The book takes its name from the numberings (Numbers 1 and Numbers 26). The Hebrew name it from its first word waedaber, or its first distinctive word Bemidbar. It narrates Israel's stay in the desert from the law giving at Sinai (Leviticus 27:34) to their mustering in Moab's plains before entering Canaan. The parts are four:
(1) Preparations for breaking up the camp at Sinai to march to Canaan (Numbers 1 -10:10).
(2) March from Sinai to Canaan's border; repulse by the Amorites (Numbers 10:11-14:45).
(3) Selected incidents and enactments during the 38 years' penal wandering (Numbers 15:1-19:22).
(4) Last year in the desert, the 40th year after the Exodus (Numbers 20:1-36;Numbers 20:13).
Israel's first encampment near Kadesh was at Rithmah (from retem, the "broom") in midsummer, in the second year after the Exodus; there for 40 days they awaited the spies' report (Numbers 13:20; Numbers 13:25-26; Numbers 33:18-19, from verses 20 to 36 are the stages of penal wandering). On the first month of the 40th year they are at Kadesh once more. The tabernacle and Moses remained at Kadesh on the first occasion, while Israel attempted to occupy Canaan too late (Numbers 14:44). For a long period ("many days") they stayed still here, after failure, in hope God would yet remit the sentence (Deuteronomy 1:45-46). Then they "compassed Mount Seir (the wilderness of Paran) many days," until that whole generation died (Deuteronomy 2:1). The 17 stations belong to that dreary period (Numbers 33:19-36). The people spread about the ridges of Paran, while the tabernacle and camp moved among them from place to place. At the second encampment at Kadesh they stayed three or four months (Numbers 20:1 with Numbers 1:22-28; Numbers 33:38). Miriam died, and was buried there.
The people mustering all together exhausted the natural water supply; the smiting of the rock, and the sentence on Moses and Aaron followed (Numbers 20:2 ff; Numbers 20:12; Numbers 20:13); from Kadesh Israel sent the message to Edom (Numbers 20:14, etc.). On the messengers' return Israel left Kadesh for Mount Hor, where Aaron dies; then proceeded by the marches in Numbers 33:41-49 round Edom to Moab. The camp and tabernacle, with the priests and chiefs, during the wanderings, were the nucleus and rallying point; and the encampments named in Numbers 33:18-36 are those at which the tabernacle was pitched. Kehelathah ("assembling": Numbers 33:22) and Makheloth ("assemblies") were probably stages at which special gatherings took place. During the year's stay at Sinai the people would disperse to seek food: so also during the 38 years' wandering. They bought provisions from neighbouring tribes (Deuteronomy 2:26-29). Fish at Ezion Geber (Numbers 33:35) was obtainable.
Caravans passed over the desert of wandering as the regular route between the East and Egypt. The resources of the region sufficed in that day for a comparatively large population whose traces are found. The excessive hardships detailed Deuteronomy 1:19; Deuteronomy 8:15, belong to the closing marches of the 40th year through the Arabah, not to the whole period (Numbers 21:4). Between the limestone cliffs of the Tih on the W. and the granite range of Seir on the E. the Arabah is a mountain plain of loose sand and granite gravel, with little food or water, and troubled with sand storms from the gulf.
CHRONOLOGY. Numbers begins with the first day of the second month of the second year after they left Egypt (Numbers 1:1). Aaron's death occurred in the first day of the fifth month of the 40th year (Numbers 33:38), the first encampment in the final march to Canaan (Numbers 20:22). Between these two points intervene 38 years and three months of wandering (Deuteronomy 2:14; Numbers 14:27-35). Moses recapitulated the law after Sihon's and Og's defeat in the beginning of the eleventh month of the 40th year (Deuteronomy 1:3-4). Thus six months intervene between Aaron's death and Deuteronomy; in them the events of the fourth part of the Book of Numbers (Numbers 20:1 to the end) occurred, excepting Arad's defeat. The first month mourning for Aaron occupies, Numbers 20:29; part of the host in this month avenged Arad's attack during Israel's journey from Kadesh to Mount Hor.
Arad's attack would be while Israel was near, nor would be wait until Israel withdrew 60 miles S. to Mount Hor (Numbers 20:23; Numbers 20:25). His attack was evidently when the camp moved from Kadesh, which was immediately S. of Arad. He feared their invasion would be "by way of the spies," namely, from the same quarter as before (Numbers 14:40-45; Numbers 21:1), so he took the offensive. The war with Arad precedes in time Numbers 20, Aaron's burial at Mount Hor, and is the first of the series of victories under Moses narrated from this point. (See HORMAH.) Next, from Mount Hor Israel compassed Edom by way of the Red Sea (Numbers 21:4), a 220-mile journey, about four weeks, to the brook Zered (Numbers 21:12), the first westward flowing brook they met, marking therefore an epoch in their march. Then follows Sihon's and Og's overthrow at Jahaz and Edrei, about the middle of the third of the six months.
Their defeat caused Balak to summon Balaam to curse Israel from "Pethor, which was on the river (Euphrates) in his native land" (so, Numbers 22:5), at least 350 miles distant. Two months suffice for his ambassadors to go and return twice, and for Balaam's prophesying (Numbers 22-24). Israel probably was meanwhile securing and completing the conquest of Gilead and Bashan. Six weeks thus remain for Midian's seduction of Israel, the plague (Numbers 25), the second numbering on the plains of Moab (Numbers 26), and the attack on Midian (Numbers 31), God retributively scourging the tempters by their own victims: "beside those (kings) that fell in the battle they put to death the kings of Midian (five, namely) Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba" (Numbers 31:8), "Balaam also they slew" judicially, not in battle. So Moses' death is foreannounced as to follow the vengeance upon Midian (Numbers 31:2). Deuteronomy is his last testimony, just after the war, and before his death in the eleventh month of the 40th year.
AUTHOR AND DATE. The catalog of stages from Egypt to Moab (Numbers 33:2) is expressly attributed to Moses. The living connection of special enactments with incidents which occasioned them proves that this characteristic mixture of narrative and legislation comes from a contemporary annalist. Leviticus completed the Sinai legislation, but the stay in tents in the wilderness required supplementary directions not originally provided, as Numbers 19:14, also Numbers 5; Numbers 9:6-14; Numbers 19 (Numbers 19:11 the plague after Korah's rebellion necessitating ordinances concerning defilement by contact with the dead), Numbers 30; Numbers 36, the law of heiresses marrying in their tribe, being at the suit of the Machirite chiefs, as the law of their inheriting was issued on the suit of Zelophehad's daughters (Numbers 27), and that was due to Jehovah's command to divide the land according to the number of names, by lot (Numbers 26:52-56). So the ordinances Numbers 15:4, etc., Numbers 15:22; Numbers 15:24; Numbers 15:32.
The author's intimate knowledge of Egypt appears in the trial of jealousy (Numbers 5:11), the purifications of the priests (Numbers 8:7, etc.), the ashes of the red heifer (Numbers 19); all having an affinity to, though certainly not borrowed from, Egyptian rites. So the people refer to their former Egyptian foods (Numbers 11:5-6). The building of Hebron seven years before Zoan (Tanis: probably connected here because both had the scale builder, one of the Hyksos, shepherd kings of Egypt, who originally perhaps came from the region of the Anakim), the N.E. frontier town of Egypt (Numbers 13:22). References to the Exodus from Egypt (Numbers 3:13; Numbers 14:19; Numbers 15:41). The regulations for encamping and marching (Numbers 2; Numbers 9:16; etc., Numbers 10:1-28), and Moses' invocation (Numbers 10:35-36).
The directions for removing the tabernacle (Numbers 3 and Numbers 4). The very inconsistency seeming between Numbers 4:3; Numbers 4:23; Numbers 4:30, fixing the Levites' limit of age to 30, and Numbers 8:24 appointing the age 25 (the reason being, the 30 was temporary, the number of able-bodied Levites between 30 and 50 sufficing for the conveyance of the tabernacle in the wilderness; but, when Israel was in Canaan, the larger number afforded by the earlier limit 25 to 50 was required: David enlarged the number, as the needs of the sanctuary service required, by reducing the age for entrance to 20 (1 Chronicles 23:24-28), younger men being able then for the work, carrying the tabernacle being no longer needed). The tabernacle is presupposed near, which is true only while Israel was in the wilderness; "Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites" (Numbers 21:13), could only be written in Moses' time; the Amorites were not yet supplanted by the two and a half tribes: Numbers 32.
Gad held Dibon when Numbers 32:34 was written, but subsequently Joshua (Joshua 13:9-15; Joshua 13:17) assigned it to Reuben. In Numbers 34 more territory is assigned to Israel than they permanently occupied, and less than they for a time held (namely, Damascus, in the reigns of David, Solomon, and Jeroboam II). Hardly anyone but Moses could have written the pleadings and God's communications in Numbers 14:11-16, presuming they are historical, and they are inseparably connected with the history and legislation. Moses made his memoranda at intervals during the 38 years of wandering; hence arises the variety of style in different parts.
He used also existing materials, as in Numbers 21:14; Numbers 21:17; Numbers 21:27-30, "the book of the wars of the Lord" (the writers piously and truly call them "Jehovah's wars," not Israel's; compare Exodus 17:14; Exodus 17:16), a collection of sacred odes commemorating Israel's triumphs, from Egyptian days downward, including the passage of Arnon, the Song of the Well, the Conquest of Sihon, and the story and prophecies of Balaam, perhaps found in writing among the spoils of Midian when Balaam was slain (Numbers 31:8). In Numbers 21:14 read as margin "Vaheeb in Suphah," i.e. He, the Lord, conquered "Vaheeb in Suphah," i.e. Saphia; Vaheeb was Moab's boundary on the S. as Arnon was its boundary in the N. Gesenius however for "in Suphah" translated "in a whirlwind (the Lord conquered) Vaheeb," so the Hebrew is, Job 21:18. In Numbers 12:3 "Moses was very meek above all the men upon the face of the earth," he writes not by his own but the Spirit's prompting (Numbers 11:17).
He records his own faults as candidly, simply, and self ignoringly (Numbers 20:10-12; Exodus 4:24; Deuteronomy 1:37; compare the Antitype, Matthew 11:29). Moses' "meekness" is mentioned to show why he did not vindicate himself; therefore God vindicated him. Traces of independent accounts interwoven together (Numbers 13:30, etc., Numbers 14:11-25; Numbers 14:38-39), repetitions, and lack of consecutiveness, are observed. They are such as would result from separate memoranda put together; but the Spirit has guided the writer and compiler. The words "while the children ... were in the wilderness" (Numbers 15:32) do not prove they were no longer there, but that the sabbath ordinance (Exodus 31:14) now violated was in force already, whereas other ordinances were to come in force only "when Israel should come into the land" (Numbers 15:2, etc., Numbers 15:18, etc.).
"Prophet" applied to Moses (Numbers 11:29; Numbers 12:6) was a usual term then (Genesis 20:7; Exodus 7:1), but fell into disuse in the time of the judges when there were strictly no "prophets," directly inspired (1 Samuel 3:1); hence, "seer" was the term for those consulted in difficult eases (1 Samuel 9:9). Samuel restored the name and reality of "prophet"; so "seer" is found afterwards only in 2 Samuel 15:27; 2 Chronicles 16:7; 2 Chronicles 16:10. The organic connection of Numbers with the Pentateuch, of which it forms part, involves the Mosaic authorship of the former if Moses was author of the rest of the Pentateuch. The followers of Israel were numbered with the holy seed, those born in the house or bought of a stranger (Genesis 17:12-13). A mixed multitude went with them at the Exodus (Exodus 12:38; Numbers 11:4).
Children begotten of Egyptians entered the congregation in the third generation (Deuteronomy 23:7-8). So the Egyptian servant Jarha's descendants (1 Chronicles 2:34-35) appear among Judah's descendants. These considerations will account for the multiplication from 70, at Jacob's going to Egypt, to two million. Formerly, the forests in Arabia attracted rain, and so the Sinai desert afforded food more than now. Remains of mines, numerous inscriptions, and other proofs exist of a considerable population having lived there once. But independent of natural supplies Israel was fed by miracle. The first census gave a total of 603,550, the second census 601,730. The main decrease was in Simeon, owing to their prominence in the idolatry and owing to the plague consequently falling heaviest on them (Numbers 25:6; Numbers 25:14). An objection is started because of the disproportion between 22,273, the firstborn, and 603,550 men of war (Numbers 3:43; Numbers 1:46).
But the firstborn meant are those born at and after the Passover on the eve of the Exodus (Numbers 13:2; Numbers 13:11-12), which was the ground of God's claim on them; the 603,550 include none of them, the 273 above the Levites' 22,000 had to be redeemed at five shekels each. In Numbers 9:1 the regular Passover in the first month, fourteenth day, is mentioned (Numbers 1:1); but Numbers 9:11 the supplementary Passover on the fourteenth day of the second month. The lambs were slain, as at the first institution, in groups of families in private, not at the sanctuary door as subsequently in Canaan (Numbers 9:3; Numbers 9:12; Deuteronomy 16). Considering how many would not be clean, the number of communicants was probably 700,000; 50,000 lambs would suffice, allowing 14 persons for each lamb (Exodus 12:4).
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