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Bible Commentaries

Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible


- Numbers

by Arthur Peake




Numbers is the name given in the LXX to the fourth book of the Pentateuch, and is due to the prominent place occupied in it by the details of a twofold census of the Israelite people. But the contents of the book are very varied, and embrace, amongst other matters, laws and regulations attributed to Moses, an account of the forty years’ wanderings in the wilderness, and a description of the settlement of part of the people on the E. of Jordan; so that some adaptation of the usual Hebrew title Bemidbar, “ In the wilderness (of Sinai),” taken from an expression used in Numbers 1:1, would be more appropriate. The period of time included extends from the first day of the second month in the second year after the Exodus ( Numbers 1:1) to an undefined date between the first day of the fifth month and the first day of the eleventh month in the fortieth year ( Numbers 33:38, Deuteronomy 1:3). But of the greater part of this period scarcely anything is recorded, the principal events related being confined within nineteen days ( Numbers 1:1 compared with Numbers 10:11) at the beginning of it; and six months ( Numbers 33:38 compared with Deuteronomy 1:3) at the end. The scene of the history is partly the wilderness of Sinai, partly the wilderness of Paran (N. of Sinai, but W. of the Arabah), and partly the plains (or steppes) of Moab (lying E. of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, and the Jordan).

The book has been compiled from the three post-Mosaic sources symbolised by J, E (united as JE), and P (pp. 124– 130). Incidental indications of its post-Mosaic date are Numbers 12:3 ( the man Moses was very meek), Numbers 15:32 ( while the children of Israel were in the wilderness), and Numbers 22:1 ( in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan) . The sections derived from JE comprise, besides other narratives, those relating to Hobab, the seventy elders, the quails, the dissension of Aaron and Miriam with Moses, the espial of Canaan, the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram, the unfriendliness of Edom, the fiery serpents, the conquest of Sihon, and the episode of Balak and Balaam. Since JE was probably composed 400 or 500 years after the events recorded by it in this book, the value of the record depends upon the worth of the materials which the writers of it used and upon the judgment with which they handled them. But at the time when they wrote, historical materials for the period covered by Nu. were neither good nor abundant, and a science of history had not yet been developed. Historical data of some sort were doubtless available in collections of poems and ballads, like “ the book of the wars of Yahweh,” which is quoted in Numbers 21:14 f. and which may have preserved, amongst others, the songs celebrating Israel’ s efforts to establish itself in the S. or the E. of Palestine; and there must have been numerous traditions associated with persons and places (see Numbers 11:3; Numbers 11:34, Numbers 20:13, Numbers 21:3). But Jewish historians were more interested in the religious lessons which the past could be made to convey than in the ascertainment of the circumstantial truth about it; and the traditions upon which they were largely dependent were fluctuating (the same incidents being often attached to different personages, and different incidents being recounted to explain the same place-names). Accordingly it is impossible to repose confidence in all parts of JE’ s history contained in Nu., or to feel sure that any of the details recorded in it occurred exactly as related. The second source, symbolised by P, is mainly concerned with the numbers of the people, the arrangement of the camp. and legal provisions; but it includes a certain amount of narrative, giving an alternative version of the spies, and recording the rebellion of Korah, the death of Aaron, and the relations of Israel with the Midianites To it also belongs the chronological scheme which runs through the book as a whole. The composition of P was separated from the time of Moses by about 800 years; and its historical value is even less than that of JE. The interests of its author were mainly centred in ecclesiastical institutions, the antiquity of which he desired to magnify; and by an imaginative treatment of history (as shown by a comparison of many of his statements with the contents of the historical books from Judges to Kings) he sought to invest with Mosaic authority certain ordinances which he wished to expound or to emphasize. Nevertheless, though P has little or no worth as an account of conditions existing in Mosaic times, it is valuable for the illustrations that it affords of the religious ideas which were current in the fifth century B.C.

But while Nu. as an account of the Israelite people between their sojourn in Egypt and their conquest of Canaan presents many improbabilities, and whilst even the most plausible details can pass as history only in the absence of anything more trustworthy, the general representation that Israel, after an abortive attempt to invade Canaan from the south, pursued for a generation or more a nomadic life in the desert, and finally, for the most part, entered Canaan from the east, after a circuitous route round Edom, is, no doubt, true to fact. Moreover the book is of considerable interest owing to the light which it throws not only on the importance of Moses in the development of Israel’ s nationality and religion, but also on the primitive ideas which must once have lain at the back of a good deal of Hebrew religious usage. Thus, though much of the legislation ascribed to Moses in Nu. is manifestly of later origin than his age, yet the book, in common with Ex., Lev., and Dt., witnesses to Israel’ s belief that a commanding personality guided its fortunes at a formative period in its past, and gave a direction to its religious beliefs from which afterwards it never permanently diverged. And embedded in the ritual of later times with which the book is filled, there are numerous survivals of a rudimentary stage of thought illustrative of the rude level from which the Hebrew religion was raised by successive spiritual leaders. There are rites which point to a magical conception of religious practices. There are crude identifications of the Deity with His symbol the Ark. There are materialistic ideas of “ sanctity” and of “ spirit.” Yet whilst the contents of Nu. are chiefly of antiquarian value, nevertheless this is not the sole aspect of them. In the account given of Moses, traits of character are depicted that are of permanent religious worth. His faithfulness to his God, and his self-devotion to the interests of his wayward and intractable countrymen, afford examples of conduct which can never become antiquated. And even the sensuous notions of the Divine holiness which pervade so many of the ritual regulations prescribed are at least suggestive of something higher and more spiritual. The measures enjoined for protecting the sanctity of the emblems of Yahweh’ s presence were designed to inspire reverence for the transcendent purity of the Divine nature and to instil into His worshippers a conviction of the Divine separateness from everything unclean and polluting.

The book is most appropriately divided as follows :

( a) Numbers 11:1 to Numbers 10:10, dealing exclusively with legislation enacted at Sinai.

( b) Numbers 10:11 to Numbers 20:13, embracing occurrences and legislation falling between the departure from Sinai and the final advance towards Canaan.

( c) Numbers 20:14 to Numbers 36:13, relating events connected with the occupation of eastern Canaan.

Literature. Commentaries: ( a) Espin (Sp.), McNeile (CB), Kennedy (Cent.B); ( b) Gray (ICC), Paterson (SBOT Heb.); ( c) Dillmann (KEH), Holzinger (KHC), Baentsch (HK); ( d) Watson (Ex.B). Other Literature: Articles in HDB and EBi.; Addis, Documents of the Hexateuch; Bacon, Triple Tradition of the Exodus; Carpenter and Harford-Battersby, Hexateuch; Colenso. Pentateuch and Joshua critically examined; W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semites 2 ; Frazer, Golden Bough; Tylor, Primitive Culture; Stanley, Sinai and Palestine; G. A. Smith, Historical Geography of the Holy Land,