The English title for the book comes from the Greek Septuagint (LXX) name, Arithmoi, "Numbers." That is because several numbered lists appear in the book, including censuses. The Jewish title for the book is Bemidbar ("in the wilderness") and is derived from the fifth Hebrew word of the first verse. This title relates to the geographical location so central to the book.
The historical background of the book of Numbers is the wilderness wandering of the nation of Israel after the exodus from Egypt (1445 BC) and before the crossing of the Jordan River into the promised land (1405 BC).
Author. Numbers is traditionally held to be authored by Moses. There is strong association of this book with the fivefold "book of the law/book of Moses," attributed to Moses in both the OT and the NT (Jos 23:6; Neh 8:1; Mk 12:26). Numbers 33:2 states that Moses recorded events in Israel’s wilderness journey, so he had the skills to keep and write records.
Some scholars doubt Mosaic authorship and view this book as coming from various sources that editors later compiled into the present book. According to the "documentary hypothesis," the book is comprised mainly from P (Priestly) sources (1:1–10:28 and chaps. 15; 17–19; 26–31; 33–36), while the other chapters are a mixture of J and E sources. For a critique of the "Documentary Hypothesis," see Genesis, Introduction.
Date. This book, as part of the singular book of the law, was probably penned in the final year of Moses’ life. It ends with the Israelites camped on the east side of the Jordan River opposite Jericho. Deuteronomy was written in the 11th month of the 40th year after the exodus (Dt 1:3). Therefore the book of Numbers would have been written just prior to Deuteronomy, in the year 1405 BC.
Theme and Purpose. The book of Numbers compares and contrasts two generations of Israelites as counted in the two censuses within the book (in chaps. 1 and 26). The first generation was sentenced to die in the wilderness as a result of their rebellion. The second generation faithfully prepared to enter the promised land. Their story is bracketed by narratives regarding Zelophehad’s daughters and the promise of land inheritance (27:1–11; 36:1–12). Suspense is naturally created as to whether the second generation will follow the errors of the first generation. The book is structured so that each subsequent reader/listener of the book can place himself in the place of the second generation to see which of the generations he or she will emulate.
The book is a combination of multiple genres, the main ones being historical narrative (10:11–14:45) and poetry (chaps. 21–24). Other genres are law (chaps. 5–6), lists (chaps. 1–4), and travel itineraries (chap. 33)
The book of Numbers is notoriously difficult to outline. There are several time references within the book, but it is hard to outline the book chronologically (cf. 1:1 with 9:1), so those markers are not all that helpful in structuring the book.
A common way to outline the book is by the geographic movements within the book.
I. Sinai (1:1–10:10)
II. Kadesh-barnea (10:11–20:13)
III. Moab (20:14–36:13)
Dennis Olson has suggested that the book be divided according to the two generations and their censuses (Dennis T. Olson, The Death of the Old and the Birth of the New: The Framework of the Book of Numbers and the Pentateuch [Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1975], 120–23). Thus, chaps. 1–25 deal with the first generation of God’s people out of Egypt on the march in the wilderness. Then, chaps. 26–36 cover the second generation of God’s people out of Egypt as they prepare to enter the promised land. The outline in this commentary will follow his suggestion.
I. History of the First Generation in the Wilderness (1:1–25:18)
A. Preparations of the First Generation for Entering the Promised Land (1:1–10:36)
1. First Census and Arrangement of the Tribes (1:1–2:34)
2. Levites and Their Duties (3:1–4:49)
3. Purity and the Law of Jealousy (5:1–31)
4. The Nazirite Vow and the Aaronic Benediction (6:1–27)
5. Dedicating the Tabernacle (7:1–89)
6. Dedicating the Levites (8:1–26)
7. Celebrating Passover (9:1–23)
8. Departure from Sinai (10:1–36)
B. Rebellion of the First Generation (11:1–25:18)
1. Rebellion in the Camp (11:1–35)
2. Rebellion of Aaron and Miriam (12:1–16)
3. Rebellion at Kadesh (13:1–14:45)
4. Additional Instructions Regarding Offerings (15:1–41)
5. Rebellion of Korah (16:1–50)
6. Vindication of Aaron (17:1–13)
7. Additional Instructions for the Levites (18:1–32)
8. Waters of Purification (19:1–22)
9. The Sin of Moses and the Death of Aaron (20:1–29)
10. The Bronze Serpent (21:1–35)
11. The Prophet Balaam (22:1–25:18)
a. Balaam’s Meeting with Balak (22:1–41)
b. Balaam’s Oracles (23:1–24:25)
c. Balaam’s Perversion of Israel (25:1–18)
II. Hope for the Second Generation as They Enter the Promised Land (26:1–36:13)
A. Preparations of the Second Generation for Entering the Promised Land (26:1–32:42)
1. The Second Census (26:1–65)
2. Instructions for the Second Generation (27:1–30:16)
3. War against Midian and the Settlement of the Transjordanian Tribes (31:1–32:42)
B. Encouragement for the Second Generation for Entering the Promised Land (33:1–36:13)
1. Review of Israel’s Journey (33:1–56)
2. Boundaries of the Promised Land (34:1–29)
3. Levitical Cities (35:1–34)
4. Inheritance of Women (36:1–13)
COMMENTARY ON NUMBERS
I. History of the First Generation in the Wilderness (1:1–25:18)
Numbers continues the history of Israel one year after the exodus from Egypt and continues to chronicle their experiences until they are ready to cross the Jordan River.
A. Preparations of the First Generation for Entering the Promised Land (1:1–10:36)
1. First Census and Arrangement of the Tribes (1:1–2:34)
1:1. The clause the Lord spoke to Moses occurs over 45 times in this book, emphasizing the divine origin of its contents. The setting for this book is in the wilderness of Sinai. This geographical location was inhospitable and sparsely populated. The wilderness as a place of testing is a theme that appears at numerous junctures in the Bible (Dt 8:1–2; Ps 95:8–9; Mt 4), and here early in the book it introduces the reader to a major theme of the book. The tent of meeting is one of two designations of the tabernacle in the book (the other is "tent of the testimony," 17:8). The book begins on the first of the second month (April/May) in the second year after the exodus. This is exactly one month after the anointing of the tabernacle (Ex 40:17; Nm 7:1). Numbers does not follow a strict chronological chain of events. This shows that Moses was not focusing on establishing a timeline but rather an account concerned primarily with thematic and theological lessons within their history.
1:2–46. The Lord instructed Moses to take a census of all the males over 20 years old of all the tribes except Levi, whose tribe would be addressed later. This census is framed in a military context (whoever is able to go out to war, v. 3) in order to make necessary preparations for the conquest. One head from each tribe was selected to assist Moses.
The total (603,550) equals the same number given in Ex 38:26 (rounded down to 600,000 in Ex 12:37 and Nm 11:21). It is not clear here why Gad is listed 11th when the heads are selected (1:14) but listed third (vv. 24–25) when the actual census numbers are given. This may be because Gad marched alongside Reuben and Simeon (according to 2:10–16). These figures may have been rounded up or down slightly, since it would appear that these numbers occur only in multiples of fifties or hundreds. All of these heads are mentioned again in Nm 2 and 7 when the camp locations were assigned and when offerings were presented, but the leaders were listed in a different order.
Attempts to adjust the total figures to a much lower number by taking the Hebrew word ‘eleph to mean "clan" or "chief" instead of "thousand" cannot be reconciled with the total number given in 1:26. In such an attempt, the total number of digits before ‘eleph from each tribe do not add up to 603 (i.e., 46 + 59 + 45 + 74 +54 +57 + 40 + 32 + 35 + 62 + 41 + 53 = 598, not 603) and the digits after the ‘eleph add up to 5,550. It is best to take the numbers at face value even though there are challenges to the logistics of having over 2 million people (once the wives and children are factored in) in a geographical location not conducive for such a large company. Certainly God had shown Himself miraculous in the plagues and the exodus event, and there is no reason to think that He would not continue to provide supernaturally for the nation, as is clearly indicated in such verses as Dt 29:5, "I have led you forty years in the wilderness; your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandal has not worn out on your foot."
1:47–54. The tribe of Levi was not to be included in the census. Since the census of the other tribes was primarily for military purposes, the tribe of Levi was not numbered. Their primary function was to officiate over the tabernacle. This section focuses on the organizing of the Levites for their responsibilities for all things related to the tabernacle. They were tasked with the oversight of the tabernacle furnishings, including transporting, setting up, dismantling, and guarding over the entire process, lest any non-Levite come near and die. When the camp was set up for the nation, the Levites were to camp in ring-like fashion around the tabernacle complex, thereby serving as a buffer zone for all of the other tribal camps and as a defense against encroachment by foreign enemies.
2:1–33. Numbers 1 listed the large population of Israel at the time of the exodus for military purposes. Here the book focuses on the logistics of such a large group moving through the wilderness period. The camp was arranged by tribal groupings, reflecting some measure of status. So Judah was given the preeminent position on the east side of the camp, just as Moses and Aaron and his sons were located on the east side near the doorway of the tent of meeting. While the direction east has ominous overtones in the earlier parts of Genesis (the east is often viewed negatively because movement in that direction appears in the context of disobedience, i.e., Gn 3:24; 4:16; 11:2), it may be the direction from which redemption would ultimately come. Each tribal unit was identified by family banners and was situated symmetrically around every side of the tent of meeting, presumably to demonstrate order as well as provide a military guard. There are no details given as to the size, shape, and colors of these standards and banners. Jewish tradition has it that they were based on the colors of the stones on the high priest’s breastplate (Ex 39:14). (Numbers 2 does not state the order of the tribes on each side of the camp; i.e., it is uncertain whether Judah was in the center as the lead tribe or at one of the corners.)
Arrangement of the Camp
From the Ryrie Study Bible, NASB. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012.
Rachel’s sons were located together on the west side of the tabernacle. Leah’s offspring were on the east and south side of the tabernacle with one exception—Gad (the oldest son of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid) was in the open slot with Leah’s two oldest sons, Reuben and Simeon, on the south side. The rest of the handmaids’ sons were together on the north side of the encampment.
When the tribes set out, the tent of meeting was to be positioned between the second and third contingent of tribal groupings. Being in that position would place it in a safer location in case of enemy attack.
2:34. The posture of the people presented at this point is one of order and obedience. Here there was universal harmony and submission to both the Lord and Moses. This early obedience contrasts, however, with the people’s later rebellions.
2. Levites and Their Duties (3:1–4:49)
3:1–13. Now the attention is on the tribe of Levi and specifically the sons of Aaron. The expression these are the records of is the same expression used 11 times in the book of Genesis as a structuring device (Hb. toledoth). This phrase ties Numbers with Genesis by the use of that Hebrew word, especially since both books focus on lists and genealogies. The four sons of Aaron are listed in birth order: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.
Nadab and Abihu’s deaths are mentioned (v. 4). Since they had no children when they died, they had no heirs to continue their priestly line. The account of their deaths in Lv 9–10 was close in time to the census of Nm 1 since only one month had passed (cf. Ex 40:17 with Nm 1:1). This is the first recollection of an act of previous disobedience in the book of Numbers. Sadly this theme will play a major role later on in the book. Interestingly, this first failure was from the priests, not the people. Those being led often take their lead from those in authority over them. Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s other sons, served as priests under their father Aaron, the high priest.
The rest of the Levites were to serve as assistants to the priests by servicing the tabernacle. Any nonsanctioned individuals who approached the tent of meeting were to be put to death. This regulation again emphasized the complete sanctity of the tabernacle and its objects.
The tribe of Levi functioned as the firstborn for all the tribes. Instead of having each tribe commissioning their firstborn to be conscripted as priests, the entire tribe of Levi served as proxy substitutes for the entire nation. Every firstborn, whether man or beast, belonged to the Lord as a result of His striking the firstborn of Egypt in the plagues account. This is an example of the important theme of substitution.
3:14–39. The tribe of Levi was not numbered in the military census (1:47), but now they were counted from the age of one month … and upward so that they could be registered in preparation for their duties and encampment.
They were divided according to Levi’s three sons: Gershon … Kohath and Merari (often labeled Gershonites, Kohathites, and Merarites).
The Kohathites were the most favored clan of the tribe of Levi because of their responsibility to care for the objects of the holy place. Because both Moses and Aaron descended from that clan, the Lord gave Moses and Aaron and his sons a campsite on the favored east side of the tabernacle, toward the sunrise.
The number of Kohathites in v. 28 is listed at 8,600. To harmonize this with the total number of Levites (3:22, 28, 34) listed in v. 39 at 22,000, some Greek LXX manuscripts have the total number of Kohathites as 8,300, indicating a possible copyist error (the addition of one Hebrew letter changes the six to a three). Another solution offered to address this discrepancy is that this is a round number, but that is unlikely since the number of firstborn males in v. 43 (22,273) is not rounded off. The simplest solution is that the additional 300 were excluded from consideration because they were themselves firstborn of the Levites and thus were not eligible to redeem the firstborn of Israel. All of the Levites over a month in age were tallied, and the count was 22,000.
3:40–51. Instead of all the males above age 20 being counted in a military census as in chap. 1, all the firstborn … sons of all the tribes were tallied. This was to see if there was an even correspondence between them and the number of Levites, since they served as substitutes for the other tribe’s firstborn sons. The total number of non-Levitical firstborn was 22,273. This figure raises several issues. (1) This is the first number that does not end in a 100 or 50 in the book. All of the other numbers given so far might possibly be rounded up or down, but this number is exact. (2) The ratio of this number to the total fighting force listed at 603,550 (1:46) is small (only 1 out of every 27 males within the nation would be firstborn). One possible explanation may be that only the firstborn males born since the first Passover were tallied, but the text does not specifically state that.
Since there were 273 more non-Levite firstborn, the Lord set a ransom price of five shekels for the overage, for a total of 1,365 shekels (34 pounds). Once again the theme of substitution is prominent in this passage. It is not understood who specifically paid this ransom or what it was used for after it was given to Aaron and to his sons. Another emphasis in this section is the statement I am the Lord, occurring twice (vv. 41, 45) and functioning as a small chiasm:
A. Take the Levites for Me, I am the Lord … firstborn … cattle (3:41)
B. Moses numbered all the firstborn (3:42a)
C. just as the Lord commanded him (3:42b)
B.’ firstborn … numbered men (3:43)
A.’ Take the Levites … firstborn … cattle … Levites shall be Mine; I am the Lord (3:45)
The focus of chiastic structures is the center pivot. In this case it stresses Moses’ obedience in numbering the firstborn (v. 42; cf. v. 51). This is another example of stressing the theme of obedience by both Moses and the Israelites.
4:1–3. The focus now turns to the three Levitical families and their responsibilities. The clans are listed, not by their birth order, but by the sanctity of the objects they oversaw. The many details here stress that God wanted to emphasize the holiness and sacredness of the contents of the sanctuary. Only men from ages 30 to 50 were qualified to serve in the tent of meeting. These men were in the prime of life and had the maturity to carefully execute their duties exactly as the Lord commanded. Moses and Aaron were in charge of overseeing the census and assigning roles for each of the Levitical clans.
4:4–20. Since the Kohathites were the clan of Moses and Aaron and because they took care of the most holy things, they are listed first, even though Kohath was not the firstborn. Only the priests were allowed to handle the sanctuary furniture, including the ark of the testimony. The phrase "the ark of the testimony" was used earlier in Exodus to refer to what is commonly understood as the ark of the covenant. In the early part of Numbers it is still referred to by that name, and then in 10:33 and following the phrase "the ark of the covenant" is used. The word "testimony" was used of the Ten Commandments (Ex 31:18) so it makes sense to call the structure that housed the two tablets the ark of the testimony. But since the term is more general it began gradually to be known more by the more specific title "ark of the covenant." There were specific instructions on how to dismantle the holy place, how to prepare the objects for travel, and even how to transport them with poles or frames. Aaron and his sons were to cover each piece in animal skin, and blue, scarlet, or purple cloth, depending on the object. These colors are often associated with a royal setting (Est 1:6). This would prevent the Kohathites (who were tasked with carrying these items) from touching or even seeing these objects. To stress the holiness of these items, the penalty for touching a sacred object was death (Nm 4:15, 20), and there are examples of violation of this command in 1Sm 6 and 2Sm 6. Eleazer was specifically tasked with oversight of the oil … incense, and flour used for the grain offering.
4:21–28. The Gershonites were assigned to transport the curtains and outer coverings and the equipment associated with them. These were items not associated with the holy place but with the tabernacle enclosure in general. All their work was performed under the direction of the priests supervised by Ithamar.
4:29–33. The Merarites were assigned to transport all the framing objects for the tent of meeting under the supervision of Ithamar. The movement from assigning the most important objects to the least important was now complete. Even specific instructions were given regarding the handling of these lesser items to emphasize that even those objects were to be transported according the Lord’s word. While the Kohathites were assigned the holiest objects, every Levitical clan was needed and aided in setting up, tearing down, and transporting the tent of meeting.
4:34–49. The number of Levites from the ages of 30 to 50 who assisted in attending to the needs of transporting the sanctuary was 8,580 (2,750 Kohathites, 2,630 Gershonites, 3,200 Merarites). This represented 39 percent of the total number of Levites above one month in age (22,000) for service in the tent of meeting (3:39). Four times this section states that the Levites were counted according to the commandment of the Lord (4:37, 41, 45, 49). This continues the theme that has been stressed so far in this book that Moses obeyed God’s instructions precisely. Also the focus has narrowed in that the text has proceeded from numbering all the tribes, to the tribe of Levi, and then to the clans of Levi. The core focus on this narrowing is the worship of the Lord in relation to the tent of meeting.
3. Purity and the Law of Jealousy (5:1–31)
5:1–4. The Lord ordered Moses to send away anyone who was ceremonially unclean to live outside the camp during that time. This was because the Lord was dwelling in their midst (v. 3) and did not want anyone unclean to defile that area. The emphasis here is on purity, not discrimination, or personal status. This heightened focus on purity indicates that the Lord was not only concerned about the uncleanness of individuals but also the effects that their impurity would have on the sacred space of the camp. If He was to dwell in their midst both the people and the space had to be pure. Sin and impurity negatively affect the individual, the nation, and the sanctuary, so holiness in all domains must be preserved at all costs. That the Israelites obeyed this instruction is another example of the strict obedience to the Lord’s commands that has been a theme thus far in the book.
5:5–10. Here the attention was on interpersonal relationships within the camp, specifically when there was an offense between individuals. The emphasis moved from visible physical uncleanness to inward personal uncleanness. Any offense within the community was viewed as unfaithfulness against the Lord, and so confession and restitution were required. Restitution demanded not only a return of whatever the damages were but also a surcharge of 20 percent. If the offended party or a relative of the offended party was not available to receive restitution, then the restitution was to be given to the priest, along with a ram for sacrifice. Priestly involvement in the restitution process between individuals indicates that holiness is not just affected by the external doings of the camp but also the inner aspects that will affect the whole community. Just as the unclean had to be removed from the camp, the cause of interpersonal conflict had to be dealt with equitably to maintain not just the outward purity of the camp but also the inward purity of the people.
5:11–28. Continuing the focus of movement to more and more personal hidden sin, the attention in this section is on the purity of the husband-wife relationship. Like ceremonial uncleanness and personal offenses, marital infidelity was viewed not only as a serious breach of the marriage relationship but also an act of unfaithfulness to the Lord. If a husband suspected his wife of adultery and he had no proof, he was to take his wife to the priest, along with an offering of barley, to have her undergo an ordeal.
The procedure began when the priest brought the wife to stand before the Lord (v. 16). This was probably done at the entrance of the tent of meeting, since dust from the tabernacle floor was needed for this ritual, and since the altar for the grain offering was nearby and the grain from it would be needed for part of the procedure. Once she was in position the priest would take some … dust from the tabernacle floor and mix it with holy water in a clay jar (5:17). He would then loosen her hair, and she would hold the barley grain offering (just over two quarts) in her hands, the text specifically calling it a memorial offering and a grain offering of jealousy.
The priest then would place her under oath, stating that this water of bitterness would not harm her if she had not defiled herself. However, if she had defiled herself she would bring a curse on herself that would cause her abdomen to swell and her thigh to waste away. The suspected wife would then reply Amen. The priest would write a curse on a scroll and then wash the ink off into the jar of bitter water, meaning that the woman would be eating the words of the curse. The grain offering would then be waved before the Lord and offered on the altar, and then the woman would drink the concoction of holy water, dust, and ink. The timetable for when the results would become visible is not stated, but if she had defiled herself she would experience suffering and visible physical symptoms. If she was not guilty she would not suffer any consequences. She would be cleared of any guilt and would still have the opportunity to bear children in the future.
This passage includes several interpretive challenges:
Patriarchal perspective. This ordeal is followed whenever a husband suspects his wife of adultery. Nothing is said about what the process should be if a wife suspected her husband of adultery or what the status of the relationship would be if a wife was suspected of infidelity but was later found to be innocent of the charges. If any wife or husband were ever caught in the act of adultery the punishment would be death (Lv 20:10), so this ritual would apply only in cases without direct physical evidence or witnesses. Mercy is shown here because even if adultery had been committed, the wife would receive a sentence of a curse, public derision, and infertility. Since the judgment was not death, it could be viewed as a gracious act. This act also offers a measure of protection for the wife, for if her husband continuously accused her of unfaithfulness she could undergo this ordeal and remove all doubt. Her husband might even suffer humiliation if she were innocent, since this was a public ordeal.
Spirit of jealousy. What initiated this jealousy on the part of the husband toward his wife is not stated. One possible explanation is that this may have occurred because a man’s wife was pregnant and he suspected he was not the father of the child. What happened as a result of this ordeal is that she would suffer a miscarriage and would no longer be able to bear children in the future.
Barley. The normal grain used for offerings was wheat, ground into fine flour. Barley was not as expensive as wheat (2Kg 7:1) and was often used by the poor as food (Ru 2:17) and as fodder for animals (1Kg 5:8). Philo (the first-century Jewish philosopher from Alexandria) thought it was an appropriate product for this ritual, because of the association of barley with irrational animals and people in unhappy circumstances.
Hair loosened. The hair of a wife was probably usually bound up. So for it to be loosed in this location before the Lord suggests a loss of reputation, a symbol of mourning, a sign of her possible uncleanness, or a picture of her vulnerability and openness.
Use of "magic." Israel was expressly forbidden to cast spells (Dt 18:11), but this trial by ordeal might be considered a magical procedure. However, this trial was done expressly by the Lord’s instructions, and He superintended the results. The overt symbolism embedded in it demonstrates that this ritual should not be viewed as magical.
Natural or supernatural results. Some see a natural punishment after the drinking of the "water of bitterness" by a physiological reaction to the dust in the water, coupled with an emotional response of guilt. However, the text implies a supernatural punishment imposed on the wife if she is guilty. The Lord’s role in this ordeal is emphasized (vv. 16, 21, 25) to demonstrate that this is not a magical incantation or physiological guilt detector.
Nature of the punishment. The punishment fell on the part of the woman’s body that was used in the adulterous activity. "Thigh" was sometimes used as a euphemism for the genital area (Gn 24:2, 9) and the wasting away (lit., "fall") may even suggest a miscarriage or prolapsed uterus. Also the swollen abdomen could signify the typical bodily response if a pregnancy did occur; but in this case it would be used as an outward manifestation of her guilt instead of her joy at conception. Whatever the exact physical nature of this punishment was, the result was that this woman would not be able to bear children in the future. There are echoes of the fall in Gn 3 with similar concepts and words such as "eating dust," "curse," "belly/abdomen," "childbirth," etc.
5:29–31. An epilogue to this ritual summarizes the ordeal and states that the husband would not bring guilt on himself by asking his wife to perform this test of sexual fidelity. Purity in the home is just as important as purity in the tent of meeting. The Lord was committing Himself to respond in this case, thereby demonstrating that even hidden sin would not be tolerated among His people.
4. The Nazirite Vow and the Aaronic Benediction (6:1–27)
6:1–21. The focus so far has been on purity issues, but now the attention is on anyone in the nation, not just the priests and Levites, who wished to be consecrated. Any man or woman who wished to make a special vow of separation to God had the opportunity to do so for a designated period of time.
This text addresses the process for a man, and Nm 30 goes into more detail for women who wish to make a vow. Parents apparently could also initiate this vow on their sons as was done with Samuel (1Sm 1:11). For men this vow is called "the Nazirite vow," and in order to fulfill that vow there were strict requirements.
First, he was not to partake of anything associated with the grape vine (no wine, juice, raisons, seeds or even the skin of grapes). Foregoing any grape products would certainly demonstrate self-restraint, especially in the Mediterranean world where these were dietary staples. While the fruit of the vine was often seen as a blessing, it had its negative side, as seen in the life of Noah, Lot, and the Israelites at the golden calf incident. Alcohol has the tendency to cloud judgment (Lv 10:8–10) for priests, and since the Nazirite vow functions as a "priest-like" state for laypeople, it is easy to see why wine was forbidden in this vow.
Second, he was not to shave any hair on his head. The reason for this focus on the hair as the object of consecration was that it could become "defiled" and it was offered up as a sacrifice. The hair could represent the strength of an individual as it did with Samson, but in this vow the symbolic function of the hair is not clear. Since hair is a constantly, visibly growing and living part of the human body, it may be an embodiment of the life of the person.
Third, he was not to go near any dead bodies, even those of close family members. Contact with dead bodies caused defilement.
Following contact with a corpse, a person would be unclean for seven days (Nm 19:1–2). The guidelines were even stricter for a Nazirite, who would become defiled if someone suddenly died in his proximity, even if there was no physical contact with the corpse. After defilement he would shave his head on the seventh day. This would virtually guarantee that all hair that was defiled would be shaven off since it had another week to grow. On the eighth day he would offer two doves or two young pigeons, one as a sin offering and one as a burnt offering. He also must offer a one-year-old lamb as a sin offering and a one-year-old ram as a peace offering. He was to consecrate his head and resume the vow period of time from the beginning.
If the period of time established was without violation, then at the completion of the vow he was to offer a series of burnt, sin, peace, grain, drink, and unleavened bread offerings. He could then shave his … head and offer the hair on the altar where peace offerings were made. The worshiper would eat a portion of the peace offering, and another portion would be given to the priest for his services.
Even though the Nazirite was not a priest, he in effect functioned as one. Complete holiness was not restricted only to the Levites, as any man or woman could consecrate himself or herself in full devotion to God.
6:22–27. A blessing was then pronounced on the Israelites. To bless someone means to pronounce the favor of God upon the person. It is in the form of a wish or desire from a benefactor to a human recipient. Blessings in the OT vary widely in their construction and contents—from God blessing mankind (Gn 1:22, 28) to a father blessing his sons (Gn 27:27–29; 49:1–28). The Lord instructed Moses exactly what to tell Aaron to say. The express purpose for this blessing is stated in v. 27, in order that the Lord would place his name on them. The placement of this blessing here in the book stresses that a primary role of the priesthood was to bless the people. This blessing is at the end of a long legislative segment of the Pentateuch that began in Ex 20. This strategic position implies that if the people listen to and follow the instructions of the Lord, as they have so far in the book of Numbers, they could expect divine blessing and favor.
The structure of the blessing itself is threefold in nature, each with two clauses, in typical poetic fashion. Each part gets more specific and emphatic. The first blessing is general in nature, asking for God’s blessing and protection. The second blessing more specifically asks the Lord in an anthropomorphic way to direct His face toward the recipient in a gracious manner. The last blessing is even more specific, asking that the Lord’s face focus attention on the worshiper in such a way that the individual experiences peace (Hb. shalom, wholeness) in a powerful way. The image of God’s face as light shining upon someone is used elsewhere in the Bible (Ps 44:3; 80:3). When God’s face shines He looks to invoke benefits, but when He hides His face He is angry (Dt 31:17–18; Ps. 30:7; 104:29). This peace is a sense of rightness in the relationship with the Lord, coupled with tangible blessing.
5. Dedicating the Tabernacle (7:1–89)
The narrative of Nm 1–4 resumes here. Numbers 5–6 provided a somewhat parenthetical discussion about a variety of matters such as ceremonial uncleanness, restitution for transgressions, a ritual to determine infidelity, and the Nazirite vow. The narrative now refers to an earlier event (the consecration of the tabernacle). As was pointed out earlier in Nm 1:1, a strict chronology of events is not followed in these chapters, as seen in the table on the following page.
Moses was not concerned about presenting events in chronological order in the book of Numbers. Instead, he seemed intent on presenting a picture of obedience (both on his part and in the nation of Israel). For literary and thematic reasons, he placed the account of the tabernacle dedication at this particular place in the text.
This chapter (the second longest in the Bible) lays out a detailed, repetitive description of offerings presented by the leaders of the 12 tribes at the dedication of the tabernacle on 12 successive days.
7:1. The anointing of the tabernacle, with specific attention to the altar, is described.
7:2–88. The leaders who were mentioned earlier as the ones in charge of the census were now to oversee their tribe’s dedication offering. According to the timeline above, the dedication offerings were given first (second year, first month, first day), whereas the census did not start until one month later (1:1). Rather than start with the more celebratory dedicatory presentations from these leaders, Moses chose to tell of their faithful, yet perhaps mundane, assistance in the census first and then to focus on their role as worshipers bringing offerings.
These dedication offerings were also combined with carts and oxen to assist the Levitical clans in their transportation of the tabernacle structure. In addition to these carts and oxen, each leader presented silver dishes and bowls filled with grain offerings, a gold pan filled with incense, and sacrificial animals for burnt, sin, and peace offerings. These offerings no doubt came from the items the people requested from the Egyptians just before the exodus (Ex 12:35–36). The total amount of silver was 2,400 shekels (about 60 pounds), and the gold 120 shekels (about three pounds).
This chapter presents much repetition with little variation. The repetitive nature of the account of each tribe’s offering stresses the unity of the tribes and their common participation in this religious ceremony. While this account may seem overly repetitive to modern-day readers, ancient readers would have processed this positively and celebrated each tribe’s participation. The only variation is the different ordering of the leaders from that given in Nm 1.
In this order Judah is given the prominent role as the first to present (v. 12), whereas in the census-taking, the firstborn Reuben is listed first.
7:89. This verse functions as a brief aside on Moses receiving direct revelation from God whenever he went into the tent of meeting. Even though Moses was not the high priest, he must have had access to the holy of holies because the place of this revelation was the mercy seat atop the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim. Even though Aaron was the current high priest, Moses must have retained privilege to access the holy of holies, since he functioned as high priest before Aaron received that title. This verse implies that after appropriate offerings and the celebration of the Lord’s presence in their midst the Lord delighted to reveal Himself to the nation.
6. Dedicating the Levites (8:1–26)
8:1–4. The Lord told Aaron where to set up and direct the light from the lampstand. Verse 4 refers back to the construction of the lampstand, again stressing that it was crafted exactly according to the specifications the Lord had showed Moses. According to Ex 25:31–40, it was fashioned from one talent of gold (about seven pounds). While there are clear instructions regarding its form, no clear dimensions are given for its height and width. The seven individual lamps of the lampstand were to be located in such a way that they cast light forward toward the north. Moses had been shown the blueprint, and it was followed exactly. The lampstand was shaped in the form of a tree with branches. Along with the other pieces of furniture, it may have been reflecting back on the garden of Eden with its trees and guardian cherubim.
8:5–13. This section details the purification of the Levites for their assigned responsibilities with the tent of meeting. The tribe of Levi is clearly a focal point of the book of Numbers. They previously had been counted (chap. 3), had been given their camp location (chap. 2), and given tabernacle assignments according to their different clans (chap. 4). Next they were being set apart and commissioned to their assigned duties. According to Lv 8–9, the process of priestly ordination (for Aaron and his sons) had begun on the first day of the first month and was completed seven days later. Since this passage follows the 12 days of dedication offering presented by the tribal leaders (chap. 7) and precedes the Passover (chap. 9) celebrated on the 14th of the first month, there is only a short window of time for this dedication to take place between the 12th and 14th days of the first month. These instructions were not for the Levitical priests (who were already set apart) but for the entire tribe of Levi. The priests were ordained in Lv 8, and while there were some similarities there were also a number of differences between the two ceremonies.
The setting apart of the Levitical tribe consisted of several steps. First, the purifying water was sprinkled on them. This is the only place in the Bible where this exact phrase is used, and the text does not state how this water was prepared for this purpose. It may have been produced by adding the ashes of the red heifer to water and was later used as a means of removing impurities (Nm 19:9). The next requirement was for the Levites to shave their whole bodies. This would indicate a complete cleansing, but it is not clear why the priests did not have to shave when they were being consecrated. Possibly the verb used for "shave" means to "trim." Instead of shaving off all hair, the instructions may have been to trim their existing hair so as to make themselves more presentable to the Lord. This correlates with the next step of washing their clothes.
Two bulls were used in the ceremony, one for a burnt offering, and one for a sin offering. The entire tribe of Levi, presumably all the males since they were the ones counted in the census, was then assembled in front of the tent of meeting. The rest of the Israelites were to lay their hands on the Levites as a sign of identifying them as their representatives. Then Aaron presented the Levites as a group as a wave offering to the Lord. This functioned as a sort of living sacrifice of the Levites as a tribe by the nation before the Lord.
The Levites were then to lay their hands on the two bulls that were offered as a burnt and sin offering. Next the Levites were assembled once again as a group and were presented a second time as a wave offering to the Lord, this time by Aaron and his sons.
8:14–19. After they had been purified, the Levites became ready to do their assigned tasks at the tent of meeting. This section stands between a prescriptive (vv. 3–13) and a descriptive (vv. 20–22) section of the same event, and thus this information discusses some of the main theological purposes for purifying the Levites. The Levites are specifically stated as being set apart as the Lord’s possession. This notion is repeated in vv. 14, 16, 17, and 18, so this is clearly the main focus of this passage.
The Levites were the Lord’s exclusive possession in that they were the substitutes for all the tribes of Israel’s firstborn. Instead of each firstborn being the Lord’s possession from all the tribes’ offspring, the entire tribe of Levi served as their proxy. This claim is related to the plague narrative of Exodus, when the Lord struck down all the firstborn of Egypt. Once His divine claim on all the Levites was established, the Lord gave them as gifts back to Aaron and his sons so that they had help in all the duties associated with the tent of meeting. Since the Levites were sanctioned by the Lord to assist in the care of the tabernacle, the rest of the Israelite nation was not in physical danger when they approached the sanctuary.
8:20–22. This section is the descriptive account of what was prescribed earlier (vv. 5–13) in relation to the purifying of the Levitical tribe in assisting Aaron and his sons in the work of the tabernacle. This section emphasizes that all the instructions the Lord gave were followed completely (vv. 20, 22). This is another example thus far in the book that stresses total obedience on the part of the nation’s leaders as well as individuals. No example of disobedience on the part of the people has been noted in the text up to this point (although Nadab and Abihu’s earlier disobedience in Lv 10 was alluded to in Nm 3:4).
8:23–26. The Levites who were qualified had to be between the ages of 25 and 50. After 50 they were to retire, but they could still serve as assistants to the qualified Levites. Much of the work was physical in nature, so this stipulation guaranteed that the Levitical workers were both mature and physically fit in handling the sacred objects. In Nm 4:3 the starting age for Kohathites is given as 30. One possible explanation for the difference is that for the first five years Levitical workers served as apprentices until they reached the age of 30. Later in David’s reign Levites were able to begin service in the temple at the age of 20 (1Ch 23:24–25). There the explanation is given that this was because the Levites no longer had to transport the tabernacle and its sacred objects.
7. Celebrating Passover (9:1–23)
9:1–5. Events in the book of Numbers began in the second month of the second year after the exodus (1:1), but now the text refers back to an earlier event that happened in the first month of the second year, namely, the giving of instructions regarding Passover. One possible explanation for this chronological rearrangement is that the book is narrowing the subject matter to items that have more spiritual weight. The book starts with descriptions of census numbers and camp locations, moves to a description of the tabernacle assignments of the Levitical clans, and then narrows in on the Passover celebration. The Passover was to be celebrated on the 14th day of the first month (Abib), corresponding to March/April. Another statement of the tacit obedience of the Israelites appears in v. 5.
9:6–14. These verses discuss the problem of being ceremonially unclean on the Passover and thus unable to celebrate it on that exact date. Some Israelites had been rendered unclean because of contact with a dead body. They wished to fulfill Passover obligations at the same time as everyone else without having to wait a year until the next Passover. Moses did not give an immediate answer to their concern. He asked for a delay until he could find out what the Lord’s instructions were on this matter. Numbers 7:89 noted that he had opportunity to speak to the Lord whenever he entered the tent of meeting. This mention here of Moses seeking to ask for the Lord’s clear guidance shows his dependence on the Lord and his desire to disseminate God’s instructions, not his own wisdom. Honored by such dependence, the Lord gave Moses the instructions he sought.
Whenever there was involuntary uncleanness or an individual was away from home on a journey he was permitted to celebrate the Passover one month later. If, however, there was willful neglect in observing the Passover, that individual was to be cut off and to suffer consequences. If an alien wished to celebrate the Passover, he was to observe it on the day the Israelites observed it. Exodus 12:48 previously stated that such a worshiper, however, must be circumcised in order to partake. Based on Jos 5:10, possibly Israel did not observe another Passover until after they entered the promised land, since no uncircumcised male could observe Passover and the men were not circumcised until they got to Gilgal after they crossed the Jordan. The stipulation that whoever partook of the Passover meal must not break any of the bones while cooking or eating the lamb (Nm 9:12) is mentioned in Jn 19:36 in reference to the death of Christ as a fulfillment of this Scripture.
9:15–23. This section describes the phenomenon of the cloud that appeared over the tabernacle and how it guided the Israelites during their wilderness journey. This section is not chronological in its presentation because it describes the routine of this guidance system even before the Israelites actually set out. It introduces future information from the entirety of the wilderness-wandering period and places it here. The repetitive nature and rhythmic quality of this section make it unique in comparison to the sections around it. In 9:1–14 the Israelites celebrated the Passover, a tangible reminder of God’s redemptive power in the past. Now in speech that rises almost to that of poetry, Moses described in heightened words a different visible tangible symbol. The Passover lamb could be seen as an object lesson of the Lord’s power in the past, and the cloud could represent a visual manifestation of the Lord’s commitment to the nation’s present and future guidance.
This phenomenon is often called the "Shekinah glory" from Ex 40:35, but the text in Numbers never refers to it by that name. Instead it is consistently called the cloud.
On the first day the tabernacle was erected, a cloud covered it, and it was continuous and had the appearance of fire. The cloud lifted whenever the nation was to set out to a new location. This was a tangible, visual sign. It could lift anytime day or night, and it could lift up again after two days or even a year. Several statements of the Israelites’ obedience are given again in vv. 19 and 23. The Israelites moved in response to the Lord’s instructions, and the Lord was the nation’s true leader (v. 23).
8. Departure from Sinai (10:1–36)
10:1–10. Silver trumpets were blown to notify the camp of different events. When two were blown together, the tribes were to move out. When one was blown the leaders of the various clans were to gather together. The tribes on the east were the first to move out, and then the south tribes were to move out at the next blast. The other two compass points are not mentioned (west and north), but surely the tribes from those positions would be the next to march. Since the moving of the cloud was a visible reminder to the entire nation that they were about to break camp, the trumpet blasts served as a more specific time marker and helped maintain order and discipline when they were on the move.
While on the subject of trumpet blasts, Moses described other instances when the trumpets were to be used and who would blow them. The sons of Aaron were to be the only ones to make the signals. They were to blow them not only when the nation broke camp but also as a way of signaling going into war, as well as announcing appointed feasts and offerings. The use of the trumpet as a battle cry invoked God to rise up and defeat Israel’s enemies. Trumpets were also blown to celebrate God’s presence in their midst at these occasions.
10:11–13. This section marks a major division geographically in the book and in the Pentateuch. Ever since Ex 19 the nation had been at Sinai, and now for the first time in about a year they began to move out. They began their journey on the 20th day of the second month in the second year after the exodus from Egypt. The expectation was that they would be in the promised land in just a few short months. Deuteronomy 1:3 gives the ending time of the wilderness wanderings as "the fortieth year on the first day of the eleventh month." So the total span of the period in the wilderness after starting out was 38 years, 8 months, 11 days. Numbers 10:13 is the last clear mention of obedience, before Moses stressed the disobedience that began to characterize the nation for the rest of the wilderness-wandering period. Once they set out, they headed for the wilderness of Paran, about 100 miles southwest of the Dead Sea. The mention of the wilderness of Paran here echoes the story of Hagar in Gn 21. Several parallels can be seen between Hagar’s experience and that of the Israelites in the book of Numbers. Both the Israelites and Hagar left their homes and wandered in the wilderness, including the wilderness of Paran; they encountered shortages of water and experienced God’s provision of water.
10:14–28. The various leaders of the tribes mentioned here are the same ones listed in chaps. 2; 3, and 7. So for the fourth time these 12 names are specifically mentioned as leaders of their respective tribes. The tribes marched out in the same order as was given in Nm 2, but there is a discrepancy as to where the Levitical clans marched. According to 2:16–17 the tent of meeting and the camp of the Levites all were to set out after the second grouping of tribes (headed by Reuben). Yet 10:17 states that both the Gershonite and Merarite clans actually marched behind the first group of tribes (headed by Judah), and the Kohathites are the only clan (v. 21) to follow the second group of tribes (headed by Reuben) as was stipulated in 2:16–17. This may simply be a clarification of what was said in 2:16–17, or this may be a subtle hint that Israel did not completely obey what the Lord had commanded. Numbers 10 and 11 mark the transition from full and complete obedience to partial obedience and then outright rebellion. The only uncertainty pertains to the exact time when the shift from obedience to disobedience occurred.
10:29–32. What happened here could be considered another example in Israel’s transition from obedience to disobedience, or it could be viewed as a brief conversation between Moses and Hobab that demonstrates good common sense. Many take this account of the discussion between Moses and Hobab, his brother-in-law, as an example of Moses seeking good counsel to assist him and the nation as they embarked on this journey to the promised land. Moses asked Hobab to be his eyes while in the wilderness, and he promised that Hobab would gain materially if he agreed to be their guide. While that may sound like a good practical move on the part of Moses, there may be some contextual hints within the book of Numbers that cast suspicion on this request by Moses.
Perhaps then this should not be viewed as a neutral or even a positive proposition. First, the Israelites clearly had the cloud (9:15–23) to tell them when to set out and where. Second, Moses had direct access to the Lord (7:89) and could get any specific input he needed from Him (as was demonstrated in the case of those who missed the Passover because of being ceremonially unclean, 9:8–13). Third, the Midianites as a group would become a major negative moral influence on Israel as seen in Nm 25 and 31. Moses’ invitation may have been to a virtual "Trojan horse" that resulted in moral harm to Israel.
This request by Moses could be viewed as his "Plan B." If the cloud was not a dependable guide, he had a backup plan or at least a viable second opinion. Even if Hobab knew possible routes and food sources, the size of the nation at this time would seem to neutralize any tactical wisdom Hobab could offer. Looking at the way Moses framed the request may also offer some subtle hints as to his motivation. Even though his original offer was rebuffed, he came back with an even more urgent appeal. He asked for Hobab’s physical presence: do not leave us. The next appeal sounds as though he was dependent on Hobab’s knowledge: you know where we should camp. Also Moses seems to have wanted Hobab’s insight and direction: you can be our eyes. Moses may have been asking Hobab to function as the surrogate "Lord" or the "cloud."
This account may be intimating that a seed of doubt and disbelief could be sprouting in Moses. This doubt sprouted later when he struck the rock and the Lord clearly stated that he did it because he "did not believe" (20:12). If the switch in the order of where the Levitical clans marched (10:17–21; cf. 2:16–17) can be seen as even a slight departure from the Lord’s command by the Levitical clans, there is some evidence that Moses may have dropped a subtle hint that even he as a leader of the nation began to let disbelief in the Lord’s instructions creep into his heart. By the next chapter (11:1) it is clear that entire nation had allowed rebellion and discontent to become public in their relationship to the Lord. The progression from a tiny deviation of the Lord’s commands (by the Levitical clans) to doubt (by Moses) to outright rebellion (by the nation) is a pattern that was apparent even in the garden of Eden (Gn 3).
10:33–36. The text now returns to the account of the Israelites setting out from Sinai. The initial journey lasted three days, and the ark of the covenant went before them. This is the first time the term "the ark of the covenant" is used in Scripture. Since the ark was to be covered (4:5–6) during transport, it is doubtful that the nation saw the ark out in front of them. The ark along with the cloud seem to have been involved in guiding the nation about where they should stop on their journey.
Moses had a musical refrain recited (vv. 35–36) every time the ark set out that has strong military language Rise up, O Lord! And let Your enemies be scattered, And let those who hate You flee before You. This refrain invoked the Lord to protect Israel from its foes, and it asked (v. 36) for His presence among His people.
B. Rebellion of the First Generation (11:1–25:18)
1. Rebellion in the Camp (11:1–35)
11:1–3. The text so far (at least through Nm 10:13) has continually stressed the complete obedience of Moses, the Levites, and the entire nation of Israel. Now, in just a short period of time, that behavior waned. After 10 chapters that described the preparations for the journey, the people were shown on the move. But all was not well. The people began to complain about their adversities, and the Lord’s anger was kindled against them. The nation had complained soon after the Red Sea deliverance about the lack of food and water (Ex 15:22–27; 16; 17), but this is the first time in the book of Numbers that complaints were voiced. This complaint also came after a period of three days (Ex 15:22–27; cf. Nm 10:33). A connection between Israel’s complaints and the Lord’s anger is introduced here in the book and repeated thereafter. Fire came out from the Lord and struck some of those at the outskirts of the camp. This fire consumed them, but their bodies were not totally burned. (This was also true of Nadab and Abihu whose bodies, consumed by fire [Lv 10:2], were carried outside the camp.) The corpses would be a tangible sign of God’s displeasure. The people entreated Moses, Moses prayed on their behalf, and the fire died down. This introduces another theme in the book: Moses’ intercession for the people. The place was called Taberah, based on the Hebrew verb "to burn." Place names in Numbers are often based on an event that took place in that location (cf. Nm 11:34–35).
The purpose of these parallels is to show not only the cyclical pattern of Israel’s sinfulness and God’s faithfulness during this wilderness period, but also to show moral and spiritual decline. This bad behavior manifested by the nation and their leaders in these downward cycles had negative consequences on them.
11:4–9. Even after the fire died down, the rabble began to voice another complaint, this time about food. This is the only time that "rabble" is used in the OT. The phrase used in reference to this group earlier was "mixed multitude" (Ex 12:38). These were non-Israelites, who were also Semites, living in Egypt at the exodus, or perhaps even Egyptians themselves. The rabble was not satisfied with the provision of manna and began to crave meat and a diet that had various flavors. The demand for meat is unusual since the nation was said to be rich in flocks (Ex 12:38; Nm 32:1), and "meat" is not specifically mentioned as something they consumed while slaves in Egypt. While they were certainly exaggerating the types of foods they enjoyed in Egypt, they may not have wanted to consume from their own flocks since their livestock were a main part of their economic holdings. Therefore, they were probably looking for sources of meat other than their own animals.
Manna was like coriander with olive oil. Exodus 16:31 previously stated that it tasted like wafers made with honey, so the people described it in various ways. Manna could be prepared in a number of ways after it was gathered and ground. Depending on personal preference, it could be cooked in a pot or baked as cakes. Suggestions of naturalistic explanations for manna (i.e., plant secretions) do not fit the supernatural qualities detailed in the text. If there was no supernatural power at work, no natural substance could make a daily appearance in sufficient quantity for the entire nation for 38 years and not be available to be gathered on Saturdays.
11:10–15. The complaints of the people were so massive that Moses heard all the people weeping at the doorways of their tents. Once again the Lord’s anger was kindled because of their ingratitude for His providing them food. Instead of seeing the manna and quail as gracious provisions from the loving God, they disdained not only the daily food but also the Lord Himself. Moses himself was displeased with their response. Instead of asking the Lord how he should personally respond, he too complained to God about having to lead an ungrateful people alone. Moses bombarded the Lord with several rhetorical questions to which he already knew the answers. One of Moses’ weaknesses was anger, as revealed in his first account as an adult when he struck and killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew (Ex 2:11). In Moses’ eyes the weight of leading the people was too burdensome, and if the Lord would not relieve him of it then he wished for death.
11:16–17. Earlier Jethro had recommended that Moses appoint judges to assist him in dealing with all the judicial cases brought before him (Ex 18:13–26). Now, to release Moses from carrying all the spiritual load of caring for the nation, the Lord told Moses to select 70 of Israel’s elders so that the Lord could take some of the Spirit that Moses had and redistribute it to them.
11:18–23. Two separate story lines are intertwined in this chapter. One deals with the request for meat, and the other deals with Moses’ complaint about being overburdened. This section gives the next sequence of events regarding meat that was started in vv. 4–9. The people were instructed to consecrate themselves because the Lord would provide meat not just for one day but also for a whole month. In fact it would come out their nostrils (v. 20). This is interesting because the word for "anger" (v. 1) and the word for "nostril" are spelled the same in Hebrew (ap). The seat of anger was associated with nostrils (i.e., nostrils flaring when one is angry). When the Lord’s "nose" is angered, the consequences will be felt in the "nose" of those being judged.
Moses expressed disbelief at the Lord’s abilities to provide such a large quantity of meat, and the Lord rebuked Moses by asking him, Is the Lord’s power limited? Verse 23 gives the essence of the problem behind these complaints and the divine solution to it. This lesson is for both the nation and its leaders. The fundamental problem is disbelief and doubt of God’s power, and the solution to doubt and disbelief is to believe that His word is true.
11:24–30. After the seventy … elders were gathered at the entrance of the tabernacle the Lord fulfilled what He said He would do in v. 17. He caused the Spirit that was on Moses to rest on the seventy as clear evidence of their spiritual authority. They began to prophesy in a way that was not repeated again in the future. Two men, Eldad and Medad, were selected to be among the seventy, but for some reason they were not with the other elders. These two began to prophesy where they were located in the camp, and a report of their activities was relayed to Moses. Joshua, Moses’ longtime aide, with a desire to protect his master’s status, asked him to have them stop prophesying. Moses was not threatened by this visible display of the Spirit’s power and wished that all the Lord’s people could enjoy the Spirit’s special gift demonstrated here. This display of humility by Moses reflects a key aspect of his character and provides a fitting backdrop to the unjustified challenge to his leadership in the next chapter.
11:31–35. This section connects with the previous passage by a wordplay with the Hebrew word ruah, meaning "spirit" or "wind." The Spirit of the Lord had just blessed the seventy elders with prophetic gifts, and now the wind of the Lord would bless the people with quail. These quail either flew in a three-foot thick flight pattern or they hovered at a height of three feet off the ground, meaning they could easily be captured. For about 36 hours they flew by so that each individual in the camp was able to gather more than 60 bushels. It must have been quite a feat to store that much meat in the midst of the camp. God’s provision of quail was a mixed blessing in that while they were given the opportunity to partake of meat in abundance, it demonstrated the nation’s gluttonous appetite, so much so that it provoked the Lord’s anger. Before the quail could even be consumed, the Lord sent a severe plague and many died. The place was called Kibroth-hattaavah meaning, graves of greediness.
2. Rebellion of Aaron and Miriam (12:1–16)
12:1–8. After the nation set up camp at Hazeroth (11:35), Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses. Though Miriam and Aaron are paired together, the Hebrew verb is in the feminine form, indicating that Miriam was the instigator in this challenge against Moses’ leadership and explaining the reason she suffered the consequences. The combination of Aaron and Miriam, however, was a serious threat, not just because they were siblings, but also because he was the high priest and she was a prophetess (Ex 15:20). The explanation for this defiance was his marriage to a Cushite woman. It is not clear whether this is referring to Zipporah (since Midian and Cush/Cushan are perhaps related, as seen in Hab 3:7) or to a second wife from the area today known as either Nubia or Ethiopia. Even though the nationality of this woman is not transparent, what is clear is that Moses’ siblings raised an ethnic objection.
While ethnic purity in Israel was an issue, foreigners were allowed to participate in the spiritual community (9:14). Though ethnicity was the issue Miriam raised, her underlying concern was jealousy and possibly concern over losing some of her spiritual status to this woman. Perhaps Moses’ wife was viewed as a threat to Miriam’s position as the most influential woman in Israel. Considering the newly elevated spiritual authority of the 70 elders (11:25), perhaps Miriam thought her spiritual authority was dwindling. Or perhaps she thought that by challenging Moses she could reclaim some of her former spiritual status. These concerns were clearly a repudiation of the Lord’s choice of Moses as Israel’s supreme human leader.
The next statement about Moses’ humility (12:3) is a parenthetical thought and seems to be one of the few places in the Pentateuch where a later inspired editor gave a simple statement about God’s perspective on Moses’ character. Moses’ humility was revealed in the previous chapter (11:29), and so a reference to it here makes Miriam’s charges seem all the more egregious. In response to this challenge the Lord summoned Moses … Aaron … and Miriam … to the tent of meeting and reconfirmed Moses’ authority and status. The Lord directly addressed them from within the cloud in a poetic form and verbally defended Moses’ special relationship. When the Lord revealed Himself, He did so, He said, through visions and dreams, but He addressed Moses mouth to mouth, that is, face to face. Moses even saw the form of the Lord that no one else has had the privilege of seeing (v. 8). With all these special privileges, Moses’ siblings were asked why they were not afraid to speak against him as God’s servant. This affirmation established Moses’ uniqueness as a prophet—he alone received direct revelation from God. This became significant later when the Lord promised Israel a messianic prophet like Moses (Dt 18:15–19). This future prophet, the Messiah, would not be like all the other prophets of Israel, but like Moses He would engage in direct communication with God without dreams or visions.
12:9–16. Then the Lord in anger struck Miriam with leprosy, making her ceremonially unclean and an outcast within the community. Aaron pleaded with his brother and intervened on her behalf. He said Miriam’s physical condition was like that of a stillborn child whose flesh is half eaten. Moses without hesitation interceded on his sister’s behalf and asked the Lord to heal her. Yet, she was not immediately healed. Since her offense was so serious she was like someone whose father spat in her face. Such a person would have to remain outside the camp for seven days. Spitting was an extreme act of contempt (Dt 25:9) and left one unclean for obvious reasons. The public nature of her challenge caused her to suffer public humiliation. Her sin delayed the movement of the camp until she was able to return from her weeklong exile. After she was received back, the nation moved out from Hazeroth to the wilderness of Paran.
3. Rebellion at Kadesh (13:1–14:45)
13:1–16. The Lord now instructed Moses to send out … men to explore the land. The location of the Israelite base camp gets increasingly more specific throughout this section. First, they were in the general region of the Wilderness of Paran (12:16, about 100 miles southwest of the Dead Sea), then in the more distinct section known as the Wilderness of Zin (13:21, about 25 miles southwest of the Dead Sea), and then at a specific location at Kadesh (13:26, about 60 miles southwest of the Dead Sea). Moses later stated that it was from here that the Israelites were commanded to "go up and take possession" (Dt 1:21). Before they went forth, they asked Moses to send men to search out routes and report back on the cities (Dt 1:22). While their motivation for this sounds good, it does not demonstrate stepping out in faith in response to the Lord’s word to simply "go" and "take." Nevertheless the Lord graciously heard that request and told Moses to select the men to send (v. 1). These men were to be selected from the leaders of each of their fathers’ tribes. The individuals selected were not the same tribal representatives mentioned previously as leading in the census and bringing tribute (chaps. 1; 2; 7; 10). Probably the previously-mentioned leaders were elderly statesmen, and this mission called for men who would be perhaps more physically fit to handle the reconnaissance mission. They were not officially labeled as "spies" like the ones Joshua later sent to survey Jericho (Jos 2:1), but they were to be individuals of good standing who could easily sway the people with their opinion. That they were individually named in an official list along with their tribal associations demonstrates their importance and standing within the nation. They could be trusted to give an honest report of what they saw, and their recommendations would be weighty. Two of the men selected played more prominent roles in the future: Hoshea … from the tribe of Ephraim, whom Moses renamed Joshua (13:16), and Caleb … from the tribe of Judah.
13:17–33. Moses gave clear and explicit instructions, yet their report had mixed results (as seen in the chart "Instructions to the Twelve Spies" on the following page).
In the past Moses had shown the Israelites’ obedience to God’s instructions by either giving a detailed report of those instructions being followed (i.e., the instructions for the tabernacle were given in Ex 26–30 and then they were followed, as seen in Ex 36–40), or he stated that what was done was "according to all which the Lord had commanded" (Nm 1:54). In this account Moses gave clear instructions and questions for the men to answer on their return. But there is no statement that they did what was asked, nor did the men address all the questions Moses posed. The account they gave was reported in a different order from what Moses gave them, and they often gave additional information on items they were not asked to research.
Even though Joshua and Caleb were among these spies they were not culpable since they followed the Lord fully (Nm 14:24). The rest of the spies left out content that might have influenced the people positively. For instance they visited Hebron on their trip but failed to mention that in their report. Hebron was a place clearly associated with the patriarch Abraham and would have invoked in the mind of the Israelites the land promises given to him, since Abraham was buried there. The statement about Hebron being built seven years before Zoan in Egypt (13:22) is a curious parenthetical thought. Zoan is associated with the city of Tanis in the north Nile delta and was to become a political capital for Egypt around the time of King David. That Hebron predates this Egyptian city certainly underscores Hebron’s importance.
The route the men took began in the south at the Wilderness of Zin (v. 21) and went as far north as Rehob, near Lebo-hamath (beyond the city of Damascus). On the way back they stopped at the valley of Eshcol (lit., "cluster"), near Hebron, and brought back produce from that area, including a single cluster of grapes (so large that it had to be carried … on a pole) along with pomegranates and figs. These items would be clear examples of the agricultural fertility of the land to which the Lord was sending them. The entire expedition took 40 days, and they returned to the camp, now specifically mentioned as being located at Kadesh (v. 26, about 60 miles southwest of the Dead Sea).
The report started out positively by stating that the land does flow with milk and honey, a common phrase emphasizing the fruitfulness of the promised land (e.g., Ex 3:8, 17). The exact meaning of the expression is not readily discernible. The word for milk (Hb. chalab) has the same consonants as the word for fat (cheleb), but the by-product of flocks is probably more in mind here than "fat." Honey refers to what wild bees produce, or the sap of trees, or the syrup by-product of figs or other fruit. The image of a land filled with flocks (milk) and fruit (honey) is a graphic metaphor. Whatever these words mean, it is clear that they evoked the bountiful and sweet provisions of the land they just visited. For a people who were used to eating manna day-in and day-out, this must have seemed extremely attractive.
Even though their report started in a positive manner, there is a subtle shift in their opening statement. The nevertheless (v. 28) qualifies their introduction and reveals the group’s faulty attitude. They quickly moved from answering Moses’ earlier questions to inserting their own opinion as to whether Israel should proceed with entering the land, and their doubts about being able to overpower the inhabitants of the land. Caleb spoke up against what the 10 men were saying and gave his motivational challenge to take possession of what God had promised. He said they could take possession of the land. The 10 men were mainly concerned about the size of the people who lived in Canaan and their strongly fortified cities. They cited the descendants of Anak (v. 28) and the Nephilim (v. 33) so as to elicit the most amount of fear in those hearing the report. The Anak were a group living near Hebron (Jos 11:21–22) and were very tall (Dt 2:10). Nephilim were previously mentioned as a pre-flood people (Gn 6:4).
The question has arisen as to how there could be Nephilim if their line did not survive Noah’s flood. Since the spies were giving a false report regarding the challenges the nation would face in conquering the land, they may have exaggerated the large people they encountered and mistakenly believed them to be the Nephilim. Another explanation is that these Nephilim may simply have been a different people with the same name but with the same qualities of height and arrogance that the original Nephilim displayed in Gn 6. The spies reported that all the people (v. 32) were of great size, and they belittled themselves as small like grasshoppers (v. 33). They saw themselves as prey, not as victors.
14:1–4. The Israelites were swayed by the negative report of the 10 spies, and their displeasure was audibly heard throughout the camp. They directed their complaint at Moses and Aaron, saying they longed to be put out of their misery and wished they had died when they were in Egypt or now in the wilderness. The Israelites longed to die in the wilderness, and, ironically, God did eventually grant this generation that request (14:29). Women and children were often taken away as spoil after battle so it was true that they and their families were vulnerable in this location. But instead of expressing fear and rebellion they should have trusted the Lord for protection from their enemies and for power to go up and possess the land. They had many clear and tangible expressions of the Lord’s presence in their midst, and He had miraculously protected them from enemies in their recent past. Yet in their minds it would be better for them to go back in submission to their oppressors in Egypt than to go forward and trust the Lord for their future. They quickly forgot the toils of their bondage while they were in Egypt (Ex 2:23–24), and they sought to select a new leader to guide them back to Egypt.
14:5–10. Moses and Aaron then fell prostrate on the ground in front of the whole camp in a display of self-humiliation. They let their body language speak before opening their mouths. This so moved Joshua and Caleb that as an act of solidarity with Moses and Aaron they tore their clothes as a sign of mourning and deep grief (Gn 37:29). At this juncture Joshua and Caleb implored the people to remember that the land was an exceedingly good land. This was the first time Joshua was vocal in the book of Numbers, even though he was one of the men selected to explore the promised land. Being the personal attendant of Moses (Ex 24:13) probably caused Joshua not to speak up earlier (Nm 13:30) along with Caleb. Since he was closely associated with Moses, the people would naturally expect him to support Moses, his mentor. Now, however, he boldly joined with Caleb in addressing the folly of the nation in rebelling against the Lord. He emphasized that they need not fear the people, for they would fall before them because the Lord was on their side. The people pleaded for a leader (14:4) and ultimately Joshua became their new leader. But he would not take them back to Egypt as they requested; instead he would lead them into the promised land. Joshua and Caleb’s passionate plea did not convince the people, who rallied to stone them. To prevent them from proceeding, the glory of the Lord appeared, graciously protecting His servants and warning the people.
14:11–19. The Lord addressed Moses and rhetorically asked him several questions. Essentially He was asking Moses how much longer He should tolerate the nation’s rejection and unbelief in the face of all the supernatural visible and tangible signs that were performed in their midst. The Lord proposed to smite them with pestilence, as He did to get Egypt to let His people go. He also sought to start the nation all over again by starting afresh with Moses. But Moses pleaded again with the Lord as he did earlier (Ex 32:11–13) not to go forth with that plan because it would mar His testimony and reputation with the Egyptians. And all the other nations who heard about the Lord’s doings with this nation would mock His inability to fulfill His promises. Appealing to God’s attributes, Moses prayed that the Lord would display His great power, patience, and lovingkindness, and that He would forgive the iniquity of this people. Moses’ made a lawyer-like argument: if the Lord wiped out the nation, it would reflect more on His character than on the character of rebellious Israel. His inability to fulfill His promise to bring this people into the promised land would negatively impact His reputation if He carried out His plan to destroy the nation.
Moses, however, knew that the Lord could not let this rebellion go unpunished. He wanted the Lord to rethink His plan to start all over again with him. Moses mentioned that the Lord would visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations. This phrase is repeated elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Ex 20:5; Dt 5:9), and heightens the consequences of remaining unrepentant (and thus unforgiven) of sin. Elsewhere Moses stated that individuals die for their own sins and not for their father’s sins (Dt 24:16). So this particular phrase may simply be communicating that patterns of sin often get repeated in the next generation. The next generation begins where the last generation left off, and the sin continues to compound. It may also indicate that sin brings natural negative consequences that often continue to affect later generations. Without biblical support, some today blame every sin and problem on some sort of generational curse. They confuse God’s warning of the consequences for sin with deliberate cursing by God from generation to generation. Moses boldly concluded his intercession by asking that the Lord forgive this people out of the abundance of His mercy.
14:20–38. On the basis of Moses’ argument and prayer the Lord graciously pardoned the people and did not wipe them out. But there would be consequences for their rebellious actions. The punishment meted out, as well as this act of forgiveness, would assist in filling the earth … with the glory of the Lord (v. 21). The sentence God imposed on the nation was that anyone over the age of 20 who grumbled against the Lord would die in the wilderness. This sentence was so harsh because, having seen the Lord’s glory and His supernatural signs, they still put the Lord to the test 10 times. The 10 tests may not necessarily be literal but could be a literary device to mean a great many times (cf. Jb 19:3). Nevertheless there are at least 10 times the people put the Lord to the test that can be documented: Ex 14:11–12; 15:23–24; 16:2–3, 20, 27; 17:1; 32:1–10; Nm 11:1, 4; 14:1–3.
The number "ten" (Nm 14:22) is significant in that it is the number of the plagues the Lord sent against Egypt (Ex 7–11). The 10 plagues demonstrated God’s power, and the 10 tests of Israel similarly taxed God’s patience. Caleb was exempt (v. 24) from this sentence because he had a different spirit and followed the Lord without reservation (Joshua was mentioned later, v. 30).
Instead of leaving Kadesh and going directly toward the promised land through the valleys where the Amalekites and Canaanites dwelled, the people were now to set out the next day by a longer and circuitous route toward the Red Sea (most likely the Gulf of Aqaba, about 120 miles south of the Dead Sea, and about 80 southeast of Kadesh—or basically in the opposite direction of the Holy Land).
The Lord now instructed Moses and Aaron to explain to the people what their disciplinary sentence would be. Earlier the people had wished for death in the wilderness (v. 2), and now the Lord would grant that request. The adage "be careful what you wish for" was never so true as in this incident. Their children, whom they earlier thought would be prey to the enemy (v. 3), would instead be the ones to enter the promised land, along with Joshua and Caleb. The nation’s sin may have been forgiven (v. 20), but the consequences of their actions meant that their children would have to suffer for their unfaithfulness until those over 20 died in the wilderness. Ezekiel 18:13–18 argued that children are not responsible for the moral guilt of their parents’ individual sin, but it does not preclude them from suffering the consequences of their parents’ sin. The specific punishment was a year for every one of the days the men were on the spying expedition. Since the expedition lasted forty days (Nm 13:25) they were to spend forty years in the wilderness before going up into the promised land. The people had already spent just over a year in the wilderness since leaving Egypt (9:1; cf. 1:1), and a short period of time transpired since Nm 1:1, so the actual punishment period was just over 38 years. To underscore the heinousness of their unbelief and rebellion, the Lord judged the men who tried to convince the nation not to take possession of the land by sentencing them to die by a plague (v. 37).
14:39–45. After the sentence was meted out and the people saw the ten spies die by plague, the nation mourned, but the next day they resolved to take the land by way of the hill country. They acknowledged their sin and were now ready to go up into the land the Lord had promised. Moses warned them against doing so and stated that they would be unsuccessful because the Lord’s presence would not be with them. Again in another act of defiance they acted on their own without Moses or the ark of the covenant. They were struck down handily and driven back by the Amalekites and the Canaanites.
The Israelites’ Wilderness Wanderings
Adapted from The New Moody Atlas of the Bible. Copyright © 2009 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.
4. Additional Instructions Regarding Offerings (15:1–41)
This chapter includes four categories of supplemental law, broken up by a short narrative account about a Sabbath-breaker. Even though the first generation had just been handed a death sentence, the content of this chapter looks forward to the next generation being in the land. God gave them additional instructions regarding sacrificial offerings. On the one hand it provided hope for them, knowing that the Lord had a future for them in the land by giving them guidelines to regulate sacrifices. On the other hand this chapter lays down more regulations for them to follow. Whenever the Pentateuch gives a narrative account about sin, the reader can expect to see more restrictive laws given immediately thereafter (John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992], 387). One of the consequences of sin is additional legislation to prevent additional sin. In this instance this set of laws and regulations follows on the heels of the key rebellion passage (Nm 13–14) in the book.
Chapter 15 is related in several ways to the immediate context. For one thing, since many of their previous complaints were related to the lack of food and ingratitude for what the Lord provided (i.e., manna), in the future whenever they offered animal sacrifices they would have to bring a grain offering (15:4) perhaps reminiscent or symbolic of the manna the Lord had graciously provided for them in the wilderness. Another connection is that along with the addition of the grain offering they were also to include a wine drink offering (15:5). One of the items the spies brought back was a huge cluster of grapes (13:23). Having seen from Eshcol (the fertile region close to Hebron where they found the large grapes) what the land could produce agriculturally, the nation still refused to take possession of the land. Perhaps as a future visual reminder of rejecting that "fruit," the Lord imposed additional legislation on all future sacrifices to include a wine offering (made from grapes) along with the designated animal. These additional legislations were given less than two years after the original giving of the law at Sinai, and so perhaps something contextually triggered the giving of more restrictive laws than what they had already received at Sinai.
15:1–16. The first category of supplemental laws deals with animal sacrifices. Once they entered the land, worshipers were instructed to present supplemental offerings along with their usual animal sacrifices. These additional stipulations did not apply to sin or guilt offerings, but only to freewill-type offerings. Why these supplemental laws were not to go into effect immediately in the wilderness is not clear, except that they may have been solely intended for the second generation to implement, not the generation that strongly rebelled against the Lord. Any future burnt offering … special vow (v. 8), or freewill offering was now to be accompanied by a grain offering mixed with oil and a wine … drink offering (v. 10). Priests did not typically drink the drink offerings; these were poured out as a libation on the ground.
All worshipers were to present these freewill offerings with these additional items whether they were native born or sojourners. Twice it is said to be a soothing aroma to the Lord (vv. 13, 14), in contrast to the grievous complaining the nation often made.
15:17–21. The second additional category of supplemental law instructed the Israelites to offer a dough … cake (v. 20) as a first fruits type of offering when they entered the land and began to enjoy the food the Lord provided. The worshiper was to lift it up to the Lord as an expression of a grateful heart.
15:22–31. The third category of additional legislation pertained to the sin offering. Earlier Lv 4:13–21 dealt with how to atone for sins of commission by the community, and now this section describes how sins of omission can be made right. Unintentional sins committed by the community could be forgiven. In addition, an individual, whether native or alien, who committed unintentional sin could experience atonement if he brought a one-year-old female goat as a sin offering. However, anyone who sinned defiantly (lit., "with a high hand," the OT equivalent to the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit) had broken the Lord’s commandment and despised His word. That person is said to have blasphemed the Lord and would not have his guilt removed. The person was to be cut off. To be "cut off" may be understood in several ways. One possibility is a premature death by the Lord (cf. Lv 23:29–30). Another possibility is excommunication, being banished or shunned from the community. Most likely, it means the person was to be executed by the community (cf. Lv 17:4), probably by stoning. Evidence for this is in the following verses (vv. 32–36), which give an example of what it meant to be "cut off" for violating the Sabbath (cf. Ex 31:14–15). There, the transgressor was stoned … to death for a defiant sin.
15:32–36. At this point the text switches from law back to narrative and relates the account of a man who was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. The first and second of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20) were clearly violated by the nation in the book of Exodus when they worshiped the golden calf (Ex 32). The book of Leviticus then follows with a description of a clear violation of the third Commandment when a blasphemer was stoned (Lv 24:10–14, 23). Now the next book in the Pentateuch (Numbers) contains a clear violation of the fourth Commandment in this account of the Sabbath-breaker. This pattern of clear sequential violations of the Ten Commandments since Sinai does not bode well for the nation’s ability to keep the law. In Ex 31:14–15 the punishment for violating the Sabbath was death, so it is not clear here why that sentence was not handed out immediately. Perhaps it was because this individual had violated the Sabbath "unintentionally" (Nm 15:27). Other possibilities could be that Moses and the people were not sure if gathering wood violated the "no-work" stipulation of the Sabbath law, or they did not know what means of capital punishment to use, or they may have been reticent to carry out the death penalty. Whatever the case, the violator was placed in custody until a clear verdict could be given by the Lord through Moses. The Lord pronounced him guilty of a capital sin, and he was to be stoned outside the camp. In a brief respite from their usual rebellious behavior the people obeyed just as the Lord had commanded Moses. This does provide a glimmer of hope in that it reminds the reader that the people were capable of obeying the Lord.
15:37–41. The fourth category of new legislation pertained to the placement of blue tassels on garments. Once again this section follows a narrative passage that highlighted disobedience (specifically breaking the Sabbath, but also the recent rejection of the promised land). If the people were forgetful about keeping the basic laws such as keeping the Sabbath, then an additional law would be added to their legislative code. In this case the additional supplemental law fit the transgression. God would now require them to wear visual symbols (tassels) to remind them to keep the previous laws He had already given them. The fundamental problem is articulated in v. 39. They were following their own heart and … eyes, and thus they needed an object lesson on every garment in their possession. The color blue, often representing royalty, was also used in the priest’s wardrobe (Ex 28). The tassels would also be a subtle reminder that all the people were in a sense priest-like, even though not from the tribe of Levi. These tassels depicted their unique status as God’s chosen people.
5. Rebellion of Korah (16:1–50)
16:1–11. The focus now shifts back to a narrative depicting a rebellion led by the Levite Korah. An earlier challenge against Moses’ leadership was led by Aaron and Miriam (Nm 12). Now this attack came from a coalition of some individuals from the Kohath clan of the Levites as well as some from the tribe of Reuben. The Kohathites were given privileged responsibilities in handling the most sacred objects of the tabernacle (4:1–20). Yet for Korah that authority was not enough, so he led the coalition. He was joined by some Reubenites who may have been jealous of the privileged role of Judah in the camp placement, especially since their forefather was the firstborn son of Jacob, while Judah was Jacob’s fourth son. Thus this challenge was not just a religious dispute. It also incorporated political overtones since it included more than just the priestly Levitical tribe—250 Israelite community leaders who had great sway in the nation joined the instigators. This was no small challenge. Their ire was not just with Moses but with Aaron the high priest as well.
Their vexation was based on the notion that there should be a more democratic spiritual authority structure, because all the congregation was holy and experienced the Lord’s presence just as much as Moses and Aaron did. They disliked that Moses and Aaron seemed to place themselves as the sole authorities in governing the nation of Israel. The rebels failed to take into account that the Lord had appointed Moses and Aaron. Thus, their insurrection was not just against their human leaders but also against the Lord Himself.
Hearing this, Moses fell on his face just as he did in 14:5. In the face of such a challenge Moses recommended a trial by ordeal to settle their dispute. On the next morning the Lord would visibly demonstrate who is holy, and He would bring … near to Him (v. 5) the one who was divinely appointed to lead. Moses instructed them to bring censers so that they could burn incense in them before the presence of the Lord. Just as Korah had thought that Moses and Aaron had "gone far enough" (Nm 16:3), Moses now used the exact same phrase (v. 7) in saying that it was they who had in fact gone far enough. Chiding the Levites, Moses reminded them that they already had a favored position with the Lord in their duties at the tabernacle. He reprimanded them for wanting to be priests as well. He argued that the root of their defiance was directed not against Aaron but against the Lord Himself.
16:12–15. Indignant against Moses for setting the terms, Dathan and Abiram refused to participate in the ordeal. It is not clear why they and not Korah were singled out here. As Reubenites their complaint may have been more political than spiritual in nature, and perhaps they felt Moses had only thus far addressed the concerns of the Kohathites. They exclaimed that instead of leading the nation into a land flowing with milk and honey, Moses had done the opposite. He brought them out of a rich, prosperous land to let them die in the wilderness. That Korah and his followers had the audacity to use the phrase flowing with milk and honey of Egypt, the same phrase the Lord had previously used of the promised land (Ex 3:8), shows the depths of their arrogance. They stated sarcastically that Moses would have to put out the people’s eyes (v. 14) so that they would not see what Moses’ failed leadership skills had brought to the people thus far. Moses became angry and entreated the Lord not to accept their offering (most likely referring to their incense offering they were to bring the next morning). He also defended his motives by saying that he had not personally benefited or sought any special privileges as the nation’s leader. Moreover, he gave evidence of his integrity by stating that he had not previously done harm to any of them and thus had no personal vendetta against these men.
16:16–27. Moses instructed Korah and his 250 followers to be prepared to appear with Aaron before the Lord the next morning and to come with a censer of incense. The next day they gathered at the entrance of the tent of meeting ready for the trial by ordeal. The purpose was that the Lord could visibly demonstrate who would be His representatives. The glory of the Lord then appeared, and the Lord asked Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the rest of those gathered so that he might consume them instantly. Moses and Aaron both fell on their faces and appealed to God to spare the rebels. They invoked the title O God, God of the spirits of all flesh (v. 22), a phrase used in only one other place in the Scriptures (27:16). This means that God knows a person’s inner motives.
Since Moses and Aaron believed that only one man (Korah) instigated this rebellion and that God would be able to discern that, they felt that the Lord should not punish the congregation. Without addressing Moses’ plea, the Lord stated that Moses and Aaron should get away from these rebels and that the entire nation should separate themselves from the three main dissenters. Since Dathan and Abiram had refused to participate (v. 12), Moses and the elders went to where their tents were located and announced that nothing of these men should be touched because they and what belonged to them would receive the Lord’s wrath. The families of Dathan and Abiram came out of their tents and stood there while the rest of the congregation backed away.
16:28–40. Moses then issued an ultimatum. He stated that if the rebels died of natural causes, then Moses was not the divinely selected leader. But if the earth opened up and swallowed them alive, it would prove that they had spurned the Lord. Immediately after Moses finished saying this, the ground opened its mouth and swallowed … up (vv. 31–32) those who had followed Korah, along with their possessions, and then closed back on top of them. Those swallowed up went down alive into Sheol. In this instance "Sheol" probably means "the grave" and not "the netherworld" (the realm of disembodied souls after death). Since the Kohathites camped on the southern side of the tabernacle complex close to the tribe of Reuben, this was a geographically isolated event. All the people, however, panicked. They thought the earth would swallow them up too, so they fled. While they were panicking, fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men who held the censers.
The Lord instructed Moses to have Eleazar take the censers from the charred remains because they were made holy (set apart) and then gather the burning coals left on the censers and scatter them. The censers were then to be hammered into plating for the altar. This was a permanent reminder that only descendants from Aaron should ever offer incense (serve as priests) before the Lord.
16:41–50. Even after a clear display of the Lord’s discipline the people grumbled the next day and blamed Moses and Aaron for the deaths of the rebels. The congregation did not call them rebels but instead referred to them as the Lord’s people, apparently showing some solidarity with those recipients of God’s wrath. As the congregation assembled at the tent of meeting, the cloud covered it and the glory of the Lord appeared. Moses and Aaron came to the front, and then the Lord told them to separate themselves from the rest of the people so that He might consume them instantly just as He did with Korah and the rebels the previous day.
Moses and Aaron again fell on their faces. Moses acted quickly, and instead of pleading with the Lord to relent, he instructed Aaron to get his censer and put incense in it along with fire from the altar to make atonement for the people. Aaron quickly sprang into action, got the censer, incense, and fire, and ran out into the midst of the assembly, even though the plague had already started to break out.
Some have suggested that incense was an alternative means of atonement, other than animal sacrifice. However, according to the Torah, atonement for sin is possible only by a blood sacrifice (Lv 17:11). Here in Nm 16:46–47, the issue is not atonement for sin but stopping a plague. Although the verb kipper usually means "to make atonement or to expiate," in vv. 46–47, Jacob Milgrom correctly asserts that "in this context, [it] carries the connotation of ‘make appeasement.’ " According to him, incense served "to appease and sooth divine wrath" (Jacob Milgrom, JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989], 142). Hence, this passage is not offering an alternative means of atonement for sin apart from animal sacrifice but describing incense as a means of appeasing God and stopping the plague. Furthermore, incense carries the notion of prayer (Ex 30:8; Ps 141:2), and so instead of intercessory prayer the smoke of the incense rising up functioned as prayer to stop God’s wrath from breaking out further. This was a powerful confirmation of Aaron as high priest and proof that not everyone could stand before the Lord as priests as Korah had assumed (16:3). Most of the people were spared because of Aaron’s quick response. But 14,700 people were not spared, and so they added to the death count of those who died the day before.
6. Vindication of Aaron (17:1–13)
17:1–13. The placement of this next account right after Aaron’s quick action in the previous chapter (16:47) demonstrates that the Lord clearly approved of Aaron as the high priest over against any who sought to challenge him (e.g., Korah). The Lord once again vindicated Aaron against those who resisted his selection and authority.
The Lord told Moses to get twelve rods, one from each tribal leader to represent the tribe as a whole and the authority of its owner. The word for rod (Hb. matteh) is the same Hebrew word used for "tribe" (cf. 1:4). In this interesting play on words only the rod/tribe of Levi was selected to be the Lord’s representative. The "rod" chosen by the Lord would symbolize the "tribe" He divinely appointed. The rod served multiple functions among the ancient Jewish people: as a walking stick, as a shepherd’s tool (Ex 4:2), and as a family insignia and symbol of authority (Gn 38:18; Ps 110:2).
Each leader was instructed to write his name on his rod, and Aaron was specifically named to do so as the representative head of the tribe of Levi. Moses placed all the rods in the tent of meeting in front of the testimony. The word "testimony" refers to the Ten Commandments as in the phrase "two tablets of the testimony" (Ex 31:18). This meant that the rods were placed before the ark of the covenant (40:20). The rods would be safe there because of restricted access and because they would be before the Lord (Nm 17:7). The rod God selected would sprout, and it would not only identify God’s choice but it would also reduce the grumblings against Moses and Aaron. The tabernacle is referred to here as the tent of the testimony instead of the "tent of meeting," as Numbers usually labels it, and dovetails with the name given for the ark of the covenant (i.e., "testimony") given in v. 4.
The next day, when Moses went to retrieve the rods, he saw that Aaron’s rod sprouted and had also budded, blossomed, and produced … ripe almonds. For a dead hardened piece of almond wood to bud, blossom, and bear fruit was clearly a supernatural sign. The cups of the lampstand in the tabernacle were shaped like almond blossoms (Ex 25:33–36), so this allusion to an item closely connected to the tabernacle heightens the Lord’s selection of Aaron who served there. Aaron’s rod was now placed back in the ark as a future warning to any rebels who would grumble against the Lord and to note His choice of Aaron as high priest. Aaron’s rod was placed with the tablets of the Ten Commandments (Ex 25:16) and the bowl of manna (Ex 16:33–34) in the ark. Whereas the nation before had thought anyone could be the Lord’s representatives (Nm 16:3) and offer incense before Him, now they overreacted and believed that they all would die because they were near the tabernacle. Instead of humble submission to the Lord’s appointed servants and a repudiation of their grumbling, they cowered in fear. Their focus was still on themselves instead of on the Lord’s gracious acts.
7. Additional Instructions for the Levites (18:1–32)
18:1–7. This passage follows the pattern of more laws being given after a narrative passage that chronicled sin. After the rebellion against Aaron as priest (chap. 16) and the nation’s fear about coming near to the tabernacle (17:12–13), old laws were now reviewed and additional new laws were given to confirm Aaron and his sons as priests. In addition, laws described who was responsible for protecting the sanctuary complex from encroachment.
Usually divine instructions were given first to Moses, but in this case the Lord addressed Aaron directly, since he and his sons and extended family were now spiritually liable for any transgressions against the sanctuary and/or committed by the priests. Because the priests were ordained to handle the holy objects and they were responsible to maintain the sanctity of the priesthood, they were to use every precaution in carrying out their duties. The broader Levitical family, not the Kohathites, but rather the ones not responsible for the holy objects, were instructed not to approach the furnishings or the altar; otherwise they and the Kohathites would die. The transgressors would die for their own sin, and Aaron and his sons would die for failing to prevent that encroachment. Aaron was told that his fellow Levites were given directly to him as a gift from the Lord so that they could assist in all the nonpriestly duties pertaining to the tabernacle. Only he and his sons were ever to perform priestly duties, and any outsider who came near was to be executed.
18:8–11. Aaron and his sons were to receive a share of their support from the offerings that were brought to the tabernacle. This included portions from the grain, sin, and guilt offerings. In addition, portions of the wave offerings could be consumed by Aaron’s extended family (including the women) so long as they were ceremonially clean.
18:12–19. Aaron and his sons were also to receive as a gift from the Lord the best of the … oil … wine … grain, and first fruits offerings, since they were not offered as a burnt sacrifice. In fact every … thing that was devoted to the Lord was to be used for their support. The firstborn of man and animal was set apart for the priest’s use, and in lieu of receiving the actual offspring a worshiper could keep the offspring for himself for five shekels of silver. This redemption, however, was not possible for clean animals since they were to be offered as sacrifices to the Lord. The blood of firstborn clean animals was to be sprinkled before the altar and its fat burned up, but the meat was allocated to the priests for their support. All these provisions were evidences of God’s blessings to Aaron and his children.
That Aaron specifically pleased the Lord by his actions in 16:47 resulted in these additional regulations that benefited his family. Obedience was rewarded with tangible blessings in Aaron’s life. In fact the Lord established these provisions as an everlasting covenant of salt. Salt often suggested inviolability or permanence, thereby indicating an unbreakable covenant. A covenant of salt can also be taken as an idiomatic expression expressing loyalty or agreement. The notion is that if a person shares "salt" (in a meal) with someone, that one is a recipient of the host’s hospitality, and the guest was to look after his gracious host’s interests (cf. Ezr 4:14).
18:20–24. Instead of receiving a tribal inheritance of land, Aaron (and implicitly the priesthood) was to have the Lord personally as an inheritance, and all the Levites would receive the tithe as their portion. Their income would come from the offerings presented by the other tribes as compensation for fulfilling their duties in the tabernacle. No other Israelite could come near the tent of meeting, under penalty of death, so the Levites would have to represent the nation there as their substitute. The Levites were totally dependent on the offerings from the other tribes since they had no other means of financial support.
18:25–32. Now the Lord addressed Moses instead of Aaron (vv. 1, 8, 20) and instructed him to tell the Levites to present to the Lord their own tithe from the tithe they received from their fellow Israelites. Moses may have been addressed instead of Aaron because he functioned more than just a priest. He also seems to have fulfilled the office of prophet and ruler (functioning as a king, though not anointed as king, cf. Dt 33:5). This tithe came from the proceeds of the grain and wine offerings that were given to them as their portion. They were also to present offerings themselves from what they received as Levites, and it was to be from the best portions given to them. A portion of this offering would go directly to Aaron, and then the rest could be eaten anywhere by any other Levite, since it was part of their overall compensation for serving in the tabernacle. This was the Lord’s means of providing for the Levites. If they did so in proper fashion, they would bear no sin, but if they did profane the sacred gifts, they would die.
8. Waters of Purification (19:1–22)
Since the first generation would die off in the wilderness because of their rebellion and refusal to take the land the Lord had promised them, they would constantly be exposed to dead bodies during the next 38 years. The ritual of the red heifer was another means for removing uncleanness. Uncleanness could be removed in two ways, as spelled out in Leviticus. (1) If one came in contact with a dead animal or the blood of menstruation, the uncleanness could be removed by washing with water and then waiting until evening (Lv 11:27–28, 39–40; 15:25–27). (2) In more complex situations the individual who became unclean would need to wait seven days and then offer animal sacrifices (Lv 15:28–30). Numbers 9:6–8 had addressed those who could not eat the Passover because of contact with a dead body (there was a one-month waiting period until they could enjoy the Passover meal, v. 11). Since there would now be many corpses during their wilderness journey (let alone the expense of offering animal sacrifices because of uncleanness from contact with a dead body), the Lord graciously provided an alternative method. The people could cleanse themselves by means of a water-based mixture made from ashes and other agents. In this way the tabernacle could be kept pure and free from contamination.
19:1–10. The Lord gave Moses and Aaron instruction on how to prepare water to remove impurity (v. 9). A red-skinned female cow was to be brought to Eleazar, and it must not have any defect or blemish. Most translations render this animal as a heifer, but technically a heifer is a female cow before she has had her first calf. Yet the text here stresses only that it be a female cow that had never been yoked. Instead of this animal being sacrificed inside the tent of meeting, it was to be brought outside the camp and slaughtered in the presence of Eleazar. Presumably Eleazar was selected to be sure that the procedure was performed just as the Lord commanded and to protect Aaron’s status as high priest because of the potential for contamination. It was to be a red heifer because the color red symbolizes blood. Eleazar was then to take some of the blood and sprinkle it toward the front of the tabernacle seven times.
Two views are held on the purpose of this sprinkling. One view is that it consecrated the heifer itself as a suitable acceptable sacrifice. Since the blood was consecrated by the act of sprinkling it in the direction of the tabernacle, by extension so was the red heifer itself consecrated as a purification offering. A more likely view is that the blood was sprinkled toward the tabernacle in order to purify the tent and protect it from contamination. The focus in this section of Numbers has been on maintaining a pure tabernacle (Nm 18:1). Since the location of the tabernacle is the direction toward which this blood is sprinkled, that makes this view more likely. The notion of the tabernacle as "sacred space" that must be kept holy is a key theme in Leviticus (cf. Lv 16).
In this procedure the entire heifer was to be burned up, including parts normally left out of the traditional animal sacrifices. Also this was the only sacrifice in which the blood of the animal was to be burned up. While the animal was being reduced to ashes, a priest was to cast cedar wood … hyssop and scarlet material into the fire. These three additional elements were also part of another "outside-the-camp" purification ritual when a leper had been cleansed from his disease (Lv 14). There is clearly a focus on red objects all throughout this ritual. Cedar wood (having a red hue) and scarlet material continue to reinforce the "redness" theme. Scarlet material could be rendered "scarlet worm," referring to an insect used to produce a red dye. Regarding hyssop, some have suggested it is a plant called "marjoram" or a similar type herb, but it is difficult to determine precisely which plant is meant. This plant was used to sprinkle blood (Ex 12:22), so it does have associations with blood. The word translated "hyssop" (Hb. ’zb) is also close in spelling to the word for "cedar" (Hb. ’rz). So it is entirely possible that this plant may have been red in color or at least closely associated with red like the other two objects. The combination all of these elements probably symbolized blood and the cleansing it could provide.
Three men were needed to perform this ritual. Eleazar was needed to supervise, another was needed to burn the animal, and another to collect the ashes. All three were rendered unclean until evening. The one who actually used the ashes at a future time in a ritual was also unclean until evening (v. 21). This procedure was done to produce ashes, which were then gathered and stored outside the camp in a clean place. The ashes were mixed with water to be used as water to remove impurity, that is, to symbolically purify from sin. The purification properties of this red bloodlike solution was reconstituted whenever water was added to these ashes and other agents, thus making a "ready-made" mixture suitable for sprinkling purposes in this purification ritual.
19:11–13. When a person touched a corpse, he was to be sprinkled with the potion on the third and seventh days. As mentioned earlier, this ritual was a gracious response on God’s part. Otherwise the unclean person would have to offer a costly animal sacrifice. Failure to follow these instructions resulted in the person remaining unclean, and then he would have to be cut off from Israel (executed; cf. 15:31). The tabernacle was sacred space because God dwelt there, and it was not to be defiled by anyone unclean.
19:14–22. These verses discuss situations when an individual became unclean because of being around someone who died. Anyone who was in a tent or came into the tent when someone died was to be sprinkled with the water for impurity (vv. 20, 21). Any open vessel that was not securely covered was also considered unclean. The impurity of death could be transferred to inanimate objects, which also had to be purified. Anyone who happened upon a dead body in a field who was killed by a sword or who died of natural causes or who happened to touch a grave or human bone was also rendered unclean for seven days (v. 16).
The procedure for applying the "water to remove impurity" was as follows. First, an individual was to take some of the ashes and mix it together with flowing (fresh) water … in a vessel. Then a clean person was to take hyssop, dip it into the mixture, and sprinkle it on the tent and all that was in it and on all the people who were in the tent around the time of death. This was also to be done for anyone who touched a dead body in the field or a grave or a human bone. This ritual was performed on the third and seventh days, and the one who applied it was to wash himself in water and be unclean until evening. The text stresses again that anyone who did not undergo this ritual would be unclean and would defile the sanctuary of the Lord. This ritual provided a cost-effective, ready-made means to deal with those who had become unclean by contact with a dead body.
9. The Sin of Moses and the Death of Aaron (20:1–29)
A long period of time passed between 19:22 and 20:1. All the previous events took place in the second year after the exodus (Nm 9:1). Now the text states that this account was in the first month. The verse does not state the year, but since Aaron died (Nm 20:28) during this time and a later verse (33:38) specifically states that Aaron died on the first day of the fifth month of the 40th year after coming out of Egypt, it is assumed that Miriam died in the first month of the 40th year after the exodus. The last clearly stated camp movement was in 14:25 when the Israelites set out toward the desert by way of the Red Sea, evidently from Kadesh (13:26). Now 38 years later they returned to Kadesh, the place where they last rebelled. Thirty-eight years passed by in the narrative world of the text with little or no narrative about what transpired. Clearly Moses was focusing on the events of the beginning and ending of the wilderness pattern. The large block of time in the middle, devoid of any information, is a graphic reminder of the consequences of their rebellion.
This passage starts with the death of Miriam and concludes with the death of Aaron and focuses on Moses’ sin of unbelief in the middle. Three main journeys are depicted in the Torah, Red Sea to Sinai (Ex 13:17–19:25, 32), Sinai to Kadesh (Nm 10:11–12:16), and Kadesh to Moab (Nm 20:1–22:1). While there are some key differences among them, these travel narratives also have much in common, including battles against enemies, songs of victory, complaints about God’s provision of food and water, prayers by Moses, and episodes about Miriam.
As Wenham notes, this last cycle (from Kadesh to Moab) inverts the patterns found in the earlier two. Whereas they recount triumphs that turned into tragedy, this tells of tragedy that ended in triumph and a reawakened hope of entry into the promised land (Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1981], 148).
20:1 Miriam died and was buried at Kadesh. Her death is a reminder that all of the old generation would share this same punishment (14:26–30), even though she would live until the last year of the wilderness wanderings period. The same was also true of Aaron and Moses. Miriam was the most significant female of the nation, yet this account gives no detail of the circumstances surrounding her death. Even though the text does not state that Miriam’s death outside the promised land was a result of her rebellion, it may imply it since Aaron also dies in this chapter and his death is attributed to rebellion (20:24, 28).
20:2–13. This section describes yet another complaint by the congregation over a lack of food and water. Miriam has had a close association with water in her past (Ex 2:1–7; 15:20–21). Now, after her death is reported, intriguingly the text mentions there was no water (v. 2). The nation directed their anger against Moses and Aaron once again and wished that they had perished along with their brothers in previous judgments. The brothers they referred to all died rather instantaneous deaths (11:33; 14:29, 36–37; 16:32, 35, 49) early in the wilderness period, but these who complained in 20:2–5 lived for 38 more years, knowing that they would die in this last year of the wilderness wandering. They probably felt they had nothing else to lose since they were going to die anyway, and so they felt emboldened to grumble once again. These complainers were still as stiff-necked as they were previously, and the 38 years of wandering did nothing to correct their bad attitude.
Moses and Aaron responded as they had done previously (14:5, 10; 16:4, 19, 22) by falling on their faces at the doorway of the tent of meeting, waiting for the Lord to respond. Once again the glory of the Lord appeared and spoke to them (v. 6; see also the comments on 1Co 10:1–5). The Lord instructed them to take the rod and to speak to the rock in front of the congregation. Since the rod was retrieved from before the Lord, it most likely refers to Aaron’s rod that budded (17:10) and was placed near the ark as a sign to stop their grumblings. The mere sight of this particular rod should have been enough to stop their complaints and move them to repentance. Moses and Aaron gathered the nation before the rock and instead of speaking to the rock he addressed the assembly as rebels, sternly rebuked the people, and then struck the rock twice with the staff. The Lord graciously supplied water for the nation even though His instructions were not followed. The Lord then addressed Moses and Aaron and punished them ("you" is pl. in v. 12) by not allowing either of them to lead the people into the promised land. It is commonly held that Moses and Aaron were not allowed into the promised land because Moses struck the rock twice (v. 10a) rather than speaking to it, or that he was punished because of his anger of speaking harshly to the people (v. 10b) or that he was attempting to take credit ("shall we bring forth," v. 10c). The stated reason in the text is not due to their disobedience but their lack of faith (because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, v. 12). The form of the verb "believe" here involves acknowledging what someone says as true, but it also has the added meaning of acting in response to what is heard with trust or obedience.
The Lord stressed that their unbelief led to the people’s premature death in the wilderness. Their sin was wholly a lack of faith and trust in the Lord. Certainly Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites disobeyed the Lord, but that was the fruit of their unbelief, not the root cause of their punishment. It was not a failure to keep the law that led to their death in the wilderness. Instead, just as the people had failed to believe God and trust Him in chap. 14, so also Moses and Aaron were lacking in faith (Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 397). The name Meribah ("place of strife") was associated with this incident. Psalm 95:8 later referred to this incident as a reminder not to harden one’s heart. Since they were probably encamped at Kadesh (Nm 20:1, 14), the name Meribah may be more associated with the event and not necessarily the geographical location. In any case the Lord proved Himself holy among them.
20:14–21. Now the nation encountered strife in dealing with the nation Edom. Edom was a distant relative of Israel (through Jacob’s brother Esau, Gn 36:8), and Moses sought to establish an amicable relationship with them so that they might have permission to travel through their land. Moses gave a short account of their history since they went down to Egypt in order to build sympathy for allowing them to pass through. Moses added that as they passed they would stay on the road (the king’s highway), and they would not … drink water from any of their wells. Edom, however, still refused to give Israel passage and even came out against them with a strong show of force. (For the area of the King’s Highway, see map "The Israelites’ Wilderness Wanderings" with comments on Nm 14:20–38.)
Perhaps Edom’s hostile response was an attempt to exact revenge for the earlier conflict between Esau and Jacob (Gn 27–28). Just as Israel experienced strife from a foreign nation (Amalekites; 14:42–45) in a failed attempt to get to the promised land quickly after their major episode of unbelief (Nm 14), so now Moses’ unbelief (20:9–12) led to strife with another foreign nation (Edom; 20:14–21) and a short-circuited effort to reach the promised land via the most direct route. Edom and Israel continued to experience strife throughout their history (Ob 10–14). Instead of taking a more direct route, the whole congregation was rerouted to Mount Hor (location not clearly known). The Israelites were forced to take a detour around Edom.
20:23–29. After they arrived at Mount Hor the Lord addressed Moses and Aaron and informed them that Aaron was about to die for his participation in the unbelief at Meribah. Moses was to escort Aaron and Eleazar up Mount Hor, where he took the clothes (high priestly garments) off of Aaron and put them on Eleazar. Moses did as he was instructed, and Aaron died … on the mountain top after his clothes were removed and placed on his son Eleazar. Moses and Eleazar came down, and the Israelites mourned for Aaron thirty days. Aaron died in the 40th year after the exodus at the age of 123 (33:38–39). Aaron’s death was another reminder that all of the older generation would die before they reached the promised land. There was a glimmer of hope in that the new generation represented by Eleazar was beginning to assume leadership.
10. The Bronze Serpent (21:1–35)
21:1–3. This next brief account describes the new generation’s first victory and sets a tone of hope for the nation’s future. While in the region of Mount Hor, a Canaanite … king from Arad, who lived in the southern Negev, came and attacked the Israelites because he heard that Israel was planning to travel by the way of Atharim (location unknown). Arad is about 20 miles south of Hebron. Since some of their population was taken captive by this king, the Israelites vowed that if the Lord delivered them then the Canaanite cities involved would be utterly destroyed. The Lord granted that request, and the Canaanites were defeated and destroyed. They named the place Hormah. Earlier they experienced defeat in this region (14:45), but now it was associated with victory.
21:4–9. Though Israel had just experienced a taste of victory, the people resorted to complaining when they set out … to go around the land of Edom. They expressed their impatience once again about the lack of food and water, and this time they complained about the quality of food (miserable) they received from the Lord’s gracious hand. In response to their rebellion the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and many people … died after being bitten. Instead of being emboldened, the people repented of their rebellion and asked Moses to intercede to ask the Lord to remove the serpents. Moses began to pray, and the Lord heard that prayer and instructed Moses to make an image of a fiery serpent and place it on a standard, so that those who were bitten simply needed to look at the image to be healed and live. Jesus referred to this account to describe the manner of His execution (see the comments on Jn 3:13–14). By focusing their gaze upon Jesus on the cross, lifted up and dying for sin, believers are able to contemplate the depths of their sin and the greatness of His mercy. This bronze serpent later became a stumbling block in Hezekiah’s day because it had become an object of worship and had to be destroyed (see the comments on 2Kg 18:1–6).
21:10–20. The text resumes a travel itinerary that began at Oboth (location unknown) and proceeded to Moab. The nation traveled on the east side of Edom and avoided the King’s Highway since Edom refused them passage (20:21). They proceeded on the east side of Moab until they reached the other side of the Arnon, a river that separated Moab from the Amorites (it flows from east to west into the central shore of the east side of the Dead Sea). It served as a natural border because of its steep slopes. The rugged and steep terrain is poetically remembered and recorded in a book entitled the Book of the Wars of the Lord. This book is similar to the "Book of Jashar" (Jos 10:13; 2Sm 1:18) but is not extant. These extrabiblical sources are not inspired but contain information that biblical writers used when composing their inspired texts, similar to what Luke did when he consulted material in the crafting of his gospel (Lk 1:1–4).
After they crossed the Arnon, they continued north to Beer where the Lord miraculously provided a well to give the people water (21:16). A song was crafted honoring this incident, lyrically telling the tale of how nobles (and not skilled well-diggers) seemingly scratched the surface with their staffs to provide abundant water. These musical interludes at the end of their wilderness journey seem to form a bracket with the song sung in 10:35–36, at the beginning of their march toward the promised land. The nation then proceeded through several stops until they reached Pisgah.
21:21–35. The defeat of Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan are another foretaste of victory for the Israelites as they looked forward to conquering the land of Canaan. These victories were recalled later as examples of the Lord’s ability to come to the aid of His people (Dt 2:24; 3:7; Pss 135:10–12; 136:17–21). The exact movements of the people are not clear. Possibly what transpired here is a flashback to their movement just before they arrived at Pisgah (Nm 21:20), as the Amorites and the region of Bashan were to the north of Moab. In other words they may have proceeded north to defeat Sihon and Og after crossing the Arnon River, and then looped back to the plains of Moab. What is not stated is why they traveled north in the Transjordan before crossing over into the promised land. Perhaps the Lord wanted the nation to taste victory before they crossed into Canaan.
Just as they had done with Edom (20:14–18), they requested permission from the Amorites to pass through their land, and once again they were denied passage. Sihon gathered … his people to prevent them access and fought against Israel (v. 23). Israel defeated the Amorites and took possession of their land. An Amorite proverb written in honor of King Sihon to scorn Moab was then recited as a taunt by the Israelites against the Amorites themselves (vv. 27–30). Since Sihon had boasted about his victory over Moab, Israel must be the greater victor since they defeated Sihon and the Amorites.
After the defeat they occupied the Amorite territory and even sent out spies and captured Jazer, about 20 miles northeast of the Dead Sea, another Amorite city. Then they proceeded northward and battled against Og the king of Bashan … at Edrei (about 15 miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee) and defeated him and his people. The Lord encouraged the Israelites that just as Sihon was defeated so would Og be conquered. After their victory at Edrei the Israelites also occupied the land of Bashan, the region to the east of the Sea of Galilee. A fuller account of this victory is given by Moses in Dt 3:1–11.
11. The Prophet Balaam (22:1–25:18)
This new section details the interaction of Balaam and Balak with the nation of Israel. These chapters seem to be an independent unit. Still they are related to the wilderness travel itinerary in that Moab is another one of the nations located in the Transjordan that Israel had to confront en route to the promised land. While it has comical elements, a serious message is communicated here in relation to the Abrahamic covenant (Gn 12:2–3). God’s promises to Israel are still intact, despite major rebellion on their part.
a. Balaam’s Meeting with Balak (22:1–41)
22:1. The Israelites returned south to the plains of Moab, which became their staging area in the beginning of their conquest of Canaan. The mention of the camp being beyond the Jordan opposite Jericho (v. 1) noted their location, but it also foreshadowed the challenges that lay ahead, that of crossing the Jordan and conquering Jericho. The Israelites would be in this location until Jos 3:1. It is specifically called Shittim in Nm 25:1.
22:2–6. The nation of Moab was fearful of having such a large Israelite presence in their midst, especially after the Israelites defeated the Amorites. Balak, the king of Moab, is mentioned several times in the Scriptures (Jos 24:9; Jdg 11:25; Mc 6:5; Rv 2:14). The Moabites had just recently been under the control of King Sihon of the Amorites (Nm 21:26), and after Sihon had been defeated by the Israelites (21:23–26) Moab was able to regain their independence. Balak of course would have wanted Moab to retain that status, and hence there is clear motivation for his subsequent actions.
This concern about the Israelite presence was also of great concern to the Midianites, who were contacted by the Moabites. The Midianites were descendants of Abraham through Keturah (Gn 25:1–2), and Moses was married to a Midianite woman (Ex 2:16, 21). Whereas Moses had previously experienced good relations with the Midianites (Nm 10:29), this incident was the beginning of conflict between Israel and the Midianites (25:6, 14–18; 31:2–10; Jdg 6:1–8:28).
The Moabites had nothing to fear, because God never intended for the Israelites to possess the land of Moab (Dt 2:9). The Moabites compared Israel to an ox, an image that was later attributed to God in Nm 24:8. Israel’s larger numbers and recent victories in the area caused Balak to hire Balaam to curse Israel as an alternative warfare strategy.
Where Balaam was from is uncertain. There are several geographical and ethnic designations associated with Balaam: Pethor … near the River (v. 5, often taken to mean the Euphrates), land of the sons of his people (22:5, or "land of the sons of Amaw," some versions read "Ammon"), Aram (23:7), "mountains of the East" (23:7) and Mesopotamia (Dt 23:4, lit., "Aram Naharaim"). Most scholars claim he was from Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), although it is challenging to assume that several 400-mile one-way trips were undertaken to secure Balaam’s services in this account’s time frame. Alternatively, he may have been from the Transjordan area (Syria), placing him much closer to Moab. At Deir Alla, in modern-day Jordan, an inscription (from around 850 BC) was found in 1967 that specifically mentioned a "Balaam, son of Beor," so there is a strong association with Balaam in the Transjordan region.
22:7–14. Balak sent messengers and elders from both Moab and Midian to bring Balaam to hire him to curse Israel. Balak sought to secure him because he believed that those whom he blessed were blessed and those he cursed were cursed (22:6), ascribing to Balaam what had been divinely promised to Abraham in Gn 12:3. When the messengers relayed what Balak had requested, Balaam asked them to spend the night there so he could consult the Lord. In each of the scenes the Balaam narrative mentions divine instructions to Balaam about what he should say and references to divine encounters between Balaam and the Lord. These repetitions serve to unify the entire section of Nm 22–24.
Confusion exists regarding Balaam’s spiritual status. Some assume he was a true believer since he used the personal name for the God of Israel ("Yahweh," 22:8), and he sought to carry out what the Lord told him to do. On the other hand he was a diviner (Jos 13:22), an office expressly forbidden in the law (Dt 18:10), and he is negatively portrayed in the NT (2Pt 2:15; Jd 11; Rv 2:14). While Balaam’s character is not explicitly commented on in Nm 22–24, he is later shown to be a completely negative character, causing Israel "to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab" (Nm 25:1–9; 31:16). He even died as a result of his wickedness (31:8). His negative character was not noted in Nm 22–24 because he had an important role in blessing the Israelites. The literary or thematic purposes of this section would not have been served if his negative traits were highlighted before the Lord used him as an agent of blessing.
During the night God came to Balaam and asked him a rhetorical question about who sent the men to hire him. Several threefold repetitions in the Balaam account seem to be a clear literary device to heighten the absurdity of Balaam’s overall behavior: Balaam had three divine encounters (22:10, 20, 22–35); a donkey avoided an angel three times (22:23, 25, 27); and Balaam participated in three sets of sacrifices (23:1, 14, 29).
There is a shift in the use of the names for God in this section of Numbers. Balaam stated that he needed to have contact with the Lord (22:8), and yet the text states that God met him. This may provide a clue as to how Moses portrayed Balaam. Balaam claimed to have direct contact with the Lord of Israel, but in reality this pagan diviner was far from having a personal relationship with the Lord. The words of Balak from vv. 5–6 are summarized, but there are a few differences (primarily the Hb. words for curse are different). Either the messengers changed the words slightly or Balaam did in reciting the instructions back to God. God graciously communicated with Balaam (as He did with other pagan authorities; Gn 20:6–7), and warned him not to go with them or to curse Israel. In the morning Balaam’s refusal to go back with the messengers was conveyed to Balak.
22:15–21. Balak sent a larger retinue with more prestigious members and the promise of great reward to entice Balaam to agree to curse Israel. At first Balaam stated that financial incentives alone could not get him to go against the Lord’s command. Still, he asked them to stay the night while he enquired once again of the Lord, likely desiring to hear that God changed His mind. After Balaam consulted with the Lord he was permitted to go with them so long as he communicated only what God told him to speak. So in the morning Balaam left on his donkey … with the leaders of Moab. Suspense grows in the account, as the first prohibition stated earlier to Balaam in v. 12 ("Do not go") has been rescinded. Now what about the second prohibition (Do "not curse," v. 12)? Could that possibly be reversed as well? Since the Lord had not been pleased with the Israelites’ behavior and attitude throughout most of the wilderness-wandering period, Moses was certainly raising the tension of the story by allowing the reader to think that God could possibly allow Balaam to curse Israel.
22:22–30. God was angry with Balaam for going, so He sent the angel of the Lord to impede Balaam’s progress. Sometimes the angel of the Lord is a Christophany (a preincarnate appearance of the second member of the Trinity i.e., Ex 3:2–5). It is not clear whether or not this is the case here because in v. 31 the Lord and the angel appear to be two separate entities, not the same person.
A tension exists here in that God had given him permission to go with the leaders of Moab (v. 20), and now He was angry with him for doing what He gave him permission to do. Some believe that God’s anger was directed not at Balaam’s actions but at his unvoiced intention, since he obviously loved the "wages of unrighteousness" (2Pt 2:15). Yet the text clearly states that God was angry because he was going (v. 22, although it is possible to translate the phrase temporally "while he was going"). Jewish tradition believes that Balaam’s quick acquiescence here indicates his eagerness to curse Israel, and therefore he incurred God’s wrath. The text clearly portrays Balaam in a comical way. For instance it is ironic that this "diviner" cannot "divine" a supernatural angel in his path, and this "seer" could not "see" this adversary in the way. Balaam wrongly assumed that God would yet allow him to curse Israel so he could reap a financial reward. Hence the Lord was angry.
This is another instance of God meeting (even sometimes in anger) with someone on a journey (see accompanying chart). These accounts all serve as a reminder that God is still in control of human movement and that individuals need to be careful to do the Lord’s bidding.
While Balaam was on the way, the donkey saw the angel of the Lord and went off the path into a field. Balaam struck the donkey to get back on the road. Further on down the way in a vineyard the donkey leaned into one of the walls that lined each side of the path crushing Balaam’s foot. Again Balaam struck the donkey. When they started moving again, the angel of the Lord stood in a place where the donkey could not maneuver, so the donkey lay down right on the path. In anger Balaam struck the donkey with his stick. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey and she asked Balaam why he had struck her three times. Balaam did not seem fazed by what had just transpired. He continued on with the conversation as if this was a normal everyday occurrence. In his anger the diviner stated that because he was humiliated he wished that he had a sword to kill the beast. The donkey politely responded that she was not in the habit of such behavior and that there must be some other explanation for her actions.
That a donkey could speak plays an important narrative preparation for Balaam’s oracles (Nm 23–24). Israel might wonder how they could accept the words of this false seer who would later be responsible for leading Israel astray. Therefore this narrative is included to show that just as God could open the mouth of a donkey, so God could speak truth through Balaam.
22:31–35. The Lord opened the eyes of the "seer" Balaam so that he could see the angel of the Lord standing there with a drawn sword. Balaam bowed … reverently to the ground. Acting like a donkey, Balaam assumed the same prostrate position his beast of burden assumed earlier. This time the angel of the Lord spoke and asked Balaam why he had struck the donkey … three times. All the donkey was doing was trying to protect him from being killed. Balaam confessed his sin and volunteered to turn back.
The angel of the Lord responded that Balaam could go with the men from Moab, but he was to speak only what the Lord revealed to him. This was to make him clearly understand that without the Lord’s revelation he, a seer, could not begin to "see" anything. Even a stubborn donkey was able to see what the supposedly skilled seer could not perceive. The account of Balaam and his donkey foreshadows how Balak will treat Balaam. What happened here will be reenacted in Nm 23–24. Just as the donkey was caught between a rock and a hard place three times—between a sword-wielding angel and a stick-wielding blind seer—so Balaam, who now sees that the Lord’s will for him is to bless Israel, will soon be trapped in three ever-tighter situations. Balaam will soon switch roles with the donkey. He will see divine displeasure and have his mouth opened by the Lord in spite of Balak’s enticements.
22:36–41. Balak went out of his way to greet Balaam at the Moabite border and reprimanded him for not coming sooner. He perceived that maybe Balaam thought that he did not have the means to properly compensate the diviner for his services. Balaam sarcastically replied that he was there now and that he was able to speak the word that God placed in his mouth. The two then proceeded to Kiriath-huzoth (unknown location), where ritual preparations were made. Balak was king, but he also was directly involved in sacrificing oxen and sheep. The animals were slain as a combination of sacrifice and communal meal, and it is likely that other rituals such as extispicy (reading the lobes of the liver or other organs for omens) were also performed. After these preparation rituals, the next morning … Balak took Balaam … to the high places of Baal, from where they could see a portion of the Israelite camp. The notion of seeing only a small part of the Israelite population assumed that the object of the curse must be within visual range for it to be effective. Balak may have been afraid of showing Balaam the entire panorama of the Israelite camp because the massive numbers may have frightened Balaam.
b. Balaam’s Oracles (23:1–24:25)
23:1–6. Balaam asked Balak to build seven altars and to prepare a bull and ram offering for each altar. Throughout the ancient Near East "seven" was a sacred number, so it is not uncommon for that number to be associated with pagan rituals as here. Each sacrifice was a burnt offering (v. 6). While there was a Levitical sacrifice (Lv 1) by that name, that does not mean that Balaam and Balak were worshiping the God of Israel, since whole animal offerings were offered up by other nations. After the offerings were sacrificed, Balaam went to a bare hill, presumably to be by himself to hear a response from God. God met with Balaam and gave him a message to tell Balak and all the leaders of Moab.
23:7–12. What follows is the first of four oracles Balaam relayed to the Moabites. Balaam began by stating the place from where he came and the reason he was brought here. His words were cast in heightened speech that rises to the level of poetry. The first line exhibits synonymous parallelism, as do many of the lines in this oracle (Aram refers to the mountains of the East, and Balak was Moab’s king). Balaam came from a region normally understood to be northern Mesopotamia, but it could also refer to an area closer in Syria (see discussion on 22:2). He was summoned by Balak to curse Israel, and Balaam pondered how he could perform such a task when God Himself would not curse that nation. As the seer gazed at a distance on God’s people, he stated that Israel was not … reckoned among the nations (v. 9). This refers to her divinely conferred status as being set apart from all other peoples. The Israelites were as plentiful as dust particles (v. 10) and even the fourth part (probably the quarter of the camp closest to him) could not be numbered. Balak was angry at Balaam’s response because he had assumed that Balaam could manipulate the gods to his intended outcome. The diviner responded that he could recite only what the Lord put in his mouth. This first oracle reveals that the Lord would not go back on His covenant faithfulness to the nation of Israel.
23:13–26. Balak hoped that by changing the vantage point he could change the result. Balak was being just as stubborn and persistent as Balaam was with the donkey (Nm 22). The exact location (the field of Zophim) is not clear, but Pisgah (v. 14) is part of a range that overlooks the plains of Moab. Another seven altars were built, and more bulls and rams were sacrificed on each one. Balaam once again separated from Balak so he could convene with the Lord, and once again the Lord revealed to Balaam what he was to say to Balak. After he received the oracle, Balaam returned to Balak, who then inquired about what the Lord revealed.
The second poetic oracle begins with a clear theological statement about God’s immutability (v. 19) and that He had already given a clear, irrevocable command to bless Israel. The exodus is recalled with the words God brings them out of Egypt, demonstrating God’s commitment to His people (v. 22). They had also experienced great fortune and the Lord’s personal presence. The phrase the shout of a king is among them (v. 21) demonstrates the "Divine Warrior" motif, an image of God’s military power spoken on behalf of Israel (Ps 47:5). A God with such might, who will protect Israel as with the horns of a wild ox, is able to thwart any omen or divination placed on Israel. God’s people will be like a lion, devouring any who would seek to threaten her.
This time Balak entreated Balaam not to curse Israel nor bless Israel because he was not getting the results for which he intended to pay handsomely. Balaam simply reminded Balak what he had stated previously, that he was powerless to speak anything but what the Lord directed.
23:27–30. Balak sought for the third time to set up a location whereby he could launch a curse on Israel. Balak naively thought that another change of venue would get him the result he desired, so he took Balaam to the top of Peor and once again built seven altars and sacrificed a bull and a ram on each one.
24:1–2. Previously Balaam had consulted with the Lord (23:3, 15), but this time he did not practice divination. Instead he received revelation directly from the Spirit of God when he looked out on the entire camp of Israel. That the Spirit of God came upon him does not necessarily indicate that he put his faith in the God of Israel. It simply means he was especially endued to deliver this specific message. The phrase "falling down" (vv. 4, 16) may refer to a prophetic trance he was experiencing at the time of delivering this message.
24:3–9. Balaam’s third poetic oracle begins with awareness that his eyes have been opened to the vision of the Almighty and he has now clearly heard the words of God concerning Israel. The introduction to this oracle clearly communicated to Balak that God had inspired him to say these words. As Balaam surveyed the Israelite camp, he used descriptive language from the geographical domain (valleys and gardens) and the botanical domain (aloes and cedars) to vividly portray Israel’s fruitfulness. The reference to water flowing from his buckets pictures a man carrying two containers, and as he is walking the water is recklessly sloshing out. This is another graphic illustration of God’s abundant blessings, especially in this arid region. The mention of seed also connects this oracle to God’s promise in the Abrahamic blessing, stating He would greatly multiply his seed (Gn 22:17).
Agag (v. 7) is not the individual in Saul’s day (1Sm 15:32–33). Agag may have been a dynastic royal name (as Pharaoh was for Egypt) among the Amalekites, an early enemy of Israel (Ex 17:8–13) whose defeat is predicted in Nm 24:20. In the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch, the text is emended to read instead of higher than Agag to "greater than Gog" (cf. Ezk 38–39), the end-time enemy of Israel. If the emended reading is followed it strengthens the messianic message of the third oracle since it would highlight that this Messiah will have an exalted kingdom superior to Gog (Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? [Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2012], 102). The emphasis is Israel’s king and kingdom being a force to be reckoned with (Gn 17:16).
Numbers 24:7–9 repeats much of what was already communicated in the second oracle (23:21–24) but with a subtle difference. There is a shift in pronouns from third-person plural to third-person singular ("God brings them out of Egypt," 23:22 versus God brings him out of Egypt, 24:8). The shift is from talking about Israel’s past history to talking about Israel’s future king. The messianic implications of these oracles are evident. Moses viewed "the reign of the future king in terms taken from God’s great acts of salvation in the past.… What God did for Israel in the past is seen as a type of what he will do for them in the future when he sends his promised king" (Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 408). This prophecy about a future king was also foretold in previous passages in the Pentateuch (Gn 17:6; 35:11; 49:10; see the comments there). This future king, Balaam continued, will be like a lion which one dare not arouse (cf. Gn 49:9). He then concluded this third oracle by repeating a key statement from the Abrahamic covenant: Blessed is everyone who blesses you, And cursed is everyone who curses you (Nm 24:9; cf. Gn 12:3). Even though Balaam was a pagan diviner, his oracles made full use of concepts found in the OT (e.g., Gn 12:3; 49:8–10). He may have known these Scriptures ahead of time, or the Spirit of God may have used him to refer to these verses unknowingly through these oracles.
24:10–14. Balak finally realized his futility in trying to hire Balaam to curse Israel, so he sent him away without remuneration for his services. Balaam reminded Balak that he had told him earlier that he could not speak anything contrary to the command of the Lord (22:18). Balak could not pay Balaam any amount of money to get him to undo what the Lord declared. Balaam wanted to return home, but before he did he had one more unsolicited oracle from God to deliver to Balak, the Moabites, and other neighboring nations. The form he used (v. 14) is one used elsewhere in the Pentateuch whenever a key messianic prophecy is given of the future. In each passage the central character (Jacob, Balaam, Moses) called together (with an imperative form) an audience and proclaimed what would happen in the days to come (Gn 49:1; Nm 24:14; Dt 31:29). In each instance a long narrative account is followed by a poetic lyrical interlude that introduces a key messianic concept (Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 36). The accompanying chart gives an overview of these messianic prophecies.
24:15–19. Balaam’s fourth poetic oracle opens as the third one did—with an acknowledgment that this message came from one whose eyes were opened by the Almighty God. It foretold defeat for many of Israel’s enemies and predicted a royal figure who would become a major factor in vanquishing Israel’s foes. What Balaam declared is one of the clearest messianic statements in all the Pentateuch.
Balaam the seer began to describe an individual whom he saw (I see him, v. 17), yet there would be both chronological (not now) and spatial (not near) distance until this individual’s arrival. Balaam envisioned this individual as a star and a scepter. A star was often mentioned in conjunction with royal figures (Is 14:12; Mt 2:2), and the scepter designated power and authority (Gn 49:10; Ps 45:6). While King David foreshadowed many of the predictions here, these images were clearly fulfilled in Christ (Mt 2:2; Heb 1:8; 2Pt 1:19; Rv 22:16). That this ruler would crush … the forehead of Moab foreshadowed David’s future victories over the Moabites (2Sm 8:2), but it also alluded to the messianic overtone of Gn 3:15.
The sons of Sheth (v. 17) are variously identified as ancient Sutu or a reference to Seir (Edomites). Yet since this is cast in synonymous parallelism, it may simply refer to a Moabite royal line heretofore unknown or to a general term used for the Moabites as a whole. Edom (v. 18) is also prophesied as suffering defeat and subjugation at the hands of this messianic royal figure. The city (v. 19) is most likely Sela (later known as Petra).
24:20–25. Amalek is also addressed in this final oracle. The Amalekites had attacked Israel right after the exodus (Ex 17:8–16). Even though they were one of the first nations (they are traced back to Esau in Gn 35:16), they would experience destruction in the end.
Balaam, moving his gaze toward the Kenite people (Nm 24:21), predicted that, even though they had seemingly impregnable homes in the cliffs, they would be taken captive by Asshur (Assyria). Assyria was developing as a nation at that time and later rose to prominence in the ninth to sixth centuries BC. The Kenites and the Midianites are related, and perhaps are the same (10:29; cf. Jdg 1:16).
Balaam again saw far into the future and spoke of ships (v. 24) that would come from the coast of Kittim that would destroy Asshur and Eber. It is likely that Kittim refers not to Cyprus but to the extended Mediterranean region that includes Greece and Rome (Jr 2:10; Ezk 27:6; Dn 11:30). This is a powerful example of predictive prophecy in that Asshur lies in the area of Mesopotamia (Assyria and Babylon) and Persia, and in that Eber is a name closely associated with the Hebrews (Gn 11:14–17). Greece and Rome did conquer and control both of these areas while building their empires. Once Balaam completed this oracle he arose and returned to his place. The place is not clearly identified. Many assume it to be Pethor (Nm 22:5), yet later in the book (31:8), he was living among the Midianites. This is perhaps another indication that Balaam’s home was closer to Syria than in distant Mesopotamia.
What is the overall point of the Balaam narratives? At a key transitional time in Israel’s history, with Aaron the high priest dead (20:28) and Moses the prophet basically sidelined because of his lack of faith at Meribah (20:9–12), God raised up a pagan seer by the name of Balaam to serve as a pseudo-surrogate, prophet-priest figure for Israel. God was keeping His covenant with Israel even when their leaders failed them. The Abrahamic covenant (Gn 12:3) was still intact because God blessed Israel from an unlikely source, and curses fell on those who were cursing this nation.
c. Balaam’s Perversion of Israel (25:1–18)
25:1–5. Although Balaam’s attempts to curse Israel did not work, he did have an influential role in seducing Israel to worship false gods and commit immorality. During Israel’s stay at Shittim (about eight miles northeast of the Dead Sea), the men began to engage in fornication with Moabite women, who in turn induced them to sacrifice and bow down to Baal of Peor. Baal of Peor was one of the main gods of the Moabites, Midianites, and Ammonites, similar to the Canaanite Baal and Moloch, who were often associated with sexual fertility rites. There is an additional association with eating sacrifices of the dead (Ps 106:28) with this god. Baal-peor is also spoken of as a place where Israel worshiped false gods (Hs 9:10). The Lord responded in anger and instructed Moses to execute (v. 4) the perpetrators in a public forum, to reverse His anger. Moses ordered the judges of Israel to kill any of the men under their jurisdiction who participated in worshiping Baal. A number of parallels exist (see accompanying chart) between what happened at Mount Sinai and what happened here on the plains of Moab.
These similarities demonstrate that the second generation needed to remember the negative lessons from the first generation before they began their conquest of the promised land and to remember that the Lord responded the same way in each account.
25:6–9. At the time Moses was giving the order to execute the violators, an individual (Zimri, v. 14) dared to bring a Midianite (who was aligned with the Moabites) woman (Cozbi, v. 15) in plain view of the entire camp into his tent for sexual relations. Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, instantly took a spear, went into the tent, and thrust it through both of their bodies. This quick response suspended the plague, but not before 24,000 people died (Paul mentioned that in one day 23,000 died in 1Co 10:8. The simplest reason for the alleged discrepancy may be that Paul was highlighting that 23,000 died in one day, and this passage includes a count of 1,000 more who died in the days following; see additional discussion there). It is possible that this plague primarily, and the deaths caused by Korah’s rebellion earlier, drastically affected the tribes on the south side of the tent of meeting (Reuben, Simeon, and Gad) since the population of the three tribes camped was reduced by 45,020 (about 30 percent) between the two censuses.
25:10–13. The Lord told Moses that because of Phinehas’s zealous bold action He did not totally destroy the nation. That quick response caused Phinehas to receive a covenant of peace, that is, a perpetual priesthood. Aaron’s sons were earlier said to be a "perpetual priesthood" (Ex 29:9), but now the priesthood was narrowed down specifically to Aaron’s grandson Phinehas. His actions here modeled God’s just and holy character.
25:14–18. While the names of the individuals who started the outbreak of the plague were not named earlier, they were now identified as Zimri (a Simeonite) and Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite official. Even though this event took place on Moabite soil, the Lord instructed Moses to be antagonistic against the Midianites, who were allied with the Moabites.
II. Hope for the Second Generation as They Enter the Promised Land (26:1–36:13)
A. Preparations of the Second Generation for Entering the Promised Land (26:1–32:42)
1. The Second Census (26:1–65)
26:1–51. The rest of the first generation apparently died in the plague of chap. 25 (14:29; 26:65), and now the Lord instructed Moses and Eleazar (since Aaron had died) to conduct another census. The purpose of this census had military overtones (v. 2) since hostilities against the Midianites were just announced (25:17) and the nation needed to make logistical preparations as well for the conquest. This census would also aid in deciding how much land allotment (26:53) each tribe would need after possessing the promised land.
The totals for this census provide a basis for comparison with the earlier one from Nm 1.
With the numbers given in this chapter, it is possible to calculate approximately on average how many of the first generation died per day during the wilderness-wandering period. Massive deaths occurred at the Korah rebellion and the plague of Baal-peor, but an average of 90 funerals a day would have had to be conducted during this period.
Just as the Levites were not numbered in the census, they may have been exempt from this judgment. Eleazar … son of Aaron was most likely older than 30 (4:47) when he began to serve in the tent of meeting (4:16). Since he was older than 30 before the spies were sent (Nm 13–14) and since he served as a priest succeeding his father Aaron and was alive during the conquest (Jos 14:1), he was probably alive at the time of the first census, just as were Joshua and Caleb. Perhaps some women may also have been excluded from this judgment, since the focus seems to be on males over age 20 who were able to go to war.
This census mirrors the one in Nm 1 except that the order of Manasseh and Ephraim is reversed. This may be because of Ephraim’s more serious decline in population and the desire to place Manasseh in the coveted seventh position in the list, focusing on the daughters of Zelophehad, who played an important role in Nm (see the comments on chaps. 27; 36).
The other major difference between the two censuses is that this second one not only states the totals of each tribe but also lists the families or clans that comprise each tribe. The mention of these additional tribal family names highlights the Abrahamic covenant, promising that Abraham’s descendants would become a mighty nation (Gn 12:2; 26:24; 46:3). These family names can be traced back to Gn 46:8–27. There are a few omissions of names from Gn 46, but that probably means that some grandsons of Jacob’s line died off (e.g., Ohad of Simeon, Becher and Ard of Benjamin, Ishvah of Asher) either in Egypt or in one of the plagues. Note the several variations in the spellings of names (e.g., Jemuel to Nemeul of Simeon). Over the course of some 400 years, spelling variations of family clans were bound to have happened.
Scattered throughout the census are mentions of those whom the Lord judged: Dathan and Abriam (v. 9), and Er and Onan (v. 19). These references are to specifically remind the Israelites of their propensity to sin. Interesting are the expansive discussion of the Manasseh clans, compared with discussion of only one clan for the populous tribe of Dan (Shuham, v. 42), and the citation of Serah, (v. 46), the only granddaughter of Jacob specifically named in the census ("Jochebed," another granddaughter, is mentioned in v. 59).
This census, minus the tribe of Levi, totaled 601,730. During the wilderness-wandering period the Lord had prospered the second generation so that in essence its military force was about the same size as it was at the time of the exodus.
26:52–56. Now that the census was complete the Lord instructed Moses to give the larger tribes a larger inheritance and to determine their allotments by lot. The larger tribes should receive certain territories, and yet the territories themselves were assigned by lot. How, at the same time, could it be determined that a larger tribe should have a larger territory and have that allotment of territory be determined by casting lots? The easiest solution is probably to envision that the general territory allotments were determined by lot, and then based on the tribe’s size the actual boundaries would be expanded for the larger tribes and lessened for the smaller tribes.
26:57–65. The tribe of Levi is also numbered by their family clan and with an emphasis on Amram, a Kohathite. Amram married Jochebed (Levi’s granddaughter and his father’s sister; Ex 6:20), the mother of Aaron, Moses, and Miriam. This makes Moses the great-grandson of Levi, a possibility that is difficult to reconcile with the 430 years that Israel was to sojourn in Egypt (Ex 12:40–41). There are only four generations identified between Levi and Moses (in another family tree there are only six generations given between Joseph and Zelophehad). Possible explanations include (1) that there are two Amrams in Levi’s lineage spaced several hundred years apart, (2) that there are gaps in the genealogy not listed, or (3) that the 400-year sojourn is an idealized number to denote several generations.
The view that there are gaps in the genealogy is probably the best solution. In 1Ch 7:20–29 up to ten generations are listed between Ephraim and Joshua, so there could be gaps in the Levitical line, which has only four generations between Levi and Moses. In any case, the point here is that the tribe of Levi increased in size by 1,000 during the wilderness wandering, even though they were not counted in the military census of the other tribes. Furthermore they were not included because they were to receive no land inheritance in the promised land.
The census is summarized as being accomplished by Moses and Eleazar, and it highlights that not one of those counted in the earlier census remained alive except Caleb … and Joshua. This stresses the faithfulness of God to keep His promises to those loyal to Him and to punish those who are unfaithful to His covenant. This new census also foreshadows a spirit of hope for the new generation as they look forward to inheriting the land God promised them.
2. Instructions for the Second Generation (27:1–30:16)
27:1–11. The narrative concerning the daughters of Zelophehad is central to the structure of book of Numbers, as it frames the account of the new generation (chaps. 27 and 36). Zelophehad’s lack of any male offspring became the basis of a case law that was created after Sinai. These five daughters were from the tribe of Manasseh and were concerned enough about their future inheritance that they approached the tent of meeting and presented their case before Moses and Eleazar.
Their father had died, but not because he had sided with Korah in his rebellion. He died like all of the first generation for his unbelief after the spies’ report. These women were asking for an exception to the patrilineal transfer of land in the situation where a father had daughters and no sons. They were making an appeal for property rights equal to that of male sons. Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord ruled in favor of Zelophehad’s daughters and granted them full property rights in their father’s inheritance. Precedent was then set for the rest of the nation. When a man died without a son, the inheritance was to be transferred to his daughter(s). If there were no daughters, then it would pass to the man’s brothers, and if no brothers were living then the inheritance was to be transferred to his uncles, and if no uncles were alive then the inheritance was to be passed to the nearest relative in the family.
This account is important in Numbers for two reasons. First is its placement both here and at the very end of the book (Nm 36). As mentioned earlier, it bookends the account of the second generation, so it helps identify a break in the structure of the content. Second is the timing of this request. Even before they had entered the land these daughters presented their request. So before any of the land was conquered, they expressed concern about inheritance rights. This request by the daughters models what the author of Numbers wanted to highlight, namely, great faith. These daughters so trusted the Lord that they were confident of receiving an inheritance of their father’s estate. They took the effort to deal with the issue of property rights before any property in the promised land was actually parceled out. Earlier they expressed concern that they did not want their father’s name to be withdrawn from among his family (v. 4) so they seem to have believed in the Lord who established the Abrahamic covenantal blessing, and they did not want their father’s household to miss out on the legacy that covenant provided. In spite of the murmuring and rebellion of the nation in the wilderness, these daughters exemplified great faith in God’s promises to Israel, and they wanted to lay hold of them. They provide a role model as to how this new generation should respond to God’s promises.
27:12–23. Besides inheritance rights, another pressing issue faced the nation. Who would succeed Moses as the leader to bring the Israelites into the promised land? This section confirms that Joshua would be chosen as Moses’ successor. Miriam had died (20:1) and so had Aaron (20:28); now it was time for Moses to prepare for his death.
Because of his rebellion at Meribah … in the wilderness of Zin, Moses was prevented from entering the promised land. But God allowed Moses an opportunity to see the land from a distance on top of one of the mountains of the Abarim range (later described as Nebo; Dt 32:49, the traditional site being about seven miles east of the north end of the Dead Sea). Moses, displaying great leadership, expressed concern to the Lord and entreated Him to appoint a leader who would shepherd the people in his absence. Moses called the Lord the God of the spirits of all flesh (also used in 16:22), highlighting God’s ability to ascertain man’s motives. The Lord instructed Moses to lay his hand on Joshua … a man in whom is the Spirit, and commission him before Eleazar and the congregation.
The word "spirit" (ruah) can refer to his natural leadership capacity. But it is more likely the word Spirit is a distinct reference to the Holy Spirit. This phrase means that Joshua was Spirit-endowed as the leader of the people (Dt 34:9). Many leaders (i.e., David, Ps 51:11; Zechariah, 2Ch 24:20) and key individuals (Bezalel, Ex 35:30–31) in the OT were given special measures of the Spirit to be able to carry out specific duties. By this act of commissioning, Moses would place some of his authority on Joshua so that the Israelites would submit to his leadership. Joshua had proven himself as a faithful aide to Moses (Ex 33:11) and as a faithful, believing spy (Nm 14:6, 30). Just as Aaron assisted Moses, Eleazar was to assist Joshua. Eleazar would inquire for him before the Lord with the aid of the Urim.
The Urim was a revelatory device designed by God to reveal His will. It may have been a lot or colored stones that signaled God’s intentions. Since believers today have God’s completed revelation in the complete canon and the indwelling Holy Spirit, it is no longer necessary to use lots to determine God’s will. Moses carried out the Lord’s commands just as they were given. This twofold statement of obedience (27:22–23) is another positive sign for Moses and the people of Israel. In the early part of Numbers the people’s obedience to the Lord’s command was often repeated (1:19; 2:33; 4:49; 5:4; 8:22) and now that obedience is again stated repeatedly (Nm 31:7, 31, 41, 47, 36:10). There was much hope for this new generation if they would continue in the path of obedience.
Instructions regarding the sacrificial system are given in various places in the Pentateuch (Ex 29:38–46; Lv 1:7; 16; 23; Nm 15), but on the threshold of entering the promised land, the Lord gave a descriptive summary of the regular required offerings. This list is not entirely exhaustive because the Feast of First Fruits (Lv 23:9–14) is not included in this summary.
The purpose of this summary at this point in Numbers is not identified. But since it follows close after the second census, it serves as a clear reminder for this second generation of their spiritual duties. The nation was soon to be in the land the Lord promised, and these directions prepared them for the type of pastoral life they soon would be experiencing in Canaan. Also these instructions were given before the Israelites acquired great herds of animals when they conquered the Midianites (Nm 31). These regular sacrifices would be a constant reminder of the Lord’s provision for this generation. The arrangement of the offerings is by their frequency: daily, weekly, monthly, and then annual religious holy days. The daily offerings would be offered besides any of the additional sacrifices described.
Not including the Day of Atonement sacrifices or other feast day sacrifices addressed elsewhere (e.g., First Fruits; Lv 23), the burnt sacrifices here included 113 bulls, 37 rams, and 1,093 lambs annually, as well as 30 goats for sin offerings.
28:1–15. The instructions began with a description of the daily offerings (vv. 1–8) followed by the sabbath day sacrifices (vv. 9–10) and the first-day-of-each-month offerings (vv. 11–15). The strong drink (v. 7) was most likely beer because distilled liquor would not be invented for thousands of years. The strong drink here was made from grain (barley or wheat), as compared to wine, a drink made from fruit. The daily offerings were brought twice each day, one in the morning, and one at twilight. The sabbath day offerings were added on top of the daily sacrifices as well as all of the other offerings in this section (Nm 28–29). At the beginning of every month (the first day), offerings not only included burnt, grain, and drink offerings, but also added a sin offering of a male goat (28:15). Instructions regarding the blowing of trumpets (10:10) had been given on this new moon holiday.
28:16–31. Instructions regarding Passover were given earlier (Ex 12; Lv 23:5–8), but this section elaborates on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for it continued for seven days immediately after Passover (these feasts are held in March/April on a modern calendar). Each day was to include sacrifices, and the last day was considered a holy convocation (v. 18), a day on which no work was to be done. Next the Feast of Weeks offerings were listed (vv. 26–31). This holiday celebrated the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest in the early summer months.
29:1–6. All throughout the religious calendar the number seven is celebrated (i.e., Sabbath offerings were presented in sevens or multiples of seven). Here on the first day of the seventh month (September on a modern calendar) a special convocation marked by the blowing of trumpets was called for with its requisite offerings.
29:7–11.The tenth day of the seventh month was to be a holy convocation as well (elsewhere known as the Day of Atonement; Lv 23; 27). This special day was marked by the inclusion of a goat for a sin offering in addition to the scapegoat ritual described in Lv 16.
29:12–38. The Feast of Booths began on the fifteenth of the seventh month and lasted for eight days (v. 35). This festival was both a memorial and an agricultural festival. As a memorial, the Israelites were to live in booths to recall that the Lord had them live in booths when they wandered in the wilderness (Lv 23:42–43). With regard to agriculture, the Lord required the greatest number of sacrifices, compared to all the festivals, as a token of appreciation of the yearly harvest provided by the Lord. Each day was marked by multiple sacrifices and a decrease of one bull offering, each successive day starting with thirteen bulls and descending to seven on the seventh day and then finally on the last day (a Sabbath day) only one bull, one ram, seven lambs, and one sin offering of a goat were to be sacrificed.
29:39–40. This section concludes with a challenge to present these calendar-related offerings to the Lord at their appointed times but also to remember to bring other non-calendar-related offerings (votive and freewill offerings). Moses fulfilled his responsibility by faithfully relaying all this information to the nation.
30:1–16. The mention of "votive offerings" in 29:39 leads to an extended discussion on the establishment of vows. Vows took the form of a promise to do something or a pledge to abstain from an activity. Leviticus 27 gave instructions about the setting of vows but did not address how to annul them. Since vows were taken seriously, Moses now gave instructions from the Lord regarding when and where they could be annulled. Several case law scenarios are presented to illustrate when vows could be overturned. These situations follow an overall pattern (two groupings of three). The instructions state that whenever a man or widow or divorced woman made a vow, it was unbreakable. Whenever a daughter or wife made a vow, if the father or husband wanted to annul it, he could do so without guilt. This allowed the male figure to maintain authority in cases where the daughter or wife may have made either a rash vow or one that was at odds with his headship. The nation was to maintain authority structures not only in spiritual matters but also in the home.
Another example of that headship occurred when a woman was pledged to be married. If her future husband wanted to annul her vow, he could do so if he desired. A husband had the opportunity to later annul a vow that his wife had made. But if he originally let it stand and then sought to annul it later, he would bear the guilt of her not keeping the vow. The possibility of incurring that guilt probably kept him from annulling an active vow. Or if he wanted to annul a vow his wife made, he must do so immediately on hearing it.
3. War against Midian and the Settlement of the Transjordan Tribes (31:1–32:42)
This account picks up where Nm 25 ended, that is at the rebellion relating to Baal of Peor instigated by the Moabites and Midianites. The Lord specifically commanded Moses to strike the Midianites (25:17), and this narrative fulfills that order. The conquest of the Midianites here was to infuse hope into the new generation and to remind them that the conquest of the promised land was certainly possible with the Lord’s power. The allotment of spoils to the Levites from the battle foreshadowed the Lord’s provision for their needs as well (giving cities of refuge and pasture lands; Nm 35).
31:1–6. The Lord instructed Moses to take full vengeance … on the Midianites and then he would be gathered to his people. This is a clear reminder that his days were numbered as a result of his sin at Meribah. Of course the content of the book of Deuteronomy is yet to be delivered, but since that book is mainly his farewell speeches, his imminent death was merely days away. Moses’ first wife (Zipporah) was a Midianite, and yet this marriage and linkage to the Midianites during a 40-year stay did not excuse him from carrying out this directive. Moses instructed the people to take a thousand men from each tribe (minus Levi) to execute the Lord’s vengeance on the Midianites. That they were led by Phinehas demonstrates that this was viewed as "holy war" (also attested by the presence of holy objects from the tabernacle and the signal trumpets).
31:7–12. The war was so successful that they were able to kill every Midianite male as well as the five kings. Balaam, who was now associated closely with the Midianites, was also put to death by the sword. The account does not address the logistics or even where these battles took the place. Rather, the focus is on the Israelites’ obedience to the Lord’s command to wage holy war and on the spoil the nation was able to capture. Though the Midianites suffered a severe blow militarily here, they were able to regroup and to be a threat to the Israelites in the time of the Judges (Jdg 6–8). The Midianites were a nomadic type people and it would have been difficult to kill every single one. Nevertheless all their cities and campsites were burned with fire, but the plunder (spoil—cattle … flocks … goods) was confiscated along with the women and children. All the spoils of war were brought to Moses and Eleazar at the Israelite camp on the plains of Moab. That the camp was by the Jordan opposite Jericho was mentioned previously in Nm 22:1 and will be repeated several more times in the book (33:48, 50; 34:15; 35:1, 13). The reference to Jericho right on the heels of the Midianite victory would be an ominous reminder of what would be their first major obstacle when they crossed the Jordan. The Lord, who gave them victory over their enemies in the Transjordan, would give them victory over their enemies when they entered the land.
31:13–18. Moses and Eleazar and the leaders of the people went out to meet the soldiers outside the camp. Moses was angry with the military leaders for sparing the lives of the women. He painfully reminded them that Midianite women were a major cause in the downfall of the nation at Peor when they were counseled by Balaam to trespass against the Lord. Moses ordered all the male children and all the women who had ever had sexual relations to be executed. One may wonder why such a command was issued to execute women and children, but several points should be noted. (1) The Midianites were true enemies of Israel, and their involvement at Baal-peor so angered the Lord that He brought down vengeance on the entire nation. (2) Since the Midianite women were directly involved in the Baal-peor incident, any sexually experienced woman could not be trusted (the penalty for adultery was death; Lv 20:10). (3) The Midianite women had earlier used sexual relations to entice the Israelites to worship false gods, so the blending of immorality and idolatry could not be treated delicately. (4) The execution of the male children would prevent any future rebellion against the nation. The execution of the Midianites was a theological matter, not just a military matter. The Abrahamic covenant stated that those who curse Israel will be cursed (Gn 12:3) and so God was fulfilling His promise to Abraham’s descendants.
31:19–24. Since the soldiers were in contact with dead bodies in executing the Midianites, they and any objects they touched were ceremonially unclean. Therefore, they were all in need of ritual purification (Nm 19) on the third and seventh days. Any metals confiscated as spoil that could stand … fire were heated up or melted down and then sprinkled with the water for impurity (cf. 19:17–21). Any object that could not stand fire was to be sprinkled. After these soldiers waited seven days and washed their clothes they could return to camp.
31:25–47. All the spoils and virgin women were apportioned according to a formula. The soldiers were given half of the spoils (minus a portion given to Eleazar), and the other half was divided among the rest of the nation (minus a portion given to the Levites).
Of the virgin women, 320 were given to the Levites, who evidently served as servants to the priests before the tent of meeting (31:35, 40; cf. Ex 38:8).
31:48–54. The officers of the soldiers told Moses that since not one of their 12,000 soldiers died in the war against the Midianites, they were bringing a freewill offering of gold objects. Their said their intention was to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord (31:50). According to the Torah, blood sacrifices were the only way to atone for sin (Lv 17:11) so how could gold function as an alternative means of atonement, i.e., atonement money? The answer is that the Hebrew word kopher used in 31:50 has the same root as the word for atonement but it does not carry the same nuance of "atonement or expiation for sin." Instead, it means "to pay a ransom for your lives" (cf. Ex 21:29–30; 30:12). The word kopher is used 14 times in the Hebrew Bible and never does it refer to atonement for sin but rather it denotes "a ransom, bribe, or payoff" (e.g., Is 43:3; 1Sm 12:3; Pr 6:35; Am 5:12). Hence, this passage should state that the soldiers were offering the gold "to pay a ransom for ourselves before the Lord." These men were giving the Lord a ransom for sparing their lives, not making atonement for sin. The total tribute brought was 16,750 shekels (over 400 pounds) of gold. Moses and Eleazar brought the gift to the tabernacle as a memorial.
32:1–5. The conquest of the Transjordan was recorded in Nm 21:21–35, but since chap. 22 the focus has been on threats against Israel with which the nation dealt. Next, attention shifts toward settlement. After the victory over the Midianites (Nm 31) the tribes of Reuben and Gad made an appeal to settle in the Transjordan in the region of Jazer and Gilead.
The tribes of Reuben and Gad had much livestock (but then again so did everyone else; 31:42–46). When they gazed on the region of Jazer and Gilead, they asked Moses and Eleazar if that land could be their inheritance since it was good grazing ground. Gilead was in the northern Transjordan region, and Jazer was probably located south of Gilead. They made their request in a way seeming to suggest that they wanted Moses to get a hint so that he would recommend that these two tribes be given land for their vast livestock in the Transjordan area. They mentioned a list of captured cities (v. 3) and then stressed their animal holdings (v. 4), but the direct request did not come until after the text states that they said (v. 5) a second time (cf. 32:2), indicating there may have been a pause between verses 4 and 5. They seem to have been operating out of selfish motivation (concern about their livestock) rather than a lack of desire to inherit God’s original promise (by requesting land in the Transjordan).
32:6–15. Moses responded harshly to the Gadites and Reubenites, saying that their actions would be discouraging to the rest of the Israelites—while most of the nation would be fighting they would be living comfortably. He directly compared their actions to the spy incident at Kadesh-barnea (Nm 13–14). In both instances there was a lack of interest in settling the promised land. Would this new generation repeat the failure of the first generation in not laying hold of the land the Lord promised them, and would they be doomed to further wandering outside the land? Moses forthrightly declared that God was greatly angered (vv. 10, 13, 14) at the first generation. He stated that those making this request were like them and in danger of experiencing the same punishment (wandering and death).
32:16–32. Gad and Reuben then responded that they would not forsake their brothers in the conquest. However, they wanted to build sheepfolds for their livestock and cities for their little ones for their protection while they assisted in conquering the promised land. They would not return home until the conquest was finished, and they would not receive an inheritance on the other side since the Transjordan would be their possession.
There are several concerns about their request. (1) While ultimately the Transjordan was part of the land promised in the Abrahamic covenant, the Lord’s purpose was for the nation to dispossess the Canaanites as a nation and then divide the inheritance according to tribal size. Gad and Reuben were asking prematurely for a possession before God’s purpose could be implemented. (2) Their original request was motivated by selfishness, not by faith in the Lord’s promises. They only seemed to assent to joining in the military conquest of Canaan. (3) Their request could foster disunity among the tribes and lack of proximity and closeness to their brothers.
Nevertheless Moses agreed to their plan, but only if they submitted to the stipulation that all their fighting men had to help in the conquest until the Lord had driven out His enemies in the promised land. Once the land was subdued they would return to the Transjordan to receive it as a possession before the Lord. If they failed to do so, they would be sinning against the Lord and their sin would be appropriately punished. The tribes of Gad and Reuben agreed to this stipulation, and Moses conveyed this agreement to Eleazar since Moses would not be around to see this fulfilled.
32:33–42. Moses then gave Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh the territory conquered from the kingdoms of Sihon and Og. The half-tribe of Manasseh is mentioned first as recipients of some of the Transjordan territory as a possession. They may have entered the negotiation once Gad and Reuben’s request seemed that it might be granted, or it may be that since Zelophehad’s daughters were from the tribe of Manasseh (Nm 27) there was already a concern about land inheritance for members of that tribe (specifically from the family of Machir; cf. 27:1; 32:39–40). The Transjordanian tribes then built up various cities around the region.
B. Encouragement for the Second Generation for Entering the Promised Land (33:1–36:13)
1. Review of Israel’s Journey (33:1–56)
This section chronicles the itinerary of Israel from Egypt to the plains of Moab. Many of the campsites mentioned in this chapter cannot be identified with modern sites. Such a detailed itinerary may have been given at this point in the book of Numbers for several reasons: (1) Since Moses was about to be "gathered to his people" (31:2), the chronicling of all these place names where Moses led them may serve as a geographical eulogy to his leadership. One of Moses’ qualities once again being stressed here is that he often listened to the command of the Lord (33:2). (2) The record of the nation’s journeys also serves as a key theological lesson for the new generation. Since God faithfully led and provided for them for more than 40 different stops along the way, He could be trusted to continue to lead them in the conquest of Canaan.
33:1–49. Moses recorded the starting places of their journeys beginning with Rameses in Egypt. The Israelites left Egypt confidently the day after the Passover while the Egyptians were burying their firstborn who were struck down in the 10th plague. In striking down Egypt, God provided a powerful polemic against their impotent gods. (See map "The Israelites’ Wilderness Wanderings" with comments on Nm 14:20–38.)
33:50–56. Here the Lord gave Moses instructions about the conquest. Since a major purpose of Numbers is to prepare the nation (especially the new generation) for settlement in the promised land, this last section of the book focuses on laws dealing with the conquest of Canaan. As in other places in the Pentateuch, whenever there is a narrative account that describes sin or rebellion on the part of the Israelites, a series of laws immediately follows. Whenever there was sin, more laws were given. Several examples will suffice.
Israel’s fear and disobedience by not going up the mountain to worship the Lord after hearing the ram’s horn (Ex 3:12; 19:9–25) is immediately followed by the Ten Commandments and the "book of the Covenant" (Ex 20–23). The narrative describing the sin of the golden calf (Ex 32) is followed by a lengthy series of laws (Ex 34ff.). The narrative describing the sin of the 10 spies (15) is followed immediately by a section of more laws (Nm 15). The laws here deal with the conquest that followed soon after Reuben and Gad’s premature request (Nm 32) to inherit their possession before the conquest of Canaan had even started. The Lord commanded the Israelites to drive out the inhabitants of Canaan and destroy their idolatrous figures and molten images, as well as their religious shrines on high places. Once the conquest was finished, they were to assign by lot each tribe’s inheritance according to their size. Failure to drive out the inhabitants would result in their being troublesome pricks in Israel’s eyes and thorns in Israel’s sides. If Israel would not fully drive out the Canaanites, the Lord would drive Israel out for disobedience.
2. Boundaries of the Promised Land (34:1–29)
The Lord continued to give Moses instructions, this time regarding the boundaries of the land of Canaan. The locations are not always easily identified, but a general idea can be ascertained regarding the borders.
34:1–6. The southern border began at the southern end of the Salt Sea (Dead Sea) and extended eastward south of the ascent of Akrabbim (lit., "Scorpion Pass") to Zin, continuing on south of Kadesh-barnea, then in the direction of the brook of Egypt and terminating at the sea (the Mediterranean). The western border was easy to identify since it was the coastline of the Great Sea (the Mediterranean).
34:7–15. The north border began at the Great Sea near Mount Hor (not the one where Aaron died), through Lebo-hamath, Zedad, and Ziphron, and ended at Hazar-enan. The eastern border started at Hazar-enan, through Shepham and Riblah, then continued down to the slope on the east side of the Sea of Chinnereth (Sea of Galilee). Then it followed the Jordan River southward down to the Salt Sea (Dead Sea).
The Tribal Distribution of the Land
Adapted from The New Moody Atlas of the Bible. Copyright © 2009 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.
The land now defined was to be the possession of the nine and a half tribes since Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh had already been assigned their possession in the Transjordan.
34:16–29. The Lord instructed Moses to have Eleazar and Joshua oversee the apportioning of the land. Each of the 10 tribes that had inheritance in Canaan was to have a leader to assist in the process. Caleb, representing the tribe of Judah, is the only leader mentioned elsewhere in the Scriptures.
3. Levitical Cities (35:1–34)
As elsewhere in the book of Numbers, so here instructions regarding the Levites follow instructions given for the other tribes (Nm 1:47–54/1:1–46; 3:1–49/2:1–34; 26:57–62/26:1–56).
35:1–5. There has been a variety of explanations of the difficulty of determining the dimensions of these Levitical cities. The challenge is how to harmonize vv. 4 and 5 in determining the precise layout for the cities and their pasture lands (the Hebrew text reads 1,000 cubits in v. 4 and 2,000 in v. 5, while the LXX reads 2,000 cubits in both verses). The inner city dimensions (which are not stated) had to be very small to accommodate the dimensions given, or the pasture lands were either geometrically interlocked or viewed as frontage lots on each side (see possible explanations in the layouts in the accompanying chart).
Whatever the layout entailed, the main point is that the Lord provided for the Levites and their livestock.
Possible Layouts of Levitical Cities
35:6–15. The Levites were assigned forty-eight cities, of which six were designated as cities of refuge. These cities were geographically allocated proportionately among the other tribal inheritances. The names of these cities are given in Jos 21. Since Canaan was the Lord’s possession, Israel was to keep it holy by protecting it from becoming impure by the shedding of human blood (Nm 35:33). Therefore cities of refuge were established to deal with bloodguilt. Murder and the resulting blood that was shed was such a powerful pollutant on the land that it had to be rectified because the Lord dwelt there in the land (v. 34). As "sacred space," the promised land was not to be contaminated by improperly shed blood. Murder was typically dealt with by capital punishment (Gn 9:5–6; Ex 21:12–14). But if an accidental homicide occurred, the laws of the cities of refuge provided a mechanism for the manslayer to flee in order to stand trial. Anyone accused of murder could receive sanctuary among the Levites.
35:16–21. When someone committed premeditated murder, that person was to be executed. Weapons made of iron … stone or wood that were used to kill someone were proof of murderous intent. Such a killer could not flee to a city of refuge. Instead he was to be killed by a blood avenger (a relative of the one killed). Any previous hostility between individuals resulting in death of any sort meant that the perpetrator was to be put to death by the blood avenger. Compared to modern legal procedure where a trial before a judge and jury is conducted to determine guilt or innocence this may seem like a case of barbaric personal vengeance. However this practice of blood avenger was initially set forth after the flood (Gn 9:5–6). It is intimately connected to fact that humanity is made in the image of God. The shedding of human blood is a serious matter that can only be accounted for by the blood of the one who shed it.
35:22–29. If, however, an individual was killed by accident, or if there had not been any previous enmity between the one killed and the manslayer, then the manslayer could flee to a city of refuge to await trial. A trial would be conducted by the congregation, most likely a group of citizens. This trial may have even been held where the death occurred, since v. 25 speaks of restoring the one who fled back to his city of refuge afterward. The congregation’s task was to adjudicate the matter and determine the outcome. If a manslayer was not found guilty of murder, then he was allowed to return to the city of refuge and was to remain there until the death of the high priest. If the avenger of blood ever found the individual outside the city limits and killed him, then the avenger would not be guilty of murder. But why would the death of the high priest result in the release of the manslayer? The death of the high priest may have been regarded as a substitute for the death of the manslayer himself. Or more likely, the high priest’s death simply marked the end of a legal period of limitation (statute of limitations) similar to the Year of Jubilee.
35:30–34. Whenever there was an intentional homicide, there could be an execution only if there was more than one witness. Anyone convicted of murder could not pay a ransom (fine) in lieu of execution, nor could a manslayer who had received sanctuary at a city of refuge ransom himself with monetary compensation. Since the shedding of human blood polluted the land, the only way it could be expiated was through the blood of the perpetrator. God dwelt in the land and did not want to take up residence in a land defiled by blood.
4. Inheritance of Women (36:1–13)
36:1–13. Previously, the five daughters of Zelophehad from the tribe of Manasseh had requested and been granted full property rights equal to that of sons (27:1–11). They were concerned that their father’s name would vanish. Since he did not have any sons, his share of the inheritance would be deeded to other members of the family. Now the implications of that decision are discussed and are presented by the elders of the tribe of Manasseh to Moses. Whenever a daughter married, the inheritance to which she was entitled would pass on to her husband’s family. If her husband was from another tribe, then that would create an imbalance in the land allocations prescribed in Nm 33:50–34:29. A further complication would be that when the jubilee (Lv 25:10) would be celebrated every 50 years, that particular land inheritance would be permanently allocated to another tribe. So Moses issued a new commandment that the daughters of Zelophehad marry within the family … tribe. This would prevent land inheritances from transferring to another tribe. Each tribe would then continue to possess the inheritance of their fathers. Zelophehad’s daughters married their uncles’ sons (cousins) and thus obeyed Moses’ instructions.
The book of Numbers ends with this case law narrative regarding Zelophehad’s daughters. It thus highlights two themes that are important to the book and to the nation, as they were soon to enter the promised land. (1) The daughters were obedient. If Israel were to experience God’s blessing, they would have to be obedient just as those daughters were. Just as the book began by stressing obedience to doing "just as the Lord had commanded" (1:19), the book closes with an account where obedience is highlighted. There was hope for this second generation if they continued that practice. (2) They exhibited great faith in the land promise. If the nation wanted to please the Lord, they had to trust in the promises of God just as these women did. They did not want their father’s family to miss the land inheritance given by God, so they beseeched Moses about this land inheritance even before the nation crossed over the Jordan.
The focus of the last few chapters of Numbers has been on "land" (Nm 34–36)—its allocation, boundaries, and purity. The whole book has focused on progress and movement toward the promised land. This last section stresses that each tribe shall hold to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers (v. 7). As the book closes, there is an unanswered question: Will this new generation lay hold of God’s promises (Gn 17:8) and possess the land as their inheritance? The last line of the book summarizes that these are the commandments and the ordinances … the Lord gave to Moses on the plains of Moab opposite Jericho. The enemy lay just on the other side of the Jordan, but the nation had the opportunity to believe God and see Him fulfill His word.
Allen, Ronald B. "Numbers." In Genesis–Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990.
Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.
Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. The New American Commentary. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2000.
Harrison, R. K. Numbers. Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary. Chicago: Moody, 1990.
Merrill, Eugene H. "Numbers." In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985. Reprint, Colorado Springs: Cook Communications, 1996.
Olson, Dennis T. The Death of the Old and the Birth of the New: The Framework of the Book of Numbers and the Pentateuch. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1975.
Rydelnik, Michael. The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2010.
Sailhamer, John H. The Pentateuch as Narrative. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.
Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1981.
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