This Week’s Torah Portions (Nasso): Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said that one thing tying this section of Numbers together is the theme of shalom (peace). It is the last word of the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:26. It is the logic behind the “Sotah” passage (the case where a man suspects his wife of adultery, 5:11-31). In many cases a situation of suspicion could lead to violence, especially in a culture where males dominate. The Torah provides a trail in which a miracle would prove the woman guilt (which is rather the opposite of “witch trials” in later history where a miracle proved innocence!). Several other parts of this week’s portion in Numbers can also be seen as measures for peace.
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A Few Highlights from the Hebrew and the Commentary
Numbers 4:24 — zōt avōdat mishpechōt hagershuni la’avōd ulmassa, זֹאת עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁפְּחֹת הַגֵּרְשֻׁנִּי לַעֲבֹד וּלְמַשָּׂא, “and this is the service of the families of Gershon for serving and for carrying duties.” Two clans, Gershon and Merar, had the lesser task in moving the tabernacle. They disassembled and packed on oxcarts the less holy parts of the portable sanctuary that was the tabernacle (מִשְׁכָן, mishkan). The word for “serve” here is avodah, which later comes to mean worship. The ability of the people to worship depends on those who serve to make it happen. Thus, the word originally meant purely work but later came to mean both work and worship.
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Numbers 4:49 — ish ish ‘al-avōdatō ve’al-massa’ō, אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל־עֲבֹדָתוֹ וְעַל־מַשָּׂאוֹ, “each in his turn concerning his service and his carrying duties.” The role of the Levites in the earliest days was serving and carrying the portable shrine of Adonai. They disassembled, loaded on oxcarts, and reassembled, except for Kohath, whose charge was the holiest things. Only the priests could assemble and disassemble them. But the Kohathites carried them on shoulder poles. All of this would change. The sanctuary would become fixed in one place and beginning with David, the role of the Levites changed to music and guarding the sanctuary (esp. 1 Chron 15, 23-25; 2 Sam 6).
Numbers 6:26 — yisa’ Adonai panav eleicha veyasem lecha shalōm, יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם, “May Adonai lift up his face upon you and give you shalom.” The notes to the NET Bible remind us of three idioms in Hebrew regarding the face. To express God’s or someone else’s anger toward a person, the Bible says their face has “fallen” (Gen 4:6-7). To express a lack of favor, turning a blind eye, the Bible says their face is “hidden” (Deut 31:18; Psa 30:8; 44:25). In this blessing, the priests of Israel are asking God to show his face (“lift up”), which is to say “look at us and take note of our need and smile on us.”
Numbers 7:1 — vayimshach ōtō vayeqadesh ōtō ve’et-kōl-keilav, וַיִּמְשַׁח אֹתוֹ וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת־כָּל־כֵּלָיו, “he anointed and consecrated it and all its furnishings.” When speaking to a church group some years ago, I made the statement that there is nothing in this world today comparable to the worship at the tabernacle and temple in ancient Israel. The presence of God there was more powerful than anything that can be experienced today (in a church or synagogue). They objected. “We have God’s presence in our service,” they said, “and we have the presence of Jesus in our hearts.” I asked them if the presence they experienced ever became visible, like a filler of fire inside a cloud. Or could they say that they were afraid when they entered the sanctuary of their building that they might die if they did something wrong? Of course, the answer was no. The concentrated presence of God in the midst of Israel was something unique. That is why we read so much about the details of its care, such as Moses here anointing (the verb root, mashach, is the one from which we get the word Messiah, mashiach, “anointed one”) and consecrating it (probably with blood).
Outlines of the Week, Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
NUMBERS 4:21-37 Numbering the Levitical clan of Gershon (21-23), Gershonites responsible for all curtains of the Tabernacle (24-28), numbering the Levitical clan of Merari (29-30), Merarites responsible for Tabernacle structure (31-33), a second census of Kohath (34-37).
NUMBERS 4:38-49 A second census of Gershon (38-41), a second census of Merari (42-45), summary (46-49).
NUMBERS 5:1-10 Severe impurities removed from camp (1-4), reparation (guilt) offering for fraud/false oaths (5-8), portions donated to individual priests (9-10).
NUMBERS 5:11 – 6:27 The adultery test (5:11-31), Nazirite vow (6:1-21), priestly benediction (6:22-27).
NUMBERS 7:1-41 Moses anoints the Tabernacle and its furnishings (1), leaders of clans make an offering for the Tabernacle service (2-5), carts and oxen divided between Merari and Gershon (6-10), list of the offerings of clan leaders by tribes (11-41).
NUMBERS 7:42-71 Continuation of the list of initial Tabernacle offerings of clan in order of the tribes (42-71).
NUMBERS 7:72-89 Continuation of initial offerings for the Tabernacle by clans (72-83), summary and totals of initiation offerings (84-88), Moses and the method of speaking to God in the sanctuary(89).
To read full commentary on Numbers 4:21 – 7:89, click here.
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