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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Numbers 26

Verse 1

1. And it came to pass after the plague. This is the second census which we read of having been made by Moses; nevertheless it is easy to perceive, from Exodus 38:0, that it was at least the third; although it is more probable that either yearly, or at stated times, those who had arrived at the age of twenty gave in their names. Still the number of the people could not be thus obtained, unless there were also a comparison of the deaths. This, at any rate, is incontrovertible, that those who had grown up to manhood were three times numbered in the desert, for we gather thus much from the passage before us, since it is said in the fourth verse that this enrolment was made “as the Lord had commanded Moses, and the children of Israel, which went forth out of the land of Egypt;” from whence it is plain not only that they followed as their rule the custom established from the beginning, but that the census of the people was again taken, as it had been in the wilderness of Sinai. From hence again a probable conjecture may be made, that, from the time in which they came out from thence, nothing similar had taken place in the interval. For Moses there records how many talents were collected from the tribute of the people, and mentions their number, viz., 603,550 (191) and he adds afterwards, when they moved their camp from Mount Sinai, how the census was taken according to God’s command; but I pass over this subject the more cursorily, as having been already spoken of elsewhere. (192)

Now let us see with what object God desired to have His people numbered before He led them into the possession of the promised land. In less than forty years the whole generation of an age for military service had perished: many had been carried off by premature deaths; nay, a single scourge had lately destroyed 24,000; who would not have thought that the people must have been diminished by a fourth? We must then account it a remarkable miracle, that their numbers should be found as great as they were before. It was a memorable proof of God’s anger that only two of the 603,000 still survived; but that by continued generation the people were so renewed, as that, at the conclusion of the period, their posterity equalled their former number, was the work of God’s inestimable grace. Thus, in that awful judgment wherewith God punished His sinful people, the truth of His promise still shone forth. It had been said to Abraham,

I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea-shore,” (Genesis 22:17;)

and it was by no means fitting that this blessing should be obscured at the time, when the other part of the promise was about to be fulfilled: “Unto thy seed will I give this land.” (Genesis 12:7;) For, whilst the people had been instructed by punishments to fear God, still they were not to lose the savor of His paternal favor. And thus does God always temper His judgments towards His Church, so as in the midst of His indignation to remember mercy, as Habakkuk says, (Habakkuk 3:2.) This was the reason why the people was numbered immediately after the plague, in order that it might be more conspicuous that God had marvellously provided lest any diminution should appear after the recent loss of so many men.

(191) In the Lat. these numbers are misprinted, 600,550; in the Fr., 650,300.

(192) On Numbers 1:0, etc., vol. 3, pp. 437, et seq. Fr. substitutes for the last clause, “pource qu’il n’est point de grande importance;” because it is not of great importance.

Verse 8

8 And the sons of Pallu; Eliab. The curtailment which had occurred in the superior line is here introduced, either in exaltation of God’s grace, because, notwithstanding so great a loss, the tribe of Reuben was still numerous; or else to mark the cause of its diminution, for it might otherwise have seemed strange that other tribes exceeded in numbers that one whose founder and parent was Jacob’s first-born. But when he has narrated how the two sons of Eliab had been destroyed with their company, he briefly adverts to the clemency of God towards the sons of Korah, in that He spared them. And surely this was no common exercise of mercy not only to preserve them uninjured from the calamity, but afterwards to raise up shoots from the accursed root, in whom His spiritual riches might shine forth for the general advantage of the Church: for we know what honorable mention is often made of this family; and it is probable that certain of them were the authors of some of the Psalms, and thus were endued with the Spirit of prophecy, when possibly at that time none of the priests was possessed of this gift. This is that profound abyss in the various and unequal judgments of God, which it becomes us to adore with sober humility. Meanwhile, in a single word, Moses hints at the reason why he repeats this same history, whereby the formidable mode of their death might be held up as a perpetual example: for the Hebrew word נס, nes, which is primarily a standard (193) or banner, is often used for some portentous thing, which strikes men’s senses with astonishment, and at the same time fills their minds with fear.

(193) “Un mot Hebrieu qui signifie tant banniere, que mas de navire, ou une haute perche;” a Hebrew word which signifies a banner, as well as the mast of a ship, or a high pole. — Fr.

Verse 19

19. The sons of Judah were Er and Onan. Since the tribe of Judah was so numerous, Moses magnifies the greatness of God’s grace by this circumstance, that of the three sons which he begat, two perished in the land of Canaan, by whose loss he might have appeared to be condemned to perpetual sterility. But the climax of God’s unparalleled mercy was this, that although two of his children were born of an incestuous connection, they grew up into so great a people.

Verse 28

28. The sons of Joseph after their families. The comparison of the two tribes, which sprang from the same head, is worthy of notice. By the fact that Manasseh was the father of only one son, (194) the prophecy of Jacob, when he declared that the first-born should be inferior to his younger brother Ephraim, began already to receive its accomplishment. Nevertheless, God’s blessing extended far and wide for the increase of his family, so that they exceeded the tribe of Reuben in number. But further, though the larger number of children ( πολυτεκνία) in which the descendants of Ephraim were superior, was a kind of type of his promised fecundity, still the excellency and dignity, of which Jacob prophesied, was deferred to a distant period; since in this respect the tribe of Ephraim was inferior by about a third, whereas a more numerous issue had been promised him. Although, therefore, God had not spoken in vain, yet the fulfillment of His promise did not immediately appear.

In the tribe of Dan, however, the incredible power of God was put forth. He was contemptible among his brethren; and thence it was an extraordinary blessing accorded to him in the shape of an honorable degree and name, when Jacob declares that “Dan shall judge his people.” (Genesis 49:16.) He is said to have begotten only one son; yet his posterity exceeds 64,000.

(194) There appears to be an oversight here: see Joshua 17:1.

Verse 51

51. These are the numbered of the children of Israel. By this sum total, what I have above adverted to is more clearly shewn, that amidst so many losses, and especially after the terrible vengeance which God had recently executed, the race of Abraham was preserved in an incredible manner, so that the fulfillment of the promise might not be brought about only towards a small body of persons. Nature itself and reason would have suggested that a few only should enjoy the promised land; but if the inheritance had been restricted to a small number of men, God’s promise would have lain, as it were, in obscurity and concealment. Yet within thirty-eight years, during which more than 603,000 men had fallen, God marvellously brought it to pass that the same number of persons should still remain, some 2500 only excepted. Assuredly they must be blind four times over, as it were, who do not behold in this bright mirror God’s wonderful providence, and the faithfulness of His gratuitous adoption, and His steadfastness in keeping His promises. At the same time, that which I have already referred to in Deuteronomy clearly appears, that those who survived, were strikingly admonished by this great loss, that they should not fall away at any time into superstition.

Verse 53

53. Unto these the land shall be divided. This must have had great influence towards encouraging believers, when they gave in their names before God, and professed that they were heirs of the land; since it was exactly the same as if they actually had it in their grasp, when God called them to its certain possession; for the demonstrative pronoun is used emphatically, lest they should suppose that they were to be put off any longer, and that what was promised them was still to be kept in store for their posterity. The actual fulfillment, therefore, and immediate presence of the thing is indicated, when God prescribes that the land was to be divided to those who were just numbered, and whose names appeared in the public registers. A proportionable mode of division is then enjoined, so that their share should be distributed to every tribe according to the number of their names. We now perceive that they were registered, and, so to speak, (195) lustrated, in order that they might more earnestly bestir themselves to take possession of the promised land.

(195) Lat., “Quasi lustratos.” Fr. “Comme receus de nouveau;” as it were received anew: — the allusion is, I need hardly say, to the Roman lustrum, or quinquennial census and readjustment of the classes of the people.

Verse 57

57. And these are they that were numbered of the Levites. He treats separately of the tribe of Levi, which God had dissevered from the rest of the people; and of the sons of Levi, the last mentioned is Kohath, the founder of the sacerdotal family. Hence we may probably conjecture that the law of primogeniture was not regarded when God deigned to take the priests from thence. But why Moses should expressly state the name of his mother, contrary to the usual custom of Scripture, does not dearly appear; for it is not likely that he did this as a distinction to his own family, because he at the same time shews how he himself, as well as his children, was deprived of the honor (of the priesthood,) (196) in which certainly there is no appearance of ambition. It is more probable, if the word daughter is literally taken, that he did not conceal a disgraceful circumstance, in order to extol more highly the indulgence of God; for, in this case, Moses and Aaron sprang of an incestuous marriage, since Amram, their father, must have married his aunt, which natural modesty forbade. It will, then, be rather an ingenuous confession of family dishonor, than an ambitious boast. If we inquire how this could have been tolerated, the answer will readily suggest itself, that this license had so largely prevailed among the oriental nations, that no one deemed that to be illicit which was in such universal use. And this we shall presently see (197) to be expressly referred to, when God, by forbidding incestuous marriages, distinguishes His people from other nations. It will be no matter of surprise, then, that those who were not yet prohibited from doing so by the law of God, had followed the general custom.

(196) Added from Fr.

(197) The Fr. more correctly says, “Ce que nous avons veu ci dessus;” this we have seen above; — the table of prohibited degrees having been considered ante, vol. 3, p. 96, et seq.

Verse 60

60. And unto Aaron was born Nadab. Since two of Aaron’s four sons were cut off by a sudden death, the dignity of the high-priesthood, which depended on the life of two persons, appeared to be endangered. And with this view Moses repeats the history already given, in order that God’s wonderful providence might be more clearly perceived in the preservation of this order, with which the safety of the whole Church was connected. Unquestionably, unless other families had been much more prolific, the whole tribe of Levi would have consisted of very few persons; yet, if we come to compare them, their fecundity will be incredible, inasmuch as 23,000 are numbered, whereas the sacerdotal race issued from only two heads. But God exalts His Church to pre-eminence by ways and means unknown to men, in order that His power may be magnified in this weakness. Moreover, the cause of their death is again recorded, that the priests, being admonished by this warning, may not only more diligently beware of wilful sacrilege, but also of error and negligence.

Verse 63

63. These are they that were numbered. The former registration was made by Aaron. The difference between the two census is therefore specified, in order that Moses may take occasion to commemorate God’s judgment, which can never be sufficiently considered, that of 600,000, only two were found who had survived to the term prescribed by God. If any should object that the greater part would have died naturally, since they had arrived at their thirtieth: fortieth, and even fiftieth year, (198) and thus would have been some eighty years old before the completion of the forty years, I admit that such is the case; but many had not yet reached their twenty-fourth year. Nor can we doubt but that not a few of them were younger than Caleb and Joshua, whom we know to have been not only alive and well, but even strong and vigorous for many years afterwards. At any rate, therefore, not old age, but God’s vengeance, cut off half of them by an untimely death, as if he had openly put forth his hand from heaven and smitten them. It is not without reason, then, that Moses states that they were dead, as God had pronounced; not merely that by the punishment inflicted upon them he may inculcate upon us the fear of God, but also that we may learn to be aroused in earnest by his threats.

(198) This sentence is omitted in the edit. of Geneva, 1563.

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Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Numbers 26". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/numbers-26.html. 1840-57.