Working with Numbers

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Leviticus was wholly legal instruction, but with the book of Numbers, we again have substantial sections of story. These narratives tell more of the travels of the Israelite people, as they make their way through the wilderness to the promised land. The lectionary only uses three short excerpts from this story.

The first is a blessing, probably better known from its use in worship than directly from the biblical book. “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26) It provides the first reading for the 1st January, eight days after Christmas, when the gospel relates the circumcision and naming of Jesus.1 It helps relate the continuity of God’s promise of blessing between the two testaments, especially in the way Luke portrays the holy family’s torah-observant piety.

Detail from Giovanni Bellini The Circumcision (via Wikimedia Commons)

The other two stories have some significant echoes in the New Testament and Christian tradition. The first is a story of how Moses discovers he doesn’t have to carry all the burden of leadership himself.2 (This is a lesson quite a few contemporary leaders, inside and outside the church, have yet to learn. If only more people read Numbers!)

God shares some of the spirit he has given Moses with seventy elders, and they prophesy. Two elders, Eldad and Medad, are not gathered with the others outside the encampment, at the tent where worship takes place. They are seen prophesying inside the camp. Moses is asked to stop them, but answers instead “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets?” The story is later read as an anticipation of the gift of the Spirit to the whole church.

The other story is one that might have remained quite obscure if it were not for the use John’s gospel makes of it. It is the rather strange story of the people of Israel plagued by fiery serpents with a lethal bite, while they are in the desert. God commands Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Anyone bitten by one the fiery serpents should look at the bronze serpent and they will live (Number 21:4-9). When John comes to tell a story about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus (John 3), he draws on this story: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” To look at the cross, he suggests, by way of allusion to this story, is to find life and healing.3

This underlines two things about the use of the Old Testament in the New. The first is that it often draws on texts we might otherwise not notice, or think are seriously strange. The second is that it does not just use what many Christians might think of as the obvious prophecies (although they were often far from obvious to Jewish readers before or after the time of Jesus). It seems to have been the common conviction of those who wrote the New Testament, as well as those who followed them, that the whole of Jewish scripture was, in some way, about Jesus the messiah.


  1. Traditionally this has been kept as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, although in Anglican circles there has in recent years been a tendency to refer to it as the Naming of Jesus. Modern people, despite what we often think of ourselves, are more squeamish about body parts and bodily functions than ancient and mediaeval ones. In the Roman Catholic Church, it is kept today as a Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, although exactly the same readings are used in both communions.
  2. The excerpt from Numbers chapter 11 is slightly different between the ecumenical and Roman Catholic lectionaries, but the key part of the story is common to both. It is regularly the case that when the ecumenical revision was made, the revisers frequently lengthened readings to include more scripture and a larger sense of the context. Sometimes this helps, sometimes it makes it harder to hear the key point or reason it relates to the gospel.
  3. This is provided as the first reading for Holy Cross Day. Nowadays kept as the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, it entered the Christian calendar as the occasion on which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated. The emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, a keen hunter of relics, believed she had identified the True Cross. The church built on this site was dedicated in 335, and on September 14, the day of this feast, the relic of the cross was brought outside for people to venerate. It has sometimes been referred to as the “Invention of the Holy Cross” – which doesn’t mean what you might think, that it’s made up, but comes from the Latin word invenire which means “to find” – the finding of the Holy Cross.

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