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The Book of Numbers (Greek: Αριθμοί arithmoi meaning "numbers") or Bəmidbar (Hebrew: במדבר, literally "In the wilderness of") is the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible, and the fourth of five books of the Jewish Torah/Pentateuch. This book may be divided into three parts:

  1. The numbering of the people at Sinai, and preparations for resuming their march (1–10:10).
  2. An account of the journey from Sinai to Moab, the sending out of the spies and the report they brought back, and the murmurings (eight times) of the people at the hardships by the way (10:11–21:20).
  3. The transactions in the plain of Moab before crossing the Jordan Rivermarker (21:21–36).

In Numbers, the priests are instructed to bless the nation of Israel as follows: “May Yahweh bless you, and keep you. May Yahweh let his face shine on you and be gracious to you. May Yahweh show you his face and bring you peace.” This priestly blessing is regularly performed during Jewish services, on Jewish holidays, and sometimes by parents over their own children before the Friday Shabbat meal.

The period comprehended in the history extends from the second month of the second year, as measured from the Exodus, to the beginning of the eleventh month of the fortieth year, in all about thirty-seven years and nine months; a dreary period of wanderings. They were fewer in number at the end of their wanderings than when they left the land of Egypt. According to tradition, Moses authored all five books of the Torah. According to the documentary hypothesis, Numbers, with its dry style and emphasis on censuses, derives from the priestly source, c. 550–400 BC, and was combined with the other three sources to create the Torah c. 400.


The Hebrew title Bəmidbar, short for bəmidbar Sinai ("in the desert of Sinai"), is taken from the first verse, and "serves to foreground the years of testing in the wilderness that make up the central section of the book (chapters 11–21)." The English title Numbers is derived from the Greek of the Septuagint, referencing the numbering of the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinaimarker and later on the plain of Moab.


Numbering God's people

God orders Moses, in the wilderness of Sinai, to take the number of those able to bear arms—of all the men "from twenty years old and upward," the tribe of Levi being excepted, and to appoint princes over each tribe. The result of the numbering is that 603,550 Israelites are found to be fit for military service. Moses is ordered to assign to the Levites exclusively the service of the Tabernacle.

God prescribes the formation of the camp around the Tabernacle, each tribe being distinguished by its chosen banner. Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun encamp to the east of the Tabernacle; Reuben, Simeon, and Gad to the south; Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin to the west; and Dan, Asher, and Naphtali to the north. The same order is to be preserved for the march.

Moses is ordered to consecrate the Levites for the service of the Tabernacle in the place of the first-born sons, who hitherto had performed that service. The Levites are divided into three families, the Gershonites, the Kohathites, and the Merarites, each under a chief, and all headed by one prince, Eleazar, son of Aaron.

The Levites who are suited for the service of the Tabernacle—those from thirty to fifty years of age—were then numbered.

Preparations are then made for resuming the march to the Promised Land. Various ordinances and laws are decreed.

Recommencement of the journey

Moses is ordered to make two silver trumpets for convoking the congregation and announcing the recommencement of a journey. The first journey of the Israelites after the Tabernacle had been constructed is commenced, and Moses requests Hobab to be their leader. The people murmur against God and are punished by fire; Moses complains of the stubbornness of the Israelites and is ordered to choose seventy elders to assist him in the government of the people

Miriam and Aaron insult Moses at Hazeroth, which angers God; Miriam is punished with leprosy and is shut out of camp for seven days, at the end of which the Israelites proceed to the desert of Paran.

The spies are sent out into the lands and come back to report to Moses. The spies have to see how fertile the ground is, how fortified the cities are and how strong the people are. Joshua and Caleb, two of the spies, argue that the land is abundant and is "flowing with milk and honey." The other spies say that it is inhabited by strong and evil men, which causes the Israelites to want to return to Egypt. The Lord talks to Moses and says he will kill all of the Israelites. Moses pleads with God, saying that others would think badly of God for leading his people to the wilderness and abandoning them there. God speaks to Aaron of having to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

Moses is ordered to make plates to cover the altar with the two hundred fifty censers left after the destruction of Korah's band. The children of Israel murmur against Moses and Aaron on account of the death of Korah's men and are stricken with the plague, with 14,700 perishing; Aaron's rod is used to quell the destruction.

Aaron and his family are declared by God to be responsible for any iniquity committed in connection with the sanctuary. The Levites are again appointed to help him in the keeping of the Tabernacle. The Levites are ordered to surrender to the priests a part of the tithes taken by them.

Preparations for crossing the Jordan

After Miriam's death at Kadesh Barnea, the Israelites blame Moses for the lack of water. Moses, ordered by God to speak to the rock, disobeys by striking it, and is punished by the announcement that he shall not enter Canaan. The King of Edom refuses permission to the Israelites to pass through his land. Aaron dies on Mount Hor.

The Israelites are bitten by fiery serpent for speaking against God and Moses. A brazen serpent is made to ward off these serpents.

The new census, taken just before the entry into the land of Canaan, gives the total number of males from twenty years and upward as 601,730, the number of the Levites from a month old and upward as 23,000. The land shall be divided by lot. The daughters of Zelophehad, their father having no sons, share in the allotment. Moses is ordered to appoint Joshua as his successor.

Prescriptions for the observance of the feasts, and the offerings for different occasions are enumerated: every day; the Sabbath; the first day of the month; the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread; the day of first-fruits; the day of the trumpets; the Day of Atonement; the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles; the day of solemn assembly.

The conquest of Midian by the Israelites and the massacre of the Midian population is recounted. The Reubenites and the Gadites request Moses to assign them the land east of the Jordan. After their promise to go before the army to help in the conquest of the land west of the Jordan, Moses grants their request. The land east of the Jordan is divided among the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh.

The stations at which the Israelites halted during their forty years' wanderings in the wilderness are enumerated. While in the plains of Moab the Israelites are told that, after crossing the Jordan, they should expel the Canaanites and destroy their idols.The boundaries of the land of which the Israelites are about to take possession are spelled out. The land is to be divided among the tribes under the superintendence of Eleazar, Joshua, and twelve princes, one of each tribe.

Numbers ends with a summary statement called a colophon, stating the place and circumstances of composition. Colophons were used in literature of the ancient Near East in the second millennium BC and earlier, and their usage was not understood until fairly modern times.


Julius Wellhausen ascribed most of the composition of Numbers to the Priestly source, and therefore the 6th century BC, with additional material (including the Balaam story) from the Elohist document (c.850 BC) and the Yahwist (c.950 BC); Richard Elliott Friedman gives a similar division in his The Bible with Sources Revealed. Other rationalist scholars, following presuppositions that modify in some way or other the presuppositions of Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis, tend to see all the Pentateuchal books as made up of essentially undateable fragments or accretions, but agree with Wellhausen that the Torah reached its final form no earlier than the 5th century BC.

Baalam and the Deir Alla inscription

The Deir Allamarker text is an inscription which tells a story of "Balaam Son of Beor," a seer apparently famed in the region at this time, and whose prophecies regarding Israel are found in Numbers 22 through 24. Author Timothy Ashley says that as interesting as this inscription is, it does not shed any light on when Balaam lived beyond the information already given in the book of Numbers.
The discovery of the Balaam text at Deir 'Alla (ancient Succoth, just north of the Jabbok in Transjordan) provides a strong link between a Balaam tradition and this area, although the existence of a Balaam story there in the 8th/7th cent.
(the text is dated c.
850–675 B.C.) may or may not speak of the origins of Balaam in the area some centuries earlier.

Ketef Hinnom and the Priestly Blessing

In 1979, two tiny silver scrolls, apparently used as amulets, were found at the Ketef Hinnommarker burial site near Jerusalem. On one of the scrolls was a shortened form of the Priestly Blessing of Numbers 6:24–26,
The bless you and keep you;

the make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;

the turn his face toward you and give you peace. (NIV)On palaeographic grounds, the inscriptions were dated to some time shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BC.

These inscriptions are important in providing a test for truth or falsity of the classical Documentary hypothesis. Wellhausen, and various other scholars who followed him in denying the supernatural origin of the Pentateuch, assigned the Priestly Blessing of Numbers to the "P" strand or editor. Every chapter of Wellhausen's Prolegomena repeats the theme: the P portions of the Pentateuch were fabricated by the priestly caste in Israel with the goal of fostering their own selfish interests, and this was necessarily done in the post-exilic period. The priestly blessing was assigned by Wellhausen and others who followed the presuppositions of the Documentary Hypothesis to the hypothetical "P" document or editor. Wellhausen insisted that this person or persons lived after the exile. Based on the Ketef Hinnom finding of a "P" text that was pre-exilic and other evidence, many advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis now hold that P, or portions of it, could be pre-exilic. For Wellhausen, however, this was not a possibility: there is probably no theme in the Prolegomena that is insisted on as necessary in understanding the Documentary Hypothesis as the theme that P is post-exilic, unless it is the theme that the Pentateuch did not have a supernatural origin but was the creation of late-date deceivers who successfully fooled the populace into thinking that their own creations were written by Moses.

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