By The Very Rev. E. Payne Smith, D.D., Dean of Canterbury.
THE fourth book of the Pentateuch is called Numbers, because it records, in chapters i. and xxvi., the two numberings of the people made at the beginning and the end of their wanderings. By the Jews it is generally designated Bemidbar (in the wilderness); and though this name is taken, as usual, from the opening words, yet it happily describes the contents; for the book is mainly occupied with the sojourn of the Israelites in the wilderness during the long period which elapsed between the breaking-up of the camp at Sinai and the grand mustering of their forces in the plains of Moab, preparatory to the conquest of the Promised Laud.
As regards the wilderness, it is necessary to make two preliminary remarks. In the first place, we must not estimate its fertility at the time of the Exodus by its present desolation. Even now it supports a wandering population of some 6,000 souls; but the whole region has long been deteriorating, and extensive tracts are now bare and desert where once numerous inhabitants subsisted in comfort. Its fate is well described in Balaam's words respecting that great people who, at the time of the Exodus, were its chief inhabitants: "Amalek was the first of the nations, but his latter end shall be that he perish for ever " (Numb. xxiv. 20). A country could not be a mere barren waste, when one of its tribes held the foremost place in the list of military powers.
In hot countries vegetation depends upon the supply of rain, and this again is strongly affected by the presence of forests, whose cool surface attracts the floating clouds and aids in condensing them. Now ample proof exists that the Sinaitic peninsula was, in old time, a well-wooded region. To this day trunks of palm-trees are often washed up on the shores of the Red Sea, as silent witnesses of rushing floods sweeping down valleys, whence water and palm-trees have for centuries disappeared. Travellers constantly find remains of dwellings of stone, gardens, and enclosures, testifying to the
existence, in past ages, of a settled population; and even as late as the sixth and seventh centuries of our era numerous inhabitants existed in regions now utterly desolate. In the neighbourhood of 'Akabah, in what is now an arid and repulsive waste, Seetzen asked his guide to mention the names of as many places as he could remember, and he quickly ran up a list of sixty-three, of most of which everything had perished but the bare memory. Even now the rainfall absolutely is not inconsiderable, but nothing is done to husband it. Before the country was denuded of woods it must have been very large, lying, as the peninsula of Sinai does, just north of the great Indian Ocean, whence every southern wind would come laden with clouds. But the whole country has been so ravaged by the Arabs, both before and since the time of Mahomet, that all its fertility has disappeared, and yearly it sinks still lower in the scale. For the Bedaween ruthlessly destroy the remaining acacia- trees to make them into charcoal, which now forms, as the Dean of Westminster mentions in his Sinai and Palestine (p. 24), the chief— perhaps it might be said the only — traffic of the peninsula.
The second remark is that we must not suppose that the Israelites were long congregated at one spot. We may assume that they carried with them in their flight from Egypt large stores of corn; and we know that they had numerous flocks and herds. On their first march to the borders of Palestine they halted for a year at Sinai, and there received their religious and political constitution. But they would have lost the larger proportion of their cattle had they retained them with them in so confined a region, even though there were in the neighbourhood valleys of great fertility. like the Wady Feirān. We may feel sure, therefore, that a large proportion of clans like those of Reuben and Gad, who were great cattle-owners, would be dispersed far and wide in search of pasturage. Subsequently, for nearly thirty-eight years, the head-quarters of the nation were at Kadesh-barnea. Of this period scarcely anything is left on record; and this alone suggests the probability that only a few representative people remained with Moses at the tabernacle, to administer the government and watch over the interests of the whole community, while the rest were dispersed far and wide over the peninsula. Nothing is more probable than that the more agricultural tribes may have cultivated all such spots as were suitable for irrigation, and have carried on some amount even of trade with Egypt. During this period, which was certainly one of national growth and development, Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh may have recouped themselves for the losses of cattle they had previously sustained in the march on Canaan, and all the tribes have had their shave of material prosperity.
But undeniably there were parts of the wilderness where the people were exposed to great sufferings. Thus Moses speaks of the "great and terrible wilderness'' (Dent. i. 19) — that, namely, of Paran, through which they passed after breaking up from Sinai, and of which one part at the present day bears the striking name of El-Tih (the desolate). In so extensive a region, where the natural supplies were so limited, we may well believe that a host of 600,000 men, scarcely accustomed as yet to the rough ways of the desert, and continuously on the march for Palestine, must have suffered terrible hardships. Whatever there was they would have, for in Jethro and his Kenites they had excellent guides, who would take them through the most fertile districts. But evidently the march was more than they could endure, and impoverished in wealth, and weakened, it may be, in body, their courage failed them on reaching what was afterwards the possession of the tribe of Judah, and they refused to attempt the conquest of the land. And when long afterwards they did attempt it, Moses chose an entirely different route.
To Kadesh, in the Wilderness of Sin, a tract of land south-west of the Dead Sea, Moses withdrew upon this miserable disappointment of his hopes. It was in another part of this wilderness, at an earlier period, that God had given the people manna ( Exod. xvi. 1 - 8 ), which was certainly miraculous at its first giving, and in many of the circumstances connected with its gathering and its continuance, though it may, like the plagues of Egypt. have been to some extent based upon a natural phenomenon. For two trees grow in the wideness which produce a similar substance — the tamarix and the acacia. But even with the aid of the manna this wilderness could not have accommodated so vast a host for so many years. And as the conquest of the land was positively deferred till all that generation had perished, we may conclude that each tribe would spread out into the desert in search of food and shelter, engaged, probably, in many a struggle with the Amalekites, but upon the whole maintaining the ascendancy gained at Rephidim (Exod. xvii. 131, and gradually developing into the hardy warriors who, by the decisive battle of Gibeon (Josh. x. 10) won the possession of the Promised Land.
It is one of the many internal proofs of the truthfulness of the record that Moses does not conceal from us the difficulties and even the disasters which they met with. Had the Pentateuch been written in long subsequent times, when the sojourn in the wilderness was surrounded by a halo of romance, while its physical difficulties were probably magnified (Jer. ii. 2, 6), the conduct of the Israelites would have been put in a better light, and certainly they would not have been represented as poor soldiers, not to say cowards and unmanly (Numb. xiv. 2). Yet this is what is recorded of them. Within the first two years they fought two battles— one, about two months after leaving Egypt, with the Amalekites, who had gathered in arms to protect then- country. It was probably near Mount Serbal that Rephidim was situated, and the valleys round, especially the Wady Feirān, were very fruitful. The Amalekites, therefore, were probably numerous, and the narrowness of the defiles would enable them to post themselves to advantage. But Israel was vastly more numerous, and yet the battle was long uncertain, and was finally gained by the prayers of Moses.
But at the end of their march, probably about two years after leaving Egypt, Israel met with a disastrous defeat at the hands of the king of the Canaanite city of Arad (Numb. xxi. 1 - 3). Whether this is the same defeat as that recorded in chap. xiv. 45 is uncertain, though probable. For the three verses recording it in chap. xxi. are inserted parenthetically in the history just after the account of the death of Aaron at Mount Hor, and therefore at the close of the forty years' wandering. It is quite evident from the narrative that the defeat was a serious one, and that the Israelites were m no condition to avenge it till long afterwards. They took, however, a solemn vow utterly to destroy the whole region, which was finally executed by Judah and Simeon, the tribes whose inheritance, being in the south of Palestine, bordered on the wilderness, and who destroyed Zephath, the chief city, and laid the whole country waste, whence its subsequent name of Hormah, a thing banned or devoted to utter ruin (Judg. i. 17). The region south of Hormah, but forming part of the desert of Paran, was assigned by Judah to the Kenites, who were accustomed to a desert life (Numb. xxiv. 21), and who would perform there the same service of outpost duty for Palestine which Israel had performed in Goshen for the Egyptians. The insertion, however, of these three verses makes it probable that, before entering on the conquest of Palestine, Moses sent an expedition to Arad to accomplish this vow, and we may conclude that it rejoined the main host at Mount Hor, which is a sandstone rock on the very borders of Edom, east of the Dead Sea, above whose level it towers to a height of 6,000 feet, while Arad is far away in the west, upon the rolling downs south of Judea. Before the events recorded in Judg. i. 17, Arad, under the name of Zephath, may have recovered some degree of prosperity, but the sad memories of their repulse still ranked in the minds of the people, and the vow was again carried out with unswerving determination.
The fierceness, then, of this vow, and the tenacity with which it was executed, show how deep was the distress of Israel at this defeat, and probably how great was the defeat itself. Up to This time they had been marching directly onwards towards Canaan. They had come by the way of Atharim (Numb. xxi. 1). rendered in our version, " the way of the spies," but the word only occurs here, and the solo certainty about it is that it designates the direct way from Sinai to Palestine. Up, then, to This time Moses and the people had all looked for the immediate conquest of the laud. Bravely they struggled through the wilderness, enduring great hardships, consuming their last stores, losing vast numbers of their cattle, but buoyed up by hope. And now they have reached the borders of Palestine, and await eagerly the return of the spies. At length they come, bringing with them mingled tidings. The Land is fertile past all belief, but is inhabited by a tall and hardy race, whoso walled towns tower up to heaven. At the recital their courage utterly fails them: and not only so, but Moses himself judges them unequal to the attempt. They press forward in desperation, but meet with a severe defeat. And upon it follows a period of shame and silence for thirty-eight years. During this period Moses, as I have said, and the head-quarters of the nation, were at Kadesh, in the Wilderness of Sin. When this dreary interval is over, a complete change has been wrought in the people. Moses during This time has impressed upon them something of his own high and noble spirit. A nation of brave, hardy warriors has taken the place of the faint-hearted people whose spirit had been broken in Egypt by long servitude.
Between the battles of Rephidim and of Arad was a period of about two years. The half of this was spent near Mount Sinai, and before they left occurred the sad event of the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, the two elder sons of Aaron, for offering unhallowed fire before Jehovah. No doubt this was connected with the solemn dedication of the tabernacle, and must have greatly impressed all minds with the sanctity of the place, where irreverence had been so sternly pimished. Soon afterwards, having obtained the services of Hobab, who was either the same person as Jethro or more probably his son, and the Kenites as guides (Numb. x. 29), they left Sinai, and entered upon the wilderness of Paran. where, for three days, they found no suitable place for any lengthened stay; but at Taberah, called also Kibrothhattaavah, from the pestilence which followed upon their excess in feeding upon the quails, they rested at least a month. Of the two main roads from Sinai to Palestine, we gather from expressions in chap. xi. that they took the more southernly one, towards the Gulf of 'Akabah, and not that through the heart of the wilderness. For Moses asks, " Shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them to suffice them?" And again the wind is said to have brought the quails from the sea. Both partridges and quails arc common in the wilderness, and vast flights of the latter have been seen by travellers in this very district. To this day quails migrate in immense numbers, filling the vineyards in the south of France in a night or two; and on their first arrival, after a long flight over the sea, would be so weary as easily k> be snared and netted by the eager Israelites,
Of the other stations on the march forward, and which are enumerated in Numb, xxxiii., so little is known, that they possess only a geographical interest. They were probably the stations where the Israelites made a more or loss lengthened stay, and not places where they halted for a night. In selecting such places as would best serve to refresh the people, and afford pasturage for their cattle, the knowledge of the wilderness possessed by their Kenite guides would be of essential service.
But at the end of the 36th verse of chap, xxxiii. occurs a long break. The Red Sea, as is well known, divides in the north into two arms, between which Mount Sinai and the adjacent wilderness are situated. The Israelites had safely crossed this desert; and from Ezion-geber, a town at the head of the eastern branch of the Red Sea, famous afterwards as being Solomon's port for his trade with India, they had struck northwards. Their march lay up the Arabah, along which they pressed for many days continuously, till at the pass of Sufah, on the road from Petra to Hebron, west of the Dead Sea, they sustained their defeat from the Canaanites. This Arabah is one of the most remarkable depressions in the world, being a deep trench from two to fourteen miles wide, and more than three hundred miles in length, through the upper part of which the Jordan flows, tin it loses itself in the Dead Sea. The depth of This depression may be judged by the fact that this salt lake is 1,312 feet below the level of the Mediterranean. The lower part, from the Dead Sea to Eziongeber, is at the present day a comparatively burnt-up region, unlike the valley of the Jordan. But the mountains, which on each side form a natural wall to this trench, are far more grand and imposing, being on the west the long limestone ranges of the Tih, to which Stanley applies the name " blanched desolation," and which are from 1,.500 to 1,800 feet in height; while the eastern wall of granite and basalt, with overlying porphyry, and tipped with sandstone in broken cliffs, and ridges of limestone, is in many places richly covered with vegetation, and abounds in places of great fertility. Here was Edom's dwelling, " of the fatness1 of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above" (Gen. xxvii. 39). The usual height of these ridges is 2,000 feet, but Mount Hor attains to an elevation thrice that amount. The northern pass of Sufah, or Zephath ( Judg. i. 17), was more than a hundred miles from Ezion-geber, and is situated, not in (ho walls of the Arabah, but higher up, where the table-lands above this wall are surmounted by still more elevated ground. This higher ground is probably "the mountain of the Amorite" of Deut. i. 20, and " the mountain " and " hill-top " of Numb, xiv. 40, 44. It was while occupying these table-lands that the spies returned to Moses with their tidings; and here all his hopes of an immediate conquest of the land were dashed to the ground.
Apparently the Horites, a race of cavern-dwellers, who before the conquests of the Edomites had occupied both sides of the Arabah, and dug their dwellings in its rocks, still occupied the western side. From the account of them in Job xxx. 3 - 7, we gather that they were a feeble and uncivilized race, who could make no resistance to Israel, and for thirty-eight years the head-quarters of the nation remained among them undisturbed. A city on the borders of Edom, called Kadesh, captured probably from the Horites, on the march up the Arabah, became the temporary resting-place of the ark, while the people, not without murmurings — for the rebellion of Korah, Dathau, and Abiram belongs to this disastrous period — at length dispersed themselves over the wilderness of Sin, and waited for better times. Thirty-eight years, therefore, elapsed between the 36th and 37th verses of Numb, xxxiii.
In what way Moses maintained his ascendancy, how he trained the people for war, and prevented the tribes from settling permanently in the more fertile valleys, we know not. He has drawn a dark veil over these long years, but the state of Israel at the end of them bears the highest tribute to his powers. We find them deeply impressed with those high qualities which stamp Moses himself as one of the greatest heroes of history, bold, resolute, patient, and deeply religious. Though apparently poorly armed, and still unable to cope with the Canaanites on the level plains of Esdraelon, yet in the mountains nothing could withstand them. Slowly converging, then, upon the Arabah from the whole western region, they gathered round Mount Hor, some thirty miles or more south of Kadesh, whither Moses had removed the tabernacle to meet them. Even now they do not again attempt the defiles of Sufah, but strike boldly to the cast, so as to make a circuit round the lands of Edom and Moab, with which they were forbidden to interfere; and when at length they had passed the mountains of Abarim, and reached the Arnon, instead of their former despondency, they were filled with joy, such as that which found its vent in the song recorded in Numb. xxi. 17, 18.
And soon their first conquest was made. Sihon, king of the Amorites, a great warrior, who had Lately dispossessed the Moabites of much of their dominions, boldly gathered every Amorite capable of bearing arms, and withstood the invading hosts. Of the battle Josephus has preserved many details not recorded in Scripture. Galled, he says, by the arrows and slings of the Israelites, who had become experts in these weapons when gaining their hardy livelihood in the wilderness, the Amorites fled for shelter to the ravine through which the Arnon flows, and were followed thither by the Israelites, and slaughtered in vast numbers in its recesses. By this victory Israel won all the country between the Arnon and the Jabbok.
But a stouter foe was at hand. Og, a descendant of the giant people called Rephaim, was king of Bashan, with sixty cities beneath his sway. Of these, Edrei was a place of vast strength, approachable only through defiles, and occupying a rocky promontory two miles and a half in length and a mile and a half in width. But apparently Og boldly attacked the Israelites in front of his stronghold, and was utterly defeated, and his sixty cities became the possession of the tribes of Reuben and Gad. Some place this battle, however, at a border town, on the Jarmuk, now called Dera. The ruins of this city disclose to us the curious fact that originally it was entirely subterraneous, with streets running in all directions under the present town. While aware of the existence of races which lived in caves, like the Horites in Edom, it wa5 not known till these ruins had been examined on how large a scale their excavations were made: and we gather from it that the people were not always such outcasts as they are described in the Book of Job.
And now but one station more remains. After these conquests they once again entered the Arabah, but it was now north of the Dead Sea, opposite Jericho. Up to this time their march had lain at the back of the settlements of Edom and Moab, skirting the vast Syrian desert, along the route by which the Mohammedan pilgrims now travel towards Mecca. But in the plains of Jericho they had reached one of the most fertile spots in the world, and as they luxuriated in the splendid oasis on the east bank of the Jordan, eleven miles in length by five in breadth, well may Balaam have burst forth into the exclamation, " How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, Israel!"
He had been summoned from Pethor, a city on the Euphrates, in Mesopotamia, the country of Nahor and other relatives of Abraham, to curse Israel. Probably the messengers had made their successive journeys while the war was going on with Sihon and Og. The former, we have seen, was an enemy of the Moabites, while Israel had carefully respected their territories; but Balak dreaded then- growing power, and too cowardly for open attack, he sought the aid of enchantments. But whether Balaam were a true prophet, who fell from covetousness, or a false prophet, compelled to bless where he would gladly have spoken the people's doom, his words, full of striking beauty, and quickly, no doubt, hymned throughout all the tents of Israel, served as a trumpet blast to urge them onwards to the struggle against the seven mighty nations which then occupied Palestine, and gave them a sure presage of victory. In this Arabah, too, rendered "plain"' in Deut. i. 1, Moses spoke his last words, but the consideration of them will properly belong to the introduction of the Book of Deuteronomy.
1) It seems worth while to state that the words of Isaac's blessing for Esau are rendered by Kalisch, Keil, Delitzsch, and other commentators, "far from the fatness of the earth and the dew of heaven," a rendering which has, at all events, the merit of being more in harmony with the general character of the country. The preposition is the same as in the blessing on Jacob, " of the fatness of the earth," but it is supposed by these interpreters to be used partitively in the one case, and, with a keen irony, privatively in the other. If, with the Bishop of Ely in the Speaker's Commentary and the writer of the present paper, we retain the Authorised Version, the words must be thought of as describing the more favoured regions of the eastern mountains, with "their ruddy cliff's, and verdant, flower-spangled glens and terraces " (J. L. Porter, in Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, Art. "Edom").— Ed.