No, no, no not numbers as in 1,2,3; I’m talking about the book of Numbers.
Of course, when we think of this book, the pervasive cataloging of…well…numbers immediately springs to mind. The rest of the book seems to be in prose save the well-known Aaronic Blessing in Numbers 6:22–26.
Nevertheless, in the Bible, just because a section is primarily prose does not exclude it from containing poetry or poetic devices. Particularly, we should expect this in very emotionally charged or very solemn passages. This should come as no surprise. Elements of poetry are our default when the meaning we wish to convey rises above the realm of mere verbage. Even children innately do this. If a child is passionate about his or her rejection of something, a simple “no” will not suffice. Rather an impassioned “NO NO NNNNO!!!” gushes out of their little vexed tonsels. What have they just done? They utilized the poetic device of repetition to make a point. Again, I stress, although not formal poetry, devices associated with poetry are preferred for such expression.
One such passage I would like to discuss is Numbers 14:20-36. The spies have just returned from scouting the promised land and, faithlessly, engendered fear and uncertainty about God’s promises (read, His covenant). As a result, when reading this passage, one get’s an overwhelming sense of God’s judgement and the sobriety of the situation, mostly through poetic devices. I wish hear to bring to your attention four areas in the text where it is very difficult to bring it out in an English translation. But, I believe you should still be aware. Perhaps you may make note of it in the margin your Bible.
- Oaths. The first area is the striking amount of Oaths God makes in the span of one chapter. Oaths in the Hebrew Bible are not easy to spot in English and not always made explicit. This is no fault of the translators, the best way forward is simple explanation. There are three oaths in chapter 14: (1) in verse 23 God promises that the first generation of those delivered out of Egypt will never see the land which he swore to their fathers. (2) in verse 26 God promises to repay that generation for their murmurings against him; everyone 20 years and older will die there in the wilderness. (3) God reinforces the oath in verse 26a by promising, “Thus I shall do to all of this wicked congregation who has gathered against me.” Within these verses, most English translations will bring out the oath with some kind of Adverb of affirmation—usually “surely.” So, the example just stated would read something like, “Surely I shall do. . .”Even if a student who has just wrapped up their first year of Hebrew were to look at any of these verses. It would give them some trouble. Let’s get the text out in front of us; verse 23 looks like this: “אִם־יִרְאוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבֹתָם וְכָל־מְנַאֲצַי לֹא יִרְאוּהָ” The verse very literally reads (and keep in mind this is a complete sentence): “If they see the land which I swore to their fathers and all who blaspheme me.”
This is very obviously a fragment, so what gives? In Bible times, oaths were so frequent and common that readers would have known that the word “if” in this context is functioning as an oath. Bible nerds call this the “oath formula.” There are a couple of times where they have it written out in full and, subsequently, the full mama is translated into English. See 1 Samuel 3:17 and 2 Kings 6:31 for these instances. The whole formula is, generally, “Thus may He (God) do and even more so IF. . .” Again this was so common and well-known it had become formalized and could easily be recalled with the simple Hebrew word “if” (אִם).
- God Breaks His Covenant. In verse 43, God breaks his covenant in a very shocking way. You have heard it said that God’s name means “I am.” In Hebrew this looks like this: אהיה. The word is simply a conjugated ver meaning “I will be” or something similar. This is how God’s name looks when he refers to Himself. The way we are used to seeing it spelled on banners, tatooes, etc. is יהוה. This is the verb conjugated in the third-person and means “He will be.” If you recall from my post “What is God’s name?” The big question is He will be what? The answer is found in Exodus 3:12 when God tells Moses, “I will be (אהיה) with you.” God’s name, then is God’s promise of His presence in accordance with His covenant. Now back to verse 43. The verse, in Hebrew, looks like this: וְלֹא־יִהְיֶה יְהוָה עִמָּכֶם. Just stare at it and tell me what you notice. That’s right, there are two words that look almost identical: יהיה יהוה. This phrase literally means, “Yahweh will be” and, you guessed it, the next word is with עמכם (with you). Except something is different here. You see that word at the beginning (לא)? Guess what it means: NO. Because of the people’s sin, Moses announces God’s punishment in this striking way, among others. He negates the exact wording of Exodus 3 where God promised to be with His people. That’s how grave this sin of unbelief was. Perhabs we could crudely translate this, “The HE IS, HE WILL NOT BE with you”
- Playing with Spelling. The Hebrew in verse 35 looks like this: בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה יִתַּמּוּ וְשָׁם יָמֻתוּ. I want you to look closely at the words יתמו and ימתו. Do you see it? They are mirror image of each other. The first word means “To be complete, pure.” The second word means “to die.” So how does, say the NIV, come up with this translation: “They will meet their end in this wilderness, and here they will die”? In their defense, what the Hebrew is doing here is quite beautiful but difficult to bring out without explanation. Again the first word, in its most general sense, means “to be complete.” This definition can be further abstracted to mean the end of a process. As common with poetic devices, this word, here is being abstracted to drive home a point. If you were to pronounce these two words side by side, it would sound something like, “Yitamu and Yamutu.” Again, do you hear how the T and the M sound are mirroring each other. In poetry this kind of mirroring is called a chiasm. It can be done on a number of levels: from mirroring of letters, words, and even verses. But, what is the purpose here? One common purpose in actual Hebrew poetry is to express totality of something. Thus, the author here is using a mirroring of sounds to reinforce the fact that they will meet their absolute end. Also—and this may be reading too much into it, but it is certainly possible—the word may take on a double meaning here: (1) The poetic device reinforces the completeness of their demise, as I just mentioned (2) We could also read that the process will be “complete” in that not even a single soul from that generation will see the promised land.
- Onomatopoeic slaughter. “Ono-what? I know I’ve heard that somewhere before.” Onomatopoeia is simply when a word is spelled like it sounds.
In verse 45, the Israelites go up into Canaan after Moses warned them not to (v 42). The result was a humiliating defeat in which the Amalakites and Cannanites וַיַּכּוּם וַיַּכְּתוּם (“They struck them and they crushed them”). Notice how the words are spelled similarly. To make this account all the more vivid, the way the words are pronounced even sound like being beaten. They would sound something like: “waYAKHum waYAKHTum.” Not only that, but note the alliteration. Often times in Hebrew poetry, alliteration will be used if the poet literally wants you to feel the thing he is describing.
This post has already gone way over! I will leave you with this. A grave sin was committed in Numbers 14, the sin of unbelief. The author of the passage “pulls out all the stops,” so to speak, in order to try and get the readers to perceive the seriousness of the matter.
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