This is the final installment in our five-part series about things in the Bible that we tend to skip over, but which nevertheless merit our attention and can bless us if we read them with openness and faith. This series comes to us from Brian Sigmon, editor of United Methodist resources at the United Methodist Publishing House.
Part 5: Lists
Several years ago I heard a talk at an academic biblical studies conference by one of my favorite scholars, David Carr, who is a professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary. I don’t remember the exact title of the paper he presented, but the topic was “lists in the ancient Near East.” Now, that topic likely sounds like a snoozer to you, but I don’t mind telling you that I found it to be absolutely fascinating. Professor Carr even presented it in the format of a list – the top ten things about ancient lists! I hope my enthusiastic response was due to Professor Carr being an insightful scholar and an engaging speaker. Though, if I’m being honest, I must admit that I may just be a hopeless Bible nerd. In any event, I found a talk on lists to be quite intriguing!
Despite my fascination with biblical lists at that conference, I suspect that you would not agree with my assessment of them. It’s likely that you find them boring whenever you encounter them in the Bible, which is why I’ve saved them for last in this series about boring things in Scripture. Over the last several weeks we’ve looked at 4 different types of passages in the Bible that most people tend to find boring: genealogies, descriptions of sacred spaces, rituals, and laws. Today it’s lists. I’ll let you decide whether you’re excited or disappointed with the topic!
There are different types of lists in the Bible; genealogies are one type. Other kinds of lists include records of contributions (Numbers 7:11-88), geographical boundaries and cities (Joshua 15:1-63), census results (Numbers 1:1-46), and similar material. Like rituals or laws, these types of writing can bog us down when we encounter them in the Bible. We naturally prefer narratives, letters, or psalms to this material that is comparatively dry and has apparently little to do with our personal lives. How can we read lists in a way that makes them relevant to our faith?
It’s good to recognize that many types of lists in the ancient world, like much writing in general at the time, were for administrative purposes. Things like census lists or records of contributions, for example, would have been generated for the purpose of governing the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The lists that are preserved in the Bible may or may not be the actual ones that were used in the administration of the kingdom, though it’s not inconceivable that some of them are. But just the fact that this is the type of material that occurred in daily life, the nitty-gritty details of governing a people, says something important about our Scriptures. The Bible includes the stuff of daily life.
I’m a list-maker. At work I keep a to-do list for the current day and the next one or two days. I take a couple of minutes at the end of every day to revise the list, adding new things and crossing off things that I’ve completed, sometimes re-prioritizing if necessary. At home I create lists of things to do around the house, or of things to buy, or of things to pack if I’m going out of town. I’m a list-maker; it helps me organize my life and feel like I’m on top of things. Lists are a part of my daily life. Imagine my surprise and comfort to discover that they are a part of the Bible too.
The Bible is the grand story of God’s people, from the creation of the world to its redemption. The parts that we tend to focus on are the big events or the heroic people: the promise to Abraham, the salvation at the Sea, the faithfulness of Ruth, the words of the prophets, or the story of Jesus. But the Bible also contains within it the things of regular life: how far a piece of land extended (Joshua 18:11-20); how many men were eligible to serve in the army from the tribe of Naphtali (Numbers 1:42-43); how much the chief of Simeon brought for the dedication of the altar (Numbers 7:36-41).
It’s a powerful realization to discover that the ancient equivalent of inventories, spreadsheets, and government memos became part of sacred Scripture. What this realization tells me is that my day-to-day life, with its emails and schedules and task lists, might be taken up into some holy purpose. Now, don’t get me wrong. Emails and spreadsheets don’t feel holy, just as I’m sure a toiling scribe writing number after number on papyrus or clay didn’t feel holy. But that’s just the point—God can be working in us and through us even when we don’t feel it, even when we’re just plodding along in the day-to-day trying to do our best with whatever is in front of us. The presence of lists in the Bible, tedious though they are, offers to me a comforting reassurance that God is at work in the tedious parts of my life too.
Perhaps the next time you read a list in the Bible, it will offer to you a similar reassurance. What do you think?
Brian O. Sigmon is editor of United Methodist resources at The United Methodist Publishing House, where he edits books, Bible studies, and official UM resources. In this role he is the editor of the Daily Christian Advocate and managing editor of the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. Brian has a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Marquette University, where he has also taught courses in theology. Brian’s research and teaching have focused on the Pentateuch, especially the books of Genesis and Exodus, but he has a passion for anything and everything related to the Bible. Brian finds great joy in helping people of all backgrounds deepen their understanding of Scripture.