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Bible Commentaries

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged

Numbers 1

Verse 1

And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying,

On the first day ... Thirteen months had elapsed since the exodus. About one month had been occupied in the journey; and the rest of the period had been passed in encampment among the recesses of Sinai, where the transactions took place, and the laws, religious and civil, were promulgated, which are contained in the two preceding books. Since the tabernacle was erected on the first day of the first month, and the order here mentioned was given on the first day of the second, some think the laws in Leviticus were all given in one month.

The Israelites having been formed into a separate nation, under the special government of God as their King, it was necessary, before resuming their march toward the promised land, to put them into good order. And accordingly Moses was commissioned, along with Aaron, to take a census of the people. This census was incidentally noticed (see the note at Exodus 38:26, where different theories of explaining the exact agreement in numbers between the poll-tax registration and the military census are noticed) in reference to the poll-tax for the works of the tabernacle; but it is here described in detail, in order to show the relative increase and military strength of the different tribes.

After their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls. The people of Israel were arranged into three great graduated bodies [ maTowt (H4294), or shibaTiym (H7626), tribes; mishpaachowt (H4940), families; and beeyt (H1004) 'abowt (H1), house of fathers]. In accordance with this organic division the census in the wilderness was taken; and as the people were registered individually by name, an exact muster-roll was formed, and, as appears from one recorded incident (Joshua 7:16-26), was systematically kept of the whole nation under the heads of thousands, hundreds, tens, and units, corresponding with the respective tribes, families, households, and individuals composing it. Rulers were appointed over these several sections of the people, having jurisdiction within their own sphere, while the highest of these acted as assistants of Moses and Aaron in the furtherance of measures that affected the general interest (Numbers 27:2; Deuteronomy 29:10).

Verse 2

Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls;

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 3

From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: thou and Aaron shall number them by their armies.

From twenty years old and upward. The enumeration was confined to those capable of bearing arms, and it was to be made with a careful distinction of the tribe, family, and household to which every individual belonged. By this rule of summation many important advantages were secured-an exact genealogical register was formed-the relative strength of each tribe was ascertained, and the reason found for arranging the order of precedence in march, as well as disposing the different tribes in camp around the tabernacle. The promise of God to Abraham was seen to be fulfilled in the extraordinary increase of his posterity, and provision made for tracing the regular descent of the Messiah.

By their armies - or companies.

Verse 4

And with you there shall be a man of every tribe; every one head of the house of his fathers.

With you there shall be a man ... - (see the note at Numbers 1:2.) The social condition of the Israelites in the wilderness bore a close resemblance to that of the nomad tribes of the East in the present day. The head of the tribe was a hereditary dignity, vested in the oldest son, or some other to whom the right of primogeniture was transferred, and under whom were other inferior heads, also hereditary, among the different branches of the tribe. The Israelites being divided into twelve tribes, there were twelve chiefs appointed to assist in taking the census of the people.

Verse 5

And these are the names of the men that shall stand with you: of the tribe of Reuben; Elizur the son of Shedeur.

These are the names ... Each is designated by adding the name of the ancestors of his tribe, the people of which were called (Numbers 1:20; Numbers 1:22, etc.) "Beni-Reuben, Beni-Simeon," sons of Reuben, sons of Simeon, according to the custom of the Arabs still, as well as other nations which are divided into clans, as the Macs of Scotland, the Aps of Wales, and the O's and Fitz's of Ireland (Chalmers). The tribe of Joseph, consisting of two divisions, furnished two numerators. The tribe of Levi, being exempted from military service, was not represented on this occasion, though afterward when numbered for a different purpose, the princes of Levi are mentioned (Numbers 3:24; Numbers 3:30; Numbers 3:35).

Verses 6-15

Of Simeon; Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai.

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verses 16-18

These were the renowned of the congregation, princes of the tribes of their fathers, heads of thousands in Israel.

These were the renowned, [ qªriy'eey (H7148) haa`eedah (H5712)] - the called of the congregation [Septuagint, epikleetoi], deputies who represented the people according to the order described above-for that is the proper meaning of haa`eedah, rendered "the congregation" (cf. Numbers 16:2; Numbers 16:2).

Heads of thousands in Israel - heads = princes. The two words are synonymous. The "thousands of Israel" is a phrase for the whole multitude of the people, arising out of that decimal arrangement both of tribes and armies which from time immemorial has obtained in Oriental countries, and in accordance with which the Hebrew princes are in several passages designated "heads of the thousands of Israel" (cf. Numbers 10:4; Joshua 22:21; Joshua 22:30). The very day the order was given, it was executed. It is obvious that not only the taking of this census must have been immensely facilitated by the convenient subdivision of the people into various orders, but that the art of writing must have been familiarly and extensively diffused ere such a register could have been made and kept. The Israelites must have become well acquainted with the practice of registry in Egypt, where it was carefully attended to.

Verse 19

As the LORD commanded Moses, so he numbered them in the wilderness of Sinai.

As the Lord commanded ... The numbering of the people was not an act sinful in itself, as Moses did it by divine appointment; but David incurred guilt by doing it without the authority of God (see the note at 2 Sam divine appointment; but David incurred guilt by doing it without the authority of God (see the note at 2 Samuel 24:10).

Verses 20-44

And the children of Reuben, Israel's eldest son, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war;

Those that were numbered. In this registration the tribe of Judah appears the most numerous; and accordingly, as the pre-eminence had been assigned to it by Jacob, it got the precedence in all the encampments of Israel. Of the two half tribes of Joseph, who is seen to be "a fruitful bough," that of Ephraim was the larger, as had been predicted. The relative increase of all, as in the two just mentioned, was owing to the special blessing of God, conformably to the prophetic declaration of the dying patriarch. But the divine blessing is usually conveyed through the influence of secondary causes; and there is reason to believe that the relative populousness of the tribes in later times would, under God, depend upon the productiveness of the respective localities assigned to them. But at this early period another physical cause must be taken into account (see the note at Numbers 1:46).

Verses 45-46

So were all those that were numbered of the children of Israel, by the house of their fathers, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war in Israel;

Six hundred thousand ... What an astonishing increase! And yet this enumeration was restricted to men from 20 years old and upward. Including women, children, and old men, together with the Levites, the whole population of Israel, on the ordinary principles of computation, amounted to about 2,400,000. According to a calculation made on the basis of this census, which gave this extraordinary result of 603,550 men capable of bearing arms, each married man among the Israelites must have had a family of forty-two children. But if the Israelites had confined themselves each to single wife, such a high figure is inexplicable. It became possible only by admitting that among the Hebrews polygamy was tolerated and extensively practiced (Michaelis, 'Comment.,' part 2:, sec. 94). This opinion of Michaelis has been objected to, as founded on too high an average; and a better solution of the difficulty is by assuming that during the four generations in Egypt there would be many descents of children, as Joshua was the seventh. Proceeding on this hypothesis, Birks and Benisch calculate, that to make the recorded number of the Israelites at the exodus would require only that each family should, on an average, consist of eight children-boys and girls.

Verses 47-54

But the Levites after the tribe of their fathers were not numbered among them.

But the Levites ... were not numbered. They were obliged to keep a register of their own. They were consecrated to the priestly office, which in all countries has been exempted customarily, and in Israel by the express authority of God, from military service. The custody of the things devoted, to the divine service was assigned to them so exclusively that 'no stranger' - i:e., no person, not even an Israelite of any other tribe-was allowed, under penalty of death, to approach these; and hence, they encamped around the tabernacle, that there should be no manifestation of the divine displeasure among the people. Thus, the numbering of the people was subservient to the separation of the Levites from those Israelites who were fit for military service, and to the practical introduction of the law respecting the first-born, for whom the tribe of Levi became a substitute.

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Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Numbers 1". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jfu/numbers-1.html. 1871-8.