Like the last part of Exodus, and the whole of Leviticus, the first part of Numbers, i.-x.28 -- so called,[1] rather inappropriately, from the census in i., iii., (iv.), xxvi. -- is unmistakably priestly in its interests and language. Beginning with a census of the men of war (i.) and the order of the camp (ii.), it devotes specific attention to the Levites, their numbers and duties (iii., iv.). Then follow laws for the exclusion of the unclean, v.1-4, for determining the manner and amount of restitution in case of fraud, v.5-10, the guilt or innocence of a married woman suspected of unfaithfulness, v.11-31, and the obligations of the Nazirite vow, vi.1-21. This legal section ends with the priestly benediction, vi.22-27. Then, closely connected with the narrative in Exodus xl., is an unusually elaborate account of the dedication gifts that were offered on the occasion of the erection of the tabernacle (vii.). This quasi-historical interlude is again followed by a few sections of a more legal nature -- instructions for fixing the lamps upon the lampstand, viii.1-4, for the consecration of the Levites and their period of service, viii.5-26, for the celebration of the passover, and, in certain cases, of a supplementary passover, ix.1-14. Then, with the divine guidance assured, and the order of march determined, the start from Sinai was made, ix.15-x.28.
[Footnote 1: In the Greek version, followed by the Latin. This is the only book of the Pentateuch in which the English version has retained the Latin title, the other titles being all Greek. The Hebrew titles are usually borrowed from the opening words of the book. The Hebrew title of Numbers is either "And he said" or "in the wilderness"; the latter is fairly appropriate -- certainly much more so than the Greek.]

At this point, the old prophetic narrative (Exod. xxxii.-xxxiv.), interrupted by Exodus xxxv.1-Numbers x.28, is resumed with an account of the precautions taken to secure reliable guidance through the wilderness, x.29-32, and a very interesting snatch of ancient poetry, through which we may easily read the unique importance of the ark for early Israel, x.33-36. The succeeding chapters make no pretence to be a connected history of the wilderness period; the incidents with which they deal are very few, and these are related rather for their religious than their historical significance, e.g. the murmuring of the people, the terrible answer to their prayer for flesh, the divine equipment of the seventy elders, the magnanimity of Moses (xi.), and the vindication of his prophetic dignity (xii.). Before the actual assault on Canaan, spies were sent out to investigate the land. But the people allowed themselves to be discouraged by their report, and for their unbelief the whole generation except Caleb (and Joshua)[1] was doomed to die in the wilderness, without a sight of the promised land (xiii., xiv.). The thread of the narrative, broken at this point by laws relating to offerings and sacrifices, xv.1-31, the hallowing of the Sabbath, xv.32-36, and the wearing of fringes, xv.37-41, is at once resumed by a complicated account of a rebellion against Moses, which ended in the destruction of the rebels, and in the signal vindication of the authority of Moses, the privileges of the tribe of Levi, and the exclusive right of the sons of Aaron to the priesthood (xvi., xvii.). Again the narrative element gives place to legislation regulating the duties, relative position and revenues of the priests and Levites (xviii.) and the manner of purification after defilement (xix.).
[Footnote 1: Caleb alone in JE, Joshua also in P.]

These laws are followed by a section of continuous narrative. Moses and Aaron, for certain rebellious words, are divinely warned that they will not be permitted to bring the people into the promised land -- a warning which was followed soon afterwards by the death of Aaron on Mount Hor. Edom haughtily refused Israel permission to pass through her land (xx.). Sore at heart, they fretted against God and Moses, and deadly serpents were sent among them in chastisement, but the penitent and believing were restored by the power of God and the intercession of Moses. Then Israel turned north, and began her career of conquest by defeating Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan (xxi.). Her success struck terror into the heart of Balak, the king of Moab; he accordingly sent for Balaam, a famous soothsayer, with the request that he would curse Israel (xxii.). Instead, however, he foretold for her a splendid destiny (xxiii., xxiv.). But the reality fell pitifully short of this fair ideal, for Israel at once succumbed to the seductions of idolatry and impurity,[1] and the fearful punishment which fell upon her for her sin was only stayed by the zeal of Phinehas, the high priest's son, who was rewarded with the honour of perpetual priesthood, xxv.1-15. Implacable enmity was enjoined against Midian, xxv.16-18.
[Footnote 1: Moabite idolatry, and intermarriage with the Midianites -- ultimately, it would seem, the same story. JE gives the beginning of it, vv.1-5, and P the conclusion, vv.6-18.]

From this point to the end of the book the narrative is, with few exceptions, distinctly priestly in complexion; the vivid scenes of the older narrative are absent, and their place is taken, for the most part, either by statistics and legislative enactments or by narrative which is only legislation in disguise. A census (xxvi.) was taken at the end, as at the beginning of the wanderings (i.), which showed that, except Caleb and Joshua, the whole generation had perished (cf. xiv.29, 34). Then follow sections on the law of inheritance of daughters, xxvii.1-11, the announcement of Moses' imminent death and the appointment of Joshua his successor, xxvii.12-23, a priestly calendar defining the sacrifices appropriate to each season (xxviii., xxix.), and the law of vows (xxx.). In accordance with the injunction of xxv.16-18 a war of extermination was successfully undertaken against Midian (xxxi.). The land east of the Jordan was allotted to Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh, on condition that they would help the other tribes to conquer the west (xxxii.). Following an itinerary of the wanderings from the exodus to the plains of Moab (xxxiii.) is a description of the boundaries of the land allotted to the various tribes (xxxiv.), directions for the Levitical cities and the cities of refuge (xxxv.), and, last of all, a law in narrative form, determining that heiresses who possessed landed property should marry into their own tribe (xxxvi.).

Even this brief sketch of the book of Numbers is enough to reveal the essential incoherence of its plan, and the great divergence of the elements out of which it is composed. No book in the Pentateuch makes so little the impression of a unity. The phenomena of Exodus are here repeated and intensified; a narrative of the intensest moral and historical interest is broken at frequent intervals by statistical and legal material, some of which, at least, makes hardly any pretence to be connected with the main body of the story. By far the largest part of the book comes from P, and most of it is very easy to detect. No possible doubt, e.g., can attach to i.-x., 28, with its interest in priests, Levites, tabernacle and laws. As significant as the contents is the style which is not seldom diffuse to tediousness, e.g., in the account of the census (i.), the dedication gifts (vii.), or the regulation of the movements of the camp by the cloud, ix.15-23. Ch. xv., with its laws for offerings, sacrifices and the Sabbath, ch. xvii., with its vindication of the special prerogatives of the tribe of Levi, and chs. xviii., xix., which regulate the duties and privileges of priests and Levites, and the manner of purification, are also unmistakable. Chs. xxvi.-xxxi., as even the preliminary sketch of the book would suggest, must, for similar reasons, also have the same origin. To P also clearly belong xxxiii. and xxxiv. with their statistical bent, and xxxv. and xxxvi. with their interest in the Levites and legislation. Besides these sections, however, the presence of P is certain -- though not always so easily detected, as it is in combination with JE -- in some of the more distinctively narrative sections, e.g. in the account of the spies (xiii., xiv.), of the rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron (xvi.), of the sin of Moses and Aaron, xx.1-13, and of the settlement east of the Jordan (xxxii.). About such narratives as the death of Aaron, xx.22-29, or the zeal and reward of Phinehas, xxv.6-18, there can be no doubt.

With the exception of a few odd verses, all that remains, after deducting the passages referred to, belongs to the prophetic narrative (JE). The radical difference in point of style and interests between JE and P occasionally extends even to their account of the facts. The story of the spies furnishes several striking illustrations of this difference. In JE they go from the wilderness to Hebron in the south of Judah, xiii.22, in P they go to the extreme north of Palestine, xiii.21. In JE Caleb is the only faithful spy, xiii.30, xiv.24, P unites him with Joshua, xiv.6,38. In JE the land is fertile, but its inhabitants are invincible, in P it is a barren land. The story of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram is peculiarly instructive (xvi.). It will be noticed that Dathan and Abiram are occasionally mentioned by themselves, vv.12, 25, and Korah by himself, vv.5, 19. If this clue be followed up, it will be found that the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram is essentially against the authority of Moses, whom they charge with disappointing their hopes, vv.13, 14. On the other hand, the rebellion headed by Korah is traced to two sources:[1] it is regarded in one of these as a layman's protest against the exclusive sanctity of the tribe of Levi, v.3, and, in the other, as a Levitical protest against the exclusive right of the sons of Aaron to the priesthood, vv.8-11. Perhaps the most striking difference between JE and P is in the account of the ark. In JE it goes before the camp, x.33 (cf. Exod. xxxiii.7), in P the tabernacle, to which it belongs, is in the centre of the camp, ii.17, which is foursquare.
[Footnote 1: Two strata of P are plainly visible here.]

Much more than in Genesis, and even more than in Exodus have J and E been welded together in Numbers -- so closely, indeed, that it is usually all but impossible to distinguish them with certainty; but, here, as in Exodus, there are occasional proofs of compositeness. The apparent confusion of the story of Balaam, e.g. (xxii.), in which God is angry with him after giving him permission to go, is to be explained by the simple fact that the story is told in both sources. This duplication extends even to the poetry in chs. xxiii. and xxiv. (cf. xxiv.8, 9, xxiii.22, 24).

There is not a trace of P in the Balaam story. All the romantic and religious, as opposed to the legal and theological interest of the book, is confined to the prophetic section (JE); and it greatly to be regretted that more of it has not been preserved. The structure of the book plainly shows that it has been displaced in the interests of P, and from the express reference to the "ten times" that Israel tempted Jehovah, xiv.22, we may safely infer that much has been lost. But what has been preserved is of great religious, and some historical value. Of course, it is not history in the ordinary sense: a period of thirty-eight years is covered in less than ten chapters (x. II-xix.). But much of the material, at least in the prophetic history JE, rests on a tradition which may well have preserved some of the historical facts, especially as they were often embalmed in poetry.

The book of Numbers throws some light on the importance of ancient poetry as a historical source. It cites a difficult fragment and refers it to the book of the wars of Jehovah, xxi.14, it confirms the victory over Sihon by a quotation from a war-ballad which is referred to a guild of singers, xxi.27, it quotes the ancient words with which the warriors broke up their camp and returned to it again, x.35, 36, and it relieves its wild war-scenes by the lovely Song of the Well, xxi.17, 18. Probably other episodes in the books of Numbers, Joshua and Judges (e.g. ch. v.) ultimately rest upon this lost book of the wars of Jehovah. The fine poetry ascribed to Balaam, which breathes the full consciousness of a high national destiny, may belong to the time of the early monarchy, xxiv.7, perhaps to that of David, to whom xxiv.17-19 seems to be a clear allusion. The five verses that follow Balaam's words, xxiv.20-24, are apparently a late appendix; the mention of Chittim in v.24 would almost carry the passage down to the Greek period (4th cent. B.C.), and of Asshur in v.22 at least to the Assyrian period (8th cent.), unless the name stands for a Bedawin tribe (cf. Gen. xxv.3).

Historically P is of little account. This is most obvious in his narrative of the war with Midian (xxxi.), in which, without losing a single man, Israel slew every male in Midian and took enormous booty. It is suspicious that the older sources (JE) have not a single word to say of so remarkable a victory; but the impossibility of the story is shown by the fact that, though all the males are slain, the tribe reappears, as the assailant of Israel, in the days of Gideon (Jud. vi.-viii.). The real object of the story is to illustrate the law governing the distribution of booty, xxxi.27 -- a law which is elsewhere traced, with much more probability, to an ordinance of David (I Sam. xxx.24). From this unhistorical, but highly instructive chapter, we learn the tendency to refer all Israel's legislation, whatever its origin, to Moses, and the further tendency to find a historical precedent, which no doubt once existed, for the details of the legislation. It is from this point of view that the narratives of P have to be considered. The story of the fate of the Sabbath-breaker is simply told to emphasize the stringency of the Sabbath law, xv.32-36, the particular dilemma in ix.6-14 is created, as a precedent for the institution of the supplementary passover, the case of the daughters of Zelophehad serves as a historical basis for the law governing the property of heiresses (xxxvi.). In other words, P is not a historian; his narrative, even where it is explicit, is usually but the thin disguise of legislation.

As in Genesis and Exodus, almost every stage in the development of the religion of Israel is represented by the book of Numbers. Through the story in xxi.4-11 we can detect the practice of serpent-worship, which we know persisted to the time of Hezekiah (2 Kings xviii.4); and the trial by ordeal, v.11-31, though in its present form late, represents no doubt a very ancient custom. P throws much light on the usages and ideas of post-exilic religion. But it is to the prophetic document we must go for passages of abiding religious power and value. Here, as in Exodus, the character of Moses offers a brilliant study -- in his solitary grandeur, patient strength, and heroic faith; steadfast amid jealousy, suspicion and rebellion, and vindicated by God Himself as a prophet of transcendent privilege and power (xii.8). Over against the narrow assertions of Levitical and priestly prerogative (xvi., xvii), which reflect but too faithfully the strife of a later day, is the noble prayer of Moses that God would make all the people prophets, and put His spirit upon them every one, xi.29.

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