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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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NUMBERS 1

The name, "Numbers" is from [@Arithmoi], the designation of the book in the Septuagint (LXX) translation, apparently given because of the census reports in Num. 1 and Num. 26. "The Hebrew name is [~Bemidbar], meaning `wilderness' from the appearance of the word in the first verse,"F1 which appears to us to be a far more suitable name, since the subject matter of Numbers is concerned principally with what happened to the Israelites "in the wilderness."

The arbitrary and artificial manner in which this portion of the Book of Moses has been separated from other portions of it should not obscure the fact that Moses wrote one book, not five, and that what is called the Book of Numbers, or the Fourth Book of Moses, is actually part and parcel with the whole. It carries the unmistakable imprimatur of the times, the authorship, and the personality of Moses, the great lawgiver of Israel. This very first chapter presents an array of repetitions which were characteristic of the writings of the period in the mid-second millennium B.C., utterly unlike the literature of the ages following that period. (See a fuller discussion of this in the chapter introduction of Exo. 35 in this series of commentaries.)

Note the verbatim repetition fifteen times of these words: "By their generations, by their families, and by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war."

This formula was given by God in His instructions to Moses and Aaron, by Moses and Aaron in their instructions to the people, and was repeated in the instance of each of the twelve tribes, and also in the summary of what was done. Due to this, we have elected to present the information contained in these chapters, by chart, or diagram, rather than by the repetitious prose that marks these chapters.


 
Verses 1-54
And Jehovah spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying, Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, every male, by their polls; from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel, thou and Aaron shall number them by their hosts. And with you there shall be a man of every tribe; every one head of his fathers' house. And these are the names of the men that shall stand with you. Of Reuben: Elizur the son of Shedeur. Of Simeon: Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai. Of Judah: Nahshon the son of Amminadab. Of Issachar: Nethanel the son of Zuar. Of Zebulun: Eliab the son of Helon. Of the children of Joseph: Of Ephraim: Elishama the son of Ammihud. Of Manasseh: Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur. Of Benjamin: Abidan the son of Gideoni. Of Dan: Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai. Of Asher: Pagiel the son of Ochran. Of Gad: Eliasaph the son of Deuel. Of Naphtali: Ahira the son of Enan. These are they that were called of the congregation, the princes of the tribes of their fathers; they were the heads of the thousands of Israel. And Moses and Aaron took these men that are mentioned by name: And they assembled all the congregation together on the first day of the second month; and they declared their pedigrees after their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, by their polls. As Jehovah commanded Moses, so he numbered them in the wilderness of Sinai. And the children of Reuben, Israel's first-born, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Reuben, were forty and six thousand and five hundred. Of the children of Simeon, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, those that were numbered thereof, according to the number of the names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Simeon, were fifty and nine thousand and three hundred. Of the children of Gad, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Gad, were forty and five thousand six hundred and fifty. Of the children of Judah, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Judah, were threescore and fourteen thousand and six hundred. Of the children of Issachar, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Issachar, were fifty and four thousand and four hundred. Of the children of Zebulun, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Zebulun, were fifty and seven thousand and four hundred. Of the children of Joseph, [namely], of the children of Ephraim, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Ephraim, were forty thousand and five hundred. Of the children of Manasseh, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Manasseh, were thirty and two thousand and two hundred. Of the children of Benjamin, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Benjamin, were thirty and five thousand and four hundred. Of the children of Dan, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Dan, were threescore and two thousand and seven hundred. Of the children of Asher, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Asher, were forty and one thousand and five hundred. Of the children of Naphtali, their generations, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Naphtali, were fifty and three thousand and four hundred. These are they that were numbered, whom Moses and Aaron numbered, and the princes of Israel, being twelve men: they were each one for his fathers' house. So all they that were numbered of the children of Israel by their fathers' houses, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war in Israel; even all they that were numbered were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty. But the Levites after the tribe of their fathers were not numbered among them. For Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Only the tribe of Levi thou shalt not number, neither shalt thou take the sum of them among the children of Israel; but appoint thou the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all the furniture thereof, and over all that belongeth to it: they shall bear the tabernacle, and all the furniture thereof; and they shall minister unto it, and shall encamp round about the tabernacle. And when the tabernacle setteth forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death. And the children of Israel shall pitch their tents, every man by his own camp, and every man by his own standard, according to their hosts. But the Levites shall encamp round about the tabernacle of the testimony, that there be no wrath upon the congregation of the children of Israel: and the Levites shall keep the charge of the tabernacle of the testimony. Thus did the children of Israel; according to all that Jehovah commanded Moses, so did they.
These first words of Numbers, or their equivalent, are found not less than eighty times in the book;F2 and we are absolutely unwilling to accept the postulations of evil critics that these words are a pious fraud. They affirm dogmatically the divine source of the narrative, and there are no intellectual reasons why they should not be received as the truth. The sacred text of Numbers has suffered little or no damage from transition throughout the millenniums through which it has descended to us in its present form.F3

Allegations protesting the "lack of unity" in Numbers are based on blindness to the fact that a definitive account of any forty-year period of any nation's history would of necessity carry many items impossible of being fitted into any schematic "theme." The theme of Numbers is simply, "Significant Happenings in Israel during Their Wilderness Sojourn." This also explains why very little is recorded concerning those long thirty-eight years following their disobedience which resulted in God's condemnation of them and the deferral of their entry into Canaan for forty years. The big thing in that whole period was that God was simply waiting until all of them died, and, therefore, in the large sense, their deeds during that period had no perpetual significance.

It is not surprising that this first chapter begins with an enumeration of the able-bodied Israelites capable of going to war. Their emancipation from slavery inevitably led to their securing those liberties by means of military conflict. There is a deep spiritual truth discernible here also. Redeemed by the blood of the Passover (Exodus 12:12-36), released from the dominion of Pharoah by their baptism "unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea" (1 Corinthians 10:2), and restructured as an independent nation by means of (a) the giving of the law; (b) the erection of the tabernacle; and (c) the consecration of a separate priesthood, Israel in this chapter was commanded to prepare for war. It is ever thus that when people turn to God, warfare with an evil world is inevitable and certain to ensue at once.

Take ye the sum of the children of Israel by their families. by their polls ..…
(Numbers 1:2). The words here rendered take ye the sum of are not the technical word for census.F4 Also, the mention of by their polls indicates that, in this enumeration, use would be made of the census already taken in the instance of collecting the poll tax (Exo. 30:11; 38:24,25). It will be noted that no mention of by their polls was made in the second enumeration of Num. 26. Keil, Cook, Whitelaw and others understood this census, therefore, as identical with the first one, a probability that appears very strongly in the fact of the total number being exactly the same in both. Keil's comment is:

"This correspondence in the number of the male population after the lapse of a year is to be explained simply from the fact that the result of the previous census, which was taken for the purpose of raising head-money from every one who was fit for war, was taken as the basis of mustering all who were fit for war, which took place after the erection of the tabernacle. Strictly speaking, this mustering merely consisted in the registering of those already numbered in the public records, according to their fathers' houses."F5

As already noted, another census of Israel was taken after about forty years (Num. 26); and this is a convenient place to present the information gathered from that numbering along with this:

TRIBE 1ST CENSUS 2ND CENSUS

Reuben .................. 46,500 .................... 43,730

Simeon .................. 59,300 .................... 22,200

Gad ..................... 45,650 .................... 40,500

Judah ................... 74,600 .................... 76,500

Issachar ................ 54,400 .................... 64,300

Zebulun ................. 57,400 .................... 60,500

Ephraim ................. 40,500 .................... 32,500

Manasseh ................ 32,200 .................... 52,700

Benjamin ................ 35,400 .................... 45,600

Dan ..................... 62,700 .................... 64,400

Asher ................... 41,500 .................... 53,400

Naphtali ................ 53,400 .................... 45,400

TOTAL: 603,550 TOTAL: 601,730

Counting Manasseh and Ephraim together as the posterity of Joseph, it is evident that the families of these two patriarchs predominate in the makeup of Israel. Also, the surprising losses of Simeon during the wilderness journeys are compensated by substantial increases in the tribes of Manasseh, Issachar, Benjamin and Asher.

Of course, the great critical problem with this calculation of the immense size of Israel, indicating perhaps as many as 2,000,000 souls in all, is that unbelieving scholars just don't believe it. Well, what else is new? There is no hard evidence of any kind for setting these figures aside as inaccurate. It is simply of no significance that "learned men" love to pontificate upon the impossibility of so large a population being maintained in the Sinai desert at that time, but the Bible acknowledges that problem by providing the answer that God Himself did indeed feed and clothe Israel during that period, making it unnecessary for the land to sustain them. The land did NOT do it. God did it! The rationalism that denies Biblical miracles is simply UNBELIEF, nothing else. No Christian should pay the slightest attention to such denials. In addition to this, no one can be impressed by what men who live in the 20th century profess to "know" about conditions in the vicinity of Sinai over three thousand years ago!

One other important feature of this record (Numbers 1:1-19) is the choice of the various princes of Israel who would assist Moses in this numbering. These names, with the exception of those of Nahshon and Amminadab, do not appear outside of Numbers; however, we are familiar with Nahshon and Amminadab as being listed in the genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3). It seems also correct to view these "princes" of Israel as the commanders of their corresponding military units.

All of the records of the emergence of Israel as an independent nation are presented in the sacred text in such a manner as to require their acceptance as truth. Allis' comment on this was:

"Not only are these statistical figures given with the utmost care and checked by their use in the construction of the tabernacle, they find support in the character of the narrative itself."F6

The total number of the males in Israel were required to pay a poll tax, the half-shekel ransom, and the very amount of money thus raised is given, along with the use of it in the construction of the silver sockets of the tabernacle, and the amount of the money is absolutely consistent with the figures given for the total number. Yes, the figures are accurate. Of course, so large a population could not have survived without Divine assistance. So God fed them with manna for forty years, and that is no myth! We are told what the manna looked like, when it fell, how much they gathered, when it started, and when it ceased. We are even told what it tasted like, that the people tired of it, and that it was supplemented with a meat diet. This is the language of history.

It is of interest also that the tribe of Levi was not numbered among those prepared to go to war, their task being solely related to the priesthood and the tabernacle. Their numbers are also given in the first census here as 22,270, and in the second census as 23,000. It should also be noted that these figures take no account of any units less than fifty.

We have included here a diagram of the deployment of the tribes of Israel around the tabernacle which was placed at the center of the large camp of all Israel. This, of course, is the subject of the next chapter.

Asher DAN Naphtali

Benjamin Morarites Issachar

EPHRAIM Gershonites Tabernacle AARON'S SONS JUDAH

Manasseh Kohathites Zebulun

Gad REUBEN Simeon


Footnotes for Numbers 1
1: Isaac Asimov, Asimov's Guide to the Bible, Vol. 1 (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1968).
2: Elmer Smick, Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), p. 114.
3: George Buchanan Gray, International Critical Commentary, Numbers (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1903), p. xxxix.
4: Harry M. Orlinsky, Notes on the New Translation of the Torah (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969), p. 225.
5: C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), p. 4.
6: Oswald T. Allis, The Five Books of Moses (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1940), p. 274.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 1". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=nu&chapter=001>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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