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Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch, the name sometimes given to the first five books of the Old Testament. The book is a complex balance of almost equal parts narrative (story) and law with a small number of poetry and prophecy sections. The combination of these different genres is unique, especially in the ebb and flow between them.
As with all Old Testament books, Numbers must be read in the context of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12; 15) and the promises made regarding people, place, and blessing. All these themes are explored in Numbers. Moreover, the journey out of Egypt needs also to be set in the context of the Mosaic covenant initiated at Sinai (Exod 19) and still being revealed through the law sections of this book. The people have been promised a land of their own, but they are yet to gain this inheritance.
The book itself can read something like a travel guide (see especially Num 33), but this is not the best basis on which to interpret its message (see the section on difficult questions, below) and risks making the book into little more than a geography lesson. At its heart is not the question of where the Israelites are located geographically, but where they are to be found spiritually. In answering this question, the reader will find the most satisfying understanding and application.
We call this book “Numbers” by picking up the title of the Greek version of the Old Testament with which New Testament people (including Jesus) would have been familiar. This title is derived not from the large volumes of data but from the two counts of fighting men in chapters 1 and 26.
The book also has two different titles in the Jewish Scriptures, both of which come from 1:1 and both of which are instructive. “In the wilderness” describes both the physical and spiritual state of the Israelites at this time, neither in one place nor another. “And the LORD1 said” is an alternative which conveys the ongoing grace of God in speaking to his people and dealing with them, despite their almost continual rebellion.
How Should We Apply the Book of Numbers Today?
The book depicts the story of two generations of Israelites and their journey through the wilderness having been rescued by the LORD from slavery in Egypt. They have yet to enter the Promised Land: salvation has begun but has not been brought to completion. The first generation (counted in Num 1) fail to enter this “rest” (see Heb 4:1–11, quoting Ps 95) because of unbelief. The second generation (counted in chapter 26) are the faithful ones who will gain their inheritance.
The book therefore answers the question demanded of those rescued but journeying on, “Will they make it?” The answer for the first generation is a resounding “no” and so the applications are mainly negative (“don’t be like them”—see 1Cor 10:1–13). The answer for the second generation is a clearer “yes” and so the application is “follow their example.”
The lessons, however, are not merely moral. Throughout this journey, Christ travels with them (1Cor 10:4) and he is not only their help but will one day show himself to be the perfect Israelite. Christians should therefore be learning in Numbers the twin lessons of “being” like Christ and “depending” on him.
What Themes Are Significant in the Book of Numbers?
There is a sharp contrast between the character of the LORD and the rebellion of his chosen people. Numbers reads at times like a worked-out example of the LORD’s self-description in Exodus 34:6–7—compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, whilst also being just and holy and uncompromising about sin. In contrast, the nation appears fickle, faithless, and thankless. Nevertheless, the promise of a land first made to Abraham in Genesis 12:7 runs as a constant theme. The language of “land,” “possession,” and “inheritance” is never far away.
What Are the Major Difficulties in the Book of Numbers?
Without doubt, there are some difficult passages in the book of Numbers, for example 5:11–31 or 31:1–20. These will be addressed as the commentary progresses. Readers, however, need to tackle two big questions in order to be able to get the most out of reading the book. The first of these is to do with the general structure of the book; the second is a more specific question about how to deal with very large numbers, an issue that arises throughout the text.
There are two options for dividing the book. The first is to do so geographically, that is by defining where the various sections of the book take place. On this basis the book divides into three. Chapters 1–12 take place at Sinai, where the Law was also given to Moses (see Exodus 19–20). Chapters 13–19 (or 21 if travel sections are included) take place in the wilderness at Kadesh Barnea. Chapters 22–36 all take place on the plains of Moab, right at the border of the Promised Land. The inclusion of chapter 33 (an extended list of stopping places) seems to support this view.
Traditionally, many commentators have understood the book in this way. Notwithstanding any alternative, there a are number of problems with this division. For example, the distinction between places is not nearly so clear cut—especially in chapter 11 where the action seems to take place in another location altogether (Kibroth-hattaavah, see 11:34) before the camp moves on to Hazerath. Moreover, if this division into three is as significant as some try to make it, surprising little is made of it in chapter 33.
By far the greatest problem with this approach, however, is that it fails to take account of the spiritual state of the nation and the framing of the book around the two generations and the two respective censuses (chapters 1 and 26). Neat though it is to think geographically, it does not—ultimately—aid understanding. Instead, it is better to take a spiritual approach and regard the geography as important, but secondary. This is arguably the divinely inspired approach, given the key verses in chapter 14. In other words, the LORD is dealing with the people not because of where they are located, but rather in terms of how much faith they have in him and his covenant promises.
2. Large Numbers
There are several places where large, apparently rounded totals appear in the book. Most obviously, this includes the two censuses in chapters 1 and 26. But the descriptions of battles and judgements (for example 31:42–47 and 25:9 respectively) also contain large figures.
In the cases of the two censuses, only military fighting men over 20 (1:3) are counted from the tribes excluding Levi. Once the Levites, older people, women, and children are added to the total of 603,550 (1:46), it is reasonable to assume that those who departed Egypt must number between 2–3 million.
Several objections are made to these data. First, some argue that the numbers are just too large for the ancient world. In the times of the Pentateuch, cities and nations were considerably smaller than they are now. Only, for example, in the thirteenth or fourteenth century has the population of Great Britain, a relatively densely populated country, reached that size.
Second, some argue that such large numbers would surely have made more of an impact on ancient Egyptian history; instead, ancient sources are largely silent on Israelite slavery. Third, the practicalities of leading such a group through the wilderness—organizing and feeding them—are deemed too significant for such a large group.
One solution is to read the Hebrew text slightly differently. Numbers are difficult to convey in Hebrew, and the Hebrew word elep (which we translate as “thousand”) could possibly mean “clan” or “group” (as a very similar word is used, for example, in Deut 7:13). Whilst solving some problems, this solution creates others, in particular how to read the totals of 1:46 and similar.
Various other solutions have been suggested, but we must acknowledge that one of the best approaches is to simply read the numbers as they appear to be. Whilst this does give rise to some internal conflicts (see discussion below on 4:40–51) the growth of Israel since 70 first entered Egypt (Exodus 1:5) is not mathematically impossible.
Either way, the fulfilment of the LORD’s promises to Abraham to bless him with many descendants is clearly being fulfilled. We should be astounded at the LORD’s abundant faithfulness to his promises rather than letting ourselves be finally distracted by such difficulties.
Numbers reminds us that God has saved us and, as we travel through the wilderness of this world, we need to go on exercising faith to enter the inheritance Christ has secured for us.2
The purpose of the book—combined with the appropriate focus on the differences between the two generations—is captured in the LORD’s response to the rebellion of chapter 14.
“. . . your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected.”
— Numbers 14:29–31 ESV
I. The Story of the First Generation: Dying in the Wilderness (1:1–25:18)
II. The Story of the Second Generation: Living in the Promised Land (26:1–36:13)
The Story of the First Generation: Dying in the Wilderness (1:1–25:18)
Part One: Getting Ready to Go (1:1–10:36)
The opening chapter contains instructions and details of the first of the two censuses that shape the book (the second appears in Num 36). It sets the tone for the chapters that will follow for the journey out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. One of the most challenging interpretative questions arises here—that of the large numbers present in the census (see introduction for more discussion).
1:1 The first verse alone contains a wealth of information. First it introduces a key phrase which occurs 49 times in the book, “The LORD spoke to Moses,” one of the two Jewish names for the book. The phrase often joins apparently separate sections together (see, for example, Num 6–7). It also functions as a word of grace after rebellion: the fact that the LORD still speaks despite the grumbling of the Israelites is a reflection of his character (see, for example, 15:1 following on from 14:39).
Second, the verse describes the location of the Israelites “in the wilderness.” This phrase (also a Jewish title for the whole book) is an accurate description of their physical location and also their spiritual state. They are in the nowhere place, somewhere people cannot settle or grow crops. The wilderness is not a sandy desert, but it is inhospitable. This is also their spiritual status. They have been rescued from Egypt (as the verse identifies) but have not yet entered in what the LORD has promised (see introduction for explanation of this theme).
The “tent of meeting” is by this stage simply another name for the tabernacle (Exod 39:32), and Numbers will use the terms interchangeably. The LORD had given them the Law about one year prior (compare date to Exod 19:1).
1:2–3 The census is a military exercise, indicating the nature of the conquest that awaits them. The people will not simply be able to walk into the Promised Land but will have to fight.
1:4–16 Here Moses lists the names of the twelve tribal heads who will supervise the count. The two half tribes of Joseph are counted separately (1:10) and no military count is made of Levi (see 1:47–54 for explanation). There are seven lists of tribes in Numbers. Those that deal with leadership mostly appear in the order given here.
1:17–46 On the same day the instruction is given, the count takes place. Judah is the largest tribe; Manasseh (one of the half tribes) is the smallest. Variations are not surprising. The people have been in exile for over 400 years (see Gen 15:13). Small changes in family size early on in this period lead to large variations at the end. The list adds up to 603,550 men over 20 who are able to fight: this suggests a total of around 2.5–3 million depending on family size. The author probably wants to show the contrast to the opening verses of Exodus which describe the small number who went into Egypt, thus fulfilling the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12.
1:46 The total of 603,550 is exactly the same as the tabernacle census in Exodus 38:26, taken one month earlier. Perhaps the tabernacle census was delayed by a month, and then the two were conducted at the same time.
1:47–53 The Levites are counted (3:14), just not as part of the military exercise. This section briefly describes why they are left out, but the theme will be developed further in chapters 3 and 4. The Levites are to protect the people from the wrath of God: this is the chief meaning of “shall keep guard,” a phrase which will occur many times throughout Numbers.
1:54 This summary phrase made up of two parallels is often repeated when Israel is living obediently (see, for example, 9:23).
Chapter 2 appears at first to be a description of the camping arrangements, but careful reading shows that the instructions apply equally to marching (2:17, 34). Although not explicit, the central focus of the camp is clearly the LORD who dwells amongst his people (compare 5:3). All tribes face the center point, where the tent of meeting is set up. Each tribe has a location (inclusion) but is protected from the tent of meeting by a clan of Levi (this will be explained in chapter 3, representing exclusion). This inclusion/exclusion concept is a case of near, but not too near: God is at the center, but he is not immediately accessible.
2:1–9 Those on the east side are described: Judah, Issachar and Zebulun totaling 186,400 warriors plus Moses, Aaron, and their families (see 3:38). The east side is where the tent opening is, so it is appropriate for the senior tribe (Judah) to be here. These tribes are also in the front of the marching order.
2:10–16 Those on the south are described: Reuben, Simeon and Gad, totaling 151,450, plus the Levite clan of Kohath (see 3:29).
2:17 This central verse of the chapter draws attention to the central focus, namely the tent of meeting—both when camping and on the march.
2:18–24 The tribes to the west are described: Ephraim, Manasseh & Benjamin, totaling 108,100, plus the Levite clan of Gershon (see 3:23).
2:25–31 The tribes to the north are described: Dan, Asher and Naphtali, totaling 157,600, plus the Levite clan of Merari (3:35).
Some older commentators imagined that this arrangement could possibly be in the shape of a cross, indicating the presence and sign of Christ were you able to view the camp from high above. Christ was undoubtedly with them as they traveled (see 1Cor 10:4) but such an interpretation is reading too much into the text.
2:32–34 This summary for the chapter helpfully repeats the fact that Levites were not counted in this military approach. The obedience phrase is also repeated.
These two chapters should be taken together. After a brief introduction there are three main sections: a description of the duties of each clan of Levites in summary form (3:5–39); explanation of the relationship of the Levites both to the LORD and to other Israelites (3:40–51); and a fuller description of the duties of each clan (4:1–49). The structure thus emphasizes the important middle section.
3:1–5 These verses remind us that two of Aaron’s sons have already died through offering unauthorized fire (see Lev 10, a lesson that will have to repeated in Num 16). Two other sons remain (Eleazar and Ithamar). Eleazar features heavily in the Numbers account. Ithamar is mentioned only briefly (4:28, 33; 26:60). Moses and Aaron (and therefore the priestly line) both belong to the clan of Kohathites who will be responsible for the care and transportation of the most holy things.
3:5–13 Here, the duties of Levites are introduced in general terms. Two words are used extensively: guard (a word which is used frequently in the book) and minister/serve. The guarding they are to do is two-way in 3:8: they are to protect things from being stolen and they are also to stand between the LORD and his people. The two meanings are complementary but as the book develops and the LORD’s holiness is revealed, more emphasis is given to the second. The Levites belong to Aaron and his sons (i.e., the priests, 3:9) and also to the LORD himself (3:41 and 8:16).
In 3:11, the idea of substitution is introduced, to be expanded upon later in 3:40–51. Every firstborn male in Israel belongs to the LORD (see Exod 13:2), and the Levites are given to the LORD in their place.
3:14–20 The sons of Levi are introduced: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari with their sub-clans described here play no further part in the book.
3:21–37 Two words describe what the Levite clans do: “guard duty” is the protective work and “service” describes the physical work connected with transporting, erecting, and dismantling the tabernacle.
3:21–26 The work of the Gershonites is explained. There are 7,500 males over 1 month old, and they have responsibility for the parts of the tabernacle made of cloth: the tent, the hangings, the screen, and so on.
3:27–32 The work of the Kohathites is explained. Aaron is a Kohathite, and so the priestly line is part of this clan. There are 8,600 males over one month old. Their responsibility is the holy things found in the tabernacle: the ark, the table, the lampstand, and so on.
3:33–37 The work of the Merarites is explained. There are 6,200 males over one month old and they have responsibility for the hardware of the temple: poles, bases, and so on.
3:38–39 These three clans number 22,000 (an approximation as the actual total is 22,273, or 22,300 using the numbers in 3:21–37). This would make it the smallest of all tribes by some margin; the smallest full tribe is Benjamin with 35,400 males over 20 years old (1:37). Levi himself, however, only had three sons, and small differences in tribal size at an early stage can easily account for significant differences 400 years later.
3:40–51 From the Passover onwards (Exod 12:1–28), substitution is a key Bible idea. Here, each Levite is to be a substitute for every firstborn male in Israel (and the same is repeated for cattle). If the Levite substitution is to apply to all 603,550 Israelites, then this assumes that each family has a very large number of sons. More likely, the Levite substitution is for every firstborn son born since the Exodus (where the Passover Lamb stood as a substitution). On this basis, the year since the Exodus saw the birth of 22,300 firstborn sons, a much more likely interpretation. What, though of any mismatch between the number of firstborn sons and the number of Levites? The law anticipates this scenario and sets a price at 5 shekels (3:47) for each surplus firstborn. This is the “redemption price” or “money.” The section ends with the familiar obedience refrain.
4:1–20 These verses describe the role of the Kohathites in more detail. A new census is taken listing those over 30 (the age of service of a Levite or priest). The results are not revealed until later in the chapter, but the census will allow rotas to be drawn up. The section is like a packing list for a holiday or house move. A key part of their work is that the holy things are not to be touched directly (4:15) but to be covered and carried on poles. This is as much for their own protection (4:17–20) as for that of others. Each clan has a supervisor: Eleazar oversees the Kohathites (4:16, 19). Ithamar will be responsible for the remaining two clans (4:28, 33).
4:21–28 The expanded duties of the Gershonites are listed. Like the other clans, those listed are between the ages of 30 and 50 as this is physical work.
4:29–33 The expanded work of the Merarites is listed.
4:34–49 The census results are now revealed: there are 8,580 Levites of the right age, distributed fairly evenly across the three clans. Numbers 4:49 repeats the obedience phrase.
Chapters 5 and 6 are one unit which deal with the theme of holiness in various forms: holiness in the camp (5:1–4), holiness in relationships (5:5–10), holiness in marriage (5:11–31), and holiness in service (6:1–21). The section ends with the Aaronic blessing (6:22–27), which is best seen as God’s blessing on the people’s holiness in line with the blessings of the Law that come from obedience (see, for example, Deut 28:1–6). In each case, holiness is required because the LORD dwells in the midst of his people (5:3). The sections are connected by the phrase “The LORD spoke to Moses” (5:1, 4, 5, 11; 6:1, 22).
5:1–5 Laws already detailed in Leviticus 13, 15, and 21 regarding both infectious diseases and those in contact with dead bodies are expanded upon here. The general principle is that the holy LORD is inside the camp, so those who are unclean must be put outside to avoid defiling the camp.
5:6–10 A general provision is offered: sin should be followed by confession and restitution. Note that confession is an important part of the process because any sin against another person (implied by the need for restitution) is also “breaking faith with the LORD” (compare Ps 51:3–4). Numbers 5:6–7 repeats the requirements of Exodus 22:7–15 and Leviticus 6:1–7 (especially Lev 6:5). They then move to a more specific case where the wronged party has died and there is no next of kin. In this case, restitution must still be made, but the amount is paid to the priest. Numbers 5:10 is particularly difficult to understand; the verse is most probably a double repetition of the same point: whatever is given to the priest belongs to him.
5:11–31 This section contains one of the most difficult passages of the entire book. The section is not difficult to understand: the process is relatively clear, even if it appears complex. The challenges for modern readers, however, are to do with the apparent one-sidedness of the process (all appearing to fall on the woman) and the resultant brutality for a guilty woman (5:21–22). It seems to belong to a very male-dominated culture.
In answer to these objections, the passage must be placed in its biblical and legal context. In Bible terms, marriage is held in very high honor, reflecting the relationship between the LORD and his people. Unfaithfulness is therefore always very serious (see Mal 2, for example). In legal terms, there are already laws about adultery: both male and female are to be stoned to death (Lev 20:10). In this context, the passage is not setting out new laws, but providing for the very specific case where a husband suspects a wife of adultery, but it cannot be proved.
On this basis, the process is not harsh; instead, it protects the woman from the mob justice that might have arisen in a male-dominated society. The matter is taken out of the hands of the husband and handed over to the priest who stands before the LORD (who features at every stage: 5:11, 16, 18, 30). The process is safe (requiring only the eating of a non-poisonous liquid) for the innocent. And even the guilty woman will not lose her life (there have not been two witnesses as the Law requires). But she will be unable to bear children (the meaning of 5:21). Moreover, by agreeing to the process, the woman demonstrates her own agency (5:22). This then is different from the trials by ordeal common in many cultures throughout the ages (and in Canaanite culture at the time).
5:11–16 This is an introduction to the process which starts because of the husband’s jealousy. The word “jealous” appears 5 times in just a few verses. We should not think of modern ideas of jealousy which are more like the Bible’s idea of coveting. In the Bible, jealousy is a desire for something to be given the credit or the acknowledgement of what is rightly deserved. So, the LORD is jealous for his own name and exclusivity (Exod 20:5). The husband’s jealousy is thus a reflection of the high place marriage and its exclusivity holds in the nation.
The offering of jealousy that he brings—also called a grain offering of remembrance (5:15)—is unknown elsewhere but might serve two complementary purposes. It may atone for the husband’s guilt should he be proved wrong; additionally, it may cleanse the tabernacle if the woman is found guilty.
5:16–17 The matter is taken out of the husband’s hands as the woman is brought before the LORD. The priest begins to prepare a liquid for her to drink (later called the water of bitterness—the liquid is unpleasant to drink, but not dangerous).
5:18 Unbinding the hair could signify many things, but most likely it symbolizes honesty and openness before the LORD’s presence. The woman is given time to repent if necessary.
5:19–22 The oath is one which clears the innocent but brings punishment to the guilty (see 14:18). Importantly, the wife agrees to the process with a double “Amen.”
5:23–26 The oath is enacted as the words are washed into the liquid before its consumption. This removes any mysticism that might arise; the entire process is still a word-based approach. Once the priest has made the jealousy offering, she takes the drink.
5:27–28 The effects of the curse are somewhat ambiguous, but the contrast with fertility in 5:28 almost certainly means that the guilty woman is unable to have children.
5:29–31 The summary reminds us that the whole process is carried out before the LORD. The last sentence seems somewhat arbitrary, but the freedom from iniquity probably refers to the husband whose jealousy turns out to be justified. In these cases, his jealousy will not be regarded as sinful. The whole section sends an important signal to the community about the sanctity of marriage.
This section deals with holiness in short term service (lasting one year). The common introduction joins this section both to the previous and following passages. Samson is also called a Nazirite (Judg 13:5–7) and serves for life as does Samuel (1Sam 1:28, although the term is not used to describe him). Instead, Samson and Samuel should be seen as exceptions to the one-year rule rather than representing the normal length of service.
The Nazirite is a voluntary servant, either a man or a woman (6:2, a remarkably radical equality). The overall point of the passage is not to describe what he or she might do, but the importance of remaining “holy to the LORD” (6:8) throughout service (“all the days” 6:5, 6, 8). Steps are to be taken to remain ceremonially clean, and if accidental uncleanness occurs, then the one-year clock should be reset. Numbers 6:1–8 define the nature of the oath; 6:9–12 describe what happens when there is accidental contact with a corpse; 6:13–21 describe the end of service.
6:1–8 Three ways in which the Nazirite who has made a “special vow” (probably for a specific task) is to conduct him or herself are outlined. First, they are not to eat or drink any grape product. This is more than abstaining from alcohol. The grape signifies settlement (see, for example, 13:23); abstaining from grape products demonstrates that the one making the oath is giving up their rights and possessions for a time in order to give themselves to the LORD.
Second, the Nazirite should not cut any hair. Third, there should be no contact with the dead (compare 5:2). The significance of service is such that this even excludes the death of close family members (6:7). The Nazirite’s service is personally costly.
6:9–12 What, though, if the Nazirite should come into contact with a dead body by accident? Such a situation is not impossible to imagine in a large camp with close family connections. In this case his service is invalidated. He must cut his hair (6:9, compare 6:5) and offer two sacrifices (birds in 6:10 and a male lamb in 6:12). The sacrifices sound more onerous than those generally offered for uncleanness, but this reflects the nature of the Nazirite’s unusual service. The clock on his one-year role is reset (6:12).
6:13–21 The end of the year of service is marked by a ceremony conducted before the priest in which the Nazirite shaves his head (6:18, compare 6:5) and drinks wine (6:20, compare 6:3). Most importantly he brings sin, burnt, peace, grain, and drink offerings—the full range of offerings brought by sinners before God. Even after an extended period of holy service, he comes before the LORD as a sinner. This requirement, however, is a bare minimum (6:21). Anything he has agreed to do in addition, he must also do. The lifelong service of both Samson and Samuel may well fall under this last condition.
6:22–27 The Aaronic blessing should not be detached from the previous four sections, all of which begin in the same way. The blessing should be seen as LORD’s response to the people’s holiness before him. Although this might seem somewhat transactional, this is the way blessings operate in the Mosaic Law (and conversely, disobedience leads to curses). Though the people are rescued at the LORD’s gracious initiative (see Exod 20:1–2, reflected in Num 1:1), the blessings of the Old Covenant are dependent upon their continued obedience (see Exod 19:5–6 and Deut 28:1–14).
6:24–26 The spoken words contain two key ideas: blessing and preserving. Both come from the LORD himself and are expanded in the following two sentences. Each sentence begins with a parallelism: there is little difference between making his face shine and lifting up his countenance. But each sentence also ends differently, probably referring back to the initial words: “be gracious to you” is most closely connected to “bless,” and “give you peace” is most closely connected to “keep.”
6:27 The heart of the blessing is not the words that are spoken but what the blessing confers—that the divine name of the LORD is put upon the people of Israel. Later in Numbers we shall discover precisely what this means (for example, 23:8).
Chapter 7 is the longest of Numbers’ thirty-six chapters and is easily skipped over. Some modern Bible translations abbreviate 7:12–83 because of the repetition that occurs, but the author uses the repetition to make an important point: each tribe—despite variations in size—is considered the same when it comes before the LORD. Once the dedication sacrifices are made, Moses enters the tent of meeting (clearly here another name for the tabernacle, as it contains the ark, 7:89). There he speaks with the LORD (the verb is repeated three times). All the sacrifices are themselves a means to a greater goal: a living relationship with a speaking God.
7:1 This chapter takes place one month before Numbers begins (compare date in 1:1). In strict time it belongs with Exodus 40:17. However the author has put it here as a natural conclusion to the previous sections which outline the holiness the LORD expects of his people. If they pursue this holiness, not only will he bless them (6:24–26), but he will also speak to them.
7:3–9 The twelve tribes supply between them six carts (with two tribes joining together to supply each one) and twelve oxen to pull them. The carts are then distributed to the Levite clans to transport the non-holy items: two wagons are given to the Gershonites for the material of the tent; four are given to the Merarites for the heavier equipment such as poles. None are given to the Kohathites, and the narrator explains why in 7:9. The ark and other holy objects are to be carried personally by the Levites rather than transported (this will have a bearing later on in the Ark’s history—see 2 Samuel 6). Each tribe then offers an offering through their chief to mark the dedication of the altar.
7:12–17 Each tribe offers identical offerings. The individual parts constitute a “grain offering,” a “burnt offering,” a “sin offering,” and a “peace offering” (sometimes called a “fellowship” offering). These are outlined in Leviticus 2, 1, 4, and 3 respectively. We might call these the complete set of offerings required. They demonstrate that, despite the blessing of God on his people’s holiness, any relationship with him is entirely on the basis of grace and forgiveness. Each tribe comes to him as sinners, and atonement is needed before he will speak.
7:12–83 The order of the tribes is different from that encountered in Numbers 1. This time around, the sacrifices are made by camping arrangement—first the tribes to the east, then the south, then west, and finally those in the north (see Num 2). Readers should feel the effect of the almost word-for-word repetition so that by 7:83 we are assured that each tribe has an equal part to play.
7:84–88 These verses summarize all the offerings brought and then describe them as one single offering: “the dedication offering” (7:88). Not only is there an equality in 7:12–83, but there is a unifying aspect to this dedication ceremony.
7:89 Moses enters the tent to speak with the LORD (implying a conversation), but the end result is that the LORD speaks to him, a point emphasized by the repetition.
How does this whole section reconcile with Exodus 40:34–35, which tells of Moses’s inability to enter the tent at its dedication? Yet here in Numbers 7, he enters right into the most holy place where the ark resides. The most likely explanation is that the glory of the LORD enters at construction, and Moses’s entry is only possible once the dedication offerings (atoning for sin) are made.
Chapter 8 seems to have little connection with what has gone before (the dedication of the tabernacle), but this whole section is about the operation of the tabernacle and those who will serve there. This section therefore builds towards its climax in chapter 9—the celebration of the second Passover.
8:1–4 The inclusion of the lampstand section is one of the more perplexing (though not particularly significant) questions in Numbers. Why here? Why now? The best answer seems to be that, as the lampstand was directly outside the holy place where Moses spoke with the LORD, this occasion is the most natural point to include its description. Its construction is detailed in Exodus 25:31–40. Other than its purely practical purpose of providing light (Exod 25:37), no other biblical explanation is given for its significance; therefore, we should be careful of attaching too much relevance to it.
8:5–13 The previous chapter has detailed how each tribe (excluding Levi) brings its sin offering to the LORD. The question remains: how are the Levites (equally sinful) to serve before the LORD, particularly given their elevated status as substitutes for the firstborn (3:40–43)? Here is the answer. The passage describes how they are made ceremonially clean (8:7) using water of purification (yet to be described—see 19:1–22). Their sin is then atoned for (8:8). Only then can they be brought before the LORD. In a moving ceremony, the Israelites lay their hands on the Levites, indicating the substitution. This, however, creates a difficulty because the previously atoned-for Levites have now had the Israelites pass on their own sin. This is the best explanation of why sin offerings have to be repeated in 8:12 as the Levites themselves lay their hands on the offerings (“transferring” the sin they have received from the twelve tribes). In striking language, this identifies the Levites as living sacrifices (8:13, compare Rom 12:1).
8:14–19 What at first appears to be a rather repetitive section is in fact a complex Hebrew construction with 8:17 at its heart. In other words, all the ceremony required to anoint the Levites for service is because all the firstborn of Israel belong to the LORD (see 3:40–51 and Exod 12:1–28). Although the word “guard” is not repeated from 3:5–10, the idea is expressed in 8:19—if the Israelites get too close to the holy tabernacle, they will incur the wrath of God.
8:20–22 Here, Moses summarizes the obedience of all the participants with the “commanded” language repeated in 8:20 and 8:22. This common refrain of obedience will feature often in the next chapter but then disappear from view.
8:23–26 These verses provide for the Levites to retire from service. The two elements of their work (guarding and working/serving) are again repeated from chapter 3. There seems to be a minor age discrepancy because 4:3 describes the starting age as thirty, not twenty-five as 8:24. Hebrew interpreters assumed a five-year apprenticeship, but more likely, the age was adjusted as it became clear how many Levites were available compared to how many were needed.
Like the previous chapter, this passage takes place before the census in 1:1 (by just a few weeks in this case). The point of the section is to draw the tabernacle section together by focusing on the Passover, one of the great celebrations of the Jewish faith and the most appropriate to highlight now given its significance in the Exodus story. This passage, however, is not just narrating the occasion but adding forward-looking case law to the celebration, building on rules already established in Exodus 12:1–28 and Leviticus 23:4–8.
9:1–5 This simple narrative describes the second Passover according to all the rules and regulations.
9:6–14 Additional case law is provided in two exceptional cases, one of which is raised by the people and the other identified by the LORD himself. Both relate to those unable to celebrate the feast.
9:6–8 The first case is that of ritual uncleanness, a problem already identified several times (for example, in 5:1–4). Rightly so, the complainants do not want to be excluded from the Passover. Moses does not have a direct answer, so he takes the problem to the LORD.
9:9–14 The LORD’s response demonstrates that the issue is indeed real and needs to be addressed. To this one case, he adds another: what if someone is on a long journey and therefore away from home (9:10)? In both instances the solution is the same. They are permitted to celebrate the Passover exactly one month on, in the second month. They are to do so in exactly the same way: Numbers 9:11–12 provides a neat summary of the existing regulations.
This second piece of case law begins to look forward (as do other laws outlined in Numbers, for example, in chapter 10). It is unlikely that any of the wandering Israelites will be away on a long journey until they are safely in the Promised Land. The allowance for delay is therefore in itself a reflection of the gracious promise that God will surely bring them to Canaan.
To these exceptions, the LORD adds two more clarifications. First, anyone who is able but chooses not to celebrate the Passover must be cut off from his people. He has, in effect, despised the rescue God has brought about. This approach reflects the first Passover where non-participants were subject to the death of the firstborn (see Exod 12:13).
Second, allowance is made for strangers to take part. This is not an open invitation for everybody to participate: the uncircumcised are prohibited from the feast, but converts to the faith are welcome (Exod 12:48). This allowance also anticipates life in the Promised Land, where it is much more likely that strangers will be present and incorporated into Israel.
9:15–23 Finally, arrangements for departure have to be made. The cloud and fire are primarily about knowing when to set out, not what direction to take. The tabernacle over which the cloud or fire lingers (9:16) is right in the middle of the marching order (2:17). It did not matter how long the cloud and fire rested, whether a short time or long (9:22). The passage is most significant for the often-repeated phrase (or variants of it) “at the command of the LORD” (9:18 twice, 9:20 twice, 9:23 three times). This phrase, often used in the first 9 chapters, now becomes much rarer, reflecting the decline of Israel’s faithful obedience.
This section falls neatly into two: some rules about the trumpets that Moses is to make and use (10:1–10) and then a description of the first departure (10:11–36). The two sections are not disconnected because the trumpets are used—at least in part—to make the departure go smoothly (10:5–6). Like chapter 9, the laws given by the LORD anticipate life in the Promised Land (10:8–10).
10:1–2 The first two verses of the chapter describe the manufacture of the two trumpets, though we are told very little about their design. Rather the focus will be on their two main uses: summoning the congregation and breaking camp.
10:3–4 Two different calls (using one or both trumpets) are for summoning either the chiefs or all the people. Given the large numbers, such a solution is both practical and necessary.
10:5–6 An alarm (a different kind of sound) has another meaning. At the first alarm the east camps are to set out. At the second, the south camps follow. No mention is made of the western or northern parts of the camp. This is because the eastern and southern tribes go ahead of the tabernacle (see chapter 2). The western and northern tribes follow behind and will be able to take their cue from the cloud or fire (9:15–17).
10:7 For the purposes of clarification, an alarm (for setting out) is not the same sound as a normal blast (for gathering). Getting them wrong would lead to significant confusion.
10:8–10 We learn that the trumpets serve other purposes too—in general they are to be a perpetual statute (a law which lasts for all time). They are to be used to call people to war when they are in the land (a reminder of the faithfulness of God towards his people in getting them there). We have already learnt that they are to be used on the Day of Atonement (Lev 25:9); now we discover they will be used more generally at feast days and other key moments (10:10).
In what sense, however, do they serve as a “reminder” of the people before the LORD (10:10 repeating an idea in 10:9)? Why does God need to be reminded about anything? Surely, he cannot forget. This is probably a way of expressing utter commitment to God. Saying “Here I am LORD, do not forget me” (like some of the psalms do, e.g., Ps 119:49) is not saying that God is forgetful but is a way that we express our dependence on him.
10:11–28 Once the Passover is complete (by the twentieth day), everyone is ready to set off. This is the first leg of the journey that Numbers records though, of course, they have travelled before (see the travel diary in chapter 33). The journey takes them from Sinai to the wilderness of Paran (10:12), probably a general area that contains Taberah (11:2), Kibroth-hattaavah (11:34), and Hazeroth (11:35).
10:14–16 The eastern camps’ departure is described.
10:17–21 The southern camps’ departure is described.
10:22–24 The western camps’ departure is described.
10:25–28 The northern camps’ departure is described with the added information that the three tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali act as “rear guard.”
10:29–32 These verses outline a brief encounter between Moses and a man called Hobab, identified as Moses’s brother-in-law, son of Reuel. Hobab wants to return to his own land, but Moses tries to persuade him to accompany the Israelites, an attempt which appears to be successful reading on to Judges 1:16. Reuel seems to be an alternative name for Jethro—both are identified in Exodus as being Moses’s father-in-law (Exod 2:18; 18:1). Judges 4:11, however, identifies Hobab as Moses’s father-in-law also (though some modern versions change “father” to “brother”). How can these be reconciled? The Hebrew word here translated “father-in-law” most likely has a broader definition than we see on the few occasions it appears in Scripture.
10:33–34 The marching order seems to be rearranged here (before now the ark has been in the middle of the column). This is probably just a loose way of saying they were following the LORD’s lead, rather than rewriting the rules of chapter 2.
10:35–36 The Sinai narrative which began in Exodus 19 now comes to an end. The narrator identifies two short songs that Moses sings, one when the camp is packed up and the people depart (10:35 compare Ps 68:1), and the other when the camp is set up. Both capture the language of verse 33—that whatever the physical marching order might be, the LORD is the one leading his people from the front (see also Num 31:6 for what this might mean in practice).
Part Two: Dying in the Wilderness (11:1–25:18)
Chapter 11 marks the second half of the first section (see the introduction for discussion of structure). This section contains twelve rebellions (possibly a significant number), ending with the worship of foreign gods (Num 25). Law sections are mixed in with the rebellion narratives; each time the laws given bear some connection to the rebellion that has just taken place. Towards the end of the section comes the remarkable story of Balaam: it seems just as the Israelites are falling into the deepest sin and breaking the first commandment for the first time, the LORD is restating his commitment to his people (Num 22–24).
Numbers 11 and 12 belong together because the complaining of chapter 11 (by the people, Moses and, briefly, Joshua) spreads to Aaron and Miriam. Their grumbling (Num 12) should not be separated from that of chapter 11. The connection shows us just how infectious dissent really is.
11:1–3 This passage is best seen as a pattern for every rebellion that will take place. There is little detail, and the place (Taberah) is unknown. Indeed, it may not even be the first rebellion in strict time order, but the cycle of events will become familiar. It begins with (a) grumbling and complaint. Then (b) the LORD hears and responds (c) with anger and judgement. The people (d) cry out to Moses and he intercedes for them (e). Then the LORD relents (f). Most of the twelve rebellions feature these six steps. Sometimes one or two are omitted. But the underlying rebellious heart of this first generation is clear as is the LORD’s response of both judgement and mercy.
11:4–35 The second and third rebellions are described. The second is the grumbling of the people which begins in 11:4. This problem is not finally resolved until the end of the chapter. The presenting issue is food. Mixed up with this is the grumbling of Moses and, briefly (11:28), Joshua also. Here the presenting issue is leadership. The chapter moves backwards and forwards between these two connected narratives seamlessly.
In Numbers, God’s judgement is nearly always giving people up to what they desire—an important feature to remember. For the Israelites this will be the provision of quail (a judgement rather than a provision, see 11:20). For Moses this will be the transference of some of his leadership to others (11:25, see notes below). This pattern continues throughout the book and is made explicit in Psalm 106:14–15 and picked-up in Romans 1:24.
11:4–6 The craving of a few (“rabble”) spreads to the whole of Israel. Some see this “rabble” as the foreign element of those who left Egypt (see Exodus 12:38), but this is probably reading too much into the context. The complaining begins, and it soon spreads to the whole nation. The view of Egyptian food is rather glamorous. Even if the diet there consisted of all that 11:5 describes (somewhat unlikely), it certainly did not “cost nothing” as the people were slaves. This will not the be the last time they look back with misplaced longing (see 14:1–4, for example). The rejection of manna in 11:6 is particularly serious as this was a gracious gift from God himself (see Exod 16:4, 31).
11:7–9 The nature of the manna as a gift from God is reinforced by the narrator by a reminder (for any who had forgotten) of its taste, texture and use.
11:10–15 When Moses hears the people’s complaint and sees God’s righteous anger, his first response is one of self-pity. He cannot understand why the burden of leadership should have fallen on him. Just as the Israelites have forgotten what life was like in Egypt, Moses seems to have forgotten the extraordinary moments such as Exodus 34:1–9. In particular, his complaint is that he cannot find meat for all the people, forgetting (as they have done) that the LORD himself provided the manna, a principle that the LORD will later remind him of (see notes below on 11:23). The food complaint disappears from view for a while as the LORD deals with Moses first. His self-pity is evident in 11:15: he would rather die than seem a failure to himself. He has, of course, completely missed the point. The LORD is the one who provides and leads, not Moses.
11:16–17 Moses’s leadership crisis is resolved with a judgement/provision (the two cannot be separated). Moses is to take 70 elders and bring them to the tent of meeting (it is unclear whether these are the same men set apart in Exodus 18 or the 70 of Exodus 24). The LORD, however, will not directly put his Spirit upon them. Instead, he takes some of the Spirit that is on Moses and redistributes it. We are meant to see this as Moses being given up to his desires (11:14).
11:18–20 Now the Israelites take their turn to hear about their own judgement/provision. In this case they will be provided with the meat they crave; but it will be an excess that will overwhelm them and eventually (11:33) kill many of them. In 11:20, rejecting the LORD’s provision is clearly seen as equivalent to rejecting the LORD himself.
11:21–22 Moses has still not quite understood what will happen. He has too high a view of his own role, reflected in the way he repeats back the phrase “among whom I am” which the LORD has used in the previous verse. God has said “I am among the people” and now Moses has said the same. He thinks the provision of food is his responsibility; like the people he also has forgotten about the miraculous manna.
11:23 The LORD’s response is devastating. It’s possible that the “now” of the second sentence belongs at the end of the first: if so, God is reminding Moses of all that he has already done (plagues, Red Sea story, water from the rock, manna, and so on) before asking him what has changed. Nothing has, of course.
11:24–25 To Moses’s credit, he now accepts the judgement and implements the LORD’s command. The prophesying is a mark of the Spirit upon the leaders.
11:26–30 Two of the 70 do not join the camp. The LORD is not displeased with them (as the Spirit still comes on them), so we must assume they had genuine reasons for not attending. Joshua, however, is angry and, if Moses is right, he is jealous for Moses’s sake; he is demonstrating exactly the same attitude that Moses himself had in 11:10–14. The grumbling has spread to Joshua also.
11:31–35 The outcome of the story is described. The LORD does indeed provide the meat he has promised; quail are caught (in exactly the same way they are still captured today in the Middle East). They become “loathsome” to them (11:20) because the quail are accompanied by a plague. We know very little detail about this judgement. Paul calls it the work of the “Destroyer” (1 Cor 10:10). Either way, Paul is certainly right about the lesson that must be learned: “do not grumble.”
The grumbling now spreads to Moses’s siblings: Miriam and Aaron.
12:1–2 The heart of their complaint is that the LORD has also spoken through them (undoubtedly true, see Exod 4:14–16; 15:20–21). But that is not the same as leadership. Presumably neither is among the 70 of 11:24, and most likely the frustration over leadership rather than the accusation about Moses’s wife is behind their complaint. Moses is previously described as having married a Midianite (see Exod 2:11–22), but “Cush” can be a broad geographic term, so their complaint is probably factually correct. The wedding, however, took place some 40 years previously, and so it seems a bit late to be raising an objection. The issue of Moses’s wife is probably an attempt to dress up their personal anger in religious terms.
12:3 The unique position of Moses is introduced with reference to his character. The clause is presumably inserted by someone else because it would be contradictory for Moses to have written it himself.
12:4–9 These verses describe in vivid language the appearance of the LORD to resolve this latest dispute. He distinguishes between the work of a prophet (12:6) and Moses. The prophet language is used elsewhere to describe both Aaron (Exod 7:1) and Miriam (Exod 15:20). Just because the LORD has spoken through them, they should not think they are Moses’s equals. Communication with Moses is direct not indirect, and they should have been afraid to grumble against him. The three phrases “mouth to mouth,” “not in riddles,” and “he beholds the form” should not be taken to mean a physical meeting, for this is not possible (Exod 33:20). Rather, taken together they simply indicate the unique and close relationship the LORD had with Moses who was “faithful in all his house” (see Heb 3:1–5 for how this relationship foreshadows Christ).
12:10–16 Judgement now comes on Miriam in the form of leprosy. This will require her to be put outside the camp (see 5:2) where she will be far away from the tabernacle where the LORD speaks. In a twist that shows they have learnt their lesson, Aaron appeals to Moses, who in turn appeals to the LORD and the sentence is commuted. Aaron realizes his relationship with the LORD is different from that of his brother.
Why is not Aaron also struck down? It may be because he is not leading the complaint (notice how Miriam’s name comes first in 12:1). Also, the Israelites cannot operate without a high priest to serve them at the altar, so the LORD may be gracious in not letting the Israelites suffer for Aaron’s sin.
Amazingly, the Israelites are now within reach of the Promised Land. The next two chapters will tell us why none of this generation (save Caleb and Joshua) entered in. The story is reasonably well-known, taught to young believers from an early age. But there are some twists and turns that do not always make it into the Children’s Bible version.
13:1–16 This is a straightforward section that lists the names of those sent into the land. Notice how all 12 tribes are sent into the Promised Land (this will become significant in Num 32). Importantly, we are reminded that the LORD is the one who gives the land (13:2). The vocabulary of gift, possession, and inheritance nearly always accompanies the land language in Numbers. This will become important even in this story (14:39–45), for they cannot enter the land without the one who gives it to them. Joshua (renamed from Hoshea) and Caleb are among the twelve.
13:17–20 Moses has genuine questions for them to address—he has not been in the land either. There are seven of these enquiries contained in the verses (what the land is, are inhabitants strong or weak, are they few or many, is the land good or bad for growing, are cities fortified, is the land rich or poor, are there trees). In other words, how easy is it going to be to get there, and what will it be like to live there? It is harvest time, so it makes sense to bring back some fruit (13:20).
13:21–24 The spies do as they are asked and bring back a very large collection of grapes (carried on two poles, it must have been big). This is indeed a land of abundance, flowing with milk and honey (Exod 3:8). So far, so good.
13:25–29 It is easy to read too much into the initial report knowing, as we do, how the story ends. But the spies’ account could simply be factual. The people will indeed prove to be strong and only Caleb will be up to the task of defeating the descendants of Anak (see Judg 1:20). But opposition strength has not been a problem so far (they have defeated both Egyptians and Amalekites, see Exod 17:8–16). The task should not be impossible with the LORD’s help.
13:30–33 The people, however, respond badly. Caleb seeks to quiet the crowd, but his intervention only seems to make their complaints worse. At this point, the other spies join forces with the people rather than their fellow spy Caleb. Up to now, their report has been factual, but now they seek to interpret it negatively. To this they add the sin of lying because there is no evidence so far that the land “devours” its inhabitants. This is misinterpretation mixed with misinformation and playing to the crowd.
In the space of just a few minutes, the atmosphere has turned ugly, and the situation will worsen in chapter 14.
14:1–4 The effect of the amended report is total. Three times in 14:1–2 the narrator stresses how the whole nation is under their spell. They wish they had died in Egypt—or even in the wilderness. As before they should be careful what they wish for, because the LORD’s judgement is giving them up to their desires and their fate will prove to be just this (14:28–31). Ironically, they claim to be concerned for their little ones (14:3) but these are the very ones who will inherit the Promised Land (14:31 and Num 26 onwards). Their final desire is to go back to Egypt: would it not be better (14:3)? Of course not! And they have clearly not learnt from Miriam and Aaron’s rejection of Moses’s leadership.
14:5–10 The quartet of Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb respond in the same way—by pleading with the people of Israel not to be so foolish. This is the first time Joshua is mentioned as being on the side of the LORD—in chapter 13 the focus is only on Caleb, which is probably why Caleb alone is singled out for the LORD’s commendation in 14:24. They are all exactly right in their assessment of the situation—the people of the land may be mighty, but this is nothing compared to the presence of the LORD. The people are unpersuaded: not even the “home” tribes of Joshua and Caleb (Ephraim and Judah) are persuaded. They get ready to kill the loyalists. Yet, in a moment which should prepare us for something momentous, the LORD appears to the whole community (compare 12:4–5).
14:11–12 It becomes clear that the sin of the people is unbelief. They “despise” the LORD and do not “believe” in him despite all that has happened during and since the Exodus. He announces therefore that he will destroy them all and start again with Moses. Such a restart will not affect the Abrahamic covenant as Moses himself is a descendant of Abraham through Jacob’s son Levi. We are not told what this might mean for either Joshua or Caleb, but clearly the threat is very significant.
14:13–19 What follows is one of the most remarkable moments in the Bible, as Moses intercedes for the rebellious nation. The nature of his appeal is two-fold. First, in 14:13–16 he appeals to the LORD’s reputation, especially in Egypt. The enemies of God have heard great things about him, but if he wipes out his own people, they will assume he is powerless to do what he himself has promised. Second, in 14:17–19 he appeals to the character of the LORD, as the LORD has himself revealed it to Moses (Exod 34:6–7).
The second half of Moses’s appeal raises a very important question. How can the LORD simultaneously be the one who forgives and yet does not clear the guilty? How is this tension between the justice and mercy of God resolved? The answer is somewhat tied up in the covenant relationship the LORD has with the nation. He does not wipe out the people—in this sense they are pardoned (see next section) and a new generation will do better. But there is also punishment to bear; each of the rebels dies in the wilderness.
Even this, however, does not fully explain the tension and we must allow that until the coming of Jesus Christ and the meeting of wrath and mercy at the cross, the tension between the two must always be maintained (we see a similar pattern emerge in the life of David and his dealings with Bathsheba, see 2Sam 11–12).
14:20–25 These verses contain the LORD’s response to Moses’s plea, which is to be merciful. He does pardon (14:20), but nothing will stop his plan for the whole earth to see his glory (14:21), especially not the rebellious Israelites. Therefore, none of this generation will enter the land save Caleb (Joshua is omitted here but included in 14:30, see notes on 14:5–10).
Have there been 10 rebellions so far (14:22)? Although some Jewish commentators believed so, such a total is only achieved by applying “fuzzy math” to Exodus 16. More likely, the number is idiomatic whilst at the same time echoing the Ten Commandments and the law-breaking the Israelites have displayed.
14:26–35 What we find here is more than simply adding to what has been said before. The section begins with the standard speaking formula, marking this out as a considered judgement against the Israelites. Numbers 14:28 repeats the “giving up” motif—each will fall in the wilderness. Moreover, because of their faithlessness (14:33), they will wander in the wilderness one year for every one day the spies were in the land—40 years in total. This is how they will experience the LORD’s “displeasure” and “bear their iniquity.” This pronouncement is accompanied by a very strong statement: “I, the LORD, have spoken.” There is no question of this failing to happen (an important thing to note, given what takes place next).
This section is the one which helps us see the overall structure of the book. The LORD looks upon his people in Numbers not as those who are in a particular place but on the basis of whether they belong to the first census generation (14:29) or the children of those same people (14:31). There is no indication here or elsewhere whether the Levites were included in this judgement. From the description of grumbling in 14:1–4, however, it seems likely that they were similarly affected.
14:36–38 One last piece of the LORD’s judgement remains to be enacted. The remaining ten spies who refused to stand with Caleb and Joshua are killed by a plague, the same way the LORD would have wiped out the nation (14:12) had not Moses intervened.
14:39–45 This, however, is not the end of the story. The people rightly mourn their sin, but immediately commit the sin of presumption (14:44). They assume they can put things right by entering the land anyway. They have refused to listen to the LORD’s certain word (14:35) and to accept his discipline. Moses tries to dissuade them—unsuccessfully (14:41–42)—understanding the consequences of what they were intending. Neither the ark, nor Moses accompany this rash attempt, and the people are defeated. In a final twist, the first battle in Numbers and the first in the Promised Land ends in disaster.
Chapter 15 is the first law section since the journeying and rebellion narrative began (11:1). It seems to add detail to sacrifice sections such as Leviticus 2 and some new laws. But why does it occur now? The function of the laws here must be seen as reinforcing the covenant promises the LORD has already made. So, there is grace (he still speaks, despite all that has just happened), his promise to enter the land still stands, he continues to allow access through the sacrificial system, and he continues to show generosity in the way that foreigners can come in (15:14–16). He, however, has not become soft on sin—as the laws in 15:22–36 demonstrate.
15:1–10 The food and burnt offerings that are to be offered once the nation has entered the land are described. These sacrifices are those of a settled nation (growing crops, 15:3). These regular offerings are not for specific sins, but those necessary to maintain an ongoing relationship with the LORD. The overall sense is of sacrifices offered out of abundance. The spies had reported that the land devours (13:32); the LORD says it will provide. Who is to be believed? These offerings are a pleasing aroma to the LORD (a phrase repeated three times here, 15:3, 7, 10, then again in 15:13, 14).
15:11–16 This same provision must be extended to the sojourner (passing through) or non-Israelite who is settled permanently in the land. In both cases, it is assumed they have embraced the Jewish religion. Once they have done so, the law does not distinguish between the native and foreign-born believer (15:15–16). It was always possible to become part of the people of God without being born into it.
15:17–21 A new offering, a dough offering, is described. This offering is a kind of firstfruits (see Lev 23:17, 20) albeit an ongoing offering rather than a festival one. This offering can only be made once the people are in the land and settled.
15:22–31 This section deals with two categories of sin—unintentional and with a “high hand.” These are considered corporately (15:22–26) and then individually (15:27–31). The next section (15:32–36) is best seen as a worked-out example of an individual’s high-handed sin. These categories demand further definition: they are not, for example, sins committed accidentally versus sins committed knowingly. All sin has intent to some degree. Nor are they describing what we would think of as the difference between murder and manslaughter (the law deals with this elsewhere, see Num 35:9–34). The differences between the two categories should not be understood as whether the sin is defiant or not. In this sense, the sin committed with a “high hand” is most like the unforgiveable sin (see Mark 3:22–30).
15:22–26 At a corporate level sin can be atoned for through the sacrificial system. The congregation shall be forgiven (including the foreigner residing there, compare 15:15–16). In terms of pure process, the passage adds little to the opening chapters of Leviticus. This short passage, however, is framed in terms of the congregation’s relationship to the sin committed.
15:27–31 Here the text moves from the general to the specific (congregation to individual). The idea of sinning with a “high hand” (that is, defiantly) is now introduced. It was not mentioned in the previous section because it is harder for a whole nation to sin defiantly (though presumably this is what was happening in the previous chapters). As before, sinning unintentionally is dealt with through the sacrificial system. Now we learn that defiant sin which is “reviling the LORD” cannot be atoned for. This is more than knowing what you are doing when you sin; it is sinning in utter defiance of the LORD and all that he is and has done. Such a person is to be cut off.
15:32–36 What does a defiant sin look like? As an example, the Sabbath-breaker knows what the fourth commandment says but chooses to ignore it. Moreover, lighting a fire on the Sabbath (Exod 35:3) is a very public defiance; the smoke would be seen by many. He is put out of the camp (fulfilling 15:30) and put to death.
15:37–41 The section ends curiously. What place do tassels have? The answer is found in 15:39. They are a reminder, like a road sign which repeats the speed limit. Every time the Israelites see them, they will be reminded not to follow their own ways (Num 11–14) but to obey all the LORD’s commands. The color of the tassels (blue) is itself a reminder of the tabernacle (Exod 26:1). The section ends with a covenant reminder, for 15:41 repeats Exodus 20:1–2, the first commandment as counted by Jews (though not Protestants).
Up to now, the challenges have either been to Moses’s leadership or to the sovereign rule of the LORD. Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, the focus switches to that other great institution, the priesthood. This will be the defining issue in chapters 16 through 19. In the first two chapters the challenge is addressed including a remarkable confirmation of Aaron as priest (Num 16–17). Chapters 18 and 19 are law sections either relating directly (Num 18) or indirectly (Num 19) to the priesthood.
16:1–2 There appear to be four ringleaders initially: Korah is from the same clan as Aaron (a Kohathite). Dathan and Abiram are sons of Eliab, and thus Reubenites. On is also a Reubenite but is not mentioned again (perhaps, generously, because he repents of his foolishness?). When the incident is recalled in Psalm 106:16–18, only Dathan and Abiram are mentioned (as is the case in 16:12). The section is best understood as containing two interlinked rebellions: the first is clearly about the priesthood and concerns Korah (to whom 16:4–11 is addressed). The second is more generally about leadership and concerns Dathan and Abiram.
The expression “took men” is unusual, but simply means, collected some followers around them. This is clear from 16:2, which adds to their number and includes 250 chiefs. These come from across the tribes (hence why the affirmation of 17:1–2 includes all tribes; this also makes sense of 27:3).
16:3 The rebels’ objections are not entirely dissimilar from that of Aaron and Miriam (see chapter 12) who had more of a personal acquaintance with the LORD. The reader already knows this story will not end well.
16:4–11 Although responding to all four ringleaders and 250 chiefs, Moses singles out Korah for attention. He rightly perceives this is a challenge to the priesthood from within the tribe of Levi (hence 16:7, 8, 10), confirmed by the summary in the last sentence of 16:11. The conflict is therefore resolved by the offering of censers with incense, a priestly act. The rebels have quickly forgotten their recent history and how two of Aaron’s sons were killed in this way (see Lev 10:1–2). The wise would have withdrawn at this point, but as Moses makes clear, despite their elevated status (16:9–10), pride has got the better of them.
16:12–15 Before the priestly challenge is carried out, Moses turns his attention to the other rebels. When he summons them (16:12) they will not come. Indeed, his summons seems to provoke them to anger, directed at Moses’s leadership. They claim Egypt as a land flowing with milk and honey, not Canaan. What an incredible thing to say! They say they have not come into the land, and Moses has made himself leader. All three claims are untrue, and the irony of the situation is that people of unbelief like them have prevented the Israelites from gaining the inheritance, not Moses. Moses is rightly angry with them and says, in effect (16:15), that he has not lorded it over them.
16:16–24 The two stories now combine as Moses invites Korah and the other rebels to take censers. Were Dathan and Abiram among the 250 who also took censers at this point? It seems unlikely, as Moses has to travel to their tent (16:25). Either way, Korah is ready for the challenge in front of the whole congregation and (most importantly) the LORD himself (16:19). The LORD sees this as a national rebellion (because of the presence of the leaders) and wants to consume “everybody.” Moses’s intercession focuses the judgement upon those who have sinned—in this case, the three remaining ringleaders.
16:25–30 These verses record Moses’s judgement (from God) against the rebels. The congregation should (and does, see 16:34, although rather late) depart from those who have sinned. But why should the wives and children of Dathan and Abiram be included in the punishment (16:27)? We should note that these were people who were offered the opportunity to move away but chose to stand with their family instead. (Although not mentioned here, some clearly did move away, as the “sons of Korah” lived on, see 26:11; 1Chr 6:16–23.) The LORD uses the opportunity to reaffirm Moses’s leadership by promising something new (16:30): in this case, the ground opening and swallowing up all the sinners who have despised the LORD (note the link back to defiant sin in 15:30–31). Sheol is first mentioned here in the Bible: sheol is not a synonym for hell, but rather in Hebrew, the understanding is “whatever comes next” after death.
16:31–35 This section contains two judgements. First, Korah, together with Dathan and Abiram, are indeed swallowed up by the earth. Only Korah is mentioned here, but the other two are clearly with him (see 26:9–11). No wonder the remainder of the nation fled away, like a modern disaster movie. Second, the 250 conspirators are consumed as the two sons of Aaron had been in Leviticus 10.
16:36–40 The altar is already covered in bronze (Exod 27:1–2). Now to its covering will be added a further covering made from the melted censers. Unlike the ark, the altar is outside the main tent of the inner tabernacle, so all those who serve there will be able to see and remember that only descendants of Aaron may serve as priests (a role it appears Eleazar is already fulfilling, 16:39).
16:41–50 One might think that was the end of the matter. But the death of so many, apparently at the word of Moses (see 16:28), stirs up further dissent. We now expect something to happen: the last few times the glory of the LORD has appeared (16:42) things have not gone well. The LORD repeats his threat of 16:21 in 16:45 (also echoing the language of 16:35). A plague begins, but quick-thinking Moses instructs his brother to take incense and atone for the people on the altar. Atonement normally requires blood; why does it not do so this time? The reason is that Aaron stands between the dead and the living (16:48) acting (rather than speaking) as an intercessor. The plague is stopped, but not before it has killed 14,700 people.
The challenge is not over yet, however, because although Aaron’s priesthood has been shown to be effective (16:48), it has not yet shown to be exclusive. So now the LORD devises a test to show that Aaron is the man he has chosen.
17:1–7 Thirteen staffs are to be placed in the tent of meeting, one for each tribe, plus one for the tribe of Levi. It has already been ascertained in the previous story that Aaron, whilst not family head, is the man of the tribe of Levi who is priest (see 16:10). Therefore, whilst heads of tribes are inscribed on each of the twelve tribal staffs, only Aaron’s name is inscribed on the staff of Levi. The LORD will supernaturally demonstrate who is his man in order to stop the grumbling against Moses and Aaron.
17:8–11 A remarkable thing happens: the staff of Levi does more than bud—it blossoms and produces ripe fruit: the miracle is much more than expected and the LORD has encouraged them to look for. This is how much Aaron is the man! Aaron’s staff is kept back as a reminder of this miracle, so that the Israelites will not grumble and die, something the LORD clearly does not want.
17:12–13 The chapter ends with a remarkable statement of humility before the LORD, sadly often lacking during this middle section of the book. They seem to have finally grasped the nature of God’s unapproachable holiness and ask a very valid question, “shall we all die?” The next two chapters will explain how death can be avoided. As we read on, we shall discover their sudden humility is not lasting.
This chapter explains how the Levites (including the priesthood) are to act in order to protect the Israelites from death (17:13). In more detail than we have seen before, we discover how the priests themselves are to be protected from the people by the Levites, preventing any power grab that the rebels of chapter 16 intended. Alongside these new rules comes a detailed section showing how the priests (18:18–20) and the Levites (18:21–32) will be provided for.
18:1–7 The Kohathites (“you and your sons and your father’s house”) must bear iniquity (probably here meaning responsibility) for the sanctuary (for which they are responsible, 3:27–32). The narrower group of priests (Aaron’s descendants) do likewise for the priesthood itself. But these two groups themselves need protecting or guarding; hence the Levites are to serve them in this way (18:2–3). The whole section is intended to stop the Israelite tribes coming into contact with objects, or demanding roles that they cannot bear. Any breach of this protective barrier will certainly lead to death.
18:8–20 In the light of these clarifications, the LORD now explains how the priests are to be provided for. A list of seven offerings or collections is listed: what is offered but not burnt (18:9); wave offerings (18:11); firstfruit offerings (18:12); every “devoted” object (18:14); every firstborn animal or human (18:15, 17); every redemption price for firstborn humans (18:16); all the contributions made (18:19). These are all, of course, given to the LORD, but because the Levites themselves belong to him (18:6) they share in what is given to him. The covenant of salt (18:19) is an unusual phrase and probably refers to how the covenant is made, rather than being a name for a specific agreement. It shows how this covenant is to be lasting (see also Mal 2:4–7).
The Levites, however, are not to inherit land; instead, the land (through the offerings above) will support them indirectly. They have the LORD himself as their inheritance.
18:21–31 Moses now outlines how the larger group of Levites will be provided for. Whereas the priests are supported in actual food gifts (for the most part), the Levites are supported with tithes (18:21). This is their inheritance (18:24); like the priests, they have no land to own. The Levites themselves must present a tithe of a tithe to support Aaron. Why does Aaron deserve this extra over and above what is promised in 18:8–20? Perhaps it may reflect a temporary arrangement showing Aaron’s (and possibly Moses’s?) special status.
18:32 Though all the offerings and tithes are holy (dedicated to the LORD), it will not be sinful for the priests and Levites to consume them (18:31–32), but they must be careful that this does not lure them into a false sense of security with other holy objects.
Chapter 17 was connected to chapter 18 by showing how people could avoid death through coming too close to the tabernacle. Chapter 18 ended with a reminder that the Levites could die in the same way. Even if all the precautions are taken, death does occur (for example natural death and in battle). And now the LORD has sentenced a generation to die in the wilderness (14:29) there are going to be a lot of further deaths. Contact with a dead body makes a person unclean (5:2), so how practically will the nation be able to move, march and fight? The answer is in the provision of the water of purification, which chapter 19 describes. The section is fairly straightforward, showing how the water is prepared (19:1–10) and used (19:11–22).
Readers must distinguish here between sin (for which blood atonement is required) and ritual uncleanness (which is not sin). Ritual uncleanness is best seen as a kind of technical term to show the basis on which people can or cannot come before the LORD. Such practices as this are necessary but do not provide internal cleansing (a point made in Heb 9:13). Rather, the cleansing ritual is an outward picture of the need to be clean inside.
19:1–10 Throughout history, much has been made of the red heifer, but the word is feminine and is elsewhere translated cow. The Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) changed this to “heifer” or “bull,” hence why the word is translated this way in Hebrews 9:13–14. The whole cow is to be burnt (19:5), making the priest unclean. Another person collects the ashes and puts them in a jar and water is added (a process not made clear here, but obvious from the title of the mixture, 19:9). This is a big jar—a burnt cow would produce approximately 20 dry liters of ash. It may be that these are the predecessors to the jars in John 2:6.
19:11–13 Anyone who touches a dead body uses the water twice and becomes clean over a seven-day period. This explains how the person put outside the camp in 5:2 is able to re-enter (a previously unanswered question). The ritual uncleanness that comes from a dead body cannot otherwise be removed, and the person cannot come near the tabernacle.
19:14–22 The laws are extended for those who touch a body by accident, perhaps coming into a tent where someone has died or coming across a dead body in battle. As in the previous section, someone who does not make use of the water cannot otherwise become clean.
This chapter is concerned mainly with the death of the leaders of the first generation, none of whom will enter the Promised Land. The deaths of Miriam (20:1) and Aaron (20:22–29) frame the passage which is mostly (20:2–13) taken up with explaining why Moses himself will not be allowed to go into Canaan.
20:1 Little is said about Miriam’s death. There is no mention of extended grief (compare Aaron’s death in 20:22–29). This may be because the narrator felt no need to mention it; more likely, the narrator sees Aaron (as priest) as a more significant national figure than Miriam.
20:2–9 At first, this seems just like another water story (see also Exod 15:22–28; 17:1–7). There will be a further water story in 21:4–9 and a song about water in 21:16–18. (Significantly, one of Balaam’s oracles also deals with water, 24:17.) The story begins with grumbling, although with the added surprise that the people wish they had perished like their brothers. Given that their brothers’ death was a judgement from the LORD, the wish is an extraordinary one. The grumbling is once again tied up with the lack of faith about the Promised Land and a belief that Egypt was better. In a familiar pattern, Moses and Aaron prostrate themselves before the LORD who appears just to them (a good sign that he will not judge all the people). Moses receives very explicit instructions: he is to take the staff (either his from Egypt, or possibly Aaron’s from chapter 17) and “tell” the rock to yield its water. Each water story follows a different pattern: in Exodus 15 Moses throws a piece of wood into bitter water to make it drinkable; in Exodus 17 Moses strikes the rock; here he is to speak to the rock.
20:10–13 The focus shifts from the people’s grumbling to Moses’s disobedience. In his frustration, he strikes the rock twice instead of following the LORD’s instructions. His disobedience does not stop the flow of water (the people should not suffer for his sin), but it does earn the LORD’s displeasure. At first glance, it seems a rather minor sin, but the LORD makes clear in 20:12 what Moses has done: he has not only been disobedient (see 20:24) or “spoken rashly” (Psalm 106:33), he has acted with “unbelief”—like the Israelites in 20:2–9, he has demonstrated a lack of faith. This will prevent him from entering the Promised Land, though we are given no further details yet about this punishment. The place is named Meribah which means “quarrelling”—probably a familiar name rather than an official one because the name has already been used to describe another of the water stories (Exod 17:7).
20:14–21 Initially, the relationship between this story and the other leadership stories in the chapter is unclear. If Edom had allowed passage, however, two things would have taken place. First, the route to the Promised Land would have been considerably shortened (entering from the east) and Moses would not have been allowed his gracious look at the Promised Land from a high vantage point (Deut 32:48–52; 34:1–8). Second, the blessing of Balaam, a key part of the narrative (Num 22–24) would have been impossible. In some sense, then, this short story forms part of Israel’s leadership story also.
Esau (Jacob’s brother) is described as the father of the Edomites (Gen 36:9) so the names Edom and Esau are best seen as interchangeable. On this basis, Moses is right to appeal to the nation as “brother” (20:14). Moses recounts the story of Israel into Egypt and then appeals for safe passage based on a seemingly reasonable request that they will stick to the main road and not deplete any of the area’s natural resources. Edom’s first response is to refuse (20:18). Moses’s counteroffer is to pay for any natural resources consumed (perhaps because he realizes the first request seems a little unrealistic). Edom again refuses (20:20) and backs up the refusal with a strong army. It is possible (though not certain) to see this story as another reflection on Moses’s leadership. The LORD is not mentioned, except in passing. It rather looks like Moses is taking things into his own hand. Perhaps Moses’s actions here are not all together unlike the presumption of 14:39–45? The LORD has said Moses cannot enter, but he tries to go into the land from the east anyway.
20:22–29 This section describes the death of Aaron at Mount Hor on the borders of Edom. This is where Aaron will be “gathered to his people” (the same phrase that will be used of Moses in 27:13). His death is a kind of judgement for his unbelief, hence the reminder about Meribah (20:24) and the way his priestly robes are “stripped” from him (20:26) and passed onto Eleazar his son. Despite being on the mountain, this handover is done in full view of the nation (20:27): everyone must know that Eleazar is now the priest so there is no repetition of chapter 16. The people mourn for 30 days, as they will do for Moses when the time comes (Deut 34:8).
As we move towards the story of the second generation, the narrator wants us to know that things are improving in Israel. Chapter 21 describes three successful battles (against Arad, Sihon, and Og). Incredibly, the battle against Arad is the first successful battle in Numbers. Yet we are not to think that the influence of the first generation has fully gone. We are yet to reach the low point of the first generation’s story (Num 25), and this apparently successful chapter contains yet another grumbling story (21:4–9). Moreover, some of the Israelites will settle in these conquered places, despite them not forming part of the Promised Land (see Num 32).
21:1–3 The battle stands in contrast to Moses’s efforts to pass through Edom. There the LORD was not consulted. Here he is (21:2), and the confrontation is started by the Canaanites themselves. Israel’s response to this affront is good and righteous, and the LORD hears their cries. Little is said about what being “devoted to destruction” means here, but the theme will be expanded in Numbers 31.
21:4–9 This is one of the better-known stories in Numbers due to its reference in John 3. The Edomites’ refusal to allow Israel to pass through means they have to take a roundabout route which leads to the people’s impatience with both the LORD and Moses as his appointed leader. Their complaint combines all previous food and water complaints and once again calls the gracious gift of manna “worthless.” Judgement comes swiftly (no opportunity for repentance this time) in the form of snakes in the camp which bite and kill. Once again Moses is asked to intervene, and this time (at the LORD’s instruction), Moses is instructed to make a bronze (or copper) snake and put it on a pole. Anyone who looks at it will live—the snake is not magical, of course, but looking at it is an act of faith (compare John 3:14–15). Paul (leaning heavily on Jesus’s teaching, no doubt), calls this episode “testing Christ” (1Cor 10:9).
Moses is not explicitly told to keep the snake (contrast Aaron’s staff in 17:10), but he does so, and it later becomes a stumbling block for the nation (see 2Kgs 18:4).
21:10–20 This looks like a travelling section, filled with lots of place names, most of which are unknown, but is better seen as another water-story section. This time the focus is not on the complaining of the Israelites but on the gracious provision of water. Numbers 21:16 is key. When the people have gathered previously, they came together to complain. Now they congregate to receive. The song of the well that follows (21:17–18) is a response to the provision, but the song exposes a deep flaw in the focus of the people. Although the LORD gathers his people and provides for them, the song the Israelites sing seems to overlook this divine intervention, focusing instead on the leaders (the “princes” and “nobles”) who oversaw the well’s construction. Taken in isolation, it seems a very pagan song.
21:21–30 The story here bears a remarkable similarity to the story of Edom in 20:14–21. The key difference is that in Numbers 20, the Israelites were simply threatened with a show of force; here the army of King Sihon actually attacks (21:23). He is soundly defeated, and Israel settles in his cities (21:25). The thinking reader should be curious about this. Sihon is not yet the Promised Land. What are Israelites doing settling there? This brief note is a precursor to the larger crisis of chapter 32 (see also 21:35). The passage recounts how the land of King Sihon was itself captured from Moab some time before. This explains the song in 21:27–29 (note that the song is not sung by Israel, like in 21:17, but by the “ballad singers”). Numbers 21:30 is the new Israelite ending to the old Sihon song.
21:31–35 The chapter ends with another victory, this time against King Og. Sihon, and Og are often grouped together in later Bible history—see, for example, Joshua 13:10–12 or Nehemiah 9:22. Once again, the battle is initiated by the enemy. At the LORD’s direction, the people fight and win another conclusive victory. Once again, the victory ends with “possession.”
The story of Balaam contained in this section is so unusual in Scripture that it warrants a brief introduction. The uniqueness is not, as often supposed, in the presence of a talking animal (22:28). After all, an animal has spoken before (Gen 3:1). Instead, the uniqueness of the story is in the way the focus switches for an extended period of time away from the people of God and into the enemy camp. This happens briefly elsewhere (for example, Judg 7:13–14 or Matt 26:3–5) but never for such an extended period of time. The point being made is clear: God’s blessed people cannot be cursed (23:8). Knowing this story is the equivalent of military intelligence for the Israelites.
Balaam himself is an enigmatic figure, and readers sometimes wonder whether he is on the side of Israel or her enemies. A careful reading of the text shows that the narrator thinks negatively of him (see detail below). One example will suffice: though Balaam often refers to the LORD using his covenant name (22:8), the narrator often refuses to allow the same familiarity in the LORD’s response (22:9, contrast the main Numbers refrain, “And the LORD said to Moses . . .”).
Moreover, despite Balaam’s failure to curse the Israelites, it will later transpire that he is the architect of their downfall in Numbers 25 (see 31:16). He is also viewed negatively throughout Scripture, often as an example of greed (for example, 2Pet 2:15–16 or Jude 11). Although he might superficially appear as a protagonist in the narrative, Balaam is not on the side of the angels.
Chapter 22 is one of the richest narratives in Scripture, let alone in Numbers. The story goes back and forth and builds tension; it contains humor (we are meant to laugh at, not with, Balaam). We are left at the end knowing that Balaam is a good-for-nothing prophet for hire who has no deeper relationship with the LORD than those who are paying his wages, whatever else he may claim.
22:1 The chapter begins with the last journeying section of the book. From now on, all the action takes place at the plains of Moab, right beside the River Jordan—from which point the people will finally enter the land (see Josh 3). As explained in the introduction, we should not view this geographical marker as a key structural marker in the book.
22:2–6 Balak, king of Moab (22:4) has heard of the Amorite battle (21:31–35) and it fills him with dread. He therefore enlists the help of the Midianites. Moab and Midian are closely connected in the Numbers story, though they are not directly interchangeable names. Moabites were descended from Lot (Gen 19:36–38) whereas the Midianites were descended from Abraham (Gen 25:1–2). Here and elsewhere in the exodus story, however, they make common cause (see 22:7 and notice how both are mentioned in the downfall of Israel in 25:1, 14). The alliance is sealed because Balak is a Zipporite (22:2), a Midianite name (see Exod 2:21).
Balak does what every good pagan would do, he seeks the services of a professional prophet whom he hopes will pronounce a curse on the numerous Israelites (22:6). Balaam’s reputation goes before him, presumably not without merit because his hometown of Pethor (22:5) is almost certainly a great distance from Moab.
22:7–14 The first deputation arrives at Balaam’s house together with the “fee for divination” (another clue that Balaam is not a true hero). Balaam asks for a night to get an answer from the LORD. He knows the LORD’s divine name, but for a prophet he seems to know very little about the Israelites themselves (22:11). There follows a conversation with the LORD where the divine name is absent: “God came . . . Balaam said to God. . . . God said to Balaam”—the result of which is Balaam is to stay at home and not curse the Israelites for “they are blessed” (22:12)—the key idea which runs through all three chapters. The deputation therefore returns home empty-handed.
22:15–21 Balak is not to be outdone. Presumably the reputation of Balaam goes beyond his expertise as a prophet, for Balak seeks to charm (and pay) his way into Balaam’s heart, a strategy which these verses show is effective. The second group from Moab is not only made up of more and better officials (22:15), but it also now offers a generous payment: 22:17 is effectively asking Balaam to name his price. Balaam’s reply in 22:18 seems very honorable, the kind of thing a true Israelite might say (and the second half of the sentence will prove to be true). The fact that he asks for another night to converse with the LORD shows that he really wishes he will get permission to come. Surprisingly, the LORD does let him go (22:20). Why the change of heart? There is no change: instead, we should see this as the LORD’s judgement against Balaam, which in Numbers is nearly always being given up to the things that are desired.
22:22 Now the story takes another odd turn as Balaam is confronted by the angel of the LORD. We might wonder why the anger of the LORD is kindled “because” he went, given the LORD’s previous permission. The Hebrew word could simply mean “as” he went. Either way, this fits with the narrative in 22:20 where we saw that Balaam’s departure to Moab was itself a judgement against him. This event occurs while Balaam is on his donkey. Aside from two other occurrences (the story in 1Sam 9 and the prophecy in Zech 9:9), donkeys are always male in Scripture. This one is female. The narrator is pointing out the stupidity of this arrogant male and so-called prophet, Balaam. He is no seer because even the female donkey can see what he cannot.
22:23–30 Here is the heart of the story, and we are supposed to laugh at Balaam and how stupid he is. Some prophet! He cannot even see the angel of the LORD before him ready to strike him down. Three times the donkey saves him (in three incidents that build to a climax with each allowing less room for maneuver). Three times Balaam strikes the donkey until things reach a climax in 22:27, and the donkey refuses to go further. Balaam does not deserve a direct message from the LORD, so instead the LORD puts words of rebuke in the mouth of the donkey.
Balaam does not seem so bothered by the speaking miracle as he is by the shame that he believes the donkey’s behavior has brought upon him. She has made a fool of him, he says, and he wishes he had a sword to kill her, failing to realize that the angel had a sword to kill him and only the donkey has saved his life. In a remarkable short conversation, the donkey says, in effect, you should have known better because up to now I have never done anything like this.
22:31–35 The LORD who opened the mouth of the donkey (22:28) now opens the eyes of the so-called prophet. Now he can see the angel and now he can see the danger he is in. He falls down before the angel and hears what we readers have known all along—that Balaam’s way is perverse or reckless. The donkey has saved his life. Even now, Balaam is trying to squirm, and his confession is not quite what it seems: the angel has pronounced his way as “reckless”—Balaam confesses his way is “evil in your sight” which is a weaker expression. He is a practiced excuse-maker. Nevertheless, the LORD still has something in mind for this wretched man to do, so he allows him to continue on his way.
22:36–41 Balak is unimpressed with Balaam’s refusal to come the first time he is summoned, to which Balaam casually replies, in effect, “Well, I’m here now, aren’t I?” In the second part of 22:38, it might sound like Balaam has learnt his lesson, but his apparently godly response is precisely the same as at the beginning of the section (22:18). This is the same-old Balaam. The sacrifices (hardly according to the Leviticus law) prepare the way for the oracles that will follow.
Chapters 23 and 24 describe the back-and-forth dialogue between Balaam and King Balak, who is increasingly irritated at the lack of a curse for which he believes he has paid. As this dialogue continues, Balaam speaks seven oracles: four longer, three shorter. The longer oracles all concern Israel herself and show that she cannot be cursed (see 22:12 and compare 23:8). The three shorter oracles are about other nations or people: Amalek (24:20), the Kenites (24:21–22) and Asshur and Eber (24:23–24, probably forerunners of Assyria).
23:1–6 Balaam sets up seven altars and offers seven bulls and seven rams on them. No doubt he believes this will be pleasing to the LORD, and he even uses the right terminology (“burnt offerings”) as he does so. Instead, “God” and not “the LORD” meets Balaam and when Balaam says, look what I have done (23:4), the LORD does not respond other than to give Balaam the message. These are not pleasing aromas to the LORD (compare 15:3). Reading ahead, we should probably see Balaam’s offerings as some kind of superstitious religion, for later in the story we will read that he has given up on looking for “omens” (24:1).
23:7–10 Each of the seven oracles is identified with the same phrase “took up his discourse.” The first oracle is a beautiful piece of poetry made up of seven couplets (two in 23:7, one in 23:8, and two each in 23:9 and 23:10). Each couplet is a parallelism repeating (in slightly different language) the point made in the first phrase. The overall theme of this first oracle is that “Israel cannot be cursed.” Balaam sees that blessed Israel is different from every other nation (23:9), a nation whom the LORD has blessed to be numerous (23:10). If only Balaam could be one of them (23:10) and die like one of them—a wish that will be unfulfilled, for instead he will die at their hands (31:8).
23:11–17 Balak is unsurprisingly furious despite Balaam’s protestations, and invites him to try again—a standard procedure with false gods when you do not get the answer you first wanted. Balak is persuaded that perhaps the number of Israelites has overwhelmed Balaam (hence 23:10) so he chooses a new location which will hide some of them from view (23:13). On this basis, he hopes for a curse. The LORD once again gives Balaam an oracle, but again, the oracle is not what Balak is hoping for.
23:18–24 The second oracle, like the first, is a beautiful poem made up of couplets; this time there are nine; most, though not all, are parallelisms. The overall theme of this second oracle could be stated as “The LORD promises to stick with Israel and give her victory.” He is not going to change his mind! Such a promise needs to be seen in the light of the overall narrative of Numbers, where the people have proved their unfaithfulness; yet God remains faithful. Notice in 23:21 that how outsiders are to view Israel (without “misfortune” or “trouble”) is not the same as the internal view that has been presented in Numbers. None of the grumbling and sin that has gone on should alter the outsider’s view of the LORD’s blessing on his people.
The victory language here is expressed in animal terms—the horns of a wild ox in 23:22 and the total victory captured by the imagery of the lion (23:24).
23:25–30 Balak would rather that Balaam had said nothing! But he is not quite prepared to give up yet and so thinks of a third place, hoping God might change his mind. He really does not understand the LORD at all.
24:1–2 Each oracle takes our understanding of Israel on a little deeper. This time Balaam speaks when the “Spirit of God” comes upon him. We should not think this reflects any religious revival in his heart (and nor does the decision to avoid omens). Rather, the text is reinforcing that despite Balaam’s pagan nature this is indeed a word from the LORD.
24:3–9 The third oracle of a man who now sees clearly (24:3–4, compare 22:32) shows exactly what the blessing of God on Israel signifies. She is beautiful (24:5), abundant (24:6–7), and victorious in battle (24:8–9). These are echoes of the Abrahamic promises (Gen 12:1–3). The abundance of 24:6–7 is captured in four agricultural metaphors in 24:6 which combine both beauty and a sense of fruitfulness. The provision of water in 24:7 is a key theme throughout the book (see, for example, comments on 21:10–20). The Agag is unclear to us (24:7), but he is clearly well-known to the contemporary listeners. Numbers 24:8–9 revisits some of the language of the second oracle, but with even more force. Balak should be clear—he cannot stand against this blessed people.
24:10–14 Balak is now very angry (striking hands is a sign of his frustration). He wants Balaam to go, and he must do so without the riches promised; after all, he has failed to deliver the curse Balak needed. Balaam is aloof about the situation, warning Balak that he has only done what he said he would do, and besides there is more to come! Now the focus switches to what will happen in the future.
24:15–19 Balaam’s fourth oracle now looks ahead. It begins the same way as the last, but now Balaam sees a future mystery man (24:17) who will defeat Edom and Seir (Edom is the nation, Seir is the land they possess, see Gen 32:3). The mystery man will rule over a great kingdom (24:19). Who is this mystery man? The first part of 24:17 describes who he is (a star and scepter); the second what he will do (crush his enemies). It may be an individual ruling the nation, or a representation of Israel as a nation herself; either way it is difficult not to see the Davidic kingdom as a partial fulfillment and, of course, Christ Jesus as the ultimate depiction.
24:20 The perspective now shifts, as though Balaam glances round and sees other nations from his high viewpoint and comments on them from that elevated perspective in the final three oracles. The Amalekites have already fought the Israelites (Exod 17:8–13); for this reason, they are considered “first”—that is, the first to oppose the Israelites coming up out of Egypt. They are a long-standing enemy of Israel, still around in the time of Hezekiah (1Chr 4:42–43).
24:21–22 We know little about the Kenites or their capital city (Kain), but they too will be defeated, though not by Israel; instead Asshur will overcome them.
24:23–24 In the seventh oracle we see that even the conquerors will be conquered. Whether Asshur is an early name for Assyria or a different place altogether (both are possible), they themselves will be overcome by ships from Kittim (Crete). God will see to the utter destruction of all those who stand opposed to him.
24:25 This appears to end the story of Balaam, but as the next chapter progresses, we should bear in mind that the evil that goes on is all his idea (31:16). He will not give up his payment so easily, which is why the New Testament holds him up as a picture of greed.
Chapter 25 is a sorry tale which brings us to the low point of Israel’s wilderness story. For sure, they have been very rebellious up to now, rejecting both the LORD’s provision and his promise. Yet they have not actually turned to other gods (breaking the first commandment). They will do so now, enticed by the false religion of the Moabites and Midianites. Only the quick-thinking action of Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, stops the LORD’s judgement from overcoming the nation. This is the last we will hear of the first generation who died in the wilderness.
25:1–5 “Whoring” (or being unfaithful) is a Bible term that is applied to both spiritual and physical prostitution. Often both meanings are relevant, as is the case here. Canaanite rituals involved sex (see 25:1, 6) and food (25:2). The “daughters of Moab” will reappear in Numbers 31. The “gods” (25:2) worshipped by Israel are described as “Baal of Peor” (the same location visited by Balaam in 23:28). Baal is mentioned over 100 times in the Old Testament, but this is the first occurrence. It may be a generic name for middle eastern gods: there is no certainty that this is the same Baal as in the 1 Kings 18 story, for example. The first commandment (Exod 20:3) is broken for the first time, and the nation incurs God’s wrath. There is hope, however, and Moses is instructed to kill the leaders who have led the nation astray (25:4). Numbers 25:5 does not need to contradict this approach, as the judges (see Exod 18:24–27) oversee the process.
25:6–9 Even as the sentence is being passed, one man brings a Midianite woman to “his family.” Numbers 25:8 makes it clear that this is rather subtle language to describe him taking the woman to have sex with him. This is defiant sin, carried out in full view of the nation whilst they are weeping. As we have already seen, there is no mercy for such defiance (15:32–36). Phinehas, son of the priest Eleazar, sees what happens and acts righteously. He enters their chamber and pierces both with his spear (the strong implication is that he does so whilst they are having sex). His action makes atonement (see 25:13). What is this plague that is stopped? The plague is the judgement against the nation that the LORD has begun because the sentence of 25:4–5 has not yet been enacted. 24,000 die. Paul records the death toll as 23,000 in 1 Corinthians 10:8, a difference, which is difficult to explain; Paul however is not so interested in the detail as the lesson to be learned: “we must not indulge in sexual immorality.”
25:10–18 Phinehas has demonstrated the right kind of jealousy (the last person to be jealous in Numbers was Joshua, see notes on 11:28–29). His actions have turned away God’s wrath (25:11) and made atonement (25:13) because there has been the shedding of blood (Heb 9:22). As a result, the LORD makes a covenant with Phinehas and his line. What is this covenant? It cannot be the priestly covenant again reaffirmed (see 18:19) because the priestly line does not pass exclusively through him (see 1Chr 24:1–2). More likely, the blessing in view here is a personal word of blessing for this extraordinary act, from which all his priestly descendants will benefit. The narrator now demonstrates the seriousness of the sin, for both the man (Zimri) and woman (Cozbi) were children of leaders. This incident explains the wrath of God which will flow out against the Midianites (25:16–18), a sentence which will be fulfilled in Numbers 31.
So ends the story of the first generation. Apart from Joshua and Caleb (and Moses, who is soon to die), this is the last we will hear of them. Now is the time to hear about their children, a wholly new generation, who do not follow in the sins of their parents.
The Story of the Second Generation: Living in the Promised Land (26:1–36:13)
The story of the second generation told in Numbers 26–36 does not actually take them any nearer the Promised Land geographically (that will have to wait until Josh 3). It does, however, take them nearer spiritually and anticipates what life in the Promised Land will be like. There is only one negative moment in this section (in contrast to the previous 25 chapters), and that is when two and a half tribes decide not to enter the land (Num 32). Apart from this rebellious minority, all the signs are positive. The unbelief of the previous generation is replaced with the faith of their children.
Chapter 26 records the second of the two censuses in the wilderness. This chapter is a direct parallel to that of chapter 1. With one exception (the half tribes of Joseph are switched, see notes below), the tribes are listed in the same order. All the previous generation have fallen in the desert, just as the LORD said (14:29–30). Apart from one or two editorial comments, the structure follows the same pattern as Numbers 1.
26:1–4 Note how the nature of the task given to the people has not changed since chapter 1: this is still a military census.
26:5–11 The tribe of Reuben is accompanied by a note that explains the sin of Dathan and Abiram (Num 16).
26:28–37 The two half tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim are reversed in this second census (compare 1:32–35). There are two reasons for this: first, the five daughters of Zelophehad are introduced (Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, 26:33). These women are arguably the most significant characters of the second half of Numbers, if not the whole book. Their names are recorded three times (also 27:1; 36:10). As they are from Manasseh, that tribe is mentioned first. Second, in purely numeric terms, Manasseh has grown 64% since the last census, whilst Ephraim has shrunk by 20%.
26:51 The overall total remains little changed from the first census, a remarkable indication of grace given the sin that has been prevalent. Five tribes have reduced in size (Reuben -6%, Gad -11%, Simeon -63%, Ephraim -20% and Naphtali -15%). Seven have increased (Judah +3%, Issachar +18%, Zebulun +5%, Manasseh +64%, Benjamin +29%, Dan +3%, Asher +29%). The causes of these changes are impossible to analyze other than to say that we should not be surprised that some judgements fall more heavily on some tribes than others, particularly as plagues, for example, “come out” from the tabernacle (16:46) and so will often affect those nearest the most.
26:52–56 The military census is also to be used as the basis for dividing the land (not a use that was explicit in the first count). The allocation is to happen in two ways: by size of tribe (26:52–54) and by lot (26:55). How these two processes work together is not clear here, though an approach based on both size and drawing of lots would be both fair and proportionate. Notice how the word inherit/inheritance appears six times in just five verses. The LORD alone gives the land to the people.
26:57–62 The Levites are now counted in a passage which parallels 3:14–39). Like the military census, there has been little change in the total (23,000 in 26:62 compared to 22,000 in 3:39).
26:63–65 A final comment reinforces that this is an entirely new generation. Given the placing of this comment immediately after the count of the Levites, it is assumed that the first-generation Levites also perished in the wilderness, though Numbers never makes this explicit.
Chapter 27 consists of two separate stories, both of which deal with those who are acting righteously. The daughters of Zelophehad (already encountered in 26:33) are described as being “right” in 27:7. They belong to the second generation. Joshua is one of the two survivors of the first generation and is described as filled with the Spirit (27:18). Note that between them, these two stories cover both the leadership of Israel and the people themselves. In the story of the first generation, both have been at fault. Things are now looking more promising.
27:1–4 The five daughters of Zelophehad raise an important question following the instructions about the granting of land (26:52–56). They have no brothers, so what will happen to their inheritance? This is such an important point, they bring it before the whole community (27:2) In doing so, they make clear that, though their father fell in the wilderness like all his contemporaries, he was not one of those who sinned with a “high hand” (15:30). Such actions would have led to him being cut off and his inheritance forfeit.
There are no sons of Zelophehad to inherit the land, and so they make a claim. It seems to be expressed somewhat abruptly, “Give to us a possession” (27:4), but we should not read too much into this request and assume it displays either greed or pride, as can be seen by the LORD’s own assessment in 27:7. Rather, we should see that the five women have grasped what others fail to see: the inheritance from the LORD is the great prize they are waiting for.
27:5–11 Moses brings their test case to the LORD, who confirms that this is a real issue that must be dealt with. He then offers a specific remedy followed by some general case law. The specific answer (27:7) is that the five women shall gain the possession that would have been their father’s. More generally, according to 27:8–11, the land shall stay within family groups, and provision is made for where there are no sons (27:8), no children (27:9), no siblings (27:10), and even no uncles (27:11). Yet, the matter is not quite settled, as we shall discover in chapter 36.
27:12–23 Moses is reminded that he cannot enter the Promised Land due to his rebellion at the rock (20:10–13) though he will—in God’s goodness—be able to see the land from afar (27:12). Then he must appoint his successor.
It seems simplest to see Joshua as the like-for-like successor to Moses, but the text makes clear that Joshua will be a different kind of leader, not enjoying the same intimate relationship with the LORD as Moses had (see 12:6–8). Moses was commissioned by the LORD himself in Exodus 3–4, whilst Joshua receives his appointment through Moses. He receives only “some” of Moses’s authority (27:20, though it will be sufficient to lead the people), and he must approach the LORD through the priest (27:21) unlike Moses who was a Levite himself and spoke with God directly. Guidance will come through the use of the “Urim”—a process we hear little about but is clearly inferior to Moses’s intimate connection to the LORD.
When Joshua received the Spirit is unclear, only that it occurred prior to this anointing (27:18). Although there is no direct reference, Joshua was probably one of the seventy in 11:25, which might also explain Joshua’s strong reaction at the two men who stayed outside of the camp (11:26–30).
The expression “the God of the spirits of all flesh” (27:16) occurs only here and at 16:22. The dual occurrence is not immediately clear; perhaps both incidents depict crises in leadership (in Numbers 16, a failed coup against Moses, and here, a divinely directed succession). Perhaps more significantly, this is the first place that the key biblical phrase “sheep that have no shepherd” occurs (see also 1Kgs 22:17; Isa 13:14; Matt 9:36, and allusions elsewhere). Ideal leadership as portrayed in the Bible is not about strong-arm dictatorship but gentle and careful pastoring of the flock.
Two long chapters collect together all the laws and regulations concerning offerings under one main summary statement (28:2)—that the offerings (note how the LORD calls them “my” offerings) are a “pleasing aroma” which must be offered at the proper time. The phrase “pleasing aroma” occurs eleven times (28:2, 6, 8, 13, 24, 27, 29:2, 6, 8, 13, 36). The offerings are pleasing to the LORD because they demonstrate a dependence upon him alongside a recognition that they are not like him and need to be reconciled to him. In the Old Testament, a genuine offering brought with a repentant heart encapsulates the entirety of the covenant relationship from the people’s point of view. Now we are into the story of the righteous second generation, an appropriate place to summarize these requirements.
The offerings described are in addition to the “regular burnt offering and its drink offering” a phrase (or variation thereof) which appears as a common refrain. The special offerings (if we can call them that) establish a rhythm to the calendar based around the number seven, the sacred number of completeness. Offerings are scheduled for the seventh day, the seventh month, and offerings are made in multiples of seven. These offerings constitute the entirety of the national response to their rescuing God. Each deal with a particular aspect of the LORD’s work among them (see below for details).
They can be summarized as: daily (28:1–8), weekly (28:9–10), monthly (28:11–15), and annually. The annual offerings are centered on festivals or special occasions: the Passover (28:16–25), the feast of weeks (28:26–31), the feast of trumpets (29:1–6), the day of atonement (29:7–11), and—the most complex of all—the feast of tabernacles (29:12–40).
28:1–8 Regular daily offerings remind the people of the LORD’s presence in the camp. Each morning they awake, there the LORD is with them—so offerings are required at the beginning and end of the day (28:4).
28:9–10 The weekly Sabbath offering reminds the people of God’s creation, linked as the Sabbath is to the LORD’s creating pattern (see Exod 20:11). This is the only mention in the Law of offerings made specifically on this day.
28:11–15 These verses describe monthly new moon offerings (the Hebrew months of the year are linked to the lunar calendar). Although this feast is not mentioned in the Leviticus law book, the author does seem to assume that readers will be familiar with it. The monthly offering is the first where the number seven becomes significant (28:11), a pattern that will now be repeated in each offering made. New moon offerings help the people recall God’s faithfulness, as they are made “throughout the months” (compare other reminders in Gen 8:22 and see Ps 72:5).
28:16–25 Offerings are to be made at Passover—incorporated into the seven-day feast of unleavened bread. The passage does not deal with the Passover lamb at all (see Exod 12 for more details) but focuses on the accompanying offerings that the festival requires. A new phrase “holy convocation” is used for the first (28:18) and seventh (28:25) day, a phrase which will be attached to each subsequent festival or celebration in this section. These are days, in other words, which are set apart for the LORD and for his people to gather together. Each holy convocation requires the people to abstain from work.
Readers should not be puzzled at the absence of rules about the Passover lamb itself. The celebration of the Passover is a household offering; these two chapters describe national offerings. The feast of unleavened bread reminds the people of God’s rescue (Exod 12:17).
28:26–31 Details are provided regarding offerings made on the “day of the firstfruits” (a title only here), part of the feast of weeks: the celebration reminds Israel of the LORD’s provision. Elsewhere this is also called the feast of harvest (Exod 23:16). Confusingly, the day and festival take place 50 days after the actual firstfruits are gathered-in and first waved before the LORD (see Lev 23:15–16), probably to allow time for the actual harvesting to take place. The fifty-day period gave rise to the name Pentecost.
29:1–6 The feast of trumpets links us back to Numbers 10. There the instruments are linked to fighting, so this festival helps remind Israel of the LORD’s victory. The feast begins the holiest month of the year—the seventh month. This month contains the feast of trumpets, the day of atonement (day 10, 29:7) and the feast of tabernacles (beginning on day 15, 29:12).
29:7–11 This section details the offerings for one special day, the day of atonement—an opportunity for the nation to remember the LORD’s mercy. To the familiar language of “holy convocation” and “do no work” is the injunction for the people to “afflict themselves” (29:7). This may be a reference to abstaining from food (see its use in Lev 23:27), in which case it is the only required fast contained with the Law, contrary to how the spiritual life of the nation developed (compare, e.g., Zech 8:19). The verb “afflict” is perhaps better translated “humble” (e.g., Exod 10:3; Deut 8:2). It denotes the attitude they must approach the day with, rather than a particular action they must undertake.
29:12–39 This is the longest section in the chapter and the most complicated of all festivals, the feast of booths, so called because during the seven days of the festival the people live in tents (Lev 23:42)—the festival of tabernacles. At first sight, this festival also seems to celebrate the rescue of the people from Egypt (see 23:43), but the sheer abundance of offerings made in the Numbers rules point towards the manner of their rescue—which is according to the generosity and abundance of the LORD. This is no “just made it” rescue, but a wholehearted and divine plan to bring the people to the land of milk and honey.
Each day is described separately and there is a complex arrangement of offerings: 13 bulls offered on the first day reducing by one each day until 7 are offered on the final day; 2 rams on each day; 7 lambs and 1 male goat are also offered daily. On the eighth day there is a final celebration (29:35–38). What is the point of the reducing number of bulls offered? The reduction probably functioned like a modern day “countdown,” building tension and causing the Israelites to look forward: the whole point of meeting in tents was to remind them of the wilderness wanderings as a staging post on the way to their permanent inheritance.
It is easy to get caught up in the detail of what has to be done on which day, but readers must remember that the overall purpose of the offerings is the maintenance of the covenant relationship with their rescuing and providing God.
This is one of the chapters that—at first reading—appears to bear no relation to the immediate or wider context of Numbers. On closer inspection, however, the concerns of this chapter arise out of two passages we have already considered. First, whilst it deals with vows made by men (30:1–2), the vast majority of the chapter deals with women’s vows and their legitimacy in their wider cultural context. This dovetails neatly with the request of the daughters of Zelophehad who are left without father or brothers. Though there is no mention of them here, the continuity with women and their particular household status is clear.
Second, 29:39 has made an almost casual reference to “vow offerings.” Clearly, chapters 28 and 29 are dealing with national offerings. Personal offerings such as those described in the opening chapters of Leviticus are not in view, including “vow offerings” which are also referred to in Leviticus 7:16 and Leviticus 22:18–23 but not explained in detail. This passing reference prompts the reader to ask “tell us more about vows” which explains the content and placement of chapter 30.
Throughout the passage, two words are used to describe the promises individuals make. “Vow” translates a Hebrew word meaning a promise to actively do something; “pledge” can include this positive promise but is better read as a promise to avoid something. Taken together, therefore (as this passage does), these two words cover every promise that might be made.
30:1–2 Here Moses deals with the making of vows by men. The existence of such vows is implied (and they are first mentioned in Gen 28:20). Such a vow is unbreakable. The LORD’s people are called to be holy as he is holy, and just as the LORD fulfils his word (23:19), so should his people. This is an Old Testament provision that seems to be superseded in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt 5:33–37).
30:3–16 Women would make a vow with reference to two particular situations: when she is in her father’s house (30:3–5) and when she is married (30:6–15). It is easy to read these rules as being restrictive; however, readers should see that they provide exceptions to a more general principle: for the most part, women can make vows and when they do so, they bear the same weight as those made by men.
30:3–5 A woman who lives under her father’s authority also makes vows under his authority. He has a one-day window to nullify any vow she makes but after that the vow or pledge stands as it does with a man. The forgiveness offered by the LORD (30:5) is a freedom from the guilt of not keeping her promise. Note that this rule applies to women in their youth (30:3). The ability to override a woman (both here and later in the chapter) is not one of gender, but one of authority.
30:6–9 A woman who gets married has previous vows placed under her husband’s authority. In these circumstances there is a new authority in the house and when her new husband hears of the vow, he can cancel it on that day only. After that, the vow stands. Any cancelled vow is—like in 30:5—not held against the woman.
30:10–14 A married woman has new vows placed under her husband’s authority. The striking (and liberating) reality is that she is able to make vows of her own accord. In the culture of the time this would have been unusual. Once again, if her husband hears about such a promise, he can cancel it on the day he hears. Otherwise, the vow is “established,” that is, it will stand. Silence is considered enough acknowledgement.
30:15 Some men end up exercising authority in their houses in an ungodly fashion. This verse deals with a very specific circumstance, that of the husband voiding a wife’s pledges later on. She would—in the culture of the day—be powerless to do anything about this. In such cases, she bears no sin for breaking faith; rather, the sin is entirely on the husband’s head.
30:16 These provisions should be seen as liberating for women. The final verse confirms that the root issue at stake is not really the vows themselves but the relationships that underpin them.
This long chapter describes the revenge that the Israelites take on the Midianites at the LORD’s command. It fulfils the command of God in 25:16–18 following the incitement of the Israelites to Baal-worship. Many parts of Numbers are perplexing, and some contain some very hard things, but the total and apparently brutal destruction waged in this chapter is among the hardest. These themes need to be addressed here because the issue of total warfare resurfaces again and again in the Old Testament. Helpfully, such aggressiveness is expressed here as “executing the LORD’s vengeance” (31:3). Despite the length of the chapter, most of the text is devoted not to the details of the battle itself, but instead to the theological reflection on it and the resulting plunder that is obtained. It could even be seen as a template for how to wage “holy war” (though that technical term is not used here).
31:1–12 The initial battle begins, initiated by the LORD as retribution for both the offence they have committed against Israel (31:2) and the offence against the LORD (31:3). Israel is the LORD’s covenant people so these two cannot be separated. It will be the last act of Moses—appropriately enough because he is the last of the first generation to die, and though this is a battle waged by the second generation, the battle atones for the sin committed against the first.
Each tribe commits men to the battle—12,000 in total (31:5). This is a relatively small army, given that 32,000 non-fighters were captured (see 31:35). If the reader takes the alternative view of large numbers (see introduction), then the imbalance is even more significant, though a later story about the Midianites shows that size is no barrier to success (see Judg 7).
We know the battle is the LORD’s because Phinehas the priest, the “vessels of the sanctuary,” and the battle trumpets (see Num 10) accompany the soldiers. They kill every male (see notes below), the five kings of Midian and also Balaam (see notes on 24:25). Phinehas is sent into battle, rather than his father Eleazar the High Priest, probably to preserve the ritual cleanness of the priesthood (see notes on 12:10–16). The plunder collected is described in general terms: later in the chapter it will be listed in more detail.
So far, so good. This seems to be a straightforward though brutal battle which the Israelites win and the returning victors no doubt present themselves before Moses and Eleazar (31:12) expecting to hear a rousing “well done.” But this is not the case.
31:13–20 Though the brutality of the battle has been sobering, more is to come. Moses is angry with the soldiers who have “let all the women live” and sends out the troops for part two of the battle to kill the boys and sexually active women (31:17–18). He is to let the young women live, however, and they are to be brought into slavery. We must be honest and say that these two verses are very difficult, but reading them in their context answers many of the questions.
First, killing young males was a common military practice. They are the ones who would grow into men and take vengeance on those who had killed earlier generations. Indeed, this is exactly what happens, and we must assume that this battle did not, in fact, find and kill every Midian male (see how they terrorize the Israelites in the book of Judges, e.g., Judg 6:1–6).
Second, this is a theological battle, not an earthly one, and the killing of the women, when seen as a judgement, also makes sense. The text is clear that the sin at Peor is sexual (25:1). Thus, the command to execute the LORD’s vengeance against those women who have “known man by lying with him” is entirely appropriate. It ensures judgement is carried out against the guilty.
Third, although it is possible to read the keeping of young women as a form of sexual slavery, it is not necessary to do so. The qualification for mercy (“have not known man”) does not make them necessarily sexual slaves; instead, the qualification functions as a way of separating these women out from those who have been guilty of the sins in Numbers 25.
As a divine judgement, the whole episode is coherent, though not without difficulty for those living in twenty-first century cultures to understand. Yet there is no escape from the LORD’s righteous judgement. Historians of the period point out that this approach is more merciful than most nations might apply.
31:21–47 This central section deals with the plunder collected. Eleazar the priest (note the way theological direction has transitioned from Moses) gives instructions for how the plunder is to be purified alongside the soldiers themselves who have come into contact with death (31:21–24). Numbers 31:25–31 then describes how the plunder is to be shared out in a rather complicated formula. 50% goes to the congregation and 50% to the soldiers. In each half, 98% is kept and 2% (1/50) is given to either the Levites (from the congregational share) or to the priests (from the soldiers share). This is different from, and in addition to, the regular tithing.
The plunder is now described in quite extraordinary detail. The quantities involved are very large and make some readers doubt their trustworthiness. But there is no reason to doubt that such a decisive battle should have given rise to such vast amounts of goods and livestock.
31:48–54 A final twist in the battle tale is that not one Israelite soldier has died in the undertaking 31:49). As they report this astonishing fact to Moses, they also bring an offering of “what each man found” as an “atonement” before the LORD. But, in what sense is an atonement required? What sin has been committed? There are two possible options. The first is that the collection of personal treasure (31:50) goes against the commands about plunder, which all belongs to the LORD. The rather casual “what each man found” could be read in this way. More likely, however, is that the commanders have committed a sin by conducting a census (31:48–49). No doubt they were amazed that no one seemed to have been harmed, but counting troops without the LORD’s permission is seen as a lack of faith and the law provides for the atonement that must be made (see Exod 30:11–12).
This chapter describes the request made by two tribes—Rueben and Gad, later joined by part of Manasseh (32:33)—to settle to the east of the Jordan river. Moses reacts angrily but later reaches a settlement with the tribes which is described in some detail. There is a difficult exegetical question—does the text view this request and its subsequent resolution positively or negatively? Many commentators think the request is a reasonable one and the fact that Moses (and later the LORD) accommodates to it as evidence of divine approval. On this basis, the overall message is one of Moses doing well to keep the twelve tribes together.
Other commentators (a small majority) take a negative view. The request is itself sinful, and Moses accommodation is either making the most of a bad job or even—as with other judgements in Numbers—giving the rebellious tribes up to what they want. We will examine some of the textual evidence as we progress, but importantly, the initial request is itself a rejection of the LORD’s word to them. The land they requested is outside the Promised Land (see 34:12) as God himself defines it. On this basis, the tribes of Gad and Reuben are best seen as breaking the unity of Israel and Moses doing his best to limit the damage.
How does this fit with the positive tone the text uses to describe the second generation? This tone best applies to the parts of the generation who remain faithful (like the daughters of Zelophehad), and therefore excluding these particular tribes. One more general point must be made: it is tempting to read “half-tribe of Manasseh” (32:33) as referring to their being only one half of Joseph (and Ephraim being the other “half tribe”). But nowhere in Scripture is Ephraim described in this way. The phrase occurs 25 times in the Old Testament and always applies to Manasseh and only ever in the context of the land settled east of the Jordan. This is because some of Manasseh did indeed settle west of the Jordan. Thus, the rebellious tribes are the whole of Reuben and Gad and one half of the tribe of Manasseh.
32:1–5 Ruben and Gad make their initial request. The argument of the tribes seems of a similar order to the rebellion of Numbers 13–14. The explanation is entirely pragmatic: the land “is a land for livestock, and we have livestock.” There is no theological reflection or recognition that the LORD alone grants the land. The language of “seeing” in 32:1 echoes the approach of Lot in Genesis 13:10.
32:6–15 Moses’s response is much longer than the request and is full of anger. There is no rebuke from the LORD to Moses (compare 20:12) and, though it is an argument from silence, we must therefore assume his anger is not misplaced. Moses does indeed equate their sin with that of chapters 13–14, saying their request will discourage the other tribes (32:7, 9). They are no better than the first generation Reubenites and Gadites and will not only perish in the LORD’s judgement but will cause others to do so also (32:15). These are strong words.
32:16–19 The first part of a delicate negotiation begins with the rebellious tribes. They are not to be dissuaded by Moses’s accusations (itself a poor reflection on their attitude). Instead, they offer to cross over and fight alongside without giving up their claim on the east of Jordan lands. Their language presumes on God’s goodness—claiming that this is their inheritance (32:19) is not dissimilar to the sin of presumption in 14:39–45. Perhaps the phrase “take up arms” could be taken to mean “best” or “shock” troops—just a portion of the whole, and this makes sense of Moses’s emphasis in 32:21 below.
32:20–24 Moses provides a counteroffer and an accommodation. If the tribes send all troops, not just some (see notes above), and if these troops stick with the task until the land is conquered, then he will agree to their request. But there is a sharp warning—if they are not faithful to this promise they will be found out and have to deal with the consequences. Note how he now talks of these tribes separately from “Israel” (32:22)—the strong implication is that their request has put them outside of the LORD’s favor.
32:25–27 The two tribes agree to Moses’s request, repeating the “every man” demand in contrast to their first offer in 32:17.
32:28–32 Moses now passes on this agreement to Eleazar and Joshua who will have to ensure its fulfillment. Granting them their request is dependent on keeping the oath they have made. The rebels again repeat their commitment to this promise (32:31).
32:33–42 Here Manasseh is introduced for the first time. Why they are not mentioned until now is unclear. We can only assume that the apparent “success” of the other tribes’ request spurs them to join in. Their situation is complicated because the tribe is not united within itself in what it wants to do.
Did they keep this promise? Joshua 4:12–13 seems to imply they did; as does Joshua’s release of them from their obligation in Joshua 22:2. Closer examination of the data, however, suggests the answer is negative. The three tribes together constitute 137,000 fighting men (43,730 + 40,500 and 52,700 respectively, see Num 26). Yet only 40,000 crossed the Jordan (Josh 4:12) some of whom would have been the faithful “half” of Manasseh—possibly some 25,000). In other words, they were far from fulfilling their promise; the release in Joshua 22 is best seen as being spoken to the righteous remnant of those tribes who did do what they had said to Moses they would. And in the broader and longer sweep of Israel’s history, it is also true that their sin did indeed find them out.
Chapter 33 consists of two uneven elements. First (33:1–49) the LORD commands Moses to make a record of the places where they have stopped on the way to their final camp site by the plains of Moab (which they reach in 22:1). Then a shorter second section (33:50–56) gives brief instructions for the conquest of the land.
33:1–4 The LORD commands Moses to record all the places where the Israelites have stopped. Why? Presumably, such a record would ensure that the nature of the journey rather than the places themselves might be remembered. These are wilderness wanderings and reflect the nation’s rebellion against the LORD alongside his faithfulness in finally bringing them to the land he has promised. This is emphasized by a reminder of the rescue from Egypt in 33:3–4.
33:5–49 This long section details some 40 or so place names where the Israelites camped. Some commentators have tried to establish patterns and meaning into the lists, but such speculation is ultimately fruitless. Some of the place names are known and reference events in the book, for example Kibroth-hattaavah (33:16, compare 11:34) and Hazeroth (33:17, compare 11:35). The majority of place names, however, are unknown—either in Numbers or in wider contemporary accounts.
Iain Duguid (see selected reading recommendations) helpfully groups the names into three categories: those that stand as reminders of God’s faithfulness, places where the LORD did something; those that are places of rebellion and therefore remind the Israelites of their own guilt and God’s grace; and others we know nothing about—which, Duguid argues, reflects the normality and routine of much of the Christian journey.
33:50–56 These verses contain—appropriately enough after a list of place names from the journey—a summary statement of conquest. The Israelites are to drive out the inhabitants (33:52). Failure to do so will lead to the LORD driving the Israelites out (33:56), a neat summary of the Old Testament story. The risk to the Israelites in failure is a spiritual one. Hence, they are to destroy all the remnants of the old religions (33:52) and take possession of what the LORD is giving. Any remaining inhabitants (as history will show) will be “barbs,” “thorns,” and “trouble” (33:55), a set of words which together capture the pain and difficulty that will arise.
Chapter 34 is all about the inheritance of the land, first of all defining it (34:1–15) and then giving some practical instructions for its distribution (34:16–29). A Bible atlas will depict these boundaries graphically. Note how, throughout both sections, the language of “inheritance” dominates. The Israelites should never think they have earned or won the land themselves. Instead, the land is always expressed in Numbers as something that the LORD gives.
34:1–12 The southern (34:3–5), western (34:6), northern (34:7–9) and eastern (34:10–12) borders of the land are now described. Here we see the clearest description of the extent of the land found in the Pentateuch. The northern and southern bodies are the most complex, combining a mix of high points (such as Akrabbim in 34:4 and Mount Hor in 34:7) and water features like rivers and seas. Though complex, such borders are easily identifiable. The western border is the Mediterranean coast (34:6) whilst the eastern border is mostly defined by the River Jordan (34:12).
34:13–15 Separate mention is made of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh (see notes on Num 32). The land they will receive is still described as an inheritance (it comes from the LORD), but the way the passage is constructed shows how it should not be considered as part of the whole. We can see that in the contrast between the land “inherited by lot” (34:13) and that of the two and one-half tribes (“already received”). Significantly, Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh selected their own land (32:1–5) rather than submitting to the LORD’s distribution.
34:16–29 These verses seem to be simply a list of tribal heads who will be part of the process of distribution (which is still not explained in detail). Whilst true, it is impossible not to see echoes of chapter 1 and see how the LORD is now finally dealing with the new generation, including Eleazar the priest and Joshua as leaders (34:17).
At the beginning of Numbers, we learnt that the Levites are not to be treated as the other Israelites (1:47–54). They belong to the LORD as a substitute for the firstborn of every family (3:11–13) and serve in the tabernacle and with its transportation. As such, they never inherit land. Where, though, are they to live? A short first section (35:1–8) answers this question but poses more problems than it solves as it introduces the idea of “cities of refuge” (35:6), which are then explained in a second, longer section (35:9–33).
35:1–8 The language of “inheritance” and “possession” (35:2) is never applied to Levites. Instead, they are to receive some of the other tribes’ inheritance to be used as “cities for them to dwell in.” They are also to receive fields for their flocks, 1,000 cubits either side of the city (about 450 metres or 1,500 feet) making total dimensions of 2,000 cubits all across (35:5) with the city at the center. Forty-eight such cities are to be given over, which averages at four per tribe, though the allocation is to be based on tribal size for fairness (35:8). The LORD provides for all his people. The text introduces a new definition, not yet seen in the law already given: “cities of refuge.”
35:9–34 The function of cities of refuge is described. The section is relatively long because unlike some other laws, no rulings have been made on this subject before, although there is a brief reference at Exodus 21:13. This is all new legislation.
35:9–15 General principles are established. Three cities to the east and three cities to the west are to be designated cities of refuge where those who have killed someone accidentally can flee. Laws covering accidental killing are detailed in Exodus 21 and—given the value of life to the LORD (see Exod 21:33–34), it is not surprising that there should be so many rulings. These cities will be available without distinction—for the native Israelite and the foreign-born alike (35:15). This ruling, however, raises lots of questions, which the law now answers.
35:16–21 The basis of accidental homicide is established: if someone is struck with an object (iron or wooden) or was struck in anger, it cannot be claimed as accidental. The murderer shall be put to death (a phrase that is repeated seven times to make the point). The death sentence predates the Mosaic law and even the time of Abraham, echoing the LORD’s command to Noah (Gen 9:6), a direct application of God’s creation purposes.
35:22–29 Not every killing will fall into this category, however. The congregation must decide if the action was premeditated and, if so, the offender can flee to a city of refuge. Why does he need to do so? There must still be a recognition that blood has been spilt. The accused must remain in the city until the High Priest dies (35:25), which seems a rather arbitrary marker. We cannot finally say why the High Priest’s death is linked to release from refuge. Perhaps the life of the priest somehow counts for the life of the one who has died. The killer must not leave this city; that is his punishment. If he does so (35:26–29), he will add a willful sin to his accidental killing, and the “avenger of blood” (probably a relative of the deceased) can search him out and rightly demand his life.
35:30–32 Lest we should think that killing someone is not serious, we are reminded that murder attracts the death penalty (Gen 9:6; Exod 21:12–14). Death is never to be taken lightly—hence the importance of having two witnesses, a law that is later repeated in Deuteronomy 17:6 and picked up in the gospel accounts (Matt 18:16). There can be no substitutes, nor any payment in lieu of death; the law is absolute.
35:33–34 A theological point reinforces the function of the cities of refuge. Blood pollutes the land and there is no atonement that can be made for death except the death of the guilty. Why is this? Because the LORD himself dwells in the land. During the wandering years, the people need to know that the LORD lives in the camp (5:3). Now, as they enter the land, they need to learn that he dwells in the land itself—the inheritance he freely gives to his chosen people.
The book ends on what might at first appear to be a rather odd and negative note. We return to the story of the five daughters of Zelophehad (see 27:1–11) and a further problem that arises from them having no brothers. The story of these women must be read in the light of the entire book. Numbers is about the journey from Egypt to Canaan, where the people will receive their promised inheritance. We might say that the giving of the land is the grand theme of the book and the grand theme of this chapter: the word “inheritance” appears seventeen times in just a few short verses. This may seem repetitive, but it serves to remind us what the story is really all about. Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah do whatever it takes to take hold of this inheritance: viewed this way they are the true heroes of the book.
36:1–4 One problem regarding the daughters has already been solved—can they as women inherit the land from their father: the answer is yes. Moreover, it was the right question to be asking (27:7). A further complication now arises, being brought to Moses by the leaders of the tribe (36:1) because the issue is no longer simply a personal issue for the five women, but one for the whole tribe to wrestle with. What happens if one of the daughters marries a man from another tribe? Who will the land to pass to then? We might imagine Noah, for example, marrying Boaz from the tribe of Judah. The land of Noah (the land belonging to Manasseh) will effectively get transferred on Noah’s death to her children, who will themselves be Judahites. Even when jubilee comes (the property fix-it-all of Lev 25) the problem will not be solved (36:4). Over time, parcels of land in one tribe’s allotment will end up belonging to completely different tribes. And the text does not even mention the complication of what happens if a landed woman marries a Levite!
36:5–9 A solution is offered, and it begins with the same confirmation in 36:5 that appears in 27:7. The solution is straightforward and achieves the stated aim: inheritance (note that this word is used, not the more neutral “land”) “shall not be transferred.” How will this be achieved? Every daughter who holds land in her own right must only marry within her tribe. Our imaginary wedding between Noah and Boaz will be called off and Noah can only marry a man from Manasseh.
This may not sound such a restriction: after all, even allowing for the tribe of Manasseh being split in two by the actions of chapter 32, there are still approximately 25,000 males over 20 (26:34). Many of these, however, will already be married, so the pool is not as big as we might imagine, and we are right to see it as a restriction.
36:10–12 The five daughters bear this restriction willingly. The text applies to them the standard obedience refrain in 36:10. We can express it like this: they know that the inheritance is everything, and they will do whatever it takes to take hold of it, whatever restrictions it may require. In New Testament terms, this is the equivalent of “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13).
36:13 This story of obedience and self-sacrifice in the pursuit of laying hold of what the LORD has given is the fitting end to this book. The LORD’s requirements are clear, and we have now met two generations—one which refuses to obey and pays the consequences; the second which willingly submits to the LORD’s request and inherits what he has promised.
Ashley, T. R. The Book of Numbers. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.
Duguid, I. M. Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness. Wheaton: Crossway, 2006.
Pakula, M. Numbers: Homeward Bound. Sydney, Aquila Press, 2006.
Reynolds, A. Teaching Numbers: From Text to Message. Fearn: Christian Focus/Proclamation Trust Media, 2013.
Wenham, G. J. Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981.
Endnotes & Permissions
1. Throughout this commentary, I have followed major Bible translations and referred to the divine name for God (sometimes written as YHWH) as the LORD.
2. See notes by the author in NIV Proclamation Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 2015.
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
A Census of Israel’s Warriors
1:1 The LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, 2 “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. 3 From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company. 4 And there shall be with you a man from each tribe, each man being the head of the house of his fathers. 5 And these are the names of the men who shall assist you. From Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur; 6 from Simeon, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai; 7 from Judah, Nahshon the son of Amminadab; 8 from Issachar, Nethanel the son of Zuar; 9 from Zebulun, Eliab the son of Helon; 10 from the sons of Joseph, from Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud, and from Manasseh, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur; 11 from Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni; 12 from Dan, Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai; 13 from Asher, Pagiel the son of Ochran; 14 from Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel; 15 from Naphtali, Ahira the son of Enan.” 16 These were the ones chosen from the congregation, the chiefs of their ancestral tribes, the heads of the clans of Israel.
17 Moses and Aaron took these men who had been named, 18 and on the first day of the second month, they assembled the whole congregation together, who registered themselves by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names from twenty years old and upward, head by head, 19 as the LORD commanded Moses. So he listed them in the wilderness of Sinai.
20 The people of Reuben, Israel’s firstborn, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, all who were able to go to war: 21 those listed of the tribe of Reuben were 46,500.
22 Of the people of Simeon, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, those of them who were listed, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, all who were able to go to war: 23 those listed of the tribe of Simeon were 59,300.
24 Of the people of Gad, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all who were able to go to war: 25 those listed of the tribe of Gad were 45,650.
26 Of the people of Judah, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 27 those listed of the tribe of Judah were 74,600.
28 Of the people of Issachar, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 29 those listed of the tribe of Issachar were 54,400.
30 Of the people of Zebulun, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 31 those listed of the tribe of Zebulun were 57,400.
32 Of the people of Joseph, namely, of the people of Ephraim, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 33 those listed of the tribe of Ephraim were 40,500.
34 Of the people of Manasseh, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 35 those listed of the tribe of Manasseh were 32,200.
36 Of the people of Benjamin, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 37 those listed of the tribe of Benjamin were 35,400.
38 Of the people of Dan, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 39 those listed of the tribe of Dan were 62,700.
40 Of the people of Asher, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 41 those listed of the tribe of Asher were 41,500.
42 Of the people of Naphtali, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: 43 those listed of the tribe of Naphtali were 53,400.
44 These are those who were listed, whom Moses and Aaron listed with the help of the chiefs of Israel, twelve men, each representing his fathers’ house. 45 So all those listed of the people of Israel, by their fathers’ houses, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war in Israel—46 all those listed were 603,550.
47 But the Levites were not listed along with them by their ancestral tribe. 48 For the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 49 “Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list, and you shall not take a census of them among the people of Israel. 50 But appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it. They are to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it and shall camp around the tabernacle. 51 When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death. 52 The people of Israel shall pitch their tents by their companies, each man in his own camp and each man by his own standard. 53 But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony.” 54 Thus did the people of Israel; they did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses.