Numbers: Outlines and Commentary
By Derek Leman
© 2017 Derek Leman
Table of Contents
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).
To get to “a voice in the wilderness” preparing the way for Hashem, we must first visit the wilderness. The book of Numbers has many parts modern readers find boring. This is nothing new. In his commentary in the Interpretation series, Dennis Olson notes that Origen, the church father from the third century, preached a series of sermons on Numbers explaining why this allegedly boring book was so important. The book of Numbers covers forty years of time, but the stories occur in a nineteen day period in the second month of the second year (1:1 – 10:11) and then within five months during the fortieth year (21:10 – 36:13). The thirty-eight middle years are barely described (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary). The book alternates sections of law with narrative but also contains poetry, prophecy, itinerary lists, and prayer (Milgrom). The book starts on the first day of the second month of year two, exactly one month after the Tabernacle was completed (Exod 40:17). The names of the elders are ancient, as Milgrom notes, since none of them contain parts of God’s name (the use of Yeho- as a prefix, for example, and -yahu as a suffix in names has not yet happened). 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. Israel at this point is organized as a congregation (edah) with chiefs (nasi), tribes (matteh), and clans (elef). They are at this point a loosely organized tribal, clan-led congregation of people. The beginning of Numbers is a historical glimpse of early Israel, before there were kings and before the people started taking names based on God’s name.
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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).
The number of Israelites is something that has been completely misunderstood for thousands of years. The idea that Israel had 600,000 fighting men is not only impossible, it is also contradicted by other scriptures and would make the whole Exodus and conquest unremarkable. Israel would have a larger army than all of Egypt and their fighting men would outnumber those of a large Canaanite town one hundred to one! When Israel left Egypt, Pharaoh sent 600 select chariots against them along with others (Exod 14:7). Although the exact number is not specified, the figure 600 clues us in that Pharaoh was not attacking a military force of 600,000 Israelites, which would have been a larger military force by at least ten times than any we know of in Middle Eastern history from ancient times. Later, in Numbers 13:28, the Israelites will see themselves as a small people compared to the Canaanites and will see the towns as too large for them to defeat with mere force. Yet the largest Canaanite city, Hazor, had at best a population of 45,000 people total (Israel’s total would be three or four million if the 600,000 figure was correct). Exodus 23:30 says Israel will drive out the Canaanites little by little. Jericho measured 300 by 140 meters and Hazor was about 210 acres (James Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai). If there had been 600,000 Israelite fighting men, they could have overwhelmed Canaan easily and required no help from God in doing it. The largest fighting force known from the ancient Middle East was assembled at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE, where Shalmaneser III of Assyria records that all the enemies who marched against his armies totaled 53,000 men. So how did our Bibles get the number 603,550 here in Numbers 1:46 and “about 600,000” in Exodus 12:37? The word for “thousand” (elef) can also mean clan, tent unit, or military unit. Simply retranslating “thousand” to “military unit”, however, will not solve the problem. It seems that long ago, before the Dead Sea Scrolls even, scribes passing down the text became confused over the meaning of “elef” and the numbers were corrupted by this misunderstanding. We cannot completely reconstruct the number of Israelites, but the idea of 600 fighting units or tent groups may be a much more accurate guess. This would make the total number of Israelites closer to 20,000. This would be a large people, a people large enough to be feared in their growing power and yet small enough to be very afraid of Pharaoh and of the Canaanites, as we read in the Biblical accounts. For a fuller explanation, see James Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai, p. 153 and following, “How Many Israelites?” Beyond the issue of number of Israelites, this portion also presents us with a certain order of the tribes and with an understanding of the Levites and the danger represented by the Tabernacle. The order follows the arrangement of the camp (to be explained in chapter 2), with four sets of three for each of the four sides of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The Levites surround the Tabernacle to prevent any curious Israelites from entering the Tabernacle and provoking God’s wrath. The Levites must learn the procedures to handle the holy things at the risk of their lives. The Tabernacle is both glorious and dangerous, a piece of heaven on earth, but possessing the risk of nearness to the Glory which can be fatal since God’s nature is antithetical to evil. For people to truly come near to God, the imbalance of good and evil will have to be atoned for in the fullest sense and that will not happen until Messiah returns and changes the saints. Thus the priesthood of Israel was tasked to guard the holy things to keep them near to Israel without allowing encroachments by people that would result in humanity clashing with the nature of God and experiencing death.
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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).
The tribes of Israel camp around the Tabernacle, guarding it while en route to the Promised Land. To some degree the wilderness march is a military action and the Tabernacle, being holy, must be guarded. One of the factors in the order of the encampment is tribal relationships. Four of the tribes head up groups of three: Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan. 1 Chronicles 5:1-2 explains some of the tribal leadership issues. Judah became the dominant brother and his descendants the largest and most dominant tribe early. Ephraim, as the son of Joseph, had the birthright in place of Reuben because Reuben slept with Jacob’s concubine. Dan has his place as the oldest of the children of Jacob’s concubines. The Torah affirms that God’s own power protects the holy things, as we saw, for example, in the deaths of Nadab and Abihu. Yet it was not deemed a contradiction to station armed camps around the Tabernacle, as God gives the responsibility to his people to keep the sacred.
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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).
This section (3:1-13) was revealed at Mt. Sinai, though it is only now being reported. But the narrative returns to the wilderness period at vs. 14. One of the questions raised by 3:1-13 is why the line of Moses is not listed after vs. 1 seems to indicate it will be. We do know, from 3:27, that Moses’ family is understood to be part of the Amramites within the division of Kohath. Yet here in 3:1-13 only Aaron’s descendants are chronicled and shown to be distinct from the rest of the Levites. Why not those of Moses? One theory is that Moses’ descendants became false priests of the idol of Dan (Gershom in Judg 18:30). Or it may simply be that God did not desire to establish Moses’ line as a dynasty of leaders. From vss. 11-13 we see that prior to the appointment of the Levites, the firstborn in Israel were the priestly class (Milgrom). In the system established at Mt. Sinai, the priests are the descendants of Aaron while the rest of the Levites are sanctuary attendants serving under the priests. The role of Levites as guards is a service to Israel. They give up the normal lives they could have lived, forsake the owning of land and having a role as the other tribes will in the promised land. Sacrificially they redeem the other families of Israel from the obligation of giving up their firstborn as Temple servants, an obligation explained as the due of Israel for the saving of the firstborn in Egypt. The Levites will function this way instead. They guard the holy things to prevent the people from coming into contact with the danger of the divine holiness. Likewise, the very narrow priestly line guards the duties of priesthood from being performed by any other Israelites, as Korah will learn the hard way (Numb 16) and later the king Uzziah (a.k.a. Azariah, 2 Kgs 15; 2 Chr 26). The people of Israel, like the Tabernacle, are organized into holy and holier parts, from ordinary Israelites to Levites to the priests within the Levites. The priests to Israelites are as the holy of holies to the Tabernacle courtyard and the Israelites are to the nations as the Tabernacle courtyard to the rest of the world outside of the Tabernacle. Any ordinary Israelite or any other person who encroaches on the holy things will be killed. This is all to teach us that nearness to God can only be granted by him and is not our natural right nor something humans are capable of attaining to apart from God’s choosing.
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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).
The word work or service used in vss. 26, 31, and 36 is avodah. Milgrom argues that avodah here means the work of deconstructing, loading, and reconstructing the Tabernacle. In later parts of the Bible it comes the mean also “cultic service” or “worship”. In other words, the word originally meant work, but came, through the sanctuary labors, to mean worship as well. Interestingly, Numbers uses avodah in its older sense of the work of the Levites. None of the priestly duties are called avodah here, but only those of the Levites which involved manual labor. These duties were not in any sense a full-time occupation to be compared to those of the laypeople who farmed and raised animals. The duties of Levites and priests are holy, and the detail and care of their duties is fitting with the importance of the Presence which dwells in the Tabernacle. The duty to guard the sanctuary against encroachment (vs. 38) was a rare case in which the death penalty was to be carried out by the people and not by God. Josephus says that in the Second Temple, two-hundred Levitical guards closed the gates at night and stayed on vigil. Once the Samaritans managed to defile the courts by depositing human bones (Milgrom).
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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).
Earlier we saw a clue that prior to the calling of the Levites, the firstborn males in Israel were the priestly class (3:11-13). This passage concerns a different aspect of firstborn customs: that Israel owed God all the firstborn for all time after they were rescued from the tenth plague in Egypt (Exod 13:2, 11-15). Israel did not sacrifice people to God, but the firstborn were owed to him from the Passover, so they would be redeemed with money (Exod 13:13; 34:20; Numb 18:15). The redemption price was a weight of five shekels in silver (Numb 18:16). This procedure in Numbers 3, then, is strange. Normally, every firstborn male would have to be redeemed. Yet here, only the excess number of firstborn males beyond the number of Levites had to be redeemed. It makes sense that this would only happen at the very first census, whereas the laws of Exodus 13 and Numbers 18 would apply in all future births of firstborn. Furthermore, those who do the math with these numbers will see that things do not really add up. In 3:22 Gershon numbers 7,500; in 3:28 Kohath numbers 8,600; and in 3:34 Merari numbers 6,200 = 22,300. But 3:43 says the number of firstborn was 22,273, which is actually less than the number of Levites. So, these numbers would indicate there were more Levites than firstborn and no redemption money would be needed. This further illustrates the fact that the numbers of Israelites have been corrupted in the passing down of the text, so that we cannot really know what the original census was anymore. Nonetheless, the procedure of replacing firstborn with Levites and paying redemption money for the difference is meant to teach that Israel for all generations owes God for salvation from bondage.
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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).
The articles of the Tabernacle were vessels indued with the holiness of divine presence. Even the Kohathite clan of Levites could not look upon them without dying. According to vs. 5, the sons of Aaron (the priests among the Levites) must first dis-assemble the Tabernacle, covering the ark with the veil that separates the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. They would then wrap it in a skin covering and a blue cloth before the Levites could handle it. The ark was so holy, only the priests could look at it uncovered, and even the Kohathites, charged with transporting it, were ineligible to look on it. The table of the presence-bread, the menorah, and the incense-altar were similarly covered by the priests before handling by the Levites. The Kohathites had to carry that which they could not see uncovered or even touch directly. In case this was all not clear already, vs. 20 reiterates the warning and clarifies: they are not to see it until it “is swallowed” by the covering (vs. 20 should be rendered “they shall not go in to see the holy as it is swallowed/covered”). As Ramban (Nachmanides) said of the covered articles, “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.”
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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).
The second list of the duties of Gershon and Merari are slightly more detailed than the first ones (3:25-26 and 3:36-37). Ithamar, son of Aaron, is to supervise the Gershonite clan of Levites in their work of transporting the curtains and coverings. Ithamar also supervises the Merarites in their work of transporting the structural pieces of the Tabernacle. The word for “work” here is avodah, which later comes to mean worship. The ability of the people to worship depends on those who work to make it happen. Thus, the word originally meant purely work but later came to mean both work and worship. The second census of the Levites is not of the whole tribe, but only the men eligible for service between the ages of 30 and 50. There is a progression in holiness in the three divisions of Levites, from Kohath in charge of the most holy things to Gershon in charge of the tent coverings and the altar to Merari with the least holy charge over the bars and bases. The level of holiness is directly proportional to the danger of being near the Presence. The Tabernacle is a little bit of heaven on earth, and things in the true world have no mixture of evil with them, so that citizens of this world cannot endure such perfection and it is fatal to humans. The concentric circles of holiness (the tribes, the Levites, the priests, the Tabernacle) communicates the divisions between this present world and the true one. The last words of vs. 37 are recited after the Torah service each week: al pi Adonai b’yad Moshe (“by the mouth of the Lord by the hand of Moses”). The saying in the liturgy is reinterpreted to be about the Torah in general. It is by God’s mouth but written by Moses’ hand, it is divine and human at once. Note that this theory of the Torah does not require us to believe Moses is the final editor, only the main source of the traditions. The saying is also found in Numbers 4:45; 9:23; 10:13; Joshua 22:9.
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A second census of Gershon (38-41), a second census of Merari (42-45), summary (46-49).
A great deal of time is devoted in the first part of Numbers to two censuses and the arrangement of the camp. In the next chapter, attention will be on the purity of the camp. The holiness of the people as a gathered community bearing the Presence with them through the desert is paramount. The duties of the Levites are, according to vs. 47, about “bearing the burdens” of the holy dwelling of Hashem. This is a reminder to us that we call can “bear the burdens” of others to benefit them. The Levites literally made the worship of the Israelites possible and through their labor and risk of death near the holy things and devotion to their task, they made it possible for others to enjoy the Presence of God in the midst of Israel. What can we do in minor and major ways if we take a similar role to the Levites in our lives, bearing burdens for others and supporting the things of God to make it possible for many to draw near to him?
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Severe impurities removed from camp (1-4), reparation (guilt) offering for fraud/false oaths (5-8), portions donated to individual priests (9-10).
Chapters 5-6 are the first legal section in Numbers, inserted into the narrative of the wilderness journey. Ritual purity in the camp is the first concern of this section, in vss. 1-4, with the three most severe types of ritual impurity (scale disease, gonorrhea, and corpse impurity) requiring expulsion from the boundaries of the camp. These three are the ones which require a seven-day cleansing period and the most intense purification procedures (Lev 15, Lev 13-14, and Numb 19 respectively). The reason given for the expulsion of those impure in these ways is the Presence of God in the center of the camp. The purpose of keeping the wilderness encampment free of these impurities is simple: God does not want human death near his sanctuary — and all kinds of impurity are about death, resemblance to death, and loss of life. The second concern in this section is offenses against God or others which require reparations to be made (vss.5-10). For these, the reparation (guilt) offering was prescribed in Lev 5:20-26 (6:1-7, Christian Bibles). These are the most severe types of sins, just as the ritual impurities singled out in vss. 1-4 are the most severe. Vs. 7 shows that confession and restitution converts even brazen sins into atoneable offenses, a truth without which there could be no forgiveness from heaven (Milgrom).
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NUMBERS 5:11 – 6:27
The adultery test (5:11-31), Nazirite vow (6:1-21), priestly benediction (6:22-27).
Of the adultery test, Ramban says, “This is the only judgment in the Bible where the outcome depends on a miracle.” Unlike the witch trials of later history, in this test the woman is only guilty if the miracle happens. The Nazirite vow is temporary, though there were lifelong Nazirites also (Samson, Samuel, John the Baptist). This was a way for a layperson to be holy in a manner analogous to priesthood (actually stricter on corpse impurity than ordinary priests and the rules about hair and products of the grape are unique). The priestly benediction is also about holiness, the blessing of God on the holy people (and his name dwelling on his people). All of chapters 5 and 6 deal with the holiness of the encampment around the Tabernacle. All that is near to God’s Presence dwelling in the Tent is holy and drawn even closer to the holy through righteous desire.
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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).
Chapters 7 and 8 complete the institution of the Tabernacle. Even scholars who tend to think parts of the Torah are very late in history find evidence that chapter 7 is ancient and comparable to similar lists found associated with other temples. Still, chapter 7 has raised problems, especially for the rabbis. If vs. 1 is translated to mean that immediately when the Tabernacle was erected (the first day of the first month of the second year, Exod 40:17) and that all the gifts mentioned were offered to God on the day they were brought, a number of problems ensue (Numb. Rabbah 13:2; Sifre Numb. 51). For one thing, individuals would have brought offerings on the Sabbath and even the days of Passover. Also, gifts needed for the service of the Levites would have been brought even before the census and before the Levites knew their duties (the census started on the second month, Numb 1:1, 18). Milgrom solves all of these with two interpretive decisions. First, vs. 1 should be translated “when” and not “on the day.” Second, the offerings were brought to be stored until needed, not offered on the day they were brought. So, for example, it is not that one of the chieftains brought incense and offered it to God (vs. 14, incense is not an offering an individual can bring), but that he brought the ingredients to be stored and used as needed. The meaning of this ancient list is that the people fully supported the work of the Tabernacle and devoted their possessions to God.
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Continuation of the list of initial Tabernacle offerings of clan in order of the tribes (42-71).
The princes of the tribes continued bringing their offerings and the people lavished the sanctuary of his Presence with generosity. This record, though rather tedious to read, shows us a few things. Whereas later in Israel’s history we will read of Solomon generously heaping on the donations to the Temple, here we see tribal heads doing so. It is a commentary on Israel’s early loose organization as a confederation of tribes and clans. And the gifts are not as colossal as what Solomon offered, but nonetheless show the grandeur of the early Tabernacle. In Israel’s recollecting the early history, it was important to see that the desert Tabernacle was greatly bestowed with devotion and provision. Furthermore, every tribe except Levi brought an offering and exactly the same offering, suggesting that the Tabernacle and the dwelling of God was equally the responsibility and blessing of all the tribes. None had a greater share. None had a greater responsibility. Levi offered service and risk and the giving up of ordinary life in place of material donations.
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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).
God had promised in Exodus 25:22 that he would speak with Moses from above the ark. At first Moses was unable to enter the sanctuary at all, even the outer room (the Holy Place, Exod 40:35). But it seems after the inauguration of the Tabernacle, God lessened the potency of his Presence there. Almost certainly Moses did not stand in the Most Holy Place (the inner sanctuary behind the veil, a.k.a. Holy of Holies), but in the Holy Place where he spoke with God through the veil. This is confirmed by the wording that he “would hear the Voice addressing him” (vs. 89 JPS).
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Instructions for mounting menorah lamps (1-4), cleansing for active-duty Levites (5-14).
The menorah required tending twice daily (Exod 30:7-8) and the light had to burn perpetually (Lev 24:2-4). The detachable lamps were mounted forward, casting light from the south wall to the north (Milgrom). In this way, they would light the holy place (altar of incense and table of bread). Levites, though they have a lower sanctity than priests, must be initially purified. They do not enter the Holy Place or handle blood at the altar. Yet some of them did transport sacred furniture after the priests have dismantled it (in the days of the Tabernacle, the movable sanctuary). Milgrom says this purification is needed only for the males who will be transporting sancta and is not for those with mere guard duty. The most unusual provision is “going over” the whole body with a razor (not a close shave, as in the case of a scaled-diseased person [“leper”] or Nazirite).
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Levites as gifts to the priesthood (15-19), performance of Levitical purification (20-22), retirement of Levites (23-26).
What does it mean that the high priest will offer the Levites as a tenufah (wave offering)? Normally a wave offering involves placing something in the hands of the offerer, lifting it to God, probably with the priest’s hands underneath the offerer’s hands. This was to indicate that the item is transferred to God’s ownership (Milgrom on Numb 6:20). Yet how could this ceremony be performed with Levites as the thing being transferred? Milgrom states that the ceremony must be symbolic, not actual. Rashi compares it to the case of the guilt offering for a person healed of scale-disease. From that case he argues that each Levite was to make an offering, and it was priestly portion of those offerings which were waved instead of the Levites themselves. In any case, the meaning is that the service of these Levites no longer belongs to themselves, but to God. Vs. 19 is remarkable. The Levites and their life of service atone on behalf of Israel (l’kapper al bnei Yisrael) in advance of violations involving encroachment on the holy things (Milgrom). When the sons of Israel lay hands on the Levites in vs. 10, they are symbolically offering Levites as their sacrifice of atonement. The service of the Levites prevents an outbreak of divine wrath by guarding the holy places.
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The first Passover outside of Egypt (1-5), those who cannot celebrate due to impurity (6-8), Passover sheni [Second Passover] (9-13), same law for the resident alien (14).
The Tabernacle was erected on the first day of year two (Exod 40:17) and Israel celebrated its inauguration eight days (from the first to eighth day of year two). The first Passover offering in the Tabernacle occurred shortly after on the fourteenth. The census was taken on day one of the second month (Numb 1:1). If the Passover had already happened before the census, why does this story occur here in the narrative? It is because the Second Passover (Passover sheni) occurs on the fourteenth day of the second month. Thus, Numbers 9:1-5 is a flashback to the first Passover outside of Egypt while 9:6-14 is in the narrative present, the occasion of Passover sheni. Held a month after Passover, this Passover sheni gives an opportunity for all who were ritually impure during the first occasion to have a second chance to celebrate. The ritually impure may not touch the meat of the Passover offering (though they must refrain from leaven during Unleavened Bread during Passover week). Vs. 12 probably means that those observing Passover sheni must rid their houses of leaven for seven days just as had been done at Passover. Vs. 14 refers to the resident alien who is circumcised (and only the one who is circumcised, Exod 12:48). Passover is the strictest of all the observances in the sense that failure to keep the leaven restrictions (Exod 12:15, 19) or offer the Passover (Numb 9:13) will result in being cut off. No other festival requires so many observances as Passover and makes their observance as mandatory as Passover.
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Israel’s journey resumes and the Presence goes with them (9:15-23), the silver trumpets (10:1-10).
Israel’s journey story ceased after Exodus 18, so that Exodus 19 – Numbers 9 has been legislation without movement (Milgrom). The Presence (cloud with fire in the midst) goes with Israel in their journeys. The picture in vs. 17 suggests the cloud would stop, the Levites and priests would set up the Tabernacle under the cloud, and when they had set it up, the Presence would descend from the cloud into the Most Holy Place (while remaining visible above it in a lower concentration). The silver trumpets became part of the ritual of Israel’s movements and are blown only by the priests (vs. 8). Based on Egyptian images and also some found on Judean coins they were short, approximately twelve inches (Milgrom). In function they overlap in some respects with the shofar, with the primary difference being that only the priests blew the silver trumpets whereas anyone could blow the shofar. Milgrom lists all the occasions for blowing the shofar with scripture references: to gather troops, frighten the enemy, proclaim victory, announce the end of battle, in a crisis such as a rebellion, to warn of an enemy approaching, at key moments of worship such as the installation of the Ark, and to announce the anointing of a king.
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The cloud Presence lifts and Israel journeys at last (11-13), the tribes travel in a column in order (14-28), Moses persuades Hobab/Jethro to accompany them (29-32), summary of journey (33-34).
Though Israel is in the desert forty years, the story in Numbers covers the first few months (10:11-14:45) and the last few (20:1-22:1, Milgrom). Led by the cloud, the Israelites at last leave Horeb (Sinai) and journey to Paran. The camp, arranged as a square, marches as a column in the order of tribes with the tabernacle furnishings in the middle carried by the Levites. Vs. 21 confirms that the Tabernacle had to be prepared before the Levites could carry the most holy things. As we read in Numbers 4:5-6, the priests first covered the furniture with three coverings so that the Levites of the Kohathite clan did not even gaze upon the furniture before moving it. The pillar of cloud moves Israel in the direction of the wilderness of Paran, which seems to mean the region near Kadesh-Barnea (northeast Sinai, almost in Israel). Israel moves from southern Sinai northeast toward the boundary of the promised land, with the pillar leading the way. Yet Moses also relies on Hobab (Numb 10:29; Judg 4:11), probably another name for Jethro (Exod 3:1; 4:18; 18:1; etc.), for guidance in finding camp in the desert. Reuel (Exod 2:18) is Jethro/Hobab’s father. Hobab (Jethro) is a Kenite (Judges 1:16; 4:11), a tribe of the confederation of peoples known as the Midianites (see below, “EXCURSUS: The Midianite Theory”). We read later of a Hobab living with Israel (Judg 1:16; 4:11). It is an interesting picture, with Israel following divine guidance (the Pillar) and human knowledge as well (Jethro-Hobab).
EXCURSUS, The Midianite Theory: There is a theory that the Midianites knew the Lord before the Exodus and that Hobab taught Moses about him. The best known advocate for this theory is Frank Moore Cross. According to the Midianite theory, Mt Sinai was in Midian (Arabia) and not in what is known today as Sinai. Supporting evidence for the Midianite theory includes a Nubian inscription that speaks of the “Shasu of YHW” in the land of Seir (but see below) and various scriptures like Deuteronomy 33:2 which speak of Hashem coming from Seir (which some say is in Edom, not far from Midian). Yet James Hoffmeier argues against the Midianite theory (Ancient Israel in Sinai). He points out that Hobab/Jethro is never called a priest of Hashem, that Jethro seems to have learned of Hashem from Moses, and that Mt Sinai could only be in the Sinai region.
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NUMBERS 10:35 – 11:29
Liturgy for the Ark of the Covenant (10:35-36), the anger of God burns against the camp (11:1-3), the riffraff complain about food (4-9), Moses’ complaint (10-15), seventy elders to get Spirit (16-25), Eldad and Medad prophesy (26-29).
The Israelites marched with the Ark in front (vs. 33), perhaps as a sign of God’s Presence to reassure them when attack from enemies was a real danger. The Ark is the footstool of Hashem (1 Sam 4:4; 1 Chron 28:2) and when the Presence was in the Holy of Holies his throne was understood to be invisibly above it. Perhaps on the march, with the Ark covered with three coverings (Numb 4:5-6), they were reminded that the cloud above them was God’s protection (10:34). Now that the people have left Sinai, their relationship with God has changed. They no longer will get away with faithlessness and grumbling. In Exodus, God was compassionate in the complaint about water (Exod 15:22-26), about food (Exod 16), and about water again (Exod 17:1-7, so Dennis T. Olson, Numbers: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). But now, possessing greater revelation, and with the hard-won negotiation of Moses which obtained the promise of God dwelling in the camp of Israel, the people are in great danger. God’s nature is antithetical to faithlessness and to anything less than complete attainment of goodness. There has been a thread in the story up till now warning fo the danger of death: outsiders encroaching on the Tabernacle will be killed (1:51; 3:10, 38), the Levites guard holy things to keep people from dying (1:53), even Levites from Kohath must be careful or die (4:15, 18-19), and there is a danger of a plague at all times (8:19). When the people complain at Taberah (11:1-3) it is the first of many such scenes which follow a pattern: complaint, punishment, and the naming of the place to memorialize the incident. Taberah contains the root letters for “burn.” The “riffraff” or “rabble” of 11:4 are typically identified as the mixed multitude that went out with Israel (Exod 12:38), because in the grammar of the verse, they seem to be a different group than the Israelites. The complaint narratives typify the problem of human relations to God: do we want what God offers or will we insist on momentary and passing pleasures of the appetite? After Moses’ complaint, God sends him help in leading by putting the same Spirit on seventy of Israel’s elders. Are these the same seventy elders from Exodus 24:1 who went up on Sinai with Moses? The tradition of seventy elders is part of the background of the Sanhedrin in later Judaism and of Yeshua appointing seventy (Luke 10). The manifestation of divine Spirit on the elders is God’s way of affirming that he has chosen them (compare Acts 2). Eldad and Medad were among the seventy elders, yet did not appear at the Tent. Nonetheless they prophesied, and since they did so in the camp they caused a stir among the people. Yet Moses expresses the desire that many in Israel would prophesy and have the Spirit upon them, a sign that there will be other prophets like Moses.
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NUMBERS 11:30 – 12:16
The plague of quail (11:30-35), Miriam and Aaron jealous of Moses (12:1-2), the humility of Moses (3), God speaks for his servant Moses (4-8), Miriam stricken with scale disease (9-14), Miriam healed after seven days (15-16).
Those who preferred immediate satisfaction to the promises of God had their wish, but a plague from God struck while they were eating. Resisting God makes all satisfaction null and void. The Cushite (?) wife is almost certainly Zipporah and not a second wife. Cushite could be from Cushan (see Hab 3:7) and not Cush (the land of Nubia, south of Egypt) and Habakkuk uses Midian and Cushan in parallel. Zipporah had been absent in the redemption from Egypt and joined them at Mt Sinai (Exod 18:5-6). Moses’ family and the people of Israel had not seen her until then. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron’s complaint was that Moses had married a non-Israelite, but their real issue was jealousy over power and the prophetic role. God appeared and said that words of prophecy were his alone to give. Moses, he said, was his unique servant, with a higher level of access, speaking face to face with God. Perhaps God only smote Miriam because Aaron had to officiate in the Tabernacle. Miriam’s leprosy was of the type not requiring banishment, but she is put out of camp as part of the shame process, not for impurity (Milgrom).
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The command to send scouts into Canaan (1-2), heads of tribes chosen (3-16), instructions for the scouts (17-20).
The story of the spies or scouts sent to reconnoiter the land is one of the two great rebellion stories in the formative period of Israel (along with the Golden Calf in Exodus 32). In Deuteronomy, when the history is recounted, these two receive special attention (Deut 1:22-45; 9:12-25). There is some tension and possibly a discrepancy between the Deuteronomy 1 account and this account in Numbers 13. In Numbers there is no hint that the people requested a scouting mission before entering to conquer the land. The narrative presents the scouting mission as God’s command. In Deuteronomy 1:22, the people came to Moses and asked for the scouting mission and “it seemed good” to Moses. If we had only the Numbers account, we would think it was purely God’s idea and if we had only the Deuteronomy account we would think it was purely the people’s idea. The purpose of the mission was to determine the number and strength of the enemy (vs. 18) and the quality of the land for farming and the cities for living (vss. 19-20). But things will go terribly wrong as ten out of the twelve will become fearful, disbelieving God’s repeated assurances that he is giving them the land.
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The scouts find grapes abundant at Eshcol (13:21-24), the first report of the scouts (35-29), Caleb’s positive report (30), the negative report of others (31-33), the people of Israel lose faith (14:1-3), the call to return to Egypt (4-7).
The things the Israelites lost faith about are those very things which God promised in his covenant to take care of for them. As a people, they needed security and provision. They would require abundant produce. They would need protection from marauding armies and hostile powers. The spies who sought out the land described its dangers, calling it “a land that devours its inhabitants.” This was perhaps a reference to the difficulty of agriculture in Canaan. Yet the promised blessings of Israel’s relation to God included great rain and harvests. The spies worried about the “men of great stature” they saw in Canaan. But God promised to drive them out. “Go back to Egypt,” said the spies, and turned their back on what God had done already and promised to do in the future. The narrative is constructed to give the lie to the negative report of the spies. They find fruitfulness in Eshcol, a cluster of grapes so heavy it needs two men to carry it (the scouting mission is in July-August, according to vs. 20). But instead of rejoicing at the sign of the land’s ability to become a paradise, they worried about the sons of Anak (giants, from whom Goliath descended) in Hebron. Their fear and doubt spread to the people, who suggested in 14:4 replacing Moses with another leader who would take them back to Egypt. Moses and Aaron fell on their faces (in prayer knowing a plague would fall) and Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes (in the ancient custom of mourning). Faith has been described as “assurance of things hoped for and belief in what is not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). But we are victims of our senses and prone to believe only what we experience now.
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Joshua and Caleb’s impassioned speech for faithfulness (8-9), the people want to stone them (10), God announces his intention to smite the people (11-12), Moses reminds God of his own words (13-19), God’s verdict: none but Caleb will enter the land (20-25).
After tearing their clothes, Joshua and Caleb made a speech to the people. In vs. 9 they say that the Canaanites “are our bread,” an expression that the NJPS unwisely translates as “they are our prey.” The theology that Joshua and Caleb express to the people is very sound: God has given the Land for bread to us, the Canaanites stand in the way, and “their protection has been removed,” meaning God has stated his intention to deliver them over to Israel. It is the false spies who have lied, exaggerated, and distorted the picture, claiming the land is full of giants and Nephilim (fallen ones, Gen 6:4). Faithlessness exaggerates the struggle but faith sees reality as God reports it. Joshua and Caleb’s loyalty nearly got them slain by the people, until God appeared, calling Moses to meet in the tent. Vs. 11 is a lament Psalm with God, this time, as the lamenter and the people as the cause of his sorrow. He offers to remake Israel from Moses, just as he had done after the Golden Calf in Exodus 32:10. Moses’ logic when he speaks on Israel’s behalf is that if God slays Israel, his fame in the world will suffer (a theme in Ezekiel also, notes Milgrom). God’s purpose in saving Israel is that the world will know him. So God measures his punishment carefully rather than destroying and starting again from Moses. Yet, God swears by his own nature, and by the fact that his Glory will continually fill the whole world, that the faithless generation will not see the land. Only their children will. This is why Israel spent forty years wandering on the short journey from Egypt to Canaan. God acknowledges that the nations are watching and that his gracious dealing with Israel will be a sign to the world, yet also insists on faith, showing the world that his justice is measured. God’s purpose with Israel is not to stop with Israel, but to fill the whole earth with his Glory, i.e., to save the Gentiles through Israel as the vessel of his revelation.
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NUMBERS 14:26 – 15:7
Sentenced to forty years and death in the desert (14:26-35), all the scouts but Joshua and Caleb die of a plague (36-38), the mourning people try to conquer the land without God’s blessing (39-45), the laws of grain and drink offerings to accompany animal offerings (15:1-7).
The pathos is high in this tale. The people get measure-for-measure punishment (a year exiled to the desert for each day the scouts were spying the land). They try in remorse to conquer without God’s Presence. The picture of faithless people attempting to obtain the gift without the Giver is sad, but true to human experience. Why is this account of failure followed by laws that apply once Israel is in the land? The laws of grain offerings and libations (drink offerings) are here as a sort of reassurance: the second generation will inhabit the land though the first generation has failed. Thus, after the failure of the first generation and the judgment that they will not be allowed to enter, we read of the second generation, “When you enter the land . . .” (15:2). It must have hurt the first generation to hear their children receiving worship instructions for the grain and wine offerings while they would live out their days in the desert separated from life in the land.
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More laws of grain and drink offerings to accompany animal offerings (8-16).
In the desert these accompaniments were not needed because there was no agriculture. In the land, the people would grow grain, olives, and grapes, and must present offerings from them. These laws occur here as an encouragement after the dismal news that the first generation (the Exodus generation) will not enter the Promised Land. Further, whereas the “riffraff,” quite likely a group that started some of the trouble and grumbling (see 11:4), have been chastised, now in 15:14-16 there is a hopeful message for foreigners who wish to dwell with Israel in the Land. God will allow them to bring offerings. Although in Second Temple non-Jews were forbidden access to the altar, this was not in Torah. Resident aliens will be protected by Torah as are the natives. It should be noted that there are still distinctions for resident aliens (Exod 12:48; Deut 14:21). Therefore, the meaning of the “one law” statements in Torah is not that resident aliens and foreigners in the land have identical obligations, but equal access to the altar and equal justice. These laws give hope for the Second Generation and for the Mixed Multitude, that on entering the Land, God will bless them if they walk in his ways.
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First portion of the dough [challah] offered to God (17-21), community offering for inadvertent sin (22-26).
The challah or dough offering is practiced for symbolic reasons today (that Torah may not be forgotten, say the rabbis) even though it is not necessary outside of the land. A small piece (the size of a brussels sprout for a typical loaf) is removed before shaping and burned (not in the oven) after a blessing is recited. In ancient Israel the dough was to be set aside for the priests and it is unclear exactly how this was accomplished. Ezekiel 44:30 clarifies that the dough offering is a way for a non-farmer (a homeowner) to make an offering and bring blessing to the household (Milgrom). Vss. 22-26 are the offering for the community for inadvertent sin and these verses clarify that offering is the way for the people to remain free of guilt. The passage is a puzzle, since this topic has already been covered in Leviticus 4:3-21. In Leviticus, communal sin requires a bull for a sin offering, but in Numbers the requirement is a bull for a burnt offering and a male goat for a sin offering. The discrepancy between the two sets of instructions suggests one of three possibilities: the Numbers passage may be an independent tradition, the Numbers passage may have originally been understood to be about performative commandments only (but a later scribe inserted language referring it to all commandments), or the Numbers passage is a later tradition changing the Leviticus instructions. One rabbinic harmonization is (via Ibn Ezra, though faulted by Ramban) to read Leviticus 4 in the case of violations of prohibitive commandments and Numbers 15 for performative violations. This passage is one of several examples showing that the Torah as we possess it today has been edited and that some further input (rabbis? prophets? Messiah?) is required to establish the right practice when the Temple is restored.
Individual offering for inadvertent sin (27-29), high-handed sin and being cut off (30-31), a wood-gatherer stoned (32-36), fringes (tzitzit) as reminders (37-41).
Inadvertent sin is atonable, but brazen (defiant, high-handed) sin requires being cut off (karet is the name of the penalty in Hebrew). Karet (being cut off) is always for sins against God (ritual matters) and not against people (Milgrom). Examples of sins which lead to karet include: eating leaven at Passover, neglecting the Passover sacrifice, working on the Sabbath, failing to observe Yom Kippur, imbibing blood or the organ fat of sacrificial animals, using sacred incense or oil for a common purpose, eating sacred meat after its holiness expires, eating sacrificial meat in a state of impurity, Levites who touch sancta, desecrating God’s name, neglecting circumcision, neglecting purification from corpse contact, Molech worship, necromancy, sacrifices made outside the sanctuary, and incestuous relations. Theories about the meaning of karet have included an early death, eradication of one’s family line, and prevention of a person being “gathered” to their kin after death (Milgrom). There is no clear answer in Torah about what karet means. Nor is it clear what the parameters are. Can the penalty of karet be overcome by repentance? Does lack of intention ameliorate the penalty (i.e., if someone inadvertently transgresses are they absolved of guilt?)? My own speculation is that karet is a penalty left deliberately vague because God did not reveal details to the priests or Israelites, leaving room for repentance and forgiveness. It often seems the warnings in Torah and prophets are more to motivate obedience than to close off hope. It is remarkably important to note, with much basis in the sacrificial laws of Leviticus, that this does not mean deliberate sin is un-atonable. Repentance converts deliberate sin into inadvertent sin (as can be seen in the guilt or reparation offerings of Leviticus). Those who refuse to repent are the ones whose sin is ultimately high-handed. In the case of the wood-gatherer, that his action was wrong is clear, since gathering manna on the Sabbath was forbidden (Exod 16:22-26). Many have guessed Moses was unsure about the penalty and how it should be carried out, which is why he sought God to be sure. The tzitzit are similar to ornamentation worn by priestly classes in the Ancient Near East. In commanding Israelites to wear the fringes, God is indicating that all Israelites are priests, and the blue (techelet) is a royal color (Milgrom).
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Korah and his partisans as well as Dathan and Abiram oppose Moses (1-3), Moses falls on his face (4), Moses announces a trial before God (5-7), Moses rebukes the partisans (8-11), the Dathan and Abiram rebellion (12-13).
This story begins a section (chs. 16-18) centered on the danger of approaching the Tabernacle improperly, the responsibility of the Levites, and the leadership of Aaron and Moses. The careful reader will notice that the story is confusing and that some questions are not easily answered as it is written. The cases of Dathan and Abiram, Reubenites, is quite different from the story of Korah and his followers, Levites. The theory that makes the best sense out of Numbers 16 is the documentary hypothesis, the idea that Torah had multiple sources which were edited into one document sometime after Israel’s exile. In Numbers 16 there are two stories woven together. In one, a group of Levites led by Korah challenge the exclusive priestly appointment of Aaron’s family. They are challenged to perform a priestly duty with incense and are killed in a priestly manner with fire from the sanctuary. In the other story, some Reubenites named Dathan and Abiram lead a charge against the prophetic authority of Moses. Moses calls for people to move away from their tents and the ground opens up and swallows Dathan and Abiram together with their families. Because the two stories are woven together, it is difficult for the reader to see where they separate. They were joined because they both represent the last rebellion in the wilderness against Moses and Aaron. But in the joining the details became obscured. In vss. 1-3, all of the words pertain to the story of Korah’s rebellion except “along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben.” Then in vss. 4-11, all the words belong to the story of Korah’s rebellion, but vss. 12-13 begin the story of Dathan and Abiram’s rebellion. Korah is a Levite and he makes a play for leadership when Israel is afraid and discontent. Dathan and Abiram belong to the tribe of the oldest brother (Reuben) which felt slighted. Korah uses the argument that all Israel is holy, failing to recognize that God attributes greater holiness to Levites and priests. Moses arranges a test involving an exclusive priestly function which will be fatal to non-priests: offering incense. God, as Korah should have known, kills those who mishandle the sacred incense. Dathan and Abiram made the fatal mistake of scorning the obvious prophetic authority of the one invested by God, the great prophet Moses. Human ambition for power has no place when divine authority intervenes and awe for God requires yielding ambition for reverence.
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Dathan and Abiram’s complaint (14), Moses’ prayer for retribution (15), back to the Korah rebellion: trial by incense offering initiated (16-18), the Presence appears to the people (19).
Two stories that were originally separate have been combined into one (see notes on vss. 1-13). Vs. 14 belongs with the story of Dathan and Abiram, two Reubenites, who questioned and opposed Moses’ prophetic authority. Vss. 15-19 return to the Korah story, about Levites who questioned and opposed the exclusive priestly authority of Aaron’s family. Dathan and Abiram say that Egypt was the land of milk and honey (vs. 13) and that Moses has not led the people well (vs. 14). They wonder if Moses would try to blind all the eyes of Israel (poking eyes out seems to be an expression like “pulling the wool over their eyes”). In the Korah story (which resumes in vs. 15), the trial by incense offering is destined to go badly for them, since God only allows those he designates to handle sacred objects. Vs. 19 shows that Korah got virtually the whole people to sympathize with his cause and then God’s Presence showed up, foreboding danger. What Korah and the Levites should have understood, they were oblivious to. The job of the priest of Hashem is to keep the people safe from Hashem’s Glory and to keep Hashem’s Glory separate from uncleanness (see Lev 10:10). In ignorance driven by jealousy and desire for power, they brought on themselves the very danger priests were to avoid: an outbreak of divine wrath.
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NUMBERS 16:20 – 17:8 (16:20-43 in Chr Bibles)
Moses and Aaron plead to save the congregation (20-22), God commands all to withdraw from the Tabernacle (23-24), Moses and the elders command all to withdraw from Dathan and Abiram (25-26), the people withdraw from the Tabernacle (27a), in front of their tents Dathan and Abiram and their families are swallowed by the ground (27b-32a), the people with Korah at the Tabernacle (32b), the earth swallows Dathan and Abiram and their families (33-34), fire from the Glory in the Tabernacle consumes Korah and those with him (35), the unlawfully used incense pans are hammered into altar plating (17:1-5), the people complain about the deaths (6-8).
Who died: what, where, when, and why? Was Korah killed in the earth-opening or the fire that issued from the Glory in the Tabernacle? Part of the problem is that several stories or reasons for rebellion have been combined and it is difficult to tell if this all happened at once or at different times. Step one in re-separating the stories is to understand in vss. 23 and 27 the words “Dathan and Abiram” have been added as part of the editorial work of joining them. In other words, the incident that took place at the Tabernacle concerned Korah’s rebellion only, whereas the judgment on Dathan and Abiram occurred at their tents in the camp of Reuben. Step two is to separate out the two strands of the story, as in the detailed outline above. Two quintessential stories about rejecting God’s chosen leaders have been fused into one. Separating them again helps us understand both stories better. Dathan and Abiram of Reuben challenged the authority of Moses and they and all their family perished forever from Israel in front of their tents. Korah and two hundred and fifty Levites were consumed by fire emanating from the Holy of Holies for challenging the priestly authority of Aaron and sons and for violating sanctuary rules in offering incense without divine permission. The rebellion story highlights the excessive worry we tend to have about things like power and control when greater issues of God’s Presence, promise, and teaching should form the basis of our lives.
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NUMBERS 17:9-15 (16:44-50 in Chr Bibles)
God again intends to obliterate Israel (9-10), Moses and Aaron save the people with incense (11-15).
As background for this story it is important to remember that as part of the two mutinies (Korah, Dathan and Abiram) there has been unlawful offering of incense by those who are not priests. Incense offerings handled improperly have led to death more than once (as in the Nadab and Abihu story in Lev 10). When the people complain about the deaths in 17:6 (16:41), their lack of reverence for the Presence of Hashem in the sanctuary is a rejection of the love relation they could have as a people with God. The deaths themselves were completely unnecessary if the people had understood what God was giving and appreciated his initiative in drawing near. In 17:7 (16:42), the Glory appears, meaning the fire shows through the Pillar of Cloud in the daytime, summoning Moses to meet with God. God instructs Moses and Aaron to leave the area, because it will be the location of a killing plague. Jacob Milgrom asks, “Will God sweep away the innocent with the wicked?” In other words, can’t God simply kill and save whom he wants in a plague? Why must they leave the area? The normal pattern (repeated many times in outbreaks of Divine Wrath) is that all are killed. This aspect of the Divine Wrath shows us something about the meaning of the Passover blood on the door, in which God’s wrath was being poured out on Egypt. There truly had been a danger to Israelites in the tenth Passover plague and the Passover blood was a powerful barrier to the destroying force and kept death away. Meanwhile in Numbers 17:11-15 (16:46-50), Moses knows exactly what to do in the case of this plague: use the barrier of incense to protect the people. Incense improperly offered is part of what led to the plague in the first place, yet properly used incense protects from the fatal holiness of God (see Lev 16:13). Aaron puts the incense between the people and the destroying plague and it atones for the offense (much like the Passover blood came between the people and death). Milgrom notes that this use of atone (kipper) is not its usual meaning (to cleanse), but a technical term from similar practices in other Ancient Near Eastern temple texts (to propitiate wrath, to atone).
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NUMBERS 17:16-24 (1-9 in Chr Bibles)
The test of the tribal staffs (16-22), the staff of Aaron blossoms (23-24).
The jealousy and struggle for power in the wilderness has led to death and suffering. It threatens to ruin the relationship between God and his people. With many dead, including Dathan and Abiram and their families, Korah, the 250 chieftains of the people, and a large crowd that died in the plague, the camp is in a crisis. Every tribe (matteh) wants to dominate so God has each one bring a staff (also matteh) for a test. The sign of the blossoming staff of Aaron is God’s way of helping the people believe in the institution of priesthood. It required a miracle to get people to set aside desires for dominance and to accept the leaders and the way of teaching God had given.
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NUMBERS 17:25 – 18:20 (17:10 – 18:20 in Chr Bibles)
Aaron’s staff preserved in the Ark (17:25-26), the Israelites despair of the fatal holiness of the Tabernacle (27-28), priests and Levites given responsibility and risk for the fatal holiness (18:1-7), compensation for the priests and Levites from the offerings of the people (8-20).
The people need not fear the Tabernacle if they let the priests and Levites do their jobs (instead of insisting all the tribes are holy, as did Korah). But the people were afraid. God’s Presence so near to the congregation of Israel has meant death and danger for a willful and factious people. Henceforward, priests and the Kohathites will be liable for Israelite violation of sacred space (18:1a), priests for any priestly violations (18:1b), priests and Levites for any Levitical encroachments (18:3), and Levites for violations of the Tent itself (8:22-23). For their dangerous work and in exchange for not having a share in the land, the priests and Levites receive compensation from the various kinds of offerings in Israel. The chapter lists eleven emoluments or sources of compensation and the rabbis further specified the list into twenty-four elements (Milgrom).
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The tithe for the Levites (21), the danger and inheritance of the Levites (22-24), the tithe of the tithe and all gifts to the priests (25-32).
This section on tithes is one of several in the Torah whose relationships are complex and require harmonization (Lev 27:30-32; Num 18:21-32; Deut 12:17-18; 14:22-29; 26:12-15). In Leviticus and Numbers the tithe is a donation to the Levites from all Israel of produce and animals, with the Levites in turn giving a tithe to the priests. In Deuteronomy it is assumed the tithe is eaten by the congregation at the festivals at the sanctuary, giving all extra to the Levites, and that in third years a tithe is set aside within Israel’s towns for the Levites and the needy. Are these texts all talking about one tithe, two, or three? The rabbinic solution is to assume that there were two tithes (ma’aser rishon and ma’aser sheni). The first tithe was completely donated to the levites, the second was shared at the feasts in the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of every seven-year cycle. In third and sixth years, the second tithe was set aside in Israel’s towns for the Levites and the poor and in seventh years there was no produce because the land was to rest. An additional complication of the tithe law is that Numbers calls for it to be given to Levites who, in turn, gave a tithe to the smaller group of priests. But by the Second Temple period, there were many priests but not many Levites. At that time tithes were given to the priests rather than the Levites, overturning the procedure legislated in this passage. The Torah must change when the circumstances surrounding its observance change. The Levites were the guards keeping the people out of the sacred areas as well as the laborers, serving the priests in the work of the sanctuary. They kept Israel away from the fatal holiness and risked their own lives. Thus the gifts of Israel to the sanctuary as well as the tithes were for the Levites, who in turn tithed to the priests (until the Second Temple period).
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Preparing ashes of the red heifer (1-6), purification of those who prepared them (7-10), procedure for purification from corpse-contamination (11-12), prevention of sanctuary defilement (13), contagion of corpse-contamination (14-16), water of purification (17).
Corpse contamination was one of the most serious types of ritual impurity (the others are in Leviticus 11-15). All forms of impurity symbolize death or loss of life, for God will not have human death near his sanctuary. For this reason, the high priest was forbidden to contact even the corpse of a near loved one and the regular priests were allowed only contact with the corpses of the nearest relatives (Lev 21). For ordinary Israelites, corpse contact was permitted, but when anyone failed to follow through on the purification procedures outlined in Torah, they sent contamination like air pollution which defiled the Temple (13). The red heifer is a unique type of sacrifice, burnt whole with the blood. It is a burnt-sin offering. The blood is contained in the ashes which, mixed with water, are sprinkled on the defiled person or object. The impurity is reduced after three days and is over at the end of the seventh (Jewish rites of mourning are based on the periods of three and seven days). Believing in the God of life who despises death requires an elaborate ritual to deal with the presence of death and keep it separate from the holy places and even rid the land of the stench of death.
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NUMBERS 19:18 – 20:6
Sprinkling to purify corpse contamination (18-19), prevention of sanctuary defilement (20), the one making clean becomes unclean (21-22), Miriam’s death (20:1), the people grumble for water (20:2-5), Moses and Aaron fall before God’s face (20:6).
The ritual of purifying those with corpse contamination (any contact with a human corpse, or even being under a roof with a corpse) has many messianic implications. The priests were to find a red heifer (cow) and to take it outside of the courts of the sanctuary (eventually the Mount of Olives became the place for this), slaughter it in that place, sprinkle some of its blood seven times in the direction of the sanctuary, and then burn it whole (blood and all), along with hyssop, scarlet yarn, and cedar wood. We should note here that hyssop was used to dash blood, and was associated with blood sacrifice, and also that scarlet yarn and cedar wood are both red (the general color of blood). A small quantity of the ashes of this burnt sin offering was placed into water in a vessel (vs. 17) and sprinkled using hyssop, like a paint brush to perform the act, on the tent and articles and all persons defiled by contact with human death. The sprinkling is to happen on the third and seventh days after the contact with death. One irony of the sprinkling of water imbued with the ashes of the red heifer is that the one who performs the cleansing becomes unclean (until evening). That is, the person who makes others clean becomes defiled in the process. He becomes “sin” so the other persons can become “clean.” The burnt sin offering, which is what the red heifer is, absorbs impurity as it does its work. The red heifer is a unique sort of offering, a sin/purification offering that is burned whole. Its ashes contain the blood (vs. 5) which in other sacrifices is daubed on the altar. Since the ashes contain the cleansing agent, they absorb impurity and render the handler impure. Even regular sin/purification offerings involve burning the corpse outside the camp and the blood renders impure (see Lev 6:20(27 in Christian Bibles)). Furthermore, the red heifer ceremony hints at resurrection (see Paul reference in 1 Cor 15:29 to those ‘immersed on behalf of the dead’). The wrongness of a human corpse in God’s sight indicates God’s intention to destroy death. After completing the instructions for purification from death contamination, the Torah notes Miriam’s death. The deaths of Moses and Aaron are not far away either and the people’s complaint about water is a sad chapter, in that death will also come to Moses and Aaron because of it.
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God commands Moses and Aaron to provide water from the rock (7-8), water is brought forth (9-11), God passes judgment on Moses and Aaron (12), the name Meribah is given to the place (13).
In a lengthy exploration, Milgrom considers eleven theories about the sin of Moses and Aaron, bringing to bear ancient issues in magic and polytheism as well as rabbinic theories. In the end, he concludes that the sin of Moses was in saying “shall we bring forth water?” instead of “shall he?” That is, Moses included himself and Aaron with God among those who would bring forth the water miraculously. This theory is also that of the medieval commentator, the Bekhor Shor. The Torah’s aim to overthrow pagan magical thinking has colored all miracles in Torah. They have all been performed in ways designed to show they were clearly divine and the human actors merely vessels. Milgrom also discusses the theory of Bekhor Shor that three stories in Numbers are repeats of stories already told in Exodus (water from the rock, the manna complaint, and the quail complaint) and not new incidents. If this water-from-the-rock incident is the same as that in Exodus 17, we are seeing new details about what has already been reported. This would mean Moses from very early on knew he would not enter the land. It might also explain why Moses would do something immature, believing that he is more than just a vessel. He seems to assume he is the necessary vessel, as if God’s work can only come through him. If so, he learns better and comes to understand God’s power more deeply. The irony is that God is providing something beautiful, water in a waterless place, but human ambition and our boundless drive for recognition and acclaim can ruin even a miracle.
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Israel entreats Edom to pass through Kadesh (14-17), Edom rejects the entreaty (18-21).
Edom is the people descended from Esau just as Israel is the people descended from Jacob. Yet these related peoples became enemies. This foundational story in Torah will become part of a continuing saga of brother nations at odds in Israel’s unfolding history. In Isaiah, Obadiah, and Malachi we read about Esau-Edom as the enemy of Israel in later times. When Babylon destroyed Judah about 650 years after the time of Moses, the Edomites came and plundered the villages and towns of Judah. The name Edom became synonymous with the perpetual enemies of Israel (so that some apocalyptic texts refer to the Romans as Edomites and medieval Jewish writers refer to Christianity as Edom). In Obadiah 15, the Lord says, “Your deeds will return on your own heads.” In Malachi 1:2-5, the people of Judah complain because Jerusalem is so small and dismal compared to its former greatness while Edom seems to have thrived. God says the difference between Edom-Esau and Judah-Jacob is that Judah will be restored while Edom will be destroyed. The people who have a covenant with God will continue while those who reject God have no future.
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NUMBERS 20:22 – 21:9
God announces Aaron will die at Mt. Hor (22-26), Aaron’s death (27-29), Israel destroys Arad (21:1-3), the bronze serpent (4-9).
Aaron is guilty of sacrilege along with Moses from the Meribah incident (vss. 12-13). Eleazar his son will succeed him. The story of Eleazar’s succession is dramatic: Aaron ascends in full vestments with Moses and Eleazar, at the top of the mountain Aaron’s vestments are transferred to Eleazar, Aaron dies, and then only Moses and Eleazar descend from Mt. Hor. In the conflict with the Canaanite king of Arad, Israel vowed to put the city under the ban (Hebrew: kherem), an ancient practice of devoting a place to a deity for destruction. The troops would forego looting and all would be donated to the sanctuary (see Lev 27; Deut 20). When the Israelites complained yet again, God sent a plague of seraph serpents (fiery serpents, probably meaning venomous). The Israelites were near the copper mines of Timnah, and so the bronze or copper serpent image that God instructed Moses to make was a fitting image for the place (Milgrom). Archaeologists have discovered a copper snake image near Timnah, about five inches long, from about 1000 BCE (not, of course, thought to be the one referred to in the story). The image of the copper snake became an idolatry problem of its own later in Hezekiah’s time (2 Kgs 18:4). In Ninevah, a bronze bowl with Hebrew writing and a winged snake on a pole was found, possibly a part of the tribute payment sent either by Ahaz or Hezekiah (Milgrom). The Fourth Gospel uses the copper snake as a figure for faith (John 3:14-15).
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Journey to the edge of Moab (10-13), As it says in the Wars of the Lord (14-15), song of the well (16-18), to the peak of Pisgah (19-20).
Numbers 20-21 is not a straightforward, chronological account, but a jumble of different time periods edited for a literary purpose (Milgrom). The basic literary plan is, as Milgrom describes it, a “trek which begins in gloom and ends in jubilation.” Both chapters 20-21 rearrange the order of events, diverging from the wilderness itinerary of places Israel journeyed (ch. 33), in order to show a pattern of relations between the people and God. Ch. 21 follows this pattern: the leaders fail, the people murmur, God punishes, yet despite all God provides water and, thus, life. God’s characteristic kindness shines through in these accounts and the general immaturity of the people and failings of leaders do not deter him from nurturing and providing. Far from teaching the lesson that worthiness is the basis of love, these narratives show us the meaning of unconditional love. The chronological jumble is not obvious to the reader unless one attempts to map out the travels of Israel in the order of the stories. They read well as a progression of stories because they are ordered thematically rather than geographically and chronologically. Vss. 14-15 mention a non-biblical source — the Book of the Wars of the Lord — and as in many cases in the Torah, it is evident from this note that the narrator is from some time later than the lifetime of Moses. The account of Israel’s wilderness wanderings is put together after Moses’ time from sources such as the Book of the Wars of the Lord (see also the Book of Jashar in Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18). Here in 21:10-20, the people actually arrive at the edge of the land, to Pisgah (synonymous with Nebo), the place where Moses will die (Deut 34:1). The “desert” (or “wasteland”) is that area just north of the Dead Sea in Moab (east of the Jordan) and the land (west of the Jordan).
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NUMBERS 21:21 – 22:1
Sihon refuses passage to Israel (21-23), Israel defeats Sihon and camps in Heshbon (24-26), a poem to Heshbon’s defeat (27-30), capture of Jaazer (31-32), Israel defeats Og of Bashan (33-35), camping on the plains of Moab (22:1).
These victories are important for Israel, showing that divine favor has not left them. Amidst all the stories of failure and punishment, the defeat of Sihon, Jaazer, and Og are bright spots in the wilderness period. The poem to Heshbon’s defeat is possibly written by an Amorite and inserted into Torah by an editor (Milgrom, the rabbis). Its purpose is to clarify that Israel did not seek to harm Moab (Deut 2:9; Judg 11:15, 21). The Israelites faced an enemy known for worshipping a dread god. Chemosh, god of war, was a cthonic deity (from the underworld, worshipped by pouring sacrificial blood into the ground). The second generation of Israelites (it has been nearly forty years since the exodus) is having some of the same experiences as their parents, but also some new ones. The first generation started with promise and ended with gloom and defeat. The second generation experienced many of the same ups and downs (grumbling over food and water), but had greater faith and defeated enemies. The narratives of chs. 20-21 are not in chronological or geographical order (a comparison with the wilderness itinerary in ch. 33 shows this as well as common sense geography). So why are these victories at the end of this section? They are here to end on a note of success and blessing.
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Moabites sick with fear about Israel (2-3), Balak summons Balaam, a Babylonian diviner (4-6), Balaam inquires of God whether to curse Israel (7-11).
22:2 – 24:25 is a self-contained story about Balaam, independent from the rest of the Numbers narratives surrounding it. It’s connection to the larger Numbers story is two-fold: it occurs on the steppes of Moab, the final location of Israel before entering the land, and in chapter 31, Balaam is mentioned quickly as having plotted with Israel’s enemies and is killed. Even the rabbis recognize this section as having an independent origin (Milgrom). Some call it a fable, but a negative opinion of its historical value is unnecessary. Is Balaam good or bad, a diviner who comes to be taught by God or a schemer who seeks a way to defeat God? The story ends up with Balaam as a schemer, but is confusing to readers since Balaam inquires of God. What many readers do not realize is that a pagan diviner would take all gods seriously and Balaam’s inquiry does not indicate faith in the one true God. The fact that God would work with a pagan diviner is not an indication of his approval of magic, divination, and the like (see Deut 17:10, 14). Rather, God shows his universal kingship when he subverts foreign institutions, bringing good through evil. Milgrom shows carefully the unity of the narratives of the Balaam story, how the poetry reinforces what is said in the prose. The Balaam narratives are a careful work of literary artistry presenting the unfailing covenant love of God for Israel in the double form of prose and poetry.
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First party to Balaam turned away (13-14), a second party offers money (15-17), Balaam will take no amount of money (18-19), God allows Balaam to go (20).
Vss. 18-19 are surprising. It sounds as if the Lord is more than simply one of the gods to Balaam. How could a Babylonian diviner be a devotee of the Lord? Later in 23:8, Balaam’s first oracle will declare, “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed?” The people of God needed to know that God protected them from pagan magic and the Balaam narratives pit the kingship of God against the forces of Mesopotamian divination. Up to this point, the narrative has given a good picture of the diviner, but the image of Balaam will change in the next narrative.
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Balaam sets out to divine about Israel (21), God is angry (22), Balaam’s donkey diverts from the invisible presence of the angel (23), donkey diverts a second time (24-25), the donkey sees a third time and stops (26-27), Balaam’s dialogue with his donkey (28-30), the angel informs Balaam the donkey has saved his life (31-33), Balaam submits (34-35), a chastened Balaam reaches Balak (36-38).
We cannot be certain why the Lord said Balaam could go (20) and then was angry with him (22). It seems that though God was willing, he wished to display to Balaam how fiercely jealous he is for his people. He permitted Balaam to go but at the same time loathed what Balaam wanted to do. Some hint of an answer may lie in vs. 32, that God did permit Balaam to go, but Balaam was overly eager to do so or was corrupt in his motivation. The JPS may capture it in vs. 32 (which has a very rare word): “for the errand is obnoxious to me.” This reading seems preferable to a less specific translation such as ESV’s “your way is perverse before me.” God brings good out of Balaam’s errand, but his jealousy for Israel is offended by Balak and Balaam’s intentions and desires. This is the only negative scene about Balaam in the whole cycle of chapters 22-24. It is not until much later, after the Balaam cycle, that we find another negative portrayal of him: the information that Balaam lay behind the seduction of Israel with Midianite prostitutes (31:8, 16). Even the later scriptures about Balaam are not all negative. In Micah 6:5, the prophet recalls that Balaam, under God’s power, refused to curse Israel. The donkey story is an ironic comedy: the so-called seer cannot see what his donkey sees three times (with three iterations being a common device in stories).
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NUMBERS 22:39 – 23:12
Balak shows Israel to Balaam (22:39-41), Balaam prepares seven altars to God (23:1-3), God appears to Balaam (4-5), Balaam speaks God’s prophecy over Israel (6-10), Balak is angry (11-12).
Bamoth-Baal means the high places of Baal. Milgrom notes that in the ancient world, people thought the diviner had to see the object of the curse for it to succeed. Balaam knows somehow that seven is a number of significance to God and uses it by having seven altars built. The content of Balaam’s first oracle is theologically potent: God has not cursed Israel, Israel is holy and separate from the nations of the earth, and the blessedness of Israel is to be envied. The idea that Israel is “not reckoned among the nations” is a statement of unique election. Israel is the nation apart, like God’s firstborn child among all his children from all nations. God’s blessing to other nations comes through Israel. Milgrom notes that the ideal desire in the oracle (to be blessed as Israel is blessed) is from the Abrahamic covenant: the nations (families of the earth) will be blessed in Israel (Gen 12:3; 22:18; 28:14).
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Balak calls Balaam to curse Israel a again (13-14), the Lord gives Balaam a message (15-17), Balaam’s second oracle (18-24), Balak’s dismay (25-26).
Vs. 13 again indicates the ancient belief that a diviner had to see those he was cursing for it to be effective. Balaam mixes his methods with those God has taught Israel. Burnt offerings are a distinctive Israelite sacrifice, since Mesopotamians usually brought meat inside the sanctuary, supposedly to be a meals for their gods (Milgrom). Israelites burned the meat on the altar, as the true God cannot be fed by humans. In his second oracle, Balaam says that no sorcery will work against Israel (“there is no omen against Jacob”), that God is Israel’s king (“the shout of a king is among them”), and that Israel will be victorious with the strength of a wild bull and the ferocity of a lion (“it shall not lie down until it devours the prey”). Israelite history is a testament to Balaam’s words, with this small people rising and enduring through the shadow of many empires just as God promised. Vs. 19 is sometimes used as a prooftext against the notion of a divine Messiah (“God is not man to be capricious, Or mortal to change His mind”). But the verse contrasts God’s perfect nature with the corruptible nature of humans, who can be bribed and persuaded to lie. It has nothing to do with things God might do that are consistent with his nature. That God might fully identify with humanity by entering into it himself and redeeming it from within is nothing like what God denies here.
People coming from a Jewish point of view often bring up Numbers 23:19 as a reason not to be open to the idea of a divine Messiah. “God is not a man,” is a shallow prooftext against the incarnation. Christians should not complain when Jewish people use a verse as a prooftext, since this faulty method of reading the Bible is a regular part of church culture. The way we read the Bible should include three things: context, context, context. The Bible is a sophisticated book. It says things like, “he made them in his image and likeness” and at the same time “God is not a man.” God is both like and unlike the people who come from his loving act of creation. Maybe the point is “man is not meant to be like man.”
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NUMBERS 23:27 – 24:13
Balak tries from another location (23:27-30), Balaam does not try to divine (24:1-2), Balaam’s third oracle (3-9), an angry Balak tries to send Balaam away (10-11), Balaam insists on saying what God tells him (12-13).
The words of 24:5 have become an important part of the liturgy of Judaism, a curse turned into a blessing. The verse poetically expresses the blessing promised to Israel by God, a blessing over the home and crops and family of the children of Israel. In the wilderness, they were even blessed in their tents while on the way to the land of promise. Perhaps now, in the time of Jewish exile, the use of Numbers 24:5 in the liturgy reminds us that the Jewish people are blessed in every place under heaven. 24:9 reiterates the Abrahamic promise: the one who blesses Israel will be blessed and vice-versa. The reference to Agag is curious, since Agag is yet future to the time of Moses and Balaam (Agag will be the enemy of Israel in the days of King Saul). The Septuagint has Gog instead of Agag (Gog, the last days enemy of Israel from Ezekiel 38-39). Yet in the fourth oracle (24:15-19) there are other references to the time of Saul and David (“crush through the forehead of Moab”). The oracles of Balaam, then, look to the time of David’s kingdom and military victories as the height of Israel’s blessing.
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NUMBERS 24:14 – 25:9
Balaam offers another oracle to show the future (14), Balaam’s fourth, fifth, and sixth oracle (15-24), Balaam returns home (24:25), Israel sins with Moabite women and gods (25:1-3), God tells Moses to hang the leaders on a stake (4-5), Phinehas impales a man daring to consort in the sight of Moses (6-9).
Balaam has been fired, but he offers a prophetic glimpse into the future. Israel will have a king, a star rising from Jacob, who will smite Moab and Edom (David and, by extension, Messiah). Amalek, the enemy in the days of Saul, will perish. The sixth oracle is obscure, some of the nations mentioned are hard to interpret. Later tradition interpreted the Kittim as the Romans. The idea is that Israel will continue as other nations rise and fall. In chapter 25, the apostasy with Baal-Peor (the Baal of the region Peor), is nearly identical to the Golden Calf apostasy and Milgrom details the comparisons: idolatry, God slaughters the people in his wrath, and the Levites/ Phinehas are given sacred duties. The Israelites had sexual relations with the Moabite/Midianite women and began to intermarry. These foreign women involved the Israelites in worship of their gods at public festivals. Many have interpreted this as sacred prostitution (a sex act which is a fertility ritual), but there is no evidence that sacred prostitution was practiced in the Near East. 25:2 should be taken at face value (so Milgrom): the unions with the foreign women brought Israelite men to worship Moabite deities. God tells Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and have them publicly impaled.” Why punish the chiefs of Israel for what some men have done? The JPS attempts to resolve this by taking “chiefs of the people” to mean the “ringleaders” of those who worshipped other gods (“take all the ringleaders of the people …”). This may be the correct understanding. It fits with the way Moses passes instructions along to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill his men who joined themselves to Baal of Peor.” On the other hand, perhaps God did say the chiefs (synonymous with judges) should be killed. But Moses knows the guilt the chiefs/judges bear for the failure of those under their oversight will disappear if they kill the guilty. Was Moses interpreting God’s command in a more merciful manner or flagrantly disobeying? Meanwhile, we are never told that the judges of Israel even carried out Moses’ order. Is the act of Phinehas (impaling one couple who flagrantly violated God’s command) taken as a substitute to the order to kill those guilty? The story leaves many unanswered questions.
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NUMBERS 25:10 – 26:4
God’s covenant with the line of Phinehas (10-13), the slain as leaders of their clans (14-15), God calls for war with the Midianites (25:16-19), a new census is ordered after the plague (26:1-4).
When God says of Phinehas that he “turned back my wrath,” this could be a key for understanding the whole story. In 25:1-5 there is a tension in the story depending on how 25:4 is translated (see notes there). God had instructed Moses to execute all the chiefs of the people. Yet Moses ordered only the deaths of those guilty of consorting with Moabite gods. Furthermore, it seems even that order to execute the guilty was never carried out. Instead, Phinehas slew Zimri and Cozbi, turning back Adonai’s wrath (Milgrom, JPS Commentary). Therefore, one way to read this story is that God’s initial order to kill all the chiefs was not his true desire. Instead he was pleased when Moses reduced the order and even more so when Phinehas “turned back” his wrath. The question is: why is God’s wrath at first uncontrolled and yet his greater desire seems to be to have mercy? What is this story saying about the wrath and mercy of God? It seems to be saying that his mercy triumphs over his judgment. Yet that leaves us wondering why his wrath must break out at all. Perhaps human evil and the pain it causes evokes a reaction in God, a conflicted desire to stamp out the evil mixed with a desire to save the people involved. There is more to understand about Phinehas. We find out in 1 Chronicles 9:20 that Phinehas was in charge of the Tabernacle guards. One function of the priests and Levites was to protect the sanctuary from defilement and the actions of brazen rebels (Numb 8:19). Phinehas was doing his job when he slew Zimri and Cozbi, and part of the stated rationale for the temple guard was to protect the lives of Israelites who might be slain in an outbreak of divine wrath (so this adds weight to the theory being presented here). On the other hand, the later rabbis were bothered by Phinehas’ action, in that he executed people without any trial and that he impaled rather than stoning them (Milgrom). Yet they discuss the fact that this was based on a direct command from God and impaling was specified, so Phinehas’s action was legitimate. In the future, Phinehas’ line of priestly descendants would be the Zadokites. In later Israelite history, the Abiathar line would be barred from priesthood (by Solomon) and the Zadokites would continue as the only priestly line. So God’s promise to Phinehas has future consequences. The nations involved in seducing Israel to idolatry and intermarriage were Moab and Midian both.
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A census of Israelite clans preparing for entry into the land (5-51).
The first census in Numbers was by tribe since the Israelites would camp in a tribal arrangement in the wilderness. This second census is by clan, since they are preparing to enter the land and it will be allotted by clans (see 26:52-56). The total number of clans, counting the Levites in 26:57-62, is seventy, the same as the number of individuals who entered Egypt in Genesis (Milgrom) and the traditional number of nations from Genesis 10. This census gives signs of being very old and connects Israelite clans to various mountains and geographical regions (Milgrom). It has a few notes about clans whose stories are told in the Torah (Korah, Zelophehad’s daughters). The traditional number of Israelites (more than 600,000 males) has long been known to be an error. The likeliest cause of the error is an ancient confusion between elef as meaning “clan” or “troop” and elef as meaning “thousand” (note: this error was then compounded by scribes who misunderstood and added more layers to the problem). The total number of Israelite men in the interpretation that takes elef as troops and not thousands is 5,730 (to which women and children would be added, for perhaps a total of 20,000 Israelites).
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NUMBERS 26:52 – 27:5
Apportioning the land by clans (52-56), census of the Levitical clans (57-62), only Joshua and Caleb remained from first census (26:63-65), the case of Zelophehad’s daughters (27:1-5).
The land is apportioned through the use of lots (to determine location for each clan) and by size of the tribe (to determine size of portion). Levitical clans are listed separately because no land is apportioned to them. One of the two major problems in this passage is that the Levitical clans here do not match exactly the list earlier in Numbers 3. In Numbers 3 they are listed as three clans and eight sub-clans: Gershon (Libni, Shimei), Kohath (Amram, Izhar, Hebron, Uzziel), Merari (Mahli, Mushi). Here some are omitted and they are not organized but given in two lists: (Gershon, Kohath, Merari), (Libni, Hebron, Mahli, Mushi, Korah). What is the relationship between these two lists of clans? A second problem is the genealogy of Moses and Aaron. Were there only four generations from Levi to Moses (Levi, Levi’s son Kohath, Kohath’s sister Jochebed marries Kohath’s son Amram, they bear Aaron and Miriam and Moses)? This makes four generations (Levi, Kohath, Amram, Aaron) and agrees with Exodus 6:18-20. It also matches Genesis 15:16 (“in the fourth generation they shall come back here”). But it makes for a very short period of slavery, not even close to the 430 years of Exodus 12:40 or the 400 years of Genesis 15:13. These discrepancies highlight how little we really know about the history of ancient Israel. The case of Zelophehad’s daughters concerns a clan with no male heir. Would God provide land for a clan without male headship? This is one of four cases in Torah which required a divine oracle for clarification over and above the written Torah (the blasphemer in Lev 24:10-22, those impure for Pesach in Num 9:6-14, and the Sabbath violator in Num 15:32-36 — Milgrom).
—————-People who say the Bible is straightforward, that the critics are being ridiculous, and that the traditional understanding of things such as the number of years Israel was in Egypt is the only right answer — well, people who say that don’t read closely. They are usually blissfully unaware of passages like our portion today. The humanness of the Bible does not ruin it. The divine voice is every bit as much in it as traditional readers think. But seeing the Bible in all its layers and colors is, I think, a much more rewarding journey than the black and white image some prefer to cling to.
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God decides the case of Zelophehad’s daughters (6-11), Moses sees the land from the mountains (12-14), Moses asks for a divinely endowed replacement (15-16), Moses’ authority is placed on Joshua (17-23).
God hears the case of Zelophehad’s daughters (a clan with no male heir) and decides that in such a case a man’s daughters inherit. There is a concern in Torah that land remain forever with the clans. If land is purchased, it is only leased until the Jubilee year and reverts to clans. This system was not followed. But God’s ideal system makes a permanent home and inheritance for every family. Next, Moses sees the land which he is not allowed to enter. He sees it from the Abarim range (vs. 12) and later the peak is specified as Nebo (Deut 32:49). The height is 2,740 feet and there is a substantial view of Israel on clear days (Milgrom). In asking for a successor, Moses calls God the “source of the breath of all flesh.” The emphasis is on God’s spiritual knowledge of people. Moses asks for a divinely appointed successor who will be a military leader (go before, come in before, Milgrom). Moses transfers authority to Joshua much as Elijah later transfers to Elisha.
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Grain offering to accompany sacrifices (1-2), the daily perpetual (tamid) offering (3-8), the additional (musaf) offering for Shabbat (9-10), the additional offerings for the new moon (11-15).
The laws of the offerings are placed here because the Israelites are at the point in the story where they are about to enter the land. The grain, oil, and wine offerings will be possible only when Israel is in Canaan and growing crops. The text calls the time of the afternoon offering “between the evenings,” which probably means between sunset and dark, but the rabbis decided it should be late afternoon (Milgrom comments on the disparity). Based on this daily schedule, Jewish tradition locates the three daily prayer times. The morning and evening tamid (daily burnt offering, 28:3-8) has become the morning and evening prayer time. The hour when the temple would close for the night has become the time for the evening prayer (ma’ariv). The new moon (rosh chodesh) festival was very important in ancient Israel (Isa 1:12-13; Hos 2:13; Amos 8:5). It was a day for rest and, when possible, visiting the Temple. In modern Judaism, rosh chodesh involves a change in the synagogue service: reciting hallel, reading Torah, a special prayer for the new month, and in some traditions it is encouraged as a recreational day. Numbers 28 and 29 organize the schedule and number of offerings for all the important occasions into one handy list.
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NUMBERS 28:16 – 29:11
Offerings for Passover (16-25), offerings for Shavuot (28:26-31), offerings for the seventh month’s new moon (29:1-6), offerings for Yom Kippur (7-11).
If you chart out the number of lambs, rams, bulls, and goats to be offered for each occasion throughout the year, a few patterns emerge. There are thirty occasions besides Sabbaths calling for additional offerings (twelve new moons, seven days of Unleavened Bread, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and eight days of Sukkot). The number of lambs to be offered on these thirty occasions is always seven or fourteen. This is yet one more feature of the Israelite tabernacle symbolizing creation and cosmos. The offering on Passover (Nisan 14) is only mentioned in passing in vs. 16 (as it is an offering by individuals whereas these others are brought by the priests for the whole nation). Note that some translations obscure the fact in vs. 16 that the reference is to a sacrifice (“Passover” is both the name of the day and the name of the sacrifice itself).
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NUMBERS 29:12 – 30:1(29:40)
Offerings for Sukkot (12-34), offerings for Shemini Atzeret (8th day, 35-38), summary of section (29:39 – 30:1).
Sukkot is unique in having a Yom Tov (holiday Sabbath) on the first and eighth day (Passover is a Yom Tov on days one and seven). The eighth day of Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret) is separate from and yet attached to the seven days, so that it is part of Sukkot and yet separate from Sukkot. The number of bulls offered total seventy, thought to symbolize the nations (which number seventy in Genesis 10). Sukkot requires more offerings than any other festival.
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NUMBERS 30:2 – 17 (1-16 in Christian Bibles)
Vows are inviolable (2-3), the father and vows of unmarried women (4-6), the husband and vows of women prior to marriage (7-9), the vow of a widow or divorcee (10), the husband and vows of wives (11-13), the responsibility of the husband (14-16), summary (30:17).
Because it was common for vows to the deity to include offerings, animal and other kinds of offerings from crops, olive oil, and wine, the subject of vows follows closely in Numbers on the heels of the catalogue of sacrifices. The vow is an ancient practice of worship, a psychological need which people have to feel as if something they do can get the deity’s attention. The problem with them lies in this: what we utter in an instant, perhaps even unthinkingly, becomes binding in relation to the deity. This is especially true psychologically. Even though God is merciful, if we vow and do not fulfill, we imagine that we have broken a strand of the cord that binds us to him. To partially ameliorate the problem of hasty vows, Torah adopts a cultural norm in Israel. Given that their society was patriarchal, vows by women are subject to annulment by the male authority of the family (father, husband). This does not deal with the problem of hasty vows by men, but later, Yeshua teaches his followers not to make vows at all. The Torah permits vows, but does not command or even commend them. Note the warning in Qohelet (Ecclesiastes 5:4). Despite the dangers of a vow, they were a popular form if Israelite piety. Milgrom lists a number of references to vows in Psalms as evidence of their popularity as a form of devotion (these verses numbers are as in Jewish Bibles: Psa 22:26; 50:14; 61:6; 65:2; 66:13; 116:14, 18).
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War with Midian.
The war with Midian is a conflict with a former ally turned treacherous. Midian was helpful in the early journey of Israel (Hobab in Num 10:29, perhaps the same person as Jethro) but sought to prevent Israel to enter the land through treachery by conspiring to get Israel in trouble with God. According to this account Israel wiped out this branch of the Midianite tribes but not all Midianites. The Midianites are mentioned again in Judges. In fact, Hobab’s family lived in Canaan with Israel (Judg 1:16; 4:11). God gave Moses the task of a holy war of vengeance on Midian before he died. The commandments to Israel during the wilderness and conquest to put people under the ban (herem in Hebrew) and to kill all the males, or sometimes even women and children as was the case with Midian, are extremely troubling. The perspective of Torah is that God sometimes judges a people with extinction. Usually divine judgments are depicted as being carried out by the usual course of evil in history (wars and disasters). But there were a few instances during the wilderness and conquest when God commanded Israel to be the instrument of his judgment. It is horrible to think about people, even children, being put to death. We may question either God’s goodness in commanding such a thing, or we may accept that God has the right to decree the annihilation of a people, or we may question the correctness of the account given in Torah. In any case, commands to exterminate a people came to an end, so that the latest one mentioned in the Bible is in the days of Saul in 1 Samuel 15. When God in his wrath breaks out with death against the Israelites, there are stories such as that of Phinehas in which righteous people took action to stop the killing. The Torah seems to contain both an acceptance of divine judgment and a dissatisfaction with it that even becomes a protest and a restraining of God’s killing wrath.
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The army returns victorious but not fully obedient (13-18), purification of soldiers and booty (19-24).
We find out for the first time about Balaam’s treachery in vs. 16 (the account of Balaam’s death is in vs. 8). This is the only narrative connection Balaam to the larger story of Israel in Numbers, since the Balaam cycle in chapters 24-27 is separate from the rest. The reader has to assume the rest of the untold story. Apparently, after being unable to curse Israel for the kings of Moab and Midian, Balaam counseled them to seduce Israel into trouble with God through the women and idols of Moab and Midian. In this subsection, Moses is angry with the military leaders of Israel because they have let the children and women live. He commands them to kill any women who have been with a man and also to kill all the boys. Dennis Olson (Numbers: Interpretation Commentary) notes that holy war was a concept only related to the initial conquest of the Promised Land. Even the reference in 1 Samuel 15, in which Samuel expected Saul to kill all of the Amalekites, was related to the initial goal of fully settling the land. The terrible nature of holy war (killing people in cold blood and not just in the heat of battle) is something we may rightly question God about. We can acknowledge that God has a right to declare death as a judgment upon a people, but how can people carry out God’s order without becoming murderers? It is at least comforting to know that holy war was limited to that time period and was never called for again. Many other passages in Torah and Hebrew Bible speak of God’s compassion for people, even people who do not recognize him, and his desire to eliminate death from the earth. We can take the death-of-death theme as the ultimate reality and reject the possibility of any further holy war commandments. And, in fact, vss. 19-24 suggest an ambivalence from God about the matter: the soldiers who carried out the killing were impure and had to purify themselves. Holy war is at once commanded in some specific instances and a defiling pollution for those who carry it out. If we read the whole Torah and hear a heavenly voice commanding us to kill, we should not readily accept such a command. We might ask God as Abraham did, “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” Moses also ranks among those who protested when God declared something harsh.
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The command to divide the Midianite plunder (25-27), the plunder tax from the soldiers to the high priest (28-29), the plunder tax from the civilians for the Levites (30), the count of plunder (31-40), the instructions are carried out (41).
The war with Midian is about Israel’s survival. The Midianites have attacked what is essential about Israel: the covenant with God. Consequently, the instructions for this war, tragically, included slaughtering every male and annihilating these Midianite clans for all time. The soldiers had to be purified to reenter the camp according to the rules of Numbers 19. Further, in a practice new to this chapter, we find a law about purifying plundered metals taken in a holy war, using fire and the water of purification. The distribution of booty is somewhat complex: half to the soldiers and half to the civilian families, with a five-hundredth subtracted from the soldiers for the priests and a fiftieth from the civilians for the Levites. The soldiers offer an additional ransom, the gold they personally pick off of the slain: to keep from being punished for taking a census of survivors after the war.
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The count of the civilians’ plunder and tax to the Levites (42-47), the census tax of the army which lost not even one soldier (48-54).
Following the procedure already commanded, the civilians now give their fiftieth of the plunder to the Levites. The officers of Israel collected a census tax and then took a census, finding that not one Israelite had died in battle. The war with Midian is an example of how Israel’s faith is supposed to work. When the people follow God’s commandments, not a single soldier of Israel dies in a battle against evil. The Torah does not explain why, but a census is always dangerous and can anger God. Exodus 30:12 commands a tax any time a census is taken, a tax which will prevent a plague due to God’s anger. Milgrom mentions the possible rationale for the divine wrath at a census: that God as shepherd is the only one who should count his sheep. The officers give more than the requirement in this census tax, so that the soldiers keep all their plunder and plenty is left over.
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Gad and Reuben request settlement east of the Jordan (1-6), Moses objects and recalls the incident of the spies (7-15), Gad and Reuben offer a compromise (16-19).
The land west of the Jordan is what has been promised. But the tribes Gad and Reuben see the advantages of the Transjordan (east of the Jordan River, in the modern nation of Jordan) as advantageous for livestock. They are eager to have land and end their nomadic life of forty years. Their proposal to settle the Transjordan is met with anger and suspicion. Moses says that their settling here will cause the other tribes to fear, since their number will be diminished for conquering the land. The Gadites and Reubenites offer a compromise. If allowed to settle, they will go before Israel as shock-troops (Milgrom) in the battle for the land. Their women, children, and aged family members will remain in fortified towns in the Transjordan and the men, unencumbered by family, will be able to maneuver more adroitly in military operations.
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Moses accepts compromise with Gad and Reuben (20-24), Gad and Reuben agree and swear to conditions (25-32), Moses assigns Transjordan to Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh (33-38), Manasseh conquers Gilead (39-42).
The Gadites and Reubenites have agreed to send the men as a vanguard or as shock-troops into battle during the conquest (with their women and children settled back home in the Transjordan). Moses accepts their compromise, but strengthens it as an oath in two ways (Milgrom). First, he adds God’s name to their promise, making it an unbreakable oath. Second, he adds a blessing for faithfulness to the oath (“you shall return and be free of obligation”) and a curse for unfaithfulness (“your sin will find you out”). They agree to send their soldiers as vanguard troops “before the Lord,” literally to charge ahead of the Ark with the rest of Israel behind (Milgrom). This is confirmed in Joshua 6:7-13 where Israel attacks Jericho in a formation including a vanguard, then the Ark, and then the rest of Israel. Strangely in vs. 33 Manasseh suddenly appears as another tribe seeking territory in the Transjordan (there is no explanation, critical scholars suggest this was added later). An account of Manasseh conquering the northern Transjordan follows.
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These are the journeys (1), how Moses wrote them down (2), beginning from Rameses after Passover and plagues (3-4), from Rameses to the Reed Sea (5-10).
Chapter 33 is the wilderness itinerary of Israel, with forty two stations (6 X 7, another example of ideal numbers in the Torah) from Rameses to Sinai, Sinai to Kadesh, and Kadesh to the steppes of Moab. This ancient list of places is vital to historical study and many of the sites cannot be identified with certainty. The rabbis say the wilderness itinerary serves two purposes: to affirm that Israel’s survival for forty years was miraculous in desert places incapable of habitation and to remind Israel of the places the nation provoked its God.
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From the Reed Sea to the steppes of Moab.
Chapter 33 is the wilderness itinerary of Israel, with forty two stations from Rameses to Sinai, Sinai to Kadesh, and Kadesh to the steppes of Moab. Vss. 11-42 begin at the Reed Sea and end at the steppes of Moab, just across the Jordan from the Promised Land. The most important stops along the way are Sinai and Kadesh before the steppes of Moab, where Moses will address the second generation in the book of Deuteronomy. Trying to compare the wilderness itinerary with stations of the journey mentioned in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy leads to a number of problems and possible discrepancies. For example, did the Israelites arrive at Kadesh near the end of the forty years (Numb 33:36-38)? Or did they arrive there early, in the third year, and remain for thirty-eight years in one place (Deut 2:14)? Based on the work of Frank Cross, Milgrom provides a chart harmonizing the itinerary, though not without some problems, especially regarding Kadesh.
———- The wilderness journey is about holy history, breaking down ancient memories as a people into lessons of faith. Therefore, even though no one knows the places referred to anymore, the names stuck in Israel’s memory and they are recorded in Numbers kind of like a love song about the past.
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NUMBERS 33:50 – 34:15
The command repeated to divide the land by lots (33:50-56), the boundaries of the land (34:1-15).
The last sections of Numbers are busy with detailed instructions about entering the land. Though Moses will not be allowed to enter, it is important in Israel’s history to be able to say that commands for possessing the land came through him. This gives continuity between the Sinai revelation and the intention of the conquest to create a holy land dedicated completely to serving God. The command to apportion the land by lots is a repeat, but now two and a half tribes have settled in the Transjordan, so the division of land will be affected by this change. They are commanded to evict the Canaanites. But Deuteronomy says to put them under the ban (killing every one of them). This could be read as a contradiction or it could be assumed that only the Canaanites who refuse to be evicted will be killed. In any case, Israel will not obey and the continued presence of Canaanites in the land will lead to great tragedy: “So the people of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And their daughters they took to themselves for wives, and their own daughters they gave to their sons, and they served their gods” (Judges 3:5–6). 34:1-15 is important as an early description of the boundaries. It covers more than modern Israel in some ways and less in others. The northern border not only includes the Golan, but also Damascus. Milgrom points out that these boundaries match the Egyptian provincial boundaries of Canaan (and is followed by Ezekiel in ch. 47). The boundaries in Genesis 15 and Deuteronomy are even larger, going all the way up to the Euphrates and as far east as the desert in the Transjordan (perhaps the area controlled by David and Solomon through alliances). But the boundaries in Numbers 34 seem to be the most official ones even though Israel did not completely occupy this territory.
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Tribal leaders who will apportion land (34:16-29).
There are earlier lists of the tribal chieftains in Numbers 1 and 7. Yet the names are very different. This is because now, in Numbers 34, about thirty eight years have passed. Moses will soon die and Joshua is the second generation leader. Only he and Caleb survive of the first generation leaders. The tribes and leaders generally proceed from south to north, except that Judah is listed before Simeon, because the symbolic position of first tribe is too important to do otherwise. Aaron and Moses have been replaced by Eleazar and Joshua. The tribal chieftains will work out details of apportioning territory in the conquest.
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The Levitical cities and their common pasturage (1-5), six cities of refuge among the forty-eight Levitical cities (6-7), four Levitical cities in each tribal territory (8).
Although the Levites would not receive a share of agricultural land, they still needed places to dwell. Rather all the Levites living at the central sanctuary (Tabernacle, Temple), they were spread out into four towns in every tribal territory (forty eight in all). From there the Levites were to teach the people the law, receive tithes, and redistribute the third year tithes to the needy. Deuteronomy 33:10 refers the Levites as teachers. Six of the cities of the Levites were cities of refuge, the laws about which will be explained in the next section. Joshua 21 records the appointing of the forty eight Levitical cities, four in every tribal territory. Vs. 8 could be interpreted to mean there were more Levitical cities in the larger tribal territories and less in the smaller, but this does not agree with Joshua 21. The meaning of vs. 8, then, is uncertain.
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Cities of refuge (9-13), number of refuge cities (14-15), defining types of homicide (16-29), homicide and execution (30-32), homicide and the sanctity of the land (33-34).
The issue of homicide is a matter of the sanctity of the holy land (35:33-34). Un-atoned murder will cause God to leave the land and the people, since the blood of those slain cries out to him and he abhors death and violence (violence is what led to the flood). In a case of murder, the blood redeemer (go’el ha-dam) will be the executioner (the brother, uncle, or cousin of the one murdered). This idea of a blood redeemer (vengeance-taker) was already a custom in the Ancient Near East, but the Torah puts the following restrictions on the practice: there must be a trial with the proper authorities and witnesses, the condemned cannot pay ransom money or have sentence commuted, and involuntary manslaughter convicts must be given exile in a city of refuge (Milgrom). Those who were exiled to cities of refuge could be slain by the blood redeemer if they left and the blood redeemer would not bear guilt. They had to remain until the death of the high priest (whose death atoned for the manslaughter). A later rabbinic text says that the mother of the high priest would provide food and care for those in the cities of refuge so that they would not pray for her son’s death!
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Female heirs and land inheritance (1-12), summary leaving Israel on the steppes of Moab (13).
The final issue in Numbers returns to the case of female heirs (Zelophehad’s daughters) and it is decided they must marry within the tribe to prevent exchange of tribal lands. This section (vss. 1-12) is part 2 of the story of Zelophehad’s daughters with part 1 occurring back in 27:1-11. In part 1, the daughters complained that they were without a male heir in their family but did not want the family to lose its share of land. Moses ruled that the land would go to the daughters. Now in part 2, clan leaders from the tribe of Joseph bring a second complaint: if Zelophehad’s daughters marry outside the tribe, the inheritance will go to the husband’s heirs and the tribe of Joseph will lose the land permanently. Moses rules that they must marry within the clan of their father. They marry their cousins to resolve the inheritance issues. Why is this passage here and not immediately after part 1 in 27:1-11? The placement of Zelophehad’s daughters’ issue here serves two literary purposes. First, part 1 and part 2 of this story frame the entire section devoted to the second generation and their organization (Milgrom). Second, the daughters of Zelophehad are of interest in the numerological and genealogical patterns of the Torah. There are ten generations from Adam to Noah, ten from Noah to Terah, and ten from Abraham to Zelophehad’s daughters (Milgrom).
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