The Israelites said to Moses, “We will die! We are lost, we are all lost! 13 Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the Lord will die. Are we all going to die?”

The text doesn't give us a clue as to what prompted this complaint, and neither does there seem to be any attempt on Moses's part to pacify the panic stricken crowd. The text just goes on dryly telling Moses to exhort the priests to keep away any strangers from the Tabernacle and to even kill those who go near it, only reinforcing the validity of the their protest that they are destined to die! This problem would've been somewhat ameliorated if these verses followed after the passage in chapter 18:1-8 (and would've explained what prompted the outburst), but then Moses's response would still be missing. Indeed these verses are separated in the MT by two setumot as if this section was independent and disconnected from the previous or following sections.

What is going on here, and how do we make sense of these misplaced verses that don't seem to follow any logical order?

  • Are you sure it's 17:12-13? I have it as 17:27-28.
    – Alex
    Jun 17, 2018 at 17:48
  • 4
    Numbers 17:12-13 in the Christian translations corresponds to Numbers 17:27-28 in the MT and Jewish translations.
    – Perry Webb
    Jun 17, 2018 at 19:15
  • Perhaps the principle of linking passages by keywords, similar to that suggested in NT hermeneutics of OT + collections of Jesus' saying that have no logical relationship, just the same subject... Jun 18, 2018 at 4:11
  • Two possible approaches, don't have time to flesh them out: 1 is that this is a reflection on the past events that only happened once aaron/moses had proven themselves. 2 is that they had just again seen the power of the tabernacle in causing aaron's staff to blossom unnaturally, and were fearful that they would die if they approached to serve god, as this was a reminder of nadav, abihu, korach's men, etc. BTW, good question. +1
    – user22655
    Jun 18, 2018 at 19:18
  • 1
    A note in the "Comprehensive Bible" (1827) says that they were rebelling/reacting over the elevation of Aaron over them. Back in v. 16:41, they are accusing both Aaron and Moses of killing the people of Yahweh (Korah and others). So far, that's all I've been able to find. Good question.
    – tblue
    Jun 20, 2018 at 0:31

2 Answers 2


You have to go back to Numbers 16 and read that these Israelite's that complained in Numbers 17:12-13 were arguing in Numbers 16 why certain Israelite's made themselves more special, and are the only ones that can approach the Tabernacle of Congregation. They were insinuating that Moses and his brother Arron made up these laws and so Moses had to prove to them that the LORD made all the decisions that Moses enforces, and not Moses or Arron decided them themselves.

So Moses ordered that each Prince (leader) of every 12 Tribes to appear before the Tabernacle with Censors "the Lord will show who is Holy and who he will allow to come near unto Him..." see Numbers 16:5 (K.J.).

And in Numbers 16:21 the LORD was telling Moses in front of all these complainers to step away from the complainers so that the LORD could destroy them all.

Instead Moses pleaded with the LORD and explained to the complainers that he would prove it was not him or Arron making the decisions, it was the LORD. So Moses told the people that if the LORD miraculously kill's all the complainers, then they will know that its not Moses making the decisions on who is allowed to approach the Tabernacle of Congregation, the Tent of the LORD that held the Ark of Covenant, see 16:28-34, (K.J.)

So in Numbers 17:12,13 the rest of the Israelite's that witnessed the complainers being sucked into the ground by the wrath of God were "JUST ACKNOWLEDGING" in a bummed out type of way that they understand clearly now who the LORD had chosen to approach the Tabernacle of Congregation and do the works therein. And they seemed to be also acknowledging that if one of their families or Tribesmen trespass it could cause others to die with them?

Then in Numbers 18 the LORD clarifies who is allowed to approach the Tabernacle and "not die" and their duties. And the LORD lets the rest of the Israelite's in Numbers 18:22 know that His Commandment is that if anyone other than those the LORD allowed, approaches the Tabernacle or anything that is hallowed onto the LORD, they will surely die.

Another example of Numbers 17:12,13 where the Israelite's acknowledged OUT LOUD what they learned if they approach the Tabernacle, (that they will die) can be found at Joshua 24:19-24 where at verses 21, 22, and 24 the Israelite's repeated OUT LOUD what they were acknowledging about the LORD's Commandments that was then being explained by Joshua (as Moses did about the duties of Arron and the Levite's in Numbers 16 and 17). Joshua 24: (V.21, "we will serve the LORD.") (V.22, "We are witnesses.") (V.24, "The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice will we obey)

CONCLUSION So, in Numbers 17:12,13 except for the Tribe of Levite, the Israelite's are merely acknowledging out loud to Moses and the LORD that they now understand and except that the LORD chose only the Tribe of Levite to approach the Tabernacle of Congregation. And that if any other Israelite approaches the Tabernacle, or anything hallowed, they and their families will die!

  • Here's another example how the Israelites were merely acknowledging in a bummed out way that they now understood that the LORD choose Arron, and the Levite Tribe "only" to approach the Tabernacle of Congration, even though all israelites were concidered the LORD's Chosen people.
    – user27954
    Jan 14, 2019 at 11:55

This verse is not misplaced. The budding staff would be a sign to the people who would otherwise object to Aaron being in charge of the worship matters. They would believe this sign and fall into the state of fear (the end of the chapter). This corresponds with Christ-described type of people that would only believe a sign (Matthew 12:39).

10 The Lord said to Moses, “Put back Aaron’s staff in front of the ark of the covenant law, to be kept as a sign to the rebellious. This will put an end to their grumbling against me, so that they will not die.” 11 Moses did just as the Lord commanded him (Num. 17 NIV).


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