8.And the sons of Pallu; Eliab. The curtailment which had occurred in the superior line is here introduced, either in exaltation of God’s grace, because, notwithstanding so great a loss, the tribe of Reuben was still numerous; or else to mark the cause of its diminution, for it might otherwise have seemed strange that other tribes exceeded in numbers that one whose founder and parent was Jacob’s first-born. But when he has narrated how the two sons of Eliab had been destroyed with their company, he briefly adverts to the clemency of God towards the sons of Korah, in that He spared them. And surely this was no common exercise of mercy not only to preserve them uninjured from the calamity, but afterwards to raise up shoots from the accursed root, in whom His spiritual riches might shine forth for the general advantage of the Church: for we know what honorable mention is often made of this family; and it is probable that certain of them were the authors of some of the Psalms, and thus were endued with the Spirit of prophecy, when possibly at that time none of the priests was possessed of this gift. This is that profound abyss in the various and unequal judgments of God, which it becomes us to adore with sober humility. Meanwhile, in a single word, Moses hints at the reason why he repeats this same history, whereby the formidable mode of their death might be held up as a perpetual example: for the Hebrew word sn, nes, which is primarily a standard f193 or banner, is often used for some portentous thing, which strikes men’s senses with astonishment, and at the same time fills their minds with fear.
19.The sons of Judah were Er and Onan. Since the tribe of Judah was so numerous, Moses magnifies the greatness of God’s grace by this circumstance, that of the three sons which he begat, two perished in the land of Canaan, by whose loss he might have appeared to be condemned to perpetual sterility. But the climax of God’s unparalleled mercy was this, that although two of his children were born of an incestuous connection, they grew up into so great a people.
28.The sons of Joseph after their families. The comparison of the two tribes, which sprang from the same head, is worthy of notice. By the fact that Manasseh was the father of only one son, f194 the prophecy of Jacob, when he declared that the first-born should be inferior to his younger brother Ephraim, began already to receive its accomplishment. Nevertheless, God’s blessing extended far and wide for the increase of his family, so that they exceededthe tribe of Reuben in number. But further, though the larger number of children (polutekni>a)in which the descendants of Ephraim were superior, was a kind of type of his promised fecundity, still the excellency and dignity, of which Jacob prophesied, was deferred to a distant period; since in this respect the tribe of Ephraim was inferior by about a third, whereas a more numerous issue had been promised him. Although, therefore, God had not spoken in vain, yet the fulfillment of His promise did not immediately appear.
In the tribe of Dan, however, the incredible power of God was put forth. He was contemptible among his brethren; and thence it was an extraordinary blessing accorded to him in the shape of an honorable degree and name, when Jacob declares that “Danshall judge his people.” (<014916>Genesis 49:16.) He is said to have begotten only one son; yet his posterity exceeds 64,000.
51. These are the numbered of the children of Israel. By this sum total, what I have above adverted to is more clearly shewn, that amidst so many losses, and especially after the terrible vengeance which God had recently executed, the race of Abraham was preserved in an incrediblemanner, so that the fulfillment of the promise might not be brought about only towards a small body of persons. Nature itself and reason would have suggested that a few only should enjoy the promised land; but if the inheritance had been restricted to a small number of men, God’s promise would have lain, as it were, in obscurity and concealment. Yet within thirty-eight years, during which more than 603,000 men had fallen, God marvellously brought it to pass that the same number of persons should still remain, some 2500 only excepted. Assuredly they must be blind four times over, as it were, who do not behold in this bright mirror God’s wonderful providence, and the faithfulness of His gratuitous adoption, and His steadfastness in keeping His promises. At the same time, that which I have already referred to in Deuteronomy clearly appears, that those who survived, were strikingly admonished by this great loss, that they should not fall away at any time into superstition.
53.Unto these the land shall be divided. This must have had great influence towards encouraging believers, when they gave in their names before God, and professed that they were heirs of the land; since it was exactly the same as if they actually had it in their grasp, when God called them to its certain possession; for the demonstrative pronoun is used emphatically, lest they should suppose that they were to be put off any longer, and that what was promised them was still to be kept in store for their posterity. The actual fulfillment, therefore, and immediate presence of the thing is indicated, when God prescribes that the land was to be divided to those who were just numbered, and whose names appeared in the public registers. A proportionable mode of division is then enjoined, so that their share should be distributed to every tribe according to the number of their names. We now perceive that they were registered, and, so to speak, f195lustrated, in order that they might more earnestly bestir themselves to take possession of the promised land.
57. And these are they that were numbered of the Levites. He treats separately of the tribe of Levi, which God had dissevered from the rest of the people; and of the sons of Levi, the last mentioned is Kohath, the founder of the sacerdotal family. Hence we may probably conjecture that the law of primogeniture was not regarded when God deigned to take the priests from thence. But why Moses should expressly state the name of his mother, contrary to the usual custom of Scripture, does not dearly appear; for it is not likely that he did this as a distinction to his own family, because he at the same time shews how he himself, as well as his children, was deprived of the honor (of the priesthood,) f196 in which certainly there is no appearance of ambition. It is more probable, if the word daughter is literally taken, that he did not conceal a disgraceful circumstance, in order to extol more highly the indulgence of God; for, in this case, Moses and Aaron sprang of an incestuous marriage, since Amram, their father, must have married his aunt, which natural modesty forbade. It will, then, be rather an ingenuous confession of family dishonor, than an ambitious boast. If we inquire how this could have been tolerated, the answer will readily suggest itself, that this license had so largely prevailed among the oriental nations, that no one deemed that to be illicit which was in such universal use. And this we shall presently see f197 to be expressly referred to, when God, by forbidding incestuous marriages, distinguishes His people from other nations. It will be no matter of surprise, then, that those who were not yet prohibited from doing so by the law of God, had followed the general custom.
60.And unto Aaron was born Nadab. Since two of Aaron’s four sons were cut off by a sudden death, the dignity of the high-priesthood, which depended on the life of two persons, appeared to be endangered. And with this view Moses repeats the history already given, in order that God’s wonderful providence might be more clearly perceived in the preservation of this order, with which the safety of the whole Church was connected. Unquestionably, unless other families had been much more prolific, the whole tribe of Levi would have consisted of very few persons; yet, if we come to compare them, their fecundity will be incredible, inasmuch as 23,000 are numbered, whereas the sacerdotal race issued from only two heads. But God exalts His Church to pre-eminence by ways and means unknown to men, in order that His power may be magnified in this weakness. Moreover, the cause of their death is again recorded, that the priests, being admonished by this warning, may not only more diligently beware of wilful sacrilege, but also of error and negligence.
63.These are they that were numbered. The former registration was made by Aaron. The difference between the two census is therefore specified, in order that Moses may take occasion to commemorate God’s judgment, which can never be sufficiently considered, that of 600,000, only two were found who had survived to the term prescribed by God. If any should object that the greater part would have died naturally, since they had arrived at their thirtieth: fortieth, and even fiftieth year, f198 and thus would have been some eighty years old before the completion of the forty years, I admit that such is the case; but many had not yet reached their twenty-fourth year. Nor can we doubt but that not a few of them were younger than Caleb and Joshua, whom we know to have been not only alive and well, but even strong and vigorous for many years afterwards. At any rate, therefore, not old age, but God’s vengeance, cut off half of them by an untimely death, as if he had openly put forth his hand from heaven and smitten them. It is not without reason, then, that Moses states that they were dead, as God had pronounced; not merely that by the punishment inflicted upon them he may inculcate upon us the fear of God, but also that we may learn to be aroused in earnest by his threats.