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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Numbers 1


The name, "Numbers" is from [@Arithmoi], the designation of the book in the Septuagint (LXX) translation, apparently given because of the census reports in Numbers 1 and Numbers 26. "The Hebrew name is [~Bemidbar], meaning `wilderness' from the appearance of the word in the first verse,"[1] which appears to us to be a far more suitable name, since the subject matter of Numbers is concerned principally with what happened to the Israelites "in the wilderness."

The arbitrary and artificial manner in which this portion of the Book of Moses has been separated from other portions of it should not obscure the fact that Moses wrote one book, not five, and that what is called the Book of Numbers, or the Fourth Book of Moses, is actually part and parcel with the whole. It carries the unmistakable imprimatur of the times, the authorship, and the personality of Moses, the great lawgiver of Israel. This very first chapter presents an array of repetitions which were characteristic of the writings of the period in the mid-second millennium B.C., utterly unlike the literature of the ages following that period. (See a fuller discussion of this in the chapter introduction of Exodus 35 in this series of commentaries.)

Note the verbatim repetition fifteen times of these words: "By their generations, by their families, and by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war."

This formula was given by God in His instructions to Moses and Aaron, by Moses and Aaron in their instructions to the people, and was repeated in the instance of each of the twelve tribes, and also in the summary of what was done. Due to this, we have elected to present the information contained in these chapters, by chart, or diagram, rather than by the repetitious prose that marks these chapters.

Verse 1

"And Jehovah spake unto Moses in the wilderness ..." These first words of Numbers, or their equivalent, are found not less than eighty times in the book;[2] and we are absolutely unwilling to accept the postulations of evil critics that these words are "a pious fraud." They affirm dogmatically the divine source of the narrative, and there are no intellectual reasons why they should not be received as the truth. The sacred text of Numbers has suffered little or no damage from transition throughout the millenniums through which it has descended to us in its present form. It is not surprising that this first chapter begins with an enumeration of the able-bodied Israelites capable of going to war. Their emancipation from slavery inevitably led to their securing those liberties by means of military conflict. There is a deep spiritual truth discernible here also. Redeemed by the blood of the Passover (Exodus 12:12-36), released from the dominion of Pharoah by their baptism "unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea" (1 Corinthians 10:2), and restructured as an independent nation by means of (a) the giving of the law; (b) the erection of the tabernacle; and (c) the consecration of a separate priesthood, Israel in this chapter was commanded to prepare for war. It is ever thus that when people turn to God, warfare with an evil world is inevitable and certain to ensue at once.

Verses 2-54

"Take ye the sum of the children of Israel by their families ... by their polls ..." (Numbers 1:2). The words here rendered "take ye the sum of" are not the technical word for "census."[4] Also, the mention of "by their polls" indicates that, in this enumeration, use would be made of the census already taken in the instance of collecting the poll tax (Exodus 30:11; 38:24,25). It will be noted that no mention of "by their polls" was made in the second enumeration of Numbers 26. Keil, Cook, Whitelaw and others understood this census, therefore, as identical with the first one, a probability that appears very strongly in the fact of the total number being exactly the same in both. Keil's comment is:

"This correspondence in the number of the male population after the lapse of a year is to be explained simply from the fact that the result of the previous census, which was taken for the purpose of raising head-money from every one who was fit for war, was taken as the basis of mustering all who were fit for war, which took place after the erection of the tabernacle. Strictly speaking, this mustering merely consisted in the registering of those already numbered in the public records, according to their fathers' houses."[5]

As already noted, another census of Israel was taken after about forty years (Numbers 26); and this is a convenient place to present the information gathered from that numbering along with this:

Tribe 1st Census 2nd Census
Reuben 46,500 43,730
Simeon 59,300 22,200
Gad 45,650 40,500
Judah 74,600 76,500
Issachar 54,400 64,300
Zebulun 57,400 60,500
Ephraim 40,500 32,500
Manasseh 32,200 52,700
Benjamin 35,400 45,600
Dan 62,700 64,400
Asher 41,500 53,400
Naphtali 53,400 45,400
Total: 603,550 601,730

Counting Manasseh and Ephraim together as the posterity of Joseph, it is evident that the families of these two patriarchs predominate in the makeup of Israel. Also, the surprising losses of Simeon during the wilderness journeys are compensated by substantial increases in the tribes of Manasseh, Issachar, Benjamin and Asher.

Of course, the great critical problem with this calculation of the immense size of Israel, indicating perhaps as many as 2,000,000 souls in all, is that unbelieving scholars just don't believe it. Well, what else is new? There is no hard evidence of any kind for setting these figures aside as inaccurate. It is simply of no significance that "learned men" love to pontificate upon the impossibility of so large a population being maintained in the Sinai desert at that time, but the Bible acknowledges that problem by providing the answer that God Himself did indeed feed and clothe Israel during that period, making it unnecessary for the land to sustain them. The land did NOT do it. God did it! The rationalism that denies Biblical miracles is simply UNBELIEF, nothing else. No Christian should pay the slightest attention to such denials. In addition to this, no one can be impressed by what men who live in the 20th century profess to "know" about conditions in the vicinity of Sinai over three thousand years ago!

One other important feature of this record (Numbers 1:1-19) is the choice of the various princes of Israel who would assist Moses in this numbering. These names, with the exception of those of Nahshon and Amminadab, do not appear outside of Numbers; however, we are familiar with Nahshon and Amminadab as being listed in the genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3). It seems also correct to view these "princes" of Israel as the commanders of their corresponding military units.

All of the records of the emergence of Israel as an independent nation are presented in the sacred text in such a manner as to require their acceptance as truth. Allis' comment on this was:

"Not only are these statistical figures given with the utmost care and checked by their use in the construction of the tabernacle, they find support in the character of the narrative itself."[6]

The total number of the males in Israel were required to pay a poll tax, the half-shekel ransom, and the very amount of money thus raised is given, along with the use of it in the construction of the silver sockets of the tabernacle, and the amount of the money is absolutely consistent with the figures given for the total number. Yes, the figures are accurate. Of course, so large a population could not have survived without Divine assistance. So God fed them with manna for forty years, and that is no myth! We are told what the manna looked like, when it fell, how much they gathered, when it started, and when it ceased. We are even told what it tasted like, that the people tired of it, and that it was supplemented with a meat diet. This is the language of history.

It is of interest also that the tribe of Levi was not numbered among those prepared to go to war, their task being solely related to the priesthood and the tabernacle. Their numbers are also given in the first census here as 22,270, and in the second census as 23,000. It should also be noted that these figures take no account of any units less than fifty.

We have included here a diagram of the deployment of the tribes of Israel around the tabernacle which was placed at the center of the large camp of all Israel. This, of course, is the subject of the next chapter.

Asher Dan Naphtali
Benjamin Morarites Issachar
Ephraim Gershonites Tabernacle Aaron’s Sons Judah
Manasseh Kohathites Zebulun
Gad Reuben Simeon
Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 1". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.