The Book of Numbers Second Edition (NICOT) – Timothy R. Ashley

The Book of Numbers Timothy Ashley
The Book of Numbers by Timothy R. Ashley
Series: New International Commentaries
Published by Eerdmans on December 6, 2022
Genres: Academic
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The book of Numbers tells a story with two main characters—God and Israel. The way the story is told sounds odd and often harsh to readers today. The main point of the book is nevertheless of immense importance for God’s people in any age: exact obedience to God is crucial.
This comprehensive and erudite commentary presents a thorough explication of this significant Hebrew text. Timothy Ashley’s introduction discusses such questions as structure, authorship, and theological themes, and it features an extended bibliography of major works on the book of Numbers. Then, dividing the text of Numbers into five major sections, Ashley elucidates the theological themes of obedience and disobedience, which run throughout. His detailed verse-by-verse comments primarily explain the Hebrew text of Numbers as it stands rather than speculate on how the book came to be in its present form. 
This second edition includes revisions that reflect Ashley’s decades of experience with the book of Numbers, as well as updates to the footnotes and bibliography, which add many important works published in the last thirty years. With these new features, Ashley’s commentary solidifies its place as the church’s most faithful and definitive reference on the book of Numbers.

For nearly fifty years, New International Commentaries have been the evangelical standard for a commentary set. Intended for clergy and biblical scholars, the NIC is an academic commentary that understands that not all of its readers will be fluent in Hebrew or Greek. Instead, the various authors provide their own translations of the text, use transliterated forms of biblical languages, and keep a balance between the academic and the applicational. The result is a versatile series that is beneficial for biblical scholars, but especially helpful to clergy. In my time as a pastor, it has become my first resource for studying any passage.

Timothy R. Ashley’s The Book of Numbers represents a recent push since about 2018 to replace some aging volumes in the series. Since 2018, ten NICOT volumes have been released and seven of those have been replacement volumes. Ashley’s volume stands out, because unlike the other replacements he is replacing himself. Ashley wrote the original NICOT volume for Numbers back in 1993 and has now updated thirty years later. (Sidenote for those curious, NICOT now covers every OT book except Exodus, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Esther, and Daniel. While the replacements are great, I would love to see the series reach completion—particularly not having a commentary on Exodus just seems shocking to me and I haven’t a clue why a volume (or two) on that book hasn’t happened yet.)

Timothy Ashley is a former professor of biblical studies who taught at Acadia Divinity College and Central Baptist Theological seminary. After his professorship, he moved to pastoral ministry and was minister of First Baptist Church in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Ashley is now 76 years old, retired, and seemingly spending his retirement by updating his one major work. Unlike some others who have contributed volumes to the NICOT/NICNT series, Ashley was not a writing scholar throughout his academic career and, indeed, this volume is his only published book.

This begs the question if Ashley has the theological credentials to pen a volume like this. Well, he holds an MA in Hebrew and Old Testament from American Baptist Seminary of the West and a PhD in the same from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. So the theological credentials are there. What sets this volume apart from others for me is that Ashley isn’t a writing scholar. I won’t say he’s not an academic—over two decades as a professor and all—but there’s a real pastoral heart that shines through in his ministry and is writing. And if ever an Old Testament book needed the pastoral heart of a scholar and not just the analytical mind of an academic, it’s The Book of Numbers. Ashley approaches Numbers not just to pick it apart like a scholar but to share its importance and meaning for the average pastor and their average congregation.

The second question to be begged is whether or not the second edition is worth it. If you’ve already got the first edition sitting on your shelf (as I did), then do you need to shell out the $60 for the update? In all honesty, probably not. It depends on your context. The inside flap of the dust jacket states that this updated edition includes revisions that reflect Ashley’s decades of experience with numbers, as well as updated footnotes and bibliography. In the preface to the 2nd edition, Ashley writes about his process:

“I began by looking over what I had done in the first edition. As I have pored over what I wrote in the first preface (and in the first edition of the commentary proper), I have discovered that I still agree with a good deal of what I wrote…I note at the beginning that this volume is a second edition, not a brand-new work. However, I have made some changes along the way, some of which might be worth highlighting.”

From there, Ashley details some of the changes, which I will summarize: First, Ashley has kept up with recent literature on the Book of Numbers and updated references when applicable. He writes that he has tried to include “a fair sample of these in the second edition.” A quick perusal of the selected bibliography has me estimating that approximately 30 entries would have to be new to this edition, representing maybe 5% of the total. I compared this to Bill Arnold’s volume on Deuteronomy, which is a replacement volume from a similarly aging first edition but by a new author. In that volume’s selected bibliography, approximately 140 entries, representing maybe 90% of the total, were from 2000 or after. It is possible that there is simply that much more relevant research on Deuteronomy than on Numbers, but unlikely. A review of technical and semi-technical commentaries on Numbers published in the past 30 years finds that Ashley only mentions a few. Now this does not mean that The Book of Numbers represents inferior scholarship or that Ashley does not exegete the text well. Rather, it means that it does not represent the latest scholarship despite being recently published. Ashley’s updates as regards the literature is cursory at best.

Second, Ashley writes that the updated volume argues less against the documentary hypothesis (a theory that the Pentateuch was written over time by several schools of writers). That theory was more in vogue during the time Ashley wrote the first edition but currently most scholarship is no longer focusing on this question and Ashley writes that he has become more appreciative of scholars writing in favor of the theory while still not believing it to hold much weight. He concludes that the final form of the book of Numbers dates to the late-sixth or early-fifth century BC—but his concerns are now more pastoral than academic.

The Book of Numbers: Second Edition mostly reflects the original work. The organizational structure of the book is the same. Ashley begins with a very short introduction. Other volumes have 50 to 100-page introductions become the commentary proper. The first edition padded the length by including the selected bibliography in the introductory content instead of as part of the prefatory materials. The second edition moves the bibliography, leaving readers with a mere 17 pages of introduction over the book as a whole. In addition, the outline of the book is the same as the first edition, though there is a more detailed breakdown in the table of contents. This detail is included in the body of the text in the first edition, but including it in the contents of the second edition allows readers easier access to the section they’re looking for.

Overall, this might be the first volume of NICOT that I’ve been relatively disappointed in. Don’t get me wrong: Ashley’s exegetical work in the commentary is solid and there’s a lot to be learned from it. However, the lack of a robust introduction is a negative mark in my opinion for both editions while the relative lack of updating between editions makes the new edition not different enough to justify the cost of a new volume. The pros of the first edition would be its slightly cheaper cost and bigger font. The pros of the second edition are the slight updates that have been made and having the most updated version. With volumes in the OT still left to even have a first edition, I’m not sure why NICOT chose to release a minorly updated version of The Book of Numbers. I would rather have waited on a new volume entirely.