bound up with the Balaam-Balak story in chapters 22-24 – partly through a recurring motif of ‘seeing’ and ‘looking’ (22:22-30, 31-38; 24:4, 15-17; 25:6-7), partly through the role played by Moabites and Midianites (22:4, 7; 25:1, 6, 17), and by Balaam too (who is the central character in chapters 22-24 and named in 31:8 and 16 as the one who encouraged Midianite women to entice the Israelites into worshipping Baal Peor).

Not unlike the contrast of scenes in the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32, ‘as God is struggling on the mountaintops surrounding the camp of Israel to bless God’s people (Num 22-24), the Israelites down on the plains of Moab are reveling in idolatry and disobedience (Num 25)’ (233).

In fact, Olson holds that the similarities between the Baal Peor and the golden calf incidents suggest that the two stories ‘function as bookends for the experience of the old generation from Mount Sinai to the edge of the promised land’, further suggesting ‘that the old generation of Israelites made little or not progress in their commitment to God’s covenant’, ending up where they began by breaking the first commandment (233-34).

The new generation begins with a new census (Numbers 26) – but will it repeat the rebellion and disobedience of the past?

As it happens, according to Olson, there are positive signs of life in Numbers 26-36 (231-32, 235). But he also argues that these chapters reveal something about the way this new generation is to carry on its life with the traditions that have come before it and the land that lies ahead of it; he calls this ‘dialogical negotiation’ (235-39).

For instance, there is a balance of care in deciding the distribution of the land (26:52-56). When the issue is raised of the inheritance in the land of Zelophehad’s daughters (26:33-34), the land is to remain in the family’s possession even if means controverting the custom that only men can inherit the land (27:5-7) (235-36). The additional complication of what happens when the daughters marry reappears at the end of Numbers (36:1-12), where again a compromise is reached, but where the overriding concern is for the land to remain in the possession of the tribe to which God originally gave it (36:9). The two accounts of Zelophehad’s daughters (27:1-11 and 36:1-12) ‘form a literary frame that holds together the texts related to the new generation’, with the narratives about the women and land inheritance serving as ‘positive confirmation of God’s gift of land to this new generation’ (236).

But, the compromise achieved in the face of new circumstances ‘affirms the flexibility of the tradition and the need for reinterpretation as new questions arise for succeeding generations of God’s people’ (236). Olson traces this in the similiarity-yet-difference of the leadership of Moses and Joshua (27:12-23), in the concerns for preserving order and holiness in chapters 28-30, in the holy war against the Midianites (ch. 31), in Reuben and Gad’s request to settle east of the borders of the land and how that is handled (ch. 32), and in the Levitical cities of refuge (ch. 35).

Olson concludes:

‘In the end, Numbers commends neither a model of rigid obedience to authority and tradition (Num 1-10) nor a model of flagrant rebellion against authority and tradition (Num 11-25)… In either case, whether rigid consent or thoroughgoing suspicion, the community may end up in idolatry like that of Baal Peor. A more hopeful and promising model involves the hermeneutic of dialogical negotiation portrayed in Numbers 26-36. Such a hermeneutic involves respect for tradition with a bold imagination that seeks compromise on the basis of mutually held values and commitments. Those of a new generation who engage in such a hermeneutic seek to worship neither the idol of tradition nor the idols of other gods. Rather, they seek the guidance of the one living God through the dialogical interplay of tradition, new circumstances, and the conflicting voices within the community in which they live and worship’ (240).

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