Blog Bad Writing in the Bible (and why that's good) Part Two

Next, let’s look at chapter 7 of the Book of Numbers.

The term that immediately comes to mind when I try to describe this chapter is 'literary suicide.'

After the completion of the Holy Tabernacle and altar, the twelve tribes of Israel are called upon by God to make a sacrifice commemorating this important event. And so they do, one by one:

On the first day Nahshon son of Amminadab, leader of the tribe of Judah, presented his offering.

His offering consisted of a silver platter weighing 3 pounds and a silver basin weighing 1 pound (as measured by the weight of the sanctuary shekel). These were both filled with grain offerings of choice flour moistened with olive oil. He also brought a gold container weighing four ounces, which was filled with incense. He brought a young bull, a ram, and a one-year-old male lamb for a burnt offering, and a male goat for a sin offering.

For a peace offering he brought two bulls, five rams, five male goats, and five one-year-old male lambs. This was the offering brought by Nahshon son of Amminadab.

This is an interesting passage, I suppose, but nothing most people would obsess over.

And God found it interesting enough to describe the identical offering, with identical language, for the head and representative of each tribe on each consecutive day. And there were twelve tribes of Israel.

The passage you just read is essentially repeated twelve times! Numbers 7 is the third longest chapter in the Bible, and it consists almost entirely of the most exasperating repetition you are likely to find in a book.

Why would God do this? Adam and Eve's ending is illogical, but this is just… well, annoying. The offering could easily have been summed up just once, and the heads of the tribes presented in a compact list. What reason could even God have for stretching it out into such a painfully protracted drudge?

Well, I only have one theological theory, and it ain't much: it emphasizes the importance of the individual tribes of Israel. These tribes are of resounding importance in the history of Israel and this was still a very early period in their development. And at this crucial moment of the dedication of the Tabernacle, God saw fit to honour each tribe by including their sacrifices in full.


But I do have another point to make which seems relevant here: God has a sense of humour.

God is not an idiot. He knew exactly how much this stupid chapter would confound his people through the ages. Maybe, just maybe, it is the Greatest Practical Joke Ever Pulled? Maybe when he sees us struggling to stay focused as we read it, wanting to scream as we copy it out, or spending our valuable time analyzing and justifying it the way I am now, he is snickering into his chest? Maybe he and Moses shared a private laugh as Moses recorded it!

But seriously folks, I have one further reflection on Numbers 7: the fact that it exists in its lumbering original form is a testament to the faith of generation after generation of God's people. For thousands of years the Bible was written out by hand, and though they might have groaned when they reached this chapter, scribes all over the world faithfully insisted on writing it as God spoke it. They knew that, however strange it might seem to us, it is God's word, and not to be edited in any way, shape or form.

The very absurdity of the chapter makes crucial statements about the beauty of faithful submission to the Lord, and I bless and praise him for it!
May 24, 2017
I appreciate your blog as a writer. Thank you for finding inspiration for us that only a writer would take to heart.
This "problem" of bad writing in the bible speaks to God's word being more than a literary endeavour. He does have incredibly beautiful literary passages and poems within the 66 books, but He also wants to convey history, law, economics, sociology etc.
In modern music, the popular kind that one hears in modern worship services, we employ three chords over and over. Ok, maybe a fourth if the composer was really on their game that day. Most melodies are just riffs repeated over and over.
Repetition is everywhere.
At some point the human psyche is soothed and grounded in repetition. We wear the same clothes as everyone else. We drive the same cars, eat the same foods. Computers and AI have made repetition easier and more acceptable. The assembly line turns out the same toy, identical to the 100 000 that came before it. Handcraft is rejected or the creator has to put a label on it that says, "this item is handcrafted. what you see as flaws are actually trademarks of uniqueness."
Juxtaposition is also one of God's techniques. Putting a repetitive passage beside a high action passage is good literature. My pet peeve with God's writing style is not enough information. He gives us hints, tantalizing touches without explanations. Like Zebedee. He is mentioned as the father of two disciples. His wife is even mentioned. It's as though these people were common friends of everyone of the time. But I'd love to know a little more about him.
Lots of questions for heaven where we will know as we are known!
Thank you again, Matt, for your inspiring reflection.
Oct 12, 2013
Thank you Matt.

Well, knowing how the children of Israel liked to chant when studying to memorize, imagine how much easier the text’s repetition made it for them.

After I spent a year with a Franciscan order (which included chanting the psalms), I joined the military. I had a roommate who was freaked out one morning. He said, “Last night you were talking in your sleep and I had to flip open my Catholic Bible. You quoted Psalm XYZ in its entirety.” It must have been the chapter that repeats, “for his mercy endures forever.”

Your style reminds me somewhat of the speaking style of former singer/songwriter, Rich Mullins: Rich Mullins - “The Wild Man” Monologue.
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