A review of Gordon Wenham's, "Numbers," by Dr. Richard Hess.
Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Old Testament Guides. Sheffield: JSOT, 1997. 130 pp. Paperback, £6.95; $9.95. ISBN 1850758018.
Gordon Wenham is well equipped to write this study guide. He also authored the 1981 commentary on Numbers for the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series. The work begins with a review of various attempts to analyze the book from a literary perspective, with the use of literary chiasms, panels, and cycles; the last one being Wenham’s own approach to the overall structure of the book. Wenham classifies the book under the general rubric, theological or prophetic history. However, he isolates and discusses the many genres and styles that occur (census, administration, and dedication lists; purity rules; priestly blessing; case law reports; routes; complaints; victory songs; battle records; obituaries; cultic calendars; boundary definitions; and the Book of Balaam, a comic tale of pagan prophecy). The analysis of the sources of Numbers, using the Documentary Hypothesis, and ancient and modern approaches to the fragmentary hypothesis, are reviewed. Wenham prefers a holistic reading and questions whether these other approaches always accomplish what they set out to do. Ten pages on the historical value of Numbers questions the circular reasoning of much discussion and provides an extremely helpful summary of historical, textual, and archaeological evidence that fits best with a second millennium B.C. origin for the book. The chapter on the theology of Numbers reviews various approaches and concludes with approval that recent contributions have centered around the theme of God’s faithfulness to his covenant and Israel’s tendency toward disobedience and unbelief. Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, Psalms, the Temple Scroll, Josephus, and the New Testament all refer to Numbers. Wenham concludes his discussion with a summary of how each of these uses Numbers as a source. There are no footnotes but helpful annotated bibliographies abound throughout the work.
There is much to like about Wenham’s contribution. The student of the Bible will learn a great deal about the content of the book of Numbers, its background, and its historical and literary contexts. Thus the work fulfills the goals of the series in which it is published. There is little that is missing from the work, although a paragraph or two on textual criticism and the position of Number in the major versions would have been helpful. One of Wenham’s possibilities on the large census numbers (that the word for “thousand”, Hebrew ‘elef, actually means “troop”) is now confirmed by the important study of C. Humphreys in the 1998 journal of Vetus Testamentum (in a slightly variant form). In light of the author’s own observation that, “the perspective of the latter half of Numbers is of the certain and imminent possession of the land”, it is surprising that the many close ties between Numbers and the book of Joshua are not mentioned in the final chapter on “Later Interpretations”. These, however, are small criticisms. The book remains the finest available introduction to the book of Numbers in English.
Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament