Today's reading is Numbers 33-34 (read it in the KJV or NIV)
Today's passage covers a review of the Israelite wanderings; the borders of Canaan; and appointments of the officers who will divide the land.
To a casual reader without a map, today's readings are mind-bogglingly boring. In terms of formulaism and repetition, these passages rank alongside the genealogical tables from earlier books of the Bible. Num. 33 consists almost entirely of a Coles Notes version of the Israelite wanderings, charting the names of the places the Israelites have stayed during their forty-year trek. Num. 34 traces the borders of Canaan, soon to be conquered by the Israelites. Really, that's practical all there is in these two chapters. Yet I have a thousand words to fill, and I shall certainly try to find something interesting to say about them.
The first thing we need when charting the Israelite wanderings is a map. Though good maps are elusive on the internet, I have found a few that may be useful in understanding this chapter. First, this one from the Later Day Saints. It helpfully provides not only a charted course through the wilderness, but also annotations and verse references. This map from Bible.ca also traces the Israelites' trek. This one, from the same source, is a slightly-less useful map of the land of Canaan itself. The Bible Atlas from Painsley.org.uk provides a number of helpful maps, including the Sinai desert (though no charted course) and two maps of the land of Canaan. Finally, this map of Canaan from Biblestudy.org is quite large and has a number of the cities mentioned thus far in the text.
Now that we're oriented, we can take a look at the wanderings themselves. One thing that we notice is that most of these lands have appeared in the text before. Though Num. 33 doesn't generally tell us the stories behind the encampments, it does list the place-names. With the marvels of modern search-engine technology, it is a simple matter to find the reference stories. However, even in the earlier chapters, the wanderings seemed to act mostly as bookends. They were useful for orienting us in time and place, but otherwise could be comfortably ignored by most readers.
Looking at this long list of place-names, we are forced to ask ourselves, "why are they here?" Just like the genealogical tables, they were certainly important to the redactors, even if most modern readers feel more at ease skimming over them until they reach the action sections again.
The first potential reason is also the most straightforward: it was a way of keeping records. In fact, Num. 33:2 tells us that Moses himself kept this itinerary for the people at God's command. All cultures feel the need to record the past, whether in a written or oral tradition. Even today, many people trace their families back in elaborate family trees or tables, usually with little more reason than curiosity and a desire to remember their own past.
There are other explanations, however. One of them is a sense of national pride. By looking at the long list of places their ancestors had visited and occasionally conquered, the Israelites in Canaan could feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. They could look back and know that their ancestors were hardy and persevering. This was obviously a useful emotion to evoke in a people about to undergo yet more trials.
Another reason for the itinerary is to give a sense of justification to the Israelite conquest. The Israelites didn't stop just anywhere to live, they had a destination. Even if it took them forty years to reach Canaan, they knew where they were going and would not settle for less. The places they passed along the way all serve to elaborate on the number of options the Israelites faced and dismissed, all trying to reach the lands of their forefathers. Remember that during the time of the Exodus, these lands were inhabited by dozens of different nations, all of whom claimed it as their home. After the conquest, the Israelites would need a reason to justify their invasion, which is partially provided by this list.
(As an interesting aside, the same mentality was re-enacted in the 20th century. In 1903, the British offered Jews the state of Uganda to be their homeland. The Sixth Zionist Congress was split over the proposal and the Russian Jews who would have benefited from the state rejected the idea. The Seventh Zionist Congress rejected the offer two years later.)
Finally, the itinerary may have formed an early sort of travel guide. Many Medieval pilgrims' narratives contain only a bare-bones list of where they travelled on their pilgrimage, with the intent of allowing later pilgrims to follow in their footsteps. Similarly, a studious traveller with a good map could trace the route taken by his ancestors across the desert. No doubt there are numerous tour companies today who offer just such a trip.
While the list itself is staggeringly boring, then, it does point to some of the motivations of the author. Whether as a justification, an inheritance, or a record for posterity, the list of the Israelites' travelling had its uses. And now, let us skim our eyes forward and hope for some action scenes.