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Book of Numbers

NUMBERS, BOOK OF. The fourth book of the Pentateuch, called In the Wilderness by the Jews after its first significant word. The Hebrew title is more meaningful than the English, for the book picks up the account of the wilderness wandering after the arrival at Sinai (Exod.19.1-Exod.19.25), and records the Bedouinlike travels of Israel through all the forty years of wandering.

The name Numbers comes from the Greek translation, which gives a misleading impression of one of the features of the book. Both at the beginning (Exod.1.2-46) and near the end (Exod.26.2-51) the number of the Israelites is given—a little over 600,000 males above twenty years of age. The procedure sounds familiar to us. We call it a census. But the biblical censuses were not just that. Israel was not merely interested in vital statistics. This was a count of the fighting forces. Indeed, it probably was an actual mustering and organizing of the army. It is for this reason that the women, children, and Levites were not included. The numbering occurs twice because the army was called up twice for battle—first at the abortive attempt to invade the land at Kadesh Barnea, and second at the end of the forty years of wandering just before the conquest of Canaan.

Exception has been taken to the large number of Israelites—totaling an estimated two million. Some say the territory could not sustain so many people. This is true if the Israelites traveled as a closely knit group seeking forage in a limited radius. But if they fanned out with their flocks over a wide area, they could sustain themselves as did the large Nabatean kingdom in the same area in Roman times. Furthermore, God specially and miraculously fed and sustained Israel. The size of the Israelite nation was surely great or Joshua would never have been able to conquer and occupy the land of Palestine as he clearly did. Large and well-fortified cities were conquered in the area from Lachish in the south to Hazor 120 miles (200 km.) to the north, as well as the territory in all Transjordan. Six hundred thousand men, not all active, would not have been too large a force to accomplish such a feat. David in later days of prosperity called up an army of 1,300,000 (2Sam.24.9). David’s numbers support the size of Joshua’s army. Joshua’s action explains the sinfulness of David’s act. Like Joshua, he was not merely taking a census; he apparently was starting an unwarranted aggressive war.

From Num.21.11 on, the accounts of the conquest of Transjordan and the preparations to enter the land are given. Sihon and Og of the northern territory were conquered in swift moves detailed more extensively in Deuteronomy. Then Numbers portrays the very interesting activity of Balaam, the hireling prophet who was supernaturally restrained from cursing Israel (Num.22.1-Num.22.41-Num.24.1-Num.24.25). These chapters are now studied with new interest because they appear to show a very early type of Hebrew. Final material includes Joshua’s installation (Num.27.1-Num.27.23), the summary of the journeys (Num.33.1-Num.33.56), and the provision of cities of refuge (Num.35.1-Num.35.34).

Bibliography: Martin Noth, Numbers: A Commentary, 1968; John Sturdy, Numbers (CBC), 1976; G. J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary (TOTC), 1981.——RLH

NUMBERS, BOOK OF. The fourth book of Moses. Traces the history of the Heb. people during their wilderness wanderings from Mount Sinai to the plains of Moab.


The Eng. title is a literal tr. of the LXX ̓Αριθμοί. This title reflects the censuses of chs. 4 and 26. Some have proposed that this title was chosen by someone with a superficial knowledge of the book since the censuses appear to have so little to do with its major thrusts. This is esp. so since the Heb. title בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר, “in the wilderness” (based on the fifth word of the first v.), seems so much more apt. However, the two censuses do relate directly to the overall themes of the book. The first represents the organization of the people for the impending journey and the occupation of the land that was intended to follow shortly. The second census and its accompanying reorganization was necessitated by the people’s failure to obey God at Kadesh-barnea, the resulting death of that generation in the wilderness, and the preparation of the new generation to possess the land at last.


Because the date of the Exodus is a matter of considerable controversy, the events that this book records are difficult to place in their precise context in ancient Near Eastern history. The Exodus is variously dated from 1440 b.c. to about 1260 b.c. The earlier date has been generally favored by conservatives because of several Biblical chronologies, notably 1 Kings 6:1. Archeologists have favored the later date.

The Book of Numbers is important in this debate esp. in one particular, that several chs. of the book (20-25; 31) deal with Israel’s relations with Edom in the Negeb and with the several Trans-Jordanian kingdoms. A noted archeologist, the late Nelson Glueck, made extensive surface explorations of the Negeb and Trans-Jordan areas between 1930 and 1940. His findings convinced him that during much of the second millennium b.c., prob. for climatic reasons, these regions were largely uninhabited, and only after 1300 was there settled occupation. If this were true, the early date for the Exodus would be impossible.

Recently, however, the validity of Glueck’s findings has been contested. In particular, L. Harding has pointed to well-stocked tombs of the Hyksos period (1750-1550 b.c.) in the neighborhood of Amman (Biblical Rabbath-Ammon). Such tombs argue against purely nomadic occupation. In addition, other discoveries have called into question the trustworthiness of surface observation alone without an accompanying archeological “dig.”

Whichever date one accepts for the Exodus, political conditions in the Sinai Peninsula and the Arabah would have favored the Hebrews. In 1440, during Ikhnaton’s reign, Egyp. influence outside its own borders was at a low ebb. In the later situation, although Ramses II (1290-1225) and his predecessor, Seti I, reasserted their control over Pal., Ramses does not seem to have had much influence in the Negeb and the Arabah. This is confirmed by two facts. First, Merneptah, Ramses’ successor, had to conduct a raid in those areas in 1225 to reestablish control. Second, an Egyp. temple recently found in the Arabah appears to have been largely destroyed at the beginning of the reign of Ramses and to have remained in this condition during his lifetime, only being repaired some years after his death. In either case, the Biblical indication that the Hebrews were not harassed by any outside power would be confirmed.

Recent articles concerning the role of the Midianites in the late second millennium have concluded that the Biblical references to this group are well suited to this era and would, in fact, be foreign to any other. They were a nomadic people who possessed little territory, but who through commercial and military enterprises controlled vast areas.


It has long been recognized that, from the point of view of structure, this book is of a more diverse nature than any other in the Pentateuch. Although the main organizing principle is chronological (the book begins at Sinai and ends on the threshold of the Promised Land, thirty-eight years later), much of the material appears to be in topical order. For example, Exodus ends with the Tabernacle erected and the Shekinah resident in it. This event is recapitulated in Numbers 9:15-21; suggesting the beginning of the next section of the narrative. This leaves the question: did the events of chs. 1-8 occur before or after the Tabernacle was erected?

This example and several others, which will be touched upon later in this discussion, have led many scholars to the belief that the book of Numbers is not a literary unity. That is, the materials in the book were not rigidly organized according to one principle. Rather, the book is a collection of those accounts that apply to the Wilderness period, with diverse materials such as legislation, genealogy, and travel accounts, being inserted into a loosely constructed chronological framework. The presence of smooth transitions between episodes in some cases and their lack in others favors this conclusion.

The Wellhausen school of Biblical criticism found the diversity of material in the book well-suited to its documentary hypothesis. Based upon the evidence of two divine names, Yahweh (KJV Jehovah, RSV Lord) and Elohim (God), the difficulty of reconciling practices of Judges and Samuel with those prescribed in the Pentateuch, and a refusal to credit special revelation, scholars of the 19th cent. concluded that the Pentateuch in its present form came at the end of OT history, in the time of Ezra and not at the time of Moses. Their contention was that four separate books or documents had been written during the course of Israel’s history, each with a concept of God and religion somewhat more developed than the former. These were J for Jehovah (or Judah, ca. 850 b.c., [dates vary from scholar to scholar]), E for Elohim (or Ephraim, ca. 750 b.c.), D for Deuteronomy (621 b.c.), and P for Priestly (444 b.c.). J and E were combined first, then D was appended. Finally, P was worked into the JED compilation, giving the whole a decidedly legalistic and priestly cast.

As mentioned above, the apparent diversity of Numbers seemed clear evidence of the validity of such an approach. The book has been divided as follows: JE, Num. 10:29-12:15; 20:14-21; 21:12-32; 22:2-25:5. P included the rest of the book’s contents except 21:33-35, which was assigned to D (on the basis of a parallel with Deuteronomy 3:1-3). J and E could not be separated in Numbers because the one criterion, supposed differing use of the divine names, is not applicable. The names are used interchangeably. In fact, those passages where one would expect “God” to be used, according to critical theory, are the very ones that use “Yahweh,” and vice versa.

The inherent fallacies and weaknesses in the JEDP system have long been pointed out by theological conservatives and others who were not so oriented. It has been the recovery, however, of large amounts of information concerning the ancient Near E that has caused a basic reorientation in the theory. The following points are relevant to the study of Numbers. The method of construction that the documentary hypothesis embraced was unknown in the ancient Near E. No examples can be adduced of two (not to mention four) complete books being cut apart and the majority of their contents being interleaved into one volume. It appears that a written lit. grew as stories or groups of traditions were compiled to form a whole. Often (e.g., the Gilgamesh epic) the same units of tradition might be combined differently to form several different wholes. But the documentary hypothesis saw the process in reverse, with several wholes being broken into units to form one new whole. Second, it is evident that the kind of rigid restriction of material (only narrative in this volume, only legislation in that, only priestly concerns in that) is an artificial criterion for distinguishing different sources. A third inherent fallacy that has become apparent was Wellhausen’s belief that development was inevitably upward. Fuller understanding of history has shown that man’s progress often has been in great bursts of development, or insight, followed by a slip backward and then long centuries of slow recovery of what had been formerly momentarily possessed. This corresponds well with the history of Israel. The revelation at Sinai could not even be carried through the desert without being forgotten and/or corrupted. Fourth, it is now very clear that the conviction concerning the lateness of the priesthood and of priestly concerns in Israel is completely false. The primacy of priest and cult in all the early civilizations of the ancient Near E makes it impossible to deny the Biblical claims (such as those in Numbers) that priestly concerns were of great importance in early Israel.

If the JEDP system cannot adequately explain the composition of the Book of Numbers, how did it arrive at its present form? J. S. Wright has made the following proposal: Presuming that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (see section on authorship), it is reasonable to assume that various kinds of information were collected in different ways. Many records, such as itineraries, may have been jotted down as time permitted. These, along with Moses’ personal reminiscences and observations, would have been kept with his own belongings. Revelations and legal materials may well have been handed over to the priests for publication and enactment. Still other information, such as genealogies, may have been recorded by scribes or others.

Near the end of Moses’ life he may have felt that this mass of material relating to the Exodus and the sojourn, variously recorded and filed, ought to be collected in one library or collection of scrolls. It is suggested that by this time Moses had prepared a group of longer scrolls that contained the basic narratives. The beginning of these scrolls is marked by a somewhat slow-moving recapitulation of the situation at the end of the previous roll. In addition, there were several long legislative scrolls. When these two groups were placed in approximate chronological order, the shorter records, consisting of revelations, laws, and genealogies, were placed in the gaps between larger groups. Sometimes these smaller units were placed as near their correct chronological position as possible, but at other times they were treated more topically.

When these suggestions are applied to Numbers, the following emerges: The previous narrative scroll concluded at the end of the present Book of Exodus. After this were collected all the revelations and regulations that pertained to the cult and the covenant that had been given during the Sinai period (many of them prior to the setting up of the Tabernacle). These regulations include the entire Book of Leviticus and extend to Numbers 9:15. They are broken in two places, Numbers 1-4 and 7, by miscellaneous records, which perhaps had also been in the keeping of the priests.

This recognition of the composite literary nature of the book in no way denies its unity of outlook, purpose, or theology. It is clear that all of the units of tradition have the same view of God and of His purpose in Heb. history. These are not accounts whose fundamentally different purposes or understandings have been warped to conform to one overriding viewpoint. Rather, the eminently successful combination of such diverse literary structures could have been possible only because of their remarkable internal unity.


Tradition has long held that the Pentateuch was authored by Moses. This tradition goes back at least as far as the NT where Jesus and the apostles attest it in passing (they nowhere argue for it). Various scholars have questioned this. One of the first was Jerome, tr. of the Lat. Vul. in the 5th cent. a.d. Not questioning the Pentateuch’s origin with Moses, he yet voiced the conviction that the five books had been subject to considerable revision, with Ezra being responsible for the final revision.

This last note was re-echoed by the liberal critics of the 19th cent. They were convinced, however, that Moses did not write any of the Pentateuch and doubted seriously if he was actively connected with more than a small fraction of the material. Rather, unknown authors were responsible for J and E, perhaps the priest Hilkiah for D, and Ezra for P as well as for the final revision in which he everywhere thrust his peculiar legalistic and priestly concerns on the former writings.

Recent OT criticism is divided on this issue. At one end of the spectrum is W. F. Albright who, while denying Mosaic authorship as such, has asserted more and more positively that the majority of Pentateuchal materials must be traced to Moses for their origin. On the other hand, the late Ger. scholar, Martin Noth, made the Pentateuchal traditions the work of the twelve tribes in Canaan and denied that a man called Moses ever led the Heb. people or had anything to do with their traditions. Between these extremes an almost infinite variety of critical opinion is held.

Conservative scholars have generally refused to give up the traditional view. It is clear that the plain sense of Scripture supports some form of this opinion. Although there is no statement in the Pentateuch that Moses wrote the five books in toto, there are numerous statements that he wrote portions of them (in Numbers, see Num 33:2). In confirmation of this, archeology has shown that, contra Wellhausen, writing was widely known at this time. More telling than this is the fact that the Pentateuch (after Genesis, which is prologue) plainly claims to record the events and revelations that occurred in the years between the Exodus and the Conquest. If this is so, and if Moses was indeed recording itineraries and other information, who more than he should be responsible for the writing of these materials?

On the other hand, the Bible does not make it an article of faith that Moses wrote every word of the Pentateuch. Numbers yields several instructive examples in this respect. It may be noted that Numbers (as well as Exodus and Leviticus) everywhere refers to Moses in the third person, except in direct quotations. This does not suggest the direct writing of Moses. The praise of Moses as the meekest man on earth (Num 12:3) would be rather crass if it were coming from Moses’ own mouth (unless one presumes that the passage was dictated to Moses by God, which is nowhere indicated). The reference to the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Num 21:14f.) prob. indicates an editor’s use of a slightly later source to better pinpoint the place of the camp to a generation no longer familiar with the exact area. Again, Numbers 32:34-42 seems to date to the settlement period as an editor’s statement of what the Trans-Jordanian tribes eventually did in the lands that the action just described (32:1-32) had promised to them. These relatively minor matters in no way detract from the integrity of the Pentateuch, unless one assumes that editors were necessarily uninspired, an unwarranted conclusion. Mosaic authorship, as taught by the Bible, nowhere demands that every word be his.


The apparent purpose in compiling the Book of Numbers is to record the beginnings of the outworkings of the covenant in Israel’s life. Modifications and adjustments in the structure of covenant stipulations are reported. More importantly, Israel’s reaction to those stipulations is recorded. The themes of trust and obedience are paramount, and the intimate relation of these to the blessing or curse from God is illustrated again and again.


Like most of the rest of the Pentateuch, the text of Numbers seems to have been remarkably stable. Variants in the Samaritan rescension and the LXX are generally minor and, on established principles of textual criticism, generally indicate the MT to be the better text. The Samaritan rescension is characteristically expansionist, including wherever possible parallels from Deuteronomy. Likewise, variants in the LXX are usually longer than the MT.

Portions of one of the Numbers scrolls from Qumran (4Q Numb) exhibit a most interesting textual character. This text seems to occupy a middle ground between the Samaritan rescension and the LXX. Ordinarily it follows the Samaritan rescension, exhibiting similar expansionist tendencies and often agreeing with the minor Samaritan rescension deviations from the MT. However, in cases where the MT and the Samaritan rescension agree against the LXX, this text normally follows the LXX. Frank Cross is of the opinion that this kind of text was the normal Palestinian text during the 5th-2nd centuries b.c., and that the expansions are the result of continual rabbinical revision. On the other hand, the MT was preserved in a much more conservative priestly climate in Babylon, being reintroduced in Pal. only in the 2nd and 1st centuries b.c.

Special Problems.

Census numbers.

It has been recognized for many years that a fighting force of some 600,000 fighting men (Num 1:46; 26:51) indicates a total community of between two and three million people. Although not an a priori impossibility, this literal interpretation is called into question by several factors. Great armies of this period (e.g., Egypt and Assyria) numbered only in the tens of thousands. Indeed, Joshua’s army appears to have been only about forty thousand (whereas Josh 4:13 may only refer to the number of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, 8:3, 11, 12 seem to indicate that forty thousand was the total. If all the fighting men went with him, as is explicitly said, and he only used thirty-five thousand, then 555,000 men would have been left as spectators—which seems highly unlikely.) The difficulty of feeding three million people in the Sinai desert has been noted. In addition, archeological investigation indicates that the total population of Canaan at this time was somewhat less than three million, which makes it difficult to understand how the Canaanites were able to restrict the Heb. conquest to the central highlands.

None of these arguments is insuperable (for a detailed defense see Whitelaw, ISBE, IV, 2166, 2167). Yet they are all troublesome, and several alternative proposals have been put forward. R. K. Harrison suggests that large numbers had a fixed symbolism that is now lost to us. Other suggestions have to do with the meaning of the Heb. word אֶ֫לֶף, H547, (a thousand). The word ’alluph (chieftain) uses the same consonants, and it has been proposed that this latter word is what was intended. Thus, for example, Numbers 1:39 would read 60 chieftains and 2700 men from Dan instead of 62,700 men. Another suggestion holds that ’eleph did not originally mean “a thousand,” but rather “a troop” or “military unit.” By this reasoning only later was the number of men in such a unit fixed at one thousand. The army included 600 troops of soldiers. Each of these solutions has numerous problems implicit in it, so that a final solution cannot be claimed.

Biblical evaluation of the period.

It often has been claimed that the prophetic evaluation of the period is different from that found in the Pentateuch itself. Passages such as Amos 5:25; Hosea 2:15; 9:10; 11:1-4; Jeremiah 2:2, 3; 31:2 are quoted to show that the prophets regarded this period as an idyllic time, when Israel lived in unbroken fellowship with God. In contrast, it is said, the writers of P, and those under the influence of that school, were so impressed by God’s dramatic punishment in the Exile that they came to believe that Israel had never served God faithfully. As a result, they forced their interpretation into the Pentateuch.

A study of the prophetic passages quoted demonstrates that the supposed contrast is much overdrawn. It is not said that all Israel served God without fail in the wilderness. Rather, the period is looked upon from the point of view of the prophets’ own apostate times. The point is that at least in the wilderness Israel did not seek other gods. She was responsive to Yahweh, even though she often disobeyed him. The prophets in their time observed that Israel no longer even responded to God’s overtures. Several of the references stress the helplessness of Israel and God’s care of her. A wistfulness is expressed because, despite that care, Israel turned her back on Yahweh so completely.

Itinerary of the wilderness journey.

Attempts to reconstruct the wilderness journey have been, for the most part unsuccessful. Two reasons account for this. In the first place, the sites named are not easily identifiable cities whose names have remained the same over many centuries. Instead, they were scattered campgrounds that are difficult to recognize and whose names may have differed with different groups. Second, the Biblical data are difficult to harmonize.

The second difficulty is the large number of encampments between Sinai and Eziongeber, whereas 11:34 and 12:16 imply only two stops on a more direct route to Kadesh. A third factor is the command of 14:25 to go away from Kadesh “tomorrow...by the way to the Red Sea,” a movement which is not reflected in the above interpretation of ch. 33.



At Sinai.

The materials of this section round out our knowledge of the Hebrews’ eleven-month stay at Sinai. Whether or not all of these events occurred between the first and the twentieth days of the second month of the second year (Num 1:1; 10:11) is not possible to ascertain, esp. since the subjects appear to be grouped topically (see outline) rather than chronologically.

It has been urged at various times that the square camp (2:1-34) is an artificial design created by later priests who knew nothing of the actual events. Recent studies, however, of Egyp. encampments during the time of Ikhnaton and Ramses II indicate that Egyp. armies of that time used the square camp pattern, whereas the Assyrian armies of later days used a round pattern.

The first vv. of ch. 5 present a fine example of transition from one topical collection to another. Earlier, the camp was discussed. Here, the regulation concerning leprosy in the camp leads smoothly into a collection of miscellaneous regulations. Perhaps these regulations, similar to many others in the book, were given by God in response to specific situations. This may account for their rather random nature and the fact that they are not included in the larger body of legislation in Leviticus.

Of special interest is the trial-by-ordeal for infidelity (5:11-31). This “lie-detector” test was a very ancient practice in the ancient Near E and attests to the antiquity of the Book of Numbers. The practice appears barbarous to those of the present day, but examination shows that, viewed in the context of the ancient world, the Bible’s application of the ordeal was remarkably restrained and humane.

Again note that the regulation concerning the benediction of the priests (6:22-26) leads into a section containing narration and legislation having to do with the Tabernacle. This indicates the care with which the material was collected. It is not simply a haphazard arrangement, but one which shows order and logic.

Sinai to Kadesh.

Virtually all commentators connect the narrations of the Pillar and the Trumpets (Num 9:15-10:10) to the first section of the book. This is compelling since 10:11ff. speak so distinctly of the departure. On the other hand, the section on the Pillar and the Trumpets has nothing to do with the encampment but everything to do with the journey. In its generality, it provides a transition from the encampment and an introduction to the journey.

This section is notable for its consistent record of distrust and disobedience on the part of the people. All segments are included. The entire people were involved in the craving for meat (ch. 11) and again in the refusal to enter the land (and, conversely, their attempt to enter after it had been refused them, ch. 14). Miriam and Aaron were caught up in it (ch. 12), as were tribal leaders (ch. 13). Chapter 14, with the primary disobedience and the major punishment, is the watershed of the book.

Wilderness sojourn.

On the face of it, ch. 15 with its several commandments and regulations seems an anticlimax after the drama and tragedy of 14. Perhaps a combination of reasons explains this material’s presence at this point. First, prob. a narrative scroll ended at ch. 14, leaving a place for insertions. Second, although the land had been denied to the present generation, it had been promised to the next. These regulations concerning the land served to seal that promise. Third, it was failure to observe these very kinds of commands that had brought Israel to this unhappy place. It must not happen again.

Chapters 16-18, although seeming diverse, all deal with the life of the priesthood, its meaning and value in the Heb. nation. Contrary to Wright’s suggestion, however, ch. 19, with its prescriptions for cleansing from uncleanness acquired by association with the dead, does not seem to fit into that priestly topic. Perhaps it was included at this point because of its beginning with a command to the priests.

The reader of Numbers often is startled to learn how little actually is said of the thirty-seven years in the wilderness. Even if it be granted that chs. 20 and 21 contain incidents scattered throughout the whole period, we know very little. If on the other hand, as Scripture seems to indicate, all of the events related in these chs. took place on the way to Moab during the last year of the journey, we know next to nothing. Perhaps it may be that the old generation, having committed the final apostasy, is of no more concern in the outworking of the covenant.

On the plains of Moab.

The engaging tale of Balaam (Num 22-24) has been subjected to a number of studies by Prof. Albright. He suggests that whereas the rest of the language of Numbers represents the updating and modernizing of a later era, the poetic sections of this account reach back into the 13th cent. This provides another confirmation of the authenticity of the sources of the book.

After the apostasy at Peor (ch. 25), virtually all of the remainder of the book looks forward to the conquest. A second military census is taken. Miscellaneous questions concerning land allotment and inheritance are answered. The new commander is appointed. The final threat of an enemy behind their backs (the Midianites) is removed, and the Promised Land is allotted to the two and a half tribes. In contrast to the previous generation, whose disobedience was more pronounced as it got closer to its destination, there is about this group an aura of faith and purpose that was (as related in Joshua) to open the door of the land to them.


A comparison of Numbers with examples of modern critical history writing will demonstrate a crucial difference between the two. Whereas modern history seeks primarily to give a full account of what happened and from a human point of view to explain why it happened, the Book of Numbers is seeking to convey a point of view concerning the nature of the Creator and His creation. This need not presuppose that Numbers therefore does not accurately report those historic events which it records. In fact, given the truth that it is in history which God reveals Himself, there is every reason to believe that the Hebrews would be at pains to treat historic events as exactly as possible that they might know God better. What is different is that Numbers does not record all events, but only those that best convey the truths the book is seeking to teach. It is a selective history, with theological truth constituting the criterion for selection.

The book’s theology revolves around the outworking of the covenant between God and Israel. In the latter half of Exodus and virtually all Leviticus the stipulations of the covenant are detailed. In return for protection and blessing and a new land, the people agree to serve God only, and that without idolatry. When the covenant was put into practice, however, the gap between profession and reality is plain. A covenant’s working principle is trust, yet it is evident that the Israelites, particularly the first generation, found it almost impossible to trust. The extreme sinfulness of man is taught as clearly in this book as in any other in Scripture. Man does not tend upward toward God and goodness. Rather, given every evidence of God’s presence (the Tabernacle) and His power (various deliverances), man remains proud, selfish, and afraid.

In contrast, God’s faithfulness is clearly depicted in the book. The covenant was broken repeatedly and finally in such a way that the people would not even allow God to keep His promise to them. He would have been more than justified in abandoning them or even destroying them, as He threatened. It took fervent intercessory prayer by Moses to bring from God the continuation of the covenant. He did not annul it even though the people, by their action, had chosen to do so. His purpose to do good to this nation, and through it to the world, would not be thwarted.

The anger of God, as depicted in ch. 14, is offensive to many people and often is termed “sub-Christian.” But it depicts the personal nature of God and expresses the dynamic, passionate nature of Biblical faith. Halfhearted faith is an abomination in the Bible. This divine “explosion” is much more understandable and acceptable to the fiery Mediterranean temperament than it is to the more stolid and inhibited outlook of the northern European peoples.

Another truth that this book teaches is the holiness of God. God is unutterably holy. This is not infinite versus finite, but it is a question of ethical purity, as the entire law shows. In this respect there is a gulf fixed between God and man, which can only destroy that person who attempts to bridge it (Miriam, Korah). The impure cannot exist in the presence of the pure. A myriad of object lessons is used to teach the Heb. people this truth. The minute distinctions between clean and unclean objects, the safeguards around the Tabernacle and its service, the mass of concrete legislation, are all endeavors to demonstrate that in the spiritual and moral realms, there is that which defiles and separates, and there is that which cleanses and unites. God in His grace provided and provides a way of access into His holy presence.

Christians can find great profit in the study of this book. They will find in it valuable correctives for over-familiarity with almighty God. They will gain new appreciation for the dimensions of the gulf that God’s grace has bridged in Jesus Christ. They will become more sensitive to their own great professions and little trust. They will rejoice in the consistency of God’s purpose to bless those who will in the slightest degree permit Him to do so. They will be strengthened to believe God for deliverance from situations beyond their control. They will be encouraged to press on from the vagaries of a “desert” existence to that Christian rest that is the inheritance of every Christian, if he will but possess it.


G. B. Gray, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Numbers (1912); T. Whitelaw, ISBE, IV (1939), 2163-2170; W. F. Albright, “The Oracles of Balaam,” JBL, LXIII (1944), 207-233; KD, III (1949), 1-268; J. S. Wright, “The Composition of the Pentateuch,” EQ, XXV (1953), 2-17; G. E. Mendenhall, “The Census Lists of Numbers 1 and 26,” JBL, LXXVII (1958), 52-66; INT, XIII (1959); E. J. Young, Introduction to the Old Testament, rev. ed. (1960), 89-98; M. Haran, “Studies in the Accounts of the Levitical Cities,” JBL, LXXX (1961), 45-54, 156-165; M. Noth, Numbers: A Commentary (1968); W. A. Sumner, “Israel’s Encounters with Edom, Moab, Ammon, Sihon and Og according to the Deuteronomist,” VetTest, XVIII (1968), 216-228; O. Eissfeldt, “Protektorat Der Midianiter über ihre Nachbarn im letzten Viertel des 2. Jahrtausends v. Chr.,” JBL, LXXXVII (1968), 383-393; G. W. Coats, Rebellion in the Wilderness (1968); R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (1970), 614-634.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)



1. Title

2. Contents


1. Alleged Grounds of Distribution

2. Objections to Same

(1) Hypothesis Unproved

(2) Written Record Not Impossible

(3) No Book Ever Thus Constructed

(4) Inherent Difficulties of Analysis

(a) The Story of the Spies

(b) Rebellion of Korah

(c) Story of Balaam


1. Seeming Chronological Inaccuracies

(1) The Second Passover (Numbers 9:1-5)

(2) The Thirty-seven Years’ Chasm

(3) Fortieth Year

2. So-called Statistical Errors

(1) Number of the Fighting Men

(2) Size of the Congregation

(a) Multiplication of People

(b) Exodus in One Day

(c) Support in Wilderness

(d) Room at Mt. Sinai

(e) Slow Conquest of Canaan

(3) Number of the Firstborn

3. Alleged Physical Impossibilities

(1) Duties of the Priests

(2) Assembling of the Congregation

(3) Marching of the Host

(4) Victory over Midian


1. Against the Mosaic Authorship

(1) Alternating Use of Divine Names

(2) Traces of Late Authorship

2. For the Mosaic Authorship

(1) Certain Passages Have the Appearance of Having Been Written by Moses

(2) Acquaintance on the Part of the Author with Egyptian Manners and Customs


I. Title and Contents.

1. Title:

Styled in the Hebrew Bible bemidhbar, "in the wilderness," from the 5th word in Nu 1:1, probably because of recording the fortunes of Israel in the Sinaitic desert. The 4th book of the Pentateuch (or of the Hexateuch, according to criticism) was designated Arithmoi in the Septuagint, and Numeri in the Vulgate, and from this last received its name "Numbers" in the King James Version, in all 3 evidently because of its reporting the 2 censuses which were taken, the one at Sinai at the beginning and the other on the plains of Moab at the close of the wanderings.

2. Contents:

Of the contents the following arrangement will be sufficiently detailed:

(1) Before leaving Sinai, Nu 1:1-10:10 (a period of 19 days, from the 1st to the 20th of the 2nd month after the exodus), describing:

(a) The numbering and ordering of the people, Numbers 1-4.

(b) The cleansing and blessing of the congregation, Numbers 5; 6.

(c) The princes’ offerings and the dedication of the altar, Numbers 7; 8.

(d) The observance of a second Passover, Nu 9:1-14.

(e) The cloud and the trumpets for the march, Nu 9:15-10:10.

(2) From Sinai to Kadesh, Nu 10:11-14:45 (a period of 10 days, from the 20th to the 30th of the 2nd month), narrating:

(a) The departure from Sinai, Nu 10:11-35.

(b) The events at Taberah and Kibroth-hattaavah, Numbers 11.

(c) The rebellion of Miriam and Aaron, Numbers 12.

(d) The mission of the spies, Numbers 13; 14.

(3) The wanderings in the desert, Numbers 15-19 (a period of 37 years, from the end of the 2nd to the beginning of the 40th year), recording:

(a) Sundry laws and the punishment of a Sabbath breaker, Numbers 15.

(b) The rebellion of Korah, Numbers 16.

(c) The budding of Aaron’s rod, Numbers 17.

(d) The duties and revenues of the priests and Levites, Numbers 18.

(e) The water of separation for the unclean, Numbers 19.

(4) From Kadesh to Moab, Numbers 20; 21 (a period of 10 months, from the beginning of the 40th year), reciting:

(a) The story of Balaam, Nu 22:2-24:25.

(b) The zeal of Phinehas, Numbers 25.

(c) The second census, Nu 26:1-51.

(d) Directions for dividing the land, Nu 26:52-27:11.

(e) Appointment of Moses’ successor, Nu 27:12-23.

(f) Concerning offerings and vows, Numbers 28-30.

(g) War with Midian, Numbers 31.

(h) Settlement of Reuben and Gad, Numbers 32.

(i) List of camping stations, Nu 33:1-49.

(j) Canaan to be cleared of its inhabitants and divided, Nu 33:50-34:29.

(k) Cities of refuge to be appointed, Numbers 35.

(l) The marriage of heiresses, Numbers 36.

II. Literary Structure.

According to modern criticism, the text of Numbers, like that of the other books of the Pentateuch (or Hexateuch), instead of being regarded as substantially the work of one writer (whatever may have been his sources of information and whoever may have been its first or latest editor), should be distributed--not always in solid blocks of composition, but frequently in fragments, in sentences, clauses or words, so mysteriously put together that they cannot now with certainty be separated--among three writers, J, E and P with another D (at least in one part)--these writers, individuals and not schools (Gunkel), belonging, respectively: J to the 9th century BC (circa 830), E to the 8th century BC (circa 750), P to the 5th century BC (circa 444), and D to the 7th century BC (circa 621).

1. Alleged Grounds of Distribution:

The grounds upon which this distribution is made are principally these:

(1) the supposed preferential use of the Divine names, of Yahweh (Yahweh, "Lord") by J, and of Elohim ("God") by E and P--a theory, however, which hopelessly breaks down in its application, as Orr (POT, chapter vii), Eerdmans (St, 33 ff) and Wiener (EPC, I) have conclusively shown, and as will afterward appear;

(2) distinctions in style of composition, which are not always obvious and which, even if they were, would not necessarily imply diversity of authorship unless every author’s writing must be uniform and monotonous, whatever his subject may be; and

(3) perhaps chiefly a preconceived theory of religious development in Israel, according to which the people in pre-Mosaic times were animists, totemists and polytheists; in Mosaic times and after, henotheists or worshippers of one God, while recognizing the existence of other gods; and latterly, in exilic and post-exilic times, monotheists or worshippers of the one living and true God--which theory, in order to vindicate its plausibility, required the reconstruction of Israel’s religious documents in the way above described, but which is now rejected by archaeologists (Delitzsch and A. Jeremias) and by theologians (Orr, Baentsch (though accepting the analysis on other grounds) and Konig) as not supported by facts.

2. Objections to Same:

Without denying that the text-analysis of criticism is on the first blush of it both plausible and attractive and has brought to light valuable information relative to Scripture, or without overlooking the fact that it has behind it the names of eminent scholars and is supported by not a few considerations of weight, one may fairly urge against it the following objections.

(1) Hypothesis Unproved.

At the best, theory is an unproved and largely imaginary hypothesis, or series of hypotheses--"hypothesis built on hypothesis" (Orr); and nothing more strikingly reveals this than

(a) the frequency with which in the text-analysis conjecture ("perhaps" and "probably") takes the place of reasoned proof

(b) the arbitrary manner in which the supposed documents are constructed by the critics who, without reason given, and often in violation of their own rules and principles, lift out of J (for instance) every word or clause they consider should belong to E or the Priestly Code (P), and vice versa every word or clause out of E or P that might suggest that the passage should be assigned to J, at the same time explaining the presence of the inconvenient word or clause in a document to which it did not belong by the careless or deliberate action of a redactor; and

(c) the failure even thus to construct the documents successfully, most critics admitting that J and E cannot with confidence be separated from each other--Kuenen himself saying that "the attempt to make out a Jehovistic and an Elohistic writer or school of writers by means of the Divine names has led criticism on a wrong way"; and some even denying that P ever existed as a separate document at all, Eerdmans (St, 33, 82), in particular, maintaining, as the result of elaborate exegesis, that P could not have been constructed in either exilic or post-exilic times "as an introduction to a legal work."

(2) Written Record Not Impossible.

It is impossible to demonstrate that the story of Israel’s "wanderings" was not committed to writing by Moses, who certainly was not unacquainted with the art of writing, who had the ability, if any man had, to prepare such a writing, whose interest it was, as the leader of his people, to see that such writing, whether done by himself or by others under his supervision, was accurate, and who besides had been commanded by God to write the journeyings of Israel (Nu 33:2). To suppose that for 500 years no reliable record of the fortunes of Israel existed, when during these years writing was practiced in Egypt and Babylon; and that what was then fixed in written characters was only the tradition that had floated down for 5 centuries from mouth to mouth, is simply to say that little or no dependence can be placed upon the narrative, that while there may be at the bottom of it some grains of fact, the main body of it is fiction. This conclusion will not be readily admitted.

(3) No Book Ever Thus Constructed.

No reliable evidence exists that any book either ancient or modern was ever constructed as, according to criticism, the Pentateuch, and in particular Numbers, was. Volumes have indeed been composed by two or more authors, acting in concert, but their contributions have never been intermixed as those of J, E, D and P are declared to have been; nor, when joint authorship has been acknowledged on the title-page, has it been possible for readers confidently to assign to each author his own contribution. And yet, modern criticism, dealing with documents more than 2,000 years old and in a language foreign to the critics--which documents, moreover, exist only in manuscripts not older than the 10th century AD (Buhl, Canon and Text of the Old Testament, 28), and the text of which has been fixed not infallibly either as to consonant or vowel--claims that it can tell exactly (or nearly so) what parts, whether paragraphs, sentences, clauses or words, were supplied by J, E, P and D respectively. Credat Judaeus Apella!

(4) Inherent Difficulties of Analysis.

The critical theory, besides making of the text of Numbers, as of the other books of the Pentateuch, such a patchwork as is unthinkable in any document with ordinary pretension to historical veracity, is burdened with inherent difficulties which make it hard to credit, as the following examples taken from Numbers, will show.

(a) The Story of the Spies:

Numbers 13 and 14 are thus distributed by Cornill, Driver, Strack and E B:

JE, Nu 13:17 b-20,22-24,26b-31,32b,33; 14:3,4,8,9,11-25,39-45.

P, Nu 13:1-17 a,21,25,26a (to Paran),32a; 14:1,2 (in the main),5-7,10,26-38 (in the main).

Kautzsch generally agrees; and Hartford-Battersby in HDB professes ability to divide between J and E.

(i) According to this analysis, however, up to the middle of the 5th century BC, either JE began at Nu 13:17 b, in which case it wanted both the instruction to search the land and the names of the searchers, both of which were subsequently added from P (assuming it to have been a separate document, which is doubtful); or, if JE contained both the instruction and the names, these were supplanted by 13:1-17a from P. As the former of these alternatives is hardly likely, one naturally asks why the opening verses of JE were removed and those of P substituted? And if they were removed, what has become of them? Does not the occurrence of Yahweh in 13:1-17a, on the critical principles of some, suggest that this section is the missing paragraph of JE?

(ii) If the JE passages furnish a nearly complete narrative (Driver), why should the late compiler or editor have deemed it necessary to insert two whole verses, 13:21 and 25, and two halves, 13:26a and 32a, if not because without these the original JE narrative would have been incomplete? Nu 13:21 states in general terms that the spies searched the whole land, proceeding as far North as Hamath, after which 13:22 mentions that they entered the country from the South and went up to Hebron and Eshcol, without at all stating an incongruity (Gray) or implying (Driver) that they traveled no farther North--the reason for specifying the visit to Eshcol being the interesting fact that there the extraordinary cluster of grapes was obtained. Nu 13:25,26 a relate quite naturally that the spies returned to Kadesh after 40 days and reported what they had found to Moses and Aaron as well as to all the congregation. Without these verses the narrative would have stated neither how long the land had been searched nor whether Moses and Aaron had received any report from their messengers, although 13:26b implies that a report was given to some person or persons unnamed. That Moses and Aaron should not have been named in JE is exceedingly improbable. Nu 13:32 a is in no way inconsistent with 13:26b-31, which state that the land was flowing with milk and honey. What 13:32a adds is an expression of the exaggerated fears of the spies, whose language could not mean that the land was so barren that they would die of starvation, a statement which would have expressly contradicted 13:27 (JE)--in which case why should it have been inserted?--but that, notwithstanding its fruitfulness, the population was continually being wasted by internecine wars and the incursions of surrounding tribes. The starvation theory, moreover, is not supported by the texts (Le 26:38; Eze 36:13) usually quoted in its behalf.

(iii) To argue (Driver) for two documents because Joshua is not always mentioned along with Caleb is not strikingly convincing; while if Joshua is not included among the spies in JE, that is obviously because the passages containing his name have been assigned beforehand to P. But if Joshua’s name did not occur in JE, why would it have been inserted in the story by a post-exilic writer, when even in De 1:36 Joshua is not expressly named as one of the spies, though again the language in De 1:38 tacitly suggests that both Caleb and Joshua were among the searchers of the land, and that any partition of the text which conveys the impression that Joshua was not among the spies is wrong?

(iv) If the text-analysis is as the critics arrange, how comes it that in JE the name Yahweh does not once occur, while all the verses containing it are allocated to P?

(b) Rebellion of Korah:

Numbers 16 and 17 are supposed to be the work of "two, if not three," contributors (Driver, Kautzsch)--the whole story being assigned to P (enlarged by additions about which the text analysts are not unanimous), with the exception of 16:1b,2a,12-15,25,26,27b-34, which are given to JE, though variations here also are not unknown.

It is admitted that the JE verses, if read continuously, make out a story of Dathan and Abiram as distinguished from Korah and his company; that the motives of Dathan and Abiram probably differed from those of Korah and his company, and that Dathan and Abiram were swallowed up by an earthquake, while the 250 incense-offerers were destroyed by fire. To conclude from this, however, that three or even two narratives have been intermixed is traveling beyond the premises.

(i) If JE contained more about the conspiracy of the Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram, than has been preserved in the verses assigned to it, what has become of the excised verses, if they are not those ascribed to P; and, if they are not, what evidence exists that P’s verses are better than the lost verses of JE? And how comes it that in P the Divine name used throughout, with one exception, 16:22, is Yahweh, while in JE it occurs only 6 t? (ii) If JE contained only the parts assigned to it and nothing more happened than the Reubenite emeute, why should the Korahite rebellion have been added to it 4 centuries later, if that rebellion never happened? (iii) If the Korahite conspiracy did happen, why should it have been omitted in JE, and nothing whispered about it till after the exile? (iv) If the two conspiracies, ecclesiastical (among the princes) and civil (among the laymen), arose contemporaneously, and the conspirators made common cause with one another, in that there was nothing unusual or contrary to experience. (v) If Moses addressed himself now to Korah and again to Dathan and Abiram, why should not the same document say so? (vi) If Dathan and Abiram were engulfed by an earthquake, and the 250 princes were consumed by fire from the tabernacle, even that does not necessitate two documents, since both events might have occurred together. (vii) It is not certain that P (16:35-43) represents Korah as having been consumed by fire, while JE (16:31-33) declares he was swallowed up by the earth. At least P (26:10) distinctly states that Korah was swallowed up by the earth, and that only the 250 were consumed by fire.

Wherefore, in the face of these considerations, it is not too much to say that the evidence for more documents than one in this story is not convincing.

(c) Story of Balaam:

Numbers 22-24 fare more leniently at the hands of analysis, being all left with JE, except 22:1, which is generously handed over to P. Uncertainty, however, exists as to how to partition chapter 22 between J and E. Whether all should be given to E because of the almost uniform use of Elohim rather than of Yahweh, with the exception of 22:22-35a, which are the property of J because of the use of Yahweh (Driver, Kautzsch); or whether some additional verses should not be assigned to J (Cornill, HDB), critics are not agreed. As to Numbers 23 and 24, authorities hesitate whether to give both to J or to E, or chapter 23 to E and chapter 24 to J, or both to a late redactor who had access to the two sources--surely an unsatisfactory demonstration in this case at least of the documentary hypothesis. Comment on the use of the Divine names in this story is reserved till later.

Yet, while declining to accept this hypothesis as proved, it is not contended that the materials in Nu are always arranged in chronological order, or that the style of composition is throughout the same, or that the book as it stands has never been revised or edited, but is in every jot and tittle the same as when first constructed. In Numbers 7, e.g., the narrative goes back to the 1st day of the 1st month of the 2nd year, and in chapter 9 to the 1st month of the 2nd year, though chapter 1 begins with the 1st day of the 2nd month of the 2nd year. There are also legislative passages interspersed among the historical, and poetical among the prosaic, but diversity of authorship, as already suggested, cannot be inferred from either of these facts unless it is impossible for a writer to be sometimes disorderly in the arrangement of his materials; and for a lawgiver to be also a historian, and for a prose writer occasionally to burst into song. Assertions like these, however, cannot be entertained. Hence, any argument for plurality of documents rounded on them must be set aside. Nor is it a fair conclusion against the literary unity of the book that its contents are varied in substance and form and have been subjected, as is probable, to revision and even to interpolations, provided always these revisions and interpolations have not changed the meaning of the book. Whether, therefore, the Book of Nu has or has not been compiled from preexisting documents, it cannot be justly maintained that the text-analysis suggested by the critics has been established, or that the literary unity of Nu has been disproved.

III. Historical Credibility.

Were the narrative in this book written down immediately or soon after the events it records, no reason would exist for challenging its authenticity, unless it could be shown either from the narrative itself or from extraneous sources that the events chronicled were internally improbable, incredible or falsified. Even should it be proved that the text consists of two or more preexisting documents interwoven with one another, this would not necessarily invalidate its truthfulness, if these documents were practically contemporaneous with the incidents they report, and were not combined in such a way as to distort and misrepresent the occurrences they related. If, however, these pre-existing documents were prepared 500 (JE) or 1,000 (P) years after the incidents they narrate, and were merely a fixing in written characters of traditions previously handed down (JE), or of legislation newly invented and largely imaginary (P), it will not be easy to establish their historical validity. The credibility of this portion of the Pentateuch has been assailed on the alleged ground that it contains chronological inaccuracies, statistical errors and physical impossibilities.

1. Seeming Chronological Inaccuracies:

(1) The Second Passover (Numbers 9:1-5)

The critical argument is that a contemporary historian would naturally have placed this paragraph before Nu 1:1. The answer is that possibly he would have done so had his object been to observe strict chronological order, which it manifestly was not (see Numbers 7 and 9), and had he when commencing the book deemed it necessary to state that the Israelites had celebrated a second Passover on the legally appointed day, the 14th of the 1st month of the 2nd year. This, however, he possibly at first assumed would be understood, and only afterward, when giving the reason for the supplementary Passover, realized that in after years readers might erroneously conclude that this was all the Passover that had been kept in the 2nd year. So to obviate any such mistaken inference, he prefixed to his account of the Little Passover, as it is sometimes called, a statement to the effect that the statutory ordinance, the Great Passover, had been observed at the usual time, in the usual way, and that, too, in obedience to the express commandment of Yahweh.

(2) The Thirty-seven Years’ Chasm.

Whether Nu 20:1 be considered the beginning of the 3rd or of the 40th year, in either case a period of 37 years is passed over--in the one case in almost unbroken silence; in the other with scarcely anything of moment recorded save Korah’s rebellion and the publication of a few laws concerning offerings to be made when the people reached the land of their habitation. To pronounce the whole book unhistorical because of this long interval of absolute or comparative silence (Bleek) is unreasonable. Most histories on this principle would be cast into the wastebasket. Besides, a historian might have as good reason for passing over as for recording the incidents of any particular period. And this might have been the case with the author of Numbers. From the moment sentence of death was passed upon the old generation at Kadesh, till the hour when the new generation started out for Canaan, he may have counted that Israel had practically ceased to be the people of Yahweh, or at least that their fortunes formed no part of the history of Yahweh’s kingdom; and it is noticeable that scarcely had the tribes reassembled at Kadesh in preparation for their onward march than Miriam and Aaron, probably the last of the doomed generation, died. Accordingly, from this point on, the narrative is occupied with the fortunes of the new generation. Whether correct or not, this solution of the 37 years’ silence (Kurtz) is preferable to that which suggests (Ewald) that the late compiler, having found it impossible to locate all the traditions he had collected into the closing years of the wanderings, placed the rest of them in the first 2 years, and left the interval a blank--a solution which has not even the merit of being clever and explains nothing. It does not explain why, if the narrator was not writing history, there should have been an interval at all. A romancer would not have missed so splendid an opportunity for exercising his art, would not have left a gap of 37 years unfilled, but like the writers of the apocryphal Gospels would have crowded it with manufactured tales.

On the better theory, not only is the silence explained, but the items inserted are accounted for as well. Though the unbelieving generation had ceased to be the people of Yahweh, Aaron had not yet been sentenced to exclusion from the promised land, He was still one of the representatives of the kingdom of Yahweh, and Korah’s rebellion practically struck a blow at that kingdom. As such it was punished, and the story of its breaking out and suppression was recorded, as a matter that vitally concerned the stability of the kingdom. For a like reason, the legislative sections were included in the narrative. They were Yahweh’s acts and not the people’s. They were statutes and ordinances for the new generation in the new land.

(3) Fortieth Year.

The events recorded as having taken place between the 1st of the 5th month (the date of Aaron’s death) and the 1st of the 11th month (the date of Moses’ address) are so numerous and important as to render it impossible, it is said, to maintain the credibility of this portion of the narrative. But

(a) it is not certain that all the events in this section were finished before Moses began his oration; neither

(b) is it necessary to hold that they all occurred in succession; while

(c) until the rapidity with which events followed one another is ascertained, it will not be possible to decide whether or not they could all have been begun and finished within the space of 6 months.

2. So-called Statistical Errors:

(1) Number of the Fighting Men.

This, which may be set down roughly at 600,000, has been challenged on two grounds:

(a) that the number is too large, and

(b) that the censuses at Sinai and in Moab are too nearly equal.

The first of these objections will be considered in the following section when treating of the size of the congregation. The second will not appear formidable if it be remembered

(a) that it is neither impossible nor unusual for the population of a country to remain stationary for a long series of years;

(b) that there was a special fitness in Israel’s ease that the doomed generation should be replaced by one as nearly as possible equal to that which had perished;

(c) that had the narrative been invented, it is more than likely that the numbers would have been made either exactly equal or more widely divergent; and

(d) that so many variations occurring in the strength of the tribes as numbered at Sinai and again in Moab, while the totals so nearly correspond, constitutes a watermark of truthfulness which should not be overlooked.

(2) Size of the Congregation.

Taking the fighting men at 600,000 and the whole community at 4 1/2 times that number, or about 2 1/2 millions, several difficulties emerge which have led to the suggestion (Eerdmans, Conder, Wiener) that the 600,000 should be reduced (to, say, 6,000), and the entire population to less than 30,000. The following alleged impossibilities are believed to justify this reduction:

(a) that of 70 families increasing to 2 1/2 millions between the descent into, and the departure from, Egypt;

(b) that of 2 1/2 millions being led out of Egypt in one day;

(c) that of obtaining support for so large a multitude with their flocks in the Sinaitic desert;

(d) that of finding room for them either before the Mount at Sinai, or in the limited territory of Palestine; and

(e) that of the long time it took to conquer Palestine if the army was 600,000 strong.

(a) Multiplication of People:

As to the possibility of 70 souls multiplying in the course of 215 years or 7 generations (to take the shorter interval rather than the longer of 430 years) into 2 1/2 millions of persons giving 600,000 fighting men, that need not be regarded as incredible till the rate of increase in each family is exactly known. Allowing to each of Jacob’s grandsons who were married (say 51 out of 53), 4 male descendants (Colenso allows 4 1/2), these would in 7 generations--not in 4 (Colenso)--amount to 835,584, and with surviving fathers and grandfathers added might well reach 900,000, of whom 600,000 might be above 20 years of age. But in point of fact, without definite data about the number of generations, the rates of birth and of mortality in each generation, all calculations are at the best problematical. The most that can be done is to consider whether the narrative mentions any circumstances fitted to explain this large number of fighting men and the great size of the congregation, and then whether the customary objections to the Biblical statement can be satisfactorily set aside.

As for corroborative circumstances, the Bible expressly states that during the years of the oppression the Hebrews were extraordinarily fruitful, and that this was the reason why Pharaoh became alarmed and issued his edict for the destruction of the male children. The fruitfulness of the Hebrews, however, has been challenged (Eerdmans, Verger schichte Israels, 78) on the ground that were the births so numerous as this presupposes, two midwives (Ex 1:15) would not have sufficed for the necessary offices. But if the two to whom Pharaoh spake were the superintendents of the midwives throughout Goshen, to whom the king would hardly address himself individually, or if they were the two officiating in Hellopolls, the statement in Ex 1:15 will appear natural enough, and not opposed to the statement in Ex 1:10 that Pharaoh was alarmed at the multiplication of the Hebrews in his land. And, indeed, if the Hebrews were only 30,000 strong, it is not easy to see why the whole might of Egypt could not have kept them in subjection. Then as to the congregation being 2 1/2 millions if the 2 fighting men were 600,000, that corresponds with the proportion which existed among the Helvetii, who had 92,000 men capable of bearing arms out of a population, including children, old men and women, of 368,000 souls (Caesar, BG, i, 20). This seems to answer the objection (Eerdmans, Vorgeschichte Israels, 78) that the unschooled Oriental is commonly addicted to exaggeration where numbers are concerned.

(b) Exodus in One Day:

The second difficulty would be serious were it necessary to suppose that the Israelites had never heard about their projected journey till the 14th of the 1st month. But the idea of going forth from Egypt must have been before them since the day Moses went to Pharaoh to demand their liberation; and at least 4 days before the 14th they had begun to prepare for departure. In circumstances such as these, with a people thirsting for liberty and only waiting the signal to move, aware also of the hour at which that signal would be given, namely, at midnight, it does not appear so formidable a task as is imagined to get them all assembled in one day at a fore-appointed rendezvous, more especially as they were not likely to delay or linger in their movements. But how could there have been 2 1/2 millions of fugitives, it is asked (Eerdmans, Wiener), if Pharaoh deemed 600 chariots sufficient for pursuit? The answer is that Pharaoh did not reckon 600 chariots sufficient, but in addition to these, which were "chosen chariots," he took all the chariots of Egypt, his horsemen and his army (Ex 14:7,9), which were surely adequate to overcome a weaponless crowd, however big it might be. And that it was big, a vast horde indeed, Pharaoh’s host implies.

(c) Support in Wilderness:

The supposed difficulty of obtaining support for 2 1/2 millions of people with the flocks and herds in the Sinaitic desert takes for granted that the desert was then as barren a region as it is now, which cannot be proved, and is as little likely to be correct as it would be to argue that Egypt, which was then the granary of the world, was no more fertile than it was 10 years ago, or that the regions in which Babylon and Assyria were situated were as desolate then as they are now. This supposition disregards the fact that Moses fed the flocks of Jethro for 40 years in that same region of Sinai; that when the Israelites passed through it, it was inhabited by several powerful tribes. It overlooks, too, the fact that the flocks and herds of Israel were not necessarily all cooped up in one spot, but were most likely spread abroad in districts where water and vegetation could be found. And it ignores the statement in the narrative that the Israelites were not supplied exclusively by the produce of the desert, but had manna from heaven from the 1st day of the 2nd month after leaving Egypt till they reached Canaan. Rationalistic expositors may relegate this statement to the limbo of fable, but unless the supernatural is to be eliminated altogether from the story, this statement must be accorded its full weight. So must the two miraculous supplies of water at Horeb (Ex 17) and at Kadesh (Nu 20) be treated. It is sometimes argued that these supplies were quite insufficient for 2 1/2 millions of people with their flocks and herds; and that therefore the congregation could not have been so large. But the narrative in Nu states, and presumably it was the same in Exodus, that the smitten rock poured forth its water so copiously and so continuously that `the people drank abundantly with their flocks.’ Wherefore no conclusion can be drawn from this against the reported size of the congregation.

(d) Room at Mt. Sinai:

As to the impossibility of finding room for 2 1/2 millions of people either before the Mount at Sinai or within the land of Canaan (Conder), few will regard this as self-evident. If the site of their encampment was the Er-Rahab plain (Robinson, Stanley)--though the plain of Sebayeh, admittedly not so roomy, has been mentioned (Ritter, Kurtz, Knobel)--estimates differ as to the sufficiency of accommodation to be found there. Conder gives the dimensions of the plain as 4 square miles, which he deems insufficient, forgetting, perhaps, that "its extent is farther increased by lateral valleys receding from the plain itself" (Forty Days in the Desert, 73; compare Keil on Ex 19:1,2). Kalisch, though putting the size of the plain at a smaller figure, adds that "it thus furnished ample tenting ground for the hosts of Israel"--a conclusion accepted by Ebers, Riehm and others. In any case it seems driving literal interpretation to extreme lengths to hold that camping before the Mount necessarily meant that every member of the host required to be in full view of Sinai. As to not finding room in Canaan, it is doubtful if, after the conquest, the remnants of both peoples at any time numbered as many persons as dwelt in Palestine during the most flourishing years of the kingdom. It may well be that the whole population of Palestine today amounts to only about 600,000 souls; but Palestine today under Turkish rule is no proper gauge for judging of Palestine under David or even under Joshua.

(e) Slow Conquest of Canaan:

The long time it took to conquer Palestine (Eerdmans, Vorgeschichte Israels, 78) is no solid argument to prove the unreliable character of the statement about the size of the army, and therefore of the congregation. Every person knows that in actual warfare, victory does not always go with the big battalions; and in this instance the desert-trained warriors allowed themselves to be seduced by the idolatries and immoralities of the Canaanites and forgot to execute the commission with which they had been entrusted, namely, to drive out the Canaanites from the land which had been promised to their fathers. Had they been faithful to Yahweh, they would not have taken so long completely to possess the land (Ps 81:13,14). But if instead of having 600,000 stalwart soldiers they had only possessed 6,000, it is not difficult to see how they could not drive out the Canaanites. The difficulty is to perceive how they could have achieved as much as they did.

(3) Number of the Firstborn.

That the 22,273 firstborn males from 1 month old and upward (Nu 3:43) is out of all proportion to the 603,550 men of 20 years old and upward, being much too few, has frequently (Bleek, Bohlen, Colenso and others) been felt as a difficulty, since it practically involves the conclusion that for every firstborn there must have been 40 or 45 males in each family. Various solutions of this difficulty have been offered. The prevalence of polygamy has been suggested (Michaelis, Havernick). The exclusion of firstborn sons who were married, the inclusion only of the mother’s firstborn, and the great fruitfulness of Hebrew mothers have been called in to surmount the difficulty (Kurtz). But perhaps the best explanation is that only those were counted who were born after the Law was given on the night of the departure from Egypt (Ex 13:2; Nu 3:13; 8:17) (Keil, Delitzsch, Gerlach). It may be urged, of course, that this would require an exceptionally large number of births in the 13 months; but in the exceptionally joyous circumstances of the emancipation this might not have been impossible. In any case, it does not seem reasonable on account of this difficulty, which might vanish were all the facts known, to impeach the historical accuracy of the narrative, even in this particular.

(NOTE.--In Scotland, with a population of nearly double that of the Israelites, namely, 4,877,648, the marriages in 1909 were 30,092, the lowest on record for 55 years. At this rate the births in Israel during the first 12 months after the exodus might have been 15,046, assuming each marriage to have had issue. As this marriage rate, however, is excessively low for Scotland in normal years, the number of marriages and therefore of births in Israel in the first year after the exodus may well have been twice, if not 3 times, 15,046, i.e. 30,092, or 45,138. Reckoning the half of these as males, namely, 15,046 or 22,569, it does not appear as if the number of the firstborn in the text were quite impossible, on the supposition made.)

3. Alleged Physical Impossibilities:

(1) Duties of the Priests.

These are supposed to have been so onerous that Aaron and his sons could not possibly have performed them. But

(a) the Levitical laws, though published in the desert, were not necessarily intended to receive full and minute observance there, but only in Canaan.

(b) In point of fact, as Moses afterward testified (De 12:8), the Levitical laws were not scrupulously kept in the wilderness.

(c) There is no reason to suppose that the Passover of the 2nd year was celebrated otherwise than it had been in Egypt before the exodus, the slaughtering of the lambs being performed by the heads of families. And

(d) as the Levites were set apart to minister to the tabernacle (Nu 1:50), they would be able in many ways to assist the priests.

(2) Assembling of the Congregation.

The assembling of the congregation at the door of the tabernacle (Nu 10:3,4) has been adduced as another physical impossibility; and no doubt it was if every man, woman and child, or even only every man was expected to be there; but not if the congregation was ordinarily represented by its "renowned" or "called" men, princes of the tribes of their fathers, heads of thousands of Israel (Nu 1:16). To suppose that anything else was meant is surely not required. When Moses called all Israel and spake unto them (De 5:1; 29:2), no intelligent person understands that he personally addressed every individual, or spoke so as to be heard by every individual, though what he said was intended for all. An additional difficulty in the way of assembling the congregation, and by implication an argument against the size of the congregation, has been discovered in the two silver trumpets which, it is contended, were too few for summoning so vast a host as 2 1/2 millions of people. But it is not stated in the narrative either

(a) that it was absolutely necessary that every individual in the camp should hear the sound of the trumpets any more than it was indispensable that Balaam’s curse should re-echo to the utmost bounds of Israel (Nu 23:13), or that a public proclamation by a modern state, though prefaced by means of an "Oyez," should be heard by all within the state or even within its capital; or

(b) if it was necessary that everyone should hear, that the trumpeters could not move about through the camp but must remain stationary at the tabernacle door; or

(c) that in the clear air of the desert the sound of the trumpets would not travel farther than in the noisy and murky atmosphere of modern cities; or

(d) that should occasion arise for more trumpets than two, Moses and his successors were forbidden to make them.

(3) Marching of the Host.

The marching of the host in four main divisions of about half a million each (Nu 2; 10:14-20) has also been pronounced a stumbling-block (Colenso, Eerdmans, Doughty), inasmuch as the procession formed (i.e. if no division began to fall into line till its predecessor had completed its evolutions) would require the whole day for its completion, and would make a column of unprecedented length--of 22 miles (Colenzo), of 600 miles (Doughty)--and would even on the most favorable hypothesis travel only a few miles, when the whole line would again need to reconstruct the camp. The simple statement of this shows its absurdity as an explanation of what actually took place on the march, and indirectly suggests that the narrative may be historical after all, as no romancer of a late age would have risked his reputation by laying down such directions for the march, if they were susceptible of no other explanation than the above. How precisely the march was conducted may be difficult or even impossible to describe in such a way as to obviate all objections. But some considerations may be advanced to show that the march through the desert was neither impossible nor incredible.

(a) The deploying of the four main divisions into line may have gone on simultaneously, as they were widely apart from each other, on the East (Judah), on the South (Reuben), on the West (Ephraim) and on the North (Dan).

(b) There is no ground for thinking that the march would be conducted, at least at first, with the precision of a modern army, or that each division would extend itself to the length of 22 miles. It is more than likely that they would follow their standards as best they could or with such order as could be arranged by their captains.

(c) If the camps of Judah and Reuben started their preparations together, say at 6 o’clock in the morning (which might be possible), and occupied 4 hours in completing these, they might begin to advance at 10 o’clock and cover 10 miles in another 4 hours, thus bringing them on to 2 PM, after which 4 hours more would enable them to encamp themselves for the night, if that was necessary. The other two divisions falling into line, say at 2 o’clock, would arrive at 6 PM, and by 10 PM would be settled for the night.

(d) It does not seem certain that every night upon the march they would arrange themselves into a regularly constructed camp; rather it is reasonable to conclude that this would be done only when they had reached a spot where a halt was to be made for some time.

(e) In any case, in the absence of more details as to how the march was conducted, arithmetical calculations are of little value and are not entitled to discredit the truthfulness of the narrative.

(4) Victory over Midian.

This has been objected to on moral grounds which are not now referred to. It is the supposed impossibility of 12,000 Israelites slaying all the male Midianites, capturing all their women and children, including 32,000 virgins, seizing all their cattle and flocks, with all their goods, and burning all their cities and castles without the loss of a single man (Nu 31:49), which occasions perplexity. Yet Scripture relates several victories of a similar description, as e.g. that of Abraham over the kings of the East (Ge 14:15), in which, so far as the record goes, no loss was incurred by the patriarch’s army; that of Gideon’s 300 over the Midianites at a later date (Jud 7:22); that of Samson single-handed over 1,000 Philistines (Jud 15:15); and that of Jehoshaphat at the battle of Tekoa (2Ch 20:24), which was won without a blow--all more or less miraculous, no doubt. But in profane history, Tacitus (Ann. xiii.39) relates an instance in which the Romans slaughtered all their foes without losing a single man; and Strabo (xvi.1128) mentions a battle in which 1,000 Arabs were slain by only 2 Romans; while the life of Saladin contains a like statement concerning the issue of a battle (Havernick, Intro, 330). Hence, Israel’s victory over Midian does not afford sufficient ground for challenging its historic credibility.

IV. Authorship.

Restricting attention to evidence from Nu itself, it may be remarked in a general way that the question of authorship is practically settled by what has been advanced on its literary structure and historical credibility. For, if the materials of the book were substantially the work of one pen (whoever may have been their first collector or last redactor), and if these materials are upon the whole trustworthy, there will be little room to doubt that the original pen was in the hand of a contemporary and eyewitness of the incidents narrated, and that the contemporary and eyewitness was Moses, who need not, however, have set down everything with his own hand, all that is necessary to justify the ascription of the writing to him being that it should have been composed by his authority and under his supervision. In this sense it is believed that indications are not wanting in the book both against and for the Mosaic authorship; and these may now be considered.

1. Against the Mosaic Authorship:

(1) Alternating Use of Divine Names. This usage, after forming so characteristic a feature in Ge and largely disappearing in Exodus and Leviticus, reasserts itself in Numbers, and more particularly in the story of Balaam. If Numbers 23 and 24 can be explained only as late documents pieced together, because of the use of "God" in chapter 23 and of "Lord" in chapter 24, then Moses was not their author. But if the varying use of the divine names is susceptible of explanation on the assumption that the two chapters originally formed one document, then most distinctly the claim of Moses to authorship is not debarred. Now whether Balaam was a false or a true prophet, it is clear that he could hope to please Balak only by cursing Israel in the name of Yahweh, the God ’Elohim of Israel; and so it is always Yahweh he consults or pretends to consult before replying to the messengers of Balak. Four times he did so (22:8,19; 23:3,15); and 3 times it was Elohim who met him (22:9,20; 23:14), while every time it was Yahweh who put the word in his mouth. Can any conclusion be fairer than that the historian regarded ’Elohim and Yahweh as the same Divine Being, and represented this as it were by a double emphasis, which showed

(a) that the Yahweh whom Balaam consulted was Elohim or the supreme God, and

(b) that the God who met Balaam and supplied him with oracles was Israel’s Lord? Thus explained, the alternate use of the Divine names does not require the hypothesis of two single documents rolled into one; and indeed the argument from the use of the divine names is now generally abandoned.

(2) Traces of Late Authorship.

Traces of late authorship are believed to exist in several passages:

(a) Nu 15:32-36 seems to imply that the writer was no longer in the wilderness, which may well have been the case, if already he was in the land of Moab.

(b) 20:5 suggests, it is said, that the people were then in Canaan. But the language rather conveys the impression that they were not yet come to Canaan; and in point of fact the people were at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.

(c) In 21:14,15,17,18,27-30, certain archaic songs are cited as if the people were familiar with them, and the Arnon is mentioned as the border of Moab long before Israel reached the river. But that poets were among the people at the time of the exodus and probably long before, the song of Moses (Ex 15) shows, and that a Book of the Wars of the Lord was begun to be composed soon after the defeat of Amalek is not an unreasonable hypothesis (Ex 17:14). As for the statement that "Arnon leaneth upon the borders of Moab," that may have been superfluous as a matter of information to the contemporaries of Moses when they were about to cross the stream (Strack, Einl, 25), but it was quite in place in an old prophetic song, as showing that their present position had been long before anticipated and foretold.

(d) 24:7, according to criticism, could not have been composed before the rise of the monarchy; and certainly it could not, if prediction of future events is impossible. But if reference to a coming king in Israel was put into Balaam’s mouth by the Spirit of God, as the narrator says, then it could easily have been made before the monarchy; and so could

(e) 24:17,18 have been written before the reign of David, though the conquest of the Edomites only then began (2Sa 8:14; 1Ki 11:1; 1Ch 18:12,13).

Examples such as these show that many, if not most, of the like objections against the Mosaic authorship of this book are capable of at least possible solution; and that Kuenen’s caution should not be forgotten: "He who relies upon the impression made by the whole, without interrogation of the parts one by one, repudiates the first principles of all scientific research, and pays homage to superficiality" (Religion of Israel, I, 11).

2. For the Mosaic Authorship:

(1) Certain Passages Have the Appearance of Having Been Written by Moses.

These are:

(a) those which bear evidence of having been intended for a people not settled in cities but dwelling in tents and camps, as e.g. Numbers 1-4, describing the arrangements for the census and the formation of the camp; 6:24-26, the high-priestly benediction; 10:35,36, the orders for the marching and the halting of the host; 10:1-9, the directions about the silver trumpets; Numbers 19, the legislation which obviously presupposes the wilderness as the place for its observance (19:3,7,9,14). If criticism allows that these and other passages have descended from the Mosaic age, why should it be necessary to seek another author for them than Moses? And if Moses could have composed these passages, a presumption at least is created that the whole book has proceeded from his pen.

(b) The patriotic songs taken from the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21), which some critics (Cornill, Kautzsch and others) hold cannot be later than 750 BC, are by equally competent scholars (Bleek, De Wette, E. Meyer, Konig and others) recognized as parts of Israel’s inheritance from the Mosaic age, whenever they were incorporated in Numbers.

(c) The list of camping stations (Numbers 33) is expressly assigned to him. Whether "by the commandment of the Lord" should be connected with the "journeys" (Konig) or the "writing" makes no difference as to the authorship of this chapter, at least in the sense that it is based on a Mosaic document (Strack). It is true that even if this chapter as it stands was prepared by Moses, that does not amount to conclusive evidence of the Mosaic authorship of the whole book. Yet it creates a presumption in its favor (Drechsler, Keil, Zahn). For why should Moses have been specially enjoined to write so comparatively uninteresting and unprofitable a document as a list of names, many of which are now incapable of identification, if that was all? But if Moses was already writing up a journal or history of the wanderings, whether by his own hand or by means of amanuenses, and whether by express command or without it (not an unreasonable supposition), there was no particular need to record that this was so. If, however, Moses was not thinking of preserving an itinerary, and God for reasons of His own desired that he should do so, then there was need for a special commandment to be given; and need that it should be recorded to explain why Moses incorporated in his book a list of names that in most people’s judgment might have been omitted without imperiling the value of the book. Looked at in this way, the order to prepare this itinerary rather strengthens the idea of the Mosaic authorship of the whole book.

(2) Acquaintance on the Part of the Author with Egyptian Manners and Customs.

This points in the direction of Moses.

(a) The trial by jealousy (Nu 5:11-31) may be compared with the tale of Setnau, belonging probably to the 3rd century BC, but relating to the times of Rameses II, in which Ptahnefer-ka, having found the book which the god Thoth wrote with his own hand, copied it on a piece of papyrus, dissolved the copy in water and drank the solution, with the result that he knew all the book contained (RP, IV, 138). (b) The consecration of the Levites (Nu 8:7) resembled the ablutions of the Egyptian priests who shaved their heads and bodies every 3rd day, bathed twice during the day and twice during the night, and performed a grand ceremony of purification, preparatory to their seasons of fasting, which sometimes lasted from 7 to 40 days and even more (WAE, I, 181).

(c) Uncleanness from contact with the dead (Nu 19:11) was not unknown to the Egyptians, who required their priests to avoid graves, funerals and funeral feasts (Porphyry, De Abst. ii.50, quoted in Speaker’s Comm.).

(d) The fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic referred to in Nu 11:5 were articles of diet in Egypt (Herodotus ii.93):

(e) The antiquarian statement about Hebron (13:22) fits in well with a writer in Mosaic times. "A later writer could have had no authority for making the statement and no possible reason for inventing it" (Pulpit Commentary on Numbers). On a candid review of all the arguments pro and con, it is not too much to say that the preponderance of evidence lies on the side of the substantial Mosaicity of the Book of Numbers.


Comms. on Nu by Bertheau (ET), Knobel, Keil (ET), Dillmann, Strack, Lange (English translation); in Speaker’s Comm., Pulpit Comm., ICC (Gray); Biblical Intros of De Wette, Hengstenberg, Havernick, Bleek, Konig, Strack, Cornill, Driver; in encs, etc., RE, HDB, EB, Sch-Herz; critical comms.: Reuss, Die Geschichte der heiligen Schriften AT; Kuenen, The Religion of Israel (English translation); Wellhausen, Geschichte Israels and Prolegomena (English translation); Klostermann, Der Pentateuch; Eerdmans, Alttest. Studien; Addis, Documents of Hexateuch; Olford Hexateuch; EPC.

T. Whitelaw