Commentary on Numbers 14

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Then all the community raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night.

“That night” is the night after the spy report was given (ch. 13).

2 And all the Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had perished in this wilderness! 3 Why has the LORD brought us into this land only to be killed by the sword, that our wives and our children should become plunder? Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?”

The phrases “all the community”, “the people”, and “all the Israelites” emphasize all the people murmured. The lack of faith is clear by the fact the Israelites think God brought them out of Egypt to be killed (cf. Deut 1:27).

4 So they said to one another, “Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt.”

The Israelites also propose an alternative leader to the divinely appointed leader, Moses.

5 Then Moses and Aaron fell down with their faces to the ground before the whole assembled community of the Israelites.

The prostration of Moses and Aaron anticipates an act of judgment (16:4-5, 22, 45; 20:6). They may be trying to propitiate the people or the act may reflect their despair.

6 And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, two of those who had investigated the land, tore their garments.

Tearing of garments is a sign of grief or distress (e.g., Gen 37:24, 29, 34; Lev 13:45; Judg 11:35).

7 They said to the whole community of the Israelites, “The land we passed through to investigate is an exceedingly good land. 8 If the LORD delights in us, then he will bring us into this land and give it to us — a land that is flowing with milk and honey. 9 Only do not rebel against the LORD, and do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection has turned aside from them, but the LORD is with us. Do not fear them!”

The phrase “for they are bread for us” (v 9) means that the Canaanites are prey or spoils for the Israelites.

10 However, the whole community threatened to stone them. But the glory of the LORD appeared to all the Israelites at the tent of meeting.

Wenham writes:

This is not simply a mob-lynching (cf. Exod. 17:4; 1 Kgs 12:18). The congregation had judicial authority, and stoning was reserved for the punishment of major religious crimes (e.g. Lev. 20:2, 27; 24:23; Num. 15:36; Deut. 13:10) and sins within the family which symbolize breaches of the covenant (Deut. 21:21; 22:21, 24). Joshua and Caleb have accused them of rebelling against the LORD (9); the congregation rejects this charge as false and proposes to exact the appropriate penalty for false witness. At the critical moment the LORD appears in glory over the tabernacle (cf. Exod. 16:7, 10; 24:16-17; Lev. 9:6, 23; Num. 16:19, 42; 20:6; 1 Kgs 8:11).1

Ashley counters:

Wenham posits that the people’s reaction here is a judicial reaction to what they perceive as false witness on the part of Joshua and Caleb. But two points tell against this explanation. First, it is doubtful that their words do not rebel (‘al-timrōḏû, v. 9) in the jussive may be taken as false witness. Second, although the Torah forbids false witness (Exod. 20:16; 23:1; Deut. 5:17 [Eng. 20]) the punishment for it is set forth only in Deuteronomy and is a talion, i.e., doing to the false witness what he had planned for the accused (Deut. 19:16-21); no punishment of stoning is set forth. Therefore, the reaction of the crowd here is more likely to be a reaction of anger than a perceived judicial sentence.2

11 The LORD said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me, and how long will they not believe in me, in spite of the signs that I have done among them?

In all the miraculous signs witnessed to this point the Israelites themselves have not had to act. God and Moses have acted for them. Even in the battle with the Amalekites, it was the Amalekites who attacked them, and Joshua chose a select few to fight on their behalf (Ex 17:8-13). Now the Israelites perceive that they will have to act in the conquest of Canaan. They do not trust God and lack faith in themselves (13:31: “We are not able to go up against these people, because they are stronger than we are!”).

12 I will strike them with the pestilence, and I will disinherit them; I will make you into a nation that is greater and mightier than they!”

The verbs should be taken as cohortatives, equivalent to “Now let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them and make of you a great nation” (Exod. 32:10); that is, in the two major demonstrations of apostasy, the incidents of the golden calf and the scouts, God asks Moses to intercede on behalf of Israel. Here, then, is a recognition that prophetic intercession can block divine retribution. This and more: God is actually cuing Moses in his role as intercessor and intermediary–perhaps even testing him–that by his intercession he may save his people (cf. Exod. 32:10). The contrast between God’s offer to Moses and his subsequent “offer” to Israel is striking. The former is stated as a question; the latter, however, is a decision made irrevocable by an oath (vv. 21, 28), another indication that God was trying Moses and that by His question, He sought to evoke an intercessional response (cf. Amos 7:1-9; Jer. 7:16; 11:14).3

The LXX and SP have “I will make you and your father’s house into a nation“. A scribe may have lost the extra words by haplography. The extra words could suggest that Aaron’s family or the Levites are to survive as well as Moses’s family.

13 Moses said to the LORD, “When the Egyptians hear it — for you brought up this people by your power from among them — 14 then they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, LORD, are among this people, that you, LORD, are seen face to face, that your cloud stands over them, and that you go before them by day in a pillar of cloud and in a pillar of fire by night.

15 If you kill this entire people at once, then the nations that have heard of your fame will say, 16 ‘Because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to them, he killed them in the wilderness.’

17 So now, let the power of my LORD be great, just as you have said, 18 ‘The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in loyal love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children until the third and fourth generations.’

With the phrase “let the power of my LORD be great”, Moses suggests that, in this instance, it takes more strength to hold back punishment than to mete it out. He quotes God’s self description (Ex 34:6-7) in a call for God to be true to Himself.

19 Please forgive the iniquity of this people according to your great loyal love, just as you have forgiven this people from Egypt even until now.”

20 Then the LORD said, “I have forgiven them as you asked.

The forgiveness in question means Israel will not be annihilated, it does not mean they will escape all punishment for their sin. Milgrom takes the Hebrew word salah to speak of reconciliation, not pardon or forgiveness. This reconciliation allows the covenant relationship to continue.

21 But truly, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the LORD.

22 For all the people have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tempted me now these ten times, and have not obeyed me, 23 they will by no means see the land that I swore to their fathers, nor will any of them who despised me see it.

The verb nissah (“tempted”) means the Israelites tried or tested God.

God has already proved himself to be faithful and powerful many times by giving the divine presence (God’s glory) and by working miraculous acts (God’s signs) before Israel’s eyes. Yet, the Israelites continue to “test” God by disbelieving that he can bring the people into Canaan.4

Most commentators think the number ten (v 22) expresses consistent action over time instead of ten specific occasions of Israelite disobedience. Nevertheless, the “Talmud lists the following ten occasions of rebellion: at the Reed Sea (Exod. 14:11-12), at Marah (15:23), in the wilderness of Sin (16:2), twice at Kadesh (16:20, 27), at Rephidim (17:2ff.), at Sinai (ch. 32), at Taberah (Num. 11:1), at Kibroth-hattaavah (11:4ff.), and the present situation (chs. 13-14).”5

24 Only my servant Caleb, because he had a different spirit and has followed me fully — I will bring him into the land where he had gone, and his descendants will possess it.

In having a different “spirit”, Caleb has a different frame of mind. See Josh 15:13-19 and Judg 1:9-15 for the fulfillment of this promise.

25 (Now the Amalekites and the Canaanites were living in the valleys.) Tomorrow, turn and journey into the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea.”

Israel desired to return to Egypt (v 4) and now they are told to turn in that direction.

26 The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron:

27 “How long must I bear with this evil congregation that murmurs against me? I have heard the complaints of the Israelites that they murmured against me.

28 Say to them, ‘As I live, says the LORD, I will surely do to you just what you have spoken in my hearing. 29 Your dead bodies will fall in this wilderness — all those of you who were numbered, according to your full number, from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against me.

In v 2 the Israelites said “if only we had perished in this wilderness” and now God punishes them accordingly. All those numbered in the census of chapter 1 shall perish.

It is unclear whether the clause who murmured against me is meant to delimit this group further or simply to describe all those who were counted in the census. Although it may seem natural to assume the latter in the light of the text’s emphasis on the guilt of the whole people (e.g., 14:1-2, 7), some people must be excluded from that all since Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua are excepted (although the former two do not go into the land).

The Levites are also not to be counted in the number of those who murmured and spurned Yahweh (v. 23). This conclusion is probable for two reasons. First, Eliezar (Aaron’s son and successor) was probably over twenty years old at the first census, and he survived to enter Canaan (cf. Josh. 14:1; 17:4; 20:24, 33). Second, and more importantly, the Levites are exempted from the punishment because they were not involved in the general census of ch. 1, but were set over against Israel and given their own censuses in chs. 3-4, with different age ranges than from twenty years of age and up.6

30 You will by no means enter into the land where I swore to settle you. The only exceptions are Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.

31 But I will bring in your little ones, whom you said would become victims of war, and they will enjoy the land that you have despised.

In v 3 the Israelites worry that their wives and children will become plunder in war. Ironically, their children will inherit the promised land.

32 But as for you, your dead bodies will fall in this wilderness, 33 and your children will wander in the wilderness forty years and suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your dead bodies lie finished in the wilderness.

34 According to the number of the days you have investigated this land, forty days — one day for a year — you will suffer for your iniquities, forty years, and you will know what it means to thwart me.

Forty years is the general length of a generation. Deut 2:14 indicates the judgment lasted for 38 years. Other translations indicate that the phrase “you will know what it means to thwart me” can be understood to mean “you will know what it means to have me against you”.

35 I, the LORD, have said, “I will surely do so to all this evil congregation that has gathered together against me. In this wilderness they will be finished, and there they will die!”‘”

36 The men whom Moses sent to investigate the land, who returned and made the whole community murmur against him by producing an evil report about the land, 37 those men who produced the evil report about the land, died by the plague before the LORD.

The deaths of the faithless spies are a sign that the older generation will eventually die in the wilderness. Perhaps this plague is the judgment God intended to bring upon the while nation in v 12.

38 But Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among the men who went to investigate the land, lived.

39 When Moses told these things to all the Israelites, the people mourned greatly.

40 And early in the morning they went up to the crest of the hill country, saying, “Here we are, and we will go up to the place that the LORD commanded, for we have sinned.”

The people think they can make amends.

41 But Moses said, “Why are you now transgressing the commandment of the LORD? It will not succeed! 42 Do not go up, for the LORD is not among you, and you will be defeated before your enemies. 43 For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you will fall by the sword. Because you have turned away from the LORD, the LORD will not be with you.”

The people were commanded to “journey into the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea” (v 25). Deut 1:42 states the warning was first issued by God.

44 But they dared to go up to the crest of the hill, although neither the ark of the covenant of the LORD nor Moses departed from the camp.

45 So the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country swooped down and attacked them as far as Hormah.

Here the Amalekites and the Canaanites are said to dwell in that hill country (hāhār hahû’), i.e., that to which Moses has just referred in v. 40. These two peoples are said to dwell in the valley in 14:25, and in 13:29 the Amalekites are said to dwell in the Negeb and the Canaanites by the sea and along the Jordan. Again, the term hill country (hāhār) is probably used generally here as in 14:40 and 13:17 to describe most of the land north of the Negeb. One must also assume that 13:29 describes only part of the Amalekites and that some of them also lived north of the Negeb in the hill country. In ancient times, when boundaries were inexact at best, this situation is not hard to imagine. One must also say that, even armed with the information the spies brought back, Moses’ knowledge of the geographic description of the peoples of Canaan would likely be imperfect. No precise ethnic description is intended here, but rather a general description of the inhabitants of the land. Deut. 1:44 substitutes the general term Amorite for Amalekite and Canaanite.7

Hormah was a village on the southern border of Canaan (Deut 1:44; Josh 12:14; 15:30). The Israelites begin to fall by the sword (cf. v 3).

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. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 2121-2126 
  2. Ashley 1993, 251 
  3. Milgrom 1990, 109-110 
  4. Ashley 1993, 260 
  5. Ashley 1993, 260-261 
  6. Ashley 1993, 264 
  7. Ashley 1993, 273 
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