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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Numbers 27

Verse 1

1. Then came the daughters of Zelophehad. A narrative is here introduced respecting the daughters of Zelophehad, of the family of Machir, who demanded to be admitted to a share of its inheritance; and the decision of this question might have been difficult, unless all doubt had been removed by the sentence of God Himself. For, since in the law no name is given to women, it would seem that no account of them was to be taken in the division of the land. And, in fact, God laid down this as the general rule; but a special exception is here made, i.e., that whenever a family shall be destitute of male heirs, females should succeed, for the preservation of the name. I am aware that this is a point which is open to dispute, since there are obvious arguments both for and against it, but let the decree that God pronounced suffice for us.

Although (the daughters of Zelophehad) plead before Moses for their own private advantage, still the discussion arose from a good principle; inasmuch as they would not have been so anxious about the succession, if God’s promise had not been just as much a matter of certainty to them as if they were at this moment demanding to be put in possession of it. They had not yet entered the land, nor were their enemies conquered; yet, relying on the testimony of Moses, they prosecute their suit as if the tranquil possession of their rights were to be accorded them that very day. And this must have had the effect of confirming the expectations of the whole people, when Moses consulted God as respecting a matter of importance, and pronounced by revelation that which was just and right; for the discussion, being openly moved before them all, must have given them encouragement, at least to imitate these women.

Verse 3

3. Our father died in the wilderness. The plea they allege is no contemptible one, i.e., that their father died after God had called His people to the immediate possession of the promised land; for, if the question had been carried back to an earlier period, it might have originated many quarrels. This restriction with respect to time, therefore, aided their cause. In the second place, they plead that their father had committed no crime whereby he might have been excepted from the general allotment of the land; for in the conspiracy of Dathan and Abiram, they include by synecdoche, in my opinion, the other sins, whose punishment affected the posterity of the criminals. His private sin is, therefore, contrasted with public ignominy; for so I interpret what they say of his having “died in his own sin.” And surely it is mere childish nonsense which the Jews (199) affirm of his having been the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath-day, or one of the number of those who were slain by the bite of the serpents; and it is unnatural, too, to refer it to the curse under which the whole human race is laid. They distinguish, then, his private sin from any public crime, which would have caused him to deserve to be disinherited, lest the condition of their father should be worse than that of any other person. At the same time, they hold fast to the principle which is dictated to us by the common feelings of religion, that death, as being the curse of God, is the wages of sin.

(199) S.M. refers to this Rabbinical gloss. R. Sal. Jarchi tells us: “R. Akiba says, that he collected the wood; but R. Simeon says that he was one of those who were contumacious.” — Edit. Breihthaupt, in loco, p. 1243, and notes.

Verse 5

5. And Moses brought their cause before the Lord. It is probable either that there was a difference of opinion, or that the minds of the judges were in doubt, as respecting an obscure and uncertain point. At any rate, it was expedient that the law should be laid down by God, lest any future controversy should arise; for, if a sentence had been pronounced by human judgment on the matter before them, the obstinacy of many would not perhaps have been sufficiently set at rest. It is worth while to remark the pious modesty of Moses, who was not ashamed to confess his ignorance, until he had been instructed by the mouth of God. Although he had promulgated the law forty years before, still he was always ready to learn. Besides, there is no doubt but that God impelled him to inquire of Himself, whenever any serious matters were in question, until his doctrine was absolutely perfect. And, although God does not now deliver from heaven what is to be done, nevertheless rulers are reminded that they ought to have recourse to God in points of perplexity, in order that He may instruct them by the Spirit of wisdom; and assuredly they will not be without this, if they ask Him; since he is no less ready to listen to them, than He here shewed Himself to be to Moses.

Verse 8

8. And thou shalt speak to the children of Israel. This question was the occasion of the delivery of a law, which was to be a perpetual and general rule as to the right of inheritance. But, although God prefers the daughters to all other relatives, when there is no male issue, still, with this single exception of the first degree, He admits none but males to the succession, and thus preserves the usual order. And surely it would be very unjust to exclude a man’s (natural) heirs on account of their sex; but when it became necessary to pass from his own children to other kindred, the prerogative of the male line began to be established. I speak of the land of Canaan, in which not only the name of Abraham but also that of the twelve tribes was to be preserved, in order that the memory (of God’s blessing) (200) might be more distinct and unclouded.

(200) Added from Fr.

Verse 15

15. And Moses spake. Moses here sets forth not only God’s providence in attending to the welfare of the people, but also his own zeal for them. Hence it appears how paternal was his affection for them, in that he not only performed his duty towards them faithfully and earnestly, and shunned no pains that it cost him, even to the end of his life, but he also makes provision for the future, and is anxious about a suitable successor, lest the people should remain without one, like a headless body. We perceive also his humility, when he does not arrogate the right of appointment to himself, nor on his own authority submit the matter to the election of the people, but establishes God as its sole arbiter. It was, indeed, permitted him to choose the officers, and this was a part of the political constitution; but this was too difficult a task, to find by man’s judgment one who should suffice for its performance; and, consequently, it behoved that the power should be intrusted to God alone, who did not indeed refuse to undertake it. And this special reason had much force in so difficult a point, viz., that the people should receive their leader at His hand, in order that the supreme power should always remain vested in Himself. As, therefore, He had chosen Moses in an extraordinary manner, and had appointed him to be His representative, so He continued the same grace in the case of Joshua. Already, indeed, had He designated him; but, out of modesty, Moses omits his name, and simply prays that God would provide for His people.

The title, with which he honors God, has reference to the matter in question. It is true, indeed, that God may be often called “the God of the spirits of all flesh,” and for another reason, in chap. 16:22, Moses makes use of this expression; but he now alludes to this attribute, as much as to say, that there must be some one ready, and as it were in His hand, who should be appointed, since He has the making of all men according to His own will. Men often are mistaken and deceived in their opinions, and, even although the Spirit of God may enlighten them, they go no further than to discern the peculiar endowment for which a person is eminent; but God is not only the best judge of each man’s ability and aptitude, nor does He only penetrate to the inmost recesses of every heart; but He also fashions and refashions the men whom He chooses as His ministers, and supplies them with the faculties they require in order to be sufficient for bearing the burden. We gather from hence a useful lesson, i.e., that, when we are deprived of good rulers, they should be sought from the Maker Himself, whose special gift the power of good government is. And on this ground Moses calls Him not only the Creator of men, but “of all flesh,” and expressly refers to their “spirits.”

When he compares the people to sheep, it is for the purpose of awakening compassion, so that God may be more disposed to appoint them a shepherd.

Verse 18

18. And the Lord said unto Moses. We here see that Joshua was given in answer to the prayers of Moses, which is not stated elsewhere. But, in order that he may obtain his dignity with the consent of all, he is honored with a signal encomium: for, when God declares that the Spirit is in him, He does not merely intimate that he has a soul, but that he excels in the necessary gifts, such as intelligence. judgment, magnanimity, and skill in war: and the word “spirit” is used, in a different sense from that which it has just above, for that eminent and rare grace, which manifested itself in Joshua. For this metonymy (234) is a tolerably common figure in Scripture.

The solemn rite of his consecration by the imposition of hands follows, respecting which I have treated so fully elsewhere, (235) that it is now superfluous to say much upon it. It was in use before the giving of the Law, for thus the holy patriarchs blessed their sons. We have seen that the priests were inaugurated in their office, and that victims were offered to God, with this ceremony. The apostles followed this custom in the appointment of pastors. Moses, therefore, in order to testify publicly that Joshua was no longer his own master, but dedicated to God, and no longer to be regarded as a private individual, since he was called by God to the supreme command, laid his hands upon his head.

There was also another reason, viz., that, according to the requirements of the office intrusted to him, God would more and more enrich him (with His gifts;(Added from Fr.)) for there is nothing to prevent God from conferring richer endowments upon His servants according to the nature of their vocation, although they may have previously been eminent for spiritual gifts. Thus to Timothy, when he was appointed a pastor, new grace was given by the imposition of the hands of Paul, although he had before attained to no ordinary eminence. (2 Timothy 1:6.) To the same effect is what follows, that Moses should put some of his glory (236) upon him, as if resigning his own dignity; for by the word glory, not only external splendor, but rather spiritual honor is signified, whereby God commands reverence towards His servants; not that he was stripped of his own virtues by transferring them to Joshua, but because, without diminution of his own gifts, he made the person who was about to be his successor his associate in their possession.

It was fitting that this should be done before all the people, that all might willingly receive him as presented to them by God.

The charge given to him partly tended to confirm the authority of Joshua, and partly to bind him more solemnly to discharge his duties; for, inasmuch as Moses commanded him what he was to do in the name of God, he exempted himself from all suspicion of temerity; and, on the other hand, by the introduction of this duly authorized engagement, Joshua must have been more and more encouraged to faith and diligence.

(234) “De mettre l’Esprit pour les dons qui en previennent;” to put the Spirit for the gifts which proceed from it. — Fr.

(235) See ante on Leviticus 8:10, vol. 3, p. 422.

(236) A.V., “honor.”

Verse 21

21. And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest. Joshua is here subordinated to the priest on one point, viz., to inquire of him by the Urim and Thummim: for, as we have seen before, (237) the dignity of the priesthood was exalted by this symbol, that the prince should consult God by the mouth of the priest, who, being clothed in the sacred Ephod, the emblems of which were the Urim and Thummim, gave replies as the interpreter of God Himself. This passage, then, shows that the rule of Joshua was not profane; as in all legitimate dominion religion ought surely to hold the first place; for, since all things depend upon God, it is absurd that they should be separated from His service.

משפט , mishphat, that is, judgment, is here used for a rule, or prescribed course of action, as if he were commanded to seek the Law (238) from the oracles of God, which the priest was to receive and deliver from him, and that in perplexing matters he was to follow nothing else.

Moses adds, in conclusion, that he did what. God had enjoined, so that all might be fully assured that God would rule, no less than before, in the person of Joshua.

(237) See on Exodus 28:4, vol 2, p. 196.

(238) “Sa lecon;” his lesson. — Fr.

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Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Numbers 27". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.