the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
Numbers, Book of
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
the fourth book of Moses, so called in the Septuagint (Ἀριθμαοί ), in the Vulgate (Numeri), and modern versions, from the double enumeration of the Israelites in ch. i-iv and in ch. 26. In the Hebrew it is called Be- midbar', בְּמַדְבֵּר, i.e. n the deserst, this word occurring in the first verse; and sometimes Va-yedabber', וִיְרִבֵּר, from the initial word. It is divided by the Jews into ten parshioth, and in the English and modern versions into thirty-six chapters. (See PENTATEUCH).
I. Contents. — The book may be said to comprise generally the history of the Israelites from the time of their leaving Sinai, in the second year after the Exodus, till their arrival at the borders of the Promised Land in the fortieth year of their journeyings. It consists of the following principal divisions:
1. The preparations for the departure from Sinai (Numbers 1:1 to Numbers 10:10). —
(a.) The object of the encampment at Sinai has been accomplished; the covenant has been made, the law given, the sanctuary set up, the priests consecrated, the service of God appointed, and Jehovah dwells in the midst of his chosen people. It is now time to depart in order that the object may be achieved for which Israel has been sanctified. That object is the occupation of the Promised Land. But this is not to be accomplished by peaceable means, but by the forcible expulsion of its present inhabitants; for "the iniquity of the Amorites is full," they are ripe for judgment, and this judgment Israel is to execute. Therefore Israel must be organized as Jehovah's army; and to this end a mustering of all who are capable of bearing arms is necessary. Hence the book opens with the numbering of the people (ch. i-iv). This comprises, first, the census of all the tribes or clans, amounting in all to six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty, with the exception of the Levites, who were not numbered with the rest (ch. i); secondly, the arrangement of the camp and the order of march (ch. ii); thirdly, the special and separate census of the Levites, who are claimed by God instead of all the first-born, the three families of the tribe having their peculiar offices in the ‘ Tabernacle appointed them, both when it was at rest and when they were on the march (ch. iii-iv).
(b.) Certain laws apparently supplementary to the legislation in Leviticus (ch. v, vi): the removal of the unclean from the camp (v. 1-4); the law of restitution (Numbers 5:5-10); the trial of jealousy (Numbers 5:11-31); the. law of the Nazarites (Numbers 6:1-21); the form of the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:22-27).
(c.) Events occurring at this time, and regulations connected ‘ with them' (Numbers 7:1 to Numbers 10:10). Chapter 7 gives an account of the offerings of the princes of the different tribes at the dedication of the Tabernacle; ch. 8 of the consecration of the Levites (Lev 7:89 and Leviticus 8:1-4 seem to be out of place); Numbers 9:1-14, of the second observance of the Passover (the first in the wilderness) on the fourteenth day of the second month, and of certain provisions made to meet the case of those Who by reason of defilement were unable to keep it. Lastly, Numbers 9:15-23, tells how the cloud and the fire regulated the march and the encampment; and Numbers 10:1-10, how two silver trumpets were employed to give the signal for public assemblies, for war, and for festal occasions.
2. March from Sinai to the borders of Canaan. —
(a.) We have here, first, the order of march described (Numbers 10:14-28); the appeal of Moses to his father-in-law, Hobab, to accompany them in their journeys — a request urged probably because, from his desert life, he would be well acquainted with the best spots to encamp in, and also would have influence with the various wandering and predatory tribes who inhabited the peninsula (29-32); and the chant which accompanied the moving and the resting of the ark (vers. 35, 36).
(b.) An account of several stations and of the events which happened at them. The first was at Taberah, where, because of impatient murmurings, many of the people were destroyed by lightning (these belonged chiefly, it would seem, to the motley multitude which came out of Egypt with the Israelites); the loathing of the people for the manna; the complaint of Moses that he cannot bear the burden thus laid upon him, and the appointment in consequence of seventy elders to serve and help him in his office (Numbers 11:10-29); the quails sent, and the judgment following thereon, which gave its name to the next station, Kibroth-hattaavah (the graves of lust), Numbers 11:31-35 (comp. Psalm 88:30, 31; Psalms 106:14-15); arrival at Hazeroth, where Aaron and Miriam are jealous of Moses, and Miriam is in consequence smitten with leprosy (Numbers 12:1-15); the sending of the spies from the wilderness of Paran, their report, the refusal of the people to enter Canaan, their rejection in consequence, and their rash attack upon the Amalekites, which resulted in a defeat (Numbers 12:16 to Numbers 14:45).
3. A brief notice of laws given and events which transpired apparently during the thirty-seven years' wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 15:1 to Numbers 19:22); but we have no notices of time or place. We have laws respecting the meat and drink offerings, and other sacrifices. (Numbers 15:13); an account of the punishment of a Sabbath-breaker, perhaps as an example of the presumptuous sins mentioned in vers. 30, 31 (Numbers 15:32-36); the direction to put fringes on the garments as mementos (Numbers 15:37-41); the history of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and. Abiram, and the murmuring of the people (16); the budding of Aaron's rod as a testimony that the tribe of Levi was chosen (17); the direction that Aaron and his sons should bear the iniquity of the people, and the duties of the priests and Levites (18); the law of the water of purification (19).
4. The history of the last year, from the second arrival of the Israelites in Kadesh till ‘ they reach "the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho" (Numbers 20:1 to Numbers 36:13). —
(a.) This narrative returns abruptly to the second encampment of the Israelites in Kadesh. Here Miriam dies, and the people murmur for water, and Moses and Aaron, "speaking unadvisedly," are not allowed to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 20:1-13). They intended perhaps, as before, to enter Canaan from the south. This, however, was not to be permitted. They therefore desired a passage through the country of Edom. Moses sent a conciliatory message to the king, asking permission to pass through, and promising carefully to abstain from all outrage, and to pay for the provisions which they might find necessary. The jealousy, however, of this fierce and warlike people was aroused. They refused the request, and turned out in arms to defend their border. As those almost inaccessible mountain passes could have been held by a mere handful of men against a large and well-trained army, the Israelites abandoned the attempt as hopeless, and turned southward, keeping along the western borders of Idumaea till they reached Ezion-geber (Numbers 20:14-21). On their way southward they stopped at Mount Hor, or rather. at Moserah, on the edge of the Edomitish territory; and from this spot it would seem that Aaron, accompanied by his brother Moses and his son Eleazar, quit the camp in order to ascend the mountain. Mount Hor lying itself within the Edomitish territory, while it might have been perilous for a larger number to attempt to penetrate it, these unarmed wayfarers would not be molested, or might escape detection. Bunsen suggests that Aaron was taken to Mount Hor in the hope that the fresh air. of the mountain might be beneficial to his recovery; but the narrative does not justify such a supposition.
After Aaron's death the march was continued southward; but when the Israelites approached the head of the Akabah; at the southernmost point of the Edomitish territory, they again murmured by reason of the roughness of the way, and many perished by the bite of venomous serpents (Numbers 20:22 to Numbers 21:9). The passage (Numbers 21:1-3) which speaks of the Canaanitish king of Arad as coming out against the Israelites is clearly out of place, standing as it does after the mention of Aaron's death on Mount Hor. Arad is in the south of Palestine. The attack, therefore, must have been made while the people were yet in the neighborhood of Kadesh. The mention of Hormah also shows that this must have been the case (Numbers 14:45). It is on this second occasion that the name of Hormah is said to have been given. Either therefore it is used proleptically in 14:45, or there is some confusion in the narrative. What "the way of Atharim" (A. V. "the way of the spies") was, we have no certain means now of ascertaining. (See EXODE).
(b.) There is again a gap in the narrative. We are told nothing of the march along the eastern edge of Edom, but suddenly find ourselves transported to the borders of Moab. Here the Israelites successively encountered and defeated the kings of the Amorites and of Bashan, wresting from them their territory, and permanently occupying it (Numbers 21:10-35). Their successes alarmed the king of Moab, who, distrusting his superiority in the field, sent for a magician to curse his enemies; hence the episode of Balaam (Numbers 22:1 to Numbers 24:25). Other artifices were employed by the Moabites to weaken the Israelites, especially through the influence of the Moabitish women (Numbers 25:1), with whom the Midianites (Numbers 25:6) are also joined; this evil was averted by the zeal of Phinehas (Numbers 25:7-8). A second numbering of the Israelites took place in the plains of Moab preparatory to their crossing the Jordan (26). A question arose as to the inheritance of daughters, and a decision was given thereon (Numbers 27:1-11). Moses is warned of his death, and Joshua is appointed to succeed him (Numbers 27:12-23). Certain laws are given concerning the daily sacrifice, and the offerings for Sabbaths and festivals (28, 29), and the law respecting vows (30); the conquest of the Midianites is narrated (31); and the partition of the country east of the Jordan among the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh (32). Then follows a recapitulation, though with some difference, of the various encampments of the Israelites in the desert (Numbers 33:1-49); the command to destroy the Canaanites (Numbers 33:50-56); the boundaries of the Promised Land, and the men appointed to divide it (34); the appointment of the cities of the Levites and the cities of refuge (35); further directions respecting heiresses, with special reference to the case mentioned in ch. xxvii, and conclusion of the book (36).
II. Integrity and Elements. — This, like the other books of the Pentateuch, is supposed by many critics to consist of a compilation from two or three, or more, earlier documents. According to De Wette, the following portions are the work of the Elohist (q.v.): Numbers 1:1 to Numbers 10:28; Numbers 13:2-16 (in its original, though not in its present form); 15; Numbers 16:1-11; Numbers 16:16-24 (?);Numbers 17-19; Numbers 20:1-13; Numbers 20:22-29; Numbers 25-31 (except perhaps 26:31); Numbers 32:5; Numbers 32:28-42 (Numbers 32:1-4 uncertain); Numbers 33-36. The rest of the book is, according to him, by the Jehovist, or later editor. Von Lengerke (Kenaan. p. 81) and Stahelin (§ 23) make a similar division, though they differ as to some verses, and even whole chapters. Vaihinger (in Herzog's Encyklopddie, art. Pentateuch) finds traces of three distinct documents, which he ascribes severally to the pre- Elohist, the Elohist, and the Jehovist. To the first he assigns Numbers 10:29-36; Numbers 11:12; Numbers 11:16 (in its original form); Numbers 20:14-21; Numbers 21:1-9; Numbers 21:13-35; Numbers 32:33-42; Numbers 33:55-56. To the Elohist belong Numbers 1:1 to Numbers 10:28; Numbers 11:1 to Numbers 12:16; Numbers 13:1 to Numbers 20:13; Numbers 20:22-29; Numbers 21:10-12; Numbers 22:1; Numbers 25:1 to Numbers 31:54; Numbers 32:13; 33:1-36:19. To the Jehovist. Numbers 11:1 to Numbers 12:16(uberarbeitet); Numbers 22:2 to Numbers 24:25; Numbers 31:8, etc.
But the grounds on which this distinction of documents rests are in every respect most unsatisfactory. The use of the divine names, which was. the starting point of this criticism, ceases to be a criterion; and certain words and phrases, a particular manner or coloring, the narrative of miracles or prophecies, are supposed to decide whether a passage belongs to the earlier or the later document. Thus, for instance, Stahelin alleges as reasons for assigning ch. 11, 12 to the Jehovist, the coming down of Jehovah to speak with Moses, Numbers 11:17; Numbers 11:25; the pillar of a cloud, Numbers 12:5; the relation between Joshua and Moses, Numbers 11:28, as in Exodus 33, 34; the seventy elders, Numbers 11:16, as Exodus 24:1, and so on. So again in the Jehovistic section, 13, 14, he finds traces of "the author of the First Legislation" in one passage (Exodus 13:2-17), because of the use of the word, מטה, signifying "a tribe," and נשיא, as in Numbers 1, 7. But נשיא is. used also by the supposed supplementist, as in Exodus 22:27; Exodus 34:31; and that מטה , is not peculiar to the older documents has been shown by Keil (Com. on Joshua, § xix). Von Lengerke goes still further, and cuts off Numbers 13:2-16 altogether from what follows. He thus makes the story of the spies, as given by the Elohist., strangely maimed. We only hear of their being sent to Canaan, but nothing of thei return and their report. The chief reason for this separation is that in Numbers 13:27 occurs the Jehovistic phrase "flowing with milk and honey," and some references to other earlier Jehovistic passages. De Wette again finds a repetition in Exodus 14:26-31 of Exodus 14:11-25, and accordingly gives these passages to the Elohist and Jehovist respectively. This has more color of probability about it, but has been answered by Ranke (Untersuch. 2:197 sq.). Again, ch. 16 is supposed to be a combination of two different accounts, the original or Elohistic document having contained only the story of the rebellion of Korah and his company, while the Jehovist mixed up with it the insurrection of Dathan and Abiram, which was directed rather against the temporal dignity than against the spiritual authority of Moses. But it is against this view that, in order to justify it, Numbers 16:12; Numbers 16:14; Numbers 16:27; Numbers 16:32 are treated as interpolations. Besides, the discrepancies which it is alleged have arisen from .the fusing of the two narratives disappear when fairly looked at. There is no contradiction, for instance, between Numbers 16:19, where Korah appears at the tabernacle:of the congregation, and Numbers 16:27, where Dathan and Abiram stand at the door of their tents. In the last passage Korah is not mentioned; and even if we suppose him to be included, the narrative allows time for his having left the Tabernacle and returned to his own tent. Nor, again, does the statement, Numbers 16:35, that the 250 men who offered incense were destroyed by fire, and who had, as we learn from Numbers 16:2, joined the leaders of the insurrection, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, militate against the narrative in Numbers 16:32, according to which Dathan and Abiram and all that appertained to Korah were swallowed up alive by the opening of the earth. Further, it is clear, as Keil remarks (Einleit. p. 94), that the earlier document (die Grundschrift) implies that persons belonging to the other tribes were mixed up in Korah's rebellion, because they say to Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:3), "All the congregation is holy," which justifies the statement in vers. 1, 2, that, besides Korah the Levite, the Reubenites Dathan, Abiram, and On were leaders of the insurrection.
In ch. 12 we have a remarkable instance of the jealousy with which the authority of Moses was regarded even in his. own family. Considering the almost absolute nature of that authority, this is perhaps hardly to be wondered at. On the other hand, as we are expressly reminded, there was everything in his personal character to disarm jealousy. "Now the man Moses was very meek above all the men which were .upon the face of the earth," says the historian (Numbers 12:3). The pretext for the outburst of this feeling on the part of Miriam and Aaron was that Moses had married an Ethiopian woman (a woman of Cush). This was probably, as Ewald suggests, a second wife married after the death of Zipporah. But there is no reason for supposing, as he does (Gesch. 2:229, note), that we have here a confusion of two accounts. He observes that the words of the brother and sister, "Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses, hath he not also spoken by us?" show that the real ground of their jealousy was the apparent superiority of Moses in the prophetical office; whereas, according to the narrative, their dislike was occasioned by his marriage with a foreigner and a person of inferior rank. But nothing surely can be more natural than that the long pent-up feeling of jealousy should have fastened upon the marriage as a pretext to begin the quarrel, and then have shown itself in its true character in the words recorded by the historian.
It is not perhaps to be wondered at that the episode of Balaam (Numbers 22:2 to Numbers 24:25) .should have been regarded as a later addition. The language is peculiar, as well as the general cast of the narrative. The prophecies are vivid, and the diction of them highly finished: very different from the rugged, Vigorous fragments of ancient poetry which meet us in ch. 21. On these grounds, as well as on the score of the distinctly Messianic character of Balaam's prophecies, Ewald give this episode to his Fifth Narrator, or the latest edito) of the Pentateuch. This writer he supposes to have lived in the former half of the 8th century B.C., and hence he accounts for the reference to Assyria and the — Cypriotes (the Chittim); the latter nation about that time probably infesting as pirates the coasts of Syria whereas Assyria might be joined with Eber, because yet the Assyrian power, though hostile to the southern nations, was rather friendly than otherwise to Judah The allusions to Edom and Moab as vanquished enemies have reference, it is said, to the time of David (Ewald Gesch. 1:143 sq., and comp. 2:277 sq.).
The prophecies of Balaam therefore, on this hypothesis, are vaticinia ex eventu, put into his mouth by a clever but not very scrupulous writer of the time of Isaiah, who, find in some mention of Balaam as a prince of Midian in the older records, put the story into shape as we have now. But this sort of criticism is so purely arbitrary that it scarcely merits a serious refutation, not to mention that it rests entirely on the assumption that it prophecy there is no such thing as prediction. Win will only observe that, considering the peculiarity of the man and of the circumstances as given in the history, we might expect to find the narrative itself, and certainly the poetical portions of it, marked by some peculiarities of thought and diction. Even granting that this episode is not by the same writer as the rest of the book of Numbers, there appears no valid reason to doubt its antiquity, or its rightful claim to the place which it at present occupies. Nothing can be more improbable than that, as a later invention, it should have found its way into the Book of the Law. At all events, the picture of this great magician is wonderfully in keeping with the circumstances under which he appears and with the prophecies which he utters. This is not the place to enter into all the questions which are suggested by his appearance on the scene. How it was that a heathen became a prophet of Jehovah we are not informed; but such a-fact seems to point to some remains of a primitive revelation, not yet extinct, in other nations besides that of Israel. It is evident that his knowledge of God was beyond that of most heathen, and he himself could utter the passionate wish that he might be found in his death among the true servants of Jehovah; but because the soothsayer's craft promised to be gainful, and the profession of it gave him an additional importance and influence in the eyes of men like Balak, he sought to combine it with his higher vocation. There is nothing more remarkable in the early history of Israel than Balaam's appearance. Summoned from his home by the: Euphrates, he stands by his red altar-fires, weaving his dark and subtle sorceries, or goes to seek for enchantment, hoping, as he looked down upon the tents of Israel among the acacia-groves of the valley, to wither them with his word, yet constrained to bless, and to foretell their future greatness. (See BALAAM).
The book of Numbers is rich in fragments of ancient poetry, some of them of great beauty, and all throwing an interesting light on the character of the times in which they were composed. Such, for instance, is the blessing of the high-priest (Numbers 6:24-26):
"Jehovah bless thee and keep thee: Jehovah make his countenance shine upon thee,
And be gracious unto thee: Jehovah lift up his countenance upon thee,
And give thee peace."
Such, too, are the chants which were the signal for the ark to move when the people journeyed, and for it to rest when they were about to encamp:
"Arise, O Jehovah! let thine enemies be scattered: Let them also that hate thee flee before thee."
"Return, O Jehovah, To the ten thousands of the families of Israel!"
In ch. 21 we have a passage cited from a book called, "The Book of the Wars of Jehovah." This was probably a collection of ballads and songs composed on different occasions by the watch-fires of the camp, and for the most part, though not perhaps exclusively, in commemoration of the victories of the Israelites over their enemies., The title shows us that these were written by men imbued with a deep sense of religion, and who were therefore foremost to acknowledge that not their own prowess, but Jehovah's right hand, had given them the victory when they went forth to battle. Hence it was called, not "The Book of the Wars of Israel," but "The Book of the Wars of Jehovah." Possibly this is the book referred to in Exodus 17:14, especially as we read (Exodus 17:16) that when Moses built the altar which he called Jehovah-Nissi (Jehovah is my banner), he exclaimed, "Jehovah will have war with Amalek from generation to generation." This expression may have given the name to the book. The fragment quoted from this collection is difficult, because the allusions in it are obscure. The Israelites had reached the Arnon, "which," says the historian, "forms the border of Moab, and separates between the Moabites and Amorites." "Wherefore it is said," he continues, "in the Book of the Wars of Jehovah:
‘‘ Vaheb in Suphah and the torrent-beds;
Arnon and the slope of the torrent-beds
Which turneth to where Ar lieth,
And which leaneth upon the border of Moab."’
The next is a song which was sung on the digging of a well at a spot where they encamped, and which from this circumstance was called Beê r, or "The Well." It runs as follows:
"Spring up, O well! sing ye to it:
Well, which the princes dug,
Which the nobles of the people bored
With the scepter-of-office, with their staves."
This song, first sung at the digging of the well, was afterwards no doubt commonly used by those who came to draw water. The maidens of Israel chanted it one to another, verse by verse, as they toiled at the bucket, and thus beguiled their labor. "Spring up, O well!" was the burden or refrain of the song, which would pass from one mouth to another at each fresh coil of the rope, till the full bucket reached the well's mouth. But the peculiar charm of the song lies not only in its antiquity, but in the characteristic touch which so manifestly connects it with the life of the time to which the narrative assigns it. The one point which is dwelt upon is that the leaders of the people took their part in the work, that they themselves helped to dig the well. In the new generation, who were about to enter the Land of Promise, a strong feeling of sympathy between the people and their rulers had sprung up, which augured well for the future, and which left its stamp even on the ballads and songs of the time. This little carol is fresh and lusty with young life; it sparkles like the water of the well whose springing up first occasioned it; it is the expression, on the part of those who sung it, of lively confidence in the sympathy and cooperation of their leaders, which, manifested in this one instance, might be relied upon in all emergencies (Ewald, Gesch. 2:264 ‘ sq.). Immediately following this "Song of the Well" comes a song of victory, composed after a defeat of the Moabites and the occupation of their territory. It is in a taunting, mocking strain, and is commonly considered to have been written by some Israelitish bard on the occupation of the Amoritish territory. Yet the manner in which it is introduced would rather lead to the belief that we have here the translation of an old Amoritish ballad. The history tells us that when Israel approached the country of Sihon they sent messengers to him, demanding permission to pass through his territory. The request was refused. Sihon came out against them, but was defeated in battle. "Israel," it is said, "smote him with the edge of the sword, and took his land in possession, from the Arnon to the Jabbok and as far as the children of Ammon, for the border of the children of Ammon was secure (i.e. they made no encroachments upon Ammonitish territory). Israel also took all these cities, and dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites in Heshbon, and all her daughters" (i.e. lesser towns and villages). Then follows a little scrap of Amoritish history: "For Heshbon is the city of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and he had waged war with the former king of Moab, and had taken from him all his land as far as the Arnon. Wherefore the ballad-singers (המשלים ) say:
‘ Come to Heshbhon, Let the city of Sihon be built and established! For fire went forth from Heshhon, A flame out of the stronghold (קריה ) of Sihon, Which devoured Ar of Moab! The lords of the high places of Arnon. Woe to thee, Moab! Thou art undone, O people of Chemosh! He (i.e. Chemosh thy god) hath given up his sons as fugitives, And his daughters into captivity, To Sihon king of the Amorites. Then we cast them down; Heshbon perished even unto Dibon, And we laid (it) waste unto Nophah, which (reacheth) unto Medebah.'"
If the song is of Hebrew origin, then the former part of it is a biting taunt. "Come, ye Amorites, into your city of Heshbon, and build it up again. Ye boasted that ye had burned it with fire and driven out its Moabitish inhabitants; but now we have come in our turn and have burned Heshbon, and have driven you out as ye once burned it and drove out its Moabitish possessors."
III. Credibility. — There have frequently been raised strong doubts against the historical veracity of the book of Numbers, although it is impressed with indubitable marks of the age to which it refers, and is of perfect authenticity. The numerical statements in ch. 1-4 are such that they repel every suspicion of forgery. There could be no motive for any fabrication of this description. The numbering of the people is in perfect harmony with Exodus 38:26. The amount is he stated in round, numbers, because a general survey only was required. When requisite, the more exact numbers are also added (Numbers 3:39; Numbers 3:43). A later forger would certainly have affected to possess the most exact knowledge of those circumstances, and consequently would have given, not round, but particularly definite numbers. The account of the setting apart of the tribe of Levi has been especially urged as bearing the marks of fiction; but this account is strongly confirmed by the distribution of the cities of the Levites (Numbers 35; Joshua 21). This distribution is an undeniable fact, and the existence of these Levitical towns may be appealed to as a document proving that the Levites were really set apart. Our opponents have vainly endeavored to find contradictions; for instance, in the system of tithing (ch. 18), which, they say, is not mentioned in Deuteronomy, where the tithes are applied to different purposes (Deuteronomy 12:6-7; Deuteronomy 12:17-19; Deuteronomy 14:22 sq.; Deuteronomy 26:12-15). But there were two sorts of tithes: one appointed for the maintenance of the Levites, and the other to defray the expenses of public banquets, of which the Levites also partook on account of their position in society (comp. Nehemiah 13:10; Tobit 1:7).
It has also been asserted that the book of Numbers contradicts itself in Numbers 4:2-3, and Numbers 8:24, with respect to the proper age of Levites for doing duty. But the first of these passages speaks about carrying the tabernacle, and the second about performing sacred functions in the tabernacle. To carry the tabernacle was heavier work, and required an age of thirty years. The functions within the tabernacle were comparatively easy, for which an age of twenty-five years was deemed sufficient.
The opinions of those writers who deem that the book of Numbers had a mythical character are in contradiction with passages like 10:26 sq., where Hobab is requested by Moses to aid the march through the wilderness. Such passages were written by a conscientious reporter, whose object was to state facts, who did not confine himself merely to the relation of miracles, and who. does not conceal the natural occurrences which preceded the marvelous events in ch. 11 sq. How are our opponents able to reconcile these facts? Here again they require the aid of a new hypothesis, and speak of fragments loosely connected.
The author of the book of Numbers proves himself to be intimately acquainted with Egypt. The products mentioned in Numbers 11:5 are, according to the most accurate investigations, really those which in that country chiefly served for food. In ch. 13 and 22 we find a notice concerning Zoan (Tanis), which indicates an exact knowledge of Egyptian history, as well in the author as in his readers. In Numbers 17:2, where the writing of a name on a stick is mentioned, we find an allusion characteristic of Egyptian customs (comp. Wilkinson, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, 1:388).
The history of the rebellion of the sons of Korah (Numbers 16:17) has certainly some coloring of the marvelous, but it nevertheless bears the stamp of truth. It is absurd to suppose that a poet who wrote Numbers 17:6 sq., in order to magnify the priestly dignity, should have represented the Levites themselves as the chief authors of these criminal proceedings. This circumstance is the more important, because the descendants of Korah (Numbers 26:11) afterwards became one of the most distinguished Levitical families. In this position we find them as early as the times of David; so that it is inconceivable how anybody should have entertained the idea of inventing crime to be charged upon one of the ancestors of this illustrious family.
Many vestiges of antiquity are found in ch. 21. The whole chapter, indeed, bears a characteristically antique impress, which manifests itself in all those ancient poems that are here communicated only in fragments, as required for the illustration of the narrative. Even such critical skeptics as De Wette consider these poems to be relics of the Mosaic period. But they are so closely connected with history as to be unintelligible without a knowledge of the facts to which they refer. Narratives like the history of Balaam (ch. 22-24) furnish also numerous proofs of their high antiquity. These confirmations are of the greatest importance, on account of the many marvelous and enigmatical points of the narrative. Compare, for instance, the geographical statements, which are uncommonly accurate, in Numbers 22:1; Numbers 22:36; Numbers 22:39; Numbers 23:14; Numbers 23:17; Numbers 23:27-28; see Hengstenberg's Gesch. Bileam's (Berlin, 1842), p. 221 sq. (See above.)
The nations particularly mentioned in Balaam's prophecy — the Amalekites, Edomites, Moabites, and Kenites — belong to the Mosaic period. In Numbers 24:7, it is stated that the king of Israel would be greater than Agag: and it can be proved that Agag was a standing title of the Amalekitish princes, and that consequently there is no necessity to refer this declaration to that king Agag whom Saul vanquished. The Kenites, at a later period, disappeared entirely from history. A prophet from Mesopotamia was likely to make particular mention of Asshur (Numbers 24:22). There is also a remarkable prediction that persons sailing from the coast of Chittim should subdue Asshur and Eber (Numbers 24:24). The inhabitants of the West should vanquish the dwellers in the East. The writers who consider the predictions of Balaam to have been written after the events to which they refer bring us down to so late a period as the Grecian age, in which the whole passage could have been inserted only under the supposition of most arbitrary dealings with history. The truth of the Biblical narrative here asserts its power. There occur similar accounts, in which it is strikingly evident that they proceeded' from the hands of an author contemporary with the events: for instance, ch. 32, in which the distribution of the transjordanic territory is recorded; and even the account, which has so frequently been attacked, concerning the Havoth-jair, the small towns, or rather tent-villages of Jair (Numbers 32:41-42; comp. Judges 10:4; Deuteronomy 3:14), is fully justified on a closer examination.
The list of stations in ch. 33 is an important document, which could not have originated in a poetical imagination. This list contains a survey of the whole route of the Israelites, and mentions individual places only in case the Israelites abode there for a considerable period. It is not the production of a diligent compiler, but rather the original work of an author well versed in the circumstances of that period. A later author would certainly have avoided the appearance of some contradictions, such as that in Numbers 33:30-31, comp. with Deuteronomy 10:6. This contradiction may best be removed by observing that the book of Numbers speaks of the expedition of the Israelites in the second year of their wanderings, and the book of Deuteronomy of their expedition in the fortieth year. The list of stations contains also important historical notices; those, for. instance, in Numbers 33:4; Numbers 33:9; Numbers 33:14; Numbers 33:38. These notices demonstrate the accurate historical information of the author.
The great fact. which is the basis of the narrative of this whole book, namely, the sojourn of the Israelites during forty years in the wilderness, is not open to any just objection. The manner in which the narrator states this fact we have mentioned above. A view so strictly theocratical, and a description so purely objective, are most befitting the law-giver himself. Modern criticism has chiefly taken offense at the statement that Jehovah had announced all this as a punishment to be inflicted upon the people. This, they say, is incomprehensible. However, the fact stands firm. that the Israelites really abode forty years in the wilderness. This fact is proved in the Scriptures by many other testimonies. Hence arises the question how this protracted abode was occasioned, and what induced Moses to postpone or give up, the conquest of Canaan. De Wette says that such resignation, in giving up a plan to which one has devoted the full half of a life, is not human. Goethe asserted that by such a representation the picture of Moses is entirely disfigured. All this renders the problem of our opponents the more difficult. De Wette says, "Who knows what happened in that long period?" This question would amount to a confession of our entire ignorance concerning the real tuning-point of the history of Israel, and would make an enormous and most striking gap in universal history. It is incredible that no tradition should have been preserved in which was told to posterity what was here most important, even if it should have been much disfigured. It is incredible that there should have been communicated only what was comparatively insignificant. If that were the case, the traditions of Israel would form a perfectly isolated phenomenon. Thus the history of Israel itself would be. something incomprehensible. Either the history is inconceivable, or the astounding fact is, indeed, a truth. The resignation of Moses, and the sojourn of the people in the wilderness, can be explained only by assuming an extraordinary divine intervention. A merely natural interpretation is here completely futile. The problem can only be solved by assuming that the whole proceeded from the command of God, which is unconditionally obeyed by his servant, and to which even the rebellious people must bow, because they have amply experienced that without God they can do nothing.
IV. Commentaries. — The exegetical helps on the entire book of Numbers alone are not numerous. Besides those of the Church fathers, contained in their works, we specify the following: Chytraeus, Enarriationes (Vitemb. 1572, 1580, 8vo); Attersoll, Commentarie (Lond. 1618; fol.); also in Dutch (Amst. 1667, fol.); Lorinus, Commentarii (Lugd. 1622, fol.); Patrick, Commentary (Lond. 1699, 4to); Jaroslav, בַּאוּר (in Mendelssohn's Pentateuch, Berl. 1783, 8vo, and often since); Horsley, Notes (in Bib. Critica, vol. i); Cumming, Readings (Lond. 1855, 8vo); Jones, Commentary (Lond. 1880, 8vo). (See PENTATEUCH).
These files are public domain.
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Numbers, Book of'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​n/numbers-book-of.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.