Back to top

Book Of Numbers


ABBREVIATIONS: CA: Gower, Confessio Amantis; CM: Cursor mundi; CT: Chau­cer, Canterbury Tales; DBTEL: A Dic­tionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, ed. Jeffrey; HS: Peter Comes­tor, Historia Scholastica, cited by book and chapter, followed by Patrologia Latina column in paren­theses; K: Kalén-Ohlander edition; MED: Middle English Dictionary; NOAB: New Oxford Annotated Bible; OED: Oxford English Dictionary; OFP: Old French Paraphrase, British Library, MS Egerton 2710, cited by folio and column; Whiting: Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Pro­verbial Phrases; York: York Plays, ed. Beadle. For other abbreviations, see Textual Notes.

2017–20 When Moyses thus had ordand all . . . what to werres that wyrschyp wan. The beginning of Numbers is somewhat of a recapitulation of the laws given in Leviticus, as theory is put into practice among the people of Israel; for the poet, this material (and perhaps the whole of the book of Leviticus, too) can be reduced to these four lines stating that Moses gave instructions to the people about how to perform a proper worship service and how to conduct just wars. See explanatory note to lines 2015–16, above, for more on the “missing” book of Leviticus.

2031 Sex hunderth and thre milia. The exact total number in this first census, reported in Numbers 1:46, is 603,550 men over the age of twenty. By con­trast, the total number in the second census, reported in Numbers 26:51, is 601,730. Twenty was the age required for military service according to Exo­dus 30:14.

2033–34 And fyghand folke on fote he fand / sex hunderth and fyve milia in fere. The poet, already having anachronistically characterized the fighting men of the Isra­el­ites as “knyghtes” (line 2032), adds in thousands of footmen unnoted in the biblical account. The result is far more the likeness of a late medieval army.

2035–36 Withoutyn clerkes that were ordand / to serve God on sydes sere. Moses was ordered by God not to number the tribe of Levi, for the Levites had been con­se­crated as a priestly class whose sole duty was the maintenance of the Taber­nacle and the worship services honoring God (Numbers 1:48–53).

2044 had to hym full grett envy. The Paraphrase presents a far different rationale for the story that is about to unfold than does the Bible: Exodus 12:1 states that Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses because he has married a Cushite woman, i.e., Zipporah (Midianites being counted among the Cushites). It is possible that the poet simply found the motive of tribal tensions too difficult to convey. Perhaps even more likely, however, is the possibility that the poet has read between the lines of the tale and seen the vestiges of what scholars have called “a power struggle in the community” between these three great figures (NOAB, p. 182).

2049–52 Thei sayd he was to bold . . . all ther myrth to mysse. The specific complaint that Moses had been too hasty to get the Israelites out of Egypt belongs not to Miriam and Aaron and this story (see note to line 2044, above), but derives from the earlier complaints of the people at Numbers 11:1–35. The poet has simply conflated the two stories into one.

2077–92 Most of Moses’ speech is indebted to various of his speeches that occur in Exodus, along with a reference to the Great Commandment (“Hear, O Is­rael, the Lord our God is one Lord. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength” — Deuteronomy 6:4–5), which is perhaps echoed in lines 2089–92.

2099–2100 The folke toke other ten / and send furth all togeydder. Only Joshua and Caleb figure into the remainder of the paraphrased Old Testament, so the other ten spies listed in Numbers 13:4–15 — Shammua, Shaphat, Igal, Palti, Gad­diel, Gaddi, Ammiel, Sethur, Nahbi, and Geuel — are not notable enough for inclusion here.

2125–26 Thei ar so grett on grone to gang: / we seme bot barns to ther bodes. The biblical comparison is even more remarkable in differentiating the sizes of the people: “There we saw certain monsters of the sons of Enac, of the giant kind: in comparison of whom, we seemed like locusts” (Numbers 13:34). These giants are identified as the Nephilim, the giants who resulted from the union of the sons of God and the daughters of men in Genesis 6:4. The poet ignored their presence in Genesis (perhaps recognizing that such beings, if they existed, would have been destroyed in the Flood) and here both omits their name and reduces the size comparison to something more reasonable.

2176 all that ar past over thryty yere. Numbers 14:29 places the “cut off” age as twenty — i.e., that it is those over twenty years of age who “murmured” against God who will not be allowed to enter into Canaan (twenty being the age required for military service in Exodus 30:14 and the age of those coun­t­ed in the census). That the Paraphrase gives the age as thirty might be attri­bu­table to a basic textual error: a copy text reading “xx” might have ac­quired a third “x” at some point. It is also possible that the poet (or an ex­emplar) has taken the age for priestly service given in Numbers 4:23 (thirty to fifty) and applied it to the unworthy Israelites who have here failed not only in their military duties but also (perhaps more importantly) in their duties of faith. From this standpoint, the application of priestly age to those who will be barred from entering the Promised Land is wholly appropriate.

2185–96 This stanza, in which God refuses to forgive the rebellious Israelites but does allow them to have light, water, food, and clothing, contains material not men­tioned in the Bible or in HS. K states quite plainly that it has no known source (1:cxciv). Ohlander points out that lines 2195–96 (And keped ay ther cloghyng / withowtyn wem or wast) might be associated with OFP 18c, a passage connected with Exodus 16:12 and the miracle of manna falling from Heaven but none­theless “striking” for “having no support in Exodus either” (“Autre miracle fist Deu pur ses genz: / Il garda si trestoz lur vestemenz / Qu’il ne purrirent ne de ren ne peirouent / El quarante anz qu’il el desert errouent”). See “Old French Parallels,” p. 209.

2213–14 Thei senssed thor and dyd servyce, / as byschoppes had before ordand. The rebellion led by Korah, taking as its central issue whether or not the priests alone can enact religious rites, would have been of particular interest to the poet and his audience in light of Wycliffe and other reformers. In this regard, we can see that the poet’s handling of his sources reveals a subtle defense against the idea that the people can take the place of the priests. The biblical ac­count, for instance, mentions the censers only insofar as they are to be used to determine whether God’s favor rests with Korah or Aaron: they will each burn incense before the Lord, and God will choose between them. The poet’s alteration is subtle but of vital significance: Korah’s foolish pre­sump­tion is revealed in his having used a censer and having done service as if he had a right to do so. The shift of narrative marks a shift in emphasis: like so many reformers (Wycliffe included), Korah has presumed to take on duties and responsibilities that are not of his estate, and God’s punishment is a clear lesson to all those who would unrightfully question the directives (and directors) of the Church. It is worth noting that this reading of the text is by no means rare. Challoner’s note in his revision of the Douay-Rheims trans­lation of the Vulgate, for instance, reads: “The crime of these men, which was punished in so remarkable a manner, was that of schism, and of rebel­lion against the authority established by God in the church; and their pre­tending to the priesthood without being lawfully called and sent: the same is the case of all modern sectaries” (p. 159).

2229 hyght. The sense might possibly be “hastened,” though “promised” makes better sense. Often the scribe spells the word for “promised” heyght, as in line 2684.

2241–62 The Bible does not specify under what circumstances Korah died. In most sources, however, Korah’s fate has been tied with those of the two hundred and fifty men destroyed by God’s fire in Numbers 16:35 rather than with his co-conspirators Dathan and Abiram, who are swallowed by the ground in Numbers 16:31–33. The Paraphrase, as K notes (1:clxxxvi), is probably following HS Num. 20 (1230) in this regard, though Ohlander observes that OFP 19a is also parallel here (“Old French Parallels,” p. 210). Other writers placing Korah among those burned are the early writers Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 4.3.4), Clement (First Epistle to the Corinthians), and Ignatius (Epistle to the Magnesians).

2270 thonour and lefnyng down dyscend. This stands against Numbers 16:46–50, which records that the people (14,700 of them) were felled by an unspecified “plague.” That this deadly stroke might involve thunder and lightning, however, is an easy stretch of the imagination given that 16:42 notes that the Lord’s cloud had covered over the Tabernacle as a sign of His anger.

2277–80 The Paraphrase-poet would seem to leave off the final thirty-six chapters of Numbers, ending his text after Numbers 16. As Ohlander has pointed out, OFP includes all of the remaining text, indicating that the decision to break off here may have been an authorial one; certainly there was also plenty of remaining material to be had from HS. Of course, the poet does include further accounts of Numbers, telling them under the rubric of Deut­er­o­nomy, lines 2281–2616. It is curious that the break between 4.3 and 4.4 of Josephus’ “paraphrase,” Jewish Antiquities, corresponds to this present auth­orial division between Numbers and Deuteronomy.


ABBREVIATIONS: L: MS Longleat 257; H: Heuser edition (partial); K: Kalén-Ohlander edition; O: Ohlander’s corrigenda to K; P: Peck edition (partial); S: MS Selden Supra 52 (base text for this edition).

2017, 19 Lines indented to leave space for an initial capital; first letter of line 2017 writ­ten in the middle of the space.

2020 wyrschyp. So L, O. S, K: wrschyp.

2022 heght. S: g inserted above line.

2025 Hys Jew. So L, K. S: that hys jews.

2033 Marginalia in S (at top of fol. 19r): Numeri.

2037 thei. So L, K. S omits.

2039 To. S: two letters canceled before.

2054 Hymself. So L, K. S: hymsef.

2056 S: line transposed with line 2058.

2058 S: line transposed with line 2056.
hys. So L, K. S: hyr.
he. So L, K. S: scho.

2059 down. So L, K. S: dow.

2081 soundly. So K. S: soudanly. L: savely.

2087 Marginalia in S (at top of fol. 19v): no heading.

2105 that. So L, K. S: and.

2120 nevyn. S: inserted under the line.

2126 bot. So L, K. S: bo.

2127 cetes. S: se cetes.

2130 lyse. S: is lyse.

2131 thor. S: inserted over canceled m.
them. So L, K. S: þan.

2133 sayd. So S, L. K: say.

2135 betrayde. So S, L. K: betray.

2139 Marginalia in S (at top of fol. 20r): no heading.

2143 them. So L, K. S: hym.

2148 yow. So S. L, K: you.

2150 fell. S: inserted above three canceled letters.

2153 we. So L, K. S omits.
do. So K. S: de, which coul have been intended to read deschend. L omits.

2176 thryty. So L, K. S: thryrty.

2188 done. So L, K. S omits.

2190 moyne. S: inserted below the line.

2191 Marginalia in S (at top of fol. 20r): no heading.

2197 For. S: ffro corrected to ffor.

2204 them. So L, K. S: þen.

2208 fondly. So K. S: fendly. L: fowly.

2220 ther. So L, K. S: te.

2242 fele. So L, K. S: few.

2243 Marginalia in S (at top of fol. 21r): no heading.

2254 way. S: wax way.

2258 sense. So K. L: encence. S omits.

2270 thonour. S: inserted above tharne.

2272 to. So L, K. S omits.

2279 new. S: w inserted above line.







When Moyses thus had ordand all,
   full cunnandly os he well can,
Unto Goddes servyce what suld fall,
   and what to werres that wyrschyp wan,
Then remevyd thei both grett and small
   to a forest that heght Faran.
Ther Tabernakyll ther can thei stall;
   with the Arke of God thus thei begane.
God bad Moyses, Hys Jew,
   suld fayre on the feld
And nowmer his men all new,
   all that myght weppyns weld.

Then Moyses dyd os God commaund:
   he toke all that past twenty yere
Sex hunderth and thre milia
   acowntyd of knyghtes in armys clere,
And fyghand folke on fote he fand
   sex hunderth and fyve milia in fere,
Withoutyn clerkes that were ordand
   to serve God on sydes sere.
And thei wer told be tale,
   of the lynage of Levy,
To thryty milia hale.
   That was a fayr cumpany.

ordained; (see note); (t-note)
very cunningly as well he can
what should relate to God's service
what [should relate] to wars; win honor; (t-note)
they went off
was called Paran; (t-note)
Their; build (install)
go into the field

those past twenty years [in age]
603,000; (see note)
[were] accounted as knights in good arms
fighting footmen he found; (see note); (t-note)
605,000 together
Without the priests; (see note)
in other ways
those [who were not counted]; (t-note)

30,000 altogether; (t-note)






Sone aftur then begane debate:
   Aron and his systur Mary
Moyses, ther brother, can thei hate
   and had to hym full grett envy.
Thei say it falys not for his astate,
   and als that he was not worthy
To goverand them and gyd all gatte
   or forto make over them maystry.
Thei sayd he was to bold
   at bryng them from ther blyse
To suffer hungur and cald,
   and all ther myrth to mysse.

For this defawt gret venjance fell,
   os God Hymself vowched save to send:
Mary all sone was fowl mesell,
   and that endured aght days to ende.
When Aron saw this and herd tell,
   hys awn defawt well he kend;
To Moyses fette fast down he fell
   and prayd to God his myse to amend.
Then Moyses for hym prayd
   And for his systur also.
Lepur that on hyr was layde
   full tytt was tane hyr fro.

[To]; their; did they become hostile
(see note)
it is not proper to his estate

guide [them] in every way
exercise; mastery
too; (see note)
bliss [in Egypt]


[made] foully leprous
eight; (t-note)

knew; (t-note)
feet; (t-note)

The leprosy
taken from her









Then made thei myrth everylka man
   and toke ther tentes in that tyde
And flytted furth fro Faran
   unto a forest fast besyde.
And fude enogh ther fand thei than;
   thei beld them thor a whyle to abyde.
Ther myght thei se to Canan,
   qwylke God had heyght them not to hyde.
Bot thei fand fandyng
   or tyme that thei come thore.
Then Moyses mad gedderyng
   of all folke hym before.

And sayd, “Sers, ye sall understand
   how God hath sent yow solace sere,
That led yow owt of Egypt land
   fro Pharo and his folke in fere
And broyght yow soundly over the sand,
   when all drowned that your enmys were.
And for your hele He hath ordand,
   and for your fode, this fawrté yere.
And thynk als on this thyng:
   how your elders and ye
Hath groned and made gruchyng
   both unto God and me.

“Therfor all myse forto amend
   honers Hym ever with all your myght
And kepe His law ose I hath kend
   in word and dede both day and nyght.
And certan men I rede we send
   to serche the land that He hath heyght,
And se how the folke may them dyffend
   and aftur ther rede rewle us ryght.”1
Josue toke he then,
   and Calafe, to wende ydder.
The folke toke other ten
   and send furth all togeydder.

each and every
took [down] their; place
journeyed; Paran

dwelled; there
which; promised; (i.e., to reveal)
had hardships
before the time; came there [to Canaan]
made a gathering

(see note)
great solace

safely; (t-note)
these forty years



promised [to us]
defend themselves

Caleb, to go there
(see note)













In Canan ther cowrse thei cast
   and soyght the land in lengh and brede.
By fawrty days war fully past,
   had thei notyd all that was nede.
The ten com fyrst, that went furth last,
   and to Moyses thei spake gud spede.
The folke then floked abowt them fast
   All forto herkyn and take hede;
And frayned how thei had faryn
   owt in the uncuth land,
And yf thei suld yt tharne,
   or have yt in ther hand.

The ten then can ther tales tell,
   that stound them gretly in ther stevyn.
Thei sayd ther was not into dwell
   a bettur land under Hevyn,
For thor was wyn and watur of well,
   whett and oyle all ordand evyn,
Bot at the folke ware ferse and fell,
   and nowmer of them myght no man nevyn.
“Thei ar wytty of were
   and well of armys kend;
Hors, scheld, and spere
   have thei redy at hend.

“Thei ar so grett on grone to gang:
   we seme bot barns to ther bodes.
And ther cetes ar sett so strong
   thei cownt no cumyng of enmys.
Yt is no tyme to tary lang
   to loke wher no releve lyse.”
Then wax thor murmur them amang,
   as rebels thei began to ryse.
And to Moyses thei sayd,
   “How durst thou do this thyng,
Thus traturly betrayde
   us all and our ofspryng?

“We myght have lyved in Egypt land
   and governd us in gud degré.
Now hath thou stald us heyr to stand
   to dye in payn and poverté.”
To kyll hym have thei made connande.
   So come Calafe and Josue.
Thei toke unto them new tythand
   and bade abayst thei suld not be:
“Yf ye in trewth be ryght
   and to God call and crave,
The land that He hath heyght,
   that hette we yow to have.

“For all the ways os we can wend,
   we fand fell folke full of envy
And grett. Bot God is not ther frend,
   for thei lyfe all in mawmentry.
Ther cetys sone we sall do schend
   and stroye ther borows by and by.
For thei ar folke full of the Fende,
   and in God sall we fast afy.
Sen that He fayled us never
   in stowre when we war stede,
He wyll be with us ever.”
   Then war the rebels rade.



asked; fared

stunned; their assembly

there was wine
But that; fierce and cruel
the numbering; know; (t-note)
clever at war
accomplished in arms

large on the ground to walk; (see note)
seem mere children to their bodies; (t-note)
their cities; (t-note)
fear no onset of enemies

relief lies; (t-note)
grew there; (t-note)

dared you

placed; (t-note)

made a pact

tidings; (t-note)
said [that] fearful

assure; (t-note)


cities soon; ruin; (t-note)
destroy their towns
Fiend (the Devil)
soon trust
Since; failed
battle; were troubled

were; afraid









To Moyses fette thei fell in hye
   and mad grett sorow in Goddes syght.
Then Moyses prayd God Allmyghty
   forto have pety of ther plyght.
God answerd to hym opynly
   and sayd, “For that thou trawd not ryght,
Ther sall none of that cumpany
   cume in the land, qwylk I have heyght.
Thoo ten that told tythand
   my folke so to greve,
Thei sall lend in this land
   with mornyng and myscheve.

“And all that trowde unto ther tale
   to tene Moyses, my servant dere,
Here sall thei abyd and be in bale:
   all that ar past over thryty yere.
Ther chylder and ther heyrys all,
   sall fyll that land both ferr and nere.
Josue and Calafe thei tway sall
   be soverans in all sydes sere;
For thei went wysly thore
   and told yow trew thythand;
Thei and ther heyrys ever more
   sall be lordes of that land.”

Then all tho rebels them repent
   and prayd to God for bettur bone.
Bot to ther tales toke He no tent;
   als He had demed, so most yt be done.
And neverthelesse lyght he them lent
   abowt mydnyght withowtyn moyne,
And fresche watur wherso thei went,
   and fode, yf that thei wer fele or fone,
Evyn at ther awn likyng
   aftur ther tonges wold tast,
And keped ay ther cloghyng
   withowtyn wem or wast.

feet; in haste

pity on their plight

believed not rightly

which; promised
Those; tidings
grieve (affright)
mourning and mischief

thirty years [of age]; (see note); (t-note)
Their; heirs
far and near
they shall together


(see note)
no heed
must; (t-note)

moon; (t-note)
many or few

ever their clothing
stain or waste


















For this debate began to be
   grett murmur all thos men amang.
A crewell man that heyght Core
   agayn Moyses moved mekyll wrang.
Full rych he was of gold and fee;
   therfor he toyght hymself more strang
And mekyll more worthy then hee
   to govarn folke and for them gang.
He gatte of hys assent
   Datan and Abyron,
And told them his entent,
   and gart them fondly fon.

Tway hunderth rebels gart he ryse
   and fyfty at ther stevyn to stand.
To the Tabernakyll, as wreches unwyse,
   went thei furth to make offerand.
Thei senssed thor and dyd servyce,
   as byschoppes had before ordand,
And sayd Aron was not of price
   swylk werkkes to take on hand,
Bot Core suld be then
   ther hed, os hym well aw,
And Abyron and Datan
   byschoppes to led ther law.

God was not of that purpasse payd;
   therfor yt turned them unto tene.
Moyses and Aron to them sayd,
   “Sers, ye wot well withowtyn wene
Thrugh grace of God we two war grayd
   to be in state as we have bene.
Yf any other be bettur arayd,
   to morn then sall the soth be sene.”
To come then have thei hyght
   on the morn, both lest and mast.
Bot God ordand that nyght
   that all that werke was wast.

God send His venjance sone certan
   wher Datan and Abyron can dwell.
The erth opynd, yt is not to layn,
   And sodanly thei sanke to Hell
And all that of ther fayr ware fayn,
   wyf and chyld, down with them fell.
The erthe sone was closed agayn;
   ther was no tokyn of to tell.
Bot Core come on the morne
   with fele folke on fotte,
As connand was beforne,
   agayns Moyses to mote.

Moyses spake then unto Core
   and to two hunderth and fyfty,
“Go se, both my brother Aron and ye,
   and gyfe sense unto God Allmighty,
And by sume seyn then sall we se
   qwylke man of all this cumpany
Ys best worthy byschop to be!”
   To this asent thei sayd in hy.
Unto the Tabernakyll
   full tytt thei toke the way.
God send full sone merakyll
   thos fals folke to afflay.

As Core to the auter went
   forto gyfe sense as sufferan syre,
A sodan fyre from Hevyn was sent
   and brent them up both bone and lyre.
Two hunderth and fyfty war schent
   with other that dyd ther desyre.
Yet ware thei mo that malyce ment
   agayns Moyses with grett yre.
To be soveran, thei sayd,
   he had over grett gylt,
For he had thor betrayd
   ther folke and fowle spylt.

Her for full hyddos herme thei have:
   thonour and lefnyng down dyscend
And stroyd them up, both knyght and knave.
   Then Moyses, all mys to amend,
Gart kepe the sensurs, whoso wold crave,
   in the Arke of God to be kene
How God wyll ever His servant save
   and fro ther face ay them dyffend.
And thus this story twyns
   that is cald Numeri,
And a new boke begynnys
   that is named Dewtronomij.


cruel; was called Korah
against; did much wrong
thought; strong
than he (i.e., Moses)
govern; go before them; (t-note)
Dathan and Abiram

made; foolishly behave; (t-note)

Two hundred; did he raise up

spread incense there; (see note)

such works

their head [priest]

lead their; (t-note)

it turned into misery for them

know; doubt
were groomed
in the estate; been
shall truth be seen
promised; (see note)
both small and great

that work (of Korah) was wrong


earth opened up; [be] denied

their behavior were glad

sign of [them]
(see note)
many; foot; (t-note)
cunning [as he]; (t-note)

to [Korah’s]



very quickly; (t-note)

to give incense as a sovereign leader; (t-note)
burned; flesh
more whom malice brought

surpassing fault

shamefully destroyed [them]

Here; hideous harm
thunder; lightning; (see note); (t-note)

[their] misdeeds; (t-note)
Made the censers be lit, [by] whomever; pray

from their foes ever defend them
ends; (see note)


Go to Book of Deuteronomy