Book Review: Numbers [BECOT]

Reviewing commentaries is a tricky business – particularly for me as a generalist, and an in-publisher editor of commentaries! I tend to offer my review based on the format and content of the volume, and its utility or otherwise to preachers and pastors. Occasionally I’ll digress into particularly theological or stylistic quirks.

Awabdy Numbers BECOT Book Review


In the last 18 months or so Numbers has gone for me from being a book of the Bible I least understood and appreciated, to being one that I’ve fallen in love with somewhat. This has largely been due to working editorially on a major technical commentary on Numbers, but also preparing to work editorially on a shorter Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, as well as editing a Lent devotional based on the book of Numbers. With that in mind, I’m intrigued that in recent years several major works on Numbers from an evangelical perspective are appearing:

  • L. Michael Morales two volumes in the Apollos Old Testament Commentary (2024)
  • Timothy R. Ashley’s 2022 updated second edition of his New International Commentary on the Old Testament volume, published by Eerdmans.
  • Jay Sklar’s 2023 entry in Zondervan’s Story of God commentary series (my sense is this series is somewhere between Tyndale and Apollos/NICOT, like the NIVAC)
  • Mark Awabdy’s 2023 contribution to the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch (on my blog, I refer to the series as BECOT – the division Pentateuch/etc seems to me somewhat arbitrary in terms of what the books actually end up like – though I may revise that opinion as I read them.

Working on one of those, for one of the publishers above, that makes this quite an exciting time in terms of whether the four different authors are saying anything new (in my view Ashley is a light update, with nothing radical – at least that’s my understanding) and how Numbers can be read quite differently. Sklar’s Story of God contribution is one I’d like to read – but the AOTC, NICOT and the BECOT I’m reviewing today are (at least on the face of things, though the two volume nature of Morales is a clue) doing apparently similar things.

Let me begin this review properly with a quote from Awabdy that underlines my personal rediscovery of Numbers; rather than being a boring mix of censuses and wierdness, rather “The story line of Numbers is vital to the larger Hexateuch epic since Numbers incessantly anticipates when Yahweh will fulfil his land promise to the patriarchs…” (p. 564). Amen! Awabdy’s contribution to the BECOT follows the series structure, with a short introduction (32 pages) before around 540 pages of commentary proper, a lengthy (40 page) bibliography, and Indices of Subjects, Authors, and Scripture and Other Ancient Writings. The commentary on each pericope consists of an Overview of around a page introducing it, the translation (with textual notes in the footnotes – this leads to some slightly jumbled pages in places) followed by Interpretation and then Implications. Awabdy’s translation is readable, and there are plenty of helpful observations in his additional/foot notes. I tended to be slightly underwhelmed by the Interpretation – in some cases, this section of the commentary felt quite cursory, with minimal comment. Whilst Numbers does have a range of texts, from the census, to narrative, to instruction and so on, this trend of relatively short comment does occur throughout this commentary – even though what is there, is good. The relatively short introduction, at xx pages (compared to around 20 in Ashley’s NICOT 2nd Edn., and 60 in Wenham’s excellent TOTC) was in my reading a little reliant on diagrams, and had some sections that didn’t quite fit. Awabdy has what is in my view a slightly ambivalent view of the book’s structure: “The Book of Numbers, as we have said, is not fundamentally a book of numbers but an unfolding story containing an anthology of literary forms through which Yahweh reveals himself and his will” (p. 10), going on to say that “The question of the genre of Numbers operates on two basic levels, the book as a whole and the individual units that compose it, but the distinction is not clean” (p. 11). It does however offer a helpful list of how the ‘pastor-teacher, even the evangelist’ can make use to the complexity of the book (p. 19), though this was not picked up throughout in the way it could have been.

Sometimes, the commentary seemed somewhat disconnected from itself. For example, early on Awabdy comments that “If accompanied by holiness, Israel’s priests would effectively safeguard Yahweh’s presence among his people, a crucial responsibility first assigned in the Sinai narrative to Aaron and his sons… and then expanded to the Levites.” (p. 43-4) – it was then rather jarring to read the concluding ‘Implication’ of this section drawing heavily on Roman Catholic theology of the priesthood, via Ratzinger (p. 56). This seemed to me to contrast with the expansive vision hinted at – and in my reading this was a strange link! On the other hand, I rather liked Awabdy’s pondering of a modern Nazirite vow: “a modern Nazirite vow will somehow visualize the condition of personal consecration to God, taking down the facade of a sacred hierarchy between clergy and laity in the church” (p. 121). This feels like quite an opposite set of hermeneutical directions! Elsewhere, though, Awabdy offers theological reflection on the text that does help make sense of it (though one wonders if this might have been referenced or pointed toward?) – “The crucial difference was that the Levites’ bodily sacrifice was demanded because of their tribal heritage, whereas the believers’ bodily sacrifice is voluntary and self-giving because of the mercies of God in Christ” (p. 145). It seems as though Awabdy is making the observation that Numbers offers us a prototype of the gospel of grace – and perhaps even the Reformation idea of the priesthood of all believers – but slightly fumbles in communicating it.

Elsewhere, though, the commentary captures something of the majesty of the book of Numbers. For example, commenting on 9:1-10, “At this juncture… however, an ideal image of the divine-Israel relationship is celebrated, unifying the people and creating social order” (p. 156) – this then flows into fruition in the ‘Implication’ section on this pericope: “Last but not least, the inclusion of immigrants in Israel’s Passover celebration can now be seen as the embryonic form of God’s massive, redemptive vision to incorporate every tribe, language, people, and nation in the worship of the slaughtered Lamb” (p. 160). Recognising the authors location, historically/eschatologically, this is an example of Awabdy helping the text to speak and sing to readers today. This is also seen in his helpful summary of the Balaam cycle (22:1-24:25), “the story teaches that God-Yahweh is not a local deity confined to a single cultic site and that he cannot be manipulated by divination to reverse course and curse the blessed Jacob-Israel. Rather, God-Yahweh is sovereign over non-Israelite and Israelite nations alike, and he is resolute in keeping his promise to the patriarchs” (p. 355). As the commentary continues, there was a sense for this reader that Awabdy got over an initial tenativity and nervousness and started really engaging with the text and saying what he felt necessary. For example, this is the case even when he comments on census numbers, in the later part of the commentary: “As a result, like the first census, the second equally imagines Israel’s burgeoning population as a fulfillment of the Priestly creation mandate… Israel was fruitful and multiplied… the chap. 26 census reaffirms Israel’s fruitfulness and that ‘God blessed them’ again” (p. 415).

Overall, then, this commentary is something of a mixed bag. I generally like the BECOT format, and theological slant – and in this, Awabdy continues the series ‘vibe’. There was not much here to raise my eyebrows (beyond the slightly random clericalism I allude to above), but at the same time I did not feel that there was anything that particularly stirred my heart of brought evangelical engagement with the book of Numbers on, very much. There are moments of helpful connection across the Pentateuch, and those with better Hebrew than I may find more value in the textual critical aspects than I did. For preachers wanting more than Wenham’s TOTC, I think Ashley’s NICOT is a more useful technical/semi-technical commentary. That isn’t to say that Awabdy has written a bad commentary, but I can’t be much more enthusiastic than to say that this is a workmanlike commentary on a book of the Bible where we do need a genuinely excellent one.



My recommendation for a one-stop shop on Numbers is L. Michael Morales two volume magisterial contribution to the Apollos Old Testament Commentary – for which I had the privilege of being the in-publisher editor. Find out more about it here:

  • vol. 1, chapter 1-19 (+introduction and preliminary material)
  • vol. 2, chapters 20-36 (+indices and bibliography)

Overall I think Wenham’s TOTC Volume remains hard to be on concision and clarity, though Morales adds huge depth and breadth. Look out for a new TOTC volume soon – taking into account more than 40 years of biblical studies water under the bridge! Of the rest, I appreciated Ashley’s 2022 2nd edition NICOT, and would say that is probably a better commentary than Awabdy’s BECOT, though possibly slightly less pastorally useful/inclined.

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