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Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit Commentaries

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8
Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12
Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16
Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20
Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24
Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28
Chapter 30 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 36

Book Overview - Numbers

by Joseph Exell


THE Book of Numbers is a part of the Mosaic writings ordinarily called the Pentateuch. It would be more correct in a literary sense to say that it forms part of those records of the Beni-Israel which bring down the history of that peculiar people to the date of their victorious entry into their own land. The Book which follows is (on any theory as to its authorship) widely dissevered from the previous records in character and scope. The Book of Numbers forms the concluding fourth of a work of which the substantial unity and continuity cannot be reasonably questioned, and therefore very much which affects this Book is better treated of in an Introduction to the whole. The division, however, which separates Numbers from Leviticus is more marked than that which separates Leviticus from Exodus, or Exodus from Genesis. The narrative (which has been almost entirely suspended throughout the third Book) reappears in the fourth, and leads us on (with divers breaks and interruptions indeed) through the whole of that most important and distinctive period which we may call the fourth stage in the national life of the Beni-Israel. The first of these stages extends from the call of Abraham to the beginning of the sojourn in Egypt. The second includes the time of sojourning there. The third is the short but critical period of the exodus from Rameses to Mount Sinai, including the giving of the Law. The fourth reaches from Mount Sinai to the river Jordan, and coincides with the whole period of probation, preparation, failure, recovery. It will be noticed that our Book is the only one of the four which corresponds entirely to one of these stages; it has therefore more real distinctness of character than any of the other three.


If we take the Book of Numbers as it stands, apart from any preconceived theories, and allow its contents to divide themselves into sections according to the actual character of their subject matter, we shall obtain, without any serious difference of opinion, the following result. Perhaps no book in the Bible falls more easily and naturally into its component parts.



1. Numbers 1:1-46 — The first census of Israel.
2. Numbers 1:47-54 — Special orders about the Levites.
3. Numbers 2:1-34 — Camping order of the tribes.
4. Numbers 3:1-4 —Notice of the priestly family.
5. Numbers 3:5-51 — Dedication of the Levites in lieu of the firstborn: their number, charge, and redemption.
6. Numbers 4:1-49 —Duties of the Levites on the march.


1. Numbers 5:1-4 — The exclusion of the unclean.
2. Numbers 5:5-10 — Laws of recompense and of offerings.
3. Numbers 5:11-31 — The trial of jealousy.
4. Numbers 6:1-21 — The Nazirite vow.
5. Numbers 6:22-27 — The formula of priestly benediction.


1. Numbers 7:1-88 — Offerings of the princes at the dedication
2. Numbers 7:89 — The voice in the sanctuary.
3. Numbers 8:1-4 — The lamps lighted in the tabernacle.
4. Numbers 8:5-26 — Consecration of the Levites.
5. Numbers 9:1-14 — The second passover, and the supplemental passover.
6. Numbers 9:15-23 — The cloud on the tabernacle.
7. Numbers 10:1-10 — The cloud on the tabernacle.
8. Numbers 10:11-28 — The silver trumpets.
9. Numbers 10:29-32 — The start and order of march.
10. Numbers 10:33-36 — The invitation to Hobab.
11. Numbers 11:1-3 — The first journey.
12. Numbers 11:4-35 — Sin and chastisement at Taberah.
13. Numbers 12:1-16 — Sin and chastisement at Kibroth-hattaavab.
14. Numbers 13:1-33 — Sedition of Miriam and Aaron.
15. Numbers 14:1-45 — Rebellion and rejection of the people.


1. Numbers 15:1-21 — Law of offerings and first-fruits.
2. Numbers 15:22-31 — Law of trespass offerings, and of presumptuous sins.
3. Numbers 15:32-36 — Incident of the sabbath-breaker.
4. Numbers 15:37-41 —Law of fringes.


1. Numbers 16:1-50 — Rebellion of Korah and his confederates, and its suppression.
2. Numbers 17:1-13 — The rod of Aaron which budded.


1. Numbers 18:1-32 — The charge and emoluments of priests and Levites.
2. Numbers 19:1-22 — Law of the red heifer, and the pollution of death.


1. Numbers 9:1-13 — The water of strife.
2. Numbers 20:14-21 — The insolence of Edom.
3. Numbers 20:22-29 — The death of Aaron.
4. Numbers 21:1-3 — Episode of King Arad.
5. Numbers 21:4-9 — Episode of the brazen serpent.
6. Numbers 21:10-32 — Last marches and first victories.
7. Numbers 21:33-22:1 — Conquest of Og.


1. Numbers 22:2-38 — The coming of Balaam.
Numbers 22:39-24:25 — The prophecies of Balaam.


1. Numbers 25:1-18 — Sin and atonement at Shittim.
2. Numbers 26:1-65 — Second census of Israel with a view to the allotment of the land.
3. Numbers 27:1-11 — Suit of Zelophehad's daughters.
4. Numbers 27:12-23 — Supersession of Moses by Joshua.


1. Numbers 28:1-29:40 — The annual routine of sacrifice.
Numbers 30:1-16 — Law of vows made by women.


1. Numbers 31:1-54 — Extirpation of Midian.
2. Numbers 32:1-42 — Settlement of the two and a half tribes.


Numbers 33:1-49 — List of marches from Rameses to Jordan.


1. Numbers 33:50-56 — The clearance of the holy land.
2. Numbers 34:1-15 — Boundaries of the holy land.
3. Numbers 34:16-29 — Allotment of the holy land.
4. Numbers 35:1-8 — Reservation of cities for the Levites.
5. Numbers 35:9-34 — The cities of refuge, and law of homicide.
6. Numbers 36:1-13 — Law of the marriage of heiresses.

Other divisions than these may of course be founded upon considerations of chronology, or upon the wish to group together the historical and legislative portions in certain combinations; bat these considerations are obviously foreign to the Book itself. While a general sequence is evidently observed, dates are almost entirely absent; and while it is very natural to trace a close connection between the facts of the narrative and the matter of the legislation, such connection (in the absence of any statement to substantiate it)must remain always uncertain, and often very precarious.

The contents, therefore, of this Book fall naturally into thirteen sections of very various length, clearly marked at their edges by the change either of subject matter or of literary character. Thus, e.g., no reader, however uneducated, could avoid noticing the abrupt transition from chapter 14 to chapter 15; and thus again no reader who had any ear for literary style could fail to isolate in his own mind the story of Balaam from the narrative which precedes and follows it. Perhaps the only question which could be seriously raised on this subject is the propriety of treating the Itinerary as a separate section. The character, however, of the passage is so distinct, and it is so clearly separated from what follows by the formula of chapter 33:50, that there seems no alternative if we wish to follow the natural lines of division.

It will be seen that of the thirteen sections, eight are narrative, four are legislative, and one (the last) is of a mixed character.


The dates given in the Book itself are (excluding the date of the departure from Rameses, chapter 33:3) only four; but the reference to the setting up of the tabernacle is equivalent to a fifth. We have, therefore, the following as fixed points in the narrative.

1. The dedication of the tabernacle, with the offering of the princes (Numbers 7:1, 2) and the descent of the sacred cloud (Numbers 9:15) — 1st day of Abib in year 2.

2. The second passover (Numbers 9:5) —14th day of Abib in year 2.

3. The census at Sinai (Numbers 1:1) — 1st day of Zif in year 2.

4. The supplemental passover (Numbers 9:11) — 14th day of Zif in year 2.

5. The start for Canaan (Numbers 10:11) — 20th day of Zif in year 2.

6. The death of Aaron (33:38) — 1st day of Ab in year 40.

There is, however, a note of time in this Book which is more important than any date, for in chapter 14 an exile of forty years is denounced against the Bent-Israel; and although it is not stated at what precise point the exile terminated, yet we may safely conclude that it was either at or very near the conclusion of this Book. If, therefore, we had no subsequent data to guide us, we should say that Numbers 1-10:10 covers a space of one month, twenty days; Numbers 10:11-14 a space which may be variously estimated from two months to four months; Numbers 15-20:28 a space of very nearly thirty-eight years (of which the great bulk would coincide with chapters 15-19); and the remainder a space of nearly two years. It is, however, stated in Deuteronomy 1:3 that Moses began his last address to the people on the first day of the eleventh month of the fortieth year, i.e., exactly six months after the death of Aaron, and only five months after the departure from Mount Hor. This does no doubt crowd the events of the last period into a strangely brief space of time, and shortens the time of wandering from forty to thirty-eight and a half years. The latter difficulty, although not to be lightly passed over, is yet fairly met by the assumption that the Divine mercy (which ever loves to take hold on any excuse for leniency) was moved to include the time of wandering already spent in the term of punishment inflicted at Kadesh. The former difficulty is more serious, for it implies a hurry which does not appear upon the face of the narrative. We may, however, remember that a generation which had grown up in the desert, hardened to exposure, and inured to fatigue, would move with a swiftness and strike with a vigour altogether foreign to the nation which came out of Egypt. The actual distance traversed by the main bulk of the people need not have occupied more than a month, and some of the operations recorded may have been carried on simultaneously. It will not, however, be forgotten that the difficulty arises from a comparison of two dates, neither of which is found in the main narrative of the Book of Numbers.


If we compare the table of contents with the table of dates, we shall see at once that the earlier portions of the narrative are out of chronological order, and we shall not find any sufficient reason assigned for this dislocation. On the contrary, closer examination will leave the greater certainty that chapter 7 and chapter 8 to verse 4 (at least) connect themselves rather with Exodus 40 or Leviticus 9 than with their present context. It appears, also, from the synopsis of the Book, that narrative alternates with legislation in such a way as cut it up into clearly marked sections. It is asserted that the legislative matter thus interspersed grows out of, and shows a natural connection with, the narrative. This is true in some cases, but in many more cases it is not true. E.g. it is at least plausible in the case of the law for the exclusion of the unclean which interrupts the narrative in Numbers 5:1-4. But it is not even plausible with respect to the laws which follow to the end of chapter 6; no ingenuity can show any special connection between the preparations for departure from Sinai and the trial of jealousy or the Nazirite vow. Again, it is possible to argue that the law which regulated the respective offices and emoluments of the priests and Levites finds its proper place after the record of Korah's rebellion; and also that the ordinance of the red heifer was historically connected with the sentence of death in the wilderness and the compulsory disuse of the ordinary routine of sacrifice. But it could hardly be seriously contended that the fragmentary enactments of chapter 15 or the regulations of chapter 30 have the least apparent connection with their place in the record. It is not at all too much to say, with regard to the greater number of the laws in this Book, that their position is arbitrary as far as we can now see, and that the reasons assigned for their standing where they do are purely artificial. It does not follow that there were not actual reasons, unknown to us, why these laws should have been revealed at times corresponding to their position; nevertheless, the presumption which arises upon the face of the record is certainly this, that the legislative matter in this Book consists mainly of fragments of the Levitical legislation which have in some way become detached and have been interspersed through the narrative. One exception, however, is so obvious that it must be noted: the routine of sacrifice in chapters 28, 29 is not a fragment, nor an isolated enactment; it is a recapitulation in a very complete form of the whole law so far as it applied to a distinct and important department of Jewish worship. As such it accords with its assigned position on the threshold of the promised land; or it may even represent a later codification of the Mosaic legislation on the subject. Turning now to the narrative, we find that it is exceedingly uneven and intermittent in its character as a record. Three hundred and twenty-six verses are devoted to the arrangements and events of the fifty days which preceded the march from Sinai; one hundred and fifty-five more contain the story of the few months which ended with the defeat at Kadesh; to the next thirty-eight years belong only sixty-three verses, relating in detail a single episode without date or place; the rest of the narrative, consisting of three hundred and sixty-one verses, relates to the last period, of little more than eleven months according to the accepted chronology. Even in this last portion, which is comparatively full, it is evident by a reference to the Itinerary that no notice is taken of many places where the camp was halted, and where no doubt incidents of greater or less interest occurred. The Book, therefore, does not profess to be a continuous narrative, but only to record certain incidents — some briefly, some at considerable length — of the journeys from Sinai to Kadesh, and from Kadesh to Jordan, together with a single episode from the long years between. But the narrative, broken as it is in chain of incident, is further broken in literary character. The questions which arise out of the story of Balaam are discussed in their proper place; but it is impossible to believe (unless some very strong necessity can be shown for believing) that the section Numbers 22:2-24 has the same literary history as the rest of the Book. Inserted in the Book, and that in its proper place as to order of events, its distinctness is nevertheless evident, both from other considerations and especially from its rhetorical and dramatic character. It requires no knowledge of Hebrew, and no acquaintance with learned theories, to recognize in this section an epic (partly prose and partly verse) which may indeed have come from the same author as the narrative which surrounds it, but which must have had within that author's mind a wholly different origin and history. What is said of the story of Balaam may be said in a somewhat different sense of the archaic quotations in chapter 21. Imbedded as these are in the story, they are on the face of them as plainly foreign as the erratics which the icebergs of a vanished age have left behind. But, more than this, the very presence of these quotations gives a peculiar character to the narrative in which they occur. It is hard to believe that the historian, e.g., of the exodus would stoop to cull these snatches of old song, which are for the most part devoid of any religious import; it is hard not to think that they are due to popular memory, and were repeated by many a camp-fire before they got written down by some unknown hand.

Looking, therefore, at the Book of Numbers simply as one of the sacred books of the Jews, we find that it presents the following features. It narrates a variety of incidents at the beginning and ending of the desert wanderings between Sinai and Jordan, and carries on the story of Israel (with one remarkable break) from the holy mount of consecration to the holy land of habitation. The narrative, however, incomplete as to matter, is also inconsecutive as to form; for it is interspersed with legislative matter which does not seem for the most part to have any special connection with its context, But would find its natural place among the laws of Leviticus. Moreover, while the main part of the narrative entirely harmonizes in literally style and character with that of the previous Books (at least from Genesis 11:10 onwards), there are portions towards the end which Bear internal evidence — the one less, the other more strongly — of a different origin. If we had no other data to go upon, we should probably come to the conclusion —

1. That the materials used in compiling the Book were in the main from one hand, and that the same to which we owe both the previous history of the Beni-Israel and the Sinaitic legislation.

2. That the materials had existed in a somewhat fragmentary state, and had been arranged in their present order by some unknown hand.

3. That in one chapter at least some other material of a more popular kind had been drawn upon.

4. That in one case an entire section had been inserted, complete in itself, and of a character very distinct from the rest. These conclusions are, however, by no means so certain but that they may be set aside by sufficient arguments if such can be found.


It has been until lately assumed as a matter of course that the whole of this Book, together with the other four of the Pentateuch, was written By Moses. With regard to Numbers 12:3 alone, the obvious difficulty of ascribing such a statement to Moses himself has always led many to regard it as an interpolation by some later (sacred) writer. When we come to examine the evidence for the Mosaic authorship of the whole Book as it stands, it is astonishing how little it amounts to. There is not a single statement attached to the Book to show that it was written by Moses. There is indeed a statement in Numbers 33:2 that "Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys By the commandment of the Lord;" but this, so far from proving that Moses wrote the Book, somewhat strongly militates against it. For the statement in question is found in a section which is' obviously distinct, and which has more the appearance of an appendix to the narrative than of an integral part of it. Moreover, it does not even apply to the Itinerary as it stands, but only to the bare list of marches upon which it is founded; the observations appended to some of the names (e.g., to Elim and to Mount Hor) are much more like the work of a later writer copying from the list left by Moses. If we found in an anonymous work a list of names inserted towards the end with the statement that the names had been written down By such and such a person (whose authority would be unquestioned), we should not certainly quote that statement in order to prove that that person wrote all the rest of the book. Supposing the statement to be true (and there seems no alternative between accepting it as true within the knowledge of the writer and rejecting it as a willful falsehood), it simply assures us that Moses kept a written record of the marches, and that the Itinerary in question is based on that record. Turning to the external testimony as to authorship, we come to the evidence afforded by the opinion of the later Jews. No one doubts that they ascribed the whole Pentateuch to Moses, and comparatively few doubt that their tradition was substantially correct. But it is one thing to believe that an opinion handed down from an uninquiring age as to the authorship of a book was substantially correct, and quite another thing to believe that it was formally correct. That the Law was of Mosaic origin and authority may have been perfectly true for all practical religious purposes; that the Law was written down verbatim as it stands by the hand of Moses may have been the very natural, but at the same time inaccurate, form in which a true belief presented itself to minds wholly innocent of literary criticism. To set the tradition of the later Jews against the strong internal evidence of the writings themselves is to exalt tradition (and that at its weakest point) at the expense of Scripture. It may be very true that if the Law was not really of Mosaic origin, the saints and prophets of old time were grievously deceived; it may be quite false that any particular opinion current amongst them as to the precise character of the Mosaic authorship has any claim upon our acceptance. That "the Law was given by Moses" is a thing so constantly affirmed in the Scriptures that it can hardly be denied without overthrowing their authority; that Moses wrote every word of Numbers as it stands is a literary opinion which naturally commended itself to an age of literary ignorance, but which every ensuing age is at liberty to revise or reject.

It is, however, argued that our Lord himself has testified to the truth of the ordinary Jewish tradition by using the name "Moses" as tantamount to the Mosaic books. This argument has more special reference to Deuteronomy, but the whole Pentateuch is included within its scope. It is answered — and the answer is apparently incontrovertible — that our Lord merely used the common language of the Jews, without meaning to guarantee the precise accuracy of the ideas on which that language was based. As a fact, the Pentateuch was known as "Moses," just as the Psalms were known as "David." No one, perhaps, would now contend that Psalm 95 must of necessity be ascribed to David himself because it is cited as "David" in Hebrews 4:7; and few would maintain the like of Psalm 110, even though our Lord certainly assumed that "David" spake therein (Matthew 22:45). Both these psalms may have been David's own, and yet we need not feel ourselves tied up to that conclusion because the ordinary language and opinion of the Jews concerning them is followed in the New Testament. The common sense of the matter seems to be, that unless our Lord's judgment had been directly challenged on the subject, he could not have done otherwise than use the common terminology of the day. To do otherwise had been the part, not of a prophet, but of a pedant, which he assuredly never was. We may be sure that he always spake to people in their own language, and accepted their current ideas, unless those ideas involved some practical religious error. He took occasion, e.g., to say that Moses did not give the manna from heaven (John 6:32), and did mot institute circumcision (ibid. 7:22), for these exaggerations in the popular estimate of Moses were both false in themselves and might be known to be false; but to open up a literary controversy which would have been unintelligible and unpractical for that and many succeeding generations was wholly foreign to that Son of man who was in the truest sense the child of his own age and of his own people. To take an instructive instance from the region of physical science: it has actually been made a reproach against the sacred writers that they speak (as we do) of the sun rising and setting, whereas in truth it is the movements of the earth which cause the appearances in question. It does not occur to such critics to ask themselves how the sacred writers could have used in that age scientific language which even we cannot use in common conversation. That our Lord spake of the sun rising and setting, and not of the earth revolving on its axis from west to east, is a thing for which we have perhaps as much reason to be thankful as those who heard him. Similarly, that our Lord spake of Moses without hesitation or qualification as the author of the Pentateuch is a matter not of surprise, but of thankfulness to us all, however much modern investigation may have modified our conception of the Mosaic authorship. What could possibly be more alien from the revealed character of that adorable Son of man than a display either of scientific or of literary knowledge, foreign to the age, which had no bearing upon true religion or the saving of the world from sin

External testimony, therefore, only seems to force upon us the conclusion that the substance of "the Law" (in some general sense) is of Mosaic origin; but it does not oblige us to believe that Moses wrote down either the legislative or narrative portions of our Book with his own hand. We are therefore left to internal evidence for the determination of all such questions. Now it must be at once conceded that internal evidence is extremely difficult to weigh, especially in writers so remote from our own age and our own literary canons. But a few points come out strongly from the study of the Book.

1. As already shown, its very form and character point to the probability of its having been compiled from documents previously existing, and put together for the most part very inartificially. Scarcely a trace appears of any attempt to soften down the abrupt transitions, to explain the obscurities, or to bridge over the gaps with which the Book abounds; its multiplicity of beginnings and endings is left to speak for itself.

2. The great bulk of the Book bears strong evidence to the truth of the ordinary belief that it was written by a contemporary, and that contemporary none other than Moses himself. If we look at the narrative, the curiously minute touches here and the equally curious obscurities there point alike to a writer who had lived through it all; a later writer would have had no motive for inserting many of the details, and would have had strong motives for explaining many things which now arouse, without gratifying, our curiosity. The antiquarian information incidentally given about Hebron and Zoan (Numbers 13:22) seems thoroughly incompatible with a later age than that of Moses, and points to one who had had access to the public archives of Egypt; and the list of cheap delicacies in Numbers 11:5 is evidence of the same sort. The boundaries assigned to the promised land are indeed too obscure to be made the basis of much argument, but the one plain fact about them that they exclude the trans-Jordanic territory — seems inconsistent with any subsequent period of Jewish national feeling. Until towards the close of the monarchy the regions of Gilead and Bashan were a part, and an integral part, of the land of Israel; Jordan could only have been made the eastern frontier at a time when the self-willed choice of the two and a half tribes had not yet obliterated (so to speak) the original boundary of the promised possession. Moreover, the obvious want of coincidence between the settlements recorded in Numbers 32:34-38 and those afterwards held by these tribes tells strongly in favour of the contemporary origin of this record. If, on the other hand, we look at the legislation included in this Book, we have not indeed the same assurances, but we have the fact that very much of it is on the face of it designed for a wilderness life, and required to be adapted to the times of settled habitation: the camp and the tabernacle are constantly assumed, and directions given (as e.g., in Numbers 19:3, 4, 9) which could only be replaced by some equivalent ritual after the temple was set up. It is of course possible (though very improbable) that some later writer might have imagined himself to be living with the people in the wilderness, and have written accordingly; but it is eminently unlikely that he would have succeeded in doing so without betraying himself many times. The religious fictions of a much later and more literary age, such as the Book of Judith, continually blunder, and if the Book of Tobit escapes the charge, it is because it restricts itself to domestic scenes. Against this strong internal evidence — all the stronger because it is difficult to reduce it to definite statement — there is really nothing to be set. The theory, which once seemed so plausible, that the use of the two Divine names, Jehovah and Elohim, pointed to a plurality of authors whose various contributions might be distinguished, has happily been long enough in the hands of its advocates to have reduced itself to absurdity. If there be any one left who is disposed to pursue this ignis fatuus of Old Testament criticism, it is not possible for soberness and common sense to follow him — he must chase his phantoms until he be weary, for he will always find some one more foolish than himself to give him a reason why "Jehovah" should stand here and "Elohim" there. The argument from the use of the word nabi (prophet — Numbers 11:29; 12:6) seems to be founded on a misunderstanding of 1 Samuel 9:9, and the few other exceptions which have been taken refer to passages which may well be interpolations. The conclusion, therefore, is strongly warranted that the bulk of the material contained in this Book is from the hand of a contemporary, and if so, from the hand of Moses himself, since no one else can even be suggested.

3. There is every reason to believe, and no necessity to deny, that interpolations were made either by the original compiler or by some later reviser. Instances will be found in Numbers 12:3; 14:25, and in chapter 15:32-36. In the last case it may be reasonably contended that the incident is narrated in order to illustrate the sternness of the law against the presumptuous sinner, but the words "when the children of Israel were in the wilderness seem to show conclusively that the illustration was interpolated by some one living in the land of Canaan. No one perhaps would have doubted this except under the strangely mistaken idea that it is an article of the Christian faith that Moses wrote every word of the Pentateuch. In chapters 13, 14, and 16 there are signs not so much of interpolation, but of a revision of the narrative which has disturbed its sequence, and in the latter case has made it very obscure in parts. These phenomena would be accounted for if we could suppose that one who had himself been an actor in these scenes (such as Joshua) had altered and revised, not very skillfully, the record left behind by Moses. We have, however, no evidence to substantiate such a supposition. In Numbers 21:1-3 we have an apparent example neither of interpolation nor of revision, but of accidental dislocation. The notice of King Arad and his defeat is evidently very ancient, but it is generally agreed that it is out of place where it stands; nevertheless, the displacement would seem to be older than the present form of the Itinerary, for the passing allusion in chapter 33:40 refers to the same event in the same geographical connection. The repetition of the genealogy of Aaron in Numbers 26:58-61 has all the appearance of an interpolation. The character of Numbers 33:1-49 has been already discussed.

4. There remain two important passages on which objections have been founded against the Mosaic authorship of the Book. The one is the narrative of the march round Moab in chapter 21, with its quotations of ancient songs and sayings. The objection indeed that no "book of the wars of the Lord" could have been then in existence is arbitrary, for we have no means of proving a negative of this kind. That written records were very rare in that age is really no reason for denying that Moses (who had received the highest education of the most civilized country in the then world) was able to write down memorials of his own time, or to make a collection of popular songs. But that Moses should have quoted from one of those songs, which could only just have been added to the collection, seems very unlikely; and this fact, together with the different character of the narrative in this part, may incline us to believe that the compiler here added to the (perhaps meager) record left by Moses by drawing upon some of that popular lore, partly oral, partly written, which happened to illustrate his text. The other passage is the long and striking episode of Balaam, which has been already spoken of. There is no difficulty in supposing that this came from the hand of Moses, if we look upon it as an epic poem based upon facts, although it is a matter of conjecture how he became acquainted with the facts. The possible explanation is suggested in the notes, and it is clear in any case that no subsequent Jewish writer would be in a better position than Moses himself in this respect, while to regard it as a mere effort of the iron, nation creates a host of difficulties greater than those it solves.

This part of the subject may be summed up by saying, that while the external evidence as to authorship is indecisive, and only obliges us to believe that "the Law" was given by Moses, the internal evidence is strong that the Book of Numbers, like the preceding books, is substantially from the hand of Moses. The objections urged against this conclusion are either in themselves captious and untenable, or are merely valid against particular passages. As to these, it may be fearlessly allowed that there are some interpolations by a later hand, that portions have been revised, that the various sections would seem to have existed separately, and to have been put together with little art, that some other material may have been worked into the narrative, and that some of the legislation may perhaps be rather a later codification of Mosaic ordinances than the original ordinances themselves.


It may perhaps seem that in surrendering the traditional opinion that in all this Book we have the ipsissima verba written down by Moses, we have given up its veracity. Such an inference, however, would be quite arbitrary. Nothing turns upon the question whether Moses wrote a single word of Numbers, unless it be the list of marches, of which as much is expressly stated. There is no reason for asserting that Moses was inspired to write true history, and that Joshua, e.g., was not. The Books of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth are received as true, although we do not know who wrote them, and the Book of Judges at any rate is apparently compiled from fragmentary records. Even in the New Testament we do not know who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews; and we do know that there are passages in the Gospel of St. Mark (Numbers 16:9-20) and in the Gospel of St. John (Numbers 8:1-11) which were not written by the evangelists to whom they have been traditionally assigned. The credibility of these writings (considered apart from the fact of their inspiration) turns mainly upon the question to whose authority the statements contained in them can be traced, and in a very minor degree to whose hand the present arrangement of them is due. As to the first, we have every reason to believe that the materials of the Book are substantially from Moses himself, whose knowledge and veracity are alike beyond suspicion. As to the second, we have only to acknowledge the same ignorance as in the case of the greater part of the Old Testament and of some part of the New Testament. It is, of course, open to any one to doubt or to deny the truth of these records, but in order to show reason for doing so he must not be content with pointing out some difference of style here, or some trace of a later hand there, but he must bring forward some clear instance of error, some undeniable self-contradiction, or some statement which is fairly incredible. The mere existence of a record so ancient and revered, and the unmistakable tone of simplicity and straightforwardness which characterizes it, give it a prima facie claim upon our acceptance until good cause can be shown to the contrary. If the early records of other nations are largely fabulous and incredible, no presumption passes over from them to a record which on the face of it presents such utterly different features. It remains to examine candidly the only objection of a serious nature (apart from the question of miracles, which it is useless to consider here) which has been brought against the substantial truth of this Book. It is urged that the figures set down as representing the numbers of Israel at the two censuses are incredible, because inconsistent, not only with the possibilities of life in the wilderness, but also with the directions given by Moses himself. This is in truth a very serious objection, and there is much to be said for it. It is quite true that a population of some 2,000,000 people, including a full proportion of women and children (for the males of that generation would be rather under than over the average), would under any ordinary. circumstances seem unmanageable in a wild and difficult country. It is quite true (and this is much more to the point) that the narrative as a whole leaves a distinct impression upon the mind of a very much smaller total than the one given. It is sufficient to refer for proof to such passages as Numbers 10:3-7, where the whole nation is supposed to be within hearing of the silver trumpet, and able to distinguish its calls; chapter 14, where the whole nation is represented as joining in the uproar, and therefore as included in the sentence; chapter 16, where a similar scene is described in connection with the revolt of Korah; Numbers 20:11, where the whole thirsty multitude is represented as drinking (together with their cattle) of the one stream from the smitten rock; Numbers 21:9, where the brazen serpent on a standard may be seen, apparently, from every part of the camp. Each one of these instances, indeed, if taken by itself, may be shown to be far from conclusive; but there is such a thing as cumulative evidence — the evidence which arises from a number of small and inconclusive testimonies all pointing the same way. Now it can hardly be denied that all these incidents raise in the mind a strong impression, which the entire narrative tends to confirm, that the numbers of Israel were much more moderate than those given. The difficulty, however, comes to a head in connection with the marching orders issued by Moses directly after the first census, and to that point we may confine our attention.

According to chapter 2 (as slightly modified afterwards — see on chapter 10:17) the eastern camps of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, containing more than 600,000 people, were to march first, and then the tabernacle was taken down and carried on wagons by the Gershonites and Merarites. After them marched the southern camps of Reuben, Gad, and Simeon, more than 500,000 strong; and behind them the Kohathites bore the sacred furniture; the other Levites were to put up the tabernacle against the Kohathites arrived. The remaining camps of the west and of the north followed with some 900,000 souls.

If we try to picture to ourselves a day's march between Sinai and Kadesh, we have to think of 600,000 people at the first signal of departure striking their tents, forming into columns under their natural leaders, and setting forth in the direction taken by the cloudy pillar. We are not at liberty to suppose that they straggled far and wide over the face of the land, because it is evident that an orderly march is intended under the guidance of a single moving object. It is difficult to believe that a multitude so vast and so mixed could have moved off the ground in less than four or five hours at least, even if this was possible; but this was only one division out of four, and these were separated by some little interval, so that it would be already dark before the last division could possibly have fallen into the line of march. Now if we turn our eyes from the beginning to the end of the day's march, we see the journey arrested by the cloudy pillar; we see the first division of 600,000 souls turning to the right in order to take up camping ground towards the east; when these are out of the way we see the Levites arriving and setting up the tabernacle beside the cloudy pillar; then another division of half a million people come up and spread themselves on the south of the tabernacle across the onward track; behind the last of these come the Kohathites with the sacred furniture, and, passing through the midst of the southern camps, rejoin at last their brethren in order to place the holy things in the tabernacle; then follows a third division, some 360,000 strong, who march off to the left; and last of all the fourth division, which contains more than another half-million, has to make a circuit entirely round the eastern or western camps in order to take up its own quarters on the north. Undoubtedly the question forces itself on every one who permits himself to think about it, whether such orders and such numbers are compatible with one another. Even if we allow for the providential absence of all sickness and all death, it appears very doubtful whether the thing was within the limits of physical possibility. Again, we have to ask ourselves whether Moses would have separated the tabernacle from its sacred furniture on the march by half a million of people, who must (under any circumstances) have been many hours in getting out of the way. It may be said, and with some truth, that we scarcely know what may be done by vast multitudes animated by one spirit, habituated to rigid discipline, and (in this case) aided by many peculiar and indeed miraculous circumstances. Still there are physical limits of time and space which no energy and no discipline can overpass, and which no conceivable exercise of Divine power can set aside. It may be granted that 2,000,000 of Israelites might have wandered for years in the peninsula under the given conditions, and yet it may be denied that they could follow the marching orders issued at Sinai. Without attempting to solve this question, two considerations may be pointed out which affect its character.

1. No simple alteration of the text will set the figures in accord with the apparent requirements of the narrative. The total of 600,000 adult males is repeated again and again, from Exodus 12:37 onwards; it is made up of a number of smaller totals, which are also given; and it is to some extent checked by comparison with the number of the "first-born" and the number of Levites.

2. If the numbers recorded were given up as untrustworthy, it is certain that nothing else in the Book would be directly affected. The numbers stand quite apart, at least in this sense, that they have no value and no interest whatever of any moral or spiritual kind. Arithmetic enters into history, but it does not enter into religion. The same things have, from the point of view of religion, precisely the same value and the same meaning when done or suffered by one thousand which they would have had if done or suffered by ten thousand. If, then, any earnest student of Holy Writ should find himself unable to accept, as historically trustworthy, the numbers given in this Book, he is not therefore driven to discard the Book itself, fraught as it is with so many a message to his own soul. Rather than do this — rather than cast away, as if it had no existence, all that mass of positive, albeit indirect and often subtle, evidence which goes to substantiate the truth of the record — he would do well to put aside the question of mere numbers as one which, however perplexing, cannot be looked upon as vital. He may even hold that in some way the numbers may have been corrupted, and he may think it possible that the Divine providence which watches over the sacred writings has suffered them to be corrupted because mere numbers are of no moral or spiritual import. He may feel encouraged in this opinion by the apparently undeniable fact that the Holy Spirit who inspired St. Paul did not prevent him from misquoting a number out of this very Book (1 Corinthians 10:8); for he cannot fail to perceive that the misquotation (supposing it to be one) does not make the slightest possible difference to those holy and important lessons which the Apostle was drawing from these records. It is not by any means affirmed by the present writer that the numbers in question are unhistoric; nor would he deny that their accuracy is maintained by far greater scholars and theologians than himself; he would only submit to the reader that the whole question, with all its attendant difficulties, may be calmly considered and argued on its own merits without involving anything which is really vital in our faith as concerning the word of God. We should surely have learnt little from the perplexities and victories of faith in the last forty years if we were not prepared for the possibility of admitting many modifications into our conception of inspiration without any fear lest inspiration should become to us less real, less full, less precious than it is.

The introduction to a single book is not the place to discuss the character of that inspiration which it shares with the other "God-inspired Scriptures." The present writer may, however, be excused if he points out once for all that the testimony of our Lord and of the Apostle Paul is clear and emphatic to the typical and prophetical character of the incidents here narrated. Such a reference as that in John 3:14 and such a statement as that in 1 Corinthians 10:4-11 cannot be explained away. Here then is the heart and kernel of the inspiration of the Book as recognized by our Lord, by his apostles, and by all his devout followers. They who live (or die) before us in these pages are τυ ì<sup>ποι ἡμῶν</sup>, types or patterns of ourselves; their outward history was the foreshadow of our spiritual history, and its records were written for our behoof. Having this clue, and holding this as of faith, we shall not greatly err. The questions which arise may perplex, but may not shake us. And if a wider acquaintance with scientific criticism tend at first to unsettle our faith, yet, on the other hand, a wider acquaintance with experimental religion tends every day to strengthen our faith, by testifying to the marvelous and profound correspondence which exists between the sacred records of that long-vanished past and the ever-recurring problems and vicissitudes of Christian life.


A vast number of Commentaries may be consulted on the Book of Numbers, but as a rule they deal with it only as a portion of the Pentateuch. It is indeed so inseparably united to the Books which precede it that no scholar would make it the subject of a separate work.

It is therefore to works on the Pentateuch that the student must be referred, and amongst these the Commentary of Keil and Delitzsch (translated for Clark's Foreign Theological Library) may perhaps be mentioned as the most useful and available for careful interpretation and explanation of the text. The 'Speaker's Commentary,' and the smaller works which have followed in its wake, must be pronounced very inferior in thoroughness and general usefulness to the equally accessible standard German Commentaries. Ewald, Kurtz, and Hengstenberg, in their several works, have treated of the incidents and ordinances recorded in Numbers with considerable fullness from very varying standpoints; the last-named has also a lengthy monograph on the history of Balaam. For the homiletical treatment of the Book there is nothing so suggestive within a moderate compass as what may be found in the Bishop of Lincoln's Commentary.

It must be frankly acknowledged that the student who wishes to form an intelligent opinion on the many difficult questions which arise out of this portion of the sacred narrative will not find all these questions honestly faced or satisfactorily answered in any one of the existing Commentaries. He will, however, by combining what appears best in each, have before him the materials by means of which he may either form his judgment, or suspend it until in God's good time a clearer light shall shine.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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