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Study Resources :: Dictionaries :: Numbers, Book Of

Dictionaries :: Numbers, Book Of

Below are articles from the following dictionary:
International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia

Numbers, Book Of:



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.

Written by T. Whitelaw


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