This book is called “Numbers” because it begins and ends with a census of the Israelites.
Many readers will find this book frustrating because it seems to ignore what is historically plausible. Likewise, many pages devoted to the laws and customs of Israel will appear as dry and dated as the chapters of Leviticus that precede this book.
Therefore, it helps to understand, from the beginning, that this book superimposes two histories. On one hand, we are dealing with ancient traditions found especially in chapters 11-14 and 20-25. At times, certain events of Exodus are related again in a different form. The book assumes that on Sinai, immediately after the great revelation to Moses and the story of the golden calf, God gave all the laws that are mentioned in Leviticus. Following that, the book situates all the events that it relates: all that we are going to read was supposed to have taken place in the course of the following year, during the crossing of the desert of Paran or upon arriving at the oasis of Kadesh.
The chapters we have just mentioned do contain ancient traditions. However, like Leviticus, most of the book was written in the priestly circles of Jerusalem, after the Israelites returned from the Exile, namely, around seven hundred years after Moses. The purpose of these priests was to justify the religious and social structure that they intended to establish in Israel in order to make of Israel the people consecrated to the worship of the one God.
All the initiatives attributed to Moses are meant for the Jews, back from the Exile. Thus, the authors depicted the setting in which they lived on the basis of the people before them: the hundred or so families of the Exodus became a people of six hundred thousand men, plus their wives, children and their cattle. The small wooden ark, that was carried on a donkey, became the center of a portable sanctuary, almost as impressive as the Jerusalem Temple and the priests with their rubrics always occupy center stage. When the account was written, Israel was just a quiet province within the Persian Empire: all the more reason to flatter their imagination and to build up Moses’ companions into a formidable, aggressive and conquering army at the service of the one God.
As with Leviticus, we have to say the following: those who accept this way of re-writing history will find the Word of the Holy God at every instant; the call to holiness is not just a personal matter but it conditions the entire life of the people of God. For God, Christians are holy people who have broken away from the ideal that liberal societies have about free humans who only seek the fulfillment of their desires or whims in this world. Before the God who called them to follow the path of Christ, human beings are totally at the service of a mission, so are couples who become families and the Christian community totally turned toward evangeli zation.