Numbers 1
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers








THE appellation commonly given by the Jews to the fourth Book of the Pentateuch, as in the case of the titles of the other Books, is derived from one of the words which occur in the first verse of the first chapter—viz., bemidbar: “in the desert.” The names given to it in the Greek, Latin, and English versions—viz., Άριθμοὶ, Numeri, Numbers—are derived from the account which it contains of the results of the census which was taken shortly after the Exodus, and of that which was taken at the expiration of the wanderings in the wilderness.

The contents of this book may be described as follows:—

Numbers 1:1 to Numbers 10:10.

The preparations for the departure from Mount Sinai, and for the march into the land of Canaan: including (1) the numbering of the males of eleven tribes, from twenty years old and upwards, who were capable of bearing arms; (2) the numbering of the Levites, from one month old and upwards; (3) the numbering of the firstborn, and the substitution of the Levites for the firstborn; (4) the order of encampment and of the march; (5) the regulations for the preservation of order in the camp; (6) some additional legislation, either supplementary to, or explanatory of, that which is contained in the Books of Exodus and Leviticus; (7) the law of the Nazarites; (8) the form of priestly blessing; (9) the offerings of the princes for the service of the Tabernacle; (10) instructions concerning lighting the lamps of the golden candlestick, the consecration of the Levites, and the respective ages at which they were to enter on the various parts of their service; (11) the celebration of the first Passover after the Exodus; (12) the appointment of the Passover of the second month; (13) the description of the miraculous guidance of the people; and (14) the directions respecting the use of the silver trumpets.

Numbers 10:11 to Numbers 14:45.

These chapters contain the account of (1) the departure of the Israelites from Sinai; (2) the order of the march; (3) the invitation of Moses to Hobab; (4) the watchwords of the march; (5) the murmurings of the people against God and against Moses; (6) the fire at Taberah; (7) the prophesying of Eldad and Medad; (8) the miraculous supply of quails; (9) the plague at Kibroth-hattaavah; (10) the insurrection of Miriam and Aaron against Moses, and the leprosy of Miriam; (11) the expedition of the spies into the land of Canaan, and their report; (12) the judgment denounced against the generation which was numbered at Sinai; and (13) the presumptuous attempt to enter Canaan by way of the Negeb, and the discomfiture at Hormah.

Numbers 15:1 to Numbers 19:22.

These chapters contain (1) some legislative enactments which were to be held in abeyance during the sojourn in the wilderness, and which were to come into operation after the entrance into Canaan; (2) the account of the insurrection of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and the plague which followed upon it; (3) the miraculous confirmation of the Aaronic priesthood by the blossoming of Aaron’s rod; (4) a more accurate definition of the respective duties of the priests and Levites; and (5) the law for the purification of those who were defiled by contact with the dead, by means of the ashes of the red heifer.

Numbers 20:1 to Numbers 25:18.

These chapters contain the account of (1) the abode in Kadesh-Barnea; (2) the second recorded miraculous supply of water; (3) the sentence pronounced against Moses and Aaron; (4) the refusal of the King of Edom to grant the Israelites a passage through his land; (5) the death of Aaron; (6) the expedition against the King of Arad; (7) the plague of the fiery serpents, and the construction and erection of the brazen serpent,-(8) the march to Mount Pisgah; (9) the victory over Sihon, the King of the Amorites, and Og, the King of Bashan; (10) the history of Balak and Balaam; and (11) the plague at Shittim.

Numbers 26:1 to Numbers 36:13.

These chapters contain the account of (1) the second census of the people; (2) the inheritance of the daughters of Zelophehad; (3) the consecration of Joshua; (4) the enlargement of the law respecting the two daily lambs and the Sabbath-day offerings; (5) the law respecting the vows of women; (6) the war against Midian; (7) the assignment of the land on the eastern side of the Jordan to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh; (8) a list of the encampments; (9) the renewed command concerning the expulsion of the Canaanites and the destruction of their idolatrous images; (10) the determination of the boundaries of the land, and the list of men appointed to distribute it; (11) the regulations respecting the Levitical cities and the cities of refuge; and (12) laws respecting the tribal inheritance, and the limitation of the right of marriage in regard to heiresses.


The period of time embraced in the Book of Numbers is clearly defined. The narrative begins with the command which was given to Moses to take a census of the people “on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt” (Numbers 1:1). The death of Aaron, as recorded in Numbers 33:38, took place “in the fortieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the first day of the fifth month.” The interval between these two events is exactly thirty-eight years and three months; and inasmuch as the last recorded events in the Book of Numbers took place on the eastern side of the Jordan, and the rehearsal of the law, as contained in the Book of Deuteronomy, took place in the beginning of the eleventh month of the fortieth year (Deuteronomy 1:3), and the passage of the Jordan was effected under Joshua on the tenth day of the first month of the following year (Joshua 4:19), it will appear that the entire period embraced in the Book of Numbers is somewhat short of thirty-nine years.


The antiquity of this Book is proved by the numerous references which are found in the later books to the events which are recorded in it. The following will suffice by way of illustration :—

(1) In Joshua 1:7 reference is made to the charge which Moses gave to Joshua by the commandment of the Lord (Numbers 27:23). It may be observed that the same Hebrew word which is here rendered “gave a charge,” is used also in Joshua 1:7, where it is rendered “commanded.”

(2) In Joshua 2:10 we find a reference to the utter destruction of Sihon and Og, which is recorded in Numbers 21:24-35.

(3) In Joshua 5:6 we find a reference to the oath which the Lord sware that He would not show the land of promise to the men of war who came out of Egypt, and to the fact that all the men of war who came out of Egypt were consumed in the wilderness, “because they obeyed not the voice of the Lord.” In Numbers 14:28-32 we find the oath to which reference is made; and in Numbers 26:63-65 we find a statement that at the later census there was not left a man of those who were numbered at the former census, save Joshua and Caleb. Nor is this all: for we find an agreement in the two accounts which is corroborative of the historical accuracy of both. It has been alleged as a discrepancy between the threat and its recorded accomplishment, that Eleazar, who acted as a priest shortly after the Exodus, and who was therefore, in all probability, upwards of twenty years of age at the first census, was not only engaged in making the second census, but is found amongst those who entered into the land of Canaan. On a closer examination, however, of the threat of exclusion, as recorded in the Book of Numbers, and its fulfilment, as recorded both in the Book of Numbers and in the Book of Joshua, it will be found to refer only to those who were enrolled at the first census taken at Sinai as men of war over twenty years of age, and consequently that the tribe of Levi, which was not included in that census, was not included in the sentence of extermination. In like manner, in Joshua 5:6, it is stated, not as it has been commonly supposed, that all the Israelites who were over twenty years of age perished in the wilderness, but “all the people that were men of war”—i.e., the “six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty,” who are expressly described in Numbers 1:45 as “all that were able to go forth to war in Israel.”

(4) The reference in Joshua 17:4 to the inheritance of the daughters of Zelophehad accords verbally with that contained in Numbers 27:7. In the latter place Moses is said to have received a command to “give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren.” In the former place it is said that Joshua, “according to the commandment of thy Lord, gave them an inheritance among the brethren of their father.”

(5) The reference to the Kenites in 1Samuel 15:6 not only derives elucidation from Numbers 10:29-32, but reflects light upon that passage. The result of the invitation which Moses gave to Hobab to accompany the Israelites on their march through the wilderness is not recorded in the Book of Numbers. We learn, however, from Judges 1:16 that “the children of the Kenite “accompanied the children of Judah into the wilderness of Judah; and in 1Samuel 15:6 Saul refers to the kindness which the Kenites showed to the children of Israel as a well-established fact.

(6) One of the most conclusive indications of the reception of the Book of Numbers by the later writers of Holy Scripture, as containing a true history of the events which are recorded in it, will be found in the incidental allusion to the order of the marches through the wilderness, which we find in Psalm 80:2, “Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh stir up Thy strength, and come and save us.” This Psalm was manifestly composed, as it is implied in the first verse, whilst the Temple of Solomon was still standing, but subsequently to the separation of the kingdom in the time of Rehoboam. The combination of the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, though partially explained by their common origin as descendants of Jacob by Rachel, presents upon the surface the obvious difficulty that Benjamin was attached to the southern, and Ephraim and Manasseh to the northern kingdom. A closer examination, however, of the Psalm, when elucidated by the order of the march, as prescribed in the second chapter of Numbers, will suffice to make the allusion of the Psalmist obvious. The reference in Leviticus 27:1 is to the supernatural guidance of the hosts of Israel, and the mind of the writer would naturally revert to that period of the history of his people when Divine guidance was most needed and most manifestly displayed. Now we find from Numbers 2:18-22, that during their encampments in the wilderness the three tribes here mentioned pitched together on the west side of the Tabernacle; and we find in Leviticus 27:17 of the same chapter a direction which we are told (see Numbers 10:21-22), was observed when the camp broke up and the Israelites commenced their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai—viz., that the Tabernacle of the congregation was to set forward in such order that the eastern and southern camps were to precede it, and that the western camp, which, as we have seen, was composed of the three tribes here named, was to follow it. When, moreover, we bear in mind that the sacred Ark was commonly regarded and designated as the ark of God’s strength (Psalm 132:8), there can remain little doubt of the reference of the writer of Psalms 80 to the prescribed order of the encampment and to the marches through the wilderness, as recorded in the Book of Numbers, when he gave utterance to the prayer, “Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh stir up Thy strength and come and save us.”

(7) A few other references in the later Books to the Book of Numbers may be more briefly noticed.

(1) In 1Samuel 15:29 we find a quotation from Numbers 22:19.

(2) In 1Samuel 30:7-8, and elsewhere, we find allusions to the mode of inquiry of the Lord, of which the first mention is found in Numbers 27:21.

(3) In Psalm 78:16, there appears to be an allusion to the miraculous supply of water at Kadesh, as related in Numbers 20:7-11, the word rendered rock being sela, as in Numbers, not zur,[116] as in Exodus 17:6.

[116] The word zur occurs in Psalm 78:15, and in Isaiah 48:21, in which places, however, there may be a reference to the later miracle at Kadesh, as well as to the earlier miracle at Rephidim.

(4) In Jeremiah 48:45, we find a reference to, or rather a quotation from, Numbers 21:28, and an obvious allusion to Numbers 24:17.

(5) In Joshua 22:17, Psalm 106:28, and Hosea 9:10, we find an allusion to the idolatrous abominations of Baal-peor, as recorded in Numbers 25.

(6) In Amos 2:9, we find an allusion to the gigantic size of the Anakim, as related in Numbers 13:33.

(7) In Obadiah 1:4; Obadiah 1:19, we find allusions to Numbers 24:18; Numbers 24:21.

The above will suffice as illustrations of references, which might be almost indefinitely multiplied, to the history of the Israelites, and to events connected with that history, as they are recorded in the Book of Numbers. It is scarcely too much to affirm that no inconsiderable portion of the contents of this Book might be recovered from the various references and allusions to it which are dispersed over the later Books of the Old Testament.


Much which has been said upon the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch generally applies with special force to the authorship of the Book of Numbers. One portion of this Book, viz. the catalogue of the stations or encampments of the Israelites, as recorded in Numbers 33, is expressly ascribed to Moses in the following words: “And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys, by the commandment of the Lord” (Leviticus 27:2). Some of the legislative enactments which are found only in the Book of Numbers, or which are recapitulated in the Book of Deuteronomy, are expressly assigned to Moses in the Book of Joshua. Such, e.g., are the following: (1) the law that the Levites were to have no separate inheritance of land amongst the children of Israel (Joshua 13:14; Joshua 13:33; Joshua 14:3-4, compared with Numbers 18:20-24; Deuteronomy 10:9; Deuteronomy 14:27; Deuteronomy 18:1-2), but only cities to dwell in, with their suburbs taken out of the inheritance of the other tribes (Joshua 21:2, compared with Numbers 35:1-4); and (2) the assignment by lot[117] of the inheritance of the nine tribes and a half on the west of the Jordan, and of the two tribes and a half on the east of the Jordan (Joshua 14:2-3; Joshua 18:7, compared with Numbers 26:55; Numbers 32:33; Numbers 33:54; Numbers 34:13).

[117] The assignment of the inheritances by lot, in regard to their relative position, and by the instrumentality of particular individuals appointed for the purpose, in regard to the amount of territory to be possessed by each tribe, as commanded by Moses, and as carried into execution by Joshua, is deserving of particular attention.

The presumption thus afforded that the Book of Numbers was written by Moses, is confirmed by the numerous indications which it contains that it is the work of a contemporary writer, who lived in the desert, and who was familiar with the history, customs, and institutions of Egypt. The minuteness of the details which the Book of Numbers contains respecting the order of the march through the wilderness, and the various incidents which occurred in the course of it, the remarkable manner in which the history and the legislation are interwoven, [118]and more particularly the insertion of additional legislation arising out of the protracted wanderings in the desert (as e.g., that contained in Numbers 19:14), point to the conclusion that the writer of the Book was either an eye-witness of the scenes which he records, or a forger whose skill has been unequalled in after ages. The topographical notices, again, testify to an aquaintance with the history of Egypt (as e.g., Numbers 13:22), and also with that of the surrounding nations, previously to the entrance into the land of Canaan (as e.g., Numbers 21:13); whilst the allusions to Egyptian customs, products and institutions, and also to particular incidents of Egyptian history, are such as cannot, with any great amount of probability, be ascribed to any writer between the days of Moses and those of Solomon (e.g., Numbers 11:5-7;[119] Numbers 21:5-9;[120] Numbers 33:4;[121] Numbers 33:6-8).

[118] Dr. Smith has some interesting and important remarks on the identity of the historian and the legislator throughout the Pentateuch, snowing that those who acknowledge Moses to have been the legislator, must also acknowledge Moses as the historian (The Pentateuch and its Authorship, pp. 365-375).

[119] The best coriander seed is said by Pliny to come from Egypt. See Smith’s Pentateuch and its Authorship, &c., p. 319.

[120] Ib., p. 340.

[121] We find the prediction in Exodus 12:12, “Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment,” but we find no express account or its fulfilment. The allusion in Numbers 33:4, to the fulfilment of the prediction, shows that the writer understood how the plagues of Egypt had a direct bearing upon the superstitious objects of Egyptian worship. (See Smith’s Pentateuch and its Authorship, pp. 322-329, and Canon Cook’s notes on. the plagues in The Speaker’s Commentary.)

Again, the contrast between the general allusions to the topography of Canaan, such as might well have been obtained from traditional sources, or from the reports of the spies, as compared with the more minute descriptions given in the Book of Joshua, precisely corresponds with the recorded history of Moses. Thus, while in the Book of Joshua the boundaries of Canaan are expressed with great minuteness, in the Book of Numbers they are laid down in general terms [122](comp. Joshua 15 with Numbers 34). It may be observed further, that the fact that the boundaries assigned to the promised land were never actually realised, even in the days of David and of Solomon, affords a strong argument in support of the belief that the Books in which they are described were not written at the late period to which they are assigned by some modern critics, in which case the original assignment would naturally have been made to accord with the actual extent of the kingdom. It must be observed further, that the statistics of the Book of Numbers stop short of the death of Moses, and that the records of families are restricted to the Mosaic era. Thus, e.g., we read of the promise given to Phinehas and to his seed after him of an everlasting priesthood (Numbers 25:13), and we find mention of the part which Phinehas took in one of the latest expeditions in which Moses was engaged (Numbers 31:6), but we must have recourse to the Books of Chronicles and of Ezra if we desire to obtain information concerning his descendants.

[122] The difference in the minuteness with which the northern and the southern boundaries of Canaan are described in the Book of Numbers, is deserving of notice; but the difference in the minuteness with which the latter, which must have been the boundary best known to those who were for so many years in its vicinity, is described in the Book of Numbers and in that of Joshua, is yet more remarkable.


It will be desirable in this place to notice some of the principal objections which have been urged against the historical accuracy, and the Mosaic authorship, of the Book of Numbers, premising only that those objections which rest upon passages in which Moses speaks as a prophet, not as an historian, do not fall within the scope of a work such as the present.


The difficulties in the account of the census which was taken on the plain of Sinai, as it is related in Numbers 1, may be enumerated as follows :—

(1) The precise agreement in the number of Israelites above twenty years of age as recorded in this census, with the number which is recorded in Exodus 38:26, where the reference is to a transaction which probably took place about six or seven months previously.

(2) The fact that the numbers of the respective tribes are round numbers, and, with the exception of the tribe of Gad, which has a complete fifty, that all the numbers are in round hundreds.

It has been suggested, in regard to the first difficulty, that there is nothing impossible in the fact that the number of the Israelites should not have been diminished by deaths in the course of six or seven months. This supposition, however, independently of its improbability does not meet the real difficulty, inasmuch as there must in all probability have been many at the later date who had completed their twentieth year who could not have been included in the census of those who were twenty years old and upwards, which was taken six or seven months previously. The supposition that the number of those who died in the course of the following six or seven months was exactly equal to the number of those who attained their twentieth year in the interval, is equally improbable with the supposition that no deaths occurred in the interval; and. in any case, the difficulty attending the round numbers, on the supposition that they represent accurately the results of two distinct censuses, taken at two distinct periods, is one which, in the absence of any indication of miraculous agency, seems to be insuperable.

Both of the difficulties, however, which have been stated above, vanish, or may in any case be regarded as capable of a satisfactory solution, if it be admitted that it was one and the same census to which reference is made in the Book of Exodus and in that of Numbers.

The following reasons may be assigned for the belief that there was only one general census taken in the plain of Sinai :—

(1) The time occupied in taking the census, which is recorded in 2 Samuel 24—viz., nine months and twenty days—suggests the inference that a complete census of the population, even in the time of Moses, must have occupied some considerable time.

(2) No adequate reason can be assigned for the necessity of a second census within six or seven months of a previous census.

(3) It is obvious, from the agreement of the numbers, that the tribe of Levi, which, we are expressly told, was not included in the census recorded in Numbers (see Numbers 1:48-49; Numbers 2:33), was not included in the census to which reference is made in Exodus 38, where no such exemption is mentioned, and no allusion is made to the subsequent command to number the males of the tribe of Levi from one month and upwards And, further, whereas the atonement number is expressly mentioned in Exodus 38, no allusion is made to it in Numbers 1.

(4) We find reference made in Numbers 26:64-65, to two numberings only, viz., that which was taken on the plain of Sinai, and that which was taken in the steppes of Moab, from which fact it seems reasonable to infer that two numberings only of the people were made.

Now, since the atonement money which was paid at the numbering recorded in Exodus 38 was used in the construction of the Tabernacle, it is obvious that that money must have been paid previously to the first day of the first month of the year after the Exodus, at which time the Tabernacle was erected. Inasmuch, however, as the census was thus directly connected with the Tabernacle; and the census of the Levites, and also that of the firstborn, both of which were made previously to the twentieth day of the second month. in the year after the Exodus (Numbers 10:11), and included all who were one month old and upwards, may be reasonably supposed to have included all who were born during the first month after the erection of the Tabernacle, and who were consequently a month old and upwards on the first day of the second month of the year after the Exodus (Numbers 3:15; Numbers 3:40); a reasonable probability arises that the day of the erection of the Tabernacle was that which was regarded in every case as the day by reference to which the age of the Israelites was to be ascertained and recorded. The census of the males of the several tribes, from twenty years old and upwards, being taken with reference to military service, would naturally be made in companies, which companies probably consisted of fifty or a hundred; and inasmuch as the number was taken of necessity some time previously to the erection of the Tabernacle (the atonement money being required, as already stated, for the service of the Tabernacle), it was impossible to ascertain with minute accuracy the number of those who would be alive on the day at which the Tabernacle was to be set up; and hence the odd numbers in excess of the last fifty or a hundred of those who would have completed their twentieth year at the erection of the Tabernacle, or of whose birthdays no record had been kept during the bondage in Egypt, may have been set over against the probable diminutions by death during the interval, and omitted from the sum total of each tribe. It is impossible to determine accurately the precise details which were obtained at the earlier and at the later enumeration. The amount of silver received at the earlier period sufficed to determine the number of those who paid, every man his half shekel. It is reasonable to suppose that the names of those who paid the half shekel were duly registered, and probably under their respective tribes, although there is no record of the number of each tribe in Exodus. Such a registration would naturally form the basis of the more complete census described in Numbers 1, in which every man was enrolled, not only under his own tribe, but according to the two subdivisions of the tribes into “families” and “fathers’ houses,” according to the “number of names” included in the earlier registration. Other particulars may or may not have been included in the later registration, but if the supposition be correct that the object of the census was to associate the people with the Tabernacle, as the dwelling-place of Jehovah, it is reasonable to suppose that the same day—viz., the day of the erection of the Tabernacle—was that to which reference was made alike in the earlier and in the later registration.

In regard to the round numbers of the tribes at the later registration in the plains of Moab—in which all are recorded in tens, and all, except the tribe of Reuben, in hundreds—it is reasonable to suppose that, as on the former occasion, the registration took place in military companies of tens, fifties, or hundreds. And inasmuch as during the disbandment of the people, after their first arrival at Kadesh-Barnea, it is probable that no exact registration of births was kept, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the odd numbers were disregarded, or rather set off against the number of those whose ages could not be precisely ascertained.

It remains only that some reasonable account be given of the round number of the Levites—viz., 22,000, and of the discrepancy between the sum total and the amount of the numbers of the three families of the Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites, when taken separately—viz., 22,300. One solution which has been proposed of the discrepancy of the numbers is mentioned in the notes—viz., the probability that it has its origin in an error of transcription. Another proposed solution is, that some of the Levites must themselves have been firstborn, and as such could not be exchanged for the firstborn of the other tribes. The number of 300, may, it has been thought, have represented the number of Levites who were themselves firstborn; whilst in the absence of a more probable suggestion, the round numbers, both of the three families, taken separately, and of the sum total of 22,000, may be accounted for in a similar manner to that in which the round numbers of the other tribes have been explained—viz., that as the other tribes were probably registered in military companies of fifties and hundreds, so the Levites were registered in similar companies, with a view to their service in the Sanctuary—a service which is described by the Hebrew word zaba, which means warfare (Numbers 4:35).

The difficulty of accounting for the round numbers in the case of the Levites is increased by the fact that the time at which they were numbered is not specified. The injunction that the Levites were not to be numbered amongst the children of Israel (Numbers 1:49), implies that their census followed that of the other tribes, but it does not clearly appear whether it preceded or followed the erection of the Tabernacle. The place in which the enumeration is recorded—viz., the Third chapter of Numbers, might seem to favour the latter supposition; but inasmuch as the command respecting Aaron and his sons, which is recorded in the same chapter (Numbers 5:10), was given previously to the erection of the Tabernacle (See Exodus 28:1), it is obvious that no certain inference respecting the time at which the injunction was given can be drawn from the place in which it is recorded. The case appears to stand thus. A command was given to Moses at the time of the Exodus to sanctify to the Lord the firstborn males of man and beast (Exodus 12:1-2). This command appears, from Exodus 12:11-13, to have been given with a prospective reference to the land of Canaan, and consequently not to have come at once into operation. But when, at the expiration of the year of the Exodus, the people were still found in the wilderness, God was pleased to give some additional commands, in virtue of which the law assumed a retrospective character. The cattle of the Levites, as has been already stated, appear to have been taken as an equivalent for the firstborn cattle of the other tribes, which had been born during the preceding year. It remained that a similar arrangement should be made in regard to the firstborn of men. Some of these firstborn, both of the Levites and of the other tribes, must in all probability have died during the year, of whom no exact account may have been kept. An exact census appears to have been taken of the actual number of the firstborn then living, which was found to be 22,273. The Levites, whose sum, taken in round numbers, amounted to 22,000, were accepted as an equivalent for the same number of firstborn, the odd numbers being probably set over against those of the firstborn who had died during the year, and who, consequently, had been unredeemed.

A sum of five shekels apiece was exacted as the redemption price of the surplus of the firstborn, and may, as it has been conjectured, have been levied on the parents of the youngest children; or the total amount may have been raised by a tax uniformly imposed upon the parents of all the firstborn; and from that time the sum of five shekels appears to have been exacted as the redemption price of each firstborn son.


A second objection to the historical accuracy of the narrative contained in the Book of Numbers is based upon the alleged disproportion between the number of the firstborn males, viz. 22,273, and that of the entire number of the males, which is estimated at about nine hundred thousand or one million, a proportion which may be represented roughly as that of one to forty or forty-four. The fact that this disproportion exists in a narrative which affords abundant evidence of accurate computation, suggests the inference that the objection is apparent rather than real. Two solutions of the difficulty appear to be specially entitled to consideration. The first is, that the command contained in Exodus 13:2, respecting the sanctification of the firstborn was prospective, and that the census of the firstborn comprised only those who were born between the date of the Exodus and the beginning of the first month of the year which followed it. The second is, that the census included only the firstborn amongst those who were under twenty years of age at the time at which the general census was taken. In support of the former, and, as it should seem, the more probable of these solutions, much stress may be fairly laid upon the similar mode of reckoning the firstborn of the cattle. It is reasonable to suppose that the command to sanctify, or set apart for the Divine service, the firstborn of the cattle must have been designed to be of prospective, not retrospective, operation. This reasonable supposition is strongly corroborated by the fact that the cattle of the Levites was taken in exchange for the firstborn of the cattle of all the Israelites belonging to the other tribes. Now the male Levites of all ages bore nearly the same proportion as the firstborn of the sons of the Israelites to the entire number of the males of the other tribes. If then we assume that the cattle possessed by the Levites, previously to the time of their selection for the service of the Tabernacle, was not disproportionate to their numbers,[123] it will follow that about one in forty-five was given as an equivalent for the firstborn of the cattle belonging to the whole of the other tribes. This was probably an approximate equivalent for the firstborn cattle which had been born during the preceding twelve or thirteen months, but was obviously a number wholly disproportionate to the entire number of firstborn of the cattle possessed by the Israelites.

[123] It is not improbable that the cattle of the Levites was below rather than above the average of the cattle possessed by the other tribes. At a later period, two of the other tribes, the Reubenites and the Gadites, are said to have possessed much cattle (See Numbers 32:1; Numbers 32:4; Deuteronomy 3:19). It is quite possible however, that this may have been the result, exclusively, of the recent wars in which they had been engaged.

The obvious difficulty which arises in regard to this view is, that the number, 22,273, instead of being too small, appears to be much larger than that of the firstborn sons who were likely to have been born during the eleven and a half months after the Exodus. It may be fairly urged, however, in answer to this objection, that the circumstances of the Israelites at the close of their period of bondage in Egypt, would be such as naturally to diminish to a great extent the number of marriages; whilst, on the other hand, the natural result of their deliverance from bondage would be to increase the rate of marriages much beyond the ordinary average. Under exceptionally favourable circumstances, there is no insuperable difficulty in the supposition that the number or firstborn sons in the course of nearly twelve months. out of a population of about two millions, should amount to a number even greater than that which is recorded in Numbers 3:43; and if, as some maintain, the eldest son, whether a daughter had or had not been born previously, was in every case included amongst the firstborn, the objection which has been stated loses much, if not all, of its weight. In regard to the second solution of the difficulty—viz., that the number of the firstborn sons includes only those who were under twenty years of age at the Exodus, and who had not been included in the earlier census—it may be urged—

(1) That the phraseology employed—“Number the firstborn of the males of (or belonging to) the children of Israel” (Numbers 3:40)—appears to refer to those who, like the Levites, had not been numbered already, and not to the “children of Israel” themselves, who had been already numbered, and who had already paid the half shekel, “every man a ransom for his soul” (Exodus 30:12).

(2) That the judgment inflicted upon the Egyptians appears to have been limited to the lowest generation, and not to have included father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, when such happened to be themselves firstborn sons. The same rule must, in all probability, have applied to the cattle. Otherwise, the distinctive character of the judgment could not have been equally apparent; as it is unreasonable to suppose that any record was kept of first births in the case of cattle which had arrived at maturity. The case is well stated by Professor Birks, in the following words :—

“The Levites 22,000, and the firstborn 22,273, are nearly equal to one-fortieth of the probable total of males in the twelve tribes, for one-fortieth of 900,000 is 22,300. This, at first sight, requires in every family, or for each mother, the enormous and incredible amount of forty sons and forty daughters. But the true comparison is with non-adult males under twenty years; and this reduces the number to thirteen and one-third of each sex. Again, it is firstborn males, and not eldest sons who had an elder sister, which alone are numbered; and this reduces the number to one-half, or six and two-thirds of either sex. But the mean number of children who survive at all the ages from 0 to 20, compared with the births, are two-thirds. Hence the probably surviving firstborn would be two-thirds for the whole period, and the number of sons and daughters in each family is reduced to four and four-ninths, only with the condition that those who died in infancy are not reckoned.” (The Exodus of Israel, p. 75, 2nd edition, 1863.)


Another objection which has been urged against the historical accuracy of the Book of Numbers is based upon a comparison of the results of the census which was taken at Sinai (Numbers 2), and that which was taken after the lapse of more than thirty-eight years, on the plains of Moab (Numbers 26).

The following table will show the increase or decrease in each tribe :—

First Census.

Second Census,










































(Numbers 3:39, compared with Numbers 26:62.)

It might, indeed, at first sight appear as though the remarkable increase of the Israelites in the land of Egypt would warrant the expectation of an increase of a somewhat corresponding character during the sojourn in the wilderness. It will appear, however, on a closer examination of the history, not only that the general results of the census, but also that in some cases the specific results in regard to some of the tribes, afford a strong confirmation of the general truth of the facts recorded in the Books of Exodus and Numbers.

In the first place, it must be remembered that the judgment of total extinction, with only two exceptions, was denounced against the males of all the tribes (except that of Levi), who were upwards of twenty years of age at the Exodus—i.e., of all those who were included in the first census. And inasmuch as this sentence was pronounced, and began to be executed, at an early period of the wanderings in the wilderness—i.e., at the time of the return of the spies (Numbers 14:29), the result must necessarily have been a great diminution in the number of the next generation. But it is not so much in comparison of the total numbers, included respectively in the earlier and the later census, as in that of the respective numbers of the individual tribes, that we trace a correspondence between the allusions to these tribes, whether prophetical or historical, which we find in the Books of Genesis and of Numbers, and the results of the census which was taken on the plains of Moab. Thus, e.g., by far the most striking decrease in numbers is observed in the case of the tribe of Simeon, which numbered at the later census little more than one-third of its amount at the first census. The case of the tribe of Levi, in which the total increase of males from one month old and upward was only 1,000, is almost if not quite as remarkable, more especially if it is borne in mind that that tribe does not appear to have been included in the general sentence of extermination of the males who were above twenty years of age at the Exodus. Looking back, however, to Genesis 49:5-7, we find Simeon and Levi associated in the prediction “I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.” Again, in Numbers 25 we find that Zimri, the son of Salu, who took a prominent part in the idolatrous and lascivious rites of Baal-peor, was “a prince of a chief house among the Simeonites”; and hence it is not unreasonable to assume that a large number of the same tribe were concerned in that apostacy. Some indication of the tendency of this tribe to intermixture with foreign elements, and hence to the dispersion which was predicted in the prophecy of Jacob, is not wanting; for we find in Genesis 46:10, notice of “the son of a Canaanitish woman “among the descendants of Simeon. Now, the laws which regulated the tribal relations were not given until the expiration of the wanderings in the wilderness, and consequently changes in those relations may have tended to a greater diminution of the tribe of Simeon than of any other tribe. Nor is it unworthy of notice that we find in 1Chronicles 4:27 a passing allusion to the fact that the brethren of one of the heads of the tribe of Simeon—viz., Shimei—“had not many children,” “neither,” it is added, “did all their family multiply, like to the children of Judah.” A strong confirmation of the actual fact of the paucity of numbers of the tribe of Simeon is found in Joshua 19:9, where we find that the inheritance of the children of Simeon was taken “out of the portion of the children of Judah,” because the part of the land which had been assigned to Judah was found to be “too much for them.”

As regards the tribe of Levi, we find (1) that the two elder sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, died childless (Numbers 3:4); and (2) we gather from the fact that the sons of Korah are expressly said not to have died with their father (Numbers 26:11), that a large number of the Levites who joined in the insurrection against Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16) perished at that time. The diminution of the Reubenites may also be accounted for by the participation of the three Reubenites—Dathan, Abiram, and On—and probably of a large number of the adherents belonging to the same tribe, in the conspiracy of Korah, and in the signal punishment by which that conspiracy was avenged.


Another objection which has been raised against the historical truth of the Book of Numbers, is based upon the alleged impossibility of supporting the life of nearly two millions of people and their cattle for forty years in the Sinaitic peninsula. This objection may be met in different ways; but it is probable that a full solution of the difficulty is to be found only in a more accurate acquaintance than it is now possible to obtain of the physical conditions of the country at the time of the Exodus. It may be observed, however, that if by the wilderness of Sinai we understand only the district in the immediate neighbourhood of Mount Sinai, the residence of the Israelites within that district must be reduced from forty years to about fourteen or fifteen months. In respect to the resources of the district in which the thirty-eight years of the wanderings were spent, the mode of life which was adopted by the Israelites, and the number of cattle which they possessed, we know extremely little. And again, although it may be fairly alleged that the miraculous supplies of food and water were neither required nor bestowed to the extent which some have alleged, it must not be forgotten that the miraculous elements of the history are closely interwoven into its entire fabric; and hence, whilst it is open to unbelievers to deny the historical truth of the whole of the history, the impossibility of the sustenance of life, both in regard to the people and the cattle, without miraculous intervention, so far from furnishing any argument against the account which is given in the Book of Numbers, must rather be regarded as an indication of the historical truth of a narrative in which miraculous intervention is alleged both to have been required, and also to have been vouchsafed.

It may be observed, moreover, generally, that nothing can be more uncertain than deductions as to the resources of any country, based upon evidence obtained more than three thousand years after the occurrence of the events to which the inquiry has reference. In regard to the particular region in question, we possess information which warrants the inference that its physical condition has undergone great and important changes. The conclusive evidence which exists that the population of the Sinaitic peninsula was at one time considerable, warrants the inference that its capabilities for the support of life must have been proportionate to the number of its inhabitants. It admits of no doubt that the mines, of which traces still remain, could not have been worked without the consumption of a large amount of fuel; neither could the Israelites have encamped for many months in the district without the destruction of a considerable quantity of the trees and brushwood, on which the amount of rain and its absorption so greatly depend. We have further evidence that water and pasturage still exist at many of those places at which we have reasons to believe that the Israelites encamped. Thus, e.g., the plain at the foot of Mount Sinai, which is represented by Dr. Colenso as “one of the most desolate parts of the whole peninsula,”[124] is described by Dean Stanley as one of the “chief centres of vegetation in the whole peninsula.” [125]It may be observed further, in regard to the region which was occupied by the Israelites during the protracted period of the wanderings, that we possess no definite information as to the precise spots which their encampments occupied, or the extent of space over which they were dispersed.

[124] The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined: Part 1, p. 71.

[125] Sinai and Palestine, p. 19.

When all these circumstances are taken into account, in conjunction with the distinct statements which the Books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy contain respecting the miraculous supplies which the Israelites received, it will follow that there is no difficulty involved in the alleged sustentation of life during forty years in the wilderness which does not admit of a reasonable solution, provided only that the miraculous elements, which are essentially interwoven into the history, be not rejected on the ground of their inherent incredibility.



A more plausible ground of objection to the historical truth of the Book of Numbers arises out of the difficulty of reconciling the various and apparently conflicting laws which are found in it and in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, respecting the tithes and offerings of the Israelites, and their apportionment amongst the Priests, the Levites, the owners, and the poor. Some light has been thought to be thrown upon this subject by the usage of the Jews in later times. Independently, however, of the amount of uncertainty which attaches to the late interpretation of the Mosaic legislation generally, sufficient consideration does not appear to have been given to the two following points—viz., (1) What portion of these laws was applicable only to the wilderness? and (2) Did the laws which, as originally delivered, have reference to the land of Canaan undergo some later modification or amplification? It is obvious that if some of the laws had reference only to the wilderness, and, still further, if those laws may have undergone some further amplification, and possibly some modification, no adverse inference respecting the historical truth of the Books in which those laws are contained can fairly be deduced from the diversities which have been observed, unless it can be shown that they exist in laws which were designed to be carried simultaneously into operation. It is obvious that a complete examination of all the passages which bear upon this subject, would be as impracticable as it would be out of place in an introduction to the Book of Numbers. It must suffice if it can be shown here that the laws prescribed in Numbers 18 are not inconsistent with the earlier legislation of Exodus and Leviticus, or with the later legislation of Deuteronomy.

The general law respecting tithes, as given to Moses on Mount Sinai, is laid down in Leviticus 27:30-33, where it is stated that the tenth of the produce of the land and of the herds and flocks was “holy unto the Lord.” In Numbers 18:24, it is said that all the tenth in Israel was given (apparently from that time, as there is no earlier intimation of the mode of application) to the Levites, but it is not stated whether this tenth comprised the tithe of the cattle as well as that of the produce of the field. In Nehemiah 10:37, the tithe paid to the Levites is described as the tithes of the ground (comp. Nehemiah 12:44). It is enjoined upon the Levites in the same chapter (Leviticus 27:26) that they were to give a tenth of this tenth to the priests (comp. Nehemiah 10:38), and that after this tenth had been duly paid, the remaining nine-tenths might be eaten by themselves and by their households in every place. Now, as regards the predial produce, it is reasonable to suppose that this law must have had primary, if not exclusive, reference to the land of Canaan, not to the wilderness; [126]whilst it seems to follow from the words, in every place, that if the cattle were included in the tithe due to the Levites, the reference of the law must, in this case also, be to the land of Canaan, inasmuch as the slaughter of animals, so long as the Tabernacle remained in the wilderness, could lawfully take place only in one spot. In the legislation of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 12:11-18) it is enacted that the Israelites were to bring their tithes—i.e., of the land, consisting of corn, wine, and oil (Deuteronomy 12:17), together with the firstlings of their flocks and herds, to the place which the Lord should choose, and should feast upon them there, together with their families and the Levites. A further provision is made in Deuteronomy 14:24-27, that if the distance to the Sanctuary should be too great, the tithe might be converted into its equivalent in money, and the money expended in food, which was to be consumed in the same manner at the place which should be selected for the Sanctuary. It is further enacted, in Deuteronomy 14:28-29 of the same chapter, that at the end of three years the whole of the tithe of that year’s increase—i.e., of the vegetable produce—was to be laid up within the gates of the cities in which the Israelites lived, and to be consumed there by “the Levites and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow.” It is also enjoined in Deuteronomy 26:12-14, that at the end of the tithing of the third year, which is there described as “the year of tithing,” the produce—i.e., of the land—was to be given to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, to be consumed within the gates of the cities, and that a solemn affirmation should be made by the owner that he had duly discharged all that devolved upon him in this respect.

[126] It would be rash to assert that corn may not have been sown and reaped during some portion of the thirty-eight years of the wanderings in the wilderness. There is, however, no evidence in support of an affirmative proposition on this subject.

When these ordinances are carefully examined and compared, it will appear that they present no inconsistency, except upon the wholly arbitrary assumption that there was but one tithe to which reference is made. The preposterous character of such a supposition is obvious, from the simple consideration that, inasmuch as that tithe was to be consumed, at least in the first and second year, at the Sanctuary, it will follow that no stated provision whatever was made for the Levites, and that they were dependent upon the feasts to which they were to be invited at certain seasons of the first and second year, and upon the portion which might fall to their lot in the third year.

It may, indeed, be fairly regarded as an open question whether the tithes of the third year were in lieu of, or were supplementary to, the second tithes of the first and second years; which (or their equivalent in money) were consumed at the Sanctuary. In the absence, as it should seem, of any direct information on this point, all that can be alleged with confidence is, that on the first and second of each of the triennial periods the tenth of the predial produce (and perhaps of the herds and flocks), was to be set apart for the maintenance of the Priests and Levites; and that a second tenth of the produce of the field, and also the firstlings of the flock, were appointed to be consumed by the owner and his family, together with the Levites, at the Sanctuary; and that on the third year, either (as some think) in addition to these two tenths, or (as others maintain) in lieu of the second tenth, a tenth of the predial produce was to be laid up in the cities in which the people lived, and to be consumed by the poor and friendless, together with the Levites. On the seventh year the land was to rest, and the law of tithes would necessarily be in abeyance.

We now proceed to take notice of some few additional passages or expressions which have been adduced as inconsistent with the Mosaic authorship of the Book of Numbers.

(1) It has been inferred from the words which occur in Numbers 15:32—“While the children of Israel were in the wilderness,” that they were no longer in the wilderness when the incident which is there recorded was committed to writing, and, consequently, that Moses was not the author of this portion of the narrative. It might suffice to reply to this objection, that inasmuch as Moses lived to conduct the Israelites into the steppes of Moab, there is nothing inconsistent with the Mosaic authorship of the narrative in the statement that a certain incident happened while the people were still in the wilderness. There may, however, have been another and a special reason for the insertion of these words. The punishment of death, though not the mode of its infliction, had already been denounced against those who should violate the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14-15). It is obvious, however, that much of the legislation which is contained in the Book of Exodus (See, e.g., Numbers 22, 23), was not designed to come into operation until after the entrance into the land of Canaan; and so, likewise, in regard to some of the legislation contained in the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers, in which the incident of the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath is recorded, it is expressly stated that it has reference to the land whither God was about to bring his people (Leviticus 27:18). It is not unreasonable, therefore, to infer that the uncertainty which existed in the minds of Moses and of the congregation as to the punishment which should be inflicted on the Sabbath-breaker, may have arisen from the fact that the violation of the law took place in the wilderness, and that the same reason may be assigned why a prominent place is given in the narrative to the fact that the people were still “in the wilderness” when this incident occurred.

(2) Some remarks will be found in the note on Numbers 22:1 in respect to the use of the same Hebrew expression to denote the territory on the eastern and on the western side of the Jordan. It has been urged, as an objection to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, that the Hebrew phrase, which is commonly rendered “beyond,” or “on the other side Jordan” (as, e.g., in Numbers 22:1, where, in the A.V., it is incorrectly rendered “on this side Jordan”), could not have been used by Moses, but must have been used by one who wrote in the land of Canaan. It has been fairly alleged, in reply to this objection, that during the long residence of the Hebrews in Canaan, previously to the descent into Egypt, this phrase may have become a generally recognised description of the country on the east of the Jordan, just as the expressions Cisalpine Gaul and Transalpine Gaul might have been used without reference to the abode of the writer on the north or south of the Alps, and as the name of Peræa was given to a particular province on the east of the Jordan. The fact, however, is that the phrase in question is used by the same writers or speakers with reference to the country on both sides of the Jordan, and in one instance—viz., Numbers 32:19—in the very same sentence (see Note in loc.). It follows, then, whatever may have been the origin of the expression, that no argument against the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch generally, or of the Book of Numbers in particular, can be fairly urged from the use of this expression by the writer in regard to the country either on the eastern or on the western side of the Jordan.

(3) Objection has been taken to the Mosaic authorship of the Book of Numbers on the ground of the use of the word nabi, prophet, instead of roeh, seer, in chapters Numbers 11:29 and Numbers 12:6, such use being, as it is alleged, inconsistent with the statement which is contained in 1Samuel 9:6, that he who was at that time called a prophet (nabi), was aforetime called a seer (roeh). It might suffice to observe, in reply to this objection, that if the reference be—as seems probable, and as the LXX. (who appear to have followed a different reading) understood the passage—to the popular use of the terms, there is no inconsistency in the fact that a writer such as Moses should have used the word nabi (prophet), whilst the people, in their ordinary conversation, used the word roeh (seer). The whole objection, however, is based upon an arbitrary interpretation of the word, which is rendered beforetime in 1Samuel 9:9. A long period had elapsed between the time of Moses and that of Samuel; and it is both possible and probable that during that interval there may have been a great fluctuation in the use of words. It follows, then, that there is no difficulty involved in the supposition that during a portion of that period the word roeh (seer) may have been in ordinary use, although in the time of Moses, as in subsequent periods of Jewish history, the word nabi (prophet) may have been more commonly employed to denote the same class of persons who had, during an intermediate period, been known as seers. It is not unreasonable, moreover, to suppose that the suspension of prophetical utterances, which appears to have prevailed from the days of Deborah to those of Samuel, may afford an adequate explanation of the reason why the people had ceased to employ the word nabi (prophet), and had become familiar with a word which does not denote the communication of any supernatural revelation through the agency of those to whom it was applied.

(4) There are other passages which have been alleged as inconsistent with the Mosaic authorship of the Book of Numbers, which may have been inserted at a later period, or which are capable of an explanation which is consistent with the supposition that they proceeded from the pen of Moses. Such, e.g., is Numbers 12:3 : “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” It is quite possible that these words may have been inserted by Ezra or some other reviser of the Book of Numbers; or, as it is stated in the Note upon this passage, the word rendered meek may mean afflicted or oppressed. There is, however, no necessity for the adoption of either of these suppositions on the part of those who believe that Moses wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. If St. Paul, writing under the influence of the same Divine guidance, could speak of himself both as “the chief of sinners” (1Timothy 1:15), and also as “not a whit behind the very chiefest Apostles” (2Corinthians 11:5), it may well be that the same Moses who recorded the sentence of exclusion from the land of Canaan which was pronounced upon his own unbelief (Numbers 20:12), may have been inwardly moved by the Spirit to record also his possession, in an eminent degree, of that virtue, the reward of which has been declared by our Lord to be the future inheritance of the earth (St. Matthew 5:5).

A similar explanation may be given of some verses in chapter 14 in which Joshua is associated with Caleb as protesting against the rebellious spirit of the people, whilst, in portions of chapters 13 and 14, it would seem as if Caleb alone had stilled the people, and as if to him alone of that generation had been promised an entrance into the land of Canaan.

In regard to these and some other passages—such, e.g., as those which relate to geographical and historical circumstances—it is not always possible, nor is it of any real importance, that we should attempt to determine whether the whole formed part of the original narrative, or whether—as in the case of Deuteronomy 34—some later interpolations and additions may have been admitted into it. It is enough if it be shown (as it may and has been) that there is no contrariety which does not admit of reasonable explanation.

(5) Another objection to the historical truth of the narrative contained in the Book of Numbers is based upon the alleged insufficiency of the time which is allotted to the transactions of the fortieth year. It is urged that the events which are said to have transpired between the death of Aaron, which took place on the first day of the fifth month in that year, and the defeat of Og, the king of Bashan, must have occupied a space of at least six months, and that we are thus brought to the beginning of the eleventh month, the time at which Moses is said to have addressed the assembled hosts of Israel on the plains of Moab (Deuteronomy 1:3). No room, it is alleged, is left for a number of other events which are said to have taken place between these limits—as, e.g., the march to the plains of Moab, the messages sent to Balaam and his arrival and prophesyings, the abode of the people in Shittim, and the plague which destroyed 24,000, the second census, and the Midianitish war. It appears, however, upon examination, that the time allotted to the several events which happened during these six months is, with one exception, purely arbitrary. The single exception is the period of mourning which ensued upon the death of Aaron—viz., one month. There is no evidence, however, that the whole of the Israelitish army abstained from action during this period; and it is probable that both the attack of the king of Arad and his discomfiture may have taken place within a very few days after the death of Aaron. The events which followed may have taken place in rapid succession, and in some cases simultaneously.

Professors Birks and McCaul, by opposing conjecture to conjecture have shown that the whole may have been accomplished within the specified period; and the latter, by reference to the extraordinary results of the battle of Jena, has shown that such conjectures “concerning the possible and probable rapidity of Israelitish conquest, are confirmed by historic facts within the personal knowledge of many still living.”

No Introduction to the Book of Numbers would be complete which failed to notice the peculiar proofs of its Divine inspiration which arise out of the typical occurrences which are related in it. These occurrences are, in some respects, even more remarkable, and more beyond the range of invention, than the symbolism of the ceremonial ordinances of the Levitical law. It is impossible to read, with candour and with attention, the account of the march of the Israelites through the wilderness, the miraculous guidance vouchsafed to them by the pillar of cloud and of fire, the invitation of Moses to Hobab, the miraculous supply of manna and of water, the expedition of the spies, the rash and abortive attempt to enter the land of Canaan, the repeated provocations in the wilderness, and the consequent exclusion from the land of promise of those who were included in the Sinaitic census, the intercession of Aaron as he stood between the living and the dead, the history of the fiery serpents and of the brazen serpent, the death of Moses and the appointment of Joshua as his successor, and lastly, the appointment of the cities of refuge—it is impossible, it may be affirmed, to read all these in a candid spirit and not to be struck with the remarkable types and foreshadowing which these events contain of the spiritual realities of the Christian life, and the impossibility either of the accidental occurrence of events which present so many points of spiritual correspondence, or of the arbitrary invention of such a chain of historical circumstances, even at the latest period to which certain modern critics have assigned the composition of the Book of Numbers.


The following list contains some of the most valuable contributions to the critical and exegetical exposition of the Book of Numbers, which are either written in the English language or which have been translated into English. Of them many have been consulted, and valuable aid has been derived from them, in the composition of the present Commentary :—Keil on The Pentateuch, 3 vols., T. and T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1864; Bishop Wordsworth’s Commentary on the Bible, part 2, Rivingtons, 1865; The Speaker’s Commentary, vol. ii., J. Murray, 1871; Lange’s Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. iii., T. and T. Clark, Edinburgh (no date); Patrick Lowth and Whitby on The Old and New Testament, 4 vols., imp. 8vo, Tegg, 1844; A Practical and Explanatory Commentary on the Old Testament, by the Rev. Robert Jamieson, D.D., imp. 4to, London, Virtue and Co.

Much valuable information may be obtained from the following works, which bear more or less fully upon the elucidation of the Book of Numbers. Some of them, however, and more particularly that of Bleek, must be consulted with much caution :—The Historic Character of the Pentateuch Vindicated, Skeffington, 1863; The Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuch Considered, Skeffington, 1864; The Book of Moses, or the Pentateuch, in its Authorship, Credibility, and Civilisation, by the Rev. W. Smith, Ph.D., vol. i., Longmans, 1868; The Exodus of Israel, by the Rev. T. R. Birks, M.A., Rector of Kelshall, Herts, Second Ed., 1863; Hengstenberg on The Genuineness of the Pentateuch, translated by Ryland, J. D. Lowe, Edinburgh, 2 vols. 8vo, 1847; Hävernick’s Historico-Critical Introduction to the Pentateuch, translated by Thompson, T. and T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1850; Bleek’s Introduction to the Old Testament, translated by Venables, 2 vols., 8vo, Bell and Daldy, 1869.

And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying,
(1) In the tabernacle of the congregation.—The tabernacle of the congregation, or tent of meeting, so called because it was there that God met with Moses (Numbers 17:4; Exodus 25:22), had been set up one month previously (Exodus 40:17), nearly a year after the exodus.

Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls;
(2) After their families.—The family or clan, mishpahah, included several fathers’ houses (see Kurtz’s Hist. of the Old Covenant, 2, pp. 8-10).

With the number of their names.—Better, according to the number of names. The reference is probably to the previous numbering recorded in Exodus 30:12. There is no corresponding clause in the account of the later numbering in Numbers 26:2.

By their polls—i.e., man by man. The word gulgoleth denotes a man’s head, or skull. Cf. Matthew 27:33.

From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: thou and Aaron shall number them by their armies.
(3) From twenty years old and upward.—The result of the previous numbering (Exodus 30:12; Exodus 38:26), which was made about six months earlier, and which was probably obtained by counting the number of half-shekels which were paid, as Ithamar appears to have done (Exodus 38:2), exactly corresponds with the result of the present census (Numbers 1:46). But the complete census, or numbering and enrolment of the persons according to tribes, families, and fathers’ houses, appears to have been deferred until after the erection of the tabernacle, towards the construction of which the atonement money had been paid. If the whole was done in obedience to the command contained in Exodus 30:12, and was regarded as one transaction, those only would be numbered on the second occasion who had already paid their atonement money. There is nothing impossible in the supposition that the whole of those who had been numbered six months previously were still alive, but no allowance is made, on this supposition, for the number of those who were below twenty years of age at the earlier period, and who had exceeded that age at the later period. Inasmuch, however, as the sum-total in both cases is divisible by ten, and inasmuch as the separate items in this chapter are given in tens (the smallest subdivision of the people which was adopted by Moses, on the recommendation of Jethro, Exodus 18:21), no objection to the historical accuracy of both records can be sustained if it be allowed that the number of those who had attained the age of twenty years since the earlier census corresponded nearly with the number of deaths during the same period. The whole of the objection, however, is removed in a far more satisfactory manner by the supposition that there was only one census. (See the Introduction.)

By their armies.—Better, their hosts or companies.

And with you there shall be a man of every tribe; every one head of the house of his fathers.
(4) Of every tribe.—Or, for every tribe.

Every one head . . . —The words may be rendered every one a head . . . There were many heads of fathers’ houses in each tribe; but it appears from Numbers 1:16 (Numbers 7:10-11) that in each case the tribal prince was selected to preside over the census.

And these are the names of the men that shall stand with you: of the tribe of Reuben; Elizur the son of Shedeur.
(5) Of the tribe of Reuben.—Hebrew, for Reuben.

These were the renowned of the congregation, princes of the tribes of their fathers, heads of thousands in Israel.
(16) The renowned of the congregation.—Lit., the called men of the congregation, i.e., the men chosen as representatives of their respective tribes, and appointed to act in that capacity in regulating the affairs of the nation.

Heads of thousands in Israel.—Better, they were the heads of the thousands of Israel. Comp. Exodus 18:21; Exodus 18:25, where rulers, or princes of thousands, are the highest class of officers recommended by Jethro, and appointed by Moses. See also Numbers 10:4.

And they assembled all the congregation together on the first day of the second month, and they declared their pedigrees after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, by their polls.
(18) Declared their pedigrees.—More literally, announced themselves as having been born—i.e., caused themselves to be enrolled. The people appear to have been enrolled by their polls, i.e., individually, under three heads—(1) according to the tribe to which they belonged; (2) according to the mishpahah, or family, which, as it appears from Numbers 3:22, included in some cases two or three thousand persons; and (3) according to their father’s house. The importance of this enrolment, as affording the means of tracing the genealogy of Christ, must not be overlooked.

According to the number of the names.—The words are the same as in Numbers 1:2, and should be rendered in the same manner.

And the children of Reuben, Israel's eldest son, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war;
(20) By their generations.—The toledoth, or generations, included the whole of the descendants of the head of the tribe (Genesis 5:1; Genesis 6:9).

Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Judah, were threescore and fourteen thousand and six hundred.
(27) Threescore and fourteen thousand and six hundred.—The superiority of Judah in point of numbers over all the other tribes deserves notice in connection with the blessing pronounced on that tribe by Jacob in Genesis 49:8 : “Thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise.” In like manner it should be observed that the number of the tribe of Ephraim (Numbers 1:33) exceeded that of the tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 1:35). (See Genesis 48:19-20.)

Even all they that were numbered were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty.
(46) Six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty.—It is obvious that the odd numbers were not reckoned. In Numbers 11:21 as in Exodus 12:37, the whole number is reckoned roughly at six hundred thousand.

For the LORD had spoken unto Moses, saying,
(48) For the Lord had spoken . . . —Better, And the Lord spake . . . (Numbers 3:1; Numbers 3:5-6; Numbers 3:14-15). It is true that the Levites were not included in the earlier numbering, and consequently that they must have been exempted by divine direction. It does not appear, however, that there is a reference to any previous command respecting the Levites, or that the specific destination of the Levites had been previously declared.

But thou shalt appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of testimony, and over all the vessels thereof, and over all things that belong to it: they shall bear the tabernacle, and all the vessels thereof; and they shall minister unto it, and shall encamp round about the tabernacle.
(50) The tabernacle of testimony.—The testimony (sometimes described as the two tables of the testimony (Exodus 31:18; Exodus 34:29) denotes in the first instance the tables of the law which were directed to be placed in the ark (Exodus 25:16; Exodus 25:21). Hence the ark is described as the ark of the testimony (Exodus 25:22; Exodus 26:33), and the tabernacle as the tabernacle of the testimony (Exodus 38:21), and the tent, including the outer covering of the mishkan, or wooden building, is called the tent of the testimony (Numbers 9:15). Also the veil which separated the holy place from the most holy is called the veil of the testimony (Leviticus 24:3).

And shall encamp round about the tabernacle.—The tent of meeting was like a royal palace, and the Levites served as a guard of honour round about it, to protect it from every sort of desecration.

And when the tabernacle setteth forward, the Levites shall take it down: and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.
(51) And the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.—The word zar (stranger) here denotes one who was not of the tribe of Levi (Leviticus 22:10; Leviticus 22:12).

And the children of Israel shall pitch their tents, every man by his own camp, and every man by his own standard, throughout their hosts.
(52) By his own standard.—It appears from Numbers 2:3; Numbers 2:10; Numbers 2:18; Numbers 2:25, that there were four standards—viz., those of Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan—corresponding to the four camps, each consisting of three tribes, which pitched round the tent of meeting.

But the Levites shall pitch round about the tabernacle of testimony, that there be no wrath upon the congregation of the children of Israel: and the Levites shall keep the charge of the tabernacle of testimony.
(53) That there be no wrath upon the congregation of the children of Israel.—The word kezeph (wrath) is used to denote some immediate visitation of the hand of God, as, e.g., the plague. Thus, after the plague which broke out in consequence of the sin of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, we read in Numbers 18:5 “that there be no wrath (kezeph) any more upon the children of Israel.” In Numbers 8:19 the word negeph (plague) is used in the same sense as kezeph is used here. (Cf. Joshua 9:20; 2Kings 3:27; 1Chronicles 27:24.)

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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