Numbers 14

The Israelites Respond in Unbelief

This chapter forms part of the story already begun. There are three major sections here: dissatisfaction with the reports (vv. 1–10), the threat of divine punishment (vv. 11–38), and the defeat of the Israelites (vv. 39–45). See K. D. Sakenfeld, “The Problem of Divine Forgiveness in Num 14, ” CBQ 37 (1975): 317-30; also J. R. Bartlett, “The Use of the Word רֹאשׁ as a Title in the Old Testament,” VT 19 (1969): 1-10.
Then all the community raised a loud cry,
The two verbs “lifted up their voice and cried” form a hendiadys; the idiom of raising the voice means that they cried aloud.
and the people wept
There are a number of things that the verb “to weep” or “wail” can connote. It could reflect joy, grief, lamentation, or repentance, but here it reflects fear, hopelessness, or vexation at the thought of coming all this way and being defeated by the Canaanite armies. See Judg 20:23, 26.
that night.
And all the Israelites murmured
The Hebrew verb “to murmur” is לוּן (lun). It is a strong word, signifying far more than complaining or grumbling, as some of the modern translations have it. The word is most often connected to the wilderness experience. It is paralleled in the literature with the word “to rebel.” The murmuring is like a parliamentary vote of no confidence, for they no longer trusted their leaders and wished to choose a new leader and return. This “return to Egypt” becomes a symbol of their lack of faith in the Lord.
against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, “If only we had died
The optative is expressed by לוּ (lu) and then the verb, here the perfect tense מַתְנוּ (matnu) – “O that we had died….” Had they wanted to die in Egypt they should not have cried out to the Lord to deliver them from bondage. Here the people became consumed with the fear and worry of what lay ahead, and in their panic they revealed a lack of trust in God.
in the land of Egypt, or if only we had perished
Heb “died.”
in this wilderness!
Why has the Lord brought us into this land only to be killed by the sword, that our wives and our children should become plunder? Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” So they said to one another,
Heb “a man to his brother.”
“Let’s appoint
The verb is נָתַן (natan, “to give”), but this verb has quite a wide range of meanings in the Bible. Here it must mean “to make,” “to choose,” “to designate” or the like.
a leader
The word “head” (רֹאשׁ, rosh) probably refers to a tribal chief who was capable to judge and to lead to war (see J. R. Bartlett, “The Use of the Word רֹאשׁ as a Title in the Old Testament,” VT 19 [1969]: 1-10).
and return
The form is a cohortative with a vav (ו) prefixed. After the preceding cohortative this could also be interpreted as a purpose or result clause – in order that we may return.
to Egypt.”

Then Moses and Aaron fell down with their faces to the ground
This action of Moses and Aaron is typical of them in the wilderness with the Israelites. The act shows self-abasement and deference before the sovereign Lord. They are not bowing before the people here, but in front of the people they bow before God. According to Num 17:6–15 this prostration is for the purpose of intercessory prayer. Here it prevents immediate wrath from God.
before the whole assembled community
Heb “before all the assembly of the congregation.”
of the Israelites.
And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, two of those who had investigated the land, tore their garments. They said to the whole community of the Israelites, “The land we passed through to investigate is an exceedingly
The repetition of the adverb מְאֹד (meod) is used to express this: “very, very [good].”
good land.
If the Lord delights in us, then he will bring us into this land and give it to us – a land that is flowing with milk and honey.
The subjective genitives “milk and honey” are symbols of the wealth of the land, second only to bread. Milk was a sign of such abundance (Gen 49:12; Isa 7:21, 22). Because of the climate the milk would thicken quickly and become curds, eaten with bread or turned into butter. The honey mentioned here is the wild honey (see Deut 32:13; Judg 14:8–9). It signified sweetness, or the finer things of life (Ezek 3:3).
Only do not rebel against the Lord, and do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us.
The expression must indicate that they could destroy the enemies as easily as they could eat bread.
Their protection
Heb “their shade.” The figure compares the shade from the sun with the protection from the enemy. It is also possible that the text is alluding to their deities here.
has turned aside from them, but the Lord is with us. Do not fear them!”

10  However, the whole community threatened to stone them.
Heb “said to stone them with stones.” The verb and the object are not from the same root, but the combination nonetheless forms an emphasis equal to the cognate accusative.
The vav (ו) on the noun “glory” indicates a strong contrast, one that interrupts their threatened attack.
the glory
The glory of the Lord refers to the reality of the Lord’s presence in a manifestation of his power and splendor. It showed to all that God was a living God. The appearance of the glory indicated blessing for the obedient, but disaster for the disobedient.
of the Lord appeared to all the Israelites at the tent
The Greek, Syriac, and Tg. Ps.-J. have “in the cloud over the tent.”
of meeting.

The Punishment from God

11  The Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise
The verb נָאַץ (naats) means “to condemn, spurn” (BDB 610 s.v.). Coats suggests that in some contexts the word means actual rejection or renunciation (Rebellion in the Wilderness, 146, 7). This would include the idea of distaste.
me, and how long will they not believe
The verb “to believe” (root אָמַן, ’aman) has the basic idea of support, dependability for the root. The Hiphil has a declarative sense, namely, to consider something reliable or dependable and to act on it. The people did not trust what the Lord said.
in me, in spite of the signs that I have done among them?
12 I will strike them with the pestilence,
The Greek version has “death.”
and I will disinherit them; I will make you into a nation that is greater and mightier than they!”

13  Moses said to the Lord, “When the Egyptians hear
The construction is unusual in that we have here a perfect tense with a vav (ו) consecutive with no verb before it to establish the time sequence. The context requires that this be taken as a vav (ו) consecutive. It actually forms the protasis for the next verse, and would best be rendered “whenthen they will say.”
it – for you brought up this people by your power from among them –
14 then they will tell it to the inhabitants
The singular participle is to be taken here as a collective, representing all the inhabitants of the land.
of this land. They have heard that you, Lord, are among this people, that you, Lord, are seen face to face,
“Face to face” is literally “eye to eye.” It only occurs elsewhere in Isa 52:8. This expresses the closest communication possible.
that your cloud stands over them, and that you go before them by day in a pillar of cloud and in a pillar of fire by night.
15 If you kill
The verb is the Hiphil perfect of מוּת (mut), וְהֵמַתָּה (vehemattah). The vav (ו) consecutive makes this also a future time sequence verb, but again in a conditional clause.
this entire people at once,
Heb “as one man.”
then the nations that have heard of your fame will say,
16 ‘Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to them, he killed them in the wilderness.’ 17 So now, let the power of my Lord
The form in the text is אֲדֹנָי (’adonay), the word that is usually used in place of the tetragrammaton. It is the plural form with the pronominal suffix, and so must refer to God.
be great, just as you have said,
18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in loyal love,
The expression is רַב־חֶסֶד (rav khesed) means “much of loyal love,” or “faithful love.” Some have it “totally faithful,” but that omits the aspect of his love.
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
Or “rebellion.”
but by no means clearing
The infinitive absolute emphasizes the verbal activity of the imperfect tense, which here serves as a habitual imperfect. Negated it states what God does not do; and the infinitive makes that certain.
the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children until the third and fourth generations.’
The Decalogue adds “to those who hate me.” The point of the line is that the effects of sin, if not the sinful traits themselves, are passed on to the next generation.
19 Please forgive
The verb סְלַח־נָא (selakh-na’), the imperative form, means “forgive” (see Ps 130:4), “pardon,” “excuse.” The imperative is of course a prayer, a desire, and not a command.
the iniquity of this people according to your great loyal love,
The construct unit is “the greatness of your loyal love.” This is the genitive of specification, the first word being the modifier.
just as you have forgiven this people from Egypt even until now.”

20  Then the Lord said, “I have forgiven them as you asked.
Heb “forgiven according to your word.” The direct object, “them,” is implied.
21 But truly, as I live,
This is the oath formula, but in the Pentateuch it occurs here and in v. 28.
all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord.
22 For all the people have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tempted
The verb נָסָה (nasah) means “to test, to tempt, to prove.” It can be used to indicate things are tried or proven, or for testing in a good sense, or tempting in the bad sense, i.e., putting God to the test. In all uses there is uncertainty or doubt about the outcome. Some uses of the verb are positive: If God tests Abraham in Genesis 22:1, it is because there is uncertainty whether he fears the Lord or not; if people like Gideon put out the fleece and test the Lord, it is done by faith but in order to be certain of the Lord’s presence. But here, when these people put God to the test ten times, it was because they doubted the goodness and ability of God, and this was a major weakness. They had proof to the contrary, but chose to challenge God.
me now these ten times,
“Ten” is here a round figure, emphasizing the complete testing. But see F. V. Winnett, The Mosaic Tradition, 121–54.
and have not obeyed me,
Heb “listened to my voice.”
23 they will by no means
The word אִם (’im) indicates a negative oath formula: “if” means “they will not.” It is elliptical. In a human oath one would be saying: “The Lord do to me if they see…,” meaning “they will by no means see.” Here God is swearing that they will not see the land.
see the land that I swore to their fathers, nor will any of them who despised me see it.
24 Only my servant Caleb, because he had a different spirit and has followed me fully – I will bring him into the land where he had gone, and his descendants
Heb “seed.”
will possess it.
25 (Now the Amalekites and the Canaanites were living in the valleys.)
The judgment on Israel is that they turn back to the desert and not attack the tribes in the land. So a parenthetical clause is inserted to state who was living there. They would surely block the entrance to the land from the south – unless God removed them. And he is not going to do that for Israel.
Tomorrow, turn and journey into the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea.”

26  The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: 27 “How long must I bear
The figure is aposiopesis, or sudden silence. The main verb is deleted from the line, “how long…this evil community.” The intensity of the emotion is the reason for the ellipsis.
with this evil congregation
It is worth mentioning in passing that this is one of the Rabbinic proof texts for having at least ten men to form a congregation and have prayer. If God called ten men (the bad spies) a “congregation,” then a congregation must have ten men. But here the word “community/congregation” refers in this context to the people of Israel as a whole, not just to the ten spies.
that murmurs against me? I have heard the complaints of the Israelites that they murmured against me.
28 Say to them, ‘As I live,
Here again is the oath that God swore in his wrath, an oath he swore by himself, that they would not enter the land. “As the Lord lives,” or “by the life of the Lord,” are ways to render it.
The word נְאֻם (neum) is an “oracle.” It is followed by the subjective genitive: “the oracle of the Lord” is equal to saying “the Lord says.”
the Lord, I will surely do to you just what you have spoken in my hearing.
Heb “in my ears.”
They had expressed the longing to have died in the wilderness, and not in war. God will now give them that. They would not say to God “your will be done,” so he says to them, “your will be done” (to borrow from C. S. Lewis).
29 Your dead bodies
Or “your corpses” (also in vv. 32, 33).
will fall in this wilderness – all those of you who were numbered, according to your full number, from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against me.
30 You will by no means enter into the land where
The relative pronoun “which” is joined with the resumptive pronoun “in it” to form a smoother reading “where.”
I swore
The Hebrew text uses the anthropomorphic expression “I raised my hand” in taking an oath.
to settle
Heb “to cause you to dwell; to cause you to settle.”
you. The only exceptions are Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.
31 But I will bring in your little ones, whom you said would become victims of war,
Or “plunder.”
and they will enjoy
Heb “know.”
the land that you have despised.
32 But as for you, your dead bodies will fall in this wilderness, 33 and your children will wander
The word is “shepherds.” It means that the people would be wilderness nomads, grazing their flock on available land.
in the wilderness forty years and suffer for your unfaithfulness,
Heb “you shall bear your whoredoms.” The imagery of prostitution is used throughout the Bible to reflect spiritual unfaithfulness, leaving the covenant relationship and following after false gods. Here it is used generally for their rebellion in the wilderness, but not for following other gods.
until your dead bodies lie finished
The infinitive is from תָּמַם (tamam), which means “to be complete.” The word is often used to express completeness in a good sense – whole, blameless, or the like. Here and in v. 35 it seems to mean “until your deaths have been completed.” See also Gen 47:15; Deut 2:15.
in the wilderness.
34 According to the number of the days you have investigated this land, forty days – one day for a year – you will suffer for
Heb “you shall bear.”
your iniquities, forty years, and you will know what it means to thwart me.
The phrase refers to the consequences of open hostility to God, or perhaps abandonment of God. The noun תְּנוּאָה (tenuah) occurs in Job 33:10 (perhaps). The related verb occurs in Num 30:6 HT (30:5 ET) and 32:7 with the sense of “disallow, discourage.” The sense of the expression adopted in this translation comes from the meticulous study of R. Loewe, “Divine Frustration Exegetically Frustrated,” Words and Meanings, 137–58.
35 I, the Lord, have said, “I will surely do so to all this evil congregation that has gathered together against me. In this wilderness they will be finished, and there they will die!”’”

36  The men whom Moses sent to investigate the land, who returned and made the whole community murmur against him by producing
The verb is the Hiphil infinitive construct with a lamed (ל) preposition from the root יָצָא (yatsa’, “to bring out”). The use of the infinitive here is epexegetical, that is, explaining how they caused the people to murmur.
an evil report about the land,
37 those men who produced the evil report about the land, died by the plague before the Lord. 38 But Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among
The Hebrew text uses the preposition “from,” “some of” – “from those men.” The relative pronoun is added to make a smoother reading.
the men who went to investigate the land, lived.
39 When Moses told
The preterite here is subordinated to the next preterite to form a temporal clause.
these things to all the Israelites, the people mourned
The word אָבַל (’aval) is rare, used mostly for mourning over deaths, but it is used here of mourning over bad news (see also Exod 33:4; 1 Sam 15:35; 16:1; etc.).

40  And early
The verb וַיַּשְׁכִּמוּ (vayyashkimu) is often found in a verbal hendiadys construction: “They rose early…and they went up” means “they went up early.”
in the morning they went up to the crest of the hill country,
The Hebrew text says literally “the top of the hill,” but judging from the location and the terrain it probably means the heights of the hill country.
saying, “Here we are, and we will go up to the place that the Lord commanded,
The verb is simply “said,” but it means the place that the Lord said to go up to in order to fight.
for we have sinned.”
Their sin was unbelief. They could have gone and conquered the area if they had trusted the Lord for their victory. They did not, and so they were condemned to perish in the wilderness. Now, thinking that by going they can undo all that, they plan to go. But this is also disobedience, for the Lord said they would not now take the land, and yet they think they can. Here is their second sin, presumption.
41 But Moses said, “Why
The line literally has, “Why is this [that] you are transgressing….” The demonstrative pronoun is enclitic; it brings the force of “why in the world are you doing this now?”
are you now transgressing the commandment
Heb “mouth.”
of the Lord? It will not succeed!
42 Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, and you will be
This verb could also be subordinated to the preceding: “that you be not smitten.”
defeated before your enemies.
43 For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you will fall by the sword. Because you have turned away from the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.”

44  But they dared
N. H. Snaith compares Arabic ’afala (“to swell”) and gafala (“reckless, headstrong”; Leviticus and Numbers [NCB], 248). The wordעֹפֶל (’ofel) means a “rounded hill” or a “tumor.” The idea behind the verb may be that of “swelling,” and so “act presumptuously.”
to go up to the crest of the hill, although
The disjunctive vav (ו) here introduces a circumstantial clause; the most appropriate one here would be the concessive “although.”
neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses departed from the camp.
45 So the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country swooped
Heb “came down.”
down and attacked them
The verb used here means “crush by beating,” or “pounded” them. The Greek text used “cut them in pieces.”
as far as Hormah.
The name “Hormah” means “destruction”; it is from the word that means “ban, devote” for either destruction or temple use.

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