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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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Numbers is the appellation given to the fourth book of Moses.

This book embraces more especially the continuation of the Sinaitic legislation, the march through the wilderness, the rejection of a whole generation, and the commencement of the conquest of Canaan. Thus we see that it treats on very different subjects, and on this account it has frequently been attempted to resolve it into separate fragments and documents, and to represent it as being composed of the most heterogeneous materials. We will endeavor to refute this opinion, by furnishing an accurate survey of its contents, and by describing the internal connection of its component parts, so that the organization of the book may be clearly understood.

The sum and substance of the law having been stated in the preceding books, that of Numbers commences with the arrangements requisite for preserving good order in the camp of the Israelites. The people are numbered for the express purpose of separating the Levites from those Israelites who had to bear arms, and of thus introducing into practice the law concerning the first-born, for whom the tribe of Levi became a substitute. For this reason the people are not merely numbered, but also classed according to their descent; the order which each tribe should occupy in the camp is defined, and the Levites are introduced into their respective functions (Numbers 1-4).

The camp, having been consecrated, was to be kept pure according to the law of Levitical cleansings; consequently all persons were excluded from it who were afflicted with leprosy, who had become unclean by a flux, and who had touched a corpse ().

Thus, after civil and sacerdotal life had been brought into a definite form, other laws based upon this form came into force, especially those laws which regulated the authority of the priests in civil affairs ( to ). These regulations conclude with the beautiful form of benediction which indicates the blessing to be expected from the true observance of the preceding directions. The people are impressed with this fact; the hearts of the Israelites are willing to offer the required gifts, and to entrust them to the Levites.

Jehovah is faithful to His promise, and gloriously reveals Himself to His people (Numbers 7). Before the Levites enter upon the discharge of their sacred functions, the law concerning the lamps to be lighted in the sanctuary is significantly repeated (Numbers 8). These lamps symbolize the communication of the Holy Spirit, and bring to the recollection of the nation the blessings of theocracy to be derived from setting apart the tribe of Levi, which had recently been separated from the rest of the people.

Then follows a description of the celebration of the Passover, preparatory to the departure of the people from Mount Sinai (). Some regulations are connected with the celebration of the Passover, and the whole miraculous guidance of the people is described ( to ).

Thus the entrance of Israel into the Holy Land seemed to be fully prepared; and it was of great importance to show how they were prevented from entering it. Accurate details are therefore given of the spirit which pervaded the nation; a spirit which, in spite of the forbearance of God, manifested itself in daring rebellions against the divine authority (Numbers 11-12).

Now comes the turning point of the history. Everything seems externally prepared for the conquest of the country, when it appears that the nation are not yet internally ripe for the performance of so important an act (Numbers 13-14).

In immediate connection with this are some laws which were given in the desert; the intention of which was to recall to the recollection of the rejected race, which had been justly condemned to suffer severe punishment, that nevertheless they had not ceased to be the people of the covenant, and the depositary of divine revelation (comp.;;; , sq.). In this respect the facts mentioned in , and Numbers 6 are also of great importance. They show, on the one hand, the continuance of an evil disposition in the people, and, on the other, the majesty of God watching over His holy law.

The contents of Numbers 15-19 are of a similar character. The facts there recorded relate to a period of thirty-eight years. The conciseness with which they are stated significantly indicates the strictly legal and theocratical principles of the Mosaical legislation. The period of Israel's rejection is characterized by the circumstance, that the historian is almost silent respecting it, as being a period not strictly belonging to theocratical history. During this period the striking deeds of God, his miracles and signs, the more prominent operations of his grace, and his peculiar blessings, cease. The rejection of the nation consisted in this suspension of the divine operations. During this period God, as it were, ignored His people. Consequently, the historian also almost ignores the rebellious race. But the period in which the divine promises were to be fulfilled again forms a prominent portion of the history. The termination of the penal period is the commencement of the most important era in the Mosaical history. It brings the legislation to a splendid conclusion. The most glorious facts here follow each other in close succession; facts which were intended clearly to demonstrate that the chosen people entered into the land of promise, not by their own power and might, but that this land was given into their hands by the God of promise.

There have frequently been raised strong doubts against the historical credibility of the book of Numbers, although it is impressed with indubitable marks of the age to which it refers, and of perfect authenticity. The author proves himself to possess an intimate knowledge of Egypt and of Egyptian history, and manners and customs. Narratives like the history of Balaam furnish also numerous proofs of their high antiquity. Its geographical statements are found to be uncommonly accurate, and the nations particularly mentioned in that prophecy belong to the Mosaical period, and some of them at a later era disappeared entirely from history. The list of stations in Numbers 33 bears undeniable marks of antiquity; and the historical notices which the list contains demonstrate the accurate historical information of the author. Moreover the great fact which is the basis of the narrative of the whole book—the sojourn of the Israelites during forty years in the wilderness—can only be accounted for by assuming an extraordinary divine intervention.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Numbers'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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