Introduction: Numbers

Title

The book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible. The English title comes from the Latin Vulgate (Numeri) and the Greek Septuagint (Arithmoi). This title was presumably chosen because of the censuses and other numerical data in the book (chs. 1-4, 26). The oldest Hebrew title is “the Fifth (of the Torah concerning) the Mustered” (homes happeqqudim, m. Yoma. 7:1; m. Menahot 4:3; b. Sotah 36b), referring to the censuses recorded in the book (Num 1-4, 26). It has also been entitled “And He Spoke” (wayyedabber) after the first word in the Hebrew text. Its present Hebrew title is “In the Wilderness” (bemidbar, fifth word in the Hebrew text), referring to the fact that the events of the book take place in the wilderness.

Text and Versions

The Masoretic Text (MT) shows little significant variation among the extant manuscripts but contains a few textual difficulties in the poetry of ch. 21 and in the oracles of Balaam (chs. 22-24). The text exhibits more variety than the text of Genesis or Leviticus. The earliest manuscript of Numbers is 4QLev-Numa from Qumran and may date to as early as the second century BC. The texts from Qumran do not yield many significant textual variants.

As a whole the text of the Book of Numbers is relatively free from corruption, in comparison to such books as Samuel, Jeremiah, and Hosea. Even in settings like the large census numbers of chaps. 1, 2, and 26, where one might anticipate some history of textual emendation, the MT and other versions are almost totally free from variants. The Balaam oracles contain the most significant numbers of variants, probably due to the antiquity of those accounts, yet the number of differences are not unusual in comparison with other poetic literature. Gray succinctly states that “the text of Numbers appears to have suffered comparatively little from simple errors of transmission.” “Taken as a whole, the variants exhibited by the Qumran scroll cannot be said to undermine the Masoretic Text of Numbers, and they seldom indicate that the Qumran scribes had before them, to start with, texts different from those underlying the Masoretic version.”1

Jastram analyzes every textual variant evidenced by the Qumran manuscript and concludes that, in most instances, they are secondary. This is to say that most of the 4QNumb variants represent conscious adaptations of one primary text instead of reflecting dependence on different base texts, although instances of this process can also be detected.2

Portions of one of the Numbers scrolls from Qumran (4QNumb) exhibit a most interesting textual character. This text seems to occupy a middle ground between the Samaritan recension and the LXX. Ordinarily it follows the Samaritan text, exhibiting similar expansionist tendencies and often agreeing with the minor Samaritan deviations from the MT. However, in cases where the MT and the Samaritan recension agree against the LXX, this scroll normally follows the LXX. Frank Cross is of the opinion that this kind of text was the normal Palestinian text during the 5th-2nd centuries B.C., and that the expansions are the result of continual rabbinical revision. On the other hand, the MT was preserved in a much more conservative priestly climate in Babylon, being reintroduced in Palestine only in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C.3

The Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) is a different Hebrew recension from the MT, written somewhere from the 4th to 1st centuries BC. It differs from the MT some 6,000 times (1,900 of these in agreement with the Greek Septuagint [LXX]). It tends to expand the MT and sometimes inserts texts from other books into Numbers (particularly passages from Deut 1-3).

The LXX is a 3rd century BC Greek translation of the MT. It contains a relatively literal translation of Numbers. Most of the variant readings in the LXX are in the spellings of names. It is possible that the LXX preserves older readings than the MT in places, but this must be argued on a case-by-case basis. A manuscript from cave 4 at Qumran (4QLXXNum) gives portions of Numbers 3:30-4:14 in a Greek version that generally follows the LXX.

Numbers was translated into Latin by Jerome sometime between AD 390 and 405. This translation is known as the Vulgate. He translated the Hebrew text but also used the LXX and other Greek versions (Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion). The conclusions of some rabbinic exegesis may have also found its way into the Vulgate.

Content

Numbers describes the 40-year journey of the Israelites from Mt. Sinai to the borders of the promised land. The murmuring and rebellious exodus generation, minus Joshua and Caleb, dies in the wilderness and a new generation becomes poised to inherit the promised land. Despite the murmuring and rebellions from the Israelites, God maintains his covenant faithfulness to Israel.

Timothy Ashley summarizes the book as follows:

The story is rather simple. Israel is counted by Moses, Aaron, and the leaders in order to prepare for the march to Canaan and life in the land following the conquest (chs. 1–4). After further exhortations to holy living and preparations to depart from Mt. Sinai (5:1–10:10), Israel leaves the holy mountain for Canaan (10:11–12:13). Spies are sent out from the oasis of Kadesh-barnea to reconnoiter. When they return to Moses and the people, their report is split. The majority say that the land and its inhabitants are too mighty to be taken. The minority (Caleb and Joshua) say that, since God had promised victory, he would bring victory for Israel, despite the strength of the land and its people. The people of Israel choose to believe the majority and are ready to go back to Egypt (thus rebelling against the leadership of Yahweh as well as that of Moses and Aaron) when God intervenes and punishes their disbelief and disobedience. Because of their sin, every person over the age of twenty would wander and die in the wilderness without coming into possession of Canaan. They would wander forty years, until the whole generation was dead (chs. 13–14).

The Israelites decide to try to make things better on their own. Unassisted by God (or Moses), they try to conquer the land but are humiliated in defeat (14:40–45). So for nearly forty years the people wander around Kadesh-barnea in the wilderness until all that generation dies (chs. 16–19). They then return to Kadesh-barnea, and are told to set out once again for Canaan. They depart from Kadesh-barnea and travel to the plains of Moab, just outside the land of promise (chs. 20–21). Along the way, they win some battles, showing that the tide is turning (21:1–4, 21–35). Just outside Canaan, the people are blessed by Balaam, a foreign seer (chs. 22–24). After his blessing, they sin further at Peor and are punished again (ch. 25). On the plains of Moab a new census is taken to mark the new beginning (ch. 26). The people wait for further instructions for life in the land of Canaan, where Joshua will lead them after the death of Moses (chs. 27–36).4

Numbers may be outlined as follows:

  • End of the First Generation in the Wilderness (1:1-25:18)
    • Faithfulness of Israel at Mt. Sinai (1:1-10:10)
      • First Census (1:1-54)
      • Camp Arrangement (2:1-34)
      • Levitical Census (3:1-4:49)
        • General Census (3:1-39)
        • Levites for Firstborn (3:40-51)
        • Census of Working Levites (4:1-49)
      • Camp Purity (5:1-6:27)
        • Camp Excludes Unclean (5:1-4)
        • Restitution for Offense Against Neighbor (5:5-10)
        • Ordeal for Woman Suspected of Adultery (5:11-31)
        • Nazirite Vow (6:1-21)
        • Priestly Blessing (6:22-27)
      • Matters Concerning the Tabernacle (7:1-10:10)
        • Offerings by Tribal Leaders (7:1-89)
        • Lampstand (8:1-4)
        • Installation of Levites (8:5-26)
        • Second Passover (9:1-14)
        • Fiery Cloud (9:15-23)
        • Silver Trumpets (10:1-10)
    • Rebellious Generation in the Wilderness (10:11-25:18)
      • Departure from Mt. Sinai (10:11-36)
      • Murmuring at Taberah (11:1-3)
      • Complaints About Food at Kibroth-Hattaavah (11:4-35)
      • Miriam and Aaron Challenge Moses (12:1-16)
      • The Spies (13:1-14:45)
        • Spies Selected (13:1-16)
        • Spies Go and Return (13:17-33)
        • Response to the Spies’ Reports (14:1-45)
      • Cultic Legislation (15:1-41)
        • Offerings (15:1-16)
        • First of the Dough (15:17-21)
        • Purification Offering (15:22-31)
        • Case Law on Capital Punishment for Sabbath Violation (15:32-36)
        • Tassels on Garments for Remembrance (15:37-41)
      • Legitimation of Aaron’s Priesthood (16:1-17:13)
        • Rebellions of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (16:1-50)
        • Aaron’s Budding Staff (17:1-13)
      • Cultic Legislation (18:1-19:22)
        • Roles for Priests and Levites (18:1-32)
        • The Red Cow Ashes and the Waters of Purification (19:1-22)
      • Waters of Meribah (20:1-13)
      • Request to Pass Through Edom (20:14-21)
      • Death of Aaron (20:22-29)
      • Battle at Hormah (21:1-3)
      • Fiery Serpents (21:4-9)
      • Travel Itinerary (21:10-20)
      • Wars Against Sihon and Og (21:21-35)
      • Balaam (22:1-24:25)
        • Balak Sends for Balaam (22:1-21)
        • Balaam’s Donkey (22:22-35)
        • Balak Meets Balaam (22:36-40)
        • Introductory Preparations (22:41-23:6)
        • First Oracle (23:7-12)
        • Second Oracle at Mt. Pisgah (23:13-26)
        • Third Oracle on Peor (23:27-24:13)
        • Fourth Oracle (24:14-19)
        • Final Oracle (24:20-25)
      • Apostasy at Baal-Peor (25:1-18)
  • Challenges for the New Generation (26:1-36:13)
    • Second Census (26:1-65)
    • Daughters of Zelophehad (27:1-11)
    • Joshua Named Moses’s Successor (27:12-23)
    • Cultic Calendar (28:1-29:40)
    • Women’s Vows (30:1-16)
    • War Against Midian (31:1-54)
    • Settlement of Gad and Reuben (32:1-42)
    • Travel Itinerary (33:1-49)
    • Canaanites Must Be Expelled (33:50-56)
    • Borders of the Land (34:1-29)
    • Levite Cities (35:1-8)
    • Cities of Refuge (35:9-34)
    • Daughters of Zelophehad (36:1-13)

Composition, Authorship, and Date

This section merely summarizes some scholarly opinions on the composition, authorship, and date of Numbers. These subjects are tied to views on the composition of the Pentateuch as a whole, a topic too expansive to cover in detail in this introduction. Nonetheless, we shall sketch out some theories to provide background information.

The traditional theory is that Moses played a significant part in the composition of the Pentateuch. The two most widely accepted dates for the exodus are 1440 BC and 1290-1270 BC. Adherents of Mosaic authorship are often open to later scribes making some additions to the Pentateuch.

The Documentary Hypothesis holds that the Pentateuch is made up of four major written documents: J (Jahwist/Yahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly). J and E were combined first (JE). A redactor combined JE, D, and P in the post-exilic period (ca. 6th-5th century BC) to create what we know as the Pentateuch. The J, E, and P sources are thought to have been used in Numbers. Within Numbers, it is often difficult to differentiate J from E.

Before getting to the views of individual scholars, it should be noted that the book of Numbers does not name its author. Numbers 33:2 says Moses wrote down the stages of the Israelites’ journey but this is the only reference to Moses writing in the book. Numbers 21:14-15 contains a quotation from the otherwise unknown Book of the Wars of the Lord.

Timothy Ashley finds the evidence for a long period of transmission standing behind the present text to count against the theory of Mosaic authorship. Yet, he believes Moses had a role in the origin of the book. He dates Numbers to the pre-exilic period, possibly as early as the time of the united monarchy (tenth century BC).

R. Dennis Cole thinks the internal evidence indicates a Mosaic origin for much of the material in Numbers. However, he does not think this requires that Moses himself wrote Numbers. He is open to scribes, contemporary or later, writing down oral and written tradition originating from Moses.

Michael Grisanti suggests that the Ketef Hinnom Silver Scrolls, containing passages from Numbers 6 and Deuteronomy 7, speak to a pre-exilic written tradition that included these passages.

Baruch Levine adopts a form of the Documentary Hypothesis. He considers a Transjordan source (T) to be a sub-source of the E tradition. He thinks the T source is behind the poetic sections of chapters 21 and 23-24. He believes P wrote after D and finished writing in the post-exilic period. However, he thinks the P tradition took its form over a long period of time and contains pre-exilic material too. Levine’s argument is based on the alleged dependence of P on earlier sources and its language.

J. N. Oswalt notes that no examples from the ancient Near East can be found where two (not to mention four) books were cut apart and interleaved into one volume. He adopts a traditional view while accepting that later editors updated the Pentateuch.

Jacob Milgrom adopts some form of the Documentary Hypothesis. According to him there is a scholarly consensus on the antiquity of the poetry and narratives that are part of the non-Priestly sections of Numbers. Against those who think the Priestly source wrote after the exile, he argues that the Priestly material is also old. He notes that many technical terms found in Numbers ceased being used after the 9th century BC and other technical terms in Numbers ceased being used after the Babylonian Exile (587 BC). Milgrom notes that various socio-political institutions described in Numbers fit an earlier date better than a later date. He argues that much of the material in Numbers was written before the monarchy of Israel was founded.

Gordon Wenham is not convinced of the Documentary Hypothesis. He argues that the diversity of subject matter proves little about sources/authors. He compares Numbers to Deuteronomy and Ezekiel to argue that most of Numbers had to have been written before those two books (i.e., before the exile). He finds many descriptions in Numbers to fit the second millennium BC. But he is open to some expansion, revision, and rewriting in the following centuries.

Bibliography

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Hymes, D. “Numbers, Book of, Critical Issues”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 21-36. The Anchor Yale Bible. New York: Yale University Press, 2000.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Merrill, Eugene H., Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Kindle Edition. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Milgrom, Jacob. “Numbers, Book of.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Tenney, Merrill C. The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 4: Revised Full-Color Edition. Kindle Edition. Zondervan, 2010. Kindle Location 17662ff.

Watson, G. “Numbers, Book of”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.


  1. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 1010-1017 
  2. Levine 1193, 86 
  3. Tenney 2010, Kindle Locations 17800-17806 
  4. Ashley 1993, 1–2 
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