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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Numbers 1

Verses 1-54

I. EXPERIENCES OF THE OLDER GENERATION IN THE WILDERNESS CHS. 1-25

This first main section of the book records how God prepared the Israelites to enter the Promised Land from Kadesh Barnea and why they failed to achieve that goal.

A. Preparations for entering the Promised Land from the south chs. 1-10

The first 10 chapters in Numbers describe Israel’s preparation for entering the land.

". . . just as the way from Goshen to Sinai was a preparation of the chosen people for their reception into the covenant with God, so the way from Sinai to Canaan was also a preparation for the possession of the promised land." [Note: C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch, 3:1.]

1. The first census and the organization of the people chs. 1-4

"The two censuses (chs. 1-4, 26) are key to understanding the structure of the book. The first census (chs. 1-4) concerns the first generation of the Exodus community; the second census (ch. 26) focuses on the experiences of the second generation, the people for whom this book is primarily directed. The first generation of the redeemed were prepared for triumph but ended in disaster. The second generation has an opportunity for greatness-if only they will learn from the failures of their fathers and mothers the absolute necessity for robust faithfulness to the Lord despite all obstacles." [Note: Allen, p. 701.]

The muster of the tribes except Levi ch. 1

The purpose of this tally of the adult males 20 years of age and older was to identify those who would serve in battle when Israel entered the land (Numbers 1:3). [Note: See Gershon Brin, "The Formulae ’From . . . and Onward/Upward’ (m . . . whl’h/wmslh)," Journal of Biblical Literature 99:2 (1980):161-71.] Entrance into the land should have been only a few weeks from the taking of this census. Moses had taken another census nine months before this one (Exodus 30:11-16; Exodus 38:25-26), but the purpose of that count was to determine how many adult males owed atonement money. The census described in Numbers 1 excluded the Levites, all of whom God exempted from typical military service in Israel (Numbers 1:49-50).

The number of fighting men in each tribe counted was as follows.

Reuben46,500Ephraim40,500
Simeon59,300Manasseh32,200
Gad45,650Benjamin35,400
Judah74,600Dan62,700
Issachar54,400Asher41,500
Zebulun57,400Naphtali53,400

The total was 603,550 men (Numbers 1:46). Since each figure ends in zero it appears that Moses rounded off these numbers. God was already well on the way to making the patriarchs’ descendants innumerable (cf. Genesis 15:5). However, the large census numbers have posed a problem for thoughtful Bible students. How could so many people have survived in the desert for so long? Many scholars have tried to explain these very large numbers as much smaller. [Note: For a summary of the ways commentators have sought to explain the very large census numbers as smaller, see R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 631-64; Allen, pp. 680-91; Philip J. Budd, Numbers, pp. 6-9; Wenham, pp. 60-66; Timothy R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers, pp. 60-66; Merrill, "Numbers," in The Bible, . . ., p. 217; David M. Fouts, "A Defense of the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Large Numbers in the Old Testament," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40:3 (September 1997):377-87; idem, "The Incredible Numbers of the Hebrew Kings," in Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, pp. 283-99; idem, "The Use of Large Numbers in the Old Testament with Particular Emphasis on the Use of ’elep," (Th.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1992); K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, pp. 263-65; the note on 1:21 in the NET Bible.; and John W. Wenham, "The Large Numbers in the Old Testament," Tyndale Bulletin 18 (1967):19-53.] The problem involves the meaning of the Hebrew word eleph. This word has been translated "thousand," "unit," "clan," etc. in various contexts.

"In short, there is no obvious solution to the problems posed by these census figures." [Note: Idem, Numbers, p. 66.]

I believe we should take eleph in census contexts as thousands until further investigation clearly indicates that we should interpret it differently.

"It is in the context of developing a military organization for war that the Levites are assigned their tasks in relation to the tabernacle. In a sense, their military assignment is the care and transportation of the religious shrine. Numbers 1:49-53 clearly outlines the requirements for the militaristic protection of the tabernacle by the Levites." [Note: John R. Spencer, "The Tasks of the Levites: smr and sb’," Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wessenschaft 96:2 (1984):270.]

The total impression of Israel’s God that this chapter projects is that He is a God of order rather than chaos and confusion (cf. Genesis 1; 1 Corinthians 14:40).

The phrase "the Lord spoke to Moses" (Numbers 1:1) occurs over 80 times in the Book of Numbers. [Note: Walter Riggans, Numbers, p. 6.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 1". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/numbers-1.html. 2012.