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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Leading Themes.


Certain themes provide compass points for negotiating the journey through Numbers: the wilderness book, the ancestral promises, the divine presence and guidance, divine revelation and human leadership, and holy people and holy priests.

2. A Wilderness Book.

The entire book is set in the wilderness. Appropriately, ‘In the Wilderness’ is the Hebrew title for Numbers. This setting presents problems and possibilities for shaping a community identity for the newly redeemed people of God. As a long-oppressed community, Israel has a deeply ingrained identity as ‘slave’. It does not have the resources to move quickly to a ‘slaves no more’ (Lev 26:13 ) mentality; God must be at work to enable them to ‘walk erect’ once again. The period of wandering is a necessary buffer between liberation and landedness for the sake of forming such an identity. Such a process does not unfold easily for Israel or for God; even the most meticulous preparations for the journey are not able to make things go right. It is possible to take the people out of Egypt, but it proves difficult to take Egypt out of the people. The familiar orderliness of Egypt seems preferable to the insecurities of life lived from one oasis to the next. In other words, the problem is not so much the law as an inability to rely on the God who has brought freedom and keeps promises.


Israel's time in the wilderness is finally shaped by God's extraordinary patience and mercy, and the divine will to stay with Israel in this time of adolescence. No divine flick of the wrist is capable of straightening them out without compromising their freedom. If God wants a mature child, the possibility of defiance must be risked. But it soon becomes clear that the process of maturation will take longer than a single generation. God will not compromise in holding Israel to high standards.

4. Ancestral Promises.

God is committed to the ancestral promises, especially of land. As Israel moves out from Sinai, the goal is the land God is ‘giving’ ( 10:29 and often). Conditions regarding the land promise are expressed ( 14:8 ), which affect the future of individuals—even an entire generation—but not finally Israel as such. Beyond that, the promises are spoken almost exclusively by Balaam. His oracles ironically gather the clearest references to the promises in Numbers; no Israelite, including Moses, has standing enough left to bring them to expression.


The middle section (chs. 11–25 ) problematizes the movement toward fulfilment; the wilderness is a time of endangered promises. Again and again the people trust the deceptive securities of the past more than God's promised future ( 11:5; 21:5 ). Hence, they experience disasters of various kinds that threaten progress towards the goal, including plagues ( 11:33; 16:49 ), an abortive conquest (chs. 13–14 ), and snake infestation ( 21:6 ).


The final section (chs. 26–36 ), with the new generation in place, bespeaks confidence in the promises with the apportionment of lands ( 26:53–6 ) and the specification of boundaries ( 34:1–15 ). Initial settlements in Transjordan function as a ‘down-payment’ on the fulfilment of the promise (chs. 31–2 ). Moreover, various laws dealing with emerging issues constitute a hopeful sign in the midst of much failure and grief; a community will exist to obey them. In some sense, the ongoing promulgation of law is a witness that the promise of land will indeed be fulfilled.

7. Divine Presence and Guidance.

God, not Moses, has given birth to this people ( 11:12 ) and has chosen to stay with the family and to dwell in the heart of their camp ( 5:3 ). From this womb-like centre blessings flow out into the encircled community. This intense kind of presence is promised for Israel's future in the land as well ( 35:34 ). Even Balaam testifies to the presence of such a God among this people ( 23:21–2 ).


Because of the intense presence of God in Israel's midst, and the recognition of God's holiness, the tabernacle was to be protected from casual contact. This concern is sharpened in view of the golden calf apostasy and the near annihilation of Israel (Ex 32:9–10 ). Precautions must be taken to prevent a recurrence for the sake of the integrity of the divine–human relationship. The tribe of Levi was consecrated for service at the tabernacle and made responsible for guarding this holy place ( 1:50–3 ). Sharp warnings about intrusion are issued ( 1:51–3; 3:10, 38 ); even Levites could die if furnishings were mishandled ( 4:17–20 ). Strikingly, encroachment is not a serious problem in the subsequent narratives, except as related to conflict over leadership (ch. 16 ). The more problematic issue is mistrust and rebellion with respect to God and God's chosen leaders. These forms of sinfulness in particular pervade chs. 11–25 and deeply affect the character of the journey and the shape of Israel's future. On God's wrath and judgement, see especially at NUM 1:53 and ch. 14 .


Israel's God not only dwells in the midst of Israel, but also goes before them. The accompanying presence of God is associated with the pillar of cloud/fire; 9:15–23 speaks of it in such a way that the itinerary is not predictable or routinized. This symbol is linked to the ark of the covenant, which represents the presence of God ( 10:35–6 ). God's ongoing presence is the decisive factor in Israel's journey, but various texts witness also to the importance of human leadership; for example, the passage regarding Hobab's skills ( 10:29–32 ) is placed immediately before the ark text ( 10:33–6 ). God works in and through what is available, even characters such as Balaam, to move towards the divine objectives.

10. Divine Revelation and Human Leadership.

Revelation is not confined to Sinai; it occurs throughout Israel's journey. Statutes and other divine words newly enjoin Israel all along the way. This was the case with Israel's wanderings before Sinai as well ( 15:26; 18:23 ). God's word is not delivered in a once-and-for-all fashion; it is a dynamic reality, intersecting with life and all its contingencies. This is demonstrated in the very form of this material in the interweaving of law and narrative (for detail, see Fretheim 1991: 201–7).


God's word is usually mediated through Moses, but not uniquely so. This becomes an issue during the journey. Challenges to Moses' (and Aaron's) leadership that began in the pre-Sinai wanderings are intensified in Numbers, and other leaders take up the argument. Related issues and disputes are pursued in various chapters ( 11; 12; 16; 17 ).


The issue is voiced most sharply by Miriam and Aaron: has God spoken only through Moses ( 12:2 )? The response is negative. God is not confined to only one way to speak to this community; indeed, if need be, God will go around the chosen ones to get a word through. God's spirit even rests upon the outsider Balaam who mediates remarkably clear words of God ( 24:2–4, 15–16 ). Nevertheless, Moses does have a special relationship with God and challenges to his role are not countenanced.


God communicates to and through Moses often in Numbers; indeed, 7:89 speaks of Moses' contact with God in an almost routinized way. In 12:8 God himself claims for Moses a unique face-to-face encounter. Moses actually ‘beholds the form of the LORD’ and lives to tell about it. One facet of this relationship is especially remarkable: the genuine interaction between them as they engage issues confronting the wandering community. Characteristic of their relationship in Exodus (chs. 3–6; 32–4 , cf. GEN 18:22–33 ), it intensifies in Numbers (chs. 11; 12; 14; 16; 21; cf. Ps 106:23 ).


This says something about both Moses and God. Moses' leadership credentials are considerable, including a capacity to tolerate threats to his authority ( 11:29 ) and to persevere with God (chs. 11; 14; 16 ), calling forth the strong statement regarding his unique devotion ( 12:3 ). God also is remarkably open to such discourse, treats the relationship with integrity, and honours the insights that Moses offers. Indeed, God may shape a different future in view of the encounter ( 14:13–20; 16:20–2 ). But such divine openness to change will always be in the service of God's unchanging goals for Israel and the creation (Balaam's point in 23:19 ).


Some of the disputes are focused on Aaron (and his sons) and their priestly leadership (chs. 16; 17 ). Actual tests are carried out which substantiate their unique role with respect to the sanctuary in the eyes of God. Members of this family also take actions that have an intercessory function; they stand ‘between the dead and the living’ and a plague is averted ( 16:47–50; cf. 25:7–13 ). This correlates with their mediating role in various rituals (chs. 5; 15 ).


Interest in the proper succession of leaders (Eleazar, 20:22–9 ; Joshua 27:12–23 ) demonstrates the crucial importance of good leaders for the stability of the community. Rebellion against God-chosen leaders is deeply subversive of God's intentions for the community and risks death short of the goal. But the leaders themselves are not exempt from strict standards ( 20:10–12 ). They may be held to a higher standard, because the impact of their mistakes has such a deep and pervasive effect on the community.

17. Holy People and Holy Priests.

The call in Leviticus for the people to be holy (i.e. to live a life that exemplifies the holy people they are) is continued here ( 15:40 ). What constitutes a holy life, or that which is inimical to it, is continuous with the provisions of Leviticus in some ways. Various uncleannesses—whether moral or ritual in nature—are incompatible with holiness (chs. 5; 6 ). Yet, for Numbers, Israel's sins are focused on matters relating to leadership, mistrust of God and failure to believe in promises, and finally idolatry (ch. 25 ).


A case for more democratic forms of priestly leadership is pursued by Korah on the basis of the holiness of all the people ( 16:3 ). Moses' reply assumes gradations of holiness; even if all are holy, God chooses from among them certain persons to exercise priestly leadership, and this chosen status constitutes a holiness that sets them apart from other holy ones. The disaster experienced by Korah and his company ( 16:23–35 ) demonstrates their special status ( 16:40 ), as does the test with staffs (ch. 17 ).


Gradations of holiness are also evident within the members of the tribe of Levi. The Levites are set aside to care for the tabernacle, symbolized by their encampment between the tabernacle and the people. Among the Levites the family of Aaron is especially set aside for priestly duties ( 16:40; 17; 18:7–11, 19 ). Indeed, a ‘covenant of perpetual priesthood’ is made with this family because of the mediatorial actions of Phinehas ( 25:10–13 ).


The NT works with several themes from Numbers. It cites God's providing for Israel in the wilderness and lifts up Israel's infidelity as a warning for the people of God. These themes are carefully interwoven in 1 Cor 10:1–13 , where many texts from Num 11–25 are referenced; it is carefully noted that these passages were ‘written down to instruct us’ (cf. Jn 3:14; Heb 3:7–4:11; 2 Pet 2:15–16; Jude 5–11; Rev 2:14–17 ).

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