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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Numbers 1

Verse 1

(1) In the tabernacle of the congregation.—The tabernacle of the congregation, or tent of meeting, so called because it was there that God met with Moses (Numbers 17:4; Exodus 25:22), had been set up one month previously (Exodus 40:17), nearly a year after the exodus.

Verse 2

(2) After their families.—The family or clan, mishpahah, included several fathers’ houses (see Kurtz’s Hist. of the Old Covenant, 2, pp. 8-10).

With the number of their names.—Better, according to the number of names. The reference is probably to the previous numbering recorded in Exodus 30:12. There is no corresponding clause in the account of the later numbering in Numbers 26:2.

By their polls—i.e., man by man. The word gulgoleth denotes a man’s head, or skull. Cf. Matthew 27:33.

Verse 3

(3) From twenty years old and upward.—The result of the previous numbering (Exodus 30:12; Exodus 38:26), which was made about six months earlier, and which was probably obtained by counting the number of half-shekels which were paid, as Ithamar appears to have done (Exodus 38:2), exactly corresponds with the result of the present census (Numbers 1:46). But the complete census, or numbering and enrolment of the persons according to tribes, families, and fathers’ houses, appears to have been deferred until after the erection of the tabernacle, towards the construction of which the atonement money had been paid. If the whole was done in obedience to the command contained in Exodus 30:12, and was regarded as one transaction, those only would be numbered on the second occasion who had already paid their atonement money. There is nothing impossible in the supposition that the whole of those who had been numbered six months previously were still alive, but no allowance is made, on this supposition, for the number of those who were below twenty years of age at the earlier period, and who had exceeded that age at the later period. Inasmuch, however, as the sum-total in both cases is divisible by ten, and inasmuch as the separate items in this chapter are given in tens (the smallest subdivision of the people which was adopted by Moses, on the recommendation of Jethro, Exodus 18:21), no objection to the historical accuracy of both records can be sustained if it be allowed that the number of those who had attained the age of twenty years since the earlier census corresponded nearly with the number of deaths during the same period. The whole of the objection, however, is removed in a far more satisfactory manner by the supposition that there was only one census. (See the Introduction.)

By their armies.—Better, their hosts or companies.

Verse 4

(4) Of every tribe.—Or, for every tribe.

Every one head . . . —The words may be rendered every one a head . . . There were many heads of fathers’ houses in each tribe; but it appears from Numbers 1:16 (Numbers 7:10-11) that in each case the tribal prince was selected to preside over the census.

Verse 5

(5) Of the tribe of Reuben.—Hebrew, for Reuben.

Verse 16

(16) The renowned of the congregation.—Lit., the called men of the congregation, i.e., the men chosen as representatives of their respective tribes, and appointed to act in that capacity in regulating the affairs of the nation.

Heads of thousands in Israel.—Better, they were the heads of the thousands of Israel. Comp. Exodus 18:21; Exodus 18:25, where rulers, or princes of thousands, are the highest class of officers recommended by Jethro, and appointed by Moses. See also Numbers 10:4.

Verse 18

(18) Declared their pedigrees.—More literally, announced themselves as having been born—i.e., caused themselves to be enrolled. The people appear to have been enrolled by their polls, i.e., individually, under three heads—(1) according to the tribe to which they belonged; (2) according to the mishpahah, or family, which, as it appears from Numbers 3:22, included in some cases two or three thousand persons; and (3) according to their father’s house. The importance of this enrolment, as affording the means of tracing the genealogy of Christ, must not be overlooked.

According to the number of the names.—The words are the same as in Numbers 1:2, and should be rendered in the same manner.

Verse 20

(20) By their generations.—The toledoth, or generations, included the whole of the descendants of the head of the tribe (Genesis 5:1; Genesis 6:9).

Verse 27

(27) Threescore and fourteen thousand and six hundred.—The superiority of Judah in point of numbers over all the other tribes deserves notice in connection with the blessing pronounced on that tribe by Jacob in Genesis 49:8 : “Thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise.” In like manner it should be observed that the number of the tribe of Ephraim (Numbers 1:33) exceeded that of the tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 1:35). (See Genesis 48:19-20.)

Verse 46

(46) Six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty.—It is obvious that the odd numbers were not reckoned. In Numbers 11:21 as in Exodus 12:37, the whole number is reckoned roughly at six hundred thousand.

Verse 48

(48) For the Lord had spoken . . . —Better, And the Lord spake . . . (Numbers 3:1; Numbers 3:5-6; Numbers 3:14-15). It is true that the Levites were not included in the earlier numbering, and consequently that they must have been exempted by divine direction. It does not appear, however, that there is a reference to any previous command respecting the Levites, or that the specific destination of the Levites had been previously declared.

Verse 50

(50) The tabernacle of testimony.—The testimony (sometimes described as the two tables of the testimony (Exodus 31:18; Exodus 34:29) denotes in the first instance the tables of the law which were directed to be placed in the ark (Exodus 25:16; Exodus 25:21). Hence the ark is described as the ark of the testimony (Exodus 25:22; Exodus 26:33), and the tabernacle as the tabernacle of the testimony (Exodus 38:21), and the tent, including the outer covering of the mishkan, or wooden building, is called the tent of the testimony (Numbers 9:15). Also the veil which separated the holy place from the most holy is called the veil of the testimony (Leviticus 24:3).

And shall encamp round about the tabernacle.—The tent of meeting was like a royal palace, and the Levites served as a guard of honour round about it, to protect it from every sort of desecration.

Verse 51

(51) And the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.—The word zar (stranger) here denotes one who was not of the tribe of Levi (Leviticus 22:10; Leviticus 22:12).

Verse 52

(52) By his own standard.—It appears from Numbers 2:3; Numbers 2:10; Numbers 2:18; Numbers 2:25, that there were four standards—viz., those of Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan—corresponding to the four camps, each consisting of three tribes, which pitched round the tent of meeting.

Verse 53

(53) That there be no wrath upon the congregation of the children of Israel.—The word kezeph (wrath) is used to denote some immediate visitation of the hand of God, as, e.g., the plague. Thus, after the plague which broke out in consequence of the sin of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, we read in Numbers 18:5 “that there be no wrath (kezeph) any more upon the children of Israel.” In Numbers 8:19 the word negeph (plague) is used in the same sense as kezeph is used here. (Cf. Joshua 9:20; 2 Kings 3:27; 1 Chronicles 27:24.)

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Numbers 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/numbers-1.html. 1905.