This Week’s Torah Portions (Bamidbar): Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
The book of Numbers begins in a way many readers find to be, well, boring. To the ancients, this sort of material was not boring at all. The configuration of tribes, the tabernacle with the divine presence in the middle, all of this was a picture of an ideal time. Ordinary people living in an ordinary world could look on the encampment of Israel in the wilderness as a story about an almost-heaven-on-earth. The cataloguing of the details fascinated them.
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A Few Highlights from the Hebrew and the Commentary
Numbers 1:5 — lir’uvein elitzur ben shedei’ur, לִרְאוּבֵן אֱלִיצוּר בֶּן־שְׁדֵיאוּר, “belonging to Reuben, Elizur son of Shedeur.” An evidence of the factual historical basis of Numbers can be seen in the names of the elders. None of the names use the later custom in Israel of adding elements of the divine name (Yeho-, -yahu, etc., in names we spell out in English such as Joshua [Yehoshua] and Isaiah [Yeshayahu]). Many of the names do contain the word el, which is a general designation for God (and also used by the Canaanites). Some contain shed or shaddai, which is an older name for God and also used in pagan sources such as Mari (Milgrom). Israel has not begun to know God primarily by his name, but Israelite names will start to change after the conquest.
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Numbers 1:53 — velō yihyeh qetzer al adat b’nei Yisra’el, וְלֹא־יִהְיֶה קֶצֶף עַל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “that there will not be wrath against the congregation of the children of Israel.” The Levites camp in a perimeter around the tabernacle, protecting the children of Israel in some ways from themselves and in others from God’s wrath. In Numbers we see human nature at work, people acting out of fear (the spies), jealous ambition (Korah’s rebellion), and ingratitude mixed with a sense of entitlement (the people grumbling). Some of these sins lead to an outbreak of divine wrath, especially when people bring them near to the place where God’s Presence dwells in the tabernacle. The Torah seems to depict wrath as something that comes forth from God automatically. Moses continually asks God to set aside his wrath. Perhaps this idea is how the priests saw God, and as this verse declares, they made it their job to act as a buffer between the wayward people and God’s Presence. But this depiction of God as wrathful is contradicted by a hundred examples of his patience, mercy, and grace.
Numbers 3:10 — vehazar haqarav yumat, וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת, “and the unauthorized person who comes near will be killed.” Those who are not Levites and priests are not authorized to come into the holy precincts. If any unauthorized person encroaches on the places where the priests perform their duties, they will be killed (by God). This is what happened in Korah’s rebellion, when Levites who were not authorized to offer incense, took it upon themselves to do so, God struck them dead. The Presence of God on earth is dangerous. Humanity is not yet ready for God. God’s Presence in the tabernacle and later the temple is a descent of God among us, bringing the Perfect near to the imperfect and unprepared. The priests are trained to handle holiness with care. The Levites are a second layer of protection. The Israelites are the third layer, serving as priests to the other nations. Inside this holy priesthood within a holy nation, the fiery Presence of God has descended to earth. It is a way of prefiguring the time to come when all humanity will dwell in God’s presence. How seriously will the holy nation, Israel, and its priests take this advanced nearness to God? How ready are human beings for dwelling with the divine?
Numbers 3:26 — lechōl avōdatō, לְכֹל עֲבֹדָתוֹ, “everything pertaining to its service.” The word for service here, avōdah עַבֹדָה, also came to mean “worship.” Used also in vss. 31 and 36, avōdah refers to the work the Levites carried on that enabled Israel to draw near to God at the tabernacle. Their work enabled the worship of the people. And later, beginning in the time of David, their role changed from carriers, to musicians and functionaries at the sanctuary of God. Literally, work turned into worship. It takes effort, work and preparation, to see God in this world. We work to worship and we work at worship. With no effort at all we miss God and see nothing. What is worthwhile requires exertion and the reward is hope.
Numbers 4:1-5 — vehōridu et paraōchet hammasach vechissu-vah et arōn ha’edut, וְהוֹרִדוּ אֵת פָּרֹכֶת הַמָּסָךְ וְכִסּוּ־בָהּ אֵת אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת, “they [the priests] will take down the screening cover and cover with it the ark of the testimony.” That is, they take down the veil that was before the entrance of the Holy of Holies, and use it as a cover over the ark. When the ark was carried, it was never seen, but was covered. As Jacob Milgrom notes (JPS Commentary, Excursus 6) the difference between the Levites of the Kohathite clan and the other two clans is profound. Other Levites assembled and disassembled parts of the shrine and placed them on oxcarts for transport. The Kohathites were not allowed to assemble and disassemble their charge, the holiest items such as the ark. Only the priests could see the holiest things. Nor could the Kohathites use oxcarts. The most holy things had to be transported with shoulder poles by hand. Gershonites and Merarites disassembled and packed items. Kohathites received them from the priests already covered, but then carried them by hand. Nachmanides (Ramban) says concerning God’s honor and the way it was treated in this Torah, “Then the Glory is seen in the hiding of his power (Hab 3:4), and it returns to its former place (Hos 5:15) in the Holy of Holies.”
Outlines of the Week, Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
NUMBERS 1:1-19 God speaks one month after Tabernacle completed (1), organizing a census of the military (2-16), Moses gathers clan heads and carries out census (17-19).
NUMBERS 1:20-54 The numbers in the census by tribe: Reuben (20-21), Simeon (22-23), Gad (24-25), Judah (26-27), Issachar (28-29), Zebulun (30-31), Ephraim (32-33), Manasseh (34-35), Benjamin (36-37), Dan (38-39), Asher (40-41), Naphtali (42-43), Total (44-46), Levites exempted and role defined (47-54).
NUMBERS 2:1-34 Command to camp around the Tabernacle (1-2); Judah, Issachar, and Zebulon on the east (3-9); Reuben, Simeon, and Gad on the south (10-16); Levites in the central perimeter (17); Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin on the west (18-24); Dan, Asher, and Naphtali on the north (25-31); summary (32-34).
NUMBERS 3:1-13 Aaron, Moses, and the priestly line (1-4), Levites as guardians and workers in the sanctuary (5-9), only priests may handle sancta (10), Levites as replacements for the firstborn (11-13).
NUMBERS 3:14-39 Numbering the three houses of Levi (14-20), number and duties of Gershon (21-26), number and duties of Kohath (27-32), number and duties of Merari (33-37), Moses and the Aaronides (38), total number of Levites (39).
NUMBERS 3:40-51 Numbering the firstborn of the tribes (40-43), Levites in place of firstborn due to God (44-45), five shekels redemption for each left over firstborn (46-51).
NUMBERS 4:1-20 Numbering the Levitical clan of Kohath (1-4), priests must cover Ark to transport (5-6), priests must cover table (7-8), priests must cover menorah (9-10), priests must cover incense altar (11-12), priests must cover ashes from altar (13-14), Kohathites to carry the covered holy things (15), Eleazar and other holy things (16), priests must keep Kohathites from dying (17-20).
Commentary Links of the Week
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