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Numbers, Book of

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Fourth book of the Pentateuch. In the Septuagint version it bears the title 'ΑριΘμο in the Vulgate, "Numeri," from the command given by God, contained in the first chapter, to number the children of Israel. In Jewish literature it is known as "Be-Midbar"; the earlier rabbis called it "Sefer Wa-Yedabber"; in the Talmud its designation is "Ḥomesh ha-Peḳudim," "the one-fifth part, which is called 'Numbers'" (Soṭah 36b; comp. Rashi ad loc.).

—Biblical Data:

The Masoretic text contains 1,288 verses in 158 sections; of which 92 end at the end of a line ("petuḥot" = "open") and 66 in the middle of a line ("setumot" = "closed"). It is further divided into ten weekly lessons ("parashiyyot") for the annual cycle, and into thirty-two weekly lessons ("sedarim") for the triennial cycle.

The subject-matter of the book falls into three main groups. Ch. -10:10 recount the things done and the laws given in the wilderness of Sinai; ch. 10:11- (with the exception of ch. and ) are historical, recording the events that occurred during the wanderings of the children of Israel in the desert; ch. - contain laws and ordinances promulgated in the plains of Moab. The book covers a period of more than thirty-eight years, namely, from the first day of the second month of the second year after the Exodus (1:1) to the latter part of the fortieth year (33:38).

E. G. H.
M. Sel.

—Critical View:

There is abundant evidence that the Book of Numbers was not written by Moses, and that it was not contemporary with the events which it describes. Throughout Moses is referred to in the third person, and in one passage (12:3) in terms which have long been felt to preclude Mosaic authorship. One passage only, namely, 33:2, lays claim to the authorship of Moses; but this is so closely related to others which are clearly later than Moses, and, indeed, the latest in the Pentateuch, that it is evident he did not write it. It has been abundantly demonstrated that the same great sources, J, E, and P, which furnished material for the other books of the Hexateuch, furnished the material for Numbers also. Even D appears in one passage.

There is no unity of thought or of material in Numbers. Its material may be most conveniently grouped geographically, under which arrangement the following three divisions are obtained: (1) ch. -10:10, which treat of the camp at Sinai; (2) ch. 10:11-, which contain accounts of wanderings; and (3) ch. -, the scene of which is the plains of Moab.

Amplification of Older Laws.

Ch. , concerning the ordeal provided for a wife suspected of infidelity, comes from a priestly writer possibly older than Pg, whom Carpenter and Harford-Battersby, because he writes as a teacher, designate as Pt. The law in its present form combines two older laws, according to one of which the proof of the woman's guilt is presupposed, while the other regarded it as indeterminate and provided an ordeal to ascertain the truth. For details compare Stade in his "Zeitschrift," 1895, pp. 166 et seq.; Carpenter and Harford-Battersby, "Hexateuch," 2:192; and Baentsch in Nowack's "Hand-Kommentar," ad loc. Ch. , on the law of vows, is from the same source as ch. , namely, Pt. The benediction at the end (verses 22 to 27) is from a supplementary source. Ch. , relating to the gifts of the princes of the different tribes, is dated the day Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle, and accordingly follows immediately on Ex. It is regarded as one of the latest amplifications of Ps. One verse (89) is from Pg. Ch. , the ceremonial cleansing of the Levites, is from Ps, but it consists of two strata, 1-15a and 15b-26. These cover much the same ground, 15b-26 being later than the other. Ch. , on the regulations of the delayed Passover, is likewise from Ps. Ch. 10:1-8 recounts the signals for journeying. It is from Pg. Verses 9 and 10 contain regulations concerning the blowing of trumpets in war and as a memorial. It bears the characteristic marks of the Holiness Code, Ph.

Complexity of Sources.

Ch. xiii-, describing the sending out of thespies, is very complex. J, E, and P are all represented in the story. The following analysis is tentative only: To P belong 13:1-17a, 21b, 25, 26a, 32; 14:1a, 2, 5-7, 9a, 10, 26-30, 32-39a. According to P, Caleb, Joshua, and ten others went through the land to Rehob in the neighborhood of Lebanon; they reported the people to be of great stature; the congregation murmured; and forty years of wandering were announced. From J come 13:17b, 18b, 19, 22, 27a, 28, 30, 31; 14:1c, 3, 8, 9b, 11-17, 19-24, 31, 41-45. According to J, Caleb and other spies go up to the "negeb" (A. V. "south"), and reach Hebron; they report that the children of Anak are there; the people weep with fear; only Caleb and the little ones are, accordingly, to see the promised land; the presumptuous attempt of the people to go up is defeated. To E belong 13:17c, 18a, 18c, 20, 21a, 23, 24, 26b, 27b, 29, 33; 14:1b, 4, 25, 39b, 40. The beginning of E's account may be found underlying Deuteronomy 1:22-25. He describes the despatch of twelve men, who reach the valley of Eshcol, cut down some fruit, and take it back to Kadesh, with a report that numerous Nephilim are in the country; the people cry unto the Lord and are directed to march by way of the Red Sea, but they propose to enter the land direct instead.

Ch. , on the general law of oblation and on a law concerning fringes on garments, is from Pt, though Ps has interpolated verses 32 to 36, which refer to the man found gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Ch. is composite: an account by J of how a Judean headed a rebellion against Moses, an E account of the rebellion of two sons of Reuben, and a Pg account of how a number of Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron have been combined and transformed by Ps into the attempt of Levites headed by Korah to obtain the priesthood. To J belong verses 1d, 13, 14a, 15, 26b, 27c-31, 33a; to E, 1c, 12, 14b, 25, 27b, 32a, 33b, 34; to Pg, 1a, 2b-7, 18-24, 26a, 27a, 35, 41-50; and to Ps, 1b, 8-11, 16, 17, 32b, 33c, and 36-40. Ch. , on the budding of Aaron's rod, and ch. , on the responsibilities and perquisites of the priests, are from the main priestly narrative, Pg. Ch. contains regulations for the purification of those who have touched the dead. Verses 1 to 13, on the ceremonial of the red heifer, is tentatively assigned to Ps; the parallel law in verses 14 to 22 is connected by its title with Pt.

Antiquity of Poems in Ch. ,

The story of Balaam (2-) has been woven together from J and E. The J sections are 22:3b-5a, 5c-7, 11, 17, 18, 22-36a, 37b, 39; 23:28; 24:1-25. These sections describe Moab's distress, and the sending of elders of Midian to Balaam, apparently in the land of Ammon (emended text instead of in 22:5c). Yhwh appears to him by the way, and the ass speaks; Balaam does not practise enchantment, but speaks under the influence of the spirit of God. To E belong 22:2,5b, 8-10, 12-16, 19-21, 36b. 37a, 38, 40, 41; 23:1-27,29. This narrative describes Moab's fear, and the sending of her princes to Pethor in the east to summon Balaam. Elohim bids Balaam go with them, and he speaks the word that Elohim puts in his mouth. The poems in and are probably still older than J and E.

In ch. it is thought that 1b, 2, 3b, and 4, which narrate whoredom with the daughters of Moab, are from J; verses 1a, 3a, and 5 are an E account of Israel's worship of Baal-peor and its punishment; verses, 6 to 15 preserve a kindred account by Pg of a Hebrew's marriage with a Midianitish woman and its punishment. Ps has supplemented this (verses 16, 17) by a command to vex the Midianites. Ch. , a second census of the Hebrews, is so repetitious that it is clearly from a priestly supplementer. Ch. 27:1-11, concerning the inheritance of daughters when male issue is wanting, is from a similar source. This is also true of verses 12 to 14, which once introduced at this point the P account of the death of Moses that is now found at Deuteronomy 34:1. Ch. 27:15-23, on the selection of Joshua to lead Israel, is a part of the original priestly narrative of Pg, Ch. - are, with the exception of 32:39-42 (a part of J's itinerary), from the various priestly supplementers, Ps. Ch. and contain late regulations for the feasts, differing materially from the P regulations in Leviticus 23 The reasons which lead critics to assign the treatment of vows in ch. , the itinerary in 33:1 et seq., and other parts of this material to Ps are the elaborate and repetitious style, and various modifications of earlier priestly material. For details the reader is referred to such works as those mentioned in the bibliography below.

It is clear from a careful examination of the material, when it is grouped as in the above analysis, that the Book of Numbers is a part of the same literary process which produced the Pentateuch. A trace of D (Rd) appears in ch. 14:18; so that all four strata of the Pentateuch are present.

  • Kuenen, The Hexateuch, 1886;
  • Bacon, The Triple Tradition of the Exodus, 1894;
  • Carpenter and G. Harford-Battersby, The Hexateuch, 1900;
  • Baentsch, Exodus-Leviticus-Numeri, in Nowack's Handkommentar, 1903;
  • G. Buchanan Gray, Numbers, in the International Critical Commentary, 1903.
E. C.
G. A. B.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Numbers, Book of'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​n/numbers-book-of.html. 1901.
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