Numbers 10:33
And they departed from the mount of the LORD three days' journey: and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them.
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(33) Three days’ journey.—The place at which the first protracted halt was made appears to have been either at Taberah, which means burning, or at Kibroth-hattaavah, the graves of lust. (Comp. Numbers 11:3; Numbers 33:16; see also Note on Numbers 11:34.)

And the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them.—It has been inferred from the fact that the Kohathites had the charge of the ark (Numbers 3:31), and that they were to set forward, “bearing the sanctuary,” after the second or southern camp, i.e., in the midst of the host, that the position of the ark during the journeys was in that place, and not in front. The obvious objection to this supposition arising out of the fact that the cloud which directed the march rested upon, or over, the ark may be overcome by the consideration that the cloud appears to have extended over the whole of the host during the journeys, and to have served as a protection from the scorching heat (see Numbers 10:34; also Exodus 13:21; Nehemiah 9:12; Psalm 105:39). On the other hand, the natural interpretation of this verse is that the ark was borne in front of the host, and did not merely serve to direct its line of march as a general, whose station might be in any part of an army. This interpretation is confirmed by Exodus 13:21, Deuteronomy 1:33, and also by the position which the ark occupied at the passage of the Jordan. In the latter case the people were expressly directed to go after the ark (Joshua 3:3); and in Numbers 10:11 the same word is used which occurs in this verse, “the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth passeth over before you into Jordan.” It will not follow, however, as a necessary inference, that the ark uniformly occupied the same position in all the journeys, and it cannot be denied that Numbers 10:21 presents a difficulty, partly arising from the ambiguity of meaning which is to be attached to the word mikdash, sanctuary, and partly from the omission of any word in the Hebrew corresponding to the words in italics, the other. Ibn Ezra thinks that this three days’ journey was different from all the other journeys in respect of the position of the ark.

Numbers 10:33. Three days — With continued journeys; only it seems probable that the cloud made little pauses, that they might have time for sleep and necessary refreshments. The ark went before them — Although in their stations it was in the middle, yet in their marches it went before them; and the cloud was constantly over the ark, whether it stood or went; therefore the ark is said to go before and direct them, not as if the ark could be seen of all the camps, which, as it was carried only upon men’s shoulders, was impossible, but because the cloud, which always attended upon the ark, and did, together with the ark, constitute, in a manner, one sign of God’s presence, did lead and direct them. To search out — A metaphorical expression, for discovering to them; for the ark could not search; and God, who knew all places and things, needed not to search.

10:33-36 Their going out and coming in, gives an example to us to begin and end every day's journey and every day's work with prayer. Here is Moses's prayer when the ark set forward, Rise up, and let thine enemies be scattered. There are those in the world who are enemies to God and haters of him; secret and open enemies; enemies to his truths, his laws, his ordinances, his people. But for the scattering and defeating of God's enemies, there needs no more than God's arising. Observe also the prayer of Moses when the ark rested, that God would cause his people to rest. The welfare and happiness of the Israel of God, consist in the continual presence of God among them. Their safety is not in their numbers, but in the favour of God, and his gracious return to them, and resting with them. Upon this account, Happy art thou, O Israel! who is like unto thee, O people! God will go before them, to find them resting-places by the way. His promise is, and their prayers are, that he will never leave them nor forsake them.Three days' journey - Probably a technical expression for such a distance as could not be traversed in a single day, and therefore not without intervals of encampment and due provision: compare Genesis 30:36; Exodus 3:18; Exodus 5:3; Exodus 8:27; Exodus 15:22. The technical use of the phrase "Sabbath-day's journey" for another average distance, Acts 1:12, is similar.

The ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them - From Numbers 10:21; Numbers 2:17 it would appear that the usual place of the ark during the march was in the midst of the host. It was evidently an exceptional case when, in Joshua 3:3, Joshua 3:6, the ark preceded the people into the bed of the Jordan. Hence, the words "went before them" do not here imply local precedence. The phrase, or its equivalent, is used of a leader going out in command of his troops, Numbers 27:17; Deuteronomy 31:3; 1 Samuel 18:16; 2 Chronicles 1:10; and similarly the ark may well be said to have gone at the head of the Israelites, when it was borne solemnly in the midst of them as the outward embodiment of the presence whose sovereign word was their law.

A resting place - literally, "rest." It is commonly understood of each successive encampment; or, in particular, of the first encampment. Yet the term would hardly be here employed, did it not carry with it a higher meaning, pointing to the promised rest of Canaan, for which the Israelites were now in full march, and from the speedy enjoyment of which no sentence of exclusion as yet debarred them. Compare the marginal references.

33. they departed … three days' journey—the first day's progress being very small, about eighteen or twenty miles.

ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them—It was carried in the center, and hence some eminent commentators think the passage should be rendered, "the ark went in their presence," the cloud above upon it being conspicuous in their eyes. But it is probable that the cloudy pillar, which, while stationary, rested upon the ark, preceded them in the march—as, when in motion at one time (Ex 14:19) it is expressly said to have shifted its place.

Three days’ journey, with continued journeys, only it seems most probable that the cloud made little pauses, that they might have time for sleep and necessary refreshments, which their natures required. And thus all writers, when they relate the continued journeys of persons for many days together, are to be understood with this exception.

Before them; not so much in place, say some, for so it went in the midst, or at least after the first camp, as may seem from Numbers 10:21, as in office and authority, as a general who is said to go before or lead his army, though he do not go in the very first place. But others more probably think that the ark, which indeed is not mentioned Numbers 10:21, albeit in their stations it was in the middle, where also the cloud was, yet in their marches it went before them, as also the cloud did, and so the cloud was constantly over the ark, whether it stood or went; and therefore the ark is said to go before and direct them, not as if the ark could be seen of all the camps, which being carried only upon men’s shoulders was impossible, but because the cloud, which always attended upon the ark, and did together with the ark constitute in a manner one sign of God’s presence, did lead and direct them.

To search out a resting-place, where they might safely and commodiously rest. But this is a metaphorical expression for discovering to them; for otherwise the ark could not. search, and God, who knew all places and things, heeded not to search.

And they departed from the mount of the Lord three days' journey,...., From Mount Sinai, so called, because the Lord descended upon it, and gave the law from it; so the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan,"from the mount on which the glory of the Lord (or of his Shechinah or divine Majesty) was revealed.''This they left, after they had been nearly twelve months about it, and travelled three days' journey from it before the cloud rested, so as to abide, otherwise is stopped no doubt to give them time to eat their food, and take sleep and rest. The Targum of Jonathan expressly says, they went thirty six miles on that day; but, according to Bunting (o), Taberah or Kibrothhattaavah, to which the children of Israel first came, and where they abode a month, was but eight miles from Sinai; wherefore the three days' journey were not successively one after another, but the first day's journey was to Taberah, where they continued a month; the second day's journey was to Hazeroth, where they stayed seven days; and the third day's journey was to the wilderness of Paran, and there the cloud rested, Numbers 10:12; and there was their resting place, for there they continued long, from whence the spies were sent to the good land, and whither they returned after forty days, Numbers 13:1,

and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them; the ark being carried by the Kohathites, must proceed in the middle of the camps, after the camps of Judah and Reuben, and before the camps of Ephraim and Dan, according to the order of the marches of the children of Israel, Numbers 10:21; wherefore Aben Ezra thinks, that this three days' journey was different from all their other journeys; and that in this the ark went before them, which in other journeys was carried in the midst of them; yet others think it may be said to go before, though in the middle; just as a general of an army may be said to go before, and lead his army, though he is not directly in the front of it; so the cloud being always over the ark, directing the march, it may be said to go before and point out a convenient place to rest in; for searching cannot be properly ascribed to the ark, nor even to the Lord himself, and can only signify pointing out or discovering a proper place to take up their abode in: this ark of the covenant, so called because the covenant or law was laid up in it, was a type of Christ the end of the law for righteousness, and who is the forerunner of his people, is gone before them to prepare a place for them; and the three days' journey may have respect to his resurrection from the dead on the third day for their justification, which is the foundation of their rest, peace, and joy.

(o) Travels of the Patriarchs, &c. p. 82.

And they departed from the {n} mount of the LORD three days' journey: and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them.

(n) Mount Sinai, or Horeb.

33. three days’ journey] A characteristic expression of J ; cf. Genesis 30:36, Exodus 3:18; Exodus 5:3; Exodus 8:27.

33b. the ark of the covenant of Jehovah] This description of the ark, as containing the tablets of the covenant (i.e. the decalogue), is Deuteronomic; cf. Numbers 14:44, Deuteronomy 10:8; Deuteronomy 31:9; Deuteronomy 31:25, Joshua 4:7; Joshua 4:18; Joshua 6:8 &c.

went before them three days’ journey] It is very doubtful if the text can be right. The ark would be useless as a guide if it were three days’ journey in advance. In Joshua 3:4 (P ) it went 2000 cubits (c. 1000 yards) in front. The words ‘three days’ journey’ may have been accidentally repeated from the former half of the verse, and should perhaps be omitted.

Verse 33. - And they departed. These words mark the moment of actual departure, which has been anticipated in the general statement of verse 12. It was one of the supreme moments in the life of Israel - one of those beginnings or "departures" which lead to untold gain or loss; it was, in fact, although they knew it not, the commencement of a march which for almost all of them should know no end except within a hasty grave. No doubt, during the months spent at Sinai, every preparation had been made for the onward journey; but none the less it was a stupendous enterprise to march that vast host, so largely composed of women and children, so little inured to such fatigue, and so impatient of such discipline, for three consecutive days into a wilderness. Three days' journey. This expression is apparently a general one, and not to be strictly pressed (cf. Genesis 30:36; Exodus 3:18; Exodus 15:22). At the same time it implies

(1) that the host twice halted for the night during the journey, and

(2) that the whole journey was regarded as one and in some sense as complete in itself.

The terminus ad quem of this three days' journey is given us in verse 12; it was to take them across the intervening belt of sand, and to land them fairly within the "wilderness of Paran." During this journey no doubt the march would be pushed on as steadily as possible, but it is not likely that it would cover so much as thirty miles. A modern army, unencumbered with non-combatants, does not make more than ten miles a day over difficult country, nor can cattle be driven faster than that. Even to accomplish that rate, and to keep the whole multitude together, as the narrative implies, required supernatural aid and strength. For the direction of the march see notes on chapter 13. The ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them. It is obvious that what is apparently affirmed here is apparently at variance with Numbers 2:17 and verse 21 of this chapter, which speak of the holy things - of which the ark was the most holy - as carried by the Kohathites in the very midst of the long line of march. Three opinions have been held on the subject.

1. That the ark was really carried with the other "holy things," and only "went before" metaphorically, as a general may be said to lead his troops, although he may not be actually in front of them; to which it is obvious to reply that if the ark did not actually precede the host, there was no possible way in which it could direct their movements; the cloud alone would be the visible expression of the Divine guidance.

2. That the "holy things" generally were ordered to be carried in the midst of the host by the Kohathites, but that God reserved the place of the ark itself to his own immediate disposition. A general does not include himself in his own marching orders, however minute; and the ark was the outward symbol of God's own personal presence and guidance. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that the first intimation of the position of the ark on the march should be given at the moment when the march actually commenced.

3. That the usual place for the ark was no doubt with the sanctuary, as implied in the orders, but that o a this special occasion the ark went to the front in consequence of some Divine intimation, just as it did at the crossing of Jordan and at the taking of Jericho. Certainly there is much reason in this view, considering how momentous and formidable was their first assay at marching from their temporary home towards that unknown land beyond the northern horizon. If the deep waters of Jordan might fright them, or the walls of Jericho defy them, well might they shrink from plunging into the broken, stony, and intractable country into which the ark and the cloud now led them. We shall probably think that either habitually or at least occasionally the ark did go before, and that the feet of them that bare it were supernaturally directed, either by the movements of the cloud, or by some more secret intimation, towards the destined place of rest. It is allowed by all that the cloud preceded and directed the march, and it would be strange indeed if these twin symbols of the Divine presence had been so far separated from one another; for the accustomed place of the cloud was above the tabernacle, i.e., above the ark, yet outside of the tabernacle, so as to be visible to all. Numbers 10:33"And they (the Israelites) departed from the mount of Jehovah (Exodus 3:1) three days' journey; the ark of the covenant of Jehovah going before them, to search out a resting-place for them. And the cloud of Jehovah was over them by day, when they broke up from the camp." Jehovah still did as He had already done on the way to Sinai (Exodus 13:21-22): He went before them in the pillar of cloud, according to His promise (Exodus 33:13), on their journey from Sinai to Canaan; with this simple difference, however, that henceforth the cloud that embodied the presence of Jehovah was connected with the ark of the covenant, as the visible throne of His gracious presence which had been appointed by Jehovah Himself. To this end the ark of the covenant was carried separately from the rest of the sacred things, in front of the whole army; so that the cloud which went before them floated above the ark, leading the procession, and regulating its movements in the direction it took in such a manner that the permanent connection between the cloud and the sanctuary might be visibly manifested even during their march. It is true that, in the order observed in the camp and on the march, no mention is made of the ark of the covenant going in front of the whole army; but this omission is no more a proof of any discrepancy between this verse and Numbers 2:17, or of a difference of authorship, than the separation of the different divisions of the Levites upon the march, which is also not mentioned in Numbers 2:17, although the Gershonites and Merarites actually marched between the banners of Judah and Reuben, and the Kohathites with the holy things between the banners of Reuben and Ephraim (Numbers 10:17 and Numbers 10:21).

(Note: As the critics do not deny that vv. 11-28 are written by the "Elohist" notwithstanding this difference, they have no right to bring forward the account of the ark going first as a contradiction to ch. 2, and therefore a proof that Numbers 10:33. are not of Elohistic origin.)

The words, "the cloud was above them" (the Israelites), and so forth, can be reconciled with this supposition without any difficulty, whether we understand them as signifying that the cloud, which appeared as a guiding column floating above the ark and moved forward along with it, also extended itself along the whole procession, and spread out as a protecting shade over the whole army (as O. v. Gerlach and Baumgarten suppose), or that "above them" (upon them) is to be regarded as expressive of the fact that it accompanied them as a protection and shade. Nor is Psalm 105:39, which seems, so far as the words are concerned, rather to favour the first explanation, really at variance with this view; for the Psalmist's intention is not so much to give a physical description of the phenomenon, as to describe the sheltering protection of God in poetical words as a spreading out of the cloud above the wandering people of God, in the form of a protection against both heat and rain (cf. Isaiah 4:5-6). Moreover, Numbers 10:33 and Numbers 10:34 have a poetical character, answering to the elevated nature of their subject, and are to be interpreted as follows according to the laws of a poetical parallelism: The one thought that the ark of the covenant, with the cloud soaring above it, led the way and sheltered those who were marching, is divided into two clauses; in Numbers 10:33 only the ark of the covenant is mentioned as going in front of the Israelites, and in Numbers 10:34 only the cloud as a shelter over them: whereas the carrying of the ark in front of the army could only accomplish the end proposed, viz., to search out a resting-place for them, by Jehovah going above them in the cloud, and showing the bearers of the ark both the way they were to take, and the place where they were to rest. The ark with the tables of the law is not called "the ark of testimony" here, according to its contents, as in Exodus 25:22; Exodus 26:33-34; Exodus 30:6, etc., but the ark of the covenant of Jehovah, according to its design and signification for Israel, which was the only point, or at any rate the principal point, in consideration here. The resting-place which the ark of the covenant found at the end of three days, is not mentioned in Numbers 10:34; it was not Tabeerah, however (Numbers 11:3), but Kibroth-hattaavah (Numbers 11:34-35; cf. Numbers 33:16).

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