The “Deuteroevangelium” in Numbers 21–24
Dr. Kevin Chen
At least since the times of the church fathers, many Christians have interpreted God’s words to the serpent in Gen 3:15, “He will crush your head, and you will crush his heel,” as the Bible’s first proclamation of the gospel, or protoevangelium.1 On the other hand, the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi interpreted Gen 3:15 simply in terms of a mutual aversion between humans and snakes.2 Others have pointed out the limited New Testament evidence that relates Gen 3:15 to a protoevangelium (e.g., Rom 16:20; Gal 4:4).3
Although the New Testament use of the Old Testament is an important dataset that should be considered (e.g., which New Testament passages cite or allude to Gen 3:15 and how), the Old Testament use of the Old Testament is also an important dataset, often overlooked, that deserves serious consideration (e.g., which Old Testament passages cite or allude to Gen 3:15 and how). While these two sets of data are probably not independent (if New Testament authors were aware of the Old Testament use of the Old Testament on some level), they do not fully correlate either. In this case, it is possible that the New Testament use of Gen 3:15 does not clearly treat it as a protoevangelium, but the Old Testament use of Gen 3:15 does.
Helpful studies of Gen 3:15 and related Old Testament texts that support its Messianic interpretation have been done,4 but I would like to focus on the first Old Testament passage (based on a sequential reading) that alludes extensively to Gen 3:15 and its context, and with a Messianic thrust. Below I attempt to show that Numbers 21–24, though certainly involving other elements, contains a deuteroevangelium, a second proclamation of the gospel based on the protoevangelium in Gen 3:15. While there are intervening passages between Gen 3:15 and Numbers 21–24 that also concern the gospel (e.g., Gen 12:1–3; 49:8–12), none allude to the protoevangelium in Gen 3:15 as extensively as the deuteroevangelium in Numbers 21–24 does. As will be seen below, its reprise of Gen 3:15 is complemented by multiple allusions to intervening Abrahamic covenant texts. This is a natural combination since Gen 3:15 and the Abrahamic covenant are linked via literary sequence in Genesis, the continuation of the divine plan of salvation, and the important themes of “seed” and blessing.
The Deuteroevangelium in Numbers 21–24
Numbers 21–24 is a section of narrative that concerns a transition from the first generation of Israelites since the exodus to the second generation. The first generation, except for Caleb and Joshua, had already been sentenced to die in the wilderness in Num 14:21–30, and the barring of Moses and Aaron from entering the Promised Land in Num 20:12—along with Aaron’s recent death in Num 20:23–29 and Moses’ death looming—marks the failure of this entire generation.
Numbers 14:29 describes this generation as those who were twenty years old or more and numbered in the first census of Numbers 1. This generation was gone by the time of the census of the second generation in Numbers 26 (see vv. 63–65). The theme of a second generation is paralleled by the Israelites’ second approach to the Promised Land (not counting Num 15:40–45), as evidenced through their passage around Edom (Num 20:14–21; 21:4), defeat of the Canaanite king of Arad (Num 21:1–3), defeat of Sihon and Og east of the Jordan (Num 21:21–35), and confrontation with Moab (Numbers 22–24).
A deuteroevangelium fits nicely in such a context. Numbers 24:14 also contains the second use of the eschatological phrase “in the last days” in the Pentateuch (cf. Gen 49:1) and the second time it appears in connection with important poetry (i.e., Gen 49:1–27; Num 23:7–10, 18-24; 24:3–9, 15–24).5
Previously, I have argued that allusions to Gen 3:15 and its promise of the ultimate defeat of the snake frame Numbers 21–24 through the bronze snake (Num 21:4–9) and the star from Jacob crushing the heads of Moab (Num 24:17).6 Both Sailhamer and Hamilton have observed the allusion to Gen 3:15 in Num 24:17.7 Building upon their work, I have pointed out that the bronze snake passage uses the term “snake” (נָחָשׁ, nachash) five times like Genesis 3 (the only two OT texts that do this; see Gen 3:1, 2, 4, 13, 14) and involves the theme of ultimate victory over “the snake” (Num 21:7–9) much like Gen 3:15.
Furthermore, the Hebrew word for “snake” used in these texts (נָחָשׁ) is almost identical to the word used for Balaam’s “omens” (נַחַשׁ, nachash) that he often employs (Num 23:23; 24:1). The two terms differ only by their vowels (long “a” versus short “a”) and would have been identical in early manuscripts that did not have Masoretic vowel markings (i.e., unpointed texts). Thus, not only do allusions to Gen 3:15 frame Numbers 21–24, but the keyword נחשׁ (nachash), alternatively denoting “snake” or “omen,” further links the bronze snake passage in Num 21:4–9 to the Balaam narrative through the “omens” mentioned in Num 23:23 and 24:1.
Additional reflection on these textual dynamics in Numbers 21–24 has led me to call this a deuteroevangelium. Unlike the protoevangelium in Gen 3:15, the deuteroevangelium in Numbers 21–24 does not consist of a single text but of coordinated allusions to Gen 3:15 and a broader literary strategy that evokes Genesis 3 (e.g., repetition of נחשׁ/nachash).
The allusions to Gen 3:15 in Num 21:7–9 and Num 24:17 do not use the whole of Gen 3:15 but only portions of it. The setting of the bronze snake on a pole in Num 21:7–9 uses the word “snake” from Gen 3:14, the theme of a snake bringing harm, and the theme of ultimate victory over the snake, but not other elements of Gen 3:15 such as its head being crushed. On the other hand, Num 24:17 does draw upon the theme and imagery of crushing the enemy’s head, but it has recast it to involve plural enemies (i.e., probably the serpent’s seed). Numbers 24:17 does not mention a snake, and neither Num 21:7–9 or Num 24:17 mention the crushing of the victor’s heel.
In other words, the coordinated allusions to Gen 3:15 in Num 21:7–9 and Num 24:17 draw on both a common aspect (ultimate victory over the enemy) and different aspects of Gen 3:15 (a snake bringing harm, crushing the head). It is as though Gen 3:15 can be “disassembled” into discrete components, which can then be selectively used in another text in such a way that both retains its original meaning in Gen 3:15 and leverages it to serve the purposes of Numbers 21–24.8 Such allusions may use some of the same words (e.g., “snake” in Num 21:7–9), but not necessarily.
Without using any of the same words, Num 24:17 replicates the imagery of a victor crushing the head of his enemy in Gen 3:15. As such, Num 24:17 has incorporated a textual “picture” of salvation provided by Gen 3:15. The way in which Num 24:17 uses Gen 3:15 has parallels in the arts.
Picasso’s painting, La Miséreuse accroupie (The Crouching Beggar), was painted over another artist’s painting, with some aspects from the original retained in Picasso’s painting.9 Likewise, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer sometimes incorporated other artists’ work into his own, often by having their paintings hanging on walls in his own paintings, such that their paintings affect the meaning and interpretation of his own paintings (e.g., Woman Holding a Balance).10 Art historians even sometimes speak of a clavis interpretandi (“key to interpretation”), an easily overlooked aspect of a painting that provides an important clue to its meaning.11
As far as Numbers 21–24 is concerned, Gen 3:15 provides both “a picture-within-a-picture” and a clavis interpretandi.
The Deuteroevangelium and Abrahamic Covenant Texts in Genesis
An equally important clavis interpretandi specifically for the Balaam narrative in Numbers 22–24 is the Abrahamic covenant and relevant texts in Genesis. This is because, whereas the protoevangelium consists of one brief text (Gen 3:15), the deuteroevangelium is both woven into Numbers 21–24 at multiple points and intertwined with allusions to Abrahamic covenant texts in Genesis.
Allusions to these texts can be found throughout the Balaam narrative, most notably through Balak’s initial confidence in Balaam that “whoever you bless is blessed and whoever you curse is cursed” (Num 22:6), a likely (authorial) allusion to Gen 12:3. As another example, Balak is worried that the Israelites are numerous and strong (Num 22:3, 5–6; cf. Exod 1:9), and Balaam’s corresponding rhetorical question concerning the difficulty of counting the “dust” of Israel alludes to Gen 13:16.
These and other allusions to Abrahamic covenant texts pave the way for additional such allusions in Numbers 24. Together, they contribute to the Balaam narrative’s clear message that Balak’s plan to get Balaam to curse Israel is futile because it contradicts the Lord’s unchanging commitment to bless Israel as expressed in Abrahamic covenant texts.
Some of these allusions are found in immediate connection with the allusion to Gen 3:15 in Num 24:17. The “star” from Jacob in Num 24:17 is probably drawing upon Abrahamic covenant texts that describe Abraham’s descendants being as numerous as stars (Gen 15:5; 22:17; 26:4; though here focusing on just one of them), and the “scepter” that “will arise from Israel” likely alludes to the “scepter” that will not depart from Judah in Gen 49:10.12 In Num 24:18, the “possession” of Edom and Seir, “his enemies,” seems to allude to the Abrahamic covenant promises in Gen 22:17 and 24:60 that the “seed” of Abraham/Rebekah will “possess the gate of his enemies/haters.”13
The number of allusions to Genesis in the short span of Num 24:17–18 is remarkable. Even if the proposed “star” allusion is harder to trace, these two verses would still allude to Gen 3:15, 22:17/24:60, and 49:10. It is as though Num 24:17–18 has taken these textual “threads” and “braided” them together.
Such “braiding,” which I define as taking place when one text cites or alludes to multiple texts, can also be found in Num 24:9, which “braids” in nearly verbatim fashion Gen 49:9 (“he stoops down, he lies down like a lion, and like a lioness, who will raise him?”) and Gen 27:29 (“those who curse you are cursed and those who bless you are blessed”).14 Genesis 27:29 and 49:9 themselves share in common an aged, blind patriarch (Gen 27:1; 48:10) passing down Abrahamic covenant blessings to the next generation and the mention of brothers bowing down to another brother who rules both them and the nations (Gen 27:29; 49:8, 10). The allusion to Gen 49:10 in Num 24:17 and the allusion to Gen 49:9 in Num 24:9 appear to be coordinated allusions to the blessing of Judah in Gen 49:8–12 and suggest continuity between Num 24:9, 17–18.
Between these two passages in Numbers 24, the list of the allusions reads like a list of many of the most important verses in Genesis (Gen 3:15; 22:17/24:60; 27:29; 49:9–10), like a collection of Genesis’ “greatest hits” (not the band). In view of other allusions to Abrahamic covenant texts in the Balaam narrative, these allusions in Num 24:9, 17–18 should be seen as a coordinated part of a broader literary strategy.
A closer look at the Abrahamic covenant texts alluded to in Num 24:9, 17–18 show that they long for a “seed” who will possess his enemies (Gen 22:17/24:60) and an individual king from the tribe of Judah who will rule his brothers and the nations “in the last days” (Gen 27:29; 49:1, 8–10). The “braiding” of these texts in Num 24:9, 17–18 implies that these hopes are actually the same hope and will be satisfied by the “star from Jacob” in Num 24:17, who likewise comes “in the last days” (Num 24:14) and rules Israel and the nations (Num 24:7).
Furthermore, the braiding of Gen 3:15 with these Abrahamic covenant texts suggests that this individual “seed” of Abraham and Lion of Judah (Gen 49:9) is none other than the seed of the woman. Thus, the deuteroevangelium in Numbers 21–24 has not only made use of the textual picture provided by Gen 3:15 but has also built it up with additional features in its own larger portrait, aided by Abrahamic covenant texts.
If Gen 3:15 is the Bible’s protoevangelium, or first proclamation of the gospel, then Numbers 21–24 contains a deuteroevangelium, a second proclamation of the gospel based squarely on Gen 3:15 and fleshed out with greater detail and scope with the help of Abrahamic covenant texts.
In our exploration we have seen how, on the one hand, a source text like Gen 3:15 can be “disassembled” into discrete components, and on the other hand, an alluding text can have coordinated allusions involving these components (e.g., Num 21:7–9; 24:17) and/or “braid” components from multiple source texts. In my next book (Lord willing), I will further show that many Old Testament authors recognized the importance of Numbers 24—as seen from their own books—and sometimes “braided” some of the same texts that it does.15
Kevin Chen (PhD, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor of Old Testament at Christian Witness Theological Seminary in San Jose, CA. Previously he taught biblical studies at Union University in Jackson, TN. He is the author of The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch (IVP, 2019), the Old Testament study notes in the Worldview Study Bible (B&H, 2018), and Eschatological Sanctuary in Exodus 15:17 and Related Texts (Peter Lang, 2013).
Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, Balaam and the Ass