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Bible Commentaries

Peake's Commentary on the Bible

Numbers 1

Verses 1-46

Numbers 1:1-46 (from P, which is used uninterruptedly as far as Numbers 10:28). The Numbering of the Secular Tribes.— The date of this census is about eleven months after the arrival at Mt. Sinai ( Exodus 19:1), and exactly a month after the erection of the Tabernacle ( Exodus 40:17). The numbering, which was to proceed by families ( i.e. by clans) and by father s houses ( i.e. by families), was to embrace all men over twenty (who might be thought capable of bearing arms). In the undertaking, Moses and Aaron were to be assisted by a representative of each of the tribes. Since the method by which a large proportion of the names affixed to these representatives are formed is characteristic of a late date, the list is probably unhistorical. The total number, which is given as 603,550 (in round numbers 600,000, Numbers 11:21, Exodus 12:37 *). implies a population of both sexes and all ages of more than 2,000,000 (assuming that those capable of bearing arms formed one-fourth of the whole, cf. Cæ sar, Bell. Gall. i. 29). This, according to the data given elsewhere, represents the increase, in the third generation, of the twelve sons of Jacob who settled in Egypt (see Exodus 6:16-22, Numbers 16:1 (Levi), Exodus 6:14, Numbers 26:5-9 (Reuben)), and is beyond all belief. It is, of course, possible and even probable that the numbers of the Hebrew immigrants into Egypt were in excess of what is recorded; but the numbers of those that accompanied Moses into the wilderness at the Exodus cannot possibly have amounted to the sum here mentioned. A body of 2,000,000 persons is far beyond the capacity of the Sinaitic peninsula to support, for the country is largely desert (as described in Numbers 20:14 f., Deuteronomy 8:15, Jeremiah 2:6), broken only by occasional spots of verdure, where the soil is irrigated by springs; and its present population is calculated to be only 4000 or 6000. The incredibility of the figures in Nu. is increased by the fact that the Israelites are not regarded as dispersing over the country to seek pasture for their flocks, but as marching in a compact body, close enough together for their movements to be directed by signals conveyed by two trumpets ( Numbers 10:1-10). A camp comprising 2,000,000 persons would cover several square miles; and it has been reckoned that the same number on the march, if arranged 50 abreast, with a yard between each rank, would constitute a column 22 miles long. Elsewhere, the people are regarded as few in number ( Deuteronomy 7:22), as too weak to subdue all the Canaanites ( Judges 1:19; Judges 1:27-35), and as not numerous enough to occupy Canaan, even if vacant ( Exodus 23:28 f.); whilst the fighting men that could be furnished at a much later period by half the tribes are estimated at only 40,000 ( Judges 5:8). The total of 603,550 here given must be fictitious. It has been suggested that the figure 603 has been got from the sum of the numerals denoted by the Hebrew for the children of Israel, the 550 being arbitrary. The numbers assigned to the separate tribes seem to have been reached by dividing the total by 12, and then adding to, or deducting from, the quotient various figures at discretion. It is significant that of the 12 tribes six are above and six below 50,000.

2. names: i.e. individuals; cf. Acts 1:15, Revelation 3:4.

Numbers 1:16 . thousands: the term was used to denote tribal divisions of varying size; here it is equivalent to “ clans” or “ families” ( Numbers 1:4).

Numbers 1:44 . Read, “ and the princes of Israel were twelve men, each one for a tribe, every one head of his father’ s house.”

Numbers 1:47-54 . The Functions of the Tribe of Levi.— The omission of the Levites from the census was due to the circumstance that the Levites were a consecrated body, whose duty it was to surround the Tabernacle and so safeguard the secular tribes from incurring danger by coming in contact with so holy an object.

Numbers 1:48 . For Yahweh spake: in the Heb., “ And Yahweh spake.” The direction not to number the Levites ( Numbers 1:48-54) should logically precede the actual numbering of the other tribes ( Numbers 1:17-46).

Numbers 1:50 . the tabernacle of the testimony: Exodus 38:21; cf. Exodus 25:9 mg., Numbers 1:16.

Numbers 1:51 . stranger: i.e. any (including Israelites) who did not belong to the tribe of Levi; cf. Numbers 3:10.

Numbers 1:52 . by his own standard: better, “ by his own company” (see Numbers 2:2 *).

Numbers 1:53 . wrath: cf. Numbers 16:46 Numbers 18:5, Joshua 22:20.

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Bibliographical Information
Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on Numbers 1". "Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". 1919.