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Sunday, June 23rd, 2024
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 14

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


The repeated rebellions of Israel against the will of God reached their climax in this chapter with the Divine sentence that condemned that whole generation to die in the wilderness, allowing the possession of Canaan to their children, who, reared in the hardships of the wilderness, possessed the faith and ability to enable their success. First is recorded their night of weeping and the appointment of a new leader to take them back to Egypt! (Numbers 14:1-4). Moses and Aaron tried unsuccessfully to restrain the people (Numbers 14:5-10). Moses interceded for the people (Numbers 14:11-19). God indeed forgave them, but blasted them with a sentence of death in the wilderness, and ordered them to turn back southward toward the Red Sea (Numbers 14:20-25). Moses then announced God’s sentence to the people, giving the additional provision that a whole forty years should elapse before any of them entered Canaan (Numbers 14:26-35). God brought upon the people a plague that resulted in the death of the ten unfaithful spies, Joshua and Caleb being spared (Numbers 14:36-38), but the rebellious people decided on their own to go up and take Canaan anyway, resulting in a disastrous defeat (Numbers 14:39-45).

The works of many critical scholars exhibit a tragic blindness to the tremendous spiritual significance of this pivotal chapter, practically all of their exegesis being devoted to tiresome disputes about whether this or that portion belongs to P or to JE, or if the account here is a fusion of two or more accounts. All such discussions are futile and essentially without meaning. The alleged “documents” never existed! The so-called evidence supporting such theories is forced, illogical, and unreasonable, justifying no such conclusions as that of Wade, who declared that, “This section is a fusion of JE and P.”(F1) He based the proposition on the omission of Joshua’s name in Numbers 14:24, but Joshua was “the servant of Moses,” and, as such, the mention of his name in that passage was not necessary. The sons of Aaron were likewise omitted in the same verse, although they also surely belonged among those who were exempted from the sentence of death. The false view that Numbers 14:24 “contradicts” Numbers 14:38, where both Caleb and Joshua are mentioned, dissolves in the light of the truth.

Verses 1-4

“And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would that we had died in this wilderness! And wherefore doth Jehovah bring us unto this land, to fail by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey: were it not better for us to return into Egypt? And they said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.”

“The children of Israel murmured” What an infantile demonstration of unbelief was this “murmuring”! God’s unbelieving children have never ceased to indulge in such conduct. Every congregation of believers on earth has within it some whose contribution to the success of the kingdom is nothing but complaining and murmuring. God was sorely displeased with it then, and he still is.

What was the trouble with these people? The author of Hebrews pinpoints their trouble exactly: “They could not enter because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:17-19).

“Would God we had died… in Egypt” What were those “good old days” in Egypt? They consisted of endless drudgery under the slave whips of their oppressors. Here the people seem to have forgotten the “service with rigor” that was their lot in Egypt, and although but a little inconvenienced by the hardships of wilderness life, they decided to go back!

“Wherefore doth Jehovah bring us into this land” Yes, they blame God Himself, despite all that God had done for them, pretending to be concerned for their children. That was not the real problem at all. They were the problem, for they were slave-schooled cowards unwilling to fight for liberty. We have them in our own generation, and it would be well for us to pray that our own nation does not fall into the error of the one exhibited here.

“Let us make a captain, and let us return to Egypt!” Well, the same alternative invariably confronts every believer. He must either fight and win in the kingdom of God, or turn back to slavery and death. “For the believer, the choice is inevitable, either he must go forward in Christ to possess the land, or go back to the world (Egypt) and die.”(F2) “It seems from Nehemiah 9:17 that they actually appointed another leader under whose direction they were about to return to Egypt.”(F3)

Behold here what an impossible alternative this was which the people desired to take. The trip from Egypt had not been easy. Now, they would return, without Moses, without God to open the sea before them and overwhelm their enemies in the flood, without God to send the manna and the quails, without the fiery-cloudy pillar, and without God to make the bitter waters sweet. What an impossibility that alternative actually was. “Yet they elected the baser course, and thought themselves prudent and careful of themselves in doing so!”(F4) “The sinfulness and insane folly of their conduct are almost incredible.”(F5) But this is always true of unbelief. Unbelief is never either logical or reasonable. Did not the Christ himself “marvel at their unbelief” in ancient Nazareth? (Mark 6:6).

“The children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron” (Numbers 14:2) Right here is a glimpse of the real reason for the omission of Joshua’s name in Numbers 14:30. Joshua could not have been effective in that situation.

He did not stand in any means in the same position as Caleb and the other spies. He was “the minister” and “the lieutenant” of Moses, and his fortunes were obviously tied not to those of the tribes, but to those of Moses.(F6)

Therefore, Joshua’s name is NOT missing in Numbers 14:30, because some “other account” accidentally omitted it, or knew nothing of it, but because Joshua did not speak on that occasion. Only Moses knew the details of this episode, and he alone could have written it.

Verses 5-10

“Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the children of Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son Jephunneh, who were of them that spied out the land, rent their clothes: and they spake unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying, The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If Jehovah delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it unto us; a land which floweth with milk and honey. Only rebel not against Jehovah, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defense is removed from over them, and Jehovah is with us: fear them not. But all the congregation bade stone them with stones. And the glory of Jehovah appeared in the tent of meeting unto all the children of Israel.”

“Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly” Forsaking any thought of their personal dignity, these faithful leaders moved to do everything in their power to thwart the evil purpose of the people. Note that Aaron, who also was exempted from the death sentence, and who stood faithfully with Moses was also omitted in Numbers 14:30. At this point, both Joshua and Caleb rent their clothes to demonstrate their grief and disapproval of what the people wanted to do.

“The land… is an exceedingly good land…. “not in any sense a “land that ate up its inhabitants.” They also addressed another falsehood advocated by the false spies, namely, that all the people were giants.

“They are bread for us” Several quaint comments on this explain the metaphor: “We shall gobble them up!”(F7) “Those people will be `duck soup’ for us?”(F8)

“Jehovah is with us” Here is the true basis of all genuine confidence. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

“Their defense is departed” The Hebrew here is literally, “Their shadow” or “their shade”(F9) has departed. “This is a very expressive metaphor for shelter and protection in the sultry east (Compare Psalms 91:1; Psalms 121:5; Isaiah 30:2; Isaiah 32:2; Isaiah 49:2; and Isaiah 51:16).”(F10)

Verses 11-19

This great intercession by Moses is one of the glorious passages of the O.T. Pleading for God to spare the Chosen Nation, despite their wickedness, and pleading no merit of the people but the goodness and honor of God as the true basis of his petition, he prevailed! The self-effacing goodness of Moses shines in this passage. God could indeed have made of Moses a people greater and mightier than Israel, but Moses sought the honor of God rather than his own personal glory.

Numbers 14:13-17 here are ungrammatical as they appear in the Hebrew text, as explained by Cook:

“The syntax of these verses is singularly broken. As did Paul when deeply moved, so Moses presses his arguments one on the other without pausing to ascertain the grammatical finish of his expressions.”(F11)

How else could Moses have spoken as he trembled in the fear of an impending judgment of doom upon the whole nation? The notion that such a man in such awesome fear should have paused to polish up the grammar of his prayer is, in any sober view, preposterous. Cook’s view of this is infinitely higher than that of Gray who wrote:

“These verses have been gradually built up of glosses, and their broken construction and unintelligibility is due to such an origin, rather than to Moses’ emotion, as some have suggested.”(F12)

Well, just how reasonable is a view like that? What is affirmed by it is that some, or many, of those invisible “redactors” and/or “editors” put together an “unintelligible” passage. Why? Were such authors of all those “glosses” themselves unintelligent, or blunderers, or incapable of giving a grammatical construction? Or, is not such a proposition wholly untenable? We leave the answer to any believer.

“If thou shalt kill this people as one man” (Numbers 14:15) carries the idea “at one stroke.”(F13)

Numbers 14:17-19 regarding the Divine attributes, are repeated “as somewhat of a formula from Exodus 34:6-7, and are repeated in almost liturgical fashion in a number of Biblical passages (Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2).”(F14)

Verses 20-25

“And Jehovah said, I have pardoned according to thy word; but in very deed, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of Jehovah; because all those men that have seen my glory, and my signs, which I wrought in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have tempted me these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice; surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that despised me see it: but my servant Caleb, because he had another spirit with him, and hath followed me fully, him will I bring into the land whereinto he went; and his seed shall possess it. Now the Amalekite and the Canaanite dwell in the valley: tomorrow turn ye, and get you into the wilderness by way of the Red Sea.”

“I have pardoned according to thy word” Moses’ prayer was answered, and God forgave the people and refrained from destroying them; however, he at once swore with an oath that the punishment of their “ten rebellions” would not be withheld.

Smick pointed out that the words, “As I live,” introduced a formal oath that reaches through Numbers 14:23. He gave this paraphrase of it:

“Surely as I live and as the earth shall be full of the glory of the Lord, none of the men who saw my glory and my signs which I did in Egypt, and in the wilderness, but who have tried me now tenfold, and have not hearkened to my voice, shall see the land which I sware to their fathers.”(F15)

“These ten times” (Numbers 14:22). “Ten is the number which signifies completeness.”(F16) “It seems to refer to the ten evil spies.”(F17) “The Talmud understood this literally.”(F18) Dummelow thought that ten is a “round number indicating `full measure’.”(F19) “Rabbi Judah from the second century enumerated ten instances of Israel’s rebellion.”(F20) Gray listed these as follows:

“There were two instances at the Red Sea, Exodus 14:11; Psalms 106:11; two in demanding water, Exodus 15:23 Exodus 17:2; two for food, Exodus 16:27; two for flesh, Exodus 16:3, Numbers 11:4; in the matter of the golden calf, and in the sending out of the spies.”(F21)

“But my servant Caleb… (Numbers 14:24).” Neither Aaron nor Joshua was mentioned here because “they were no longer in the ranks of the people, but standing with Moses.”(F22)

Another possible reason for the omission of Joshua’s name here might have derived from the modesty of Joshua, to whom some writers ascribe the addition of certain passages in the Pentateuch. Among such, there stands the name of the illustrious Sir Isaac Newton.(F23) Certainly this is another of several options that are far more reasonable than the old knee-jerk response of the critics who find “various sources” everywhere they look.

“Now the Amalekite and the Canaanite dwell in the valley” (Numbers 25). All of the nonsense about this contradicting other passages (Numbers 14:25). All of the nonsense about this contradicting other passages which do not thus describe the habitations of the Amalekites and the Canaanites is frustrated by a true understanding of what is meant here. This verse is not speaking of the permanent residences of those peoples, but of their locations at that very moment in one of the adjacent valleys to Israel’s encampment, waiting to fall upon them in ambush, a thing they promptly did when Israel disobeyed God and attempted to mount an assault on Canaan. Those peoples had long anticipated Israel’s push into Canaan; and “the valley” mentioned here was where they had prepared their ambush.

“By way of the Red Sea” The simple meaning of this is merely, “in the direction of the Red Sea.” It is regrettable that many very recent commentaries (Wycliffe Bible Commentary, The New Layman’s Bible Commentary, etc.) state unequivocally that, “Red Sea is generally translated `Reed Sea’,” thus paying lip-service to one of the most fraudulent renditions ever associated with the Bible. It is high time that this “dead duck” about the “Reed Sea” was laid to rest forever. Within the last few months (1984), the most recent scholarship of the highest rank has declared “Reed Sea” to be a monstrous error.(F24)

(See the special discussion of this in my commentary on Exodus at the end of Exodus 13.)

Verses 26-35

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, that murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against me. Say unto them, As I live, saith Jehovah, surely, as ye have spoken in mine ears, so will I do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, that have murmured against me, surely ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware that I would make you dwell therein, save Caleb, the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones that ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have rejected. But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be wanderers in the wilderness forty years, and shall bear your whoredoms, until your dead bodies be consumed in the wilderness. After the number of the days in which ye spied out the land, even forty days, for every day a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years, and ye shall know my alienation. I Jehovah have spoken, surely this will I do unto all this evil congregation, that are gathered together against me: in this wilderness shall they be consumed, and there shall they die.”

These verses record the announcement of the verdict against the people which was already known to Moses from his intercessory conversation with the Lord.

“That have murmured against me” (Numbers 14:29). This is apparently a qualifier of the general proscription of the “whole number” that were numbered in the opening chapters of Numbers, with the meaning that any who did not murmur against God would have been exempted. The Levites, of course, were not numbered; and therefore, it appears that “the whole order of the priesthood was spared.”(F25)

“Sware” (Numbers 14:30) here, and as used elsewhere in these chapters is literally, “lift up the hand, a common gesture of oath taking in many lands.”(F26)

“Whoredoms… (Numbers 14:33).” This word is used generally throughout the O.T. for unfaithfulness to God. It derived from the widespread pagan worship which did indeed practice literal fornication and adultery in a most extensive manner.

Verses 36-38

“And the men, whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned, and made all the congregation to murmur against him, by bringing up an evil report against the land, even those men that did bring up an evil report of the land, died by the plague before Jehovah. But Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, remained alive of those men that went to spy out the land.”

“To murmur against him (Moses)” (Numbers 14:36). This is significant because the very same action was called by God Himself murmuring “against him!” Is this not a valid warning for all who customarily indulge in the most unfeeling criticism of God’s appointed leaders in the church today? Yes, indeed! This is another example of “that which is done against the community of believers” being also done against God.

“Even these men… died by plague” (Numbers 14:37). The ten unfaithful spies were not permitted to live, the plague being a direct judgment of God against their wickedness. Joshua and Caleb, along with any other faithful, were spared.

Verses 39-45

“And Moses told these words unto all the children of Israel: and the people mourned greatly. And they rose up early in the morning, and gat them up to the top of the mountain, saying, Lo, we are here, and will go up unto the place which Jehovah hath promised: for we have sinned. And Moses said, Wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of Jehovah, seeing it shall not prosper? Go not up, for Jehovah is not among you; that ye be not smitten down before your enemies. For there the Amalekite and the Canaanite are before you, and ye shall fall by the sword: because ye are turned back from following Jehovah, therefore Jehovah will not be with you. But they presumed to go up to the top of the mountain: nevertheless the ark of the covenant of Jehovah, and Moses, departed not out of the camp. Then the Amalekite came down, and the Canaanite who dwelt in that mountain, and smote them and beat them down, even unto Hormah.”

This vivid, graphic narrative describes in but a few words the deeds of the presumptuous Israelites who supposed that a mere admission that “we have sinned” (Numbers 14:40) had won for them a complete atonement for their rebellion, and then dared to go against the Word of God and undertake the conquest of Canaan on their own. Of course, the issue was disaster. It could not have been otherwise. The burning words of this paragraph were not explained by Moses in every instance. The mention of the “valley” where the enemy lurked and the “mountain in which they dwelt are the words of an “eye-witness,” and the cavil one encounters about this is as presumptuous as that of those ancient Israelites.

Another source of unbelieving criticism derives from the fact that here the ark remained “in the camp.” Gray, and others, “locate it outside the camp.”(F27) And how do they get that “contradiction”? By taking Exodus 33:7, where it is revealed that, for awhile, during the rebellion in the matter of the golden calf, Moses did indeed put the temporary tabernacle outside the camp, to show that God was no longer in the midst of his wicked children, but that was the only exception due to the rebellious state of Israel at the time of its occurrence and affords no excuse whatever for making the Scriptures contradictory!

“Beat them down, even unto Hormah” It is useless to attempt a location of Hormah. “Its exact location cannot be ascertained.”(F28) “The original name of the place was Zephath, a royal city of the Canaanites on the south border of the Holy Land.”(F29) The circumstances that led to the change of its name to Hormah are given in Numbers 21:1-3. The name has the meaning of “the ban place,”(F30) coming from a root that means “total destruction.”(F31) It was given because of the slaughter of a vast number of Israelites there. The word is used proleptically both here and in Joshua 19:4, for it was so named only after Israel conquered the place and renamed it.(F32) This indicates that we have here another passage in which certain facts were added to the Pentateuch by Joshua, who was also inspired and who did so under the direct commandment of the Lord.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 14". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-14.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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