The Book of Numbers (Heb. בְּמִדְבַּר;
in the wilderness) is the fourth book of the Pentateuch. Like the other books of the Pentateuch, its name in Hebrew is taken from the first significant word in the book (the fifth word in chapter 1), which also reflects its theme, the wilderness wanderings. The English name Numbers derives from the Greek translation, the Septuagint, which titled the book thematically after the censuses mentioned in the first four chapters. The Greek name corresponds to an earlier Hebrew name in the Talmud, Ḥummash (properly, homesh) ha-Pekudim
Jewish tradition divides the book into 10 parashiyyot, "annual pericopes"; based on the Vulgate system the book is divided into 36 chapters.
Contents and Sequence
Numbers is a complex collection of texts woven of a variety of literary genres: legal material; ritual prescriptions; historical narratives; and poetic folk traditions. Its present form reflects a long and intricate literary history. The book can easily be divided by subject matter and other criteria into three major sections; these can be further subdivided into smaller segments. Often it is difficult, however, to determine any meaningful relationship between contiguous segments, though certain structural patterns do exist. Numbers has a broad outline, with the main thread leading from preparations for the departure from Sinai and ending with the stay in Shittim in Moab opposite Jericho. Three main units reflect a literary sandwich of sorts:
(1) 1:1–10:10: Final encampment at Sinai.
(2) 10:11–22:1: Generation-long march in the wilderness from Sinai to Moab.
(3) 22:2–36:13: Encampment on the plains of Moab and preparation to enter Canaan.
According to the chronology in Numbers, the 40 years in the wilderness are divided as follows: 19 days at Sinai (unit 1); approximately 38 years from Sinai to Moab (unit 2); and five months of the 40th year on the plains of Moab (unit 3).
(1) FINAL ENCAMPMENT AT SINAI (1:1–10:10)
The first ten chapters conclude the bloc of priestly material dealing with the portable sanctuary, given in the previous books of the Pentateuch. Where *Exodus (25–31 and 35–40) gives the details of the preparation of a portable sanctuary, and *Leviticus the consecration of the officiating clergy and the sacrificial ritual, Numbers 1–10 concentrates on the movement of the sanctuary. The functionaries featured are Levites, who lend logistical support to the priests. This first unit focuses on preparations, practical and cultic, for the desert marches and encampments. Maintenance of cult purity within the camp is stressed, as it assures God's presence. In chapters 1–4 the subject is the group service (ẓava, usually military service, but not exclusively; cf. Akk. ṣābu, and see Naḥmanides to Num. 1:2). The laic tribes must prepare to engage in battle; the Levites carry the components of the portable sanctuary. The numbers of the able-bodied males are given; and the order in which they camped and marched with the 12 tribes ranged around the sanctuary, three on each side. This first census, oriented to military preparedness as well as procedures for the march, has the same total as Exodus 38:26, namely 603, 550 (Num. 2:32). The numbers are not easy to interpret in detail, but they reflect an effort to clothe the schematic number 600,000 (see *Exodus) with the details of a tribal breakdown. Topics that focus on the Levites include their consecration in place of first-born Israelites, two censuses, and their familial relationships and duties (ch. 3–4).
The next section switches focus from camp organization to maintenance of camp purity. Conditions are outlined for the removal and readmission of persons who have become impure (parts of ch. 5). The procedures for the *Nazirite follow (6:1–21). As seen here in its aspect of supererogatory piety, the institution offers an outlet to the zealous Israelite; he may take on, for a limited time, additional personal restrictions. This part of the book, concentrating on the protection of the Tabernacle, culminates with the Priestly Blessing (6:22–27). Chapter 7, which describes the presents offered by the tribal leaders for the service of the Tabernacle, jointly (six wagons and 12 oxen) and individually, is the longest chapter in the Torah. Each tribal leader is assigned a day for his presentation (following the order in ch. 2), and the formula is scrupulously repeated without variation. The first Passover is celebrated in the wilderness (9:1–14) and Moses makes provisions for ritually impure persons to celebrate a second Passover one month later. In final readiness for the march, two silver trumpets are fashioned (10:1–10), and instructions are provided for their use, in battle and on festive occasions.
(2) GENERATION-LONG MARCH IN THE WILDERNESS FROM SINAI TO MOAB (10:11–22:1)
The middle unit is woven of narratives interspersed with sacrificial law, various prohibitions, and expiation processes. Recurring rebellions and murmuring against God and Moses characterize these narratives. Ultimately, all the preparations for the imminent entry into the Promised Land came to naught as a result of the moral degeneration of the people that resulted in the decree that all those who were 20 years and older when they left Egypt, with the sole exception of Joshua and Caleb, were to die in the wilderness. The "murmuring" which runs throughout this part of the book is probably a technical term for disloyalty, in the terminology of a treaty between suzerain and vassal (see *Covenant). Even Moses, Aaron, and Miriam have moments of disloyalty to God. The unit opens with a description of the departure from Sinai on 20 Nisan, year 2 of the Exodus (10:11). It is followed immediately by a litany of grievances and their resolutions (ch. 11); a key complaint is the monotony of the people's staple food, manna, which is then supplemented by the delicacy of quail meat (as in Ex. 16). In satisfying their hunger for substantial food, the people gorge themselves and are punished by a plague. Woven into this story is the initiation of 70 elders to share the burden of the people of Israel, the prerequisite for such service being an experience of prophetic ecstasy occasioned by the presence of Moses in the vicinity of the Tent. Probably the original number was 72, six from each tribe; the failure of *Eldad and Medad to report to the Tent resulted in the installation of only 70. The next account treats the loss of faith of Miriam and Aaron (ch. 12). The occasion is Moses' marriage to a Kushite, although the laconic account gives no indication of whether the pigmentation of the woman is an issue. The affliction of Miriam with leprosy, which turns her skin white, may be a poetic judgment because she slurred a black woman.
The nadir in the loss of faith is the story of the refusal to invade Canaan from the south (chs. 13–14). Twelve men, eminent representatives of each tribe, reconnoiter the land that has been promised to the Israelites. It is this incident which brings the decree of the death of that generation in the wilderness. The story is of major importance in Israelite tradition. It is similar in many points to the other great act of treason, the episode of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32–34). It has a military context, which is central to the wilderness experience and the conquest of the Promised Land. Chapter 15 is an aggregate of prescriptions, which are apparently placed here as a pause in the drama. It begins with cultic ordinances for Canaan, which serve as a placebo after the dire punishment. Then come prescriptions relating to errant behavior, climaxed by the execution of the man who gathered firewood on the Sabbath. The final section ordains the use of a garment fringe with an azure thread, to serve as a reminder of the Covenant. In pre-Israelite times the fringe had an apotropaic function, the warding off of demonic harm, and was regarded as an extension of the person. As with the *phylacteries, the fringe was transvalued by the Bible, to serve as a reminder to the Israelites that they are a Covenant community. This is a fitting epilogue to the account of the treason in chapters 13–14, as well as to the ordinances of errancy attached to it. The rebellion of Korah (chs. 16–17) blends two (or three) attacks on the authority of YHWH as vested in Moses and Aaron. One reflects the dissatisfaction of a group of laymen from the tribe of Reuben. Another shows the dissatisfaction of a Levite, from the most important family (Kohath) of the Levites with the assignment of Levites to the subordinate service of supporting the priests, who alone are authorized to officiate in the Tent. Through divine intervention both parties are punished. The subsequent murmuring of the Israelites against Moses and Aaron leads to punishment by plague, which is stopped when Aaron carries a pan with burning incense into the midst of the dying. In this way, the authority of Aaron is brought home strikingly, and is underscored by the contest of the staves. This is followed by a restatement of the relationship between the priests and the Levites (ch. 18), including the perquisites due to each group (terumah and *tithe). Then comes the prescription of the *red heifer (ch. 19), the ashes of which serve to decontaminate those in a state of ritual pollution; the ashes also contaminate the uncontaminated. This double nature of sanctuary taboo may reflect the attitude toward a superhuman power source, which can electrify or electrocute, as dramatized in the Korah story. Possibly this explains the location of chapter 19. The death of the leadership is the theme of chapter 20, which opens with the death of Miriam and ends with the death of Aaron. The cause of the death of Aaron and the doom of Moses is reported in the laconic account of water from the rock (cf. Ex. 17:1–7): they demonstrate loss of faith, which fits into the catalog of acts of disobedience.
The narrative now moves to the end of the 40 years in the wilderness. The generation of the Exodus is coming to an end. It is here that the Israelites anticipate the move into the area of Transjordan, and they ask for peaceful passage through the southern state of Edom, but permission is refused (20:14–21). They gain a victory over the Canaanite king of Arad (21:1–3), and turn south, to avoid Edom. Another incident of dissatisfaction is recorded, which is met by God with venomous snakes, followed by an antidote in the form of a bronze serpent. Reports of the Israelite itinerary are interspersed with two fragments of poetry supposedly derived from an ancient source, the Book of the Wars of YHWH. Then follows the victory of Israel over the Amorite king Sihon, which results in the first acquisition of territory, and a second victory, over Og king of Bashan. The unit ends with the Israelites encamped on the plains of Moab.
(3) ENCAMPMENT ON THE PLAINS OF MOAB AND PREPARATION TO ENTER CANAAN (22:2–36:13)
Unit three finds the Israelites encamped on the eastern side of the Jordan River, opposite Jericho. This unit too, is composed of narratives, legislation, and folk tales. Its theme centers on final preparation to inherit the promised land. The first section (chs. 22–24) tells the story of *Balaam, an expert seer who is hired to curse the Israelites (damnation of one's enemies before battle is a practice well known from the ancient Near East). He is summoned in desperation by Balak, king of Moab, with the concurrence of his Midianite overlords. Repeatedly Balaam tries to curse the Israelites but God thwarts his mission and he is able only to bless them. Finally, Balaam is expelled angrily by Balak. The tale of Balaam, recorded in prose and poetry, seems to be an independent composition inserted at this juncture because its outcome determines if Israel will indeed inherit Canaan. Ultimately, it demonstrates the invincibility of Israel under the protection of YHWH, impervious to the greatest outside powers, human or magical. A non-biblical inscription from the site of Deir Alla in Jordan reveals an account of a seer by the same name, indicating at least an ancient tradition surrounding one Balaam known for his prophecies (see Levine, Balaam). Another act of treason follows at the heels of Israel's rescue from Balak's intended curses at Baal-peor. There, the people are enticed by Moabite women, and are attracted to their cultic worship; a (Simeonite) tribal leader is beguiled by a Midianite woman of high position and the two parade their liaison in the presence of the whole camp. Phinehas kills them, earning for his descendants the right of perpetual priesthood (25:1–15). As revenge for the supposed trickery, the Israelites are enjoined to assail the Midianites. Here the catalog of treacherous acts ends.
The latter part of the book begins with a second census and the apportionment of the land to the tribes. The census of chapter 26 follows the pattern of chapter 1, with a slightly lower total, reflecting the losses resulting from punishment, which offset the natural increase. It also serves to introduce the theme of the remainder of the book and the preparation for the conquest of Canaan. Arising from the tribal allotment is the special case of Zelophehad's daughters, who petition Moses for the right to inherit, since their father *Zelophehad had no sons. Their claim is allowed (27:1–11), with the stipulation, in a later supplemental narrative, that they marry within their own tribe, so as not to disturb the tribal divisions (ch. 36). The promise of the land is the subject of the remaining material. Into this outline is set, first, the ceremony of succession, so that the people have Joshua to command them during the conquest. Again the narrative is suspended, by the insertion of prescriptions concerning festival sacrifices (chs. 28–29). There is no clear reason for the placement of these cultic regulations here, except that they are part of the testamentary matter that preceded the death of Moses, as the subscription (30:1) indicates. The same is true for chapter 30, the regulations governing the validity of vows made by a woman. The defeat of Midian, allegedly in retaliation for the seduction of the Israelites at Baal-peor, is recorded in chapter 31. Chapter 32 records the approval of the request of two and a half tribes to settle in the territory of the Amorites. Chapter 33 contains a list of the stations in the wilderness trek, most of which are unidentified, and many of which are not mentioned elsewhere. It is followed by the command to conquer Canaan and distribute the land among the tribes. There follows an outline of the ideal borders of the territory designated for Israelite settlement, and then the names of the men who will effect the division of the land by lot (ch. 34). Chapter 35 calls for the assignment of cities for special inhabitants: for the Levites, who have no share in the land allotment, and for the unwitting manslayer, to find refuge from the blood-avenger (cf. Ex. 21:12–14). The book ends with the resumption of the subject of Zelophehad's daughters, whose case serves as a model for marriage regulations enjoined on female heirs. The final verse of Numbers (v. 13) forms an inclusio with 22:1, stating the place where the precepts of this unit were given to the Israelites.
The problems of the composition of Numbers must be viewed in the broader framework of Bible criticism. Modern critical scholarship – based on stylistic, linguistic, and contextual criteria – identifies separate sources underlying the final version of the book. Primarily, the texts of Numbers derive from various layers of the Priestly source (P); additional texts are identified with two older sources, the Yahwist (J) and the Elohist (E) (see *Pentateuch). The predominant Priestly material frequently serves to expand, supplement, or recast ideologically the earlier je texts to fit the agenda of the Priestly writers. The Balaam pericope, both the prose and poetry, seems to derive from a different author altogether. Dating the varying sources in Numbers, as in the rest of the Bible, remains incredibly difficult. Even the priestly material, which Bible scholars at an early date assigned to the post-Exilic period, seems to contain earlier layers. Numerous pre-Mosaic cultic texts from the Ancient Near East have been discovered, which display the same characteristics of the repetition of formulas and scrupulous detail. The argument from exaggerated and schematic numbers is similarly neutralized; earliest texts, such as the Sumerian Kings List, have exactly these features. The prodigious cultic requirements in the priestly material are also found in other early cultures, notably in Hittite sources. The theory that the Priestly legislation reflects the post-Exilic theocracy is still widely held, but has been challenged by a number of scholars. Even the dating of the narrative material of J and E, once believed to be securely dated to the pre-Exilic period, is debated. Essentially, one may recognize various narrative traditions, not necessarily consistent throughout Numbers, combined with Priestly material, narrative and cultic, which is of diverse dates and origins.
Jewish tradition, however, views the apparently disparate texts of Numbers as a single work written by Moses. Even so, the attempt to descry principles and patterns of arrangement is as early as the rabbis of the Talmud. They pursued the question of juxtaposition (or sequence), and it was they who implied an order other than the simple chronological thread: "There is no earlier and later in the Torah" (see Rashi on Num. 9:1). Although critical scholarship does not recognize Mosaic authorship, certain modern approaches have emphasized a kind of literary study that focuses on the final form of the text (synchronic approach) rather than its layers (diachronic approach). This method views the preserved text as an organic unit and searches for techniques of style and structure that bind the individual literary units into a whole (Milgrom, 1990). Finally, redaction criticism demonstrates the interaction of the different parts of the text. Milgrom highlights the literary style of Numbers. His structural analysis focuses on the device of chiasm and introversion as well as the prevalence of repetitive subscripts and resumptions, septenary repetitions, and recapitulations.
According to the critical view it is virtually certain that the Book of Numbers as we now have it is considerably later than Moses. In addition, the historical value of its accounts is considered minimal by most modern scholars, not only because of the late date of the written version, but because the agenda of its authors was to write a redemption history of Israel that focuses on ideology rather than historically accurate records in the modern sense. Several religiously motivated messages can be uncovered in the texts of Numbers and in their interaction with those in other books of the Pentateuch. The treatment of the traditions from the wilderness experience in Numbers has many points of contact with the wilderness journey in Exodus (especially 16–17). According to Abrabanel, the two collections are sharply distinguished: in Exodus, prior to Sinai, the Israelite failure of faith was not punished; in Numbers, after the revelation, it was punished. It seems that the Israelite traditions of the wilderness experience were largely used in duplicate, to convey the implications of the Covenant. Numbers 1–26 stresses the failure of faith even after the elaborate sanctuary ritual is instituted. The peroration comes in Deuteronomy 31:16–21. This reveals the (or a) Torah view regarding humankind: humans are constitutionally capable of rising above the realities of everyday life, but consistently do not. Confronted with circumstances, the theoretical supports of religious experience desert a person, who reacts to human situations with human behavior, which is not the standard set by the deity. On the whole, this is a depressing message. But while individuals and communities fail, the people, chosen by God, survives, always to find another chance to live up to the Covenant standards. God's fidelity, in contrast, remains constant. This hopeful note of recurrent opportunity is muted but audible in the latter section of Numbers. The failures of the wilderness experience are tied off: Israel is ensconced in the territory east of the Jordan. Perhaps in the land of the Covenant, the people of the Covenant will fulfill the terms of the Covenant.
For the traditional view, see *Pentateuch: The Traditional View.
COMMENTARIES: H.L. Strack (Ger., 1894); B. Baentsch (Ger., 1903); G.B. Gray (Eng., ICC, 1903, 1955); H. Holzinger (Ger., 1903); A.H. McNeile (Eng., 1911); H. Gressmann (Ger., 1922); L.E. Elliott-Binns (Eng., 1927); P. Heinisch (Ger., 1936); J.G. Greenstone (Eng., 1948); H. Schneider (Ger., 1952); J. Marsh (Eng., 1953); M. Noth (Eng., 1966). STUDIES: M.H. Segal, in: Eretz-Israel, 3 (1954), 73–83; E.A. Speiser, in: BASOR, 149 (1958), 17–25; R.C. Dentan, in: IDB, 3 (1962), 567–71; B.A. Levine, in: JAOS, 85 (1965), 307–18; O. Eissfeldt, in: JBL, 87 (1968), 383–93; W.F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (1968). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Milgrom, JPS Torah Commentary Numbers (1990); idem, in: ABD, 4:1146–55 (incl. bibliography); T. Dozeman, in: DBI, 2:214–18 (incl. bibliography); B. Levine, Numbers 1–20 (AB; 1993; bibliography 111–21); idem, Numbers 21–36 (AB; 2000; bibliography 61–76); N. Fox, in: Jewish Study Bible (2004), 281–355.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.