In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Book of Numbers

  • Introduction
  • The Text
  • General Introductions to the Pentateuch

Biblical Studies Book of Numbers
Reinhard Achenbach
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0068


The book of Numbers is the fourth part of the Torah (or, in Greek, the Pentateuch). In the Mishnah and in the Talmud it is named Homesh ha-Pequdîm (i.e., the Fifth of the Mustered) because of the censuses recorded at the beginning of the book and in chapter 26. The Septuagint names the part Arithmoi (Censuses or Numbers), while the Vulgate calls it Numeri (Numbers). Rashi (Rabbi Shelomo ben Yitzhak) referred to the book with its first words, “wa-yedabber” (i.e., “and he said”), but the traditional Hebrew name is Be-midbar (i.e., “in the wilderness” [of Sinai]). In Christian Bibles it is sometimes called the Fourth Book of Moses, presuming Moses’s authorship of the Pentateuch. As the first and last verses of the final composition of the book indicate, the content was thought to contain the revelations Moses received from God during the wandering of the Israelites from the wilderness of Sinai to the “plains of Moab” at the border of the promised land. The reports of these revelations are connected to a series of narratives from scribal epical and historical tradition on the wilderness wandering and the conquest of Transjordan. The book also contains material from the priestly tradition, such as narratives and regulations about proper procedures in the sanctuary, about the institutions of Israel, and about ritual obligations concerning purity and with regard to land conquest and land inheritance. The frequent change between the narratives and legal material from the priestly tradition is characteristic of the book’s final composition. The core of the book also contains parts from different narrative cycles on a confrontation with the Moabites in the Balaam story, which take up the preexilic epic tradition (9th–6th centuries BCE) and were rewritten and expanded by priestly scribes in the postexilic period of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (5th–4th centuries BCE). This was rewritten and expanded by Pentateuch redactors, who stressed the authority of Moses and Aaron as mediators of God’s will and the Torah. For general information, see the articles on Numbers in encyclopedias and lexicas about the Bible.

The Text

The biblical text of the book of Numbers has a long history of tradition. Scholars have tried to reconstruct the original text by comparing all manuscripts available, including ancient translations. The most acknowledged Hebrew Masoretic version from the St. Petersburg manuscript, which goes back to the family of Ben Asher (Tiberias, 1008 CE), is the basic text of the critical edition Elliger and Rudolph 1977. Among the Samaritan manuscripts from the congregation of the Samaritans, Tal 1994 is one of the most important editions. The most significant translations are those in Aramaic; their roots go back to the reading of the holy scripture in the ancient synagogue already at rabbinic times. Among the many editions of the Targum Onkelos, the best place to begin is Rosenbaum and Silbermann 1972 or Sperber 2004. Greek translations, which often rely on very old variants of the Hebrew text, are available in several critical editions, an older one being Rahlfs 1935. More recent editions are Wevers 1982 and Wevers 1998, which comes with annotations. For further ancient versions of the biblical text there is an online directory, Marlowe 2001–2011.

  • Elliger, Karl, and Wilhelm Rudolph, eds. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Rev. ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1977.

    Presents the text of the Codex Petropolitanus B 19, from 1008 CE, with critical annotations on variants. The edition is used by all scholars as a basic text for research and has been reprinted several times. A new edition is under work, examining all text variants of the manuscript versions from the Qumran caves.

  • Marlowe, Michael D. Bible Research: Internet Resources for Students of Scripture. 2001–2011.

    This is a wonderful collection of links to ancient versions of the Bible for students and scholars who are looking for detailed information on texts, versions, and history of the canon.

  • Rahlfs, Alfred, ed. Septuaginta. Stuttgart: Württembergische Bibelanstalt, 1935.

    Classical Septuagint edition.

  • Rosenbaum, M., and A. M. Silbermann, eds. Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth, and Rashi’s Commentary, Numbers. Jerusalem: Silbermann Family, 1972.

    A traditional edition of the Chumash for rabbinic use, including the Aramaic Targum text of Numbers.

  • Sperber, Alexander, ed. The Bible in Aramaic: Based on the Old Manuscripts and Printed Texts. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004.

    A reprint of the 1959–1962 classical critical edition of the Aramaic Targum text.

  • Tal, Avraham, ed. The Samaritan Pentateuch: Edited according to MS 6 ( C ) of the Shekhem Synagoge. Texts and Studies in the Hebrew Language and Related Subjects 8. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 1994.

    The editor has provided the oldest complete version of the Samaritan Pentateuch.

  • Wevers, John William, ed. Septuaginta: Vetus Testamentum Graecum. Vol. 3. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1982.

    Advanced critical edition of the Göttingen Septuagint with references to many manuscripts in the notes.

  • Wevers, John William. Notes on the Greek Text of Numbers. Society of Biblical Literature Septuagint and Cognate Studies Series 46. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998.

    Gives valuable explanations about text-critical decisions.

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