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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- Numbers

by John Dummelow


1. Title and Contents. The English title of this book is a translation of that given to it in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. It is called Numbers because it tells of two numberings of the Israelites, one near the beginning and the other near the end of the sojourn in the wilderness (Numbers 1, 26). The title is not particularly applicable seeing that the account of these numberings occupies only a small part of the book. A better title is that given to it by the Jews, who call it ’In the Wilderness,’ from the fifth word of the opening verse in the Hebrew Bible.

Numbers contains a brief summary of the experiences of the Israelites in the wilderness and covers a period of nearly forty years, extending from the encampment at Sinai to the arrival at the border of Canaan. The contents fall readily into three main divisions.

Part 1. The Camp at Sinai and Preparations for Departure, Numbers 1 - Numbers 10:10. This section includes the first numbering of the people, the order of the camp and the march (1-4); laws regarding lepers, marital jealousy, and the vow of the Nazirite (5, 6); the offerings of the princes for the service of the tabernacle (7); regulations regarding the lighting of the golden lamps and the consecration of the Levites (8); the celebration of the Passover in the wilderness (Numbers 9:1-14); the cloudy pillar and the use of the silver trumpets (Numbers 9:15 to Numbers 10:10).

Part 2. The Journeyings from Sinai to the Plains of Moab, Numbers 10:11 to Numbers 22:1. These chapters cover the main period of the wanderings and give, not a full narrative of events, but a few outstanding incidents in these thirty-nine years, interspersed with various laws. Thus we have the departure from Sinai and the murmuring at Taberah and Kibroth-hattaavah where quails are sent (Numbers 10:11 to Numbers 11:35); the jealousy of Miriam and Aaron against Moses (Numbers 10:12); the sending of the spies from Kadesh, the discouragement of the people and sentence of forty years’ wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 10:13-14); laws regarding offerings and sabbath observance (Numbers 10:15); the rebellions of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On (Numbers 10:16); the blossoming of Aaron’s rod and the duties of priests and Levites (Numbers 10:17-18); the method of purification for those defiled by the dead (Numbers 10:19); the death of Miriam, the murmuring at Meribah, and the giving of water from the rock (Numbers 20:1-13); opposition of the Edomites and death of Aaron (Numbers 20:14-29); defeat by the Canaanites, plague of fiery serpents, and conquest of the Amorites (Numbers 20:21); arrival at the plains of Moab (Numbers 22:1).

Part 3. In the Plains of Moab, Numbers 22:2-36. This section relates the experiences in the plains of Moab and in the country E. of the Jordan, and includes the story of Balaam (22-24); relapse of the people into idolatry (25); the second numbering (26); law of inheritance, and designation of Joshua as the successor of Moses (27); law of offerings, sacred seasons (28, 29), and vows (30); fight against Midian (31); the assignment of land on the E. side of Jordan to two and a half tribes (32); a list of stations on the march (Numbers 33:1-49); directions as to the treatment of the Canaanites and the division of the land (Numbers 33:50; Numbers 34); appointment of Levitical cities and cities of refuge (35); additional laws regarding inheritance (36).

2. Origin and Composition. The book of Numbers is manifestly a continuation of the story of the Pentateuch, and exhibits the same general literary characteristics as the rest of the books. As a combination of law and narrative, rather than a legislative code, it is more akin to Exodus than Leviticus, and sometimes follows it in ancient lists of OT. books. The circumstantiality of the narrative in many points, and the fact that many of the regulations in Numbers are only suitable to a life in the desert, while others are professedly prospective in their application (see e.g. Numbers 15:2; Numbers 34:2), are indications that the groundwork of the book is of primitive origin. The statement in Numbers 33:2 is important as showing that Moses himself made a record of the wanderings, and that it was preserved to later times. It is interesting also to observe that Numbers incorporates several poetical pieces of great power and beauty which are of undoubted antiquity: see Numbers 21:14-15, Numbers 21:17-18, Numbers 21:27-30 the utterances of Balaam in Numbers 23, 24.

In its present form, however, the whole book can hardly have been written by Moses. chapter Numbers 12:3 is most naturally understood as the judgment of a later writer on the character of Moses, who is not likely to have written this v. himself. Several times the phrase ’beyond Jordan’ is used to denote the E. side, implying that the writer was living in Canaan. But Moses never crossed the Jordan; he died on the E. side: see on Numbers 21:13; Numbers 22:1; Deuteronomy 1:1. The capture of Havoth-jair (Numbers 32:41) did not take place till long after the death of Moses, as appears from Judges 10:3-4; The words ’while the children of Israel were in the wilderness’ (Numbers 15:32) are written from the standpoint of a later time. These things do not, of course, imply that the whole book was a late composition; they can be explained as additions and interpolations in the original work.

3. Religious Value. What has been said as to the permanent religious value of the narrative and legislation of Exodus and Leviticus applies to the corresponding portions of Numbers and need not be repeated here. It is enough to point out that the writer of the book is no mere chronicler of events. He is an interpreter of the history of his people. In every event he sees the finger of God, ruling and guiding His chosen people, providing for their wants, bearing with their sins and infirmities, keeping His covenant with them, and preparing them by means of a long discipline for serving Him, and being His witness to the world. Moses and Miriam, Caleb and Joshua, Phinehas and Balaam, are types of character from which we have still something to learn. The description of the camp and the congregation, the distribution of the duties and the provision for sacred ceremonial, are, like the description of the Heavenly Jerusalem in the book of Revelation, valuable, as giving an ideal picture of organised religious life. The Christian reader will recognise, in many of the experiences of God’s people in the ’great and terrible wilderness,’ types and illustrations of spiritual truths which are unchanging and eternal. The guidance by means of the pillar of cloud and fire (Numbers 9:15-23) the supply of manna and of water (11, 20), the intercession of Aaron when he stood between the living and the dead till the plague was stayed (Numbers 16:46-50), the sacrifice of the red heifer (19), the brazen serpent (21), the appointment of the cities of refuge (35), the exclusion from the land of promise of those whose faith failed them (14) and of Moses himself (Numbers 20:12; Numbers 27:12-14), the victory of God’s people over the evil powers of the unseen world (22-24)—in the words of the Apostle, ’all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come’ (1 Corinthians 10:11).

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