Book of Numbers (from Greek Ἀριθμοί, Arithmoi; Hebrew:
בְּמִדְבַּר, Bəmiḏbar, "In the desert [of]") is the
fourth book of the Hebrew Bible, and the fourth of five books of the
Jewish Torah. The book has a long and complex history, but its
final form is probably due to a Priestly redaction (i.e., editing) of
a Yahwistic source made some time in the early Persian period (5th
century BCE). The name of the book comes from the two censuses
taken of the Israelites.
Numbers begins at Mount Sinai, where the
Israelites have received
their laws and covenant from God and God has taken up residence among
them in the sanctuary. The task before them is to take possession
of the Promised Land. The people are counted and preparations are made
for resuming their march. The
Israelites begin the journey, but they
"murmur" at the hardships along the way, and about the authority of
Moses and Aaron. For these acts, God destroys approximately 15,000 of
them through various means. They arrive at the borders of
send spies into the land. Upon hearing the spies' fearful report
concerning the conditions in Canaan, the
Israelites refuse to take
possession of it. God condemns them to death in the wilderness until a
new generation can grow up and carry out the task. The book ends with
the new generation of
Israelites in the Plain of Moab ready for the
crossing of the Jordan River.
Numbers is the culmination of the story of Israel's exodus from
oppression in Egypt and their journey to take possession of the land
God promised their fathers. As such it draws to a conclusion the
themes introduced in Genesis and played out in Exodus and Leviticus:
God has promised the
Israelites that they shall become a great (i.e.
numerous) nation, that they will have a special relationship with
Yahweh their god, and that they shall take possession of the land of
Canaan. Numbers also demonstrates the importance of holiness,
faithfulness and trust: despite God's presence and his priests, Israel
lacks faith and the possession of the land is left to a new
6 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
Most commentators divide Numbers into three sections based on locale
Kadesh-Barnea and the plains of Moab), linked by two
travel sections; an alternative is to see it as structured around
the two generations of those condemned to die in the wilderness and
the new generation who will enter Canaan, making a theological
distinction between the disobedience of the first generation and the
obedience of the second.
Priest, Levite, and furnishings of the Tabernacle
God orders Moses, in the wilderness of Sinai, to number those able to
bear arms—of all the men "from twenty years old and upward," and to
appoint princes over each tribe. A total of 603,550
found to be fit for military service. The tribe of Levi is exempted
from military service and therefore not included in the census. Moses
consecrates the Levites for the service of the
Tabernacle in the place
of the first-born sons, who hitherto had performed that service. The
Levites are divided into three families, the Gershonites, the
Kohathites, and the Merarites, each under a chief. The Kohathites were
headed by Eleazar, son of Aaron, while the Gershonites and Merarites
were headed by Aaron's other son, Ithamar. Preparations are then made
for resuming the march to the Promised Land. Various ordinances and
laws are decreed.
Israelites set out from Sinai. The people murmur against God and
are punished by fire;
Moses complains of their stubbornness and is
ordered to choose seventy elders to assist him in the government of
Moses at Hazeroth, which angers
Miriam is punished with leprosy and is shut out of camp for seven
days, at the end of which the
Israelites proceed to the desert of
Paran on the border of Canaan. Twelve spies are sent out into Canaan
and come back to report to Moses.
Joshua and Caleb, two of the spies,
report that the land is abundant and is "flowing with milk and honey",
but the other spies say that it is inhabited by giants, and the
Israelites refuse to enter the land.
Yahweh decrees that the
Israelites will be punished for their loss of faith by having to
wander in the wilderness for 40 years.
Moses is ordered by God to make plates to cover the altar. The
children of Israel murmur against
Aaron on account of the
destruction of Korah's men and are stricken with the plague, with
Aaron and his family are declared by God to be
responsible for any iniquity committed in connection with the
sanctuary. The Levites are again appointed to help in the keeping of
the Tabernacle. The Levites are ordered to surrender to the priests a
part of the tithes taken to them.
Miriam dies at Kadesh Barnea and the
Israelites set out for Moab, on
Canaan's eastern border. The
Moses for the lack of
Moses is ordered by God to speak to a rock but initially
disobeys, and is punished by the announcement that he shall not enter
Canaan. The king of Edom refuses permission to pass through his land
and they go around it.
Aaron dies on Mount Hor. The
bitten by Fiery flying serpents for speaking against God and Moses. A
brazen serpent is made to ward off these serpents.
Israelites arrive on the plains of Moab. A new census gives the
total number of males from twenty years and upward as 601,730, and the
number of the Levites from the age of one month and upward as 23,000.
The land shall be divided by lot. The daughters of Zelophehad, their
father having no sons, are to share in the allotment.
Moses is ordered
Joshua as his successor. Prescriptions for the observance
of the feasts and the offerings for different occasions are
Moses orders the
Israelites to massacre the people of
Midian. The Reubenites and the Gadites request
Moses to assign them
the land east of the Jordan.
Moses grants their request after they
promise to help in the conquest of the land west of the Jordan. The
land east of the Jordan is divided among the tribes of Reuben, Gad,
and the half-tribe of Manasseh.
Moses recalls the stations at which
Israelites halted during their forty years' wanderings and
Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites and destroy
their idols. The boundaries of the land are spelled out; the land is
to be divided under the supervision of Eleazar, Joshua, and twelve
princes, one of each tribe.
Balaam and the Angel (illustration from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle)
The majority of modern biblical scholars believe that the
books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) reached
its present form in the post-Exilic period (i.e., after c.520 BCE),
based on pre-existing written and oral traditions and "contemporary
geographical and demographic details but even more importantly from
contemporary political realities". The five books are often
described as being drawn from four "sources" - schools of writers
rather than individuals - the
Yahwist and the
treated as a single source), the
Priestly source and the
Deuteronomist. There is ongoing dispute over the origins of the
non-Priestly source(s), but it is generally agreed that the Priestly
source is post-exilic.
Genesis is made up of Priestly and non-Priestly material.
Exodus is an anthology drawn from nearly all periods of Israel's
Leviticus is entirely Priestly and dates from the exilic/post-exilic
Numbers is a Priestly redaction (i.e., editing) of a non-Priestly
Deuteronomy, now the last book of the Torah, began as the set of
religious laws (these make up the bulk of the book), was extended in
the early part of the 6th century BCE to serve as the introduction to
Deuteronomistic history (the books from
Joshua to Kings), and
later still was detached from that history, extended and edited again,
and attached to the Torah.
A Plague Inflicted on Israel While Eating the Quail (illustration from
the 1728 Figures de la Bible)
David A. Clines, in his influential The Themes of the Pentateuch
(1978), identified the overarching theme of the five books as the
partial fulfilment of a promise made by God to the patriarchs,
Isaac and Jacob. The promise has three elements: posterity
(i.e., descendants –
Abraham is told that his descendants will
be as innumerable as the stars), divine-human relationship (Israel is
to be God's chosen people), and land (the land of Canaan, cursed by
Noah immediately after the Deluge).
The theme of the divine-human relationship is expressed, or managed,
through a series of covenants (meaning treaties, legally binding
agreements) stretching from Genesis to
Deuteronomy and beyond. The
first is the covenant between God and Noah immediately after the
Deluge in which God agrees never again to destroy the Earth with
water. The next is between God and Abraham, and the third between God
and all Israel at Mount Sinai. In this third covenant, unlike the
first two, God hands down an elaborate set of laws (scattered through
Leviticus and Numbers), which the
Israelites are to observe;
they are also to remain faithful to Yahweh, the god of Israel,
meaning, among other things, that they must put their trust in his
The theme of descendants marks the first event in Numbers, the census
of Israel's fighting men: the huge number which results (over 600,000)
demonstrates the fulfillment of God's promise to
innumerable descendants, as well as serving as God's guarantee of
victory in Canaan. As chapters 1–10 progress, the theme of God's
presence with Israel comes to the fore: these chapters describe how
Israel is to be organised around the Sanctuary, God's dwelling-place
in their midst, under the charge of the Levites and priests, in
preparation for the conquest of the land.
Israelites then set out to conquer the land, but almost
immediately they refuse to enter it, and
Yahweh condemns the whole
generation who left Egypt to die in the wilderness. The message is
clear: failure was not due to any fault in the preparation, because
Yahweh had foreseen everything, but to Israel's sin of unfaithfulness.
In the final section, the
Israelites of the new generation follow
Yahweh's instructions as given through
Moses and are successful in all
they attempt. The last five chapters are exclusively concerned
with land: instructions for the extermination of the Canaanites, the
demarcation of the boundaries of the land, how the land is to be
divided, holy cities for the Levites and "cities of refuge", the
problem of pollution of the land by blood, and regulations for
inheritance when a male heir is lacking.
Main article: Weekly
Bemidbar, on Numbers 1–4: First census, priestly duties
Naso, on Numbers 4–7: Priestly duties, the camp, unfaithfulness and
Behaalotecha, on Numbers 8–12: Levites, journeying by cloud and
fire, complaints, questioning of Moses
Shlach, on Numbers 13–15: Mixed report of the scouts and Israel's
response, libations, bread, idol worship, fringes
Korach, on Numbers 16–18: Korah’s rebellion, plague, Aaron’s
staff buds, duties of the Levites
Chukat, on Numbers 19–21: Red heifer, water from a rock, Miriam’s
and Aaron’s deaths, victories, serpents
Balak, on Numbers 22–25: Balaam's donkey and blessing
Pinechas, on Numbers 25–29: Phinehas, second census, inheritance,
Moses' successor, offerings and holidays
Matot, on Numbers 30–32: Vows, Midian, dividing booty, land for
Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh
Masei, on Numbers 33–36: Stations of the Israelites’ journeys,
instructions for conquest, cities for Levites
Book of the Wars of the Lord
Inverted nun (only appears twice in the
Book of Numbers and seven
times in the
Book of Psalms)
What hath God wrought (other)
Wilderness of Sin
^ Ashley 1993, p. 1.
^ a b c McDermott 2002, p. 21.
^ Olson 1996, p. 9.
^ Stubbs 2009, p. 19–20.
^ Ashley 1993, p. 2-3.
^ Knierim 1995, p. 381.
^ Enns 2012, p. 5.
^ Finkelstein, I., Silberman, NA., The
Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's
New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts,
^ Coogan, Brettler & Newsom 2007, p. 6.
^ a b Carr 2000, p. 492.
^ Dozeman 2000, p. 443.
^ Houston 2003, p. 102.
^ Van Seters 2004, p. 93.
^ Clines 1997, p. 29.
^ Bandstra 2004, p. 28-29.
^ Olson 1996, p. 14.
^ a b Ska 2006, p. 38.
^ Clines 1997, p. 62.
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