Bible Commentaries
Numbers 33

Calvin's Commentary on the BibleCalvin's Commentary

Verse 1

1.These are the journeys of the children of Israel. Moses had not previously enumerated all the stations in which the people had encamped, but scarcely more than those in which something memorable had occurred, especially after the passage of the Red Sea; because it was of great importance that the actual localities should be set, as it were, before their eyes, until they were not only rescued from impending death by God’s amazing power, but a way unto life was opened to them through death and the lowest deep. In fact, in one passage he has as good as told us that he omitted certain stations, where he records that the people “journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, after their journeys, according to the commandment of the Lord,” to Rephidim, (Exodus 17:1) here, however, he more accurately states every place at which they stopped, as if he were painting a picture of their journey of forty years. His object in this is, first, that the remembrance of their deliverance, and so many accompanying blessings, might be more deeply impressed upon them, since local descriptions have no little effect in giving certainty to history; and, secondly, that they might be reminded by the names of the places, how often and in how many ways they had provoked God’s anger against them; but especially that, now they were on the very threshold of the promised land, they might acknowledge that they had been kept back from it, and had been wandering by various tortuous routes, in consequence of their own depravity and stubbornness, until they had received the reward of their vile ingratitude. Whilst, at the same time, they might reflect that God had so tempered the severity of their punishment, that He still preserved and sustained the despisers of his grace, notwithstanding their iniquity and unworthiness; and also that He carried on to the children (of the transgressors) the covenant which He had made with Abraham.

It is not without reason that Moses premises that “these were the journeys of the children of Israel;” for, at the period when they came out of the land of Goshen, they were affected with no ordinary fear and anxiety, when they saw themselves buried, as it were, in the grave; for they were shut in on every side either by the sea or the defiles of two mountains, or by the army of Pharaoh. Having entered the desert, they had seven stations before they arrived at Mount Sinai, in which they must have perished a hundred times over by hunger and thirst, and a dearth of everything, unless God had marvellously succoured them. And although they might have completed their whole journey in so many days, even then their obstinate perversity began to subject them to delay. If the lack of bread and water beset them, they ought to have been more effectually stirred up by it to have recourse humbly to God. So little disposed, however, were they to that humility, which might have taught them to ask of God by prayer and supplication a remedy for their need, that they rather rebelled against Moses: and not only so, but they petulantly assailed God Himself with their impious taunts, as if He were a cruel executioner instead of their Redeemer. Hence, therefore, it came to pass that it was not before the fortieth day that they were at length brought to Mount Sinai. Scarcely had the Law been promulgated, and whilst the awful voice of God was still ringing in their ears, whereby He had bound them to Himself as His people, when, behold, suddenly a base, nay, a monstrous falling away into idolatry, whence it was not their own fault that, having rejected God’s grace, and as far as depended upon themselves having annulled the promise, they did not perisist miserably as they deserved. By this impediment they were again withheld from further progress. With the same obstinacy they constantly raged against God, and, though warned by many instances of punishment, never returned to a sound mind. The climax of their insane contumacy was, that when arrived at the borders of the promised land, they repudiated God’s kindness, and exhorted each other to return, as if God were adverse to them, and His inestimable deliverance, which ought to have been a perpetual obligation to obedience, were utterly distasteful to them. The stations, which then follow, express in a more, lively manner how, — like a ship which is driven away from its port by a tempest, and whirled round by various currents, — they were carried away from approaching the land, and wandered by circuitous courses: as if they deserved that God should thus lead them about in mockery. It will be well for us to keep our eyes on this design of Moses, in order that we may read the chapter with profit.

He calls the order of their marches journeys (profectiones,) in contradistinction to their stations: for they did not strike their camp unless the signal were given, i.e., when the cloud left the sanctuary, and moved to another spot, as if God stretched forth His hand from heaven to direct their way: and hence it was more clearly apparent, that they were retained in the desert by this power.

Verse 3

3And they departed from Rameses. I do not approve of their opinion, who think that the name of this city is used for the whole land of Goshen: since it is not reasonable that they should have set forth at the same time from various distant and remote places. And this would still less accord with what presently follows, (222) that they went forth in orderly array; though it might not be the case that they all mustered together in the city, because it is hardly credible that so great a multitude could be received within its walls, but that by the order of Moses and Aaron, they were all assembled in the neighborhood of the city, so that they might be organized, lest in the confusion of their hurried march they should impede each other.

After having stated that they went out by “the high hand” of God, for the purpose of extolling still more His wonderful power, he adds that the Egyptians were witnesses and spectators of it: whence we conclude that they had at last yielded to God, (223) or were so thoroughly subdued, as not to dare to lift up a finger. Another circumstance is also added, viz., that the Egyptians were then burying all their first-born; by which words Moses does not mean to indicate that they forbore from hindering the departure of the Israelites, (224) because they were occupied with another matter; but rather signifies that, although they were exasperated by grief at the loss of their sons, still they lay stupified, as it were, since the power of God had enfeebled them, so that they had lost the ability to offer resistance.

When Moses says, that God “executed judgments” upon the gods of the Egyptians, it is with the object of recommending the true faith, lest the children of Israel should ever turn aside to the superstitions of the Gentiles, which, at the time of the deliverance, they had found to be mere delusions. For not only were Pharaoh and his troops overthrown, but their gods also put to shame, when they pretended to be the protectors of their land: and thus were all their superstitions refuted and convicted of error and folly. It is a silly imagination, that all the idols of Egypt fell down of themselves, (225) in order that the God of Israel might claim the glory of Deity for Himself alone. It is enough that God triumphed over the idols, when He effectively shewed that they had no power to aid their worshippers, and, at the same time, discovered the trickeries of the magicians. To this Isaiah appears to allude, when he says,

“Behold, the Lord shall come into Egypt, and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at His presence,” (Isaiah 19:1)

for he signifies that God will give such proofs of His power in Egypt, as shall demonstrate the vanity of all their errors, and overthrow all the superstitious fictions whereby the Israelites had been deceived.

(222) There seems to be an oversight here; he probably refers to ver. 1, “per exercitus suos.”

(223) “Qu’ils ont quitte le combat pour ne plus resister a Dieu; “that they had abandoned the contest so as to resist God no longer. — Fr.

(224) The Fr. omits the negative here, and states the meaning of Moses to be, that the Egyptians forbore to hinder the departure of the Israelites, not only because they were preoccupied by the burial of their dead, but also, etc.

(225) De Lyra’s gloss is: “Tunc enim idola. A Egypti corruerunt, et comminuta sunt.” Corn. a Lapide refers to his own note on Exodus 12:12, which is as follows: “Hence it appears, says Caietanus, that Apis or Serapis, and all the other images of gods in Egypt are thrown down, and dashed to atoms on the Passover night, either by an earthquake, or by thunderbolts, as St. Jerome, after the Hebrews, asserts, ‘Ad Fabiol. de 42 Mansion,’ at the beginning. Artabanus, an old historian, in Eusebius, lib. 9, ‘De praepar.’ cap. ult., tells us that this was the case; and Isaiah alludes to it, Isaiah 19:1. The Hebrews, moreover, have a tradition that the Egyptian idols, which were of stone, were then ground to powder; that those of wood were rotted or reduced to ashes, and those of metal melted and liquefied.”

Verse 8

8.And they departed from before Pi-hahiroth. He relates how the people marched forwards for three days; not so much in praise of their endurance, as in celebration of God’s wonderful power, who sustained so great a multitude without water. For we must bear in mind, what I have elsewhere shewn, that from the passage of the Red Sea to Marah there was no water found; whence the impiety of the people was the more detestable, since they there burst forth into rebellion on account of the bitter taste of the water. On the other side, the incomparable mercy of God shone forth, in that He condescended to refresh these churlish and provoking men in a pleasant and delightful station; for from their first encampment they were led on to Elim, where they found twelve fountains and seventy palm-trees. Moses passes briefly over the wilderness of Sin, as if nothing worthy of being recorded had occurred there; whereas the vile impiety of the people there betrayed itself, and the place was ennobled by a signal miracle, since the manna rained from heaven for the nourishment of the people, so that, the windows of heaven being opened, mortal man “did eat angels’ food.” He also briefly adverts to the want of water to drink at Rephidim: but he deemed it sufficient here to enumerate the stations, which might recall the various occurrences to the memory of the people. On the Graves of Concupiscence a memorial of God’s punishment was inscribed; but since he simply gives a list of other places, without any record of events, we may gather, as I have above stated, that he had no other design than to set before the eyes of the people the peregrination in which they had been engaged for forty years. He, however, cursorily mentions the death of Aaron; because his life had been prolonged, by God’s special blessing, for the good of the people, until the time approached when they were about to enter the promised land; since his authority was a useful and necessary restraint upon the ungovernable character of this headstrong people. At the same time the punishment inflicted upon the holy man should have reminded posterity that it was not without reason that their fathers had been so severely chastised, since they had not ceased to add sin to sin, when God had not spared even His own servant on account of a single transgression.

When he adds just afterwards, that the Canaanite then first heard of the coming the children of Israel, he indicates that God had put a veil over the eyes of their enemies, lest they should oppose them at an earlier period. For God so mitigated the severity of His judgment, that the exile of the Israelites was, at any rate, undisturbed, and free from outward molestation, as long as they had to wander in the desert.

Verse 39

39.And Aaron was an hundred and twenty and three years old. It is not without reason that the great age of Aaron is expressly stated, inasmuch as his life had been prolonged to an unusual period, for the good of the people. At the age of an hundred he had already exceeded the ordinary extent of life; whereas, by God’s extraordinary blessing, he survived until the people were about to pass into the promised land. Hence their ingratitude was the more base in not acknowledging this paternal care of God, since it was for their advantage that He preserved so long the minister of His grace.

Verse 40

40.And king Arad the Canaanite. Although Moses gives no account of a battle, yet he briefly revives the recollection of the previous history; as much as to say, that in this part of their journey the Israelites at length met with their enemy, since they then began to fight with one of the nations of Canaan. In a word, the meaning is, that this was the beginning of their warfare, when the land which God had promised them as an inheritance was about to be occupied.

Verse 50

50.And the Lord spake unto Moses. The end and design of God in willing that these nations should be expelled, I have elsewhere explained, (226) viz, lest they should adulterate the pure worship of God by their admixtures, should corrupt the people by their bad examples, and thus be pollutions to the Holy Land. But Moses now refers to another point, for, when about to speak of the division of the land, he begins by saying that it must be emptied of its inhabitants, that its free and full enjoyment may remain for the children of Israel. We must remark the connection here, for else this passage would have been a supplement of the First Commandment, to which I have indeed appended the latter part of the verse: but, since God declares connectedly, “Ye shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein, for I have given you the land to possess it,” it would have been absurd that one clause should be disjoined from the other.

(226) See ante, vol. 2: p. 397, etc.

Verse 54

54And ye shall divide the land by lot. The mode of division is also stated, that each should possess what fell to him by lot; and this was the best plan, for the several tribes would never have allowed themselves to be sent here or there at the option of men: and even if the arrangement had been left to the voices of the judges, they would rather have quarreled with each other than determined what was right. But we must here take into consideration something deeper; viz., that by this method God gave certain proof that the children of Israel were the inheritors and masters of that land by His liberality and special blessing. And, in the first place, we must remember that, although men consider nothing more fortuitous than casting lots, still they are governed by God, as Solomon says. (Proverbs 16:33.) God, therefore, commanded the people to cast lots, reserving to Himself the judgment as to those to whom they should fall. For how came it to pass that Zebulun obtained his portion on the sea-shore, except because it had been thus predicted by the Patriarch Jacob? Why did a district productive of the best corn fall to the tribe of Asher, unless because it had been pronounced by the same lips, that

“Out of Asher his bread should be fat;
and he should yield royal dainties”? (Genesis 49:20.)

By the same prophecy the tribe of Judah obtained an inheritance rich in vines, and abounding in the best of pastures. Thus the division of the land, by lot, clearly showed that God had not formerly promised that land to Abraham in vain; because the proclamation of the gift by the mouth of Jacob was actually confirmed. The pious old man had been expelled from hence by famine; he was but a sojourner in Egypt, and twice an exile, and yet he assigns their portions to his descendants in the most authoritative manner, just as the father of a family might divide his few acres of land among his heirs. Yet God finally sealed what then might have seemed ridiculous. Hence it appears that things which, in the feebleness of our senses, we imagine to move at the blind impulse of chance, are directed by God’s secret providence; and that His counsel always proceeds in such a regular course, that the end corresponds with the beginning. Again he recommends to them the law of proportion, so that, according to their numbers, a greater or a less allotment should be given to the several tribes. The allegory which some conceive to be indicated here, viz., that we obtain our heavenly inheritance by God’s gratuitous good pleasure, as if by lot, although at first sight plausible, is easily refuted. Hebron was a part of the inheritance, but Caleb obtained it without casting lots: and a still more decided exception appears in the case of the tribe of Reuben, Gad, and half Manasseh, who, by the consent of the rest, and not by lot, acquired by privilege, as it were, all the territory that had been won on the other side of Jordan. Let my readers, therefore, learn to abstain from such conceits, lest they should often be obliged to confess with shame, that they have caught at an empty shadow.

Verse 55

55But if ye will not drive out. We have elsewhere seen why God’s wrath was so greatly aroused against those nations, that He desired them to be exterminated. Even in Abraham’s time gross indulgence of sin had begun to prevail there, as we gather from God’s word, when He said that “their iniquity was not yet full.” After they had abused the forbearance of God Himself for 400 years, who will deny that their destruction was the just and reasonable reward of their long obstinacy? Still, in cutting them off, God had regard to His elect people, in order that they might be separated from the heathen, and never turn aside to foreign superstitions. But the punishment which is here threatened the Israelites deserved twice over by their remissness, for they neither performed their duty in executing God’s vengeance, and, as far as in them lay, they detracted from His grace. He had conferred upon them no common honor, when He appointed them to be His ministers for executing His judgments. It was therefore base supineness in them to be remiss on this point. But again, He had given them the whole land; when, then, they contented themselves with part of it, and neglected the rest, their perverse ingratitude betrayed itself by their indifference. Besides, they had willfully entangled themselves in deadly nerds, by mixing with heathen nations, from whom they had been separated by God, lest they should imitate their habits, and corrupt religious ceremonies. God, therefore, threatens that these nations shall be as prickles to pierce their eyes, and thorns in their sides. That this was fulfilled, the Book of Judges affords the clearest and most ample testimony, although, even to the days of David, this punishment was constantly in course of infliction upon their eyes and sides. Thus, also, is their untamable headstrongness proved, since such a solemn admonition had no effect in causing (227) them to go forwards, no less in the open punishment of iniquity, than in a course of victory and success.

(227) “Pour les faire marcher vertueusement parmi leur vietoires, a punir les crimes dont ils estoyent juges;” to cause them to advance virtuously amidst their victories, in punishing the crimes of which they were the judges. — Fr.

Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Numbers 33". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.