Commentaries on Numbers

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This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post.

Timothy Ashley's NICOT (1993) is an excellent commentary by a fairly conservative evangelical. It has more detail than some of the older commentaries in this series (e.g. Wenham on Leviticus, Craigie on Deuteronomy), though not quite as much as some of the massive two-volume works in the series (such as Waltke on Proverbs, Block on Ezekiel, or Hamilton on Genesis). I have read this commentary in its entirety, and I enjoyed it very much. The most unfortunate thing about it is that it was published just after Milgrom's JPS commentary (see immediately below) came out. Ashley had access to Milgrom's published papers on Numbers but not the commentary itself. He had enough time after its publication to mention his regrets about this in the introduction but not enough time for it to affect the body of the work. Still, Ashley handles well the historical, theological, and linguistic issues that arise in this book. He tends to avoid authorship issues but treats the book as a unity.

The NAC by R. Dennis Cole (2000) is more recent than Ashley's, but I've heard more mixed reviews. Cole interacts with the scholarship a little more than some volumes in this series, giving plenty of citations of other authors. He argues that Moses is largely responsible for the book. Cole has received favorable comments from reviewers on his handling of theological issues and his analysis of the unified structure of Numbers despite the variety of material in the book. Some of his critics find him somewhat less helpful in biblical theology and narrative criticism. He sometimes spends time on literary observations without making any connection to the interpretation of the book or its theology. Some reviewers consider Cole a better first-choice evangelical commentary than Ashley. Cole does have some stronger points than Ashley, but Ashley is a bit more detailed (although some might prefer a little less detail). What clinches it for me is that I haven't seen the kinds of complaints about Ashley that I've seen about Cole, and thus Ashley gets the nod for my first choice.

Jacob Milgrom's JPS commentary (1990) is by far my favorite commentary from mainstream academia. It's much briefer than Levine (below), but I appreciate what Milgrom is up to, and he doesn't spend as much time on things that I don't find very helpful. His Leviticus commentary is the best academic work on that book, and this one is nowhere near as detailed but equally scholarly and insightful. Milgrom tends to have a higher view of the historicity of Numbers than most of the other mainstream works. His academically focused treatment does not tend to lose the forest for the trees the way his three-volume Anchor Bible commentary on Leviticus sometimes does, and he argues for a unified structure. This commentary is strong in both details and overall message. Milgrom has a special interest in rabbinic traditions, particular in the medieval period, and that history of interpretation finds its way into these pages frequently. This book isn't cheap, but it's much less expensive than the Anchor Bible set by Levine (see below).

Baruch Levine's Anchor Bible (1993, 2000) may be the most in-depth commentary on Numbers in recent years (in English, anyway). I have great respect for Levine in terms of the learned kind of work he does, but his presuppositions seem to me to be a little outdated, and he focuses so much on source criticism that I don't think there's a very large percentage of his commentary devoted to anything I find valuable in a commentary. He is fairly strong on historical background, philology, and textual criticism, but there is next to no attention to theology. He takes the book to come largely from priestly hands in the post-exilic period. It's one of the most important academic works on the book, but I don't recommend it for those who just want some help in preparing to teach the book in Bible studies or sermons.

Dennis Olson's Interpretation (1996) considers how each section of the book contributes to the overall message of the book and majors in biblical theology and NT connections, focusing on the judgment on the first generation of the wilderness wanderings and the transition to the second generation that ended up entering the land. Olson argues that the structure of the book is based on that very transition, arguing for a final-form unity of the book along such lines. He has the preacher in mind, as is usually the case in this series, but some reviewers take this volume to be a little more academically-focused. Olson's theological perspective is similar to the canonical-critical view of Brevard Childs, i.e. fairly critical with respect to the origin of the book and its historical accuracy but focusing on a structurally unified final form of the book when treating its theology and relevance to Christian appropriation of the book's message. He treats the theological message as being first given to a post-exilic setting, which I find thoroughly implausible, but his theological insights are widely respected by scholars of fairly conservative stripes.

For a more evangelical commentary on a more popular level, Gordon Wenham's TOTC (1981) is very good but extremely brief to be of too much value for someone used to reading the kind of work Wenham usually does. His commentaries on Genesis (WBC) and Leviticus (NICOT) are absolutely first-rate, and I expect his current work on Psalms for Apollos will become my favorite commentary on that book. His less detailed work here is as good quality, just not as helpful because of what he didn't have space to do. It may still be the best Numbers commentary at this level of detail. He does offer some good help into matters of theology and literary structure. As with his earlier and lengthier Leviticus commentary he displays good insight on anthropological matters and the meaning of sacrifice and the priesthood. I read this commentary alongside Ashley, and it did not seem redundant even alongside a much more detailed work. Wenham is a moderate evangelical, but there is almost nothing in here that should bother even more conservative evangelicals. Wenham later wrote the Old Testament Guide (Sheffield) for Numbers, which many people regard as the best introduction to this book.

Katherine Doob Sakenfeld's ITC (1995) is very well respected for its biblical theology. This is a much shorter work than Olson's. It's a little more geared toward non-scholars than Olson, but there is less in it. Like Olson, her views on the origin of the book are not conservative, but she focuses even more on the final form than Olson does. She is an engaging author, and those teaching this book will benefit greatly from it, no matter their theological perspective.

W.H. Bellinger's NIBC (2001) also includes Leviticus. This series is very brief and very readable, but Bellinger's scholarship is not skimpy. We just don't see all that goes into the reasoning for his conclusions. The series has a running exposition, with a few notes at the end of each section for more detailed text-critical, translation, and other more technical notes. These are usually very selectively chosen, since little room is reserved in this series for technical issues.

Roy Gane's NIVAC treats both Leviticus and Numbers and is much more recent than Wenham. Gane was a student of Jacob Milgrom and thus is well suited to write on these books. Strangely, Gane spends more time on the shorter Leviticus than he does on the longer Numbers. This series' strength is in providing a close look at the transition from interpreting the text in its original context to finding principles that apply in our contemporary context. It weakness is that the time spent on interpretation in the original setting is usually somewhat thin. It therefore never should serve as a primary commentary.

R.K. Harrison's WEC (1993) is a middle-range exegetical work, with an aim toward serving those who will teach the book of Numbers in Christian settings. Harrison's greatest strength is in historical background, but he is good on grammatical and theological matters as well. His views tend to be very conservative. I've seen some complaints that his focus doesn't always line up with the main concerns of the book itself. Unfortunately, this commentary is out-of-print and would need to be purchased used.

Raymond Brown's BST (2002) This is an exposition focusing on theology and contemporary application. Brown is a Baptist minister and should not be confused with the Roman Catholic New Testament scholar Raymond Brown, who is famous for his work on the Johannine literature and the synoptic gospels. This series is intended as a help to the preacher in focusing on the overall message of a book without distraction from the details of a more careful exegesis. I thus recommend it only as a supplement to more comprehensive commentaries.

Philip Budd's WBC (1984) is not as well regarded as many other entries in the series. It is being replaced in the next year or so by a new WBC by John Sailhamer. Budd is heavily focused on linguistic and source-critical issues, spending not as much time on other concerns. He thinks the book was put together in the post-exilic period with the priestly/temple concerns of that period in mind. Budd is interested in the history of interpretation, which you won't find as much of in most commentaries. He does treat theology to some degree, but his reconstruction of the context of the book probably makes that less useful to those like me who take the book to be directed toward a much earlier period. In any case, he does not generally receive high marks from reviewers on his biblical theology, which is what I think is most helpful in a commentary.

George W. Coats and Rolf P. Knierim have done the Forms of the Old Testament Literature volume on Numbers. This is not a commentary but a form-critical study of the book. Many people list this series with commentary lists, so I include it here. I don't find the series very helpful for what most people use commentaries for. This book tends to avoid questions of source criticism to focus on final form structure. They think of the book's primary purpose as a combination of concerns with cultic and military organization, which sets it apart from Leviticus, which reflects none of the military concern. They thus do not see the division between Leviticus and Numbers as arbitrary as many older scholars did. They provide an alternative interpretation of the structure to Olson's view (see above). In some places, they miss big picture structural issues (e.g. the chiastic structure of the rebellion narratives). Reviewers have complained about selective attention to some of the important recent literature on the structure of Numbers. When they do treat source issues, they take a view close to the traditional documentary hypothesis, in the face of much recent work that argues against the traditional assignation of many of these sources. They're often more hesitant to ascribe particular settings to particular passages, however. Coats had written the portion on 10:36 through the end of the book when he stopped work on this book. Knierim wrote the first part, and others were involved in editing Coats's work.

Forthcoming Numbers Commentaries:

John Sailhamer is contributing a WBC replacement Budd, which is due out either late 2007 or early 2008. I am very much looking forward to this. This will be much more conservative than Budd and probably a good deal more in-depth. I've seen Sailhamer's The Pentateuch as Narrative referenced frequently by a number of scholars, and his brief EBC on Genesis (currently scheduled for revision) is one of the better brief expositional commentaries on Genesis.

Moshe Weinfeld is contracted to write the Hermeneia volume on Numbers. His Anchor Bible work on Deuteronomy is very well received, and it would probably be the best academic commentary on that book if it were complete. Unfortunately, his first volume on chs.1-11 is all that's out, which means he has quite a way to go (25 more chapters, probably in two more volumes) before he's even likely to start doing Numbers. Don't expect this commentary anytime soon.

Frank Gosling is scheduled to do the HCOT. This is more likely than not to be pretty detailed, but the entries in the HCOT vary greatly in length, so there's no way to predict where this will fall on the scale.

David Baker will be writing the Believer's Church Bible Commentary on Numbers. I like Baker, and he's done a good job with brief commentaries before. Don't expect more than a very brief exposition, however. Baker is more conservative than some of the entries in this series.

Ronald B. Allen is revising his EBC contribution. This work is pretty good. It is currently packaged with Sailhamer's Genesis and the commentaries on Exodus and Leviticus (standing out as a little more in-depth than the others) but the Numbers commentary in the revised edition will be moved to volume two, alongside Michael Grisanti on Deuteronomy, Michael Kelly on Joshua, Mark Boda on Judges, and George Schwab on Ruth. I didn't mention Allen above, partly because I'd rather people wait until the revision to buy his work and partly because Cole has so heavily mined Allen's first edition that I'm not sure anyone with Cole would get much out of Allen. That may not still be the case with the second edition, which will surely be influenced by Milgrom, Levine, Ashley, Cole, and the other important works that have come out since Allen's original work.

Nathan MacDonald is contracted for the Two Horizons commentary for this book. I'm still not very sure what this series is supposed to be like. The two volumes out already are not very similar to each other. One of its goals is to bridge the gap between biblical studies and theology, but I'm a little unclear at what that's supposed to look like in a commentary.

David Stubbs is doing the Brazos Theological Commentary. Only two volumes in this series are out as well, and I've only seen one. I was extremely disappointed by it, but maybe it will be an anomaly. I don't have high hopes, however. The basic conviction of the editors is that biblical studies too often ignores theology, but the commentary I looked at just seemed to be a free-flowing reflection on themes a systematic theologian might raise when reading scripture rather than engaging in a more biblical theology that specialists in biblical studies would be more inclined to engage in. I'm performing induction on one case, which isn't a good thing to do, but I have low hopes for the series at this point.

Dale Brueggemann is doing the Cornerstone commentary on Numbers. I have little information on this series, but what I have heard suggests that it might not be much more than the study notes for the NLT Study Bible repackaged as a commentary. I hope that is not the case, but I have seen no confirmation on what it is actually like, and one scholar supposedly contracted for this series told me that he knew nothing about that but had earlier contributed study notes for the NLT Study Bible.


Milgrom's commentary is very useful. N.H. Snaith has a decent commentary from the New Century Bible Commentary series. It is a little dated now but covers both Leviticus and Numbers. Gordon Fee recommends it as well.

I wasn't sure if Snaith would be as useful as the ones I did include for what he's good for. It is in a discontinued series, also, and it's very difficult to find copies of many volumes in that series (and to find pictures for them, I've discovered when I have included them in these posts).

Where does Fee recommend Old Testament commentaries?

Fee recommends it in the appendix of "How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth." I am a little suprised this was his recommendation over some of those you mentioned.

That would be Doug Stuart, then, not Fee. Fee did the NT ones, and Stuart did the OT ones.

You must be looking at the first edition, because I don't see Snaith in my second or third editions. Stuart's recommendations in the second edition are Wenham for Leviticus (NICOT) and Wenham for Numbers (TOTC). His recommendations in the third edition are Rooker (NAC), Wenham (NICOT), and Bellinger (NIBC) for Leviticus and then Cole (NAC), Ashley (NICOT), and Wenham (TOTC) for Numbers. So if Stuart recommended it in 1981, he didn't recommend it anymore in 1993 or in 2003.

By the way, there's no apostrophe in that book's title. It's a deliberate pun, but it's hard to spot. It's nearly impossible to spot with the apostrophe, and most people correct for the missing apostrophe or think it's an error (as I did for quite a while before noticing the comment in the introduction to the third edition about the pun in the book title).

I appreciate your concerns with the Brazos Theological Commentary series. When I heard about Pelikan on Acts, I thought exactly what you did: that it was a bunch of theological meditations run together as a "commentary."

Peter Leithart's volume on Kings, however, is quite different. I'd be interested in knowing what you think of that one.

I haven't seen it, so I can't tell you what I think. I've heard from several people that it's different and that it's quite good.

Where did you find out about Sailhamer's replacement of the WBC on Lev.?

Sailhamer isn't replacing the WBC on Leviticus. They're continuing to print Hartley. It's Budd's Numbers that they're replacing with a new one by Sailhamer. It's pretty much done, I think. It just needs to go through the whole publication process, which can take about a year.

John Glynn first told me about it, I think, but they've got it up on their website without listing his name. John got the information directly from Thomas Nelson, though.

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