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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 9

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



Directions are given respecting the regular passover, (1-5,) and also a supplementary one for the unclean and the absent, (6-14.) The removals and encampments of Israel are directed by the Divine Presence in the cloud, (15-23.) The proper place for the signs and signals of the march would naturally be just before the beginning of the march. But the time for the celebration of the passover was before the census on the first day of the second month. Hence a strictly chronological arrangement would have put the first fourteen verses at the beginning of this book or in the book of Leviticus, or, more accurately still, at close of Exodus. One of the Hebrew doctors relieves this and similar apparent discrepancies in the history, of the Sinaitic legislation by the adage, “There is no order of former and latter in the law.” Houbigant says: “It is enough to know that these books contain an account of things transacted in the days of Moses, though not in their regular or chronological order.” Some Christian writers extend this remark to Christ and the gospels, because the laws defining uncleanness had been given since the passover supplementary legislation was required respecting the admission of the unclean to this rite. “It is in connexion with the decision of this question that the reference to the original institution occurs.” Moreover, a special divine warrant was requisite, since at the first passover there is no intimation that it was to be kept in the wilderness. It was not kept again till after the crossing of the Jordan. Joshua 5:10-12, notes.


(1.) “For the further study of the subject of the pillar of cloud we add some passages from Holy Scripture which seem connected with the manifestation of God in cloud and fire. In the Old Testament the following may here be compared: Psalms 78:14; Psalms 99:7; Psalms 105:39; and from another point of view, Psalms 27:1; Psalms 91:5-6; Psalms 121:6; and again, Isaiah 4:5; Isaiah 6:4; Isaiah 52:12; Ezekiel 10:4. In the New Testament we read of the cloud that overshadowed the Christ on the mount of transfiguration, (Matthew 17:5, and parallels;) of that in which the risen Saviour visibly ascended, (Acts 1:9;) and, lastly, retrospectively, of that in which Israel was baptized unto Moses. 1 Corinthians 10:1-2.… This visible divine presence among Israel gave origin to the well known Jewish term Shekina, which does not occur in the Old Testament itself. On the Jewish traditions connected with the Shekina, this is not the place to enter. It is one of the few ideas and terms derived from later Judaism which we love to see transferred into Christian theology. But to us it means better than to them. It means the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in the hearts of all his faithful people.” Dr. Edersheim.

(2.) It is taken for granted by many, that this whole history of the wanderings of the children of Israel “was obviously intended to be typical of the varied experience of the Lord’s people in their life-journey through the world, so that we may regard these apparently zigzag marches and longer or shorter stations as pointing to that vast diversity of states through which the Lord’s pilgrims pass on their way to the heavenly Canaan.” But there is not only an entire lack of scriptural basis for this theory, but it is attended by great spiritual peril. If the spiritual wanderings of the Christian are the antitype of a type fashioned by the divine hand thousands of years ago, such wanderings are proper and normal in the creed of the Arminian, and necessary in the creed of the Calvinist, since a type implies a designed correspondence. Hence in either case a straight course from justification to entire sanctification, avoiding a zigzag of sinning and repenting, is considered abnormal and unscriptural. The history of Israel in the wilderness affords striking admonitory lessons or warning beacons, as is indicated in 1 Corinthians 10:1-12, and in the Epistle to the Hebrews. But to make the sins and stumblings of the Church in the wilderness a model of the life of the Church under the dispensation of the Spirit is to defeat the purpose of the New Testament writers when they hold up these instances of unbelief and failure as warnings to all following generations. It is one thing to say that the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans illustrates the actual life of multitudes of believers, but quite another to say that St. Paul therein portrays his ideal Christian. This assumption, that the actual must have been the divine ideal, is akin to the mistake of supposing that all the sins and backslidings of the modern Church are the designed antitype of the defections of Israel, and in a measure justified by this typical relation.

Verse 1

1. And the Lord spake The Hebrew preterite may be translated as a pluperfect, thus, had spoken. This would give this section of the law an earlier origin than the present rendering, namely, immediately after the erection of the tabernacle. Exodus 40:2; Exodus 40:17.

Verse 3

3. At even Hebrews, between the two evenings. The first evening began when the sun crossed the meridian, and the second at sunset. See Exodus 12:6, note.

According to all the rites R.V., “statutes.” The changed circumstances must have rendered some slight variations necessary. There is no express command, it is true, that the blood, instead of being smeared upon the lintel and posts of the doors or entrances to the tents, should be sprinkled upon the altar of burnt offering, but it is quite probable that this change was made, since there was no destroying angel about to pass through the camp, while there was a newly-consecrated altar upon which the blood of all animals slain for food, as well as in sacrifice, was to be poured out. See Leviticus 17:1-6, notes. The objection raised by Kurtz, that the priests, Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar, would be unable to perform this service, is relieved by the suggestion that they were assisted by the Levites in every thing but the act of sprinkling. See chap. Numbers 8:19, note. Assuming that one sheep a year old would furnish a supper for fifteen males and fifteen females, 80,000 lambs would be required. If it was possible in the time of the Emperor Nero to sprinkle upon the altar of the temple the blood of 256,500 paschal lambs in one afternoon by actual count, according to Josephus, it must have been possible in Moses’s time to sprinkle the blood of less than one third of that number upon an altar five cubits square. But this difficulty disappears if we suppose that the law of the passover takes the precedence of subsequent laws for the treatment of the blood. In this case each slayer of a lamb disposes of the blood at his own tent. A pastoral nation could easily furnish one sheep for every thirty of its population.

Verse 6

6. Certain men… were defiled It is a principle of the Mosaic legislation to give supplementary statutes only when an emergency actually arose in which the strict application of the general law would be a hardship. See Introduction, (1.)

Defiled by the dead See Leviticus 21:1; Leviticus 21:11; Numbers 5:2, notes.

Verses 6-14


Only ceremonially clean persons could share in this sacrificial meal. Since there were many sources of defilement during seven days, and some during longer terms, it follows that there would naturally be a large number of persons at any given time disqualified. Out of so large a population some would naturally be absent at the regular passover. For these two classes an extra passover one month later is now authorized by Jehovah. But, as a safeguard against the perversion of this permission into an excuse for postponing it unnecessarily and merely from indifference, on the ground that he could make it up afterward, the threat of excision is held up to deter from any such abuse of this supplementary passover. The requirement that all Israel should partake of this sacrifice especially this provision for its repetition indicates that it is of vital importance to each, and symbolizes some act indispensable to his salvation. Christ is our passover. 1 Corinthians 5:7. No one can be saved who wilfully neglects to appropriate the known Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world. Hebrews 2:3.

Verse 7

7. Kept back Greek, fall short or fail; Vulgate, defrauded. Since their defilement was involuntary, and even commendable, arising as it did from attending to the burial of the dead, the demand was reasonable, and worthy of being carried to the Lord.

Verse 8

8. Stand still R.V., “Stay ye that I may hear,” etc. Human reason is not a sufficient guide in religious questions. Moses evinces a strong faith in the accessibility of Jehovah, and a profound deference to his will. The judges of the Sanhedrin should not be ashamed to ask concerning the judgment which is too hard for them; for Moses, who was the master of Israel, had need to say, “I have not heard.” Targum.

Verse 10

10. Afar off According to the Hebrew doctors this must be at least fifteen miles from the camp, or afterward fifteen miles beyond the boundary of the Holy Land. For in Deuteronomy 12:5-6; Deuteronomy 16:2, we are told that the passover cannot be lawfully kept in a foreign land.

Verse 11

11. The fourteenth day of the second month Thus a fundamental law is supplemented, and a standing ordinance is permanently established, in answer to prayer, first to Moses and then to the Lord. See chap. xxxvi for another instance. Bitter herbs of five kinds are eaten by the Jews as a salad with the paschal lamb; namely, lettuce, endive, chicory, and two others, the Hebrew names of which have not been identified with known plants. A very large number of bitter plants are eaten as salads in Syria, even the hearts of all the larger wild thistles. Says Tristram: “The leaves of the elecampane were gathered for salad by the Jehalin Arabs who accompanied us, as well as many cresses which grew in the southern desert, or at the south of the Dead Sea.”

Verse 13

13. Forbeareth to keep the passover For sins of omission resulting from obstinate unbelief the wicked will be sentenced to everlasting punishment. See Matthew 25:45-46; John 3:18; John 16:9.

Shall be cut off It is not easy to determine the precise meaning of these words. The original terms are too strong for the idea of excommunication, and they legitimately imply capital punishment. This was done by the sentence of the judge when the crime is known, otherwise it is implied, say the Jewish writers, that he should fall by the hand of Jehovah cutting him off prematurely. See Leviticus 17:10, note. But several of the rabbinical writers, as Maimonides, interpret these words as signifying not only temporal but eternal death. The threatening is a severe one, and is designed to inspire the deepest reverence for the divine ordinances.

Shall bear his sin The punishment of sin. Leviticus 10:17; Leviticus 22:9, notes. Dr. Hodge asserts that “when נשׂא , nasah, is construed with sin, it plainly means, ‘to bear sin’ in the sense of being personally responsible for it.” According to this, Jesus Christ was punished for our sins, a statement which we cannot receive. We prefer a broader signification of the phrase. (1.) One bears his own sin by suffering its punishment. (2.) He may bear another’s sin by suffering in consequence of it. (3.) He may bear another’s sin aimed against himself by withholding his displeasure and treating the offender graciously. See Leviticus 10:17, note. (4.) Or he may endure sufferings which are not penal, but a conditional substitute for the penal sufferings of guilty persons. Such were the sufferings of Christ in taking away the sin of the world. For an exhaustive discussion see Bibliotheca Sacra, 18: 284, 30:422; 32:475; and Dr. Miley’s Atonement in Christ.

Verse 14

14. If a stranger shall sojourn “If one shall dwell among you who has been converted unto me.” Syriac. “If a proselyte come unto you in your land.” Septuagint. Naturalized and circumcised aliens who have been incorporated into Israel as “proselytes of righteousness” were to partake of the paschal lamb as the native Hebrew. Thus was prefigured the determination of God, “That the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the Gospel.” Ephesians 3:6.

Verse 15

15. Cloud covered… tabernacle For a striking note on the cloud see Exodus 13:21. As soon as the tabernacle was dedicated the CLOUD came down upon it and the glory filled it, so that Moses was not able to enter in. Exodus 40:35. From this time onward, till the entrance into Canaan, the cloud which had guided them to Sinai never removed from the tabernacle except to indicate the direction in which the host was to advance. The tent of the testimony, or holy of holies, is signalized by the cloud because it contained the ark of the covenant, the tables of the decalogue, the basis of the covenant of Jehovah. Rosenmuller and Knobel say, that “the cloud covered the dwelling at the tent of witness,” that is, stood over the most holy place. Keil objects to this, inasmuch as ל , to, is a preposition of motion and not of rest. Moreover, in Exodus 40:34-35 , the whole tabernacle of the congregation was covered by the cloud, and not merely one portion. These passages may be harmonized by the supposition that the cloud which at first filled the whole tabernacle, and covered its whole extent, afterward gathered itself into a well defined pillar which stood over the holy of holies.

Verses 15-23


Jehovah might have directed the movements of the tabernacle and the location of the camp by speaking to Moses. But he chose to make his will in this respect known to all the people by visible tokens. Perhaps in the retrograde movements of the tabernacle it would have been too great a strain of Israel’s faith to have obeyed the command of Moses without the emphasis of supernatural signs. Even with these they often rebelled against his word. Numbers 20:24.

Verse 16

16. So it was alway “The covering of the dwelling with the cloud which shone by night with a fiery aspect was constant, and not merely a phenomenon which appeared when the tabernacle was first erected, and then vanished away.” Keil.

By night In the East, when the heat of the day is very oppressive, and day traveling is perilous by reason of the sunstroke, it is customary to travel by night. “The Arabs of the present day, when they wish to reach a particular spot in a given time, often travel for six or eight hours, and then, after a short rest, resume their journey and perform the remainder by night.” E.H. Palmer.

Verse 17

17. Taken up… pitched their tents “The movement of the mysterious cloud was the signal for striking or pitching the camp. When it was taken up from off the tabernacle, the advance was sounded on silver trumpets by the Levites, Moses repeating the words, ‘Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee;’ the whole host re-echoing them, far and near, in a mighty shout as the ark moved off before them, ‘to search out their next resting-place.’ In the same way the descent of the cloud to its accustomed place was the intimation to halt, and then, as the ark was once more solemnly laid down from the shoulders of the Kohathites, the prayer, caught up from the lips of Moses and intoned by the whole camp, rose with overpowering sublimity; ‘Return, O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel.’” Geikie. Thus during forty years there was a standing miracle before the eves of all Israel, by day and by night. Yet its moral influence upon the people, becoming semi-natural in their estimation by its long duration, seems to have been very slight. They followed whither the supernatural cloud led the way, but often with unbelieving, lustful, and rebellious hearts. Though often deserving to be abandoned by Jehovah, he continued to guide them. Nehemiah (Nehemiah 9:19) gratefully records the divine compassion: “Yet thou in thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness: the pillar of the cloud departed not from them by day, to lead them in the way; neither the pillar of fire by night, to show them light, and the way wherein they should go.” The sublimity of this scene transcends the most poetical imagination, especially when by night the Lord carried his lantern before his bannered hosts in the wilderness.

Verse 18

18. At the commandment of the Lord As indicated by the moving or resting cloud, they journeyed. C. Wesley thus beautifully spiritualizes this passage:

“To work for God is good,

If God our work ordain;

But stayed by the incumbent cloud

We in our place remain.

To cease from work is best,

If after Jesus’ will;

For when at his command we rest

We please our Saviour still.”

“God’s commands halt, forward, the right, or left were not heard, but were seen. His signal service was equally good by night or day. Banners more beautiful than sunrise, and brighter than stars, testify the Leader’s presence. Ballooning is a pitiable device for discerning roads, food, water, or enemies, compared with the sleepless eye in the uplifted chariot of cloud.

“It was not only guidance, but protection; a cover from the excessive heat of the desert. I myself went down into the plain of the Dead Sea under threat of intolerable heat; but God canopied the whole day with a cloud and a shield from the sun. Quails, manna, divided sea, and imperishable shoes are no more evident signs of God’s care than the cover by day and the light by night. ‘I will abide under the shadow of the Almighty.’” Bishop H.W. Warren.

Verse 22

22. Two days, or a month, or a year The periods varied from a single night to eighteen years, the longest halt. The irregularities in the intervals of motion and rest kept the people always watchful for the signal and always in a state of readiness to obey. Thus they were in a school wherein were taught the important lessons of constant vigilance, implicit faith, unquestioning obedience, and perfect patience.

Verse 23

23. They kept the charge of the Lord The lesson of trust in Jehovah and of patient waiting for his leadings was well learned, and always practised except on one memorable occasion, (Numbers 14:40-45,) when they presumed to advance without the guidance of the cloud, and met discomfiture and death. The term charge has special reference to following the guidance of Jehovah in marching and encamping, as is seen in Numbers 9:19. When we consider the proneness of men to lean upon their own understanding, and to direct their own steps, this record is highly creditable to the Israelites, especially in view of their long periods of encampment, when their entrance into the promised land seemed to be indefinitely postponed for reasons in the divine mind to them utterly incomprehensible. In this whole account of the cloud the fact of Jehovah’s guidance is reiterated again and again with emphasis. Maimonides says, that this particularity and repetition of statement was designed to confute the opinions of the Arabians and others, that the Israelites were so long detained in the “Wilderness of Wandering,” as Arabic writers style it, because they had lost their way, and therefore spent forty years in vaguely wandering over the desert. This, he observes, is a very idle conceit, as the way from Sinai to Kadesh-Barnea was a well known and frequented route, and not above eleven days’ journey, so that they could not be supposed to have missed it, and far less should have wandered in a bewildered condition forty years.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 9". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/numbers-9.html. 1874-1909.
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