Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
As the Israelites had ended their wanderings through the desert, when they arrived in the steppes of Moab by the Jordan opposite to Jericho (Num 22:1), and as they began to take possession when the conquered land beyond Jordan was portioned out (ch. 32), the history of the desert wandering closes with a list of the stations which they had left behind them. This list was written out by Moses "at the command of Jehovah" (Num 33:2), as a permanent memorial for after ages, as every station which Israel left behind on the journey from Egypt to Canaan "through the great and terrible desert," was a memorial of the grace and faithfulness with which the Lord led His people safely "in the desert land and in the waste howling wilderness, and kept him as the apple of His eye, as an eagle fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings" (Exo 19:4; Deu 32:10.).
The first and second verses form the heading: "These are the marches of the children of Israel, which they marched out," i.e., the marches which they made from one place to another, on going out of Egypt. מסּע does not mean a station, but the breaking up of a camp, and then a train, or march (see at Exo 12:37, and Gen 13:3). לצבאתם (see Exo 7:4). בּיד, under the guidance, as in Num 4:28, and Exo 38:21. למסעיהם מוצאיהם, "their goings out (properly, their places of departure) according to their marches," is really equivalent to the clause which follows: "their marches according to their places of departure." The march of the people is not described by the stations, or places of encampment, but by the particular spots from which they set out. Hence the constant repetition of the word ויּסעוּ, "and they broke up." In Num 33:3-5, the departure is described according to Exo 12:17, Exo 12:37-41. On the judgments of Jehovah upon the gods of Egypt, see at Exo 12:12. "With an high hand:" as in Exo 14:8. - The places of encampment from Succoth to the desert of Sinai (Num 33:5-15) agree with those in the historical account, except that the stations at the Red Sea (Num 33:10) and those at Dophkah and Alush (Num 33:13 and Num 33:14) are passed over there. For Raemses, see at Exo 12:37. Succoth and Etham (Exo 13:20). Pihahiroth (Exo 14:2). "The wilderness" (Num 33:8) is the desert of Shur, according to Exo 15:22. Marah, see Exo 15:23. Elim (Exo 15:27). For the Red Sea and the wilderness of Sin, see Exo 16:1. For Dophkah, Alush, and Rephidim, see Exo 17:1; and for the wilderness of Sinai, Exo 19:2.
In vv. 16-36 there follow twenty-one names of places where the Israelites encamped from the time that they left the wilderness of Sinai till they encamped in the wilderness of Zin, i.e., Kadesh. The description of the latter as "the wilderness of Zin, which is Kadesh," which agrees almost word for word with Num 20:1, and still more the agreement of the places mentioned in Num 33:37-49, as the encampments of Israel after leaving Kadesh till their arrival in the steppes of Moab, with the march of the people in the fortieth year as described in Num 20:22-22:1, put it beyond all doubt that the encampment in the wilderness of Zin, i.e., Kadesh (Num 33:36), is to be understood as referring to the second arrival in Kadesh after the expiration of the thirty-eight years of wandering in the desert to which the congregation had been condemned. Consequently the twenty-one names in vv. 16-36 contain not only the places of encampment at which the Israelites encamped in the second year of their march from Sinai to the desert of Paran at Kadesh, whence the spies were despatched into Canaan, but also those in which they encamped for a longer period during the thirty-eight years of punishment in the wilderness. This view is still further confirmed by the fact that the two first of the stations named after the departure from the wilderness of Sinai, viz., Kibroth-hattaavah and Hazeroth, agree with those named in the historical account in Num 11:34 and Num 11:35. Now if, according to Num 12:16, when the people left Hazeroth, they encamped in the desert of Paran, and despatched the spies thence out of the desert of Zin (Num 13:21), who returned to the congregation after forty days "into the desert of Paran to Kadesh" (Num 13:26), it is as natural as it well can be to seek for this place of encampment in the desert of Paran or Zin at Kadesh under the name of Rithmah, which follows Hazeroth in the present list (Num 33:18). This natural supposition reaches the highest degree of probability, from the fact that, in the historical account, the place of encampment, from which the sending out of the spies took place, is described in so indefinite a manner as the "desert of Paran," since this name does not belong to a small desert, just capable of holding the camp of the Israelites, but embraces the whole of the large desert plateau which stretches from the central mountains of Horeb in the south to the mountains of the Amorites, which really form part of Canaan, and contains no less than 400 (? 10,000 English) square miles. In this desert the Israelites could only pitch their camp in one particular spot, which is called Rithmah in the list before us; whereas in the historical account the passage is described, according to what the Israelites performed and experienced in this encampment, as near to the southern border of Canaan, and is thus pointed out with sufficient clearness for the purpose of the historical account. To this we may add the coincidence of the name Rithmah with the Wady Abu Retemat, which is not very far to the south of Kadesh, "a wide plain with shrubs and retem," i.e., broom (Robinson, i. p. 279), in the neighbourhood of which, and behind the chalk formation which bounds it towards the east, there is a copious spring of sweet water called Ain el Kudeirt. This spot was well adapted for a place of encampment for Israel, which was so numerous that it might easily stretch into the desert of Zin, and as far as Kadesh.
The seventeen places of encampment, therefore, that are mentioned in vv. 19-36 between Rithmah and Kadesh, are the places at which Israel set up in the desert, from their return from Kadesh into the "desert of the way to the Red Sea" (Num 14:25), till the reassembling of the whole congregation in the desert of Zin at Kadesh (Num 20:1).
(Note: The different hypotheses for reducing the journey of the Israelites to a few years, have been refuted by Kurtz (iii. 41) in the most conclusive manner possible, and in some respects more elaborately than was actually necessary. Nevertheless Knobel has made a fresh attempt, in the interest of his fragmentary hypothesis, to explain the twenty-one places of encampment given in vv. 16-37 as twenty-one marches made by Israel from Sinai till their first arrival at Kadesh. As the whole distance from Sinai to Kadesh by the straight road through the desert consists of only an eleven days' journey, Knobel endeavours to bring his twenty-one marches into harmony with this statement, by reckoning only five hours to each march, and postulating a few detours in addition, in which the people occupied about a hundred hours or more. The objection which might be raised to this, namely, that the Israelites made much longer marches than these on their way from Egypt to Sinai, he tries to set aside by supposing that the Israelites left their flocks behind them in Egypt, and procured fresh ones from the Bedouins at Sinai. But this assertion is so arbitrary and baseless an idea, that it is not worth while to waste a single word upon the subject (see Exo 12:38). The reduction of the places of encampment to simple marches is proved to be at variance with the text by the express statement in Num 10:33, that when the Israelites left the wilderness of Sinai they went a three days' journey, until the cloud showed them a resting-place. For it is perfectly evydent from this, that the march from one place to another cannot be understood without further ground as being simply a day's march of five hours.)
Of all the seventeen places not a single one is known, or can be pointed out with certainty, except Eziongeber. Only the four mentioned in Num 33:30-33, Moseroth, Bene-Jaakan, Hor-hagidgad, and Jotbathah, are referred to again, viz., in Deu 10:6-7, where Moses refers to the divine protection enjoyed by the Israelites in their wandering in the desert, in these words: "And the children of Israel took their journey from Beeroth-bene-Jaakan to Mosera; there Aaron died, and there he was buried.... From thence they journeyed unto Gudgodah, and from Gudgodah to Jotbathah, a land of water-brooks." Of the identity of the places mentioned in the two passages there can be no doubt whatever. Bene Jaakan is simply an abbreviation of Beeroth-bene-Jaakan, wells of the children of Jaakan. Now if the children of Jaakan were the same as the Horite family of Kanan mentioned in Gen 36:27, - and the reading יעקן for ועקן in Ch1 1:42 seems to favour this-the wells of Jaakan would have to be sought for on the mountains that bound the Arabah on either the east or west.
Gudgodah is only a slightly altered and abbreviated form of Hor-hagidgad, the cave of Gidgad or Gudgodah; and lastly, Moseroth is simply the plural form of Mosera. But notwithstanding the identity of these four places, the two passages relate to different journeys. Deu 10:6 and Deu 10:7 refers to the march in the fortieth year, when the Israelites went from Kadesh through the Wady Murreh into the Arabah to Mount Hor, and encamped in the Arabah first of all at the wells of the children, and then at Mosera, where Aaron died upon Mount Hor, which was in the neighbourhood, and whence they travelled still farther southwards to Gudgodah and Jotbathah. In the historical account in Num 20 and 21 the three places of encampment, Bene-Jaakan, Gudgodah, and Jotbathah, are not mentioned, because nothing worthy of note occurred there. Gudgodah was perhaps the place of encampment mentioned in Num 21:4, the name of which is not given, where the people were punished with fiery serpents; and Jotbathah is probably to be placed before Zalmonah (Num 33:41). The clause, "a land of water-brooks" (Deu 10:7), points to a spot in or near the southern part of the Arabah, where some wady, or valley with a stream flowing through it, opened into the Arabah from either the eastern or western mountains, and formed a green oasis through its copious supply of water in the midst of the arid steppe. But the Israelites had encamped at the very same places once before, namely, during their thirty-seven years of wandering, in which the people, after returning from Kadesh to the Red Sea through the centre of the great desert of et Tih, after wandering about for some time in the broad desert plateau, went through the Wady el Jerafeh into the Arabah as far as the eastern border of it on the slopes of Mount Hor, and there encamped at Mosera (Moseroth) somewhere near Ain et Taiyibeh (on Robinson's map), and then crossed over to Bene-Jaakan, which was probably on the western border of the Arabah, somewhere near Ain el Ghamr (Robinson), and then turning southwards passed along the Wady el Jeib by Hor-gidgad (Gudgodah), Jotbathah, and Abronah to Eziongeber on the Red Sea; for there can be no doubt whatever that the Eziongeber in Num 33:35, Num 33:36, and that in Deu 2:8, are one and the same town, viz., the well-known port at the northern extremity of the Elanitic Gulf, where the Israelites in the time of Solomon and Jehoshaphat built a fleet to sail to Ophir (Kg1 9:26; Kg1 22:49). It was not far from Elath (i.e., Akaba), and is supposed to have been "the large and beautiful town of Asziun," which formerly stood, according to Makrizi, near to Aila, where there were many dates, fields, and fruit-trees, though it has now long since entirely disappeared.
Consequently the Israelites passed twice through a portion of the Arabah in a southerly direction towards the Red Sea, the second time from Wady Murreh by Mount Hor, to go round the land of Edom, not quite to the head of the gulf, but only to the Wady el Ithm, through which they crossed to the eastern side of Edomitis; the first time during the thirty-seven years of wandering from Wady el Jerafeh to Moseroth and Bene Jaakan, and thence to Eziongeber.
"And they removed from Eziongeber, and encamped in the desert of Zin, that is Kadesh:" the return to Kadesh towards the end of the thirty-ninth year is referred to here. The fact that no places of encampment are given between Eziongeber and Kadesh, is not to be attributed to the "plan of the author, to avoid mentioning the same places of encampment a second time," for any such plan is a mere conjecture; but it may be simply and perfectly explained from the fact, that on this return route-which the whole of the people, with their wives, children, and flocks, could accomplish without any very great exertion in ten or fourteen days, as the distance from Aila to Kadesh through the desert of Paran is only about a forty hours' journey upon camels, and Robinson travelled from Akabah to the Wady Retemath, near Kadesh, in four days and a half-no formal camp was pitched at all, probably because the time of penal wandering came to an end at Eziongeber, and the time had arrived when the congregation was to assemble again at Kadesh, and set out thence upon its journey to Canaan. - Hence the eleven names given in Num 33:19-30, between Rithmah and Moseroth, can only refer to those stations at which the congregation pitched their camp for a longer or shorter period during the thirty-seven years of punishment, on their slow return from Kadesh to the Red Sea, and previous to their entering the Arabah and encamping at Moseroth.
This number of stations, which is very small for thirty-seven years (only seventeen from Rithmah or Kadesh to Eziongeber), is a sufficient proof that the congregation of Israel was not constantly wandering about during the whole of that time, but may have remained in many of the places of encampment, probably those which furnished an abundant supply of water and pasturage, not only for weeks and months, but even for years, the people scattering themselves in all directions round about the place where the tabernacle was set up, and making use of such means of support as the desert afforded, and assembling together again when this was all gone, for the purpose of travelling farther and seeking somewhere else a suitable spot for a fresh encampment. Moreover, the words of Deu 1:46, "ye abode in Kadesh many days," when compared with Num 2:1, "then we turned, and took our journey into the wilderness of the way to the Red Sea," show most distinctly, that after the sentence passed upon the people in Kadesh (Num 14), they did not begin to travel back at once, but remained for a considerable time in Kadesh before going southwards into the desert.
With regard to the direction which they took, all that can be said, so long as none of the places of encampment mentioned in Num 33:19-29 are discovered, is that they made their way by a very circuitous route, and with many a wide detour, to Eziongeber, on the Red Sea.
(Note: We agree so far, therefore, with the vie adopted by Fries, and followed by Kurtz (History of Old Covenant, iii. 306-7) and Schultz (Deut. pp. 153-4), that we regard the stations given in vv. 19-35, between Rithmah and Eziongeber, as referring to the journeys of Israel, after its condemnation in Kadesh, during the thirty-seven years of its wandering about in the desert. But we do not regard the view which these writers have formed of the marches themselves as being well founded, or in accordance with the text, - namely, that the people of Israel did not really come a second time in full procession from the south to Kadesh, but that they had never left Kadesh entirely, inasmuch as then the nation was rejected in Kadesh, the people divided themselves into larger and smaller groups, and that portion which was estranged from Moses, or rather from the Lord, remained in Kadesh even after the rest were scattered about; so that, in a certain sense, Kadesh formed the standing encampment and meeting-place of the congregation even during the thirty-seven years. According to this view, the removals and encampments mentioned in vv. 9-36 do not describe the marches of the whole nation, but are to be understood as the circuit made by the headquarters during the thirty-seven years, with Moses at the head and the sanctuary in the midst (Kurtz), or else as showing "that Moses and Aaron, with the sanctuary and the tribe of Levi, altered their resting-place, say from year to year, thus securing to every part of the nation in turn the nearness of the sanctuary, in accordance with the signals appointed by God (Num 10:11-12), and thus passed over the space between Kadesh and Eziongeber within the first eighteen years, and then, by a similar change of place, gradually drew near to Kadesh during the remaining eighteen or nineteen years, and at length in the last year summoned the whole nation (all the congregation) to assemble together at this meeting-place." Now we cannot admit that in this view "we find all the different and scattered statements of the Pentateuch explained and rendered intelligible." In the first place, it does not do justice even to the list of stations; for if the constantly repeated expression, "and they (the children of Israel, Num 33:1) removed...and encamped," denotes the removal and encamping of the whole congregation in vv. 3-18 and Num 33:37-49, it is certainly at variance with the text to explain the same words in vv. 19-36 as signifying the removal and encamping of the headquarters only, or of Moses, with Aaron and the Levites, and the tabernacle. Again, in all the laws that were given and the events that are described as occurring between the first halt of the congregation in Kadesh (Num 13 and 14) and their return thither at the commencement of the fortieth year (Num 20), the presence of the whole congregation is taken for granted. The sacrificial laws in Num 15, which Moses was to address to the children of Israel (Num 15:1), were given to "the whole congregation" (cf. Num 33:24, Num 33:25, Num 33:26). The man who gathered wood on the Sabbath was taken out of the camp and stoned by "all the congregation" (Num 15:36). "All the congregation" took part in the rebellion of the company of Korah (Num 16:19; Num 17:6, Num 18:8.). It is true this occurrence is supposed by Kurtz to have taken place "during the halt in Kadesh," but the reasons given are by no means conclusive (p. 105). Besides, if we assign everything that is related in Num 15-19 to the time when the whole congregation abode in Kadesh, this deprives the hypothesis of its chief support in Deu 1:46, "and ye abode in Kadesh a long time, according to the days that he abode." For in that case the long abode in Kadesh would include the period of the laws and incidents recorded in Num 15-19, and yet, after all, "the whole congregation" went away. In no case, in fact, can the words be understood as signifying that a portion of the nation remained there during the thirty-seven years. Nor can this be inferred in any way from the fact that their departure is not expressly mentioned; for, at all events, the statement in Num 20:1, "and the children of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the desert of Zin," presupposes that they had gone away. And the "inconceivable idea, that in the last year of their wanderings, when it was their express intention to cross the Jordan and enter Canaan from the east, they should have gone up from Eziongeber to the southern boundary of Canaan, which they had left thirty-seven years before, merely to come back again to the neighbourhood of Eziongeber, after failing in their negotiations with the king of Edom, which they might have carried on from some place much farther south, and to take the road from that point to the country on the east of the Jordan after all" (Fries), loses all the surprising character which it apparently has, if we only give up the assumption upon which it is founded, but which has no support whatever in the biblical history, viz., that during the thirty-seven years of their wandering in the desert, Moses was acquainted with the fact that the Israelites were to enter Canaan from the east, or at any rate that he had formed this plan for some time. If, on the contrary, when the Lord rejected the murmuring nation (Num 14:26), He decided nothing with reference to the way by which the generation that would grow up in the desert was to enter Canaan, - and it was not till after the return to Kadesh that Moses was informed by God that they were to advance into Canaan from the east and not from the south, - it was perfectly natural that when the time of punishment had expired, the Israelites should assemble in Kadesh again, and start from that point upon their journey onward.)
The places of encampment on the journey of the fortieth year from Kadesh to Mount Hor, and round Edom and Moab into the steppes of Moab, have been discussed at Num 20 and 21. On Mount Hor, and Aaron's death there, see at Num 20:22. For the remark in Num 33:40 concerning the Canaanites of Arad, see at Num 21:1. On Zalmonah, Phunon, and Oboth, see at Num 21:10; on Ijje Abarim, at Num 21:11; on Dibon Gad, Almon Diblathaim, and the mountains of Abarim, before Nebo, Num 21:16-20. On Arboth Moab, see Num 22:1.
These instructions, with which the eyes of the Israelites were directed to the end of all their wandering, viz., the possession of the promised land, are arranged in two sections by longer introductory formulas (Num 33:50 and Num 35:1). The former contains the divine commands (a) with regard to the extermination of the Canaanites and their idolatry, and the division of the land among the tribes of Israel (Num 33:50-56); (b) concerning the boundaries of Canaan (Num 34:1-15); (c) concerning the men who were to divide the land (Num 34:16-29). The second contains commands (a) respecting the towns to be given up to the Levites (Num 35:1-8); (b) as to the setting apart of cities of refuge for unintentional manslayers, and the course to be adopted in relation to such manslayers (Num 35:9-34); and (c) a law concerning the marrying of heiresses within their own tribes (Num 36:1-13). - The careful dovetailing of all these legal regulations by separate introductory formulas, is a distinct proof that the section Num 33:50-56 is not to be regarded, as Baumgarten, Knobel, and others suppose, in accordance with the traditional division of the chapters, as an appendix or admonitory conclusion to the list of stations, but as the general legal foundation for the more minute instructions in Num 34-36.
Command to Exterminate the Canaanites, and Divide their Land among the Families of Israel.
When the Israelites passed through the Jordan into the land of Canaan, they were to exterminate all the inhabitants of the land, and to destroy all the memorials of their idolatry; to take possession of the land and well therein, for Jehovah had given it to them for a possession. הורישׁ, to take possession of (Num 33:53, etc.), then to drive out of their possession, to exterminate (Num 33:52; cf. Num 14:12, etc.). On Num 33:52, see Exo 34:13. משׂכּית, an idol of stone (cf. Lev 26:1). מסּכת צלמי, idols cast from brass. Massecah, see at Exo 32:4. Bamoth, altars of the Canaanites upon high places (see Lev 26:30).
The command to divide the land by lot among the families is partly a verbal repetition of Num 26:53-56. וגו לו יצא אל־אשׁר: literally, "into that, whither the lot comes out to him, shall be to him" (i.e., to each family); in other words, it is to receive that portion of land to which the lot that comes out of the urn shall point it. "According to the tribes of your fathers:" see at Num 26:55. - The command closes in Num 33:55, Num 33:56, with the threat, that if they did not exterminate the Canaanites, not only would such as were left become "thorns in their eyes and stings in their sides," i.e., inflict the most painful injuries upon them, and make war upon them in the land; but Jehovah would also do the very same things to the Israelites that He had intended to do to the Canaanites, i.e., drive them out of the land and destroy them. This threat is repeated by Joshua in his last address to the assembled congregation (Jos 23:13).