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Bible Dictionaries
Numbers, Book of

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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NUMBERS, BOOK OF. 1 . The Book of Numbers forms the sequel to the Book of Exodus; it carries on the history of the Israelites from the stay at Sinai till the arrival at the borders of Moab. The name ‘Numbers’ is due to the repeated numberings in chs. 1, 3, 4, 26. The book is composed of writings from the prophetic schools of J [Note: Jahwist.] and E [Note: Elohist.] , and the Priestly school of P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . One passage is from D [Note: Deuteronomist.] Numbers 21:33-35 = Deuteronomy 3:1-8 . A minute analysis of the sources, not only distinguishing J [Note: Jahwist.] , E [Note: Elohist.] , and P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , but also separating the different strata of P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , is necessary for a full understanding of the book. The present article, however, can only accept in broad outline the results reached by scholars. The reader is referred to The Hexateuch ed. by Carpenter and Battersby, the art. ‘Numbers’ by the latter in Hastings’ DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] iii., and Gray’s Com. on Numbers .

2 . Although the narrative begins at Sinai and ends in Moab, the period of the 40 years’ wanderings is a blank, and the events are confined to the two periods before and after it. The book consists of three parts: Numbers 1:1 to Numbers 10:10 , Numbers 10:11 to Numbers 21:9 , Numbers 21:10 to Numbers 36:13 .

A. Numbers 1:1 to Numbers 10:19 . Ordinances at Sinai. The section is entirely from P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] .

Contents . Chs. 1 4: ( a ) The census; ( b ) arrangement of the camp; ( c ) functions of the Levites. Chs. 5, 6: Laws concerning ( d ) three unclean classes of persons who must be excluded from the camp ( Numbers 5:1-4 ); ( e ) some priestly dues (5 10); ( f ) the ordeal of jealousy (11 31); ( g ) the law of the Nazirite ( Numbers 6:1-21 ); ( h ) the priests’ formulas of blessing ( Numbers 6:22-27 ). ( i ) Ch. 7: The offerings (identical in each case) of the twelve tribal princes. ( j ) Ch. Numbers 8:1-4 : The golden lampstand. ( k ) Ch. Numbers 8:5-26 : Dedication of the Levites, and age of their service. ( l ) Ch. Numbers 9:1-14 : The supplementary Passover, ( m ) Ch. Numbers 9:15-23 : The cloud over the Tabernacle, ( n ) Ch. Numbers 10:1-10 : The two silver trumpets.

Notes . Two passages in this section are retrospective, viz. 7 and Numbers 9:1-14 . The rest cover the last 19 days ( Numbers 1:1 , Numbers 10:11 ) spent at Sinai.

( a ) The census is referred to by anticipation in Exodus 30:12; Exodus 38:26 . The strange position of Gad in the lists ( Numbers 1:20-47; Numbers 1:26 ) is explained by the position assigned to it in ch. 2, next to Reuben and Simeon on the S. of the camp. The figures of the census are artificial and impossible; they are investigated by Gray, Numbers , pp. 10 15. ( b ) The arrangement of the camp is based upon the same principle as that in the ideal picture of Ezekiel (ch. 48). ( c ) The Levites are instituted as a class of priests’ servants a conception quite at variance with all earlier representations. They are accepted by J″ [Note: Jahweh.] in lieu of the firstborn of Israel. The transport duties of the three Levitical families, Kohath, Gershon, and Merari, are detailed. Notice that the period of service in Numbers 4:2-20 differs from that in Numbers 8:23-26 . ( d ) The three classes are dealt with in detail in Leviticus 13:1-59; Leviticus 15:1-33 and Numbers 19:1-22 respectively, ( e ) The section is supplementary to Lv 5:20 26. It deals with the cases in which the injured party is dead, and there is no next-of-kin. It further lays down that every sacred gift is to belong to the particular priest to-whom it is paid, ( f ) A woman suspected by her usband of adultery which cannot be proved, is made to drink a potion which will be harmful if she is guilty, but will result in fruitfulness if she is innocent. This and the Nazirite vow ( g ) are instances of very ancient practices which have survived, in the form of law, only in P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . ( h ) The priestly blessing is probably earlier in origin than P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , and may have been used in the Temple before the Exile. Psalms 67:1-7 appears to be influenced by it. ( i ) See Exodus 25:31-40; Exodus 27:20 f.; ( j ) reads like a later expansion of the commands in chs. 3, 4.

B. Numbers 10:11 to Numbers 21:9 . From Sinai to the desert W. of the ‘Arabah.

Contents . ( a ) Numbers 10:11-28 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . The move to the Wilderness of Paran in marching order. ( b ) Numbers 10:29-36 J. Departure from the mountain; Moses asked Hobab to accompany them. Words which Moses used to address to the ark. ( c ) Numbers 11:1-3 E. Taberah. ( d ) Numbers 11:4-35 JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] . Kibroth-hattaavah; the 70 elders, Eldad and Medad; the quails; Hazeroth. ( e ) Numbers 12:1-15 E [Note: Elohist.] . Aaron and Miriam attacked Moses; Miriam’s leprosy. ( f ) Numbers 12:13 J [Note: Jahwist.] . The move to the wilderness of Paran. ( g ) Numbers 12:13-14 JEP. The sending of the spies; their evil report, and its sequel. Numbers 12:15 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . Laws concerning: ( h ) Meal-offerings and libations (1 16), ( i ) cake of first of ‘ăr îsôth (17 21), ( j ) propitiation for sins of Ignorance (22 31), ( k ) punishment for Sabbath-breaking (32 38), ( l ) tassels (37 41), ( m ) 16 JEP. Rebellion of Korah (P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ) and of Dathan. Abiram, and On (JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ). ( n ) 17 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . Aaron’s rod budded, ( o ) Numbers 18:1-7 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . Levites to be the priests’ servants, ( p ) Numbers 18:3-32 Peter. Dues to the Levites. ( q ) 19 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . Ritual of the red cow, to remove defilement by the dead. ( r ) Numbers 20:1-13 JEP. The move to the Wilderness of Zin (P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ); Miriam died at Kadesh (JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ); want of water (JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ); the sin of Moses and Aaron at Meribah (P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ). ( s ) Numbers 20:14-21 JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] . Edom refused passage through their territory. ( t ) Numbers 20:22-29 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . Aaron died at Mt. Hor, and was succeeded by Eleazar. ( u ) Numbers 21:1-3 JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] . Hormah. ( v ) Numbers 21:4-9 JEP. Departure from Mt. Hor (P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ); circuit round Edom; and the bronze serpent (JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ).

Notes . ( b ) Hobab, not Reuel, is Moses’ father-in-law; cf. Judges 4:11 (RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ). Hobab’s answer after Numbers 21:32 has been lost; but Judges 1:15 makes it probable that he consented to accompany them. ( d ) Into the story of the quails have been interpolated Judges 1:11 f., Judges 1:14 f., and also the account of the elders, Judges 1:18 f., Judges 1:24-30 Some think that the former should follow Exodus 33:1-3 and the latter Exodus 33:7-11 . ( g ) The narratives of JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] and of P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] have been combined. In JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] spies went to the S. of Canaan, as far as Hebron only. They brought back a cluster of grapes, and said that the land was fertile, but invincible with its giants and great cities. Caleb alone declared that they would be able to conquer it. The people determined to return to Egypt under another captain. Moses entreated J″ [Note: Jahweh.] not to smite them with pestilence. J″ [Note: Jahweh.] consented, but condemned all except Caleb to die in the wilderness. They were commanded to go by the Red Sea, whereupon they suddenly repented, and made an attack upon the Amalekites and Canaanites, but were repulsed with loss. In P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , the spies, whose names are given, went through the whole of Canaan unmolested. They reported that the land was so barren [as it was in the days of P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ] that its inhabitants could not live. The people murmured, but Caleb and Joshua [here first mentioned in P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ] tried to encourage them. The glory of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] appeared, and the people were condemned to wander 40 years, in which all over 20 years of age, except Caleb and Joshua, should die. ( h ) A scale of amounts of meal, oil, and wine to accompany various animals in sacrifice. It is a later, and more carefully graduated, system than that in Ezekiel 46:5-7; Ezekiel 46:11; Ezekiel 46:14 . ( i ) ‘ăr îsôth perhaps means barley meal. ‘First’ appears to refer to the first lump of dough made from the material. ( m ) Distinct incidents from JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] and from P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] have been woven together. In JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] a rebellion was raised by some Reubenites Dathan, Abiram, and On against the civil authority of Moses. Moses warned the people to depart from the tents of the conspirators, who were then swallowed up in the earth. In P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , Korah with 250 princes, who were representatives of all the secular tribes, rebelled against the claim for the special sanctity of the tribe of Levi. At J″ [Note: Jahweh.] ’s challenge they burned incense on censers in front of the Tabernacle; the whole congregation were present, and the glory of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] appeared. Moses told the mass of the people to depart from the Tabernacle, and the fire of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] devoured the 250 men. On the next day the people assembled, and murmured against Moses and Aaron. A plague began, which was checked by Aaron’s action in running among the people with a lighted censer. The superiority of the tribe of Levi was then vindicated by the budding of Aaron’s staff (ch. 17), and the dues to be paid to the Levites were laid down (ch. 18). Into P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ’s story, however, later passages have been interpolated ( Numbers 16:8-11; Numbers 16:18 f., Numbers 17:1-5 ), which represent Korah’s company as Levites , who rebel against the claim of superior sanctity for the family of Aaron. ( r ) The events are at the end of the wanderings, but no movements have been recorded since the events before the 40 years (ch. 13). The difficulties with regard to Kadesh and the wanderings may be studied in Driver, Deut . pp. 31 33. The Meribah narrative in the present section is a combination of J [Note: Jahwist.] and P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . (A Meribah story from E [Note: Elohist.] is combined with a Massah story from J [Note: Jahwist.] in Exodus 17:1-7 .) The sin of Moses and Aaron has not been fully preserved; Exodus 17:10 relates only ill-temper (referred to in Psalms 106:32 f.), though Exodus 17:12 describes it as unbelief, and Numbers 27:14 as rebellion. ( s ) The sequel of this is Numbers 21:4 b, Numbers 21:12 f. (JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ), ( u ) Hormah is connected with hçrem ,‘ban,’ because of the vow to destroy ban the Canaanite cities. The section appears to be misplaced, for it is difficult to understand why the Israelites should have turned away from Canaan immediately after such a striking victory. ( v ) The story was probably to explain the existence of the bronze serpent which Hezekiah afterwards destroyed; it is difficult to see how such a figure in bronze could have been manufactured in the desert with the rapid haste which the occasion would demand

C. Numbers 21:10-35 . Marches and events E. of the ‘Arabah and the Jordan.

Contents . ( a ) Numbers 21:10-30 JEP. Itinerary, and two songs. ( b ) Numbers 21:21-32 JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] . Amorites refused passage. and were defeated. Song of triumph, ( c ) Numbers 21:33-35 D [Note: Deuteronomist.] . Defeat of Og. ( d ) Numbers 22:1 . Arrival at Moab. ( e ) Numbers 22:2 to Numbers 24:25 JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] . Balaam. ( f ) Numbers 25:1-5 JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] . Immorality and idolatry owing to seduction by the Moabite women; the worship of the Baal of Peor. ( g ) Numbers 25:8-18 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . Perpetual priesthood promised to the line of Phinehas for his zeal in killing the Israelite and the Midianitess. ( h ) 26 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . The second census, ( i ) Numbers 27:1 . Case arising out of the daughters of Zelophehad. ( j ) Numbers 27:12-23 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . Moses bidden to prepare for death; Joshua appointed to succeed him. ( k ) 28, 29 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . A scale of public offerings. ( l ) 30 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . Conditions of validity of a vow. ( m ) Numbers 3:1 . The war with Midian. ( n ) Numbers 3:2 . Gad and Reuben, and (J [Note: Jahwist.] ) Manasseh, settled on the E. of Jordan. ( o ) Numbers 33:1-49 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . Itinerary from Egypt to Moah. Numbers 33:50 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . Laws relative to the settlement in Canaan, viz.: ( p ) Numbers 33:50-56 . Destruction of Canaanitish objects of worship, and division of land by lot. ( q ) Numbers 34:1-15 . The boundaries of Canaan. ( r ) Numbers 34:16-29 . Persons to superintend the allotment. ( s ) Numbers 35:1-5 . Levitical cities. ( t ) Numbers 35:9-34 . Cities of refuge. ( u ) Ch. 36. Heiresses (Zelophehad’s daughters) not to marry outside their own tribe.

Notes . ( a ) vv. 10, 11a P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] take the Israelites from Mt. Hor straight to a point on the E. of the ‘Arabah, apparently disregards the detour by the Red Sea and by the E. of Edom. Vv. 11b 20 E [Note: Elohist.] contain places on the northward march from Ezion-geber on the Gulf of Akabah; Deuteronomy 10:6-9 gives the previous march southward from Kadesh. ( b ) The last clause of the song (290) may be a gloss. The whole interpretation of the song depends upon its presence or absence (see Gray on the passage). ( c ) Practically identical with Deuteronomy 3:1-3; the only passage from D [Note: Deuteronomist.] in the book. ( g ) The introduction of a Midianitess can hardly have occurred in Moab. The mention of foreign wives in v. 1 may have caused the passage to be placed here. The narrative is only partially preserved, for nothing is said of the sending of ‘the plague’ (8f.). ( j ) Vv. 12, 13 are closely related to Deuteronomy 32:48-50; whether they are incorporated in, or derived from, Dt. is uncertain. ( k ) The scale of offerings incidentally contains a list of the fixed feasts or sacred seasons, viz. Sabbath ( Numbers 28:9 f.). New Moon (11), Passover (16), Unleavened Cakes (17), Feast of Weeks (26), Feast of Trumpets ( Numbers 29:1 ), Day of Atonement (7), Feast of Booths (12 38). ( l ) These are concerned chiefly with women’s vows, which are treated nowhere else. ( m ) The story is of the nature of a midrash; the numbers of the Israelites, and of the slain and the spoils, are artificial; nothing is said of the march to Midian, or of the place of fighting. The narrative appears mainly intended to illustrate the rules of the distribution of booty (25 30), and the removal of uncleanness by contact with the dead (10 24). ( n ) The term ‘Gilead’ is very elastic. In 1 29 it refers to land south of the Jabbok, but in 39 to land north of it, while in Joshua 22:9; Joshua 22:13 it covers the whole land E. of the Jordan. The towns assigned to Reuben and Gad conflict with P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ’s theory in Joshua 13:15-33 , which is represented in most maps of Palestine, according to which Gad is to the north and Reuben to the south of the N. end of the Dead Sea. In the present passage the towns of Reuben lie between Gadite towns situated to the N. and the S. of them. Vv. 39 42 (J [Note: Jahwist.] ) represent the Manassite settlement on the W. of Jordan as older than that on the E. The verses are a fragment, similar to Judges 1:1-36 and the older parts of Joshua. ( o ) The itinerary falls into four parts: 5 15, Rameses to the Wilderness of Sinai; 15 35, thence to Ezion-geber on the E. arm of the Red Sea; 36, thence to Kadesh = Wilderness of Zin (one stage of 70 miles); 37 49, thence to the steppes of Moab. ( p ) The objects mentioned are ‘figured stones’ (if that is the right rendering; Leviticus 26:1 only), molten images, and ‘high places.’ ( q ) The boundaries are ideal, at least on the west, for the Israelites never occupied a spot on the coast until Simon Maccabæus captured Joppa ( 1Ma 14:5 ). ( s ) The Levites receive 48 plots of land, each of about 207 acres, and containing a town and pasture land. Joshua 21:1-45 states the number of plots allotted in each tribe. Like Ezekiel’s scheme ( Ezekiel 48:8-14 ), the arrangement is purely ideal for (1) in a mountainous country like Palestine plots of 207 acres would be impossible; (2) earlier writings snow that Levites had no landed property, but were commended to the charity of the rest of Israel; (3) priests are found living in such towns as Nob, Shiloh, and Bethel, which are not in the list of Levitical cities. ( t ) The earlier laws of asylum are given in Exodus 21:12-14 , Deuteronomy 19:1-13; the development of the procedure is noteworthy. ( u ) A supplement to Numbers 27:1-11 .

3 . Broadly speaking, the value of JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ’s narratives lies in their portrayal of character, that of P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ’s in its embodiment of ecclesiastical ideas. In JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] the character of Moses is strongly marked, in its strength and its occasional weakness: e.g . his humble piety ( Numbers 12:3 ), his trust in J″ [Note: Jahweh.] ( Numbers 10:29-32 ), his faithfulness to and intimacy with Him ( Numbers 12:6-8 ), his affection for his people ( Numbers 11:2; Numbers 11:10-15 , Numbers 21:7 ), his generosity and public spirit ( Numbers 11:27-29; Numbers 11:12 ); and with this his despondency ( Numbers 11:10-15 ) and provocation by the people (parts of Numbers 20:1-13 ). And no less vivid is the portrayal of the character of the people their dislike of restraint, their selfish murmurings, their vehement repentance followed by wilful self-assertion. The narratives of JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] were not compiled for the sake of recording history; the compiler was a prophet with a keen sense of the religious meaning of history. And his view of personal character revealed in events is not an incidental, but a primary, element in his work. And side by side with this is his conception of the relation between J″ [Note: Jahweh.] and Israel. J″ [Note: Jahweh.] , as Israel’s only God, commands every action and step in the drama; and obedience to Him is followed by prosperity, while disobedience always brings trouble.

The spontaneity and simplicity of the earlier narratives are in marked contrast with the artificial idealism of P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . The writings which we know collectively as P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] extend over centuries, but they were one and all the work of ecclesiastics. Narratives and laws alike were methods of representing the hierocratic conditions either actually prevalent after the Exile, or contemplated by the writers as desirable. Ecclesiasticism entered also into their conceptions of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] . In early days any man might ‘meet’ with J″ [Note: Jahweh.] and inquire of Him at the Tent, which was pitched outside the camp (Exodus 33:7-11 , E [Note: Elohist.] ). But now the presence of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] is protected from pollution by the sacred barrier of the priests and Levites, ‘that there be no wrath upon the congregation’ ( Numbers 1:53 ). Real matters of abiding consequence to man sin, and J″ [Note: Jahweh.] ’s attitude towards it, and the means of forgiveness are hardly touched. And if this description seems to leave in P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] little of spiritual value, it must be answered that its value lies partly in the very evidence that it affords of the deadening influence produced upon spiritual life, and even upon literary art, by a narrow ecclesiasticism which has itself as its only aim. The age and the writings of the Priestly school are an invaluable background, to show up all the more clearly the brightness of the age which followed it, when universal approach to God was thrown open by ‘another priest, who hath been made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an indissoluble life’ ( Hebrews 7:15 f.).

A. H. M‘Neile.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Numbers, Book of'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​n/numbers-book-of.html. 1909.
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