Numbers, The Book of
RELATED: Aaron, Balaam, Balak, Canaan, Jordan, Midian, Miriam, Moab, Passover, Phinehas, Sinai, Wandering (of Israel)
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King James Version,
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Easton's Bible Dictionary
The fourth of the books of the Pentateuch, called in
the Hebrew be-midbar, i.e., "in the wilderness." In the LXX. version it is called
"Numbers," and this name is now the usual title of the book. It is so called because
it contains a record of the numbering of the people in the wilderness of Sinai
1 - 4),
and of their numbering afterwards on the plain of Moab (Numbers
This book is of special historical interest as furnishing us with details as to
the route of the Israelites in the wilderness and their principal encampments.
It may be divided into three parts:
|1. The numbering of the people at Sinai, and preparations
for their resuming their march ( Numbers
1 - 10:10
). The sixth chapter gives an account of the vow of a Nazarite.
2. An account of the journey from Sinai to Moab, the sending out of the spies
and the report they brought back, and the murmurings (eight times) of the people
at the hardships by the way ( Numbers
10:11 - 21:20
3. The transactions in the plain of Moab before crossing the Jordan (Numbers
21:21 - ch. 36).
The period comprehended in the history extends
from the second month of the second year after the Exodus to the beginning of
the eleventh month of the fortieth year, in all about thirty-eight years and ten
months; a dreary period of wanderings, during which that disobedient generation
all died in the wilderness. They were fewer in number at the end of their wanderings
than when they left the land of Egypt. We see in this history, on the one hand,
the unceasing care of the Almighty over his chosen people during their wanderings;
and, on the other hand, the murmurings and rebellions by which they offended their
heavenly Protector, drew down repeated marks of his displeasure, and provoked
him to say that they should "not enter into his rest" because of their unbelief
This, like the other books of the Pentateuch, bears evidence of having been written
The expression "the book of the wars of the Lord," occurring in Numbers
21:14 , has given rise to much discussion. But, after all, "what this book
was is uncertain, whether some writing of Israel not now extant, or some writing
of the Amorites which contained songs and triumphs of their king Sihon's victories,
out of which Moses may cite this testimony, as Paul sometimes does out of heathen
poets ( Acts
17:28 ; Titus
Hitchcock's Dictionary of Bible Names
Smith's Bible Dictionary
The fourth book of the law or Pentateuch. It takes its
name in the LXX. and Vulgate (whence our "Numbers") from the double numbering
or census of the people, the first of which is given in chs. 1-4, and the second
in ch. 28.
Contents . --
The book may be said to contain generally the history of the Israelites from the
time of their leaving Sinai, in the second year after the exodus till their arrival
at the borders of the Promised land in the fortieth year of their journeyings
It consists of the following principal divisions:
|(1) The Preparations for the departure
from Sinai. ( Numbers 1:1 ; 10:10 )
(2) The journey from Sinai to the borders of Canaan. ch. ( Numbers 10:11 ; 14:45
(3) A brief notice of laws and events which transpired during the thirty-seven
years wandering in the wilderness. ch. ( Numbers 15:1 ; 19:22 )
(4) The history of the last year, from the second arrival of the Israelites in
Kadesh till they reached "the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho." ch, ( Numbers
20:1 ; 36:13 )
Integrity . --
This, like the other books of the Pentateuch, is supposed by many critics to consist
of a compilation from two or three or more earlier documents; but the grounds
on which this distinction of documents rests are in every respect most unsatisfactory,
and it may, in common with the preceding books and Deuteronomy, be regarded as
the work of Moses. The book of Numbers is rich in fragments of ancient poetry,
some of them of great beauty and all throwing an interesting light on the character
of the times in which they were composed. Such, for instance, is the blessing
of the high priest. ch. ( Numbers 6:24 - 26 ) Such too are chants which were the
signal for the ark to move when the people journeyed, and for it to rest when
they were about to encamp. In ch. 21 we have a passage cited from a book called
the "Book of the Wars of Jehovah." This was probably a collection of ballads and
songs composed on different occasions by the watch-fires of the camp, and for
the most part, though not perhaps exclusively, in commemoration of the victories
of the Israelites over their enemies.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
I. TITLE AND CONTENTS
Styled in the Hebrew Bible bemidhbar, "in the wilderness," from the 5th word in
Numbers 1:1, probably because of recording the fortunes of Israel in the Sinaitic
desert. The 4th book of the Pentateuch (or of the Hexateuch, according to criticism)
was designated Arithmoi in the Septuagint, and Numeri in the Vulgate, and from
this last received its name "Numbers" in the King James Version, in all 3 evidently
because of its reporting the 2 censuses which were taken, the one at Sinai at
the beginning and the other on the plains of Moab at the close of the wanderings.
Of the contents the following arrangement will be sufficiently detailed:
|(1) Before leaving Sinai, Numbers 1:1 - 10:10 (a period
of 19 days, from the 1st to the 20th of the 2nd month after the exodus), describing:
|(a) The numbering and ordering of the people, Numbers 1
(b) The cleansing and blessing of the congregation, Numbers 5; 6.
(c) The princes' offerings and the dedication of the altar, Numbers 7; 8.
(d) The observance of a second Passover, Numbers 9:1 - 14.
(e) The cloud and the trumpets for the march, Numbers 9:15 - 10:10.
(2) From Sinai to Kadesh, Numbers 10:11 - 14:45 (a period of 10 days, from the
20th to the 30th of the 2nd month), narrating:
|(a) The departure from Sinai, Numbers 10:11 - 35.
(b) The events at Taberah and Kibroth-hattaavah, Numbers 11.
(c) The rebellion of Miriam and Aaron, Numbers 12.
(d) The mission of the spies, Numbers 13; 14.
(3) The wanderings in the desert, Numbers 15 - 19 (a period of 37 years, from
the end of the 2nd to the beginning of the 40th year), recording:
|(a) Sundry laws and the punishment of a Sabbath breaker,
(b) The rebellion of Korah, Numbers 16.
(c) The budding of Aaron's rod, Numbers 17.
(d) The duties and revenues of the priests and Levites, Numbers 18.
(e) The water of separation for the unclean, Numbers 19.
(4) From Kadesh to Moab, Numbers 20 ; 21 (a period of 10 months, from the beginning
of the 40th year), reciting:
|(a) The story of Balaam, Numbers 22:2 - 24:25.
(b) The zeal of Phinehas, Numbers 25.
(c) The second census, Numbers 26:1 - 51.
(d) Directions for dividing the land, Numbers 26:52 - 27:11.
(e) Appointment of Moses' successor, Numbers 27:12 - 23.
(f) Concerning offerings and vows, Numbers 28 - 30.
(g) War with Midian, Numbers 31.
(h) Settlement of Reuben and Gad, Numbers 32.
(i) List of camping stations, Numbers 33:1 - 49.
(j) Canaan to be cleared of its inhabitants and divided, Numbers 33:50 - 34:29.
(k) Cities of refuge to be appointed, Numbers 35.
(l) The marriage of heiresses, Numbers 36.
II. LITERARY STRUCTURE
According to modern criticism, the text of Numbers, like that of the other books
of the Pentateuch (or Hexateuch), instead of being regarded as substantially the
work of one writer (whatever may have been his sources of information and whoever
may have been its first or latest editor), should be distributed--not always in
solid blocks of composition, but frequently in fragments, in sentences, clauses
or words, so mysteriously put together that they cannot now with certainty be
separated--among three writers, J, E and P with another D (at least in one part)--these
writers, individuals and not schools (Gunkel), belonging, respectively: J to the
9th century BC (circa 830), E to the 8th century BC (circa 750), P to the 5th
century BC (circa 444), and D to the 7th century BC (circa 621).
1. Alleged Grounds of Distribution
The grounds upon which this distribution is made are principally these:
|(1) the supposed preferential use of the Divine names, of
Yahweh (Yahweh, "Lord") by J, and of Elohim ("God") by E and P--a theory, however,
which hopelessly breaks down in its application, as Orr (POT, chapter vii), Eerdmans
(St, 33) and Wiener (EPC, I) have conclusively shown, and as will afterward appear;
(2) distinctions in style of composition, which are not always obvious and which,
even if they were, would not necessarily imply diversity of authorship unless
every author's writing must be uniform and monotonous, whatever his subject may
(3) perhaps chiefly a preconceived theory of religious development in Israel,
according to which the people in pre-Mosaic times were animists, totemists and
polytheists; in Mosaic times and after, henotheists or worshippers of one God,
while recognizing the existence of other gods; and latterly, in exilic and post-exilic
times, monotheists or worshippers of the one living and true God--which theory,
in order to vindicate its plausibility, required the reconstruction of Israel's
religious documents in the way above described, but which is now rejected by archaeologists
(Delitzsch and A. Jeremias) and by theologians (Orr, Baentsch (though accepting
the analysis on other grounds) and Konig) as not supported by facts.
2. Objections to Same
Without denying that the text-analysis of criticism is on the first blush of it
both plausible and attractive and has brought to light valuable information relative
to Scripture, or without overlooking the fact that it has behind it the names
of eminent scholars and is supported by not a few considerations of weight, one
may fairly urge against it the following objections.
(1) Hypothesis Unproved
At the best, theory is an unproved and largely imaginary hypothesis, or series
of hypotheses--"hypothesis built on hypothesis" (Orr); and nothing more strikingly
reveals this than
|(a) the frequency with which in the text-analysis conjecture
("perhaps" and "probably") takes the place of reasoned proof
(b) the arbitrary manner in which the supposed documents are constructed by the
critics who, without reason given, and often in violation of their own rules and
principles, lift out of J (for instance) every word or clause they consider should
belong to E or the Priestly Code (P), and vice versa every word or clause out
of E or P that might suggest that the passage should be assigned to J, at the
same time explaining the presence of the inconvenient word or clause in a document
to which it did not belong by the careless or deliberate action of a redactor;
(c) the failure even thus to construct the documents successfully, most critics
admitting that J and E cannot with confidence be separated from each other--Kuenen
himself saying that "the attempt to make out a Jehovistic and an Elohistic writer
or school of writers by means of the Divine names has led criticism on a wrong
way"; and some even denying that P ever existed as a separate document at all,
Eerdmans (St, 33, 82), in particular, maintaining, as the result of elaborate
exegesis, that P could not have been constructed in either exilic or post-exilic
times "as an introduction to a legal work."
(2) Written Record Not Impossible
It is impossible to demonstrate that the story of Israel's "wanderings" was not
committed to writing by Moses, who certainly was not unacquainted with the art
of writing, who had the ability, if any man had, to prepare such a writing, whose
interest it was, as the leader of his people, to see that such writing, whether
done by himself or by others under his supervision, was accurate, and who besides
had been commanded by God to write the journeyings of Israel (Numbers 33:2). To
suppose that for 500 years no reliable record of the fortunes of Israel existed,
when during these years writing was practiced in Egypt and Babylon; and that what
was then fixed in written characters was only the tradition that had floated down
for 5 centuries from mouth to mouth, is simply to say that little or no dependence
can be placed upon the narrative, that while there may be at the bottom of it
some grains of fact, the main body of it is fiction. This conclusion will not
be readily admitted.
(3) No Book Ever Thus Constructed
No reliable evidence exists that any book either ancient or modern was ever constructed
as, according to criticism, the Pentateuch, and in particular Numbers, was. Volumes
have indeed been composed by two or more authors, acting in concert, but their
contributions have never been intermixed as those of J, E, D and P are declared
to have been; nor, when joint authorship has been acknowledged on the title-page,
has it been possible for readers confidently to assign to each author his own
contribution. And yet, modern criticism, dealing with documents more than 2,000
years old and in a language foreign to the critics--which documents, moreover,
exist only in manuscripts not older than the 10th century AD (Buhl, Canon and
Text of the Old Testament, 28), and the text of which has been fixed not infallibly
either as to consonant or vowel--claims that it can tell exactly (or nearly so)
what parts, whether paragraphs, sentences, clauses or words, were supplied by
J, E, P and D respectively. Credat Judaeus Apella!
(4) Inherent Difficulties of Analysis
The critical theory, besides making of the text of Numbers, as of the other books
of the Pentateuch, such a patchwork as is unthinkable in any document with ordinary
pretension to historical veracity, is burdened with inherent difficulties which
make it hard to credit, as the following examples taken from Numbers, will show.
The critical theory, besides making of the text of Numbers, as of the other books
of the Pentateuch, such a patchwork as is unthinkable in any document with ordinary
pretension to historical veracity, is burdened with inherent difficulties which
make it hard to credit, as the following examples taken from Numbers, will show.
|(a) The Story of the Spies
Numbers 13 and 14 are thus distributed by Cornill, Driver, Strack and E B:
JE, Numbers 13:17 b-20,22-24,26b-31,32b,33; 14:3,4,8,9,11-25,39-45.
P, Numbers 13:1-17 a,21,25,26a (to Paran),32a; 14:1,2 (in the main),5-7,10,26-38
(in the main).
Kautzsch generally agrees; and Hartford-Battersby in HDB professes ability to
divide between J and E.
|(i) According to this analysis, however, up to the middle
of the 5th century BC, either JE began at Numbers 13:17 b, in which case it wanted
both the instruction to search the land and the names of the searchers, both of
which were subsequently added from P (assuming it to have been a separate document,
which is doubtful); or, if JE contained both the instruction and the names, these
were supplanted by 13:1-17a from P. As the former of these alternatives is hardly
likely, one naturally asks why the opening verses of JE were removed and those
of P substituted? And if they were removed, what has become of them? Does not
the occurrence of Yahweh in 13:1-17a, on the critical principles of some, suggest
that this section is the missing paragraph of JE?
(ii) If the JE passages furnish a nearly complete narrative (Driver), why should
the late compiler or editor have deemed it necessary to insert two whole verses,
13:21 and 25, and two halves, 13:26a and 32a, if not because without these the
original JE narrative would have been incomplete? Numbers 13:21 states in general
terms that the spies searched the whole land, proceeding as far North as Hamath,
after which 13:22 mentions that they entered the country from the South and went
up to Hebron and Eshcol, without at all stating an incongruity (Gray) or implying
(Driver) that they traveled no farther North--the reason for specifying the visit
to Eshcol being the interesting fact that there the extraordinary cluster of grapes
was obtained. Numbers 13:25,26 a relate quite naturally that the spies returned
to Kadesh after 40 days and reported what they had found to Moses and Aaron as
well as to all the congregation. Without these verses the narrative would have
stated neither how long the land had been searched nor whether Moses and Aaron
had received any report from their messengers, although 13:26b implies that a
report was given to some person or persons unnamed. That Moses and Aaron should
not have been named in JE is exceedingly improbable. Numbers 13:32 a is in no
way inconsistent with 13:26b-31, which state that the land was flowing with milk
and honey. What 13:32a adds is an expression of the exaggerated fears of the spies,
whose language could not mean that the land was so barren that they would die
of starvation, a statement which would have expressly contradicted 13:27 (JE)--in
which case why should it have been inserted?--but that, notwithstanding its fruitfulness,
the population was continually being wasted by internecine wars and the incursions
of surrounding tribes. The starvation theory, moreover, is not supported by the
texts (Leviticus 26:38; Ezekiel 36:13) usually quoted in its behalf.
(iii) To argue (Driver) for two documents because Joshua is not always mentioned
along with Caleb is not strikingly convincing; while if Joshua is not included
among the spies in JE, that is obviously because the passages containing his name
have been assigned beforehand to P. But if Joshua's name did not occur in JE,
why would it have been inserted in the story by a post-exilic writer, when even
in Deuteronomy 1:36 Joshua is not expressly named as one of the spies, though
again the language in Deuteronomy 1:38 tacitly suggests that both Caleb and Joshua
were among the searchers of the land, and that any partition of the text which
conveys the impression that Joshua was not among the spies is wrong?
(iv) If the text-analysis is as the critics arrange, how comes it that in JE the
name Yahweh does not once occur, while all the verses containing it are allocated
(b) Rebellion of Korah
Numbers 16 and 17 are supposed to be the work of "two, if not three," contributors
(Driver, Kautzsch)--the whole story being assigned to P (enlarged by additions
about which the text analysts are not unanimous), with the exception of 16:1b,2a,12-15,25,26,27b-34,
which are given to JE, though variations here also are not unknown.
It is admitted that the JE verses, if read continuously, make out a story of Dathan
and Abiram as distinguished from Korah and his company; that the motives of Dathan
and Abiram probably differed from those of Korah and his company, and that Dathan
and Abiram were swallowed up by an earthquake, while the 250 incense-offerers
were destroyed by fire. To conclude from this, however, that three or even two
narratives have been intermixed is traveling beyond the premises.
|(i) If JE contained more about the conspiracy of the Reubenites,
Dathan and Abiram, than has been preserved in the verses assigned to it, what
has become of the excised verses, if they are not those ascribed to P; and, if
they are not, what evidence exists that P's verses are better than the lost verses
of JE? And how comes it that in P the Divine name used throughout, with one exception,
16:22, is Yahweh, while in JE it occurs only 6 t?
(ii) If JE contained only the parts assigned to it and nothing more happened than
the Reubenite emeute, why should the Korahite rebellion have been added to it
4 centuries later, if that rebellion never happened?
(iii) If the Korahite conspiracy did happen, why should it have been omitted in
JE, and nothing whispered about it till after the exile?
(iv) If the two conspiracies, ecclesiastical (among the princes) and civil (among
the laymen), arose contemporaneously, and the conspirators made common cause with
one another, in that there was nothing unusual or contrary to experience.
(v) If Moses addressed himself now to Korah and again to Dathan and Abiram, why
should not the same document say so?
(vi) If Dathan and Abiram were engulfed by an earthquake, and the 250 princes
were consumed by fire from the tabernacle, even that does not necessitate two
documents, since both events might have occurred together.
(vii) It is not certain that P (16:35-43) represents Korah as having been consumed
by fire, while JE (16:31-33) declares he was swallowed up by the earth. At least
P (26:10) distinctly states that Korah was swallowed up by the earth, and that
only the 250 were consumed by fire.
Wherefore, in the face of these considerations, it is not too much to say that
the evidence for more documents than one in this story is not convincing.
(c) Story of Balaam
Numbers 22-24 fare more leniently at the hands of analysis, being all left with
JE, except 22:1, which is generously handed over to P. Uncertainty, however, exists
as to how to partition chapter 22 between J and E. Whether all should be given
to E because of the almost uniform use of Elohim rather than of Yahweh, with the
exception of 22:22-35a, which are the property of J because of the use of Yahweh
(Driver, Kautzsch); or whether some additional verses should not be assigned to
J (Cornill, HDB), critics are not agreed. As to Numbers 23 and 24, authorities
hesitate whether to give both to J or to E, or chapter 23 to E and chapter 24
to J, or both to a late redactor who had access to the two sources--surely an
unsatisfactory demonstration in this case at least of the documentary hypothesis.
Comment on the use of the Divine names in this story is reserved till later.
Yet, while declining to accept this hypothesis as proved, it is not contended
that the materials in Nu are always arranged in chronological order, or that the
style of composition is throughout the same, or that the book as it stands has
never been revised or edited, but is in every jot and tittle the same as when
first constructed. In Numbers 7, e.g., the narrative goes back to the 1st day
of the 1st month of the 2nd year, and in chapter 9 to the 1st month of the 2nd
year, though chapter 1 begins with the 1st day of the 2nd month of the 2nd year.
There are also legislative passages interspersed among the historical, and poetical
among the prosaic, but diversity of authorship, as already suggested, cannot be
inferred from either of these facts unless it is impossible for a writer to be
sometimes disorderly in the arrangement of his materials; and for a lawgiver to
be also a historian, and for a prose writer occasionally to burst into song. Assertions
like these, however, cannot be entertained. Hence, any argument for plurality
of documents rounded on them must be set aside. Nor is it a fair conclusion against
the literary unity of the book that its contents are varied in substance and form
and have been subjected, as is probable, to revision and even to interpolations,
provided always these revisions and interpolations have not changed the meaning
of the book. Whether, therefore, the Book of Nu has or has not been compiled from
preexisting documents, it cannot be justly maintained that the text-analysis suggested
by the critics has been established, or that the literary unity of Nu has been
III. HISTORICAL CREDIBILITY
Were the narrative in this book written down immediately or soon after the events
it records, no reason would exist for challenging its authenticity, unless it
could be shown either from the narrative itself or from extraneous sources that
the events chronicled were internally improbable, incredible or falsified. Even
should it be proved that the text consists of two or more preexisting documents
interwoven with one another, this would not necessarily invalidate its truthfulness,
if these documents were practically contemporaneous with the incidents they report,
and were not combined in such a way as to distort and misrepresent the occurrences
they related. If, however, these pre-existing documents were prepared 500 (JE)
or 1,000 (P) years after the incidents they narrate, and were merely a fixing
in written characters of traditions previously handed down (JE), or of legislation
newly invented and largely imaginary (P), it will not be easy to establish their
historical validity. The credibility of this portion of the Pentateuch has been
assailed on the alleged ground that it contains chronological inaccuracies, statistical
errors and physical impossibilities.
1. Seeming Chronological Inaccuracies
(1) The Second Passover (Numbers 9:1 - 5)
The critical argument is that a contemporary historian would naturally have placed
this paragraph before Numbers 1:1. The answer is that possibly he would have done
so had his object been to observe strict chronological order, which it manifestly
was not (see Numbers 7 and 9), and had he when commencing the book deemed it necessary
to state that the Israelites had celebrated a second Passover on the legally appointed
day, the 14th of the 1st month of the 2nd year. This, however, he possibly at
first assumed would be understood, and only afterward, when giving the reason
for the supplementary Passover, realized that in after years readers might erroneously
conclude that this was all the Passover that had been kept in the 2nd year. So
to obviate any such mistaken inference, he prefixed to his account of the Little
Passover, as it is sometimes called, a statement to the effect that the statutory
ordinance, the Great Passover, had been observed at the usual time, in the usual
way, and that, too, in obedience to the express commandment of Yahweh.
(2) The Thirty-seven Years' Chasm
Whether Numbers 20:1 be considered the beginning of the 3rd or of the 40th year,
in either case a period of 37 years is passed over--in the one case in almost
unbroken silence; in the other with scarcely anything of moment recorded save
Korah's rebellion and the publication of a few laws concerning offerings to be
made when the people reached the land of their habitation. To pronounce the whole
book unhistorical because of this long interval of absolute or comparative silence
(Bleek) is unreasonable. Most histories on this principle would be cast into the
wastebasket. Besides, a historian might have as good reason for passing over as
for recording the incidents of any particular period. And this might have been
the case with the author of Numbers. From the moment sentence of death was passed
upon the old generation at Kadesh, till the hour when the new generation started
out for Canaan, he may have counted that Israel had practically ceased to be the
people of Yahweh, or at least that their fortunes formed no part of the history
of Yahweh's kingdom; and it is noticeable that scarcely had the tribes reassembled
at Kadesh in preparation for their onward march than Miriam and Aaron, probably
the last of the doomed generation, died. Accordingly, from this point on, the
narrative is occupied with the fortunes of the new generation. Whether correct
or not, this solution of the 37 years' silence (Kurtz) is preferable to that which
suggests (Ewald) that the late compiler, having found it impossible to locate
all the traditions he had collected into the closing years of the wanderings,
placed the rest of them in the first 2 years, and left the interval a blank--a
solution which has not even the merit of being clever and explains nothing. It
does not explain why, if the narrator was not writing history, there should have
been an interval at all. A romancer would not have missed so splendid an opportunity
for exercising his art, would not have left a gap of 37 years unfilled, but like
the writers of the apocryphal Gospels would have crowded it with manufactured
On the better theory, not only is the silence explained, but the items inserted
are accounted for as well. Though the unbelieving generation had ceased to be
the people of Yahweh, Aaron had not yet been sentenced to exclusion from the promised
land, He was still one of the representatives of the kingdom of Yahweh, and Korah's
rebellion practically struck a blow at that kingdom. As such it was punished,
and the story of its breaking out and suppression was recorded, as a matter that
vitally concerned the stability of the kingdom. For a like reason, the legislative
sections were included in the narrative. They were Yahweh's acts and not the people's.
They were statutes and ordinances for the new generation in the new land.
(3) Fortieth Year
The events recorded as having taken place between the 1st of the 5th month (the
date of Aaron's death) and the 1st of the 11th month (the date of Moses' address)
are so numerous and important as to render it impossible, it is said, to maintain
the credibility of this portion of the narrative. But
|(a) it is not certain that all the events in this section
were finished before Moses began his oration; neither
(b) is it necessary to hold that they all occurred in succession; while
(c) until the rapidity with which events followed one another is ascertained,
it will not be possible to decide whether or not they could all have been begun
and finished within the space of 6 months.
2. So-called Statistical Errors
(1) Number of the Fighting Men
This, which may be set down roughly at 600,000, has been challenged on two grounds:
|(a) that the number is too large, and
(b) that the censuses at Sinai and in Moab are too nearly equal.
The first of these objections will be considered in the following section when
treating of the size of the congregation. The second will not appear formidable
if it be remembered
|(a) that it is neither impossible nor unusual for the population
of a country to remain stationary for a long series of years;
(b) that there was a special fitness in Israel's ease that the doomed generation
should be replaced by one as nearly as possible equal to that which had perished;
(c) that had the narrative been invented, it is more than likely that the numbers
would have been made either exactly equal or more widely divergent; and
(d) that so many variations occurring in the strength of the tribes as numbered
at Sinai and again in Moab, while the totals so nearly correspond, constitutes
a watermark of truthfulness which should not be overlooked.
(2) Size of the Congregation
Taking the fighting men at 600,000 and the whole community at 4 1/2 times that
number, or about 2 1/2 millions, several difficulties emerge which have led to
the suggestion (Eerdmans, Conder, Wiener) that the 600,000 should be reduced (to,
say, 6,000), and the entire population to less than 30,000. The following alleged
impossibilities are believed to justify this reduction:
|(a) that of 70 families increasing to 2 1/2 millions between
the descent into, and the departure from, Egypt;
(b) that of 2 1/2 millions being led out of Egypt in one day;
(c) that of obtaining support for so large a multitude with their flocks in the
(d) that of finding room for them either before the Mount at Sinai, or in the
limited territory of Palestine; and
(e) that of the long time it took to conquer Palestine if the army was 600,000
|(a) Multiplication of People
As to the possibility of 70 souls multiplying in the course of 215 years or 7
generations (to take the shorter interval rather than the longer of 430 years)
into 2 1/2 millions of persons giving 600,000 fighting men, that need not be regarded
as incredible till the rate of increase in each family is exactly known. Allowing
to each of Jacob's grandsons who were married (say 51 out of 53), 4 male descendants
(Colenso allows 4 1/2), these would in 7 generations--not in 4 (Colenso)--amount
to 835,584, and with surviving fathers and grandfathers added might well reach
900,000, of whom 600,000 might be above 20 years of age. But in point of fact,
without definite data about the number of generations, the rates of birth and
of mortality in each generation, all calculations are at the best problematical.
The most that can be done is to consider whether the narrative mentions any circumstances
fitted to explain this large number of fighting men and the great size of the
congregation, and then whether the customary objections to the Biblical statement
can be satisfactorily set aside.
As for corroborative circumstances, the Bible expressly states that during the
years of the oppression the Hebrews were extraordinarily fruitful, and that this
was the reason why Pharaoh became alarmed and issued his edict for the destruction
of the male children. The fruitfulness of the Hebrews, however, has been challenged
(Eerdmans, Verger schichte Israels, 78) on the ground that were the births so
numerous as this presupposes, two midwives (Exodus 1:15) would not have sufficed
for the necessary offices. But if the two to whom Pharaoh spake were the superintendents
of the midwives throughout Goshen, to whom the king would hardly address himself
individually, or if they were the two officiating in Hellopolls, the statement
in Exodus 1:15 will appear natural enough, and not opposed to the statement in
Exodus 1:10 that Pharaoh was alarmed at the multiplication of the Hebrews in his
land. And, indeed, if the Hebrews were only 30,000 strong, it is not easy to see
why the whole might of Egypt could not have kept them in subjection. Then as to
the congregation being 2 1/2 millions if the 2 fighting men were 600,000, that
corresponds with the proportion which existed among the Helvetii, who had 92,000
men capable of bearing arms out of a population, including children, old men and
women, of 368,000 souls (Caesar, BG, i, 20). This seems to answer the objection
(Eerdmans, Vorgeschichte Israels, 78) that the unschooled Oriental is commonly
addicted to exaggeration where numbers are concerned.
(b) Exodus in One Day
The second difficulty would be serious were it necessary to suppose that the Israelites
had never heard about their projected journey till the 14th of the 1st month.
But the idea of going forth from Egypt must have been before them since the day
Moses went to Pharaoh to demand their liberation; and at least 4 days before the
14th they had begun to prepare for departure. In circumstances such as these,
with a people thirsting for liberty and only waiting the signal to move, aware
also of the hour at which that signal would be given, namely, at midnight, it
does not appear so formidable a task as is imagined to get them all assembled
in one day at a fore-appointed rendezvous, more especially as they were not likely
to delay or linger in their movements. But how could there have been 2 1/2 millions
of fugitives, it is asked (Eerdmans, Wiener), if Pharaoh deemed 600 chariots sufficient
for pursuit? The answer is that Pharaoh did not reckon 600 chariots sufficient,
but in addition to these, which were "chosen chariots," he took all the chariots
of Egypt, his horsemen and his army (Exodus 14:7,9), which were surely adequate
to overcome a weaponless crowd, however big it might be. And that it was big,
a vast horde indeed, Pharaoh's host implies.
(c) Support in Wilderness
The supposed difficulty of obtaining support for 2 1/2 millions of people with
the flocks and herds in the Sinaitic desert takes for granted that the desert
was then as barren a region as it is now, which cannot be proved, and is as little
likely to be correct as it would be to argue that Egypt, which was then the granary
of the world, was no more fertile than it was 10 years ago, or that the regions
in which Babylon and Assyria were situated were as desolate then as they are now.
This supposition disregards the fact that Moses fed the flocks of Jethro for 40
years in that same region of Sinai; that when the Israelites passed through it,
it was inhabited by several powerful tribes. It overlooks, too, the fact that
the flocks and herds of Israel were not necessarily all cooped up in one spot,
but were most likely spread abroad in districts where water and vegetation could
be found. And it ignores the statement in the narrative that the Israelites were
not supplied exclusively by the produce of the desert, but had manna from heaven
from the 1st day of the 2nd month after leaving Egypt till they reached Canaan.
Rationalistic expositors may relegate this statement to the limbo of fable, but
unless the supernatural is to be eliminated altogether from the story, this statement
must be accorded its full weight. So must the two miraculous supplies of water
at Horeb (Exodus 17) and at Kadesh (Numbers 20) be treated. It is sometimes argued
that these supplies were quite insufficient for 2 1/2 millions of people with
their flocks and herds; and that therefore the congregation could not have been
so large. But the narrative in Nu states, and presumably it was the same in Exodus,
that the smitten rock poured forth its water so copiously and so continuously
that 'the people drank abundantly with their flocks.' Wherefore no conclusion
can be drawn from this against the reported size of the congregation.
(d) Room at Mt. Sinai
As to the impossibility of finding room for 2 1/2 millions of people either before
the Mount at Sinai or within the land of Canaan (Conder), few will regard this
as self-evident. If the site of their encampment was the Er-Rahab plain (Robinson,
Stanley)--though the plain of Sebayeh, admittedly not so roomy, has been mentioned
(Ritter, Kurtz, Knobel)--estimates differ as to the sufficiency of accommodation
to be found there. Conder gives the dimensions of the plain as 4 square miles,
which he deems insufficient, forgetting, perhaps, that "its extent is farther
increased by lateral valleys receding from the plain itself" (Forty Days in the
Desert, 73; compare Keil on Exodus 19:1,2). Kalisch, though putting the size of
the plain at a smaller figure, adds that "it thus furnished ample tenting ground
for the hosts of Israel"--a conclusion accepted by Ebers, Riehm and others. In
any case it seems driving literal interpretation to extreme lengths to hold that
camping before the Mount necessarily meant that every member of the host required
to be in full view of Sinai. As to not finding room in Canaan, it is doubtful
if, after the conquest, the remnants of both peoples at any time numbered as many
persons as dwelt in Palestine during the most flourishing years of the kingdom.
It may well be that the whole population of Palestine today amounts to only about
600,000 souls; but Palestine today under Turkish rule is no proper gauge for judging
of Palestine under David or even under Joshua.
(e) Slow Conquest of Canaan
The long time it took to conquer Palestine (Eerdmans, Vorgeschichte Israels, 78)
is no solid argument to prove the unreliable character of the statement about
the size of the army, and therefore of the congregation. Every person knows that
in actual warfare, victory does not always go with the big battalions; and in
this instance the desert-trained warriors allowed themselves to be seduced by
the idolatries and immoralities of the Canaanites and forgot to execute the commission
with which they had been entrusted, namely, to drive out the Canaanites from the
land which had been promised to their fathers. Had they been faithful to Yahweh,
they would not have taken so long completely to possess the land (Psalms 81:13,14).
But if instead of having 600,000 stalwart soldiers they had only possessed 6,000,
it is not difficult to see how they could not drive out the Canaanites. The difficulty
is to perceive how they could have achieved as much as they did.
(3) Number of the Firstborn
That the 22,273 firstborn males from 1 month old and upward (Numbers 3:43) is
out of all proportion to the 603,550 men of 20 years old and upward, being much
too few, has frequently (Bleek, Bohlen, Colenso and others) been felt as a difficulty,
since it practically involves the conclusion that for every firstborn there must
have been 40 or 45 males in each family. Various solutions of this difficulty
have been offered. The prevalence of polygamy has been suggested (Michaelis, Havernick).
The exclusion of firstborn sons who were married, the inclusion only of the mother's
firstborn, and the great fruitfulness of Hebrew mothers have been called in to
surmount the difficulty (Kurtz). But perhaps the best explanation is that only
those were counted who were born after the Law was given on the night of the departure
from Egypt (Exodus 13:2; Numbers 3:13; 8:17) (Keil, Delitzsch, Gerlach). It may
be urged, of course, that this would require an exceptionally large number of
births in the 13 months; but in the exceptionally joyous circumstances of the
emancipation this might not have been impossible. In any case, it does not seem
reasonable on account of this difficulty, which might vanish were all the facts
known, to impeach the historical accuracy of the narrative, even in this particular.
(NOTE.--In Scotland, with a population of nearly double that of the Israelites,
namely, 4,877,648, the marriages in 1909 were 30,092, the lowest on record for
55 years. At this rate the births in Israel during the first 12 months after the
exodus might have been 15,046, assuming each marriage to have had issue. As this
marriage rate, however, is excessively low for Scotland in normal years, the number
of marriages and therefore of births in Israel in the first year after the exodus
may well have been twice, if not 3 times, 15,046, i.e. 30,092, or 45,138. Reckoning
the half of these as males, namely, 15,046 or 22,569, it does not appear as if
the number of the firstborn in the text were quite impossible, on the supposition
3. Alleged Physical Impossibilities
(1) Duties of the Priests
These are supposed to have been so onerous that Aaron and his sons could not possibly
have performed them. But
|(a) the Levitical laws, though published in the desert,
were not necessarily intended to receive full and minute observance there, but
only in Canaan.
(b) In point of fact, as Moses afterward testified (Deuteronomy 12:8), the Levitical
laws were not scrupulously kept in the wilderness.
(c) There is no reason to suppose that the Passover of the 2nd year was celebrated
otherwise than it had been in Egypt before the exodus, the slaughtering of the
lambs being performed by the heads of families. And
(d) as the Levites were set apart to minister to the tabernacle (Numbers 1:50),
they would be able in many ways to assist the priests.
(2) Assembling of the Congregation
The assembling of the congregation at the door of the tabernacle (Numbers 10:3,4)
has been adduced as another physical impossibility; and no doubt it was if every
man, woman and child, or even only every man was expected to be there; but not
if the congregation was ordinarily represented by its "renowned" or "called" men,
princes of the tribes of their fathers, heads of thousands of Israel (Numbers
1:16). To suppose that anything else was meant is surely not required. When Moses
called all Israel and spake unto them (Deuteronomy 5:1; 29:2), no intelligent
person understands that he personally addressed every individual, or spoke so
as to be heard by every individual, though what he said was intended for all.
An additional difficulty in the way of assembling the congregation, and by implication
an argument against the size of the congregation, has been discovered in the two
silver trumpets which, it is contended, were too few for summoning so vast a host
as 2 1/2 millions of people. But it is not stated in the narrative either
|(a) that it was absolutely necessary that every individual
in the camp should hear the sound of the trumpets any more than it was indispensable
that Balaam's curse should re-echo to the utmost bounds of Israel (Numbers 23:13),
or that a public proclamation by a modern state, though prefaced by means of an
"Oyez," should be heard by all within the state or even within its capital; or
(b) if it was necessary that everyone should hear, that the trumpeters could not
move about through the camp but must remain stationary at the tabernacle door;
(c) that in the clear air of the desert the sound of the trumpets would not travel
farther than in the noisy and murky atmosphere of modern cities; or
(d) that should occasion arise for more trumpets than two, Moses and his successors
were forbidden to make them.
(3) Marching of the Host
The marching of the host in four main divisions of about half a million each (Numbers
2; 10:14-20) has also been pronounced a stumbling-block (Colenso, Eerdmans, Doughty),
inasmuch as the procession formed (i.e. if no division began to fall into line
till its predecessor had completed its evolutions) would require the whole day
for its completion, and would make a column of unprecedented length--of 22 miles
(Colenzo), of 600 miles (Doughty)--and would even on the most favorable hypothesis
travel only a few miles, when the whole line would again need to reconstruct the
camp. The simple statement of this shows its absurdity as an explanation of what
actually took place on the march, and indirectly suggests that the narrative may
be historical after all, as no romancer of a late age would have risked his reputation
by laying down such directions for the march, if they were susceptible of no other
explanation than the above. How precisely the march was conducted may be difficult
or even impossible to describe in such a way as to obviate all objections. But
some considerations may be advanced to show that the march through the desert
was neither impossible nor incredible.
|(a) The deploying of the four main divisions into line may
have gone on simultaneously, as they were widely apart from each other, on the
East (Judah), on the South (Reuben), on the West (Ephraim) and on the North (Dan).
(b) There is no ground for thinking that the march would be conducted, at least
at first, with the precision of a modern army, or that each division would extend
itself to the length of 22 miles. It is more than likely that they would follow
their standards as best they could or with such order as could be arranged by
(c) If the camps of Judah and Reuben started their preparations together, say
at 6 o'clock in the morning (which might be possible), and occupied 4 hours in
completing these, they might begin to advance at 10 o'clock and cover 10 miles
in another 4 hours, thus bringing them on to 2 PM, after which 4 hours more would
enable them to encamp themselves for the night, if that was necessary. The other
two divisions falling into line, say at 2 o'clock, would arrive at 6 PM, and by
10 PM would be settled for the night.
(d) It does not seem certain that every night upon the march they would arrange
themselves into a regularly constructed camp; rather it is reasonable to conclude
that this would be done only when they had reached a spot where a halt was to
be made for some time.
(e) In any case, in the absence of more details as to how the march was conducted,
arithmetical calculations are of little value and are not entitled to discredit
the truthfulness of the narrative.
(4) Victory over Midian
This has been objected to on moral grounds which are not now referred to. It is
the supposed impossibility of 12,000 Israelites slaying all the male Midianites,
capturing all their women and children, including 32,000 virgins, seizing all
their cattle and flocks, with all their goods, and burning all their cities and
castles without the loss of a single man (Numbers 31:49), which occasions perplexity.
Yet Scripture relates several victories of a similar description, as e.g. that
of Abraham over the kings of the East (Genesis 14:15), in which, so far as the
record goes, no loss was incurred by the patriarch's army; that of Gideon's 300
over the Midianites at a later date (Judges 7:22); that of Samson single-handed
over 1,000 Philistines (Judges 15:15); and that of Jehoshaphat at the battle of
Tekoa (2 Chronicles 20:24), which was won without a blow--all more or less miraculous,
no doubt. But in profane history, Tacitus (Ann. xiii.39) relates an instance in
which the Romans slaughtered all their foes without losing a single man; and Strabo
(xvi.1128) mentions a battle in which 1,000 Arabs were slain by only 2 Romans;
while the life of Saladin contains a like statement concerning the issue of a
battle (Havernick, Intro, 330). Hence, Israel's victory over Midian does not afford
sufficient ground for challenging its historic credibility.
Restricting attention to evidence from Nu itself, it may be remarked in a general
way that the question of authorship is practically settled by what has been advanced
on its literary structure and historical credibility. For, if the materials of
the book were substantially the work of one pen (whoever may have been their first
collector or last redactor), and if these materials are upon the whole trustworthy,
there will be little room to doubt that the original pen was in the hand of a
contemporary and eyewitness of the incidents narrated, and that the contemporary
and eyewitness was Moses, who need not, however, have set down everything with
his own hand, all that is necessary to justify the ascription of the writing to
him being that it should have been composed by his authority and under his supervision.
In this sense it is believed that indications are not wanting in the book both
against and for the Mosaic authorship; and these may now be considered.
1. Against the Mosaic Authorship
(1) Alternating Use of Divine Names
This usage, after forming so characteristic a feature in Ge and largely disappearing
in Exodus and Leviticus, reasserts itself in Numbers, and more particularly in
the story of Balaam. If Numbers 23 and 24 can be explained only as late documents
pieced together, because of the use of "God" in chapter 23 and of "Lord" in chapter
24, then Moses was not their author. But if the varying use of the divine names
is susceptible of explanation on the assumption that the two chapters originally
formed one document, then most distinctly the claim of Moses to authorship is
not debarred. Now whether Balaam was a false or a true prophet, it is clear that
he could hope to please Balak only by cursing Israel in the name of Yahweh, the
God 'Elohim of Israel; and so it is always Yahweh he consults or pretends to consult
before replying to the messengers of Balak. Four times he did so (22:8,19; 23:3,15);
and 3 times it was Elohim who met him (22:9,20; 23:14), while every time it was
Yahweh who put the word in his mouth. Can any conclusion be fairer than that the
historian regarded 'Elohim and Yahweh as the same Divine Being, and represented
this as it were by a double emphasis, which showed
|(a) that the Yahweh whom Balaam consulted was Elohim or
the supreme God, and
(b) that the God who met Balaam and supplied him with oracles was Israel's Lord?
Thus explained, the alternate use of the Divine names does not require the hypothesis
of two single documents rolled into one; and indeed the argument from the use
of the divine names is now generally abandoned.
(2) Traces of Late Authorship
Traces of late authorship are believed to exist in several passages:
|(a) Numbers 15:32-36 seems to imply that the writer was
no longer in the wilderness, which may well have been the case, if already he
was in the land of Moab.
(b) 20:5 suggests, it is said, that the people were then in Canaan. But the language
rather conveys the impression that they were not yet come to Canaan; and in point
of fact the people were at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.
(c) In 21:14,15,17,18,27-30, certain archaic songs are cited as if the people
were familiar with them, and the Arnon is mentioned as the border of Moab long
before Israel reached the river. But that poets were among the people at the time
of the exodus and probably long before, the song of Moses (Exodus 15) shows, and
that a Book of the Wars of the Lord was begun to be composed soon after the defeat
of Amalek is not an unreasonable hypothesis (Exodus 17:14). As for the statement
that "Arnon leaneth upon the borders of Moab," that may have been superfluous
as a matter of information to the contemporaries of Moses when they were about
to cross the stream (Strack, Einl, 25), but it was quite in place in an old prophetic
song, as showing that their present position had been long before anticipated
(d) 24:7, according to criticism, could not have been composed before the rise
of the monarchy; and certainly it could not, if prediction of future events is
impossible. But if reference to a coming king in Israel was put into Balaam's
mouth by the Spirit of God, as the narrator says, then it could easily have been
made before the monarchy; and so could
(e) 24:17,18 have been written before the reign of David, though the conquest
of the Edomites only then began (2 Samuel 8:14; 1 Kings 11:1; 1 Chronicles 18:12,13).
Examples such as these show that many, if not most, of the like objections against
the Mosaic authorship of this book are capable of at least possible solution;
and that Kuenen's caution should not be forgotten: "He who relies upon the impression
made by the whole, without interrogation of the parts one by one, repudiates the
first principles of all scientific research, and pays homage to superficiality"
(Religion of Israel, I, 11).
2. For the Mosaic Authorship
(1) Certain Passages Have the Appearance of Having Been Written by Moses
|(a) those which bear evidence of having been intended for
a people not settled in cities but dwelling in tents and camps, as e.g. Numbers
1-4, describing the arrangements for the census and the formation of the camp;
6:24-26, the high-priestly benediction; 10:35,36, the orders for the marching
and the halting of the host; 10:1-9, the directions about the silver trumpets;
Numbers 19, the legislation which obviously presupposes the wilderness as the
place for its observance (19:3,7,9,14). If criticism allows that these and other
passages have descended from the Mosaic age, why should it be necessary to seek
another author for them than Moses? And if Moses could have composed these passages,
a presumption at least is created that the whole book has proceeded from his pen.
(b) The patriotic songs taken from the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21),
which some critics (Cornill, Kautzsch and others) hold cannot be later than 750
BC, are by equally competent scholars (Bleek, De Wette, E. Meyer, Konig and others)
recognized as parts of Israel's inheritance from the Mosaic age, whenever they
were incorporated in Numbers.
(c) The list of camping stations (Numbers 33) is expressly assigned to him. Whether
"by the commandment of the Lord" should be connected with the "journeys" (Konig)
or the "writing" makes no difference as to the authorship of this chapter, at
least in the sense that it is based on a Mosaic document (Strack). It is true
that even if this chapter as it stands was prepared by Moses, that does not amount
to conclusive evidence of the Mosaic authorship of the whole book. Yet it creates
a presumption in its favor (Drechsler, Keil, Zahn). For why should Moses have
been specially enjoined to write so comparatively uninteresting and unprofitable
a document as a list of names, many of which are now incapable of identification,
if that was all? But if Moses was already writing up a journal or history of the
wanderings, whether by his own hand or by means of amanuenses, and whether by
express command or without it (not an unreasonable supposition), there was no
particular need to record that this was so. If, however, Moses was not thinking
of preserving an itinerary, and God for reasons of His own desired that he should
do so, then there was need for a special commandment to be given; and need that
it should be recorded to explain why Moses incorporated in his book a list of
names that in most people's judgment might have been omitted without imperiling
the value of the book. Looked at in this way, the order to prepare this itinerary
rather strengthens the idea of the Mosaic authorship of the whole book.
(2) Acquaintance on the Part of the Author with Egyptian Manners and Customs
This points in the direction of Moses.
|(a) The trial by jealousy (Numbers 5:11-31) may be compared
with the tale of Setnau, belonging probably to the 3rd century BC, but relating
to the times of Rameses II, in which Ptahnefer-ka, having found the book which
the god Thoth wrote with his own hand, copied it on a piece of papyrus, dissolved
the copy in water and drank the solution, with the result that he knew all the
book contained (RP, IV, 138).
(b) The consecration of the Levites (Numbers 8:7) resembled the ablutions of the
Egyptian priests who shaved their heads and bodies every 3rd day, bathed twice
during the day and twice during the night, and performed a grand ceremony of purification,
preparatory to their seasons of fasting, which sometimes lasted from 7 to 40 days
and even more (WAE, I, 181).
(c) Uncleanness from contact with the dead (Numbers 19:11) was not unknown to
the Egyptians, who required their priests to avoid graves, funerals and funeral
feasts (Porphyry, De Abst. ii.50, quoted in Speaker's Comm.).
(d) The fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic referred to in Numbers
11:5 were articles of diet in Egypt (Herodotus ii.93):
(e) The antiquarian statement about Hebron (13:22) fits in well with a writer
in Mosaic times. "A later writer could have had no authority for making the statement
and no possible reason for inventing it" (Pulpit Commentary on Numbers). On a
candid review of all the arguments pro and con, it is not too much to say that
the preponderance of evidence lies on the side of the substantial Mosaicity of
the Book of Numbers.
Comms. on Nu by Bertheau (ET), Knobel, Keil (ET), Dillmann, Strack, Lange (English
translation); in Speaker's Comm., Pulpit Comm., ICC (Gray); Biblical Intros of
De Wette, Hengstenberg, Havernick, Bleek, Konig, Strack, Cornill, Driver; in encs,
etc., RE, HDB, EB, Sch-Herz; critical comms.: Reuss, Die Geschichte der heiligen
Schriften AT; Kuenen, The Religion of Israel (English translation); Wellhausen,
Geschichte Israels and Prolegomena (English translation); Klostermann, Der Pentateuch;
Eerdmans, Alttest. Studien; Addis, Documents of Hexateuch; Olford Hexateuch; EPC.
aaron, balaam, balak, be-midbar, bible commentary, bible history, bible reference, bible study, book of numbers, book of the wars of the Lord, canaan, census, duties, law, levites, miriam, moses, numbering at sinai, old testament, passover, pentateuch, seven lamps, sinai, spies, wandering of israel, wilderness of the wandering