Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

General Editor for the Old Testament:—




In the Revised Version

With Introduction and Notes



Fellow and Dean of

Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge


at the University Press



by the


The present General Editor for the Old Testament in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges desires to say that, in accordance with the policy of his predecessor the Bishop of Worcester, he does not hold himself responsible for the particular interpretations adopted or for the opinions expressed by the editors of the several Books, nor has he endeavoured to bring them into agreement with one another. It is inevitable that there should be differences of opinion in regard to many questions of criticism and interpretation, and it seems best that these differences should find free expression in different volumes. He has endeavoured to secure, as far as possible, that the general scope and character of the series should be observed, and that views which have a reasonable claim to consideration should not be ignored, but he has felt it best that the final responsibility should, in general, rest with the individual contributors.




  I.  Introduction

  I.  The Book of Numbers

  II.  Analysis

  III.  The Levites

  IV.  The Historical Value of the Book of Numbers

  V.  The Religious Value of the Book of Numbers

  VI.  The Book of Numbers in the New Testament

  II.  Notes

  III.  Index


Egypt and Sinai

Gilead and Moab


Aq.  The Greek translation by Aquila.

A.V.  The Authorised Version.

Cf.  Compare.

D  The Deuteronomic document.

DB.  Dictionary of the Bible.

E  The Elohistic document.

Enc. Bibl.  Encyclopaedia Biblica.

E.VV.  The English Versions, i.e. Authorised and Revised.

Heb.  The Hebrew text.

H. G.  Historical Geography of the Holy Land.

id.  idem, ‘the same,’ referring to the book last mentioned.

J  The Jehovistic document.

J.Th.S.  Journal of Theological Studies.

Luc.  The Lucianic recension of the Septuagint.

LXX.  The Greek translation known as the Septuagint.

P  The Priestly document.

R  Redactor.

Rel. Sem.  Religion of the Semites.

R.V.  The Revised Version.

Sam.  The Samaritan Version of the Pentateuch.

Syr.  The Syriac translation known as the Peshiṭṭah.

Vulg.  The Latin translation known as the Vulgate.




The Book of Numbers is the fourth of the six writings which modern students have grouped together under the name of ‘the Hexateuch’ (see Chapman, Introduction to the Hexateuch, p. 6). The Greek title ἀριθμοί, of which ‘Numbers’ is a translation, was given to the book on account of the numberings of the Israelites recorded in it. The Hebrew title is Bammidhbâr (‘In the wilderness’), taken from the words bemidhbar Sinai (‘in the wilderness of Sinai’) in Numbers 1:1.

The book of Exodus leaves the Israelites at Sinai, and Leviticus is entirely composed of ritual and other regulations ascribed to Moses at Sinai. Numbers opens with further regulations at Sinai, and then carries forward the history of the journeys to the point when the steppes of Moab opposite Jericho were reached; in the midst of this history it contains another group of regulations: it relates some events which occurred during the stay of the Israelites in Moab, and ends with yet another group of regulations.

The composition of the book is of the same nature as that of Exodus. Two early writings, known as J and E , at first existed separately, but were afterwards fused into the composite work J E ; and this was at a later time combined with priestly material P . (On these symbols, the justification for their use, and an account of the distinctive characteristics of the several writings, see Chapman, Introd.) The priestly material is to a large extent collected in the three groups of regulations mentioned above, which are assigned by the compiler respectively to the stay at Sinai (Num 1:1–10:28), the stay at Kadesh (Num 1:15–19), and the stay in Moab (Numbers 25:6-18, Numbers 33:30-36). But parts of the remainder of the book are also from P , including a detailed itinerary of the Israelites from Egypt to Moab (ch. 33). One passage only (Numbers 21:33-35) appears to be incorporated from Deuteronomy. The J E portions will thus be seen to amount to less than a quarter of the whole. And these portions deal exclusively with the journey from Sinai to Kadesh before the forty years wandering to which the people were condemned, and with the journey to Moab after the forty years had elapsed. The history of the forty years themselves is a complete blank.

It must not be supposed that either J , E , or P was a simple homogeneous composition. J and E both preserve material of a much earlier date, some parts of which may have existed merely in the form of floating oral tradition, but some must probably have been available in a written form which was incorporated by the narrators. Similarly the compiler of P preserves certain ritual ceremonies, which, though he colours them with his own late language and ideas, must have been handed down from a far past by those whose duty it was to preside over the sanctuaries of Israel, and to perpetuate the ancient ritual customs of the nation. But P not only preserved past traditions but was enriched with supplementary matter by later hands. In this commentary the symbol P is employed to denote all the priestly material, but it must be remembered that, as it stands, it is composed of different strata. Thus the book of Numbers was a gradual growth, containing elements which range from the earliest days of Israel’s history down to a period later than Nehemiah. Its long and complicated growth was guided by the Holy Spirit in such a way that the completed result, as it lies before us, could fulfil His purpose of illustrating God’s self-revelation and the gradual training and development of the Israelite nation for their appointed work in the world.



A. Numbers 1:1 to Numbers 10:10 (P ). AT SINAI

(i)  Numbers 1–4. The census of the tribes, their arrangement in camp and on the march, and the duties of the tribe of Levi.

(ii)  Numbers 5:1–10:10. Miscellaneous regulations and other priestly traditions.

(a)  Exclusion of unclean persons from the camp. Numbers 5:1-4.

(b)  Payments in compensation for wrongs. Num 5:5–10.

(c)  Ordeal of jealousy. Num 5:11–31.

(d)  Nazirites. Numbers 6:1-21.

(e)  Triple formula of priestly blessing. Num 6:22–27.

(f)  Offerings of the princes for the tabernacle. Num 7.

(g)  The golden lampstand. Numbers 8:1-4.

(h)  The Levites:—Num 8:5–26.

their purification and dedication (Num 8:5–22).

the age of service (Num 8:23–26).

(i)  Supplementary Passover. Numbers 9:1-14.

(j)  Fiery cloud upon the tabernacle. Num 9:15–23.

(k)  Two silver clarions. Numbers 10:1-10.

B. Numbers 10:11 to Numbers 22:1 (J E P )


(i)  Num 10:11–12:16. Events between Sinai and the Wilderness of Paran.

(a)  Departure from Sinai; Moses’ request to Ḥobab. Numbers 10:11-28; Numbers 10:34 (P ); Num 10:29–33 (J ).

(b)  Prayers connected with the movements of the ark. Num 10:35, 36 (J ).

(c)  Murmurers destroyed by fire at Tabçrah. Numbers 11:1-3 (E ).

(d)  Manna and Quails. Num 11:4–10, 13, 18–24a, Num 11:31–34 (J ).

(e)  The burden of the people too heavy for Moses. Num 11:11, 12, 14, 15 (J ).

(f)  Spirit of ecstasy upon the elders. Num 11:16, 17, 24b – Num 11:30 (E ).

(g)  Journey to Hazeroth. Num 11:35 (J ).

(h)  Miriam and Aaron complain of Moses’ Cushite wife. Numbers 12:1 (E ).

(i)  Moses proved unique as a prophet of Jehovah. Num 12:2–16 (E ).

(ii) Numbers 13, 14. Narrative of the spies. Israel condemned to wander forty years.

(a)  Spies sent out, who search the land. Numbers 13:1-17 a, Num 13:21b (P ), Num 13:17b – Num 13:21a, Num 13:22–24 (J E ).

(b)  Report of the spies. Num 13:25, 26a, Num 13:32 (P ), Num 13:26b – Num 13:31, Num 13:33 (J E ).

(c)  Mutiny of the people. Numbers 14:1 (partly), Num 14:2, 5–7, 10 (P ); Num 14:1 (partly), Num 14:3, 4, 8, 9 (J E ).

(d)  Moses’ intercession averts destruction, but all except Caleb forbidden to enter Canaan. Num 14:11–24 (J E ). [v. 25 redactional.]

(e)  People condemned to wander forty years. Spies die by a plague. Num 14:26–30, 32–39a (P ), Num 14:31, 39b (J E ).

(f)  Attempted attack on the Negeb, and defeat by the natives. Num 14:39b – Num 14:45 (J E ).

(iii)  15–19. (P , except parts of 26). Miscellaneous laws and narratives.

(a)  Meal-offerings and Libations. Numbers 15:1-16.

(b)  Contribution of the ‘first of ‘arîsôth.’ Num 15:17–21.

(c)  Propitiatory offerings for inadvertent transgressions. Num 15:22–31.

(d)  Punishment of the man working on the Sabbath. Num 15:32–36.

(e)  Tassels to be worn at the corners of garments. Num 15:37–41.

(f)  Rebellion of Dathan and Abiram. Numbers 16:1 (partly), Num 16:2a, Num 16:12–15, 25–34 (J E ).

(g)  Self-assertion of Korah and his followers against the tribe of Levi. 1 (partly), Num 16:2b – Num 16:7, 18–24, 35, 41–50 (P ).

[Self-assertion of Levites, Korah and his followers, against the priests. 1 (partly), Num 16:8–11, 16, 17, 36–40 (P2).]

(h)  Superiority of the tribe of Levi proved by the blossoming of Aaron’s staff. Numbers 17.

(i)  Duties of priests and Levites. Numbers 18:1-7.

(j)  Priests’ dues. Num 18:8–20.

(k)  Levites’ dues. Num 18:21–24.

(l)  A further payment to the priests. Num 18:25–32.

(m)  Purification by the ashes of a red cow. 19.

(iv)   Num 20:1–22:1. Journeys and events at the close of the wanderings until the arrival at Moab.

(a)  Arrival at the Wilderness of Zin. Numbers 20:1 a (P ).

(b)  Death of Miriam. Num 20:1b (E ).

(c)  Striking of the rock at Meribah. Num 20:2–13 (P ).

(d)  Permission to pass through Edom refused. Num 20:14–21 (J E ).

(e)  Death of Aaron. Num 20:22–29 (P ).

(f)  Victory over Canaanites at Hormah. Numbers 21:1-3 (?E ).

(g)  The bronze serpent. Num 21:4–9 (J E ).

(h)  Fragment of an itinerary—Oboth and Iye-abarim. Num 21:10, 11 (P ).

(i)  Journey to Moab. Num 21:12–20 (J E ).

(j)  Victory over Sihon. Num 21:21–32 (J E ).

(k)  Victory over Og. Num 21:33–35 (D ).

(l)  Arrival at Moab. Numbers 22:1 (P ).

C. Numbers 22:2-36 (J E P ). IN MOAB

(i)  Numbers 22:2–25:5. Events in Moab.

(a)  Balaam:—Numbers 22:2-24 (J E ).

His summons by Balak, and journey to Moab. Numbers 22:2-41 (J E ).

His prophetic utterances [v. 27 redactional]. Numbers 23:1-26 (E ).

His prophetic utterances. Numbers 23:28 to Numbers 24:19 (J ).

Further utterances. Numbers 24:20-24 (source unknown).

His return home. Num 24:25 (J E ).

(b)  Moabite women entice the Israelites into immorality and idolatry. Numbers 25:1-5 (J E ).

(ii)  Numbers 25:6–36 (P ). Miscellaneous laws and narratives.

(a)  The zeal of Phinehas and its reward. Numbers 25:6-15.

(b)  Command to vex the Midianites. Num 25:16–18.

(c)  The second Census. Num 25:26.

(d)  Law of inheritance by daughters. Numbers 27:1-11.

(e)  Moses commanded to view the land of Canaan before his death. Num 27:12–14.

(f)  Joshua appointed to succeed him. Num 27:15–23.

(g)  Amounts of public offerings at the sacred seasons. Num 27:28, 29.

(h)  Validity of vows taken by women. Num 27:30.

(i)  The sacred war against Midian:—Num 27:31.

Victory. 1–18.

Purification from contact with the dead. 19–24.

Method of dividing the spoil. 25–54.

(j)  Assignment of land to tribes on the east of Jordan. 32 (P , expect 39, 41 f. J E ).

(k)  Itinerary from Egypt to Moab. Numbers 33:1-49.

Commands respecting the settlement in Canaan. 50–56.

(l)  Israel’s boundaries west of the Jordan. Numbers 34:1-15.

(m)  Princes appointed to superintend the allotment of the land. 16–29.

(n)  The Levitical cities. Numbers 35:1-8.

(o)  The Cities of Refuge, and the law of homicide. 9–34.

(p)  Heiresses not to be married out of their tribe. 36.



As the book of Numbers deals at some length with the status and duties of a certain body of men called Levites, it will be useful to give a brief account of them. In the history of the Jews after the return from exile, in Ezra and Nehemiah, we find frequent mention (about 50 times) of the Levites as a body of temple officials. They were inferior to the priests, in that they might not perform the sacred rite of sacrifice, or handle the sacred objects in the Temple; but they assisted in the general conduct of worship, for which purpose they were divided into courses, which served in rotation. In particular there were formed from their number three important choirs or musical guilds, which led the praises of the congregation. The origin of this body of men, set apart for sacred duties but inferior to the priests, seems to have been due to the advice of Ezekiel the priestly prophet, who, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans, gained great influence over his fellow priests in exile. In Ezekiel 44:10-16 he condemns those priests who had previously taken part in the image-worship practised in many of the country sanctuaries throughout Palestine, and declares that they ought to be reduced to the position of servants to those priests who had faithfully conducted the pure worship of Jehovah in Jerusalem. We gather from this that before the exile there was no official body of Levites who were inferior to the priests; for if there had been, his words would be entirely pointless. And in 1, 2 Kings and Jeremiah this conclusion finds support from the fact that though priests play a large part, Levites (with three exceptions to be noted presently) are not so much as mentioned. The absence of Levites as an inferior body is also conspicuous in Deuteronomy, which dates from the same period as Jeremiah. In that book the expression ‘the priests the Levites’ occurs with some frequency, shewing that the writer considered priests and Levites to be identical. The same expression is found in one important passage in Jeremiah; in Jeremiah 33:18 Jehovah makes a solemn promise that the priests the Levites shall never ‘want a man before me to offer burnt-offerings and to burn oblations and to do sacrifice continually.’ And these were precisely the privileges which were denied to the post-exilic Levites.

In 1 Kings 12:31 we have an interpretation of the word Levite. The writer condemns Jeroboam’s action as sinful, in appointing men as priests who were not of the tribe of Levi. And in Exodus 32:25-29 (J ) occurs a narrative which appears to supply an explanation of the consecration of the tribe of Levi to the sacred office.

It is possible, indeed, to go back to a still earlier stage, in which the Levites were not a tribe, but a caste or profession consisting of men from any tribe who were skilled in priestly duties. In Jdg 17:7-13 a Levite of the family of Judah is welcomed by Micah as the priest of his shrine in preference to his son whom he had previously consecrated to that office (v. 5).

And finally we reach the primitive condition in which there were neither priests nor Levites as a body who performed sacrifices. In Exodus 24:5 the sacrifices at the most solemn crisis of Israel’s early history were offered by ‘young men of the children of Israel.’

Thus four stages are discernible—(1) there were no priests to offer sacrifice, and Moses himself performed all that was necessary in the way of dispensing oracles, i.e. revealing the divine will on any point on which men might ask for guidance (see Exodus 33:7-11). (2) Those who afterwards offered sacrifice and administered the divine oracle at the sanctuaries in Palestine became recognised as a sacred body of priests, and were called Levites. (3) The members of this sacred body came to be thought of as connected by blood relationship (in some cases, no doubt, fathers trained their sons in the duties, and the office became hereditary in the family); and they were all considered as members of one tribe descended from Levi the son of Jacob. (4) After the exile the Levites became a body inferior to the priests, although all priests and Levites were regarded as descended from Levi; the priests were those only who traced their descent from Aaron.

But writers after the exile delighted to imagine that the organization which they valued so highly was in existence in the earlier history of the nation. P ascribes the origin of the Levites as an ecclesiastical body to the initiative of Moses. And the Chronicler ascribes their complete organization as singers, porters &c., to the initiative of David, and represents that organization as having been in full working order throughout the reigns of his successors1 [Note: As said above, the Levites are not mentioned in 1, 2 Kings and Jeremiah, with three exceptions. Two of these have already been noticed; and in each of them Levites are priests. In 1 Kings 8:3 the priests took up the ark, the tent and the vessels; but in v. 4 the words ‘and Levites’ are added. We are clearly justified in regarding this isolated exception as an interpolation by a writer of the age of the Chronicler.]

The following is a summary of the regulations respecting the Levites, ascribed to Moses in P .

Numbers 1:50. They were appointed to take care of the tabernacle and its furniture on the march; to encamp round it; to take it down, and erect it.

Numbers 3:5-9. Their appointment to take care of the tabernacle is repeated, with the addition that Moses is to ‘set them before Aaron the priest,’ i.e. formally present them for consecration.

Numbers 3:11-13. Their consecration was substituted for the consecration of the firstborn of Israel.

Numbers 3:14-51. The foregoing sections are expanded: (a) Num 3:14–39 gives the three families of the Levites with their subdivisions, first as ‘sons’ and ‘grandsons’ of Levi (Num 3:14–20), and then, literally, as families (Num 3:21–39). Each family had particular duties assigned to it:—(1) The Gershonites (Num 3:21–26), who camped on the west of the tabernacle, had the charge of the hangings which formed the Tent and the Court, the two screens which formed the entrance of the Tent and the Court respectively, and the cords of the Tent. (2) The Kohathites (Num 3:27–32) were the most important family, because to their first subdivision, the Amramites, belonged Moses and Aaron and the sons of Aaron, i.e. the priests, who camped on the east of the tabernacle. The remainder, i.e. the non-priestly families, of the Kohathites, who camped on the south of the tabernacle, had the charge of the sacred furniture and the veil which separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. Like the other divisions they were under the command of a ‘prince,’ but over him was the ‘prince of the princes,’ Eleazar the son of Aaron, because the charge of the sacred objects needed special oversight. (In Exodus 38:21 the inventory of all things connected with the tabernacle is, by anticipation, entrusted to the Levites generally; and they are superintended by Aaron’s second son Ithamar.) (3) The Merarites (33–38), who camped on the north of the tabernacle, had the charge of all the woodwork and metal of the Tent and the Court, and the cords and pegs of the Court.

(b) Num 3:40–51. Not only were the Levites appointed as a substitute for the firstborn, but also all their cattle for the firstlings of Israel’s cattle. And the surplus of the firstborn above the number of the Levites must be redeemed at 5 shekels each.

Numbers 4:1-49. A further expansion of the duties of the three families and of the priests in connexion with the transport of the tabernacle and its furniture. The chief additions are (1) the care with which the priests must wrap up the sacred objects before the Levites might touch them, and (2) the age of service for the Levites, i.e. from 30 to 50 years old.

Numbers 8:16-18 states yet again that the Levites are substitutes for the firstborn. Num 8:23–26 repeats the age of service, a modification, however, being introduced that some kind of service may be performed after the age of 50 (see note).

Numbers 8:5-15 describes the ceremony of consecration, which should be contrasted with the ceremony for priests (Exodus 29:1-37). The Levites were sprinkled with the ‘water of sin,’ they shaved the whole of their body and washed their clothes. They were presented by Moses before the tabernacle, and the people (by chosen representatives) laid their hands on them, as a sign that they were their offering to Jehovah; and then Aaron solemnly offered them (lit. ‘waved,’ see on v. 11). After that, the Levites presented victims for sacrifice—a bullock for a burnt-offering, with the accompanying meal-offering of flour and oil, and a bullock for a sin-offering.

Num 8:16, 17. The superiority of Levites over laymen is demonstrated by means of a narrative. Later insertions in 16 deal with the superiority of priests over Levites (see notes).

Numbers 18:1-7 sums up once more the general duties of the Levites in their service to the priests.

Num 18:21–24 deals with their means of living. This consisted of the tithe of all the live stock, corn, fruit &c. of Israel. It became the Levites’ possession, when the Israelites offered it every year as a ‘contribution’ (see on v. 24).

Num 18:25–32. When the Levites received their tithe, they were to pay a tithe of it to the priests, as Jehovah’s ‘contribution.’

Numbers 31:25-30 assigns to the Levites a special perquisite. When spoil was captured in battle, half was to be given to the soldiers and half to the rest of the people. From the soldiers’ half, 1/500th of the captured slaves and animals was to be given to the priests, and from the people’s half, 1/50 to the Levites.

35. When Palestine was reached, the means of living were to be greatly increased, by the assignment to the Levites of 48 cities, with a piece of pasture land surrounding each to the extent of 2000 cubits on all four sides. This law is assumed in Leviticus 25:32-34 (P ). It is in marked contrast with the state of things implied in Deut., where the Levites, i.e. the Levitical priests, throughout Palestine are in a state of poverty which commends them to the charity of the Israelites, together with widows and orphans (see Deuteronomy 12:12; Deuteronomy 12:18 f., Numbers 14:27; Numbers 14:29, Numbers 16:11; Numbers 16:14, Numbers 26:11 ff.).



When the question is asked—What is the historical value of any given book of the Old Testament?—the answer is not as simple as it might, at first sight, appear. It is not enough to say that a book is historically valuable in proportion as it relates with accuracy a series of facts or events. Such an answer is misleading because it confuses history with chronicle. The value, for example, of Grote’s History of Greece would be seriously diminished if not destroyed, if there were substituted for it an accurate table of all the events related in it in their correct order with dates. A bare record of past events is of little use for the present. What the reader of history needs above everything is to learn the meaning of the events—their effect on the life of nations, on the life of individuals, on the relations of one country or race with another. He wants to know the place which actions held with regard to development, social progress, religious advance; how they influenced the character of the actors; the motives which led the actors to do what they did—and so forth. Thus true history is written not for mere information but for instruction, that the readers may learn what to imitate and what to avoid, how to act under given circumstances and how not to act. For this purpose a list of events is useless. The writers select their material, and arrange and comment. They present history as it appeals to them in its character of a guide for the future.

This is true of all history; and Israelite history is not an exception. The writers of the book of Numbers selected such material as seemed to them important, and presented it in such a way as to afford instruction to their readers. As has been said above, the earliest of them probably had access to an older body of traditions. And these traditions were of very varying degrees of accuracy. But whether they were accurate or not, and whether the writers repeated them accurately or not, the lessons which they embodied could be utilised. Thus it is that great caution must be exercised in the attempt to decide how much of the narrative in the book of Numbers actually took place in the lifetime of Moses. The tendency in all ages has been to allow full play to folklore, legend, and imagination, when dealing with a great hero of far off days. The impression produced by past traditions leads to the laying on of fresh colouring which heightens the impression. And writers who compiled their narratives with a purpose that was primarily religious, would be likely to select just those details which contributed the most striking touches to the great portrait. This is true both of the facts of Moses’ life and of the legislation which was ascribed to him. The decisions on social and religious matters which he must have given during the years of his leadership appear to have been of so striking and elevated a character that his fame as a lawgiver was never forgotten, and it became customary, throughout the whole history of the nation, to assign to his initiative all law—moral, social, and religious. It is impossible, therefore, to decide with certainty whether any given command can be traceable to him. The writer knew of it as a regulation or custom in force when he wrote; but how much older it may be can only be conjectured from the nature of the command itself, or from a comparison of it with other parts of the legislation, or with the known facts of history, or with the customs of other nations at a similar stage of development.

It may safely be said that the history and character of the nation of Israel require such a person as Moses to account for them. If the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt (which there is no good reason for doubting), and if they afterwards settled in Canaan (which is one of the certain facts of the world’s history), they must have had a leader capable of inducing them to break away from their slavery, and of welding them, in spite of frequent mutinies and quarrels, into a tribal and religious unity which years of desert wanderings and hostile encounters could not dissolve. Starting from this consideration we may say that the following main facts, on which the traditions of our book were based, appear to admit of no reasonable doubt. A collection of nomad tribes, belonging to the Semitic family, and known by the general name of Israelites, wandered about in the district immediately south of Palestine, and settled for a time at a spot which bore the ancient Semitic name Ḳadesh; and from thence they, or some of them, moved to the steppes of Moab opposite Jericho. They were under the command of a chief named Moses, who appears to have been a man of remarkable power of command and personal influence, and of a high moral character. And he died in Moab before the tribes who accompanied him made their way across the Jordan into Palestine.

This broad outline is filled in with all the narratives and laws in the book, which must now be examined somewhat more in detail.

(a) Narratives. The analysis of the contents (pp. xi–xiv) shews which narratives are related by P only: and on studying them the reader will find that, almost without exception, P’s purpose in recording them was to illustrate, or account for, existing institutions, regulations or customs of his day, and that many of them are distinctively ecclesiastical. In other words P’s narratives are only laws in narrative clothing, and therefore very few of them can be regarded as possessing even a basis of actual Mosaic history.

On the other hand the narratives of J E, some of which P has adopted with alterations and enlargements1 [Note: With these must be included the striking of the rock (Numbers 20:2-13) which has its parallel in JE (Exodus 17:1-7).] , are based on traditions which in all probability took their rise from actual facts; but in their present form the events are described from a didactic point of view. If the P narratives are laws clothed in the dress of stories, the J E narratives are genuine stories clothed in such a dress as to make them capable of teaching religious truths. Some of them have the appearance of being due to the tendency, mentioned above, to surround the career of the great hero with a halo of reverent imagination.

(b) Laws. These are placed in three groups, and belong exclusively to P , no legislation from J E being found outside the book of Exodus. This does not, however, forbid the possibility that the priestly circles may have preserved some ritual details from an early date. And though their present form is late, chs. 5, 6, 19, 31 contain elements which are certainly primitive, but whether any of them date from a period as early as Moses it is impossible to say. Allowance, however, having been made for early elements, the great majority of the legislation and formal injunctions in P point, with unmistakeable clearness, to a late stage in the nation’s life, and reflect the ecclesiastical order of post-exilic times.

But what has been said hitherto is far from being the measure of the historical value of the book. If details were added at later times to the portraiture of Moses, and if the customs and regulations of later times are ascribed to him in the shape either of law or narrative, the book, when divided into its two chief components, J E and P , becomes a valuable source of information as to the laws and customs, the state of development, and the general character, of the periods at which the parts were severally written. By a careful study of the Hexateuch large additions can be made to the history of Israel which we are accustomed to draw from the books of Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the prophets. And though we should naturally be glad to know much more than we do about the time of Moses, those who believe that the Bible was written under the guidance of the Spirit of God can rest content in the knowledge that it is He who has withheld from us further information.



The aim of the foregoing chapter was to make it clear that the writers of the book of Numbers did not set before them the object of presenting an exact chronicle of events, but that they wished to convey religious instruction. And from this point of view the book contains teaching of lasting worth. Here also it is useful to observe the distinction between J E and P , for each has messages of a different kind.

(1) J E with its simple and spontaneous narrative has a two-fold value, which lies (a) in its portrayal of character, (b) in its conception of the relation in which Jehovah stands to His people.

(a) The character of Moses is vividly set forth, both in its strength and in its occasional weakness. We see his humility (Numbers 12:3), his trust in Jehovah (Numbers 10:29-32), his faithfulness to and intimacy with Him (Numbers 12:6-8), his affection for his difficult and unruly people (Numbers 11:2; Numbers 11:10-15, Numbers 21:7), his generosity and public spirit (Numbers 11:27-29; Numbers 11:12). And side by side with this, his despondency (Numbers 11:10-15), and his wrath when provoked (Numbers 16:15, parts of Numbers 20:1-13). It is the character of a real man of flesh and blood, of like passions with ourselves, but a character well worthy of being admired and reverenced by the most religious nation that the world has known.

And the beauty of it is thrown into stronger relief by the character of the people—their dislike of restraint (Numbers 16:12-14), their murmurings and mutinies (Numbers 11:1; Numbers 11:4-6; Numbers 12:1-2; Numbers 14:1-4; Numbers 14:10), their vehement repentance (Numbers 14:39 b, 40; Numbers 21:7), in the former case followed by wilful self-assertion (Numbers 14:41-45), their weakness in yielding to temptation (Numbers 25:1-5). The prophetic writers have indeed succeeded in presenting their facts in such a way as to point out to posterity what to imitate and what to avoid (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11). Their insight into human nature has made their story instructive for all time.

(b) But that which constitutes the supreme value of every piece of history in the Old Testament is the abiding conviction of the writers that Jehovah stands in a real relation to every event. Like the Psalmist (Numbers 16:8) they ‘set Jehovah always before them’; and thus all history was for them a commentary on the words ‘I will be what I will be’ (Exodus 3:14), a revelation of His character and will. After the fragment of the narrative of Moses’ request to Ḥobab (Numbers 10:29-32), the first passage in J E tells of prayer to Jehovah, whose presence was represented by the ark (Numbers 10:35 f.). It is a fitting opening to the record of divine care and guidance. And the effect of ‘the fervent prayer of a righteous man’ is seen when Moses’ intercession for the people availed to avert their destruction (Numbers 14:13-20, Numbers 21:7). The loving care of Jehovah was shewn in providing for the physical needs of His people by the manna and quails (11), and by the serpent of bronze which healed them (Numbers 21:8 f.). His protection of the whole nation, because of the great purposes for which He had raised them up on the stage of history, is set forth in the story of Balaam and his utterances (Num 21:22–24). And that these purposes might not be thwarted, He helped them to conquer Sihon and Og, the last hindrances to their approach to the promised land (Numbers 21:21-32 and (D ) Num 21:33–35). But He not only cared for the nation as a whole; He also came into immediate personal relations with individuals. He rewarded the man (P , two men) who had been faithful to Him when all the other spies were faint-hearted (Numbers 14:24; Numbers 14:30). To prophets He would appear in visions and dreams, but to Moses, the greatest of the prophets, He spoke ‘mouth to mouth,’ and allowed him to ‘behold His form’ (Numbers 12:6-8). And when it was necessary to rebuke Aaron and Miriam, He ‘came down in a pillar of cloud’ (Numbers 12:5). Moses was so richly endued with His Spirit that Jehovah could take some of it and put it upon seventy elders (Numbers 11:16 f., Num 11:24b – Num 11:26). All these passages shine with the thought that Jehovah is not a God far off, but is in contact with men. But with all His mercy and care and guidance, He is a God of the sternest justice, who must punish sin. This is a constant refrain throughout the history (Numbers 11:1-3; Numbers 11:33; Numbers 12:10; Numbers 14; Numbers 16; Numbers 20:12; Numbers 21:6), and echoes the notes of warning which were so often needed from the lips of the prophets.

(2) And P , by incorporating and adding to J E , endorses all this moral and spiritual instruction; but he also offers some further teaching which is peculiarly his own. To make this clear, a short explanation is necessary. Before the exile, when there were many sanctuaries in all parts of the country, some of which had in ancient days belonged to the Canaanites and still partook largely of their original character, idolatry was a peril from which the chosen people were never free. Shortly before the final defeat by the Chaldeans, a movement had been started in Jerusalem which discredited the country sanctuaries, and aimed at confining all sacrifice to the temple at Jerusalem. From that time the priests attached to the temple naturally gained a new prestige. This reform was the outward expression of a growing conviction that the nature of Jehovah was spiritual, a growing realisation of His transcendence, His separateness from all human limitations, and from all earthly contact with men; and this divine characteristic was described by words derived from the root ḲâDçSh which is commonly translated ‘to be holy.’ When the priests of Jerusalem were carried to Babylon, a new literature began. It was no doubt based upon former priestly usage in the temple, but it was now dominated by the thought of Jehovah’s ‘holiness.’ A portion of it survives in the ‘Law of Holiness’ (see Chapman, Introd. pp. 111 f.). But a great impetus was given to it by Ezekiel the priestly prophet, who sketched, in the form of a vision (chs. 40–48), an ideal system of worship. When the patriotic and religious minority of the exiles returned to Jerusalem by permission of Cyrus, they proceeded to carry these ideas into practice. The temple, in which the ‘holy’ presence of Jehovah was enshrined, was jealously guarded from the faintest possibility of pollution. Into the innermost shrine only the high priest might enter, into the outer shrine the rest of the priests. They were served by an inferior, but sacred or ‘holy’ body, called Levites. The mass of the community, the laymen of the nation, might not enter the building or touch any of the sacred utensils under pain of death. And yet the whole community, since they were the chosen people of Jehovah, were also ‘holy,’ in the sense of being ‘separate’ from all foreign nations; and it was the ardent wish of Ezra the priest to guard this national exclusiveness from violation. Thus there were successive grades of sacredness, the centre of all being the awful and unapproachable presence of Jehovah Himself.

When the priestly circles edited their ancient national records, they loved to idealize the past, and to imagine that the chosen people had been possessed of this religious system from the first. The ‘Tent’ in the wilderness in which, as J E related, Moses used to declare God’s will to the people (Exodus 33:7-11), was represented by P as being constructed on the analogy of the temple; it was a miniature, portable, structure, but filled with all the gorgeous magnificence of gold and silver, precious stones and coloured tapestries. Jehovah’s presence—‘the Glory’—tabernacled in the inner shrine. To the outer shrine only the priests, the sons of Aaron, were admitted; and it was surrounded by a court in which the priests were served by the Levites. The jealous guarding of the sacred dwelling from pollution is also seen in the arrangement of the camp (Numbers 2, 3); the tribes pitched their tents round the tabernacle, but the priests and Levites formed an inner cordon, ‘that there be no wrath upon the congregation of Israel’ (see p. 9).

Thus the religious value of P in Exodus and Numbers is the same. It consists in the twofold conception of the dwelling of Jehovah in the midst of His people, and of the awful sacredness of everything connected with Him. In their idealization of the past the priestly writers were able to convey religious instruction of the deepest value—a value which would not necessarily be increased if their words were a record of actual fact. Parable or fiction can teach divine truths no less clearly than history. The whole work of P in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers contributes ‘to the great central thought, the magnificent ideal which has yet to be realised in the Christian Church—a perfectly organized body, consecrated to the God whose Glory tabernacles in their midst. From the Jewish nation, as such, the Glory is departed, but the hope of the Christian Church rests upon the historic fact that the Word tabernacled among men, and there were those who saw His Glory (John 1:14).’



The Old Testament was the Bible of the writers of the New Testament, by whom the following passages in Numbers are quoted or alluded to1 [Note: Reference should be made to the notes on the several passages in the commentary, where all these quotations and allusions are mentioned.] .

1.The actions or character of individuals.  

Moses faithful in God’s ‘house’ (Numbers 12:7).  Hebrews 3:2; Hebrews 3:5.

Balaam: his avarice (22), his enticement of the Israelites to idolatry (Numbers 31:16).  2 Peter 2:15 f.; Judges 11. Revelation 2:14.

Korah and his company (16).  Judges 11.

Numbers 16:38.  Hebrews 12:3.

Numbers 16:5.  2 Timothy 2:19.

2. The sins and punishments of the people.  Acts 13:18; 1 Corinthians 10:5 f., 8–11.

Hebrews 3:7 to Hebrews 4:3; Judges 5.

3. The care and protection of Jehovah.  

Manna (Numbers 11:4-9).  John 6:30-35; John 6:41-58; Revelation 2:17.

Water from the rock (Numbers 20:11).  1 Corinthians 10:3-4.

Sheep not having a shepherd (Numbers 27:17).  Matthew 9:36; Mark 6:34.

The bronze serpent (Numbers 21:8 f.).  John 3:14.

4. Laws and regulations.  

Passover (Numbers 9:12).  John 19:36; 1 Corinthians 5:7 f.; cf. Ephesians 1:7 (with Armitage Robinson’s note), Colossians 1:14.

Fulfilment of vows (Numbers 30:2).  Matthew 5:33.

Nazirites (6).  Luke 1:15; Acts 18:18; Acts 21:26.

Tithe paid to the Levites (Numbers 18:21-24).  Hebrews 7:5.

Ashes of a cow for purification (19).  Hebrews 9:13 f.

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