Numbers

The Brazos Theological Commentary
on the Bible, of which David
L. Stubbs’s commentary on Numbers
is a part, departs substantially from
typical commentary series, such as the
Yale Anchor Bible or the Old Testament
Library (Westminster/John Knox). The
Brazos Commentary has as its guiding
conviction, or one of them, according
to the series editor, R. R. Reno,
that “dogma clarifies rather than
obscures.” Thus, “the Nicene tradition,
in all its diversity and controversy,
provides the proper basis
for the interpretation of the Bible as
Christian scripture.”
Numbers
Accordingly,
the commentators in the series are
theologians (even if one or two may
also be biblical scholars), chosen for
“their expertise in using the Christian
doctrinal tradition, rather than
for their ‘historical or philological
expertise.'” The first volume in
the series, a commentary on Acts
(2005), was by Jaroslav Pelikan,
certainly an expert in using the
doctrinal tradition.

Also in the Series Preface, Reno laments
that “[t]heology has lost its competence
in exegesis. Scripture scholars
function with minimal theological training.”
Reviews of previous volumes in the
series have been mixed. Some reviews
have been hostile or dismissive, especially
those written by biblical scholars.
Whether this is because theologians have
demonstrated no competence in exegesis,
or because biblical scholars have but
minimal “theological training,” or whether
both are the case, remains undecided.
Still, it strikes one odd–it strikes me as
odd and unfortunate–that philological
expertise is considered negligible, and is
even contrasted with, “expertise in using
the Christian doctrinal tradition.” In his
Series Preface, Reno refers positively to,
and he quotes, Origen. Scarcely anyone
in Christian history devoted more precious
and immensely productive time
and effort to philology than did Origen.
Reno also refers positively to Luther, as
he might have done to Calvin. In what
modern moment did theological or doctrinal
interpretation divorce itself from
philology?

Reno’s antagonism toward historicalcritical
biblical scholarship, or to biblical
scholarship tout court, was given vent in
his suggestion that theological schools
adopt a moratorium on employing faculty
with Ph.D.’s in biblical studies (www.
firstthings.com/onthesquare/2006/08/
jason-byassee-and-female-ordin). “The
majority of biblical scholars I have met,”
Reno reported, “are culpably ignorant
of the history of biblical interpretation, the history of theology, and the history
of their own discipline. They parade their
textual judgments as indubitable facts,
and they are ruthless in their ambition
to hold exclusive rights to any ‘intellectually
responsible’ interpretation of the Bible.”
Well! Let me confess that, according
to my fading diploma, I am a biblical
scholar.

David L. Stubbs has encountered
other, less culpably ignorant, and less
ruthlessly ambitious or imperious biblical
scholars than has Reno. He adverts
frequently to, and draws substantively
from, people who are theologically, philologically,
and critically adept Christian
scholars including Dennis Olson, Samuel
Balentine, and R. W. L. Moberly, for
example–and Origen–and also Jewish
scholars Baruch Levine and Jacob Milgrom.
For what it may be worth, I regard
Stubbs’s commentary on Numbers
the best in the series so far, not least because
he permits his reading to be disciplined
by the text. And Numbers is not
an easy text, despite its entertaining story
of Balaam’s ass.

Following an introductory chapter, in
which Stubbs lays out his conception of
Numbers and its structure, informed especially
by Olson, the commentary proceeds
through the book seriatim, according
to ten sections that Stubbs divines.
These ten sections are themselves part of
a tripartite, chiastic structure: a vision
of what Israel is called to be (1:1–10:10),
God’s persisting intention to bless Israel
despite Israel’s failure with regard to that
vision (10:11–25:18), and a new beginning
in prospect of life in the land of promise
(26:1–36:13).

Within the central section, Stubbs
(with Milgrom) finds seven rebellions of
Israel. Going beyond Milgrom, Stubbs
discovers what virtually everyone else
has missed: the chiastic arrangement
of these seven rebellions, or “episodes of
unfaithfulness,” a chiasm that has its
pivot in Numbers 13:1–14:45, the episode
of the spies and Israel’s failure to trust
God with regard to Canaan, the “promised
land.” This external and internal
structure, Stubbs maintains, helps to
clarify the relation between the book’s legal
and its narrative material. He makes
a good case, and this case is directed to
larger interpretive ends. The narrative is
primary, Stubbs says, and the laws comment
on it–laws that, if obeyed, would
shape Israel’s character into the future.
This “naturally” opens the laws to “figurative
interpretation,” such that Numbers
has its focus on the vocation of God’s
people, so also on the sins that inhibit
the proper exercise of that vocation. By
way of denominating Israel “the people of
God,” Stubbs can and does include the
church within that denomination, and
can speak of Numbers impressing on the
church its very high calling.

That Numbers does–that its laws
do–call for a figurative or figural interpretation,
especially in a commentary (or
a series) guided by and in harmony with
Christian doctrine, one wants to affirm.
But whether a figural interpretation of the
laws arises organically from the Old Testament
text itself, or is demanded “naturally”
by its structure, is another matter.
Stubbs does not reflect on this question,
or on the inclusion of the church in Israel’s
denomination, much less on the general,
global relation of the Old Testament
to the New.

Since there is no global such relation
(e.g., promise–fulfillment, law–gospel),
Stubbs is wise in demurring on that point.
On the matter of figural interpretation,
he typically proceeds from a close reading
of the text (often in conversation with
biblical scholars) to analogies with other
Old Testament texts or themes, and then
to New Testament and perhaps Christian
doctrinal themes by way of thematic or
verbal association. In a bracing discussion
of Numbers 5, which concerns jealousy
and suspicion of adultery, Stubbs
rehearses the biblical text with reference
to commentators as diverse as Calvin
and Milgrom; enlists a host of biblical
texts associating adultery with infidelity
to YHWH; and moves to the faithfulness
of Jesus, who drank the cup of testing–
analogous to, and figurative from, “the
cup of bitterness” the suspect woman was
made to drink in Numbers 5. This is not
a “natural” reading of Numbers 5; it is a
decidedly Christian figural reading. It illustrates
Stubbs’s disciplined and imaginative,
evangelical (in the proper sense), and analogical reading of the Christian
scriptural ensemble.

Figural interpretation is prominent
throughout the commentary, and Stubbs
gives his reason in a footnote: “…the general
assumption behind the many figural
interpretations brought out in this
commentary is that God did and does
shape the people of God in similar ways
throughout history.” This “general assumption”
on the part of Stubbs, along
with the content of Numbers itself, accords
with the commentary’s emphasis
on ecclesiology, and thus also on (priestly)
leadership and holiness. As regards
ecclesiology, Stubbs avers this: “The expectation
that the people of God should
and will function as a contrastive people
continues on.” Thus does Stubbs give his
commentary a critical edge.

Stubbs does not involve his commentary
with much historical or historicalcritical
discussion. But he does refer to
constructions, or conclusions, of biblical
scholarship, such as the Priestly elements
of the Pentateuch and the Holiness Code
(Leviticus 17–26). And he corrects the text
of Numbers 1:46, because the correction
is “much more historically plausible.” In
discussion of the Balaam-Balak story in
Numbers 22–24, Stubbs makes reference to
the Deir ‘Alla inscription, an Aramaic text
whose panels features the seer Balaam in
a non-Israelite context. Stubbs is neither
dismissive of nor naïve about history and
its relation–its variously potential relations–to scriptural interpretation.

Most impressive about this commentary
is its conjunction of close attention
to the text of Numbers combined with its
(the commentary’s) intratextual character–its treatment of Numbers also as a
text to be read within the textual, scriptural,
ensemble of which it is a component.
That ensemble, as Stubbs plays it,
can be breathtaking at times, as when
he moves from the census in Numbers to
the doctrine of election. One gains the
impression that Stubbs is less interested
in some conflict between theologically incompetent
biblical scholars and exegetically
incompetent theologians than in
engaging in actual scriptural interpretation.
This he does well, and in exemplary
fashion.

Ben C. Ollenburger is professor of biblical theology at
Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart,
Indiana.