Organizing the Census of the Israelites
1:1 1 Now the Lord2 spoke3 to Moses in the tent of meeting4 in the wilderness5 of Sinai6 on the first day of the second month of the second year after7 the Israelites8 departed from the land of Egypt.9 He said:10
sn The book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch, traditionally called the Law of Moses. It provides a record of the experience of the Israelites during the wilderness wanderings, and records the laws for the camp as they traveled from place to place. The book focuses on the difficulties of the Israelites due to their lack of faith, rebellion, and apostasy. It also records God’s protection of his people from opposition from without. The book makes a fitting contribution to the collection of holy writings as it shows the spiritual and physical progression of the company of the redeemed toward the promised land. The book has to be studied in conjunction with the other books of the Pentateuch. It builds on the promises made to Abraham in Genesis and the redemption from bondage in Exodus; it completes the cultic instructions for Israel that were laid down in Leviticus, and it concerns the worship in and the movement of the tabernacle that was built in Exodus. But the information here, both legal and historical, was not the major concern in those books. The book gets its title in English (following the Greek tradition) from the two censuses taken of the people, one at the beginning of the wanderings and the other at the end (although the Hebrew title is taken from the beginning of the book, בַּמִּדְבַּר [bammidbar], “in the wilderness”). In these lists particular emphasis is given to the leaders of the clans, a theme that will continue in the book as the focus is on how the leaders function in all the trials and temptations of the journey. The material in this book is essentially a theological interpretation of historical events, and as such it stands as an integral part of the revelation of God. In the study of the book of Numbers, when these issues of the nature of the text are significant to the interpretation and acceptance of the text, the notes will comment on them briefly. The indication at the outset of the book is that Moses had a good number of people who were able to help him compile the statistics and the facts of the wandering community. In Num 11:16–18 there is a group of leaders known as שֹׁטְּרִים(shottérim). This term was used in Exod 5:16–19 to describe the officers or foremen of the Israelites. They were appointed supervisors of the clans by Moses, and by the time of Joshua (Josh 1:10) they were a literary guild. The Hebrew word, cognate with Akkadian sataru, means “to write.” These people were to Israel what the scribes and chroniclers were to the pagan nations. They assisted Moses and the priests in their keeping of records. So no matter what they were called from time to time, there was a group of literate people who could keep the records and preserve the information from the very beginning. Their work matches the activities of scribes in the ancient world who used all the literary devices to preserve the material. There is no reason to doubt that the events recorded were attested to and preserved by such eyewitnesses. But their work would have been essentially to serve the leader, Moses. The book essentially follows the order of the events chronologically, more or less. Where it departs from that order it does so for literary or theological reasons. At the center of the theological concern is the tabernacle, its significance to the faith, and therefore the care in using it and in moving it. Its importance explains the presence and the arrangement of the ritual laws. With the records and statistics provided for him, Moses could then introduce into the record the great events in the wilderness experience of Israel, which were to become warnings and encouragements for all time. Most of this material comes from the two years at the beginning of the experience and the two years at the end. But this itself may be a literary device (merism) to show the nature of the wanderings throughout. The Hebrew text of the book of Numbers has been preserved fairly well. It has not been preserved as well as Leviticus, which was most important to the ministry of the priests and Levites. But in comparison with some of the prophetic writings, Numbers represents a well-preserved text. The problems will be discussed in the relevant passages. So Numbers is essentially a part of the unfolding revelation of the Torah, the Law. It shows God’s faithfulness to his covenant plan and to his covenant people, but it also shows the problems incurred by the people’s lack of faith and obedience. The book focuses frequently on the nature of the holy Lord God, for at the center of all this material is the person and the works of the Lord. This provided the standard for the faith and practice of the people. For more information on chapter one, see W. F. Albright, “The Administrative Divisions of Israel and Judah,” JPOS 5 (1925): 17–54; A. Cody, A History of Old Testament Priesthood; A. Lucas, “The Number of the Israelites at the Time of the Exodus,” PEQ 76 (1944): 351–64; G. E. Mendenhall, “The Census Lists of Numbers 1 and 26,” JBL 77 (1958): 52–66; E. Nielsen, “The Levites in the Old Testament,” ASTI 3 (1964): 16–27; L. A. Snijders, “The Meaning of זר in the Old Testament: An Exegetical Study,” OTS 10 (1954): 1–154; and J. W. Wenham, “Large Numbers in the Old Testament,” TynBul 18 (1967): 19–53.
sn The holy name is “Yahweh.” This is the ancient name for the God of the covenant community. The name was explained or interpreted by Moses for the Israelites by the etymological connection to the verb “to be.” God said that its significance was “I am that I am” (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, ’ehyeh ’aser ’ehyeh) using the first person of the verb; the name, the third person of the verb, would therefore mean “He is.” The name indicates that God is the sovereign Lord of creation, the eternal God, the covenant Lord; he is sovereignly independent of all creation, but he is intimately involved with all his people. Most English translations do not use it, but follow the Jewish custom of using substitute words for the holy name, such as “the Lord,” “the Eternal One,” etc.
tn The book begins with the vav (ו) consecutive and the preterite, “and he spoke.” This does not indicate that the book is a continuation of the previous material, for in that case certain other books in the canon would have to be linked with the writings of other people just because they followed them. This form is simply the narrative verb; the conjunction need not be translated. The verb should not be limited to a literary formula, but does indicate the divine source of the command for Moses. God was speaking to Moses throughout the wilderness wanderings from the tent, and so the ideas are from him, and not from the “will of man.”
sn This was one of several names by which the tabernacle was known. This was the tent with its furnishings that the Israelites built according to the book of Exodus. While that tabernacle was being built, the Lord met with Moses in a tent of meeting nearby (Exod 33:7), but when the project was finished, the title was transferred to the tabernacle. It may be that the expression “tent of meeting” refers to the inner tabernacle where God revealed himself to Moses and Aaron, and the word “tabernacle” refers to the whole shrine, the curtained structure with all its contents. This would mean that God addressed Moses from between the cherubim in the holy of holies (see R. A. Cole, Exodus [TOTC], 191). The point is clear, though—the shrine was functioning as the sign of God’s actual presence and leadership among his people.
sn The English word “wilderness” is workable for the Hebrew term, because it describes land that is wild. The term “desert” works if one thinks of land deserted by people. But to many modern readers “desert” suggests the idea of an arid land without growth. The word must not be pressed to mean only sand dunes; it describes land that has rocks, canyons, oases, shrubs and trees occasionally, some animal life, and of course sand.
sn The exact location of Mount Sinai has been debated for some time. The traditional view from very early times is that it is located in the south, Jebel Musa, south of the monastery of St. Catherine. The other plausible suggestion is Ras es-Safsafeh, which is on the other end of the valley near the monastery. The mountain is also called Horeb in the Bible. The wilderness of Sinai would refer to the large plain that is at the base of the mountain. See further G. E. Wright, IDB 4:376–78; and G. I. Davies, The Way of the Wilderness.
tn The construction uses the infinitive construct of יָצַא (yatsa’, “to go out”), with a suffix serving as the subjective genitive, and the lamed preposition providing the temporal indication: “according to the going out of them.” The Israelites are clearly intended as the subject.
tn Heb “they”; the referent (the Israelites) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
sn This means that the Israelites had spent nine months at Sinai, because they had arrived there in the third month following the exodus. This account does not follow a strict chronology (see Num 9:1). The difference of one month in the narrative is not a critical difference, but a literary general reference. Here begins a new section of major importance to the future of the nation—the numbering for war and for settlement.
tn Heb “saying.” A new sentence was started here in the English translation for stylistic reasons.