Commentary on Numbers 1

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Now the LORD spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the wilderness of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites departed from the land of Egypt. He said:

By way of reminder, the divine name YHWH (Yahweh) (Ex 3:12-18; 6:1-8) is translated “the LORD” in most English translations of the Hebrew Bible. His voice comes forth from within the tent of meeting (Lev 1:1), from above the mercy seat and between the two cherubim of the ark (Ex 25:22; Num 7:89). The “tent of meeting” (ohel moed) is the portable tent shrine (described in Ex 25-40) where God speaks to Moses. Portable tent shrines are known from as early as the Old Kingdom period in Egypt (2700-2200 BC).1 A “wilderness” (midbar) is a place for driving flocks that receives too little rainfall to support agriculture. It is not an arid desert. While we know where the Sinai Peninsula is, the location of Mount Sinai (Mount Horeb) is disputed.

The first day of each month was a holiday (10:10; 28:11) and provided a convenient opportunity to bring the people together for important announcements (Num 9:1; Deut 1:3; Ezek 26:1).2 The second month of the second year was one month after the tent of meeting had been completed (Ex 40:17). The Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai on the third new moon after the exodus (Ex 19:1) so they had been at the mountain for about eleven months at this point in time.

These opening chapters of Numbers are not arranged in strictly chronological order. The regulations in chapters 1-6 are dated by 1:1 to the first day of the second month, whereas 7:1-9:15 fall between the first and fourteenth day of the first month (cf. Exod. 40:2). Chapters 1-6 are probably placed before chapters 7-9 to explain the significance of the latter. For example chapter 4, specifying the tasks of the Levitical clans, explains the gift of wagons to them in 7:1-9. Chapter 3 explains the purpose of dedicating the Levites, described in 8:5-26.3

Chronologically, the scene of the census is set “on the first day of the second month of the second year” after the Exodus, eleven months after Moses first ascended the mountain of revelation. An absolute chronological reckoning of this statement of relative chronology has long been debated by biblical scholars. Those who grant at least some historical credence to the Exodus in history have generally proffered dates ranging from 1570 B.C. to 1250 B.C., with ca. 1440 and ca. 1290 B.C. most commonly supported. The earlier dates would place the Exodus at the advent of the mid-eighteenth New Kingdom (Empire) in Egyptian history, the latter during the Ramesside nineteenth dynasty. The issue remains one of intense debate among evangelical scholars, needing further study in biblical, historical, literary, and archaeological research.4

2 “Take a census of the entire Israelite community by their clans and families, counting the name of every individual male. 3 You and Aaron are to number all in Israel who can serve in the army, those who are twenty years old or older, by their divisions.

Only men who can serve in the army are counted because this census is in preparation for the conquest of the Promised Land. The age for entering military service was twenty in Sparta, eighteen in Athens, and seventeen in Rome.5 No upper age limit is specified but the census is restricted to those capable of bearing arms.

The census described here follows the same procedures and even uses the same terminology as those found earlier, in Near Eastern cultures that had been intimately associated with Israel’s origins. Thus at the ancient Mesopotamian town of Mari (modern Tell el-Hariri in Syria), the Akkadian term for “muster the troops,” is the exact cognate of the Hebrew pakad tsavaʾ (see v. 3). Similarly, the men of Mari were inscribed “on a tablet and by name”.6

4 And to help you there is to be a man from each tribe, each man the head of his family. 5 Now these are the names of the men who are to help you: from Reuben, Elizur son of Shedeur; 6 from Simeon, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai; 7 from Judah, Nahshon son of Amminadab; 8 from Issachar, Nethanel son of Zuar; 9 from Zebulun, Eliab son of Helon; 10 from the sons of Joseph: from Ephraim, Elishama son of Ammihud; from Manasseh, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur; 11 from Benjamin, Abidan son of Gideoni; 12 from Dan, Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai; 13 from Asher, Pagiel son of Ocran; 14 from Gad, Eliasaph son of Deuel; 15 from Naphtali, Ahira son of Enan.”

These twelve tribal leaders appear again in 2:3-31 (camp arrangements), 7:12-83 (offerings for the sanctuary), and 10:14-27 (divisions depart from Sinai). They are replaced in chs. 13 and 34.

  • Verse 5: Elizur means “the Rock is my god” and Shedeur probably means “Shaddai is/gives light”.
  • Verse 6: Shelumiel probably means “El is my friend/ally”.
  • Verse 7: Nahshon son of Amminadab is the ancestor of Boaz, who married Ruth and fathered the Davidic line (Ruth 4:20-22; 1 Chr 2:10-11), including Jesus Christ (Matt 1:4-16; Luke 3:23-22). His sister, Elisheva, married Aaron (Ex 6:23). Nahshon means “snakelike” and Amminadab means “my [divine] kinsman has been generous”.
  • Verse 9: Eliab may or may not be identical with the father of Dathan and Abiram (Num 16:1-17; Deut 11:6).
  • Verse 10: The tribe of Joseph is divided into two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, to make up for the fact that the tribe of Levi is not to be counted (v 49). Elishama son of Ammihud is the grandfather of Joshua (1 Chr 7:26-27), the successor of Moses. Elishama means “my god has heard”, Ammihud means “my kinsman is the Majestic One”, Gamaliel means “El has been gracious to me”, and Pedahzur means “the Rock has redeemed me.”
  • Verse 11: Abidan probably means “my Father is strong” and Gideoni means “the destroyer/shatterer”.
  • Verse 12: Ahiezer means “my brother/kinsman is a help” and Ammishaddai means “Shaddai is my kinsman”.
  • Verse 13: Pagiel means “my entreaty of El” and Ocran means “the defeater/subduer”.
  • Verse 14: Eliasaph means “El has added”. Deuel should probably be Reuel (2:14), meaning “the companion of El”.
  • Verse 15: Ahira means “my brother/kinsman is a friend” and Enan probably derives from the root meaning “the one who sees/knows”.

None of the names contain the divine name Yawheh. Instead they contain theophoric elements that date to the second millennium BC (El, “God”, 9 times; Ab, “father”, 2 times; Ah, “brother”, 2 times; Shaddai, “Almighty”, 3 times; Zur, “Rock”, 3 times; Ezer, “Strength”). Texts from Mari (1550-1200 BC) have names containing the theophoric elements Shaddai and Zur. Sixteen of the twenty-four names never recur in the Bible. These facts suggest the antiquity of the names.

16 These were the ones chosen from the community, leaders of their ancestral tribes. They were the heads of the thousands of Israel.

These men, chosen by God to help with the census and lead the tribes, are described in three terms: called, exalted, and head. These persons are called out by God and chosen by him. They are also exalted ones from their fathers’ tribes (neśî’ê maṭṭôṯ ‘ăḇôṯām). This expression indicates that the divine choice of these men exalted them from the tribes of their fathers (i.e., their ancestors). The phrase is unique. E. A. Speiser held that the term exalted one (nāśî’, from nāśā’, “to lift up”) is a technical term for one who has been elevated in the assembly or elected to serve. This may well form the background of this technical term, although it is God who does the electing here.7

17 So Moses and Aaron took these men who had been mentioned specifically by name, 18 and they assembled the entire community together on the first day of the second month. Then the people recorded their ancestry by their clans and families, and the men who were twenty years old or older were listed by name individually, 19 just as the LORD had commanded Moses. And so he numbered them in the wilderness of Sinai.

20 And they were as follows: The descendants of Reuben, the firstborn son of Israel: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name individually. 21 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Reuben were 46,500.

The results are presented according to a repetitive formula composed of the following elements: (1) tribal nomenclature, (2) military conditions of enlistment, (3) clan and familial basis, (4) tribal name reiterated, (5) tribal total. The recurrent pattern has been noted by numerous commentators and is often taken as indicative of the formulaic tendencies of the priestly editors of the text of the Pentateuch. Such repetitiveness can be observed in ancient texts, long predating even the time of Moses, and in and of itself is not an indicator of early or late antiquity.8

The count for each tribe is as follows:

Tribe Count
Reuben 46,500
Simeon 59,300
Gad 45,650
Judah 74,600
Issachar 54,400
Zebulun 57,400
Ephraim 40,500
Manasseh 32,200
Benjamin 35,400
Dan 62,700
Asher 41,500
Naphtali 53,400
TOTAL 603,550

22 From the descendants of Simeon: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males numbered of them twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name individually. 23 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Simeon were 59,300.

24 From the descendants of Gad: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 25 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Gad were 45,650.

26 From the descendants of Judah: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 27 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Judah were 74,600.

28 From the descendants of Issachar: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 29 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Issachar were 54,400.

30 From the descendants of Zebulun: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 31 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Zebulun were 57,400.

32 From the sons of Joseph: From the descendants of Ephraim: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 33 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Ephraim were 40,500.

34 From the descendants of Manasseh: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 35 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Manasseh were 32,200.

36 From the descendants of Benjamin: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 37 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Benjamin were 35,400.

38 From the descendants of Dan: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 39 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Dan were 62,700.

40 From the descendants of Asher: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 41 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Asher were 41,500.

42 From the descendants of Naphtali: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 43 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Naphtali were 53,400.

44 These were the men whom Moses and Aaron numbered along with the twelve leaders of Israel, each of whom was from his own family. 45 All the Israelites who were twenty years old or older, who could serve in Israel’s army, were numbered according to their families. 46 And all those numbered totaled 603,550.

God’s promise of innumerable descendants has been fulfilled (Gen 15:5; 17:4-8). A total of 603,550 warriors presupposes a total population of approximately 2 million.

The census commanded here is not the first one during the stay at Sinai. Exod. 30:11-16 gives a command that when a census is taken, each one counted should be liable for a half-shekel assessment (to be used in the building of the tabernacle; see Exod. 38:25-28). One might simply assume that the two censuses were separate were it not that the total of persons counted in 38:26 is 603,550, precisely the total given for the census in Num. 1:46. These identical totals cannot merely be coincidental. These data have led some scholars to conclude that the command to take the census is given in Exod. 30:11-16 and that the census is not carried out until Num. 1.

Exodus 30:11 has no command to take a census immediately. The command is that, “when you calculate the total of the children of Israel” (i.e., when that time should come), then there must be a half-shekel redemption price paid for each person twenty and older who is counted. The text does not say that this counting was carried out immediately, but 38:25-28 does state that 603,550 people paid 100 talents and 1,775 shekels of silver for the fitting of the tabernacle.

Although biblical data on the chronology of this specific period are limited, there are difficulties in the assumption that the censuses of Exodus and Numbers are the same. Num. 1:1 is dated one month after the tabernacle was erected (cf. Exod. 40:2). Exod. 38 indicates that the first census was completed and the redemption price levied in order to make fittings for the tabernacle. That census, of course, had to take place before the tabernacle was erected. Thus, on the chronology of the text itself, the two cannot be seen as the same event. The census of Exod. 30 was concluded at least one month before the one in Num. 1 was commanded, and probably some time before that. It is hard to believe that the final editor of the Pentateuch would not have smoothed out such differences if the intent had been to see the census command of Exod. 30 carried out in Num. 1.

Another approach to the problem assumes that Exod. 30 and 38 are later insertions into the text derived from the book of Numbers or elsewhere. For example, Budd argues this way and states that Exod. 30 and 38:21-31 could have been from the hand of the author of Numbers.

It is, of course, true that the Pentateuch was edited together at a period after the events it narrates. It is also true that the Pentateuch is not arranged consistently in chronological order (see, e.g., Num. 1:1; 7:1). Although theoretically the kind of editing Budd proposes may have occurred, one cannot demonstrate that it never took place. To say that Exod. 38:21-31 is an insertion based on material in Numbers does not necessitate any greater distance from the events narrated than a time after the material in Num. 4 (supposedly some time between the first and nineteenth days of the second year after the Exodus), although it may be later than this time by an indeterminate period.

What does the final form of the text wish the reader to make of these two obviously related but separate censuses? They are similar in that they give totals of Israelite males twenty years of age and up. But the purpose of the two seems different. The first has a religious purpose (a levy for the tabernacle), and the second an administrative or military purpose. The technique was also different. The first census reports only the grand total. The census in Num. 1 numbers the people by tribe, clan, and father’s house, in addition to a count of individual names. That twelve leaders are appointed to help Moses and Aaron in this numbering indicates the much greater scope of this census. The total figure of the census checked with that of the earlier one, so that, although these countings were distinct, they were so close in time that they were related. Data from the first were probably used in the second. They stand as two halves of one act, the religious half (Exodus) and the military or administrative half (Numbers). Perhaps to remind the Israelites of the religious dimension of all life–even the supposedly administrative details–Aaron is included in the census of Num. 1.9

47 But the Levites, according to the tribe of their fathers, were not numbered among them.

48 The LORD had said to Moses,

Moses received this order before taking the census.

49 “Only the tribe of Levi you must not number or count with the other Israelites.

The Levites are omitted because they are not to serve in the army.

The separate mustering of the Levites (chaps. 3-4) is illumined by the Mari documents. One of its censuses is divided into three separate registrations: soldiers, those exempt from military service, and the aged. Since the Levites were exempt from the regular militia, they would have been separately mustered in accord with ancient practice (3:15; 4:2, 22, 29). It is significant that King David also omitted the tribe of Levi from his national military census (1 Chron. 21:6) at the end of his reign (1 Chron. 23:1) because of his intention to use them exclusively in the administration of his projected temple (1 Chron. 23:24-32).10

50 But appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, over all its furnishings and over everything in it. They must carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings; and they must attend to it and camp around it.

Because of the zealous actions of the Levites at Mount Sinai after the making of the golden calf (Ex 32:25-29) they were set apart for service at the tabernacle. “Testimony” (edut) refers to the tablets of the law (Ex 31:18; 32:15; 34:27-28) kept in the ark (Ex 25:16-22; 26:33-34; 40:3, 20) inside the tabernacle (= tent of meeting).

51 Whenever the tabernacle is to move, the Levites must take it down, and whenever the tabernacle is to be reassembled, the Levites must set it up. Any unauthorized person who approaches it must be killed.

Only the Levites were authorized persons. Further instructions are provided in chs. 3-4.

52 “The Israelites will camp according to their divisions, each man in his camp, and each man by his standard.

The arrangement of the Israelite camp is delineated in ch. 2. The “standard” (degel) is a visible symbol (e.g., banner, flag, emblem) of the tribe.

53 But the Levites must camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that the LORD’s anger will not fall on the Israelite community. The Levites are responsible for the care of the tabernacle of the testimony.”

The Levites were to form an outer perimeter of sacred space around the holy tabernacle.

54 The Israelites did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses – that is what they did.

Obedience is a hallmark of the community in Numbers 1:1-10:10, but it will not last to the conclusion of the book.

Num 10:11 indicates the census was completed in less than twenty days. By contrast, David’s census, involving about the same numbers, took nine months and twenty days to complete (2 Sam 24:8). What accounts for this difference?

The answer lies in the use of different procedures. David’s census was conducted tribe by tribe, district by district. Moses, on the other hand, made each clan responsible for its own count (vv. 2, 18, 20, etc.), while he and the tribal chieftains merely supervised. Thus all clans were mustered simultaneously and their respective lists needed only to be collated. In this sense, it resembled a modern election. That this procedure has ancient roots is shown by the practice at Mari, where the mustering of the tribal population was delegated to its chieftains, the šugagu (e.g., ARM 3.21.5ff.). Indeed, it is attested of some Judean kings that they continued to base their conscription upon the household, the basic structural unit of the society (e.g., Jehoshaphat, 2 Chron. 17:14; Amaziah, 2 Chron. 25:5). Recently, an ostracon (pottery shard containing writing) was found at Tell ʿIra (near Beersheba), dated from the eighth or beginning of the seventh century B.C.E. It has been rendered: “The census of (the house of) Berechiah: Gibbeah, Mokir, Shelemiah.” If this reading proves correct, the ostracon would then exemplify the method used by Moses to conduct the census. The names of all men of military age in each household were written down by the head of the household. The written materials were collected by each clan, then by each tribal chieftain, and, finally, handed over to Moses.11

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.

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

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

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

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


  1. Cole 2000, Kindle Location 2155 
  2. Milgrom 1990, 4 
  3. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 961-965 
  4. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 2178-2185 
  5. Milgrom 1990, 5 
  6. Milgrom 1990, 4 
  7. Ashley 1993, 54 
  8. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 2466-2470 
  9. Ashley 1993, 49-51 
  10. Milgrom 1990, 10 
  11. Milgrom 1990, 337 
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