By R.K. Harrison
). xvi + 452
Reviewed by Dr. Irv Busenitz
3.1 (Spring 1992) : 103-105
The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary series, of which this volume is a part, stresses "the development of the argument of a given book and its central theme(s). An attempt has been made to show how each section of the book fits together with the preceding and following sections" (p. xii).
R. K. Harrison, professor of the Old Testament at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, has in general achieved this stated goal. Even in the brief preface, the author begins to set forth succinctly the role of Numbers within the OT canon (pp. xiii-xiv, 1-5) and to establish its pivotal importance. He contends, "Numbers must be examined against the background of inclusion in a literary corpus [i.e., the Pentateuch] before it can be studied in its own right" (p. 1).
Harrison gives a rather detailed overview of the debate about the authorship, date, and compilation of the book. His conclusion is that a significant number of literary sources and documents were used in writing the book. For example, he argues that the oracles of Balaam (Numbers 22`24) were of non-Israelite origin, existing "as a separate literary entity, extraneous to the Israelite narratives but incorporated into Numbers because of its importance for the historical and theological dimensions it exhibited" (p. 13). These conclusions have led Harrison to go to considerable lengths to demonstrate the recordkeeping role of the t+er=im, "scribes," Num 1:16-18; Josh 1:10), priests (Num 5:23; 17:3), and even Moses himself (Exod 17:14; 24:4, 12; 34:27; Deut 29:27) in Israel.
While his frequent references to a "compiler" (pp. 14-21) could suggest to a casual reader an openness to a more recent non-Mosaic theory of authorship, Harrison argues clearly that "under these conditions of literary activity over a comparatively short historical period, it is not improper to regard Numbers as a product of the great Hebrew leader, containing accurately recorded historical, legal, religious, and other matters that came from credible eye-witnesses" (pp. 22-23). Later he concludes, "During the wilderness period, therefore, Numbers took substantially the form with which the modern reader is familiar. Moses can be regarded as the supervising author, giving oversight to the assembling of relevant sources by the various literate officials and priests, adding his own written contributions, and probably acting as the final drafting editor" (p. 23).
As to date, Harrison is less precise, opting to place the work of Moses within the Late Bronze Age (1550-1220 B.C.) (p. 24). Unfortunately, he yields to archaeological evidence alone without allowing for biblical evidence. Omission of any effect of 1 Kgs 6:1 on dating is both glaring and puzzling, leaving the reader to wonder why.
Following the lead of early commentators, Harrison views the book of Numbers as "a study in the contrast between God's faithfulness and human disobedience" (p. 25). In contrast to her seminomadic background and lack of a central law, he notes that when God implemented the covenant, Israel underwent "a cultural change of vast significance. . . . Henceforth they were required to obey God's will implicitly, regardless of their personal feelings, because that will represented God's side of the covenantal agreement" (p. 27).
The volume contains helpful explanations and historical insights. For example, it points out that as early as Hammurabi, patriarchs in their last will and testament enjoyed the right to name grandsons as sons, as Jacob did with Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 48:13-20) (p. 44). Also, an occasional excursus treats a topic of special significance. The separate treatment of "redemption" (pp. 76 ff.), though brief, adds technical understanding as well as devotional help. Though these are not exhaustive, they succinctly provide a good understanding of various issues and alternate solutions.
An excellent treatment clarifies the validity of the census numbers in the book (pp. 45 ff.). After discussing different views, he concludes that "there are difficulties with the large numbers both here and elsewhere in the OT that cannot be resolved without further information. . . . The conclusion at which Gispen arrived will probably be shared by many`namely, that the numbers in the MT are correct, whatever the accompanying difficulties" (p. 47).
The author discusses Balaam's oracles at length (Numbers 22`24), elaborating on the historicity of Balaam (which he firmly embraces), the nature of Mesopotamian divination, and the speaking donkey (pp. 291 ff.). While agreement on the historicity of Balaam is not difficult to embrace, this reviewer has difficulty with his explication of the phenomenon of a speaking animal. For instance, he asserts that "in describing an event there is sometimes a difference between the narrating of the happening, whether oral or written, and the event itself. . . . As the donkey brayed, she conveyed a message of anger and resentment that the seer understood in his mind in a verbal form and to which he quite properly responded verbally. Through her opened mouth the braying animal retaliated against her undeserved treatment by uttering sounds that were unintelligible to the other onlookers but that Balaam was able to comprehend through processes of mental apperception that are not well understood. This situation may be paralleled to some extent in charismatic religious utterances . . ." (p. 300).
The commentary concludes with an excellent epilogue (pp. 431 ff.). It discounts once again the untenable nature of the evolutionary origin of Israel's religion and reiterates the historicity of the book, a relatively early date of writing, and a divinely ordained, propositionally given culture-religious, social, and legal.
The commentary is technical, but the transliterated and defined Hebrew and Greek terms help make it user-friendly for all. The devotional aspect, though not prominent, is skillfully interwoven into the fabric of the commentary, providing another rich dimension. With the present shortage of good commentaries on many OT books, the educator, the pastor, and the layman, will find in this text a welcome resource.