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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

- Numbers

by Editor - Joseph Exell



The name of the book

Bunsen entitles it “The Munster-roll.” But the thought which gives unity to this book is very concrete and definite. Both to the book of prophetic legislation, or Exodus, and to Leviticus, the book of sacerdotal or cultus legislation, there is annexed the book of the kingly calling of Israel under its King Jehovah--the book which treats of the host of God, of the discipline of the army, of its typical march from Sinai to Canaan, from the Mount of God to the elementary conquest of the world under the standard of the Ark of the Covenant, and under the guidance of Jehovah; and because this march is typical, it is darkened and checked in many ways by the power of sin. Another designation, “The wandering towards Canaan,” is partly too indefinite, partly too narrow, because the wandering as a whole had already begun with the Exodus from Egypt. (J. P. Lange, D. D.)

The authorship of the book

Much which has been said upon the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch generally, applies with special force to the authorship of this book. One portion, viz., the catalogue of the stations or encampments (33) is expressly ascribed to Moses (verse 2). Some of the legislative enactments which are found only in this book, or which are recapitulated in Deuteronomy are expressly assigned to Moses in Joshua--

(1) the law that the Levites were to have no separate inheritance of land (Joshua 13:14; Joshua 13:33; Jos 14:3-4, cf. Numbers 18:20-24; Deuteronomy 10:9; Deuteronomy 14:27; Deuteronomy 18:1-2), but only cities to dwell in, with their suburbs taken out of the inheritance of the other tribes (Jos 21:2, cf. Numbers 35:1-4);

(2) the assignment by lot of the inheritance of the nine tribes and a half on the west of the Jordan, and of the two tribes and a half on the east of Jordan (Joshua 14:2-3; Jos 18:7, cf. Numbers 26:55; Numbers 32:33; Numbers 33:54; Numbers 34:13). The presumption thus afforded that this book was written by Moses, is confirmed by the numerous indications which it contains that it is the work of a contemporary writer, who lived in the desert, and who was familiar with the history, customs, and institutions of Egypt. The minuteness of the details respecting the order of the march through the wilderness, and the various incidents which occurred in the course of it, the remarkable manner in which the history and the legislation are interwoven, and more particularly the insertion of additional legislation arising out of the protracted wanderings in the desert (e.g., Numbers 19:14)

, point to the conclusion that the writer of the book was either an eye-witness of the scenes which he records, or a forger whoso skill has been unequalled in after ages. The topographical notices, again, testify to an acquaintance with the history of Egypt (e.g., Numbers 13:22)

, and also with that of the surrounding nations, previously to the entrance into Canaan (e.g., Numbers 21:13)

; whilst the allusions to Egyptian customs, products, and institutions, and also to particular incidents of Egyptian history, are such as cannot, with any great amount of probability, be ascribed to any writer between the days of Moses and those of Solomon (e.g., Numbers 11:5-7; Numbers 21:5-9; Numbers 33:4; Numbers 33:6-8)

. Again, the contrast between the general allusions to the topography of Canaan, such as might well have been obtained from traditional sources, or from the reports of the spies, as compared with the more minute descriptions given in Joshua, precisely corresponds with the recorded history of Moses. Thus, while in Joshua the boundaries of Canaan are expressed with great minuteness, in Numbers they are laid down in general terms (cf. Joshua 15:1-63 with Numbers 34:1-29.)

. It may be observed further, that the fact that the boundaries assigned to the promised land were never actually realised, even in the clays of David and Solomon, affords a strong argument in support of the belief that the books in which they arc described were not written at the late period to which they are assigned by some modern critics, in which case the original assignment would naturally have been made to accord with the actual extent of the kingdom. It must be observed, further, that the statistics of this book stop short of the death of Moses, and that the records of families are restricted to the Mosaic era Thus, e.g., we read of the promise given to Phinehas and to his seed after him of an everlasting priesthood (Numbers 25:13), and we find mention of the part which Phinehas took in one of the latest expeditions in which Moses was engaged (Numbers 31:6); but we must have recourse to the books of Chronicles and of Ezra 2:1-70 we desire to obtain information concerning his descendants. (C. J. Elliot, M. A.)

The chronology of the book.--

1. The narrative commences with “the first day of the second month of the second year after they were come out of Egypt” (Numbers 1:1); and the death of Aaron at the first encampment during the final march on Canaan (Numbers 20:2) took place in the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year (Numbers 33:38).

2. Between these two dates, therefore, intervene no less than 38 1/4 years (cf. Deuteronomy 2:14)

, the long and dreary period of tarrying in the wilderness till the disobedient generation had wasted away.

3. The solemn rehearsal of the law contained in Deuteronomy was commenced by Moses after the overthrow of Sihon and Og, in the beginning of the eleventh month of the fortieth year (Deuteronomy 1:3-4).

4. We have, consequently, from the death of Aaron to the opening of Deuteronomy a space of exactly six months, in which all the events narrated in the fourth part of this book (Numbers 20:1 to end) would seem to have occurred, with the probable exception of the defeat of the king of Arad.

5. Those events are many and remarkable. After the tedious years of suspense were once passed, the history of the chosen people hurries on, not without a sort of dramatic propriety, to a crisis. Crowded as this space is, it yet has room enough for the incidents here assigned to it.

6. The first month of the six was passed at the foot of Mount Her in mourning for Aaron (Numbers 20:29). But it is likely that during this month a part of the host was engaged in revenging upon the king of Arad the molestation inflicted by him on the Israelites during their journey from Kadesh to Mount Her.

7. Next ensued the journey “from Mount Her by the way of the Red Sea to compass the land of Edom” (Numbers 21:4); and this, being about two hundred and twenty miles to the brook Zered, would be accomplished within four weeks.

8. The appearance of the host in the plains of Moab brought them into the neighbourhood of Sihon, king of the Amorites. The policy pursued by him of resisting the progress of Israel with all his forces (Numbers 21:23) caused his overthrow to be speedy and total; as was also for like reasons that of Og, king of Bashan. The two battles at Jahaz and Edrei probably took place both within a fortnight; i.e., towards the middle of the third of the six months in question.

9. The issue of the conflict with the Amorite kings determined Balak to send for Balaam (Numbers 22:2). The distance from Moab to the nearest point of the Euphrates is about three hundred and fifty miles, and Pethor may have been yet more distant. But as Balak was urgent, and could of course command all facilities for travelling, two months would amply suffice for his ambassadors to go and return twice over; and for the delivery by Balaam of his prophecies (22-24). No doubt during these weeks the Israelites were engaged in completing and consolidating their conquest of Gilead and Bashan.

10. We have thus a margin of at least six weeks left, during which occurred the seduction of Israel by the wiles of the Midianites, and the consequent plague (25); the second numbering of the people in the plains of Moab (26); and the war upon the Midianites (27).

11. It is accordingly in full consistency that the death of Moses is spoken of (Numbers 31:2) in connection with the Midianitish war, and as following close upon it; and that Balaam after quitting Balak had not yet returned home when that war occurred, and was taken captive amongst the Midianites. (T. E. Espin D. D. , in Speak. Com.)


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