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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Numbers 1


EVENTS INTRODUCTORY TO LEAVING SINAI. Numbers 1:1 to Numbers 10:10. [Time, Twenty Days.]

The Census and the Levites.


(1.) The accordance of the result of this census with that taken in Exodus 38:25-26, is regarded by Colenso as a proof that the Pentateuch is “unhistorical.” But from the fact that the enumeration in this chapter was made on the same day that it was ordered, (Numbers 1:18,) we infer that a new census was not taken, but only a bringing together and tribal summation of the census already made only a few weeks before. Hence the second census was only a declaration of facts already ascertained. J.D. Michaelis argues that there was but one census, and that was taken at this time, and that “Moses did not hesitate, when recording the account of the tax, to insert what were afterwards found to be the actual numbers.” “We are shut up to this by the solemnity and formality with which the census in Numbers i was commanded, organized, and carried out.” The agreement is quite general among biblical scholars that there was but one census, some carrying its results forward to the muster, and others carrying them backward to the taxing.

(2.) Another proof that the Mosaic books are “unhistorical” is supposed to be found in the total of Israel shown by the census, which, on the ordinary principles of computation, must have been 2,400,000. But consider, first, That there is proof of a sojourn of 430 years in Egypt. See Exodus i, Concluding Notes. Secondly, It would seem very strange if Jacob, living in princely splendour like Abraham with his 318 servants, did not take a numerous retinue of dependents with him down into Egypt. These, by intermarriage and by concubinage and circumcision, may have been absorbed into Israel. Instead of 70 as the first multiplicand, there may have been a much larger number. Thirdly, Egypt was celebrated from antiquity for the fruitfulness of its inhabitants. Exodus 1:7, note. Fourthly, The Hebrews married young: Judah and Pharez at 18, and Beriah at 20. Benjamin at 32 had ten sons. Genesis 46:21. At 64, at the same rate of increase, he might have had 100 grandsons; at 96, 1,000 great grandsons; at 128, 10,000 great great grandsons. If he lived to be 160 his male descendants might have been 100,000, and at 192 they would have reached 1,000,000. Fifthly, Even in the shorter period of 215 years there is space for eight or nine generations. There is no need of limiting all of them to four. “Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation; the children also of Machir, the son of Manasseh, were brought up upon Joseph’s knees.” Genesis 50:23. Joseph was about 34 years old when his sons were born, (Genesis 41:46-50,) and he died at 110. Hence, in this instance, the fourth generation was born, and four generations were alive together only 75 years after the descent into Egypt. Sixthly, Not merely one generation went out at the Exode, but portions of four. Lastly, Extraordinary increase had been promised to Abraham (Genesis 15:5) in such terms as would lead us to expect a miraculous fecundity.

Verses 1-46


At the close of the third book of Moses the temple in the wilderness the tabernacle had been erected, the law of sacrifices instituted, the Aaronic priesthood inducted into their sacred office, and rules for holiness of life, and for the isolation of Israel from the Gentile world, had been ordained.

At the opening of the present book the tabernacle has been standing one month. The purpose of the Sinaitic sojourn has now been accomplished, and the vast host must begin their eastward and northward march toward the Land of Promise. From childhood they had been taught to turn their eyes from the banks of the Nile towards the hills of Canaan, where Abraham, their national father, was buried. Thither had their ancestors borne, in princely procession, the embalmed body of the patriarch Jacob to find a resting place, and to that land of the covenant were the Hebrews now bearing the mortal part of Joseph, the benefactor of his father’s family. But mighty foes are intrenched in that land, and other strong enemies will stand in their path to bar their entrance. Even the desert swarms with foes. War is imminent. Bloody battle fields must be trodden before they can sit down in houses which they have not builded, and pluck the fruit of olive yards which they have not planted. Out of the crowd of fugitives hastening from the yoke of Egypt there must emerge a compact military organization; for though Jehovah, the God of battles, the Man of war, is leading them to victory, he purposes to employ human allies, and he wishes to put them into the condition of the highest efficiency. For the military organization a census must be taken. The census in this chapter is not an enumeration de novo, but rather a muster on the basis of numerical and genealogical data already in the possession of the tribes. This is shown by the accordance of the number who have paid the atonement money with the total number enrolled in this chapter as fighting men.

Verses 1-54

1. The Lord JEHOVAH. The ineffable name was translated into the Greek by the Seventy by the word Κυριος , Lord. Our English translators unwisely followed the Septuagint, and adopted the appellative Lord for the significant, chosen, proper name Jehovah, the one eternal and immutable Being. We notify the reader that this is the ground of our preference of Jehovah to Lord throughout this Commentary. (See notes on Exodus 3:14, and Numbers 6:2.)

Spake Either to the ear in audible words, as is strongly suggested in Exodus 33:11, and Numbers 12:8; or by the urim and thummim, as in Exodus 28:30; Numbers 27:21; or to the spiritual perception of Moses in such a manner as to give certainty to the communication. A consideration of the three places in which Jehovah spake to him and gave him audience inclines us to the theory of uttered words as the usual mode of communication. These three places were, 1.) The mercy-seat in the most holy place, the principal abode of the oracle. Numbers 7:89. We believe that it was from the mercy-seat between the cherubim that Moses was addressed in this chapter. 2.) At the door of the tabernacle, near the altar of burnt offering. Exodus 29:42. Exodus 29:3.) Out of the cloudy pillar. Exodus 33:9; Numbers 12:5-6; Psalms 99:7.

Moses The reader of the three preceding books has already become too well acquainted with this great man to need an introduction. His character is above eulogy, his great deeds are too numerous for recital. He is the embodiment of the Old Testament as Jesus is of the New. “The law came by Moses, but grace and truth by Jesus Christ.” His agency in the religious instruction and spiritual elevation of mankind will have grateful mention in the anthems of the blood-washed throng in heaven, for they shall sing “the song of Moses and the Lamb.” See Exodus 2:0, Introductory, (3.)

Wilderness of Sinai A wild and mountainous region in Arabia Petraea, between the two branching gulfs of the Red Sea. It is a heap of lofty granite rocks, with steep gorges and deep valleys, abounding in water and luxuriant vegetation in the rainy season. These valleys are then beautiful. The Israelites sojourned in that part of the desert which lies north of Mount Sinai.

“Long as the Desert of Sinai has been known to Christian pilgrims, yet it may almost be said never to have been explored before the beginning of this century. We are still at the threshold of our knowledge concerning it. The older travellers never troubled themselves to compare the general features of the desert with the indications of the sacred narrative, and therefore they missed the cardinal points of dispute. We are still, therefore, in the condition of discoverers; and if we are thus compelled to abstain from positive conclusions, it is a suspense which we need not be afraid to avow, and which in this instance is the less inconvenient, because the very uniformity of nature by which it is occasioned, also enables us to form an image of the general scenes, even where the particular scene is unknown; and many will feel at a distance what many, I doubt not, have felt on the spot, that in speaking of such sacred events, uncertainty is the best safeguard for reverence, and suspense, as to the exact details of form and locality, is the most fitting approach for the consideration of the presence of Him who made darkness his secret place, his pavilion round about him, with dark water and thick ‘clouds to cover them.’” STANLEY’S Sinai and Palestine.

Tabernacle of the congregation Literally, the tent of appointment, or stated meeting, (with Jehovah.) The Septuagint calls it “the tent of witness,” and the Vulgate “the tent of the covenant.” The book of the Law, the witness of the covenant, was kept here. The tabernacle had been standing one month. Exodus 40:17. To distinguish it from the more temporary tent, the dwelling of Moses during the first year of the Exodus the ante-Sinaitic tabernacle this second structure is called the Sinaitic tabernacle. It was constructed by Bezaleel and Aholiab after the model shown to Moses on the mount. Exodus 26:30. It was a portable mansion-house and temple, the miniature of the great temple of Solomon. Its position was significant and commanding. On the east, between it and the camp under the lead of Judah, were the tents of the priests; southward, between it and the camp of Reuben, were the Kohathites placed; on the west, between it and the camp of Ephraim, the Gershonites had their abodes; and on the north, between it and the camp of Dan, was the station of the Merarites. In proportion to the wealth of the people, it was more costly and magnificent than the world-renowned edifice at Jerusalem. For a minute description see Exodus 36-38.

Second month This gives a clew to the period of time occupied by the events narrated in Leviticus, namely, one month, during the encampment at Mount Sinai.

Verse 2

2. Take ye the sum The chief object of this enrolment was probably for the more efficient organization of the military force of the nation. It may, however, have also subserved other purposes.

After their families This census was more than an individual enumeration: it was a tribal and family registration, and was necessary for the efficient organization of the army. The difference between the terms “families” and house of their fathers is not clear. From Joshua 7:14, (see note,) we infer that the former includes the latter, though Prof. Bush suggests that the latter is merely explanatory of the former. See Exodus 6:13-19, note. An incidental but very important result of this family registration was the documentary provision which it afforded for tracing the lineage of the Messiah. The formation of family surnames is seen in Numbers 26:5-7, like the English John- sons, the Scotch Macs, and the Irish O’s and Fitz’s.

The number of their names Although the Hebrew for sum and number would indicate some difference, it is not clear what it is. The majority of the versions translate them as synonymous.

Verse 3

3. Twenty years From the son of twenty years. This was the law ever afterwards. The word able does not occur in the Hebrew. If it had been written, the names of the sick and aged men would not have been enrolled, and the enumerators must have added to their functions those of surgical examiners. Exemptions from military service were established on Divine authority several years afterwards. See Deuteronomy 20:5-8. There is not the least hint in the text of an upper limit to the military age. Yet Josephus asserts that this census enrolled only the fighting men between twenty and fifty years of age. It is quite probable that subsequent legislation fixed the maximum age at fifty years, and that Josephus ( Ant., Numbers 3:12 ; Numbers 3:4) has carried the law back too far. For if there had been such a maximum age it would have been expressed with the minimum. Moreover, since the grand total of this military muster-roll is exactly the same as that of the poll-offering in Exodus 38:26, it would follow, according to Josephus’s statement, that all above fifty years must have been exempted from the offering. Of this immunity there is no hint, either in the original command (Exodus 30:11-16) or in the report of its execution. Exodus 38:26.

Thou and Aaron shall number Number is not the idea of the Hebrew, but rather review, muster, arrange. Moses and Aaron were to constitute a board of superintendence, while the details of the census were to be attended to by a commission of twelve distinguished men, one from each tribe. These would be sufficient, for the chief labour of the census had already been performed. In arranging for the service of the newly-erected tabernacle, nine months before, it had been ordained that each person enumerated should pay half a shekel, about twenty-seven cents, atonement money, “a ransom for his soul unto the Lord.” See Exodus 30:12. Since the atonement money had already been offered, (Exodus 38:25-28,) we infer that a census had already been taken in the tribes, or in subdivisions of tribes, and records made of the results. The office of the census board, just appointed by God, was, probably, to collect and classify those registrations which had already been made, and draw out the people into military divisions.

Verses 5-15

5-15. These are the names Chosen by the Divine Executive of the Hebrew nation. Little is known of these “renowned” men. Elishama was grandfather of Joshua, (1 Chronicles 7:26-27,) and Nahshon was brother-in-law of Aaron. Exodus 6:23. His name occurs in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, (Matthew 1:4 and Luke 3:32,) where it is spelled Naasson. He was the first phylarch, or captain, of Judah, and the first prince to present his offering at the dedication of the tabernacle. One general comment applies to all these chiefs. Their names appear in connexion with the census, and as phylarchs of their tribes, in chaps. 2 and 10; and again as liberal donors of gold, silver, incense, and animals at the dedication of the tabernacle, in chap. 7.

Deuel For Reuel. Chaps. Numbers 2:14. Supposed to be a mistake of ר , resh, for ד , daleth. The weight of evidence is in favour of Deuel. Numbers 7:42; Numbers 7:47; Numbers 10:20.

Verse 16

16. Heads of thousands in Israel This language sounds so much like Exodus 18:21 that it is probable that the assistant judges, carefully chosen by Moses at the suggestion of Jethro his father-in-law, were named by the Lord associates of Moses and Aaron in completing the registration. The Hebrew for the renowned of the congregation is, the called of the congregation, a select number, suggesting a representative body, to whom Moses often spoke when it is said that he addressed all the congregation. “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 an hereditary dignity, vested in the eldest son, or some other to whom the right of primogeniture was transferred, and under whom were other inferior heads, also hereditary.” Jamieson.

Verse 18

18. Assembled all the congregation Here literalists like Colenso find a difficulty so insuperable as to impeach the veracity of Moses. The whole congregation, adults and children, male and female, could not have been less than two million four hundred thousand. These could not be assembled in one place for the transaction of business. Nor was there any need of such an assembly. A representative of each group of families already enrolled for the atonement money could carry his register to the census board and make his report. Or there might have been a polling place in each tribe, like city ward balloting places. The journeying of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the city of David, for enrolment, might have been in accordance with the practice begun in the wilderness, of each person gathering to his own tribal centre for registration. The system of appointing a head man in each tribe, charged with the preservation of the pedigrees of the families, corresponds with the practice of the Arabs at the present day.

Assembled on the first Thus on the very day the order was given the people begin to obey it.

True obedience is always prompt and unquestioning. Pedigrees, families, and house of their fathers indicate more than four generations in Egypt.

According to the number of their names This oft-recurring phrase in this census implies a previous enumeration. See note on Numbers 1:2.

By their polls Hebrew, By their skulls. Septuagint, Head by head. That is, the census is to be individual as well as family and tribal. It was not to be after the manner in which Xerxes counted his army on the plain of Doriscus, where an enclosure was made containing ten thousand men when closely packed, and filled one hundred and seventy times, showing that his army was not three times as large as that with which Moses marched through the wilderness.

Verse 21

21. Those that were numbered That is, mustered or marshalled on the basis of the prior enumeration in Exodus 38:26, the total of which agrees with that here given. About thirty-eight years after this census another was taken on the table-lands of Moab, east of the Jordan, just before entering into Canaan. We tabulate the results for the convenience of the reader. They eloquently portray the hardships of that wilderness-life during more than a third of a century in which the people actually decreased instead of doubling their number, as they doubtless would have done even in Egyptian servitude:

1st Cen. 2d Cen. Ch. 1. Ch. 26. 1. Judah 74,600 76,500 2. Dan 62,700 64,400 3. Simeon 59,300 22,200 4. Zebulun 57,400 60,500 5. Issachar 54,400 64,300 6. Naphtali 53,400 45,400 7. Reuben 46,500 43,730 8. Gad 45,650 40,500 9. Asher 41,500 53,400 10. Ephraim 40,500 32,500 11. Benjamin 35,400 45,600 12. Manasseh 32,200 52,700 Total 603,550 601,730 It is a corroborative proof of the correctness of this census that the totals, when arranged in the order of magnitude, correspond nearly with the order of birth of the heads of the tribes. Judah, Simeon, Dan, and Naphtali, among the six oldest, are among the six highest. The sons of Joseph Ephraim and Manasseh though each less than the average of the other tribes, because a generation later, yet, counted as one, rank second in the first census and first in the second census. Hence the prediction, Joseph shall be a fruitful bough, is fulfilled. Yet Dr. Adam Clarke sees “no very satisfactory reason for so great a difference” between Judah, of the first generation, and Manasseh, of the second. The real comparison is between Joseph’s descendants and Judah’s. There is only a difference of nineteen hundred. It will be observed that the lowest denomination of figures is neither units nor tens, except Gad, but hundreds. This is a singular coincidence in the figures of a census. It is not reasonable to suppose such an occurrence would happen in eleven enumerations out of twelve. The explanation is, that as the chief reason for this first enumeration was the military organization of the nation, fractions of hundreds the smallest military division were rejected if less than fifty, and counted as even hundreds if above fifty. Or the supernumerary units may have balanced the losses from sickness or casualties, it being the purpose of the muster to exhibit the available military strength of the Hebrews. We observe the fulfilment of two predictions as already begun in the first census: 1, That relating to the precedence of Judah, foreseen by Jacob on his dying bed two hundred years before; (Genesis 49:8;) and, 2, That relating to the superiority of Ephraim, the younger, to Manasseh, the elder, predicted by the same patriarch. Genesis 48:19-20. The decline in the second census was not permanent.

Verse 47


47. Levites… not numbered As the Levites were wholly devoted to sacred duties in the place of the firstborn, they were exempted from the payment of the half-shekel atonement poll-tax, as well as from military service. Hence they were not enumerated in either the former or the present census. A special census of Levites will be found in Numbers 3:15.

Verse 49

49. Tribe of Levi This tribe, together with that of Simeon, because their founders had perpetrated the treacherous massacre of the Shechemites, (Genesis 34:25-26,) were under the curse of Jacob: “I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.” Genesis 49:7. Simeon was greatly reduced in number in the wilderness, and received a small portion in Canaan adjoining Judah, but was soon scattered in the cities of this stronger tribe. Levi was forbidden a portion of the Land of Promise except forty-eight cities in the other tribes, and was appointed to the charge of the tabernacle instead of the firstborn, who were sacred to Jehovah because they had been sanctified by the Lord, and spared when the destroyer slew the firstborn of the Egyptians. A branch of this family, the house of Aaron, became the priestly family, and the rest of the tribe, under the technical designation of Levites, were set apart to the menial services of the tabernacle, such as pitching, taking down, and transporting the sacred tent and its furniture. The curse of dispersion pronounced on Levi was thus converted into a blessing, 1,) because of the conspicuous faithfulness of Moses and Aaron, members of this tribe; and 2,) because of the commendable zeal for God of the whole tribe in the case of the golden calf. Exodus 32:16. Every ancestral curse may be mitigated or changed into a blessing by the obedience of posterity to the Divine law. “But where sin abounded grace did much more abound.” Romans 5:20.

Verse 50

50. Tabernacle of testimony In the Hebrew these words are not the same as in the first verse. They should have been translated the dwelling, or abode of the Law. See the Hebrew of Exodus 38:21. The tables of the Law the two tables of stone were kept in the tabernacle. Exodus 31:18.

They shall bear the tabernacle In this service each of the three Levitical families had its separate department. The Gershonites carried the hangings and cords. They were allowed two wagons and four oxen to each. The Kohathites carried on their shoulders the ark, table of show-bread, candlestick, two altars, and hangings of the holy of holies. The Merarites transported the frameboards, pillars, bars, etc., with the aid of four wagons and eight oxen.

And shall encamp round about the tabernacle The Gershonites on the west, the Kohathites on the south, the Merarites on the north, and the priests on the east or front. See Numbers 3:23-38. They were allowed to take no part in the services of the altar. Numbers 18:2-7.

Verse 51

51. The stranger that cometh nigh Every non-Levite is prohibited from intrusion upon the sacred precincts. So, also, with respect to the priestly office, every Levite not an Aaronic priest is a stranger. The profaned censers used by Korah the Levite, and his host of princes, were made into plates for the covering of the altar, “to be a memorial (warning) unto the children of Israel, that no stranger, which is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to offer incense before the Lord.” Numbers 16:36-40.

Shall be put to death We find no directions to the Hebrew judiciary in such a case, and no instance of the infliction of the death penalty for this sacrilege by the human magistrate, but a record of the special interposition of Jehovah in the case of Nadab and Abihu, (Leviticus 10:1-2,) supposed to have been drunk, because of the prohibition of wine immediately subjoined, (Leviticus 10:8-10,) and also of Uzzah, 1 Chronicles 13:10. Hence we infer that this crime was punished by the immediate stroke of the Divine hand only. To the objection that this punishment was too severe and too summary, we reply that it was designed to teach the holiness of God in an impressive manner. We know too little of the Divine government to criticise its acts.

Verse 52

52. By his own camp The order of encamping will be explained in the next chapter.

By his own standard דגל , degel, as being conspicuous. Standards and ensigns were requisite for preserving the order of the march and of the camp. The degel of the text were probably the large banners which marked the four grand divisions of the camp.

They were, according to the Rabbies, wrought with embroidery, and that of Judah displayed a lion, (Genesis 49:9;) Reuben, a man; Ephraim, a bull, (Deuteronomy 33:17;) and Dan, the picture of the cherubim or flying eagle. The same symbols are found in Revelation 4:7. That standards with similar devices were in use before this date is proved by the battle pictures on ancient Egyptian monuments of standards of an umbrella or fan-like form, made of ostrich feathers or shawls. To this tradition of the Rabbies may be opposed the hostility of the Jews in subsequent ages to standards with images, such as the Roman eagles. They made this the ground of their suit to Vitellius, that he would not cross their territory, but march another way. Nevertheless to a nation of freedmen, many of whom could not read, a pictured standard might be as necessary as pictured signs, like the boar’s head in the streets of London three centuries ago. The Targumists say that the tribal standards were distinguished by the colours of the precious stones in the breastplate of the high priest, and that the four great banners of the four grand divisions of the camp were tri-colours, each combining the colours of the three tribes over which it floated.

Verse 53

53. That there be no wrath By the Levites encamped around the sacred tabernacle a strong guard was established for its protection, and a safeguard to keep the people from intrusion into the consecrated enclosure, and consequent destruction by the wrath of Jehovah. The spiritual lessons conveyed to us are, the great solemnity and self-examination with which we should approach the sacred mysteries of Christianity, the baptismal font and the holy eucharist, “lest we eat and drink damnation, not discerning the Lord’s body;” and also the carefulness and scrutiny of motives which should characterize every man who desires to enter the high vocation of the Christian ministry.

Verse 54

54. So did they Up to this time unquestioning obedience characterized the nation. Well may the compassionate Jehovah say, “When Israel was a child, I loved him.” “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.” Happy would Israel have been if such a record had continued! It is a principle of Divine government to bestow rewards only after proof of fidelity. The Hebrews will not be deprived of a period of trial in which to demonstrate their unshaken allegiance to the God who has led them out of the house of bondage.

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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 1". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.