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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 34

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-29


Numbers 33:1-56; Numbers 34:1-29

1. THE itinerary of Numbers 33:1-49 is one of the passages definitely ascribed to Moses. It opens with the departure from Rameses in Egypt on the morrow after the passover, when the children of Israel "went out with a high hand in the sight of all the Egyptians." The exodus is made singularly impressive in this narrative by the addition that it took place "while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, which the Lord had smitten among them." The Divine salvation of Israel begins when the dark shadow of loss and judgment rests on their oppressors. The gods of Egypt are discredited by the triumph of Jehovah’s people. They can neither save their own worshippers nor prevent the servants of another from obtaining liberty.

From Rameses, the place of departure, to Abel-shittim, in the plains of Moab, forty-two stations in all are given at which the Israelites pitched. Of these about twenty-four are named either in Exodus, in other parts of the Book of Numbers, or in Deuteronomy. Some eighteen, therefore, are mentioned in this passage and nowhere else. Of the whole number, comparatively few have as yet been identified. The Egyptian localities, at least Rameses and Succoth, are known. With the exit from Egypt, at the crossing of the Red Sea difficulty begins. Our passage says that the Israelites went three days’ journey into the wilderness of Etham; Exodus calls it the wilderness of Shur. Then Marah and Elim bring the travellers, according to chapter 33, to the Red Sea, the Yam S’uph. Ordinarily, this is supposed to be the Gulf of Suez, alongside which the route would have lain from the day it was crossed. There are, however, the best reasons for believing that this "Red Sea" is the eastern gulf, the Elanitic, as it must be Numbers 14:25, where, after the evil report of the spies, the Divine command is given: "Tomorrow turn ye, and get you into the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea." From this identification of the Yam Suph many things follow. And one is the rejection of the ordinary opinion regarding the position of Sinai. The mountain of the law-giving is always described as situated in Midian. Now, Midian is beyond Elath, on the eastern side of the Yam Suph, not in the peninsula between the Gulfs of Suez and Akabah. Elim and Elath, or Eloth, appear to be names for the same place, at the head of the Gulf of Akabah. We have therefore to look for Sinai either among the southern hills of Seir or those lying more southward still, towards the desert. In Deborah’s song (Judges 5:4-5) occur the following verses:

"Lord, when Thou wentest out of Seir, When Thou marchedst out of the field of Edom, The earth trembled, the heavens also dropped, Yea, the clouds dropped water; The mountains flowed down at the presence of the Lord, Even yon Sinai at the presence of the Lord. the God of Israel."

In the same direction the "Prayer of Habbakkuk" points: {Habakkuk 3:3; Habakkuk 3:7}

"God came from Teman, And the Holy One from Mount Paran. His glory covered the heavens, And the earth was full of His light… I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction, The curtains of the land of Midian did tremble."

The tradition which places Sinai in the south of the peninsula between the two gulfs "is of later origin than the lifetime of St. Paul, and can claim no higher authority than the interested fancies of ignorant cenobites. It throws into confusion both the geography and the history of the Pentateuch, and contradicts the definite statements of the Old Testament." So the most recent inquiry.

If Mount Sinai was somewhere to the south of Edom, the journey thence to Kadesh by way of Kibroth-hattaavah and Hazeroth, localities mentioned both in Numbers 11:11 ; Numbers 11:33, may have had other stations; and these may be named in Numbers 33:19 of our passage and onward. But identification of the places is exceedingly doubtful till we come to Ezion-geber, in the Arabah, and Mount Hor. Deuteronomy 10:1-22 places the scene of Aaron’s death at Mosera, which seems to be the same as Moseroth, and is there given along with other stations named in the itinerary-Bene-jaakan, Gudgodah (Hor-haggidgad), Jot-bathah. And this seems to prove that these localities were in or near the Arabah, Moseroth being in the region of Mount Hor. But where Kadesh is to be found between Rithmah and Moseroth, and under what name, it is impossible to say. Keil argues for Rithmah itself. Palmer reckons twenty stations to the first arrival at Kadesh. His map, however, shows a Mount Sheraif, which may be the same as Shepher, not far from Gadis, which he identifies with Kadesh. For the rest we are left in great ignorance, relieved only by this, that at the most there are but eighteen stations given, more probably thirteen, for the whole thirty-seven years between the first arrival at Kadesh and the death of Aaron at Mount Hor; and five or six of these were on the Arabah. During the whole of that long period there were only a few removals of the tabernacle, and those apparently within a limited area near Kadesh.

A list of names with only three historical notes appears a singular memorial of the forty years. Time was, no doubt, when the places named were all well known, and any Israelite desiring to satisfy himself as to the route by which his forefathers went could make it out by help of this passage. To us the interest of the subject is partly the same as that which might have been found by a Hebrew, say, of the time of Hezekiah, for whom the verification of the wilderness journey might be a help to faith. But the impossibility of identifying the localities shows that there are matters in the history of Israel which are of no particular importance now. There is more danger in seeking to gratify mere curiosity, than profit in any possible discoveries. Why should not the mountain of the law-giving be hid in the shadows as well as the grave in which Moses was laid? Why should not the places at which Israel encamped be to us mere names, since, if we could identify them, it might only be to add fresh difficulties instead of clearing away those that exist? The Israelites who entered Canaan had not seen all the way by which Jehovah led His people. When they crossed the Jordan, present duty was to engage them, not the mere names that belonged to the past. They were to forget the things behind, and stretch forward to the things which were before. And duty is the same still. Our backward glance, especially on the actual path from one spot of earth to another by which men have gone in trial and anticipation, must not hinder the efforts called for by the circumstances of our own time. The way of the desert, especially, may well lie half obliterated in the distance, since we know the spiritual fruit of the dealings of God with Israel, and can bear it with us as we follow our own road.

The ideas of change and urgency are in our passage. The wilderness journey was taken by a people on whom Divine influences had laid hold, who of themselves would have remained content in Egypt, but were not suffered, because God had some greater thing in store for them. The urgency throughout was His. And so is that which we ourselves feel hurrying us from change to change, from place to place. We may not be in the wilderness, but in a spot of shelter and comfort; and it may be no house of bondage, but a vantage-ground for generous effort. Even when we are thus happily settled, as we imagine, the call comes, and we must strike our tents. At other times our own anxiety anticipates the command. But we know that always, whether we pass into sterner conditions of life or escape to more pleasant circumstances, the times and changes that happen to us are of God’s appointing, that His providence urges us toward a goal. And this means that our reaching the goal must be by His way, although properly we endeavour to find it for ourselves.

The number of the stations at which Israel encamped in the course of forty years can scarcely be taken as representing the number of changes from dwelling to dwelling any pilgrim through this world shall have to make. But if we think of halting-places and movements of thought, we shall have a fruitful parallel. From the twentieth to the sixtieth year-may we not say?-is the time of journeying that takes the mind from its first freedom to comparative rest. Not far on the Divine law-giving impresses itself on the conscience; and hence a direct road may appear to lead into the peace of obedience. But the stations successively reached, Kibroth-hattaavah, Hazeroth, Rithmah, and the rest, represent each a peculiar difficulty encountered, a barrier to our steady progress towards the settled mind. St. Paul indicates one he found when he says: "I had not known coveting, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet." Another halt is imposed when it is found that the law appears to forbid what is according to nature; still another when obedience requires separation from those who have been valued friends and pleasant companions. These hindrances left behind as the soul, still confiding and hopeful, is urged on towards the goal, a great trial like that of Kadesh follows. We are not far from the frontier of promise; and anticipations are formed of many delights for heart and life. Is not obedience to bring felicity, an easy salvation from doubt and fear? But it becomes plain that there are enemies to faith and peace beyond the border as well as in the region already crossed. Complete conformity to the Divine will has not been achieved. Will it ever be achieved? We begin to doubt the result of law-keeping. There is perhaps a backward look to Sinai, implying a question whether God spoke there, or beyond Sinai, to the old traditional way of life. And so another term of difficult inquiry begins.

In this way many find themselves held for a long period of middle life. Their minds move from one point to another without seeming to make any progress. But neither does rest come. It is seen that partial obedience, a measure of nearness to the perfection once dreamed of, will not suffice. Then arises the question whether obedience can ever save. There is return almost to Sinai itself, at least to a place from which its peak is seen and the mind is confirmed as to the inexorability of law. So the urgency of the Divine will is felt, and the way is fixed. If the soul would make its own way into peace, it is driven back. For, perhaps, it would have the difficulty solved by taking the way of a Church, accepting a creed-as Israel would have passed through the territory of Edom. This also is forbidden. Trusted helpers fall by the way, as Aaron died at Hor, and there is sorrowful delay. But movement is enforced; and, finally, it is by a road that reveals Sinai and the law in quite another aspect, showing vital faith, not mere obedience, to be the means of salvation, our progress is made. Round the borders of Edom, not by trust in creed or Church, but by confidence in God Himself, the soul must advance. Then strength comes. Point after point is reached and passed. Self-righteousness, pride, and Phatisaism-Amorites of the mountain land-are overcome. At length through the faith of Christ peace is found, the peace that is possible on this side of the river.

It is our high privilege to be urged and led on thus by Him who knows the way we should take, who tries us that we may come forth purified as gold. Without Divine pressure we should content ourselves in the desert and never see the real good of life. So many lose themselves because they will not admit that to be of the truth is necessary to salvation. There is a way of thinking, or rather refusing to think, of spiritual verities which keeps the soul unaware of the purpose God would carry into effect, or indifferent to it. The mind refuses its duty; and in the midway of life the spiritual goal fades from view. To guard against this taking place in the case of any one is the office of the Gospel ministry. If evangelical preaching does not keep thought awake and attentive to Divine inspirations, if it does not speak to those who are in every stage of perplexity, at every possible camping-ground, it fails of its high purpose.

2. Commandment is given that when the Israelites pass over Jordan they shall use effectual means for establishing themselves as the people of Jehovah in Canaan. They are, for one thing, to drive out before them all the inhabitants of the land. Nothing is here said of putting them all to the sword; only they are not to be left even in partial occupation. The plan of Israel’s settlement in its new territory requires that it shall be subject to no alien influence, and shall have the field entirely to itself for the development of customs, civilisation, and religion. And in this there is nothing either impossible or, as the ideas of the time went, strange and cruel. We do not need to take refuge in the command of God and defend it by saying that He had absolute right over the lives of the Canaanites. The tides of war and population were continually flowing and receding. When the Israelites reached Canaan, they had the same right as others to occupy it, provided they could make their right good at the point of the sword. Yet for their own special consciousness the command given by Moses in Jehovah’s name was most important. It was only as His people they were to advance, and as His people they were to dwell separate in Canaan.

To drive out all the inhabitants of the land was, however, a difficult task; and even Moses might not intend the order to be literally obeyed. We have seen that he did not require the destruction of the Midianites to be absolute. In the wars of conquest in Canaan cases of a similar kind would necessarily arise. When a tribe was driven out of its cities many would be left behind, some of whom would conceal themselves and gradually venture from their hiding-places. The command was general, and could scarcely be supposed to require the putting to death of all children. And again, as we know, there were fortresses which for a long time defied attempts to reduce them. The Israelites were not so faithful to God that Moses could expect their success to be insured by supernatural aid. It is the constant purpose they are to have in view, to sweep the land clear of those presently in occupation. As they establish themselves, this will be carried out; and if they fail, allowing any of the tribes to remain, these will be as pricks in their eyes and as thorns in their sides:

The will of God that Israel, called to special duty in the world, was to keep itself separate, is here strongly emphasised. It was the only way by which faith could be preserved and made fruitful. For the Canaanites, already civilised and in many of the arts superior to the Hebrews, had gross polytheistic beliefs imbedded in their customs, and a somewhat elaborate cultus which was observed throughout the whole land. "Figured stones," which by their shape or incised emblems conveyed religious ideas; molten images, probably of bronze, like those found at Tel el Hesy, which were for household use, or of a larger size for tribal adoration; "high places" crowned by altars and sacrificial stones, were especially to be destroyed. The tendency to polytheism required to be carefully guarded against, for the gods of Canaan represented the powers of nature, and their rites celebrated the fruitfulness of earth under the lordship of Baal or Bel, and the mysterious processes of life associated with the influence of Astarte, the moon. The divinities of Egypt also appear to have had their worshippers; and, indeed, the mixed population of the land had drawn from every neighbouring region symbols, rites, and practices supposed to propitiate the unseen powers on whose favour human life must depend. Israel could prosper only by rejecting and extirpating this idolatry. Allowed to survive in any degree, it would be the cause of physical suffering and spiritual decay.

The command thus ascribed to Moses was again one which he must have known the Israelites would find difficult to carry out, even if they were cordially disposed to obey it. The sacred places of a country like Canaan tend to retain their reputation even when the rites fall into disuse; and however expeditiously the work of sweeping away the original inhabitants might be done, there was no small danger that knowledge of the cult as well as veneration for the high places would be learned by the Hebrews. The command was made clear and uncompromising so that every Israelite might know his duty; but the difficulty and the peril remained. And as we know from the Book of Judges and subsequent history, the law, especially in regard to the demolition of high places, became practically a dead letter. Jehovah was worshipped at the ancient places of sacrifice; and so far were even pious Israelites of the next few centuries from thinking they did wrong in using those old altars, that Samuel fell in with the custom. It was true in regard to this commandment as it is with regard to many others, -the high mark of duty is presented, but few aim at it. Expediency rules, the possible is made to suffice instead of the ideal. There is reason to believe, not only that the images and stone symbols of Canaan were venerated, but that Jehovah Himself was worshipped by many of the Hebrews under the form of some animal. And the Canaanites became to those who fraternised with them as pricks in their eyes. Spiritual vision failed; faith fell back on the coarse emblems used by the old inhabitants of the land. Then the vigour of the tribes decayed and they were judged and punished.

3. The boundaries of the land in which the Israelites were to dwell are laid down in chapter 34; but, as elsewhere, there is difficulty in following the geography and identifying the old names. The south quarter is to be "from the wilderness of Zin along by the side of Edom"-that is to say, it is to include the region of Zin near Kadesh and extend to the mountains of Seir. The "ascent of Akrabbim" is apparently the Ghor rising southwards from the Dead Sea. The line then runs along the Arabah for some distance, say fifty miles, across by the south of the Azazimeh hills and of Kadesh Barnea towards the stream called the river or brook of Egypt, which it followed to its debouchment in the Mediterranean. The western boundary was the Mediterranean or Great Sea for a distance of perhaps one hundred and sixty miles. The northern boundary is exceedingly obscure. They were to keep in view a "mount Hor" as a landmark; but no two geographers can be said to agree where it was. The "entering in of Hamath" is also a locality greatly disputed. Most likely it was some well-known part of the road leading along the Leontes valley to that of the Orontes. If we take the mount Hor here indicated to be Hermon, a line running west and striking the Mediterranean somewhere north of Tyre would be a natural boundary, and would correspond fairly with the actual partition and occupation of the country. It is certain, however, that both the Philistines and Phoenicians, especially the latter, were so strongly established in the southern and northern parts of the seaboard that any attempt to dispossess them was soon discovered to be futile. And even in the limited central range from Kedesh Naphtali to Beersheba the settlement was only effected gradually.

The Canaan of the Divine promise marked out, yet never fully possessed, is a symbol of the region of this life which those who believe in God have assigned to them, but never entirely enjoy. There are boundaries within which there is abundant room for the development of the life of faith. It is not, as the world reckons, a district of great resources. As Canaan had neither gold nor silver, neither coal nor iron mines, as its seaboard was not well supplied with harbours, nor its rivers and lakes of great use for inland navigation, so we may say the life open to the Christian has its limitations and disabilities. It does not invite those who seek pleasure, wealth, or dazzling exploits. Within it, discipline is to be found rather than enjoyment of earthly good. The "milk and honey" of this land are spiritual symbols, Divine sacraments. There is room for the development of life in every branch of study and culture, but in subordination to the glory of God, and for the testimony that should be borne to His majesty and truth.

Many of us affect to despise so narrow a range of thought and endeavour, and persist in believing that something more than discipline may be looked for in this world. Is there not a proper kingdom of humanity better than any kingdom of Cod? May not the race of men, apart from any service paid to an Unseen God, attain dignity of its own, power, gladness, magnificence? It is supposed that by rejecting all the limitations of religion and refusing the outlook to another life the united labour of men will make this life free and this earth a paradise. But it remains true that men must limit their hopes with regard to their own future here as individuals and the future of the race. We must accept the boundaries God has fixed, on one side the swift Jordan, on the other the Great Sea. There are seemingly rich fields beyond, wide regions that invite the tastes and senses, but these are no part of the soul’s inheritance; to explore and reduce them would bring no real gain.

The range that lies open to us as servants of God, and affords ample space for the discipline of life, is often not used and therefore not enjoyed. When people will not accept the inevitable fixed limits within which their time and vigour can be occupied to the best advantage, when they look covetously to districts of experience not meant for them, as Israel did at certain periods of her history, their life is spoiled. Discontent begins, envy follows. Where in seeking and reaching moral gains, purity, courage, love, there would have been a continual sense of adequate result and encouraging prospect, there is now no gain, no pleasure. The appointed lot is despised, and all it can yield held in contempt. How many there are who, with a full river of Divine bounty on one side their life, and the great ocean of the Divine faithfulness ebbing and flowing on the other, with the pastures and olive-groves of the Word of God to nourish their soul, with access to His city and sanctuary, and an outlook from summits like Tabor and Hermon to a transfigured life in the new heavens and earth, speak nevertheless with scorn and bitterness of their heritage! They might be reaching "the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ," but they remain graceless and discontented to the end. Israel, understanding its destiny and using its opportunities aright, might well say-and so may every one who knows the truth as it is in Jesus Christ-"the lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage." But this gladness of heart has its root in believing content. The restricted land is full of God’s promise: "Thou maintainest my lot." The security of Jehovah’s word encompasses the man of faith.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Numbers 34". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/numbers-34.html.
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