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Many laws in the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) relate to diet and hygiene for the Hebrew people. Theologians for centuries thought that these merely served a ceremonial function or formed a cultural barrier to separate Israel from the surrounding pagan cultures. However, with the rise of modern medicine and the germ theory of disease in the nineteenth century, it was recognized that obeying these laws also confers important health benefits. These commands are unique compared with the health practices of neighboring cultures in Old Testament times, suggesting that God inspired Moses in giving these laws. Moreover, they show that God’s rules are not arbitrary and that He has our best interests at heart.
Laws instructing people to wash after touching the dead or sick (Lv 13–15; Nm 19), to properly dispose of excrement and blood (Lv 17:13; Dt 23:12–13), and to isolate (quarantine) diseased individuals and anything that they touch (Lv 13) are extremely effective at limiting the spread of disease. Modern medicine has also shown that circumcision brings a health benefit—the wives of circumcised men have a much lower risk of contracting cervical cancer because the lack of a foreskin reduces the male’s ability to harbor and transmit the human papillomavirus. Interestingly, the study of blood clotting factor levels in newborns has also shown that circumcision on the eighth day—the age prescribed to Abraham (Gn 17:12)—is the safest time in a male’s life to have this surgery.
As our understanding of germs and parasites improves, the Old Testament prohibitions against eating unclean animals, or even associating with them, receive increasing medical verification. For example, people commonly argue that we no longer need to treat pigs as unclean because we now know how to cook pork well. However, modern research on the flu virus shows that most new deadly strains of influenza arise under conditions where people are in close contact with pigs and birds. Pigs function as a bridge between the bird and human forms of influenza; thus new deadly flu outbreaks usually originate in China, Hong Kong, and other areas where people live in close proximity to pigs.
The medical benefits of many other commandments are well known, even if modern culture is not inclined to obey them. For example, avoiding adultery and fornication is the best way to protect oneself against sexually transmitted diseases (Ex 20:14; Pr 5); avoiding addictions will spare one from alcohol, drug, and tobacco-related diseases (Pr 20:1; 23:19–21, 29–35); and prayer, meditation, and treating others fairly minimize the damaging effects of stress (Lv 19:13–18; Ps 23; 27:1–3; 91:3–7). Modern medicine shows that “living by the Book” brings many practical blessings, just as God promised (Ex 15:26), which makes it all the more reasonable to trust God regarding promised spiritual blessings.
Numbers 19:14–20 Repetition is a hallmark of the structure of pentateuchal legislation. It is not evidence of later addition or editorial insertion.
Numbers 20:1–13 Miriam’s death may have significantly affected Moses and Aaron, for it immediately precedes their sin in striking the rock at Meribah. By the end of the chapter Aaron dies, but God will use Moses to give future direction to Joshua and Israel in the matters concerning life in the promised land. This direction is presented in chaps. 26–36 and the restatement of the covenant relationship in Dt.
Numbers 20:1 The third rebellion cycle begins with the death of Miriam, beloved older sister of Moses and Aaron, followed by the sin of Moses. In the structure of Numbers, this verse establishes the historical setting of the narrative, which then moves from the lengthy sojourn in the Wilderness of Zin area through the Edomite region and into Transjordan, then to the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho. There the Israelites will remain for several months as the Lord prepares them to cross the Jordan and begin the conquest of Canaan. The narrative from Nm 22 through Dt and up to Jos 4 is set in the plains of Moab.
Numbers 20:2–13 Source critics have dissected the narrative into two strands due to observed doublets (v. 4 and v. 5, also v. 3a and 2b, 3b). But such repetitious elements are typical in Hebrew narrative as well as that of other Near Eastern literary cultures. The name of the site Meribah, as with the site mentioned in Ex 17:7, comes from the events that occurred at these places. It is not due to confusion of stories from ancient Priestly and Yahwistic sources.
Numbers 20:14–21 Repetitious negotiations are not an unknown feature of biblical narrative; such discussions may be seen in Abraham’s plea for Sodom (Gn 18:22–33) and Balak’s messages to Balaam (Nm 22:1–21). The repetitious elements in verses 17 and 19 do not represent separate historical traditions, Yahwist and Elohist, as some commentators propose. Some critics suggest the description of Edomite territory here reflects a later era when the Edomites had migrated into southern Palestine after the destruction of Jerusalem. But the concepts of nation, kingdom, or kingship as encountered in the pentateuchal record should not be governed by modern conditions. The Hebrew term melek is used to designate the leader of many kinds of ethnic groups of varying power and area of control. Ancient territorial boundaries were continually in flux, corresponding to the strength of the current leader who was usually designated a “king.” This applies to large nations, such as Assyria or Persia, as well as to smaller groups such as the Phoenicians or Philistines. The Edomites are known to have migrated again into southern Judah during the ninth and eighth centuries B.C., causing Judean rulers to erect border fortresses against potential invasion in the frontier of Arad. In the present narrative, likewise, Edomite dominion is seen to extend well west of the Arabah in the western edge of the Nahal Zin basin. Israel circumnavigated the region, heading into Moab via the Wadi Zered, Edom’s traditional northern limit.
Numbers 20:22–29 Source critics assign this text to the Priestly compilers. Because it places Aaron’s death at Mount Hor they view it as a contradiction of Dt 10:6, which places Aaron’s death at Moserah, seven stages earlier according to the itinerary in Nm 33:30–41. However, Dt 10 is not an itinerary in the technical manner of Nm 33 but lists a variety of critical life issues for the Israelite community. Included in Dt 10:1–11 are the giving of the second set of law tablets and the setting aside of the Levites, both of which occurred earlier at Mount Sinai. Mount Hor is associated with Mount Madurah, 18 miles northeast of Kadesh (Josephus, however, places it at Jebel Nebi Harim in the middle of Edom).
Numbers 21:1–3 Some scholars consider this text a creation of the Yahwist, who somehow included both loss and victory at Arad in the same account. This section complements 14:40–45, in which the people of Arad defeated Israel. Here, since the fulfillment of the promise of the death of the first generation (14:26–35) was nearly complete, a victory against their former conquerors was fitting. God’s vow in response to Israel’s vow would give them confidence in preparation for their entry into the promised land.
Numbers 21:4–9 The way of the Red Sea refers to the road from Kadesh-barnea toward Elath, here the means of avoiding the Edomites while accessing the Wadi Zered.
Reverence for serpent images abounds in the ancient literature and archaeological artifacts from the Bronze Ages; a bronze serpent was excavated in the late Bronze Age Hathor temple complex in southern Israel at Timna, some 15 miles north of Elath. In this setting God uses a common tradition of that era in a miraculous manner to bring healing to His repentant people. Commentators unwilling to recognize God’s supernatural activity compare this account to ancient Near Eastern magical rites, attested from Assyria and Babylon, in which the deity was believed to act through magical implements to effect healing or deliverance. The Philistines’ presentation of five golden mice and five gold disease symbols to appease the wrath of the God of the Israelites (1 Sm 6:1–12) is a parallel to such magical practices.
Numbers 21:10–20 The Moabite boundaries, like those of the Edomites, were fluid during this period, but their territory was generally located in the arable zone between the Wadi Zered and the Arnon River. In times of expansion the Moabite borders extended north beyond Heshbon and to the northeast corner of the Dead Sea, along the southernmost line of the Jordan River. Critics ascribe this text to the proposed Yahwist-Elohist source, including the two ancient songs from the real source, the Book of the Lord’s Wars. This ancient Hebrew source was lost in antiquity but was one of many sources mentioned in the OT that were incorporated into the Hebrew Bible.
Numbers 21:21–32 As with Edom, the Israelites’ attempt at diplomacy to gain safe passage to the banks of the Jordan River through the Amorite kingdom of Sihon was met with forceful opposition. In the region north of the Arnon River and south of the Jabbok, Israel defeated Sihon and took possession of it. Critics had denied the authenticity of this account since nothing from earlier than the Iron I era was uncovered in the excavation of Tel Hesban. However, as with the city of Arad in southern Judah, city names were considered to designate the capitals of local regions, and several sites such as nearby Tel el-Umeiri and Tel Jalul contain Late Bronze materials that could be associated with the Amorite kingdom of Sihon.
Numbers 21:27–31 The “Song of Heshbon” contains satirical lyrics about the Amorites’ victory over Moab. The Israelites adapted it from the Amorites to express their claim to the land and the superiority of Israel’s God to the Moabite patron deity Chemosh. Critics suggest the song was composed by Israel during the battles with Moab in the ninth century B.C. This view must discount or ignore the internal evidence of the song in reference to Sihon, the Amorite king.
Numbers 21:32–35 To protect their northern flank, Israel moved North to defeat the city of Jazer and then Og of Bashan, as they took control of the territory in the Golan as far north as Mount Hermon (Dt 3:1–11). The Transjordan region was the first to be settled by the Israelites (Nm 32).
Numbers 22:1–24:25 The Book of Balaam contains the story of the renowned pagan divination expert. Hired to pronounce a curse upon Israel, he pronounced a blessing instead upon God’s chosen. As one seeking Israel’s demise at the bidding of the Moabite king Balak, Balaam was the very antithesis of Moses; yet God used him in a way similar to Moses to pronounce the future blessing of the Lord upon His people. Moses is curiously absent from the story because of his sin of rebellion and irreverence at Meribah (20:2–13). God demonstrated that He can use whatever means necessary to bring blessing to His people. Even the person most adamantly opposed to His will can become an instrument of His purpose.
According to some scholars these chapters are a later insertion into the book of Nm by a seventh century B.C. Israelite editor. Supposedly this editor combined material from the Yahwist-Elohist traditions with the later eighth century B.C. stories of Balaam, integrating them into the story of Israel’s wilderness sojourn in order to justify Israel’s claim over the region. This approach ignores the story’s structural integrity, evident in the threefold grouping of its elements (e.g., three times the donkey tries to avoid the Angel of the Lord). It also ignores the story’s external context; it fits better into the Late Bronze Age period for this region than the late Iron II period. These will be detailed below.
Balaam is from the Mesopotamian town of Pethor of the land of Ammaw. Pethor is identified with Pitru, known from Assyrian records to be about 12 miles south of Carchemish. Scholars identify the land of Ammaw with a region mentioned in a fifteenth century B.C. inscription from Alalakh in northern Syria.
Numbers 22:1 During the events narrated here, Israel is on the eastern side of the Jordan River opposite the soon-to-be-conquered city of Jericho, in a region generically referred to as the plains of Moab. Israel is a passive participant in the story of three chapters, in which the leading characters are Balak and Balaam. They are situated in the hills of Transjordan, at a distance overlooking the Israelite encampment from the southeast.
Numbers 22:2–14 King Balak of Moab fears his overthrow by the mighty Israelites, who have just defeated his oppressors the Amorites. He sends a diplomatic envoy to Balaam ben Beor of Pethor in upper Mesopotamia to secure his prophetic services. While some critics would place this story hundreds of years later than its setting in the Pentateuch, textual evidence of prophetic activity in such cities as Mari and Babylon during the Late Bronze Age coincides with what is predicated of Balaam in these chapters. Placing or removing of curses, pronouncing blessings, and providing counsel to individuals were services they customarily offered. Their techniques included divination, incantation, animal sacrifice, and reading of natural omens. These prophets were known as “seers of the gods” and were said to be skilled at manipulating the deities to bring about the results desired by the person who hired them. Balak’s men offer the standard fees to procure Balaam’s services, but during the night the God of Israel counsels Balaam not to accept their offer.
Numbers 22:15–21 A second attempt by Balak’s emissaries meets with Balaam’s guarded response—that he could do only what the Lord tells him. His words indicate that he would now become God’s spokesman.
Numbers 22:22–40 The story takes an ironic turn, as God is displeased with Balaam on the journey to Moab. Critics question why God would be angry with Balaam for listening to Him. This story type fits into the category of faith-challenges similar to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at Peniel on his return to the promised land (Gn 32:24–32) or Moses’ encounter with the Lord upon his return to Egypt (Ex 4:24–26). These accounts are reminders that a holy God demands complete obedience of His servants; on the journey to Moab Balaam’s female donkey was more sensitive to God’s moving than was this renowned prophet.
Critics call the communication by the donkey fanciful story telling. But, as with Balaam himself, God will use whatever means necessary to accomplish His purpose. The donkey could see what the seer could not, and she brayed in such a manner as to convey to Balaam a distinct message of anger and resentment. She communicated in such a way that only her owner could understand the meaning of her intonation. Similarly, in Jn 12:28–30, what some thought was thunder or the voice of an angel was God speaking. When Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, only Saul could understand his words, while those around him “stood speechless” (Acts 9:7), i.e., unable to make out the meaning of what they heard.
Numbers 22:41–23:10 Elaborate ritual precedes the first oracle. The preference for performing seven rituals was widespread in the ancient Near East. The sacrificing of seven bulls and seven rams on seven altars parallels a well-known Babylonian text in which Ea, Shamash, and Marduk are worshiped with the ritual libation of the blood of seven sheep poured out on seven altars which are accompanied by seven incense censers containing cypress wood. Hoping for a favorable location for carrying out his hired duty, Balaam and Balak enacted the ritual on Bamoth-Baal, a worship center dedicated to the patron deity of several northwest Semitic peoples, such as those of Ugarit and Canaan.
Balaam becomes God’s prophetic instrument in a manner similar to Moses and reveals to Balak the message of blessing upon Israel. God’s hand is upon Israel and she cannot be cursed. To be numbered among her multitude is enviable even to Balaam (23:10).
Numbers 23:11–13 Balak protests Balaam’s proclamation, and in response the prophet reiterates the necessity of speaking exactly what God has spoken.
Numbers 23:14–26 From another outpost overlooking the northeast corner of the Dead Sea and the plains of Moab where Israel is encamped, Balaam and Balak repeat the ritual sacrifices of the first encounter. In the oracle Balaam reminds Balak that God is unchangeable; if His intent is to bless Israel, His word will be accomplished without fail and without deviation. Nothing Balaam could muster via sorcery or incantation could bring violence or destruction upon God’s people.
Numbers 23:27–24:14 After two failed attempts, Balaam and Balak resort to a third center of religious rites, in the heights above Peor overlooking Jeshimon; from there they can now view the entire Israelite encampment. The sevenfold ritual is again repeated, without resort to divination as previously.
The Spirit of God descends upon Balaam; and in an ecstatic visionary encounter his eyes are fully opened to a vision of God Almighty, his ears are fully open to the revelation, and he falls upon his face in reverent servitude. The utterance forecasts the Lord’s blessing upon the land with abundance of water rendering it highly productive, and with a powerful kingship surpassing the might of Agag the Amalekite. But the strength of Israel was in the strength of her God. God’s blessing is so powerful and irrevocable that even the most sought after divination expert of the day could not counter its effectiveness.
Numbers 24:10–14 Balak is incensed and orders Balaam to return home unrewarded. Balaam retorts that he has only done what he stated was possible from the beginning, that he could only speak what God spoke. He would begin his return, but not before uttering several more oracles about the future of Israel and her enemies.
Numbers 24:15–19 In a visionary encounter similar to that of the third oracle, Balaam utters predictive prophecy about the more distant future of Israel. The parallel references to “star” and “scepter” are symbols of a glorious and powerful kingship that would subdue Israel’s enemies, typified as Moab and Edom. In the early Israelite monarchy David would fulfill this prophecy in defeating and subjugating both Moab and Edom (2 Sm 8:1–12). But when later Israelite kings failed to obey God’s instructions, and oppression and exile followed, this passage would be interpreted messianically to refer to a coming glorious King. This is evident in the literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This community whose life was dedicated to preparing for the coming messianic kingdom included Nm 24:17 in a collection of verses they considered messianic. The model of the just and righteous king was brought to ultimate fulfillment in Jesus’ establishment of the kingdom of God.
Numbers 24:20–24 Three brief oracles concerning the destiny of other nations conclude the Book of Balaam. Critics ascribe these texts to late authors or sources, based upon their brevity and language difficulties. Yet their collective theme is the same: God will subdue all peoples who, like Moab, oppose His will and His people. The Amalekites would be subdued under Saul, Samuel, and David. The Kenites would be subdued by their neighbors, the Sinai tribe of Asshur (Gn 25:3, 18—not to be confused with the later Assyrians). These Asshurites would be conquered in turn by the Kittim, a reference to Mediterranean peoples such as the Philistines. These, too, would see their demise. In the eschatological climax of history, all rebellious nations will bow to the judgment of God.
Numbers 24:25 Balaam began his trek homeward, but as 31:8 suggests, he was killed in the Midianite campaign, having been instrumental in instigating the idolatrous enticement of Israel related in chapter 25.
Numbers 25:1–18 Critics have arbitrarily divided the Baal-peor incident of idolatry into two sources: a Yahwist-Elohist source in verses 1–5, rooted in the ideology of defending the faith of Yahweh, and a Priestly source in verses 6–18, based on the involvement of the priest Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson. This unnecessary fragmentation destroys the narrative and literary cohesiveness of the material, especially in verses 1–9. Note the following outline revealing its chiastic structure:
A. Setting of Immorality: Worship of Baal of Peor (vv. 1–3)
B. Yahweh Instructs Moses: Execute Offenders and Allay God’s Wrath (v. 4)
C. Moses Instructs Leaders to Execute Offenders (v. 5)
C. Phinehas Follows Moses’ Instruction: Kills Offenders (vv. 6–8a)
B. Yahweh’s Wrath is Allayed: Plague Halted (v. 8b)
A. Result of Immorality: 24,000 Die in Plague (v. 9)
Critics would suggest the punishment was too severe but see comment at 15:32–36. The nation is about to be reconstituted in preparation for receiving its inheritance in the promised land.
Numbers 26:1–65 Source critics tend to ascribe genealogical records and census totals to the conjectured Priestly source of the late pre-exilic (621–586 b.c.) or post-exilic period (post-538 b.c.), even though this census is taken to assess the capability of Israel’s militia. Though the recitation of one’s genealogy was a religious rite in the Ancient Near East, especially at the dedication of a firstborn son, the biblical genealogies preserve early, rather than late, records of how God has blessed His people throughout their generations. Eleazar now assists Moses in taking the military conscription census, as did his father Aaron in the first census (chap. 1). At the end of this census record the reader is reminded that God’s judgment upon a rebellious people resulted in the death of all but two of the original conscripts, Caleb and Joshua (26:65).
Numbers 26:4 Important, in the resumption of the theme of faithfulness in Nm, is the statement that the census was taken as the Lord had commanded when they were first preparing for the victory march to the promised land.
Numbers 26:5–51 With a new generation about to inherit the Lord’s gift of the land, the militia is delineated according to the tribal clans among which the land would be apportioned, according to the instructions in 26:52–56 (reiterated in 33:53–54). Clan names are more important at this stage of the Nm narrative than they would have been in the census of chap. 1, as those counted in that first census would have died in the wilderness and not be inheriting the land.
Numbers 26:5–11 The enumeration inserts a note about the Reubenites, Dathan, and Abiram, who died in the Korah rebellion. Overall, the Reubenite fighters had decreased by 2770, from 46,500 to 43,730.
Numbers 26:12–14 The census of the five Simeonite clans reflects the most significant decrease from the first census, a loss of 37,100—more than 60 percent fewer men of military age and capability.
Numbers 26:15–18 The Gadite militia decreased by 12 percent; their seven clans would be granted a territorial inheritance in Gilead, this side (east) of the Jordan (32:1–38). (Technically, Canaan comprised both sides of the Jordan; the area to the east is known as Transjordan, while that to the west—usually known as Canaan proper, or Palestine—is sometimes called Cisjordan in scholarly literature.)
Numbers 26:16–19 In the cohesive narrative structure of the book of Nm, these verses forecast the Midianite campaign of chapter 31, which would stand as a model of Israelite holy war in the conquest of Canaan.
Numbers 26:19–22 The militia from the four Judahite clans experienced a slight increase of 900. The notation regarding the loss of Er and Onan because of their disobedience is a reminder of God’s judgment upon the unfaithful.
Numbers 26:23–25 The four clans of Issachar’s militia increased a significant 18 percent during the wilderness sojourn.
Numbers 26:26–27 Zebulun’s three clans increased by about 5 percent from 57,400 to 60,500.
Numbers 26:28–34 The dramatic increase of 63 percent in the militia of Manasseh and its six clans—from 32,200 to 52,700—would motivate their request for additional territory on the east side of the Jordan River. The Machirite clan followed the lead of the Reubenites and Gadites and requested territory in Gilead for their inheritance, and Moses granted their request once they had pledged their support of the Cisjordan tribes in the conquest of Canaan.
Numbers 26:35–37 The three Ephraimite clans decreased by 8000 (20 percent) from the original census of 40,500.
Numbers 26:38–41 The six Benjamite clans showed a significant increase of 28.8 percent from 35,400 to 45,600. Later, the Benjamites would become Israel’s smallest tribal group, almost to the point of extinction (Jdg 20–21).
Numbers 26:42–43 Only the Shuhamite clan of the tribe of Dan is noted, with a slight increase of 1700 (2.7 percent). The text mentions the “clans” (pl.) of the Shuhamites, but they were not listed as were the subclans of Manasseh and Asher. The size of the Danite militia is second only to that of Judah, yet the Danites could not control their territory because of the power of the Philistines; eventually they migrated northward (Jdg 18:1–31).
Numbers 26:44–47 The Asherites grew significantly during the wilderness period, increasing their military capability by nearly 22 percent to 53,400. The allusion to Asher’s daughter Serah remains a mystery, unless she received an allocation in the manner of Zelophehad’s daughters. By the time of the Chronicler’s work at the end of the kingdom period, the Asherites were calculated to be only 26,000, a number that may reflect upon the size of the army in the reign of King David.
Numbers 26:48–50 The four clans of Naphtali experience a moderate loss of 15 percent to 45,400. The Greek Septuagint version records an even greater 44 percent loss, down to 30,300.
Numbers 26:51 The overall figure of 601,730 was witness to the providence of God in preserving the population of the Israelites during the 40 year wilderness sojourn. Though a whole generation of Israelite military would die, except for Joshua and Caleb, God would raise up a complete new generation to inherit the land originally promised. On the size of the population and the view of critics, see the Introduction.
Numbers 26:52–56 The instructions are to divide the land proportionally and also to distribute it by lot. Critics have viewed these as mutually exclusive and incompatible procedures, yet both are mentioned in several contexts. Numbers 33:53–54 emphasizes the proportional aspect, while Jos 15–19 focuses on the distribution by lot. Eleazar could have used lots, such as the Urim and Thummim, to determine the general region of the allocation and then Moses determined the actual extent of territory with the tribal proportions in view.
Numbers 26:57–62 As in the first census, the Levites were not numbered among the militia, but were counted in the manner of 3:43 for the purpose of redeeming the firstborn sons of the twelve tribes, beginning at the age of one month (3:40–51). The Levites showed a net increase of about a thousand over the previous count. The genealogy of Aaron’s sons always includes Nadab and Abihu, although they died as a result of profaning the sanctuary with an unholy fire offering. This serves as a reminder that God shows no partiality in judgment.
Numbers 26:63–65 Assisting Moses in recording the census of Israel’s army was Aaron’s third son Eleazar, who became high priest following the death of his father (20:22–29). The record showed no survivors of the original 603,550 soldiers 20 years of age and older, except the two faithful spies Joshua and Caleb.
Numbers 27:1–11 The census of the Manassite families (26:29–33) specifically mentions Zelophehad, who had no sons to inherit property. That note sets the stage for this section dealing with the issue of a daughter’s right of inheritance, a theme that brackets the entire discussion of land inheritance (chaps. 27–36), returning in the final chapter of the book of Nm. The presentation of a case of women’s property rights, an exceptional scenario in a patriarchal culture, would ensure that proper justice be meted out in all property inheritance cases in the land. The case did not originate in the post-exilic era, as some critics believe. The names of two of Zelophehad’s daughters, Hoglah and Noah, are preserved as the names of districts or towns in the region of Samaria (within the territory of Manasseh) in the Samaria ostraca (inscribed pottery fragments). These come from the eighth century b.c., at least 200 years before the exile of Judah. Commentators who date this material in the time of Ezra associate this case with the potential appropriation of property gained through marriage with foreign women. The legal setting in Ezra, however, differs from the present context and applies only to the geographical setting of post-exilic Judah, not the territory of Manasseh. The decision in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, set forth in the days of Moses in the second millennium b.c. and fulfilled in the land distribution under Joshua (Jos 17:3–6) would still be in force more than 500 years later.
Numbers 27:12–23 Because the high priest Eleazar is involved in the ceremony transferring leadership from Moses to Joshua, some scholars assign it to the conjectured Priestly source. They assign the parallel passage in Dt 31:1–8, 14–29 to the hypothetical Yahwist-Elohist source. But the two passages complement one another. Numbers highlights the formal transfer of leadership, which in the ancient Near Eastern cultural setting would always be overseen by a priest. Religious oversight of political events reflects practices as early as the third millennium B.C. just as it does those of the late first millennium b.c. Deuteronomy emphasizes the commissioning of Joshua to lead a people with a history of rebellion against God; in that context Moses challenges him to keep the commands of the Lord faithfully, and to lead the people with courage and strength from the Lord. Moses follows the Lord’s instruction (Nm 27:22–23) and commissions Joshua publicly through the laying on of hands in the solemn assembly.
Numbers 28:1–29:39 Two chapters are devoted to the prescribed sacrificial elements for the daily, weekly, monthly, and annual memorial and festival offerings. The order closely follows the sequence in Lv 23, which stresses the participation of the worshipers and the offerings particular to a given holy day. Thus Nm supplements material presented in Ex 12:1–13:10; 23:12–19; Lv 23; and Dt 16:1–17. Source critics ascribe Nm 28–29 to a supposed post-exilic Priestly compiler, declining to recognize it as a record of early Israelite practice from the time of Moses. In the larger context of the book of Nm this section complements 15:1–21, which highlights the grace of God in His future blessing of Israel in the land they have just rejected (chaps. 13–14). God promised He would bless the people abundantly so that they might present to Him their offerings from flocks and fields. Now the Lord delineates examples of those offerings in the sacrificial system’s memorial calendar.
Numbers 28:1–8 Daily offerings began early in the day with a whole burnt offering and concluded with the same at twilight. This passage complements the instructions for daily offerings in Ex 29:38–45. The high priest represented the community in the substitutionary identification ritual, placing his hand on the head of the lamb. After slaughtering the animal he extracted its blood, which he poured out to the Lord on the sides of the altar. Then the priest burned the offering completely on the altar, as a consecration ritual on behalf of the entire community (Lv 1:10–13). The animal offering was supplemented by the offering of grain with oil and the libation, or offering of strong drink (shekar, “fermented beverage”). Only the highest quality, unblemished animals could be presented to the Lord.
Numbers 28:9–10 The daily burnt offerings of lamb, grain, and liquid libation were doubled on the Sabbath.
Numbers 28:11–15 On the first day of the month, the new moon, additional burnt offerings of consecration included two young bulls (for the priests), one ram (for the leaders), seven male lambs (for the people), and their proportional grain-oil and libation offerings, plus a male goat for a sin offering.
Numbers 28:16–25 The essential Passover elements, according to Ex 12:8, were the Passover lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Here several elements are added to the celebration: (1) Sabbath designation (hence no work) for the first and final days of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, with a congregational assembly at the sanctuary; (2) additional sacrifices equivalent to those offered on the new moon (two bulls, one ram, seven lambs, plus grain and libation offerings).
Numbers 28:26–31 The first day of the Festival of Weeks (Shavuoth, Pentecost) is deemed a Sabbath, with burnt and sin offerings essentially the same as the new moon sacrifices. The ritual practices for the day included the firstfruit offering of the grain harvest. These offerings were in addition to the prescribed offering of two loaves of leavened bread (Lv 23:17), given in thanksgiving for the abundance of God’s blessing.
Numbers 29:1–6 The seventh month was the commencement of the annual ritual calendar. It began with the holy assembly on the day of jubilation, also referred to as the “day of trumpet blasts” and later as “New Year’s Day” (rosh hashanah, lit. “head of the year”). Since this day also commemorates the new moon, the normal sacrifices of the day are doubled and offered in addition to the two daily burnt offerings.
Numbers 29:7–11 These instructions call for a day of “sacred assembly,” self-denial, and Sabbath work restriction. The directives correspond to the Day of Atonement prescribed in Lv 16:1–34, though the day is not named here and the instructions of Lv do not mention the assembly. Some critics suggest an alternate Priestly source for Lv 16. However, there the focus is upon the unique rituals for the purification of the holy place, and upon the Azazel (scapegoat) that symbolically carries the sins of the people from the camp into the wilderness. Verse 11 highlights two sin offerings. One parallels the sin offering at the new moon festival; the other is sacrificed on behalf of the people, and its blood is then used to purify the holy place (Lv 16:15–20). The directives in Numbers complement those of Leviticus.
Numbers 29:12–39 The longest section of these two chapters is devoted to the delineation of the daily offerings of the Festival of Booths (Sukkoth). On successive days of other pilgrimage assemblies the numbers of sacrifices are the same, but in the fall festival of ingathering (Ex 23:16) the number of bulls sacrificed begins with 13, with one fewer per day being offered during the weeklong celebration. Seven bulls are offered on the seventh day, and a single bull on the appended eighth day. On each of those days the bull offerings are accompanied by equal numbers of rams (2), male lambs (14), and the usual amount of grain-oil and libation offerings prescribed for the new moon celebration. The first day of the festival (fifteenth of Tishri) and the appended eighth day are deemed Sabbaths for sacred assembly and cessation from work.
Numbers 29:39 In summary, the offerings outlined in these two chapters were to be presented to the Lord at their appointed times, in addition to those brought by individuals and groups of Israelites in the ordinary course of life. Both Exodus and Leviticus provide instructions for these voluntary and thanksgiving offerings, plus those offered in connection with vows and oaths.
Numbers 29:40 This verse functions as a hinge (colophon) transitioning between the material in the two chapters it connects. The concluding statement that Moses did as the Lord commanded in instructing the Israelites regarding the festival offerings echoes the theme of faithfulness that is prevalent in chaps. 1–10, 15, 19, and throughout.
Numbers 30:1–16 This section sets out the legal force of vows and oaths, for both men and women. The force of a younger or married woman’s vow is limited only if her male guardian—either her father or her husband—should actively nullify the vow. If the man is passive or assenting, the vow of the woman has the same legal force as that of a man. The vow of a widow or a divorced woman is also binding. The terminology of “binding” the making of an oath or vow often meant to endorse it in written form. In the context of chaps. 26–36, this issue may have been of particular concern with respect to women’s property rights, as in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters (27:1–11; 36:1–12). This statute would also apply to a woman taking a Nazirite vow (see note on 6:1–2).
Numbers 31:1–54 Following Israel’s attack on the Midianites, Phinehas and his father, the high priest Eleazar, were involved in receiving the spoils of the war and the purification of the returning fighters. For this reason, source critics unnecessarily ascribe this section to the alleged Priestly source. The separation of priestly activity in any event from other forms of leadership—here Moses, Joshua and the leaders of Israel—is an artificial division of society not characteristic of the ancient Near Eastern world. Religion was an integral part of every aspect of life, from warfare to economics to family life. Separation of the religious and the political (as in “church and state”) is a modern development. The book of Nm stresses the integral role of the priests and Levites in spheres of activity well beyond their divine service. This section sets out the model for Israelite holy war, in preparation for the conquest of Canaan. With this chapter begins the final cycle of Nm.
Numbers 31:1–2 The Midianites had instigated the idolatrous activity at Baal-peor (chap. 25) with the council of Balaam who was killed in the campaign. Here, the Lord gives instruction for the subjugation of the Midianites. The sequel repeats the model “refrain” signifying Israelite faithfulness to the Lord, in the fourfold occurrence of the phrase “they did as the Lord commanded” (vv. 7, 31, 41, 47).
Numbers 31:3–5 Each of the seven cycles of material in the book of Nm begins with a reference to the unity of the 12 tribes (or disunity, in the case of the Korah rebellion, chaps. 16–17). Here a thousand fighting men from each of the tribes are conscripted for battle.
Numbers 31:6–12 The model for holy war has the priest Phinehas accompanying the army of 12,000 into battle, taking the sanctuary vessels for purification rites and the trumpets for sounding the battle alerts (10:1–10). Centuries later, the Dead Sea scroll document, styled “The War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness,” replicates this model. The passage presents a terse summary of the battle in typical OT narrative fashion with expansion of detail regarding the proper disposition of spoils of war. The section emphasizes how the purity of the congregation is maintained and how the goods are distributed proportionately among the 12 tribes and the priests and Levites.
Numbers 31:8 The prophetic soothsayer Balaam had been executed together with certain Midianite kings (presumably of different clans from that of Moses’ in-laws Jethro and Hobab). Though God had used the pagan prophet significantly as his spokesman to bless Israel, Balaam continued his original role after the events of chaps. 22–24. Intending to return home to upper Mesopotamia (24:25), he had counseled the Moabites and Midianites to lead Israel into idolatry at Baal-peor; thus he was subject to the judgment of holy war. Note also that the Midianite king Zur was the father of Cozbi, the woman executed by Phinehas along with her paramour Zimri ben Salu (25:14–18).
Numbers 31:13–24 The purpose of holy war was the eradication of impure elements, whether persons or property, from a given geographic region. This passage harks back to the idolatrous activity of Baal-peor (chap. 25) and sets the stage for the instructions in 33:50–56 for occupying the promised land by dispossessing the Canaanites and eradicating the marks of their false religion. Hence it is integral to the main theme developed in the book of Nm: the dangers of rebellion and idolatry. Critics who suggest this holy-war mentality was a crude feature of ancient cultures and not in keeping with God’s purpose for humanity have ignored the fact that these instructions were applicable at this critical point in the formation of the theocracy of Israel. Their very survival as the holy community of faith was at stake. Chapter 31 is consistent with the directives given in other pentateuchal passages, including Dt 7:5, 24–25; 12:1–12; and 20:16–20 (purging of idolatry) and Dt 21:10–14 (female captives). However, the law of Christ, the law of love, supersedes the instructions for Israel in the era of Moses and Joshua. While God still abhors every kind of evil in society, and the people of God must diligently oppose its every expression, “holy war” of the kind recorded here is not the proper response.
Numbers 31:48–53 The gifts of gold offered for the victory over the Midianites far exceeded the minimum of half a shekel per person, indicating that the leaders gave sacrificially in the spirit of thanksgiving to God.
Numbers 32:1–42 Critics ascribe this chapter to the hypothetical Yahwist-Elohist history upon which the Priestly editor drew in fashioning the narrative. The conjecture is superfluous, for the narrative is an integral part of the development of the theme of the land in chapters 26–36—which source critics tend to assign to the Priestly compilers. The chapter poses several questions about the legitimacy of the Transjordan tribal territories, as the area is outside the boundaries delineated in 34:1–15.
Numbers 32:1–5 The Reubenites and Gadites bring their request for territorial allocation east of the Jordan River according to protocol, presenting themselves as servants seeking favor before Moses, Eleazar, and the princes of the congregation (cp. 31:13). This chapter has all the hallmarks of ancient treaty negotiations, including a ratification of the stipulations before the high priest (vv. 28–32). The tribes claimed that, since the Lord had given victory over the Amorites and others and the land offered ample pasturage for their animals, they could be allowed to take full possession of it for themselves. Narrative tension is created when they add the stipulation that they not be required to cross the Jordan—they did not want to go to war.
Numbers 32:6–15 Moses confronts their true reason for wanting to settle the Transjordan highlands: their reluctance to go to war, which is tantamount to rebellion against God’s plan for the nation. The promised land was across the Jordan to the west, not on its eastern side. Moses saw that the possible outcome had all the hallmarks of the great rebellion in which Israel rejected God’s gift of the land. These hallmarks were disunity among the tribes, discouragement to the others, and the potential destruction of the people in another wilderness experience.
Numbers 32:16–19 The Reubenites and Gadites pledge their full support for the conquest of the land west of the Jordan, provided that Moses will let them have their inheritance in Transjordan and allow them to leave their families in the safekeeping of the local towns. The issue of disunity remains in their words, “we will not have an inheritance with them across the Jordan.”
Numbers 32:20–24 Moses consents to their request, citing the consequences should these tribes fail to honor their commitment. If they fully support the conquest of the promised land through its completion, they would have their requested inheritance in Transjordan. But failure to do what they had promised would constitute sin against God, leading to the judgment noted in vv. 13–15.
Numbers 32:25–27 The Gadites and Reubenites ratified the agreement.
Numbers 32:28–30 Some interpreters call this a Priestly insertion, since the context mentions Eleazar. But all treaty arrangements in the ancient Near East were ratified in the context of a religious assembly and ratified in rituals overseen by priests. The pledge of the Gadites and Reubenites in vv. 31–32 probably echoes their oath of obedience in that covenant ratification ceremony.
Numbers 32:33–38 Moses’ official grant outlines, in some detail, the lands and towns assigned the Gadites and Reubenites. This region was that formerly controlled by Sihon and the Amorites, defeated by the Israelites in 21:21–32.
Numbers 32:39–42 The Machirite clan of the tribe of Manasseh apparently joined in the quest for territory in Transjordan, based upon their conquest of it. The language here closely parallels that of 21:32 (“captured … and drove out”), the model terminology for the conquest of the land. The Israelites, as directed in 33:50–56, were to take control of the given territory and drive out the inhabitants; further, they were to destroy all centers of the local false religion lest they remain to tempt the Israelites to the idolatry that could lead to their own destruction.
Numbers 33:1–2 This chapter explicitly attests to its Mosaic authorship; Moses wrote down the starting point for each stage of the journey from Egypt to the plains of Moab (cp. pentateuchal references to written documents in Ex 24:12; 32:15; Dt 4:13; 5:22; 9:10; 10:2–4; 17:18; 27:3 and elsewhere).
Numbers 33:3–49 The journey stages are listed in a literary composition similar in form to records of victory marches by Egyptian rulers (e.g. Thutmose III, Seti I, Ramses II). Against the view of source critics who claim this text combines four or more strands, the text constitutes a cohesive literary composition organized into six stages of seven locations each. In typical Hebrew style, the account highlights historic events such as the exodus. This text was meant to be recited in the Israelite assembly, as it recalled the stages through which God led the people from Egyptian oppression to the threshold of conquest in Canaan. The list is not, nor does it purport to be, an exhaustive one; it is, rather, a styled literary composition from the hand of Moses. It fails to mention some prominent places, including Mount Sinai, yet it refers to others not cited elsewhere in Nm or in Ex (e.g., Nm 33:18–25). The unwritten seventh cycle of the journey lay ahead in the occupation of Canaan, for which vv. 50–56 establish the challenge.
Numbers 33:50–56 Commentators who ascribe this section to a Priestly editor, who allegedly combined Deuteronomic material with the Yahwist-Elohist traditions and appended vv. 50–51, have ignored the unified literary structure of this section. This passage sets forth the challenge to the Israelite community to claim its inheritance in the land. Faithfulness to the Lord’s intention involves a threefold process: drive out (dispossess) the sinful Canaanites, destroy their centers of idolatry, and divide the land proportionately among their ancestral tribes.
Numbers 33:55–56 These words evidence the literary and thematic cohesiveness of the Pentateuch. They echo, in summary, the message of judgment in Lv 26:14–33 and Dt 28:45–68. How the story of the victory march from Egypt to the promised land would be completed was in the hands of the people.
Numbers 34:1–15 After reciting Israel’s progress from Egypt to the doorstep of the promised land (chap. 33), Moses receives from the Lord the specific territorial boundaries within the land. The section concludes with the reminder about the territorial inheritance of Gad, Reuben and half-tribe of Manasseh on the east side of the Jordan, notably a region outside the boundaries delineated in 34:3–12.
Numbers 34:3–12 The borders represent the limits of the land of Canaan during the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.) and were the ideal for the national boundaries. Critics suggest these borders represent a later extent of Israel’s dominion. Even under David and Solomon, however, these limits were not fully realized, even though such regions as Tyre and Sidon (in Lebanon) were allied with Israel through trade agreements. After the tenth century b.c. the extent of Israelite territory never approached the ideal.
Numbers 34:16–29 It is typical of source critics to assign lists of names to the conjectured Priestly source from the post-exilic period (538–400 b.c.). In this case, the claim is that the names are based on the later book of Joshua, supposedly compiled at the end of the period of the Israelite kingdoms. Yet most of these names, with the exception of Caleb, never reappear in later Israelite history; they reflect archaic forms from the Late Bronze Age rather than Persian period.
Numbers 35:1–8 The Levites do not receive a distinct territorial allocation like the other 12 tribes. They are to be dispersed in cities throughout the land to carry out their responsibilities on behalf of the entire nation of Israel. In Jos 21, these 42 cities are listed, with six additional cities of refuge. This allocation provided the Levites with pasturage for the flocks and herds they acquired through the tithes and offerings of local Israelites (Nm 18:21–32). They, and the priests, were available in all parts of the land to teach the laws of God to the people, most of whom did not read (Lv 10:11).
Numbers 35:4–5 Commentators have noted the seeming incongruity of the dimensions given here, which would require the cities to be of minimal size to meet both distance parameters. The figures delineate a territory extending out 1000 cubits (1500 feet) from the city walls, with a total of 2000 cubits (3000 feet) on a side. Most walled cities were 3–5 acres in size, so the figure of 2000 cubits per side does not allow a distance of 1500 feet from any side of the city. Several writers have suggested that the 3000-foot dimension represents the view from outside the city, making the walled city the epicenter of a 3000 foot square Levitical territory. Others suggest the outer distances are meant to be taken as 3000 feet plus the city area.
Numbers 35:9–34 The promised land was to be a holy land, free from the heinous impurity of shed blood. The six cities of refuge (Jos 20) established a place where someone who committed accidental manslaughter (unintentional, as in Nm 15:22–29) could find protection from a vengeful member of the slain person’s family. In another sense, the city of refuge was a place of banishment for the offender. City elders assessed each case individually to determine the nature and cause of the victim’s death. The killer’s guilt was atoned only through the death of the high priest, so the killer was obliged to remain inside the city until the high priest died. The law did not apply to willful murders; if the local city congregation determined that the death of the victim had been the result of premeditation or intent to harm, they were to execute the slayer.
Numbers 35:30–31 The death penalty could not be carried out on the basis of a single witness, but only on the basis of multiple attestations. If the case was determined to be murder, the city of refuge offered no protection for the perpetrator.
Numbers 35:32–34 The promised land was the dual inheritance of the Lord and the people, and thus the Lord could not tolerate pollution from bloodshed. His presence among the people demanded justice. In the case of murder, the purification was the removal of the offending agent from the land.
Numbers 36:1–2 This section supplies further clarification of property inheritance issues in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters (27:1–11), whose deceased husbands had been part of the tribe of Manasseh.
Numbers 36:3–4 The Machirites feared that the laws for the Year of Jubilee (Lv 25:13–55) might be applied in such a way that property of the tribe of Manasseh would fall to another tribe if Zelophehad’s daughters married men from other tribes. Territorial integrity was uppermost in their concern at this pivotal point, when Israel would soon be distributing property proportionately (Nm 26:52–56; 33:54; 34:16).
Numbers 36:5–12 Some modern critics contend that the resultant law restricted the rights of women. In actuality it provided a balance between two areas of concern: the integrity of tribal territory and a woman’s right of marriage. Women could marry whom they pleased and their property rights would be retained, as were the men’s, within the boundaries of the tribe so long as they married within the clans of the tribe. They could marry outside the tribe, but in that case they would forfeit their property rights. The conclusion upholds Zelophehad’s daughters as examples of faithfulness to the Lord’s instruction; when they married they “did as the Lord commanded.”
Numbers 36:13 The concluding verse of this book summarizes its content, and in particular, the last section in which the geographical setting is the plains of Moab on the east side of the Jordan River, opposite Jericho (26:3; 33:50; 35:1; cp. 22:1). Moses’ role as God’s appointed prophetic spokesman is reiterated in the use of the phrase “through Moses” (lit. “which the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses to the children of Israel”). There, on the threshold of the promised land, the nation was positioned both geographically and spiritually—they had recently done as the Lord commanded—to claim their divine inheritance.
Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007).