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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Numbers 1

Verse 1

1. And the Lord spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai Although this is the first numbering of the people, of which we have an account, still, inasmuch as God had already imposed a tax upon every person, the amount of which has been recorded, we infer that it was in fact the second. But the reason for thus numbering the people a second time was, because they were very soon about to remove their camp from the wilderness of Sinai to take posession of the promised land. Since, however, their impiety withheld thmn from doing so, there was a third census taken just before their actual entrance into the land, and with this object, that it might be obvious, on comparison, how marvellously the people had been preserved by the springing up of a new generation, in spite of so many plagues and so much slaughter; for although a great proportion of them had been cut off, almost as many persons were found as before.

Further, it must be observed, that the people were not numbered except at God’s command, in order that He might thus assert His supreme dominion over them; and also, that the mode of taking the census was so arranged, that there should be no confusion of ranks either through fraud or irregularity; for this was the reason why each tribe had its superintendents, lest any one should slip into a tribe to which he did not belong; and this is expressly mentioned by way of assurance, since otherwise many might suspect that so great a multitude could hardly be distinguished into classes with certainty, so that the whole sum should be calculated without mistake.

Verse 20

20. And the children of Reuben, Israel’s eldest son If any disputatious person should contend that one family could not increase in 250 years to so great an amount, and thus should reject as nebulous what surpasses the ordinary rule of nature, we must bear in mind what I have already stated, that, inasmuch as this increase depended on the power of God, nothing is more absurd than to measure it by ordinary rules. For the intention of the Spirit is to represent to our eyes the incredible power of God in a conspicuous and signal miracle. Meanwhile, if you compared the tribe of Reuben with some of the others, it presents in its numbers some marks of the curse, so that we may gather that Reuben was degraded from the honors of his primogeniture; for the tribes of Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali were more numerous, whilst from Joseph alone, who was one of the youngest, a posterity descended which almost doubled it in numbers. God’s blessing, however, is most conspicuous in the tribe of Judah, in correspondence with the prophecy of Jacob; for by this prerogative, as it were, it was already called to the right of primogeniture and to supremacy, inasmuch as it surpassed all the principal ones.

Verse 47

47. But the Levites, after the tribe of their fathers We shall indeed hereafter see that they also were numbered, but Moses means that they were not included in the general census of the people, because God had chosen them to be His own property, and thus had severed them from the rest of the people. He writes, therefore, that they “were not numbered in the midst of the others,” (419) i.e., so as promiscuously to form a part of the multitude. Now, lest any one should object that Moses acted ambitiously in thus bestowing on his own tribe extraordinary distinction, he declares that he did not do this spontaneously, but that it was at God’s bidding that the Levites had a separate class assigned to them; for translators render this passage amiss, “And God said to Moses,” (420) as if he stated that the tribe of Levi was then first set apart when the sum of the people was taken, since it would have been absurd to omit a part, unless God’s will had been already declared. Moses, therefore, shews why he passed over his own tribe, via, because God had consecrated the Levites for the keeping and service of the tabernacle. Now, if it was not lawful for the tabernacle to be carried or set up by all persons indiscriminately, its sanctity was enforced by this symbol; for religion would not have been held in so much reverence, if it had been allowable for all without distinction to meddle with the sacred things. Meanwhile, the Israelites were reminded that all without, exception were unworthy to present themselves before God, when they were forbidden from access to the sanctuary; whereas the dignity which was conferred upon a single tribe was no ground for boasting, since it depended merely on the good pleasure of God. God, then, gave the Levites access to His tabernacle, not because they had deserved that honor by any virtue of their own, but in order to afford a testimony of His gratuitous favor. At the same time, under this image He represented the future priesthood of Christ, in order that believers might be assured that the Mediator, by whom others might have access to God, was to be of the human race; and therefore God declares by Isaiah that He would take the Levites under the kingdom of Christ from the general and dispersed body of the people. (Isaiah 66:21.) As to what relates to their office, let it be sought in its proper place.

(419) Among them. — A. V.

(420) So the Vulgate, Numbers 1:48.

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Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Numbers 1". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.