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The Poetics of the Law and the Book of Numbers

Updated: Jul 15, 2023



In 1993, Mary Douglas noted that the Book of Numbers was among the least explored books in the Bible. Although some time has passed since then, the Book of Numbers has still not attained the same level of recognition and focus as other biblical texts. This unfortunate situation may be attributed to the early criticism the book faced from the few scholars who delved into its study. Their critiques primarily centred around the book's literary style, and, if one where honest, there was some validity to their observations. As these critics rightly pointed out, the Book of Numbers emerged as a complex tapestry of genres, presented in a seemingly disjointed and disorderly manner within its final form.


A serious scholar of the Bible or one who believes the Torah is the divine word of God cannot simply dismiss these matters as mere authorial incompetence or attribute them to the supposed primitive nature of ancient literary styles. Although Numbers displays a distinct and unique literary style, it is not the result of an inept author. Instead, this intricate tapestry of literary styles unveils itself as a cohesive work of literary art, brimming with nuanced and intricate theological significance.


Attempting to fully elucidate this artistry within the confines of a single essay would prove challenging. However, it becomes evident that the author of Numbers possessed a profound understanding of the interplay between narrative and legal literary styles, utilizing this dynamic extensively to unveil theological truths. The combination of law and narrative in written texts is not exclusive to ancient Israel; many contemporary cultures incorporated narrative segments within their legal codes to outline the lineage and authority of kings, as well as to explicate the blessings and curses tied to these codes. The Torah, as frequently noted, reflects this form of literary composition. Nonetheless, the Torah stands out in its sophisticated integration of law and narrative. Narrative elements permeate the text to a greater extent, with laws not merely juxtaposed but intricately woven into the narrative fabric. Within this landscape, the Book of Numbers distinguishes itself, offering an extraordinary amalgamation of diverse literary genres nested within a dynamic narrative that ebbs and flows.


At first glance, it may seem peculiar to merge two genres that not only differ in style but also in their respective objectives. Imagine, for example, borrowing a book on real-estate law in Melbourne and discovering an unexpected blend of ancient Melbournian heroic tales intermingled with State and Commonwealth real-estate regulations. This stark distinction also manifests within the Jewish literary tradition. When we delve into halacha, we encounter a meticulous and precise legal exploration of the Torah. Conversely, the Aggadah presents us with intuitive and imaginative theological and philosophical reflections.


The Sages themselves have delved into this very inquiry. Right at the outset of his Torah commentary, Rashi cites Rabbi Yitzhak, who made the bold suggestion that the Torah ought to have commenced with Exodus 12:1 – "This month shall be to you the first of the months," marking the initial commandment given to Israel. This statement is extraordinary in that the Rabbi is seemingly suggesting that one disregard Genesis, the saga of the Patriarchs, and the first twelve chapters of Exodus. The Rabbi however was doing no such thing, but was rather exploring something deeper: the true nature of the Torah as a book, or more aptly put, the genre of the Torah. While this query may appear scholarly, the study of literary genre has been essential in literary studies for many reasons, one being that such an examination helps us comprehend a text's underlying purpose. As we are aware, Torah, in its most specific sense, denotes "law." Considering this, the Rabbi made a logical assertion – if the Torah were solely meant to be a legal compendium, then the narrative sections would be extraneous to its intended objective.


However, for the author of the Torah, a singular focus on law and jurisprudence, though logical, proved inadequate. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Book of Numbers. Throughout Numbers, the text moves from narrative passages (Numbers 1-4) to legal sections (5-6), and then back to narrative (7-9), establishing a rhythmic pattern. Such shifts and fluctuations within the text would have been unnecessary if the author's concern had solely been matters of law. Yet, if we accept that every letter, poem, story, sentence, and syllable within the Torah was placed in accordance with a divinely ordained purpose, we are compelled to conclude that these narratives were purposefully interwoven to illuminate the reader's understanding of the meaning inherent in the legal texts. In essence, one cannot fully comprehend the essence of the legal passages without engaging with the narrative sections, as they intricately inform and enrich one another.


In this unique blending of genres, the author achieves what scholars refer to as the poetics of the law. This concept emerged from legal studies, where scholars recognized that legal texts were not mere utilitarian lists of rules, but rather were expressions of meaning and value that emerged and were embedded within a larger narrative framework that communicated profound insights regarding the human condition and human subjectivity. In the context of the Torah, the relationship between legal and narrative texts revealed philosophical and spiritual attitudes towards individual identity, national identity, authority and the nature of power, and the demarcation of sacred and profane spaces.


In essence, God's legal code was never intended to exist in isolation but was intimately attached to a grand story encompassing heroes, kings, warriors and prophets as they embarked on adventures, fought wars and struggled with love, betrayal, sacrifice, death, failure, and ultimately triumph. It was within this expansive narrative that the Torah was intended to be understood, as part of the profound journey of humanity seeking God amidst the adventures of life. This understanding of the Torah is why God justified His laws not solely on their intrinsic morality, but by drawing upon the human experience. God commands us to remember the the terrors and triumphs of the Exodus, and the hardships of slavery as the justification for observing certain laws because through mediating the laws through our humanity and our ability to immerse ourselves in the grand narrative, we could grasp the spirit of the Torah and begin to see the heart of God. We obey the law concerning the sojourner not because it is the right thing to do, not because God told us to, but because we, and God, are so moved by their plight because we and God experienced the pain and hardship of being a sojourner in a foreign land.


This, I believe, underlies the teachings of Jesus throughout his ministry and is magnificently portrayed in the Sermon on the Mount. Merely "knowing" the law and mechanically following it is inadequate; one must truly experience and embody the spirit of the law. No legal text can fully reveal this spirit without a rich narrative as its foundation. This is the chaotic beauty of the Book of Numbers. The author understood that the Torah was bestowed upon humanity, arising from human subjectivity, to be experienced in the context of time and place yet was also a revelation from a God who exists beyond these temporal constraints. It is for these reasons that Numbers seamlessly transitions from grand stories to legal texts devoid of character, plot, or explicit references to specific locations, except for occasional mentions of Moses or Aaron acknowledging God's laws. The Torah is timeless, it exists beyond time and place, but it was imparted to us for the adventure of the here and now, and the author of Numbers uniquely captures and reveals this truth, surpassing other biblical authors in its portrayal.




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