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Reference: Numbers, The Book Of


So called because the first three chapters contain the numbering of the Hebrews and Levites, which was performed separately, after the erection and consecration of he tabernacle. The rest of the book contains an account of the breaking up of the Israelites from Sinai, and their subsequent wanderings in the desert, until their arrival on the borders of Moab. It was written by Moses, B. C. 1451, and is the fourth book of the Pentateuch. See EXODUS.


The book takes its name from the numberings (Numbers 1 and Numbers 26). The Hebrew name it from its first word waedaber, or its first distinctive word Bemidbar. It narrates Israel's stay in the desert from the law giving at Sinai (Le 27:34) to their mustering in Moab's plains before entering Canaan. The parts are four:

(1) Preparations for breaking up the camp at Sinai to march to Canaan (Numbers 1 - 10:10).

(2) March from Sinai to Canaan's border; repulse by the Amorites (Nu 10:11-14:45).

(3) Selected incidents and enactments during the 38 years' penal wandering (Nu 15-19).

(4) Last year in the desert, the 40th year after the Exodus (Nu 20;Nu 20:13).

Israel's first encampment near Kadesh was at Rithmah (from retem, the "broom") in midsummer, in the second year after the Exodus; there for 40 days they awaited the spies' report (Nu 13:20,25-26; 33:18-19, from verses 20 to 36 are the stages of penal wandering). On the first month of the 40th year they are at Kadesh once more. The tabernacle and Moses remained at Kadesh on the first occasion, while Israel attempted to occupy Canaan too late (Nu 14:44). For a long period ("many days") they stayed still here, after failure, in hope God would yet remit the sentence (De 1:45-46). Then they "compassed Mount Seir (the wilderness of Paran) many days," until that whole generation died (De 2:1). The 17 stations belong to that dreary period (Nu 33:19-36). The people spread about the ridges of Paran, while the tabernacle and camp moved among them from place to place. At the second encampment at Kadesh they stayed three or four months (Nu 20:1 with Nu 1:22-28; 33:38). Miriam died, and was buried there.

The people mustering all together exhausted the natural water supply; the smiting of the rock, and the sentence on Moses and Aaron followed (Nu 20:2 ff; Nu 20:12-13); from Kadesh Israel sent the message to Edom (Nu 20:14, etc.). On the messengers' return Israel left Kadesh for Mount Hor, where Aaron dies; then proceeded by the marches in Nu 33:41-49 round Edom to Moab. The camp and tabernacle, with the priests and chiefs, during the wanderings, were the nucleus and rallying point; and the encampments named in Nu 33:18-36 are those at which the tabernacle was pitched. Kehelathah ("assembling": Nu 33:22) and Makheloth ("assemblies") were probably stages at which special gatherings took place. During the year's stay at Sinai the people would disperse to seek food: so also during the 38 years' wandering. They bought provisions from neighbouring tribes (De 2:26-29). Fish at Ezion Geber (Nu 33:35) was obtainable.

Caravans passed over the desert of wandering as the regular route between the East and Egypt. The resources of the region sufficed in that day for a comparatively large population whose traces are found. The excessive hardships detailed De 1:19; 8:15, belong to the closing marches of the 40th year through the Arabah, not to the whole period (Nu 21:4). Between the limestone cliffs of the Tih on the W. and the granite range of Seir on the E. the Arabah is a mountain plain of loose sand and granite gravel, with little food or water, and troubled with sand storms from the gulf.

CHRONOLOGY. Numbers begins with the first day of the second month of the second year after they left Egypt (Nu 1:1). Aaron's death occurred in the first day of the fifth month of the 40th year (Nu 33:38), the first encampment in the final march to Canaan (Nu 20:22). Between these two points intervene 38 years and three months of wandering (De 2:14; Nu 14:27-35). Moses recapitulated the law after Sihon's and Og's defeat in the beginning of the eleventh month of the 40th year (De 1:3-4). Thus six months intervene between Aaron's death and Deuteronomy; in them the events of the fourth part of the Book of Numbers (Nu 20:1 to the end) occurred, excepting Arad's defeat. The first month mourning for Aaron occupies, Nu 20:29; part of the host in this month avenged Arad's attack during Israel's journey from Kadesh to Mount Hor.

Arad's attack would be while Israel was near, nor would be wait until Israel withdrew 60 miles S. to Mount Hor (Nu 20:23,25). His attack was evidently when the camp moved from Kadesh, which was immediately S. of Arad. He feared their invasion would be "by way of the spies," namely, from the same quarter as before (Nu 14:40-45; 21:1), so he took the offensive. The war with Arad precedes in time Numbers 20, Aaron's burial at Mount Hor, and is the first of the series of victories under Moses narrated from this point. (See HORMAH.) Next, from Mount Hor Israel compassed Edom by way of the Red Sea (Nu 21:4), a 220-mile journey, about four weeks, to the brook Zered (Nu 21:12), the first westward flowing brook they met, marking therefore an epoch in their march. Then follows Sihon's and Og's overthrow at Jahaz and Edrei, about the middle of the third of the six months.

Their defeat caused Balak to summon Balaam to curse Israel from "Pethor, which was on the river (Euphrates) in his native land" (so, Nu 22:5), at least 350 miles distant. Two months suffice for his ambassadors to go and return twice, and for Balaam's prophesying (Numbers 22-24). Israel probably was meanwhile securing and completing the conquest of Gilead and Bashan. Six weeks thus remain for Midian's seduction of Israel, the plague (Numbers 25), the second numbering on the plains of Moab (Numbers 26), and the attack on Midian (Numbers 31), God retributively scourging the tempters by their own victims: "beside those (kings) that fell in the battle they put to death the kings of Midian (five, namely) Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba" (Nu 31:8), "Balaam also they slew" judicially, not in battle. So Moses' death is foreannounced as to follow the vengeance upon Midian (Nu 31:2). Deuteronomy is his last testimony, just after the war, and before his death in the eleventh month of the 40th year.

AUTHOR AND DATE. The catalog of stages from Egypt to Moab (Nu 33:2) is expressly attributed to Moses. The living connection of special enactments with incidents which occasioned them proves that this characteristic mixture of narrative and legislation comes from a contemporary annalist. Leviticus completed the Sinai legislation, but the stay in tents in the wilderness required supplementary directions not originally provided, as Nu 19:14, also Numbers 5; Nu 9:6-14; Numbers 19 (Nu 19:11 the plague after Korah's rebellion necessitating ordinances concerning defilement by contact with the dead), Numbers 30; Numbers 36, the law of heiresses marrying in their tribe, being at the suit of the Machirite chiefs, as the law of their inheriting was issued on the suit of Zelophehad's daughters (Numbers 27), and that was due to Jehovah's command to divide the land according to the number of names, by lot (Nu 26:52-56). So the ordinances Nu 15:4, etc., Nu 15:22,24,32.

The author's intimate knowledge of Egypt appears in the trial of jealousy (Nu 5:11), the purifications of the priests (Nu 8:7, etc.), the ashes of the red heifer (Numbers 19); all having an affinity to, though certainly not borrowed from, Egyptian rites. So the people refer to their former Egyptian foods (Nu 11:5-6). The building of Hebron seven years before Zoan (Tanis: probably connected here because both had the scale builder, one of the Hyksos, shepherd kings of Egypt, who originally perhaps came from the region of the Anakim), the N.E. frontier town of Egypt (Nu 13:22). References to the Exodus from Egypt (Nu 3:13; 14:19; 15:41). The regulations for encamping and marching (Numbers 2; Nu 9:16; etc., Nu 10:1-28), and Moses' invocation (Nu 10:35-36).

The directions for removing the tabernacle (Numbers 3 and Numbers 4). The very inconsistency seeming between Nu 4:3,23,30, fixing the Levites' limit of age to 30, and Nu 8:24 appointing the age 25 (the reason being, the 30 was temporary, the number of able-bodied Levites between 30 and 50 sufficing for the conveyance of the tabernacle in the wilderness; but, when Israel was in Canaan, the larger number afforded by the earlier limit 25 to 50 was required: David enlarged the number, as the needs of the sanctuary service required, by reducing the age for entrance to 20 (1Ch 23:24-28), younger men b

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