Online Encyclopedia

BOOK OF NUMBERS

Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V19, Page 865 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Spread the word: del.icio.us del.icio.us it!
BOOK OF NUMBERS, the fourth book of the Bible, which takes its title from the Latin equivalent of the Septuagint 'Ap1Bptoi. While the English version follows the Septuagint directly in speaking of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, it follows the Vulgate in speaking of Numbers. Since this book describes the way in which an elaborate census of Israel was taken on two separate occasions, the first at Sinai at the beginning of the desert wanderings and the second just before their close on the plains of Moab, the title is quite appropriate. The name given to it in modem Hebrew Bibles from its fourth word Bemidhbar (" In the desert ") is at least equally appropriate. The other title in use among the Jews, Vayyidhabber (" And he said "), is simply the first word of the book and has no reference to its contents. Numbers is the first part of the second great division of the Hexateuch. In the first three books we are shown how God raised up for Himself a chosen people and how the descendants of Israel on entering at Sinai into a solemn league and covenant with Yahweh (Jehovah) became a separate nation, a peculiar people. In the last three books we are told what happened to Israel between the time it entered into this solemn covenant and its settlement in the Promised Land under the successor of Moses. Yet, though thus part of a larger whole, the book of Numbers has been so constructed by the Redactor as to form a self-contained division of that whole. The truth of this statement is seen by comparing the first verse of the book with the last. The first is as evidently meant to serve as an introduction to the book as the last is to serve as its conclusion. This is not to say, however, that the book is all of a piece, or written on a systematic plan. On the contrary, no book in the Hexateuch gives such an impression of incoherence, and in none are the different strata which compose the Hexateuch more distinctly discernible. It is noteworthy that the problems of Hexateuchal criticism are gradually changing their character, as one after another of the main contentions of Biblical scholars regarding the date and authorship of the Hexateuch passes out of the list of debatable questions into that of acknowledged facts. No competent scholars now question the existence, hardly any one the relative da`as, of J, E, and P. In Numbers one can tell almost at a glance which parts belong to P, the Priestly Code, and which to JE, the narrative resulting from the combination of the Judaic work of the Yahwist with the Ephraimitic work of the Elohist. The main difficulty in Numbers is to determine to which stratum of P certain sections should be assigned. The first large section (i. —x. ro) is wholly P, and the last eleven chapters are also P with the exception of two or three paragraphs in chap. xxxii., while the intervening portion is mainly P with the exception of three important episodes and two or three others of less importance. The three main episodes are those of the twelve spies, the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and Balaam's mission to Balak. The last is the only one even of these three in which there is nothing belonging to P. Another passage which we may here mention is one where the elements of JE can be readily separated and assigned to their respective authors, viz. chaps. xi. and xii. It is generally agreed that to E belongs the passage describing the outpouring of the Spirit on Eldad and Medad and the remarkable prayer of Moses in xi. 29, "Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them," a prayer that closely approaches I promulgated by Moses. (2) Chaps. x. 11-xxii., incidents that octhe New Testament idea that all Christians are " priests unto God." As usual, the J and E elements possess such a vivid character as to render them familiar to ordinary readers. The legislative and statistical and especially the ritualistic parts belonging to P are so detailed and uninteresting that they make no impression on a reader's memory, and P's diffuseness, always undue, reaches a climax in chap. vii. where the offerings presented by each tribe at the dedication of the Tabernacle are actually described in such full detail that six, in themselves extremely uninteresting, verses are repeated in identical terms no fewer than twelve times. Compare also the very similar repetitions and diffuseness in chap. xxix. Perhaps, however, the most illuminating example of the difference between traditions as recorded in J or E and traditions as given by P is found in the very first passage that occurs after the first long section of P describing the order of march of the several tribes and the position of the ark in the very centre of the host, both when encamped and on the march. Notwithstanding all this, in x. 30 we find Moses entreating Hobab, the son of Reuel his father-in-law, to come along with the Israelites to be " eyes " unto them; and in x. 33 it is stated that the ark went before them to seek out a resting-place for them. Whether we ascribe this whole passage simply to JE or consider, as many scholars do, that the first statement is by J and the second by E, it is clear that these statements directly contradict P's elaborate scheme, according to which the people march, tribe by tribe, with the ark in the very centre of the square, and guided by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. There can be equally little doubt that these statements are much more likely to be in accordance with fact than P's. The latter's elaborate plans go on the supposition that great masses of men, women and children could be moved about over the desert as easily as pawns on a chess-board; but even the greatest military leader the world has seen would have been unable to preserve such complicated formations amid the difficulties inevitable on a desert march; and the more carefully an intelligent reader has studied the details of P's plan, the more astonished will he be to read the statement in x. 33 as to the position of the ark, and to learn that Moses, instead of simply following the pillar of cloud, requests Hobab to determine the line of march and select the sites for encampment. No clearer proof could be desired of the utterly uncritical spirit of the age in which the Hexateuch got its present form than that this detailed account should be immediately followed by two short paragraphs in palpable contradiction of the whole plan of camp and march so elaborately worked out in the preceding narrative. The fact is that Numbers is the result of a long literary process of amalgamation both of traditions and of documents, a process that began in the ciosing decades of the 9th century B.C. and did not finally end till the 2nd century B.C., the earliest date being that of J, and the latest probably that of the various addenda to Balaam's prophecies, e.g. xxiii. lob, xxiv. 9b, xxiv. 18-24. Balaam's prayer in xxiii. lob is not only metrically superfluous, but the personal, individual note in it is quite out of keeping with every other reference in this poem, which is purely national. This addition may therefore have been originally the marginal note of a pious scribe which was afterwards transferred to the text. In xxiv. 24 Kittim is a name originally derived from Kitium, a city of Cyprus. The meaning of " Kittim " was then extended to include the inhabitants of all the islands and coast-lands of the Mediterranean. Hence it might mean not only Macedonia or Greece, but even Italy. In Dan. xi. 3o it is certainly applied to Rome, the Vulgate rendering it " Romam " there just as that version translates it here by " Italia." Hence Baentsch would refer this oracle to the time of Antiochus IV. (Epiphanes) and even to the embassy of Popillius Laenas in 168 B.C. when that haughty Roman humiliated the Syrian king by drawing a circle round him with his cane, and daring him to step out of it till he had given him an answer. The book falls naturally into three sections, chronologically arranged: (I) Chaps. i.-x. to, Israel's twenty days' sojourn at Sinai during which a census of the people is taken and various laws are curred during the march of Israel from Sinai to the plains of Moab. These incidents seem to have been chosen for the purpose of casting light on the religious history and character of the people and showing how later generations explained the origin of various place names. cf. Taberah and Kibrothhattaavah, xi. 3, 34, and modes or objects of worship, cf. the worship of the brazen serpent, xxi. 4-I1, which, as we learn from 2 Kings xviii. 4, continued down to the time of Hezekiah. (3) Chaps. xxii. 2-xxxvi., Israel's sojourn in the plains of Moab, their experiences while there, and the taking of a second census, preliminary to the invasion of Canaan. Two examples of the very miscellaneous contents of the book will suffice to show the different literary strata of which it is composed. (A) We shall take first the account given in chap. xvi. of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. There would be originally four independent narratives, J, E, and two very distinct strata of P, which we may call PI and P2 or Ps, i.e. later supplements to P. The narratives of J and E can no longer be distinguished except from slight linguistic data, perceptible only to Hebrew scholars; but the three stages of development are quite apparent even in translations. 1. The first narrative is that of JE, which relates how two Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram, rebelled against the civil authority of Moses,andwere punished by being buried alive,they and their house-holds. Read together verses ib, 2a, 12-15 and 25-34, omitting 32b, i.e. " and all the men that appertained unto Korah and all their goods," a clause due to the Redactor, who put it in to unite the narratives, forgetting that Korah, not being a Reubenite, could not have had his tent with its belongings among the tents of the Reubenites. 2. The second narrative is P1, which tells how Korah, himself a Levite, at the head of 250 Israelites rebelled against the religious authority of Moses and Aaron because of the privileges conferred on the tribe of Levi. Korah and his associates maintained that the other tribes, belonging as they did to a holy people, had as much right as the Levites to approach Yahweh directly, without the mediation of any Levite, and offer sacrifices and even incense to Yahweh Read together verses la, 2b-7, 19-24. 3. The third narrative is P2, which relates how Korah at the head of 250 Levites protested against the priestly privileges of Aaron, claiming that all the Levites had as much right to sacrifice and offer incense to Yahweh as Aaron and his sons had. Read together verses 8-II and 16 and 17. In both PI and F2 the disputants are summoned from their tents and ordered to assemble before the Dwelling of Yahweh; and in both cases the same fate overtook the rebels. Fire descended from heaven and consumed Korah and his confederates. It is to be noticed that in both Pl and P2 incense is burned in pans or censers, so that even the author of P2 knew nothing about an altar of incense. Indeed in xvii. 3 and 4 the altar is spoken of in such a way as to imply that there was only one altar, viz. the altar of burnt-offering. xvi. 2 proves that according to the second account the members of Korah's band, so far from being all Levites, as they are represented to have been in verses 8-i 1; were probably, with the exception of Korah himself, leading members of the secular tribes. In xxvii. 3 we find a proof, all the more conclusive from being incidental, that Korah's followers were not all Levites; for, had they been so, it could never have occurred to the daughters of Zilpahad to repudiate the idea that their father, a Manassite, had had a share in Korah's conspiracy. Of course none of the narratives is found in its entirety, anything common to two or more of them being given only once; and great skill has been shown in weaving them together. (B) The story of Balaam as we have it in chaps. xxii.-xxiv. is an amalgam of J and E with later additions; but xxxi. 8, 16 proves that Balaam was not unknown to P. According to E, Balak sent certain Moabite princes all the way to Pethor on the Euphrates to ask Balaam to come and curse Israel. But Elohim came to Balaam by night and forbade him to go. So the princes returned disappointed. A second and still more influential embassy having been sent, Elohim again appeared by night, and this time permitted Balaam to go on condition that he said nothing but what Elohim bade him say. The journey being a long one and across a difficult desert, requiring a caravan well equipped with camels, the princes of Moab waited till Balaam was ready to accompany them. When Balaam reached the frontier of Moab Balak was waiting to.welcome him, but could not refrain from asking why he had not come with the first embassy. With equal frankness Balaam replied that, though he had come now, he had no power to say anything but what Elohim might put into his mouth. On being taken to Bamoth-Baal he was met by Elohim. Thereupon, instead of cursing the Israelites, Balaam blessed them. Though bitterly disappointed Balak still attempted to effect his purpose and took Balaam to the top of Pisgah, with the result that Israel received a second blessing. Balak, now utterly disheartened, abandoned his project altogether. According to J, Balaam was among his own people the Bne-Ammon when Balak sent messengers to him with presents such as soothsayers generally received, asking him to come and curse a people that had come up out of Egypt. Balaam protested that, though he were to receive a houseful of silver and gold, he could not go beyond the word of Yahweh, his God. Nevertheless his scruples were somehow overcome; and, without consulting Yahweh, he agreed to go. As the journey was not a long or dangerous one, the servants of Balak returned at once to inform their master of their success, leaving Balaam to follow at his own convenience. So Balaam, still without consulting Yahweh, saddled his ass and set out for Moab, attended only by two servants. The land through which he had to pass, so far from being a desert, was a land of oil and wine; and when Balaam was riding along a narrow path between two vine-yards, the angel of Yahweh would have slain him, had not his ass swerved and saved him. That this episode belongs to J no one need ever forget, since the only parallel in Scripture to the speaking ass is the serpent that spoke in Eden. Balaam, after being sternly rebuked, was allowed to proceed, but only on condition that " the word that I shall speak to thee, that thou shalt speak." Balak met Balaam at Ar-Moab, whence they went to Kiriath-Huzoth and thence to the top of Peor. There Balaam blessed Israel. Balak angrily taunted Balaam with having lost the honours intended for him, and bade him flee to his own place. Balaam reminded Balak of his declaration that he could not go beyond the word of Yahweh, and then boldly announced the respective destinies of Israel and Moab, xxiv. 15-19. As seven is the perfect number and as Balaam had ordered seven altars to be built, the Redactor thought it would be well to have seven Meshalim or metrical oracles; and so he added other three which are certainly not pertinent to the situation, as they allude not merely to the Assyrian empire but to the Macedonian, and even, as some maintain, to the Roman empire, cf. xxiv. 24. The poetical quotations in Numbers are of the utmost importance, not only as helping to determine the date of the book but as indicating the value of poetry in its bearing on history. In xxi. 14 we have a poetical quotation from a lost volume of early poetry entitled " The Book of the Wars of Yahweh." It is highly probable that Deborah's song was also originally in this book; and when we compare the statement in that song as to Israel's full fighting strength, viz. 40,000 men, with the statements in the prose of Numbers as to 600,000 men and more, we at once realise how much closer to actual facts we are brought by early poetry than by the later prose of writers like P. Perhaps it is in chap. xxxi. that we have the clearest proof of the non-historical character of the book. There we are told that 12,000 Israelites, without losing a single man, slew every male Midianite, children included, and every Midianite woman that had known a man, and took so much booty that there had to be special legislation as to how is should be divided. But if this were actual fact, how could the Midianites have ever reappeared in history? And yet in Gideon's time they were strong enough to oppress Israel. From this chapter, unhistorical as it must be, we see how the legislation of Israel, whatever its character or origin, was referred back to Moses the great Law giver of Israel. (J. A. P.*)
End of Article: BOOK OF NUMBERS
[back]
NUMBERS OF VESSELS BUILT IN JAPAN AND
[next]
PARTITION OF NUMBERS

Additional information and Comments

There are no comments yet for this article.
» Add information or comments to this article.
Please link directly to this article:
Highlight the code below, right click and select "copy." Paste it into a website, email, or other HTML document.