Friday, July 3
Numbers 4: The duties of the Levitical ministry were apportioned among their three clans. The tasks in this chapter all had to do with carrying the Tabernacle and its myriad instruments and appointment from place to place. Each time the Israelites moved away, the Tabernacle had to be disassembled and packed up, and each time Israel arrived at a new place, it was necessary to reassemble everything again.
Accordingly, this chapter breaks into four sections. The first three treat of the duties of the three Levitical families, the heirs of Levi’s three sons: Kohath (verses 1-20), Gershon (verses 21-28), and Merari (verses 29-33). The fourth section (verses 34-49) is a summary of the Levitical census.
In the distribution of the labor, the first place is given to the Kohathites, the descendents of Levi's second son (Exodus 6:16). The primacy of this clan was surely determined by the fact that Amram, the father of Moses and Aaron, belonged to it (Exodus 6:18,20), so it was more closely related to the priestly family itself (verses 2-4).
The task of the Kohathites was to carry the sacred vessels associated immediately with the ritual of the Tabernacle. Even this, however, they were unable to do until everything had been properly wrapped and prepared by the priests themselves, according to a very detailed prescription (verses 5-14). Only under the careful supervision of Eleazar, the older of Aaron's two remaining sons, could the Kohathites presume to carry this great burden (verse 15).
The task of the sons of Kohath, then, was plain and uncomplicated: They were simply to bear the burden of Israel’s holiness, embodied in the tabernacle and its contents. Theirs was a patient labor. Indeed, they were explicitly prohibited from looking at the things they carried on their shoulders; in addition, all these things were to be covered over and concealed from view.
The Kohathites thus represent all of those human souls who bear through history the mystery of holiness that abides among the People of God. Such saints are keenly aware of the mystery they carry, even though they may spend their lives without the leisure or opportunity to gaze upon the beauty they bear. These myriad Kohathites, who carry through their lives the hidden core of God’s presence among us, form the very backbone of Christian history. Without them, in fact, there would be no Christian history, precisely because they are the ones who carry it. Without the children of Kohath, the People of God would long ago have perished in the wilderness.
The next place in the Levitical order was held by the Gershonites (verses 21-28), the descendants of Levi's eldest son, who were charged with carrying the various drapes, veils, and hangings of the Tabernacle. Ithamar, Aaron’s younger son, supervised this work.
The clan of Merari, Levi's youngest son, was to carry the more solid parts of the Tabernacle, the sections made of wood and metal (verses 29-33). This task was also to be supervised by Ithamar.
In the instructions given to the sons of Gershon and Merari, we see nothing of the sense of caution directed to the Kohathites. The reason for this is obvious: The Gershonites and Merarites carry the various components of the Tabernacle itself, not the items concealed within. That is to say, the burdens carried by these two families are not dangerous to look upon; they do not represent the sacred mysteries but are simply the coverings of those mysteries. Consequently, the vocations of these two tribes are not thought of as especially “dangerous,” whereas the vocation of the Kohathites is constantly surrounded with peril.
This consideration indicates, I believe, the symbolism of the vocation of the Gershonites and Merarites: Inasmuch as it stands a further step removed from proximity to what is intrinsically holy, it is safer in the sense of more secular, as it were, and less spiritual. In other words, it runs a smaller spiritual risk.
Another example of vocations may illustrate this difference: If we think of a road builder, it is obvious that his calling is spiritually less dangerous than that of a poet or musical composer. The road builder merely lays down a path over which men and their animals will walk. What he accomplishes may be—and sometimes will be—of great significance, but it does not directly touch the human soul. The musical composer and the poet, on the other hand, directly and immediately touch the human soul. They give structure to the way human beings look at the world, thus conferring spiritual shape on those who listen to their poetry and music.
The same distinction is discernible if we compare the vocations of the teacher and the longshoreman. The teacher may be damned forever to hell for offenses a longshoreman will never be in a position to commit.
In summary, the more “spiritual” a person’s calling, the greater spiritual risk he runs. By such a standard, the most dangerous vocations in the world are those of governing and pastoring. This is why ancient thinkers, from the likes of Cicero and St. John Chrysostom, were careful to caution those who would either govern or pastor.
After the duties of each of the Levitical clans are listed, the fourth and final part of this chapter (verses 34-49) gives the census of each clan and the total of all of them.
Saturday, July 4
Numbers 5: These next two chapters give various prescriptions partly repetitious of the Holiness Code in Leviticus 17-26.
The present chapter has three parts: First, statutes about exclusion (verses 1-4); second, rules for confession and restitution (verses 5-10); third, a provision for trial by ordeal (verses 11-31).
First, then, there are statutes about exclusion. In accord with this book's concern with proportion and due order, this section begins with the “cleanliness” of the camp, the marked term referent to both hygienic and religious considerations (verses 2-4). These prescribed expulsions from the camp did not involve a removal of citizenship; those affected by it did not cease to be members of the congregation. Their condition, nonetheless, and a solicitude for the welfare of the congregation required that they should be treated in a special way that involved a measure of exclusion.
The holiness and wellbeing of God's People in this world have ever required exclusionary canons of this sort, analogous to the laws of quarantine by which other societies are protected from harm. The notion of “infection” covers a wide application of pathologies, whether moral, psychological, intellectual, or physical (Cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7-13; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18; Revelation 21:27). As long as we are in this world, healthy societies will necessarily resort to censure and exclusion from time to time.
Much as there are isolation units in hospitals, the Church has canons and pastoral provisions to safeguard Her general membership from the toxic influences of those who violate charity, truth, justice, and good order. Pastors should take these provisions very seriously. I confess to having seen a number of examples of both parishes and monasteries where life became nearly unbearable by reason of the pastor’s failure to impose the discipline necessary to curtail such abuses.
A pastor’s first responsibility is discernment, and the most elementary form of pastoral discernment is the ability to distinguish between a sheep and a wolf. It is sad to say—but also honest—that many a pastor who went out to retrieve what he understood to be a lost sheep, retuned to the flock carrying a wolf on his shoulders.
The second part of this chapter (verses 5-10) provides the rules for repentance and restoration that follow those of exclusion (verses 5-10). We observe that such repentance and restoration also involve an open, audible confession of the offense (verse 7), a confession explicit enough to determine the size of the restitution and nature of the sacrifice offered for its atonement. This confession is official, in the sense that it is received by the established priesthood. Even in the Old Testament, therefore, the priest served as a Father Confessor.
In both the Old Testament and the New, the priest represents the qahal, the ekklesia, God’s people in assembly. The priest, in both covenants, is the man designated to receive the repentance of the sinner on behalf of the Church.
Reconciliation with the Church—whether in the Old Testament or the New—is an integral part of one’s reconciliation with God. Indeed, our Lord told us not to bring our offerings to Him until we are reconciled to one another. No one can bypass the Church in order to “go directly to God,” because God did not set it up that way. He conferred on the Church, and more specifically the priestly ministry of the Church, the authority to bind and loose.
This is the reason that an explicit confession of one’s sins is required of the sinner, in both the Old Testament and the New (cf. 1 John 1:9). If a person imagines he will be forgiven his sins without that confessio
n (or, at least, endeavoring to make that confession), he has a theology of sin and atonement very different from that of the Bible.
Third, and perhaps most bewildering to the modern mind, there is a provision for trial by ordeal (verses 11-31). A certain affinity of symbolism may be the connecting line between the foregoing rules of restitution and these ensuing regulations for trial by ordeal.
Once again the nature of the alleged offense is made known to the priest (verse 15). Indeed, the ritual itself required the use of “holy water” (mayim qedoshim—verse 17), which was mixed with the very dust from the floor of the sanctuary. The sanctuary, as is clear, sanctified everything that it contained, including the dust.
In context, it seems, God Himself was thought to punish the woman that failed this test, evidently by the curse of barrenness (verses 27-28). There is no indication that she was stoned to death, the usual punishment for adultery proven in court (Leviticus 20:10).
This biblical story expressed a persuasion of the validity of trial by ordeal. Attested as early as Hammurabi’s Code and the Code of Ur-Nummu, this kind of trial—at least implicitly—invoked divine intervention to establish someone’s guilt or innocence. Apart from the explicit warrant conveyed in the present biblical text, such a trial could easily become a tempting of God (cf. Matthew 4:6-7).
For this reason we find efforts to resist it at various times in Christian history. For instance, among the Franks it was abolished by Louis the Pious in 829. Two forms of it—trials by fire and water—were prohibited by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Nonetheless, we still find instances of its application as recently as the early 18th century. Modern readers are familiar with this practice through popular novels, like Jo Beverley’s Lord of Midnight.
There is a sense, I think, in which the present text lies at the very fringes of biblical religion. In the narrative parts of Holy Scripture, there is no evidence that the ritual prescribed here was much in use. It should probably be regarded as having no sustained significance in biblical theology. We are likely correct in lumping it with the early Christian practice of baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29).
We may add that even this ritual was not without its interest in quantity and proportion. There is mention of a measuring device, the ephah (verse 15), which seems to have contained about seven pints.
Sunday, July 5
Numbers 6: This chapter, the second of two containing regulations pertinent to holiness, is made up of two parts of unequal length. The first part is a collection of laws pertaining to a special consecratory vow (verses 1-21), and the second contains a prayer of priestly blessing (verses 22-27).
This chapter's consecratory vow created what Israel called a nazir, a person of either sex who was dedicated to the service of God in special way for a specified length of time. The present chapter is the only place in the Torah where this consecration is mentioned.
The nazir was “consecrated to the Lord,” in the sense that he was set apart from the normal life of men, a separation that meant holiness (qadosh—verses 5,8) and was an illustration of Israel's own consecration to the Lord as a special People set apart.
Characteristic of the nazir's discipline is that, like the priest in the time of his own service at the altar, he refrained from drinking fermented beverages and from handling dead bodies. That is to say, during the period covered by the vow, the nazir lived a life analogous to the priesthood (verses 34,6-7).
As a sign of his consecration, the nazir's hair was not trimmed during this time covered by the vow (verse 5), a regulation that may have prompted some candidates, prior to the vow, to shave their heads (cf. Acts 21:24).
When the determined time of the nazir's vow was finished, the event was marked by appropriate and specified sacrifices (verses 13-17), followed by the shaving of the head, the hair being burned with one of the sacrifices (verse 18).
In one instance of which we know, Samson, the nazir's consecration was for life (Judges 13:2-7), a tragic instance suggesting why the vocation is rare.
The priestly prayer of benediction that follows these rubrics is a general blessing, not related to the nazir (verses 22-27). So why does it appear at this place? It closes off a long section of the Torah, a collection of mainly legal material concerning the priesthood, extending from Leviticus 1 through the present chapter. The next chapter (Numbers 7:1) will return to the day when Moses set up the Tabernacle at the end of the Book of Exodus (40:17). Then, the movement of the story will continue for the next few chapters, proceeding from that date, and preparing for the first movement of the camp and the Tabernacle fifty days later (Numbers 10:11).
Thus, the priestly blessing prescribed in the present verses completes the ritual prescribed for the priesthood, much as the blessing itself seems to have served as a final blessing—both in Judaism and some parts of the Christian Church—at the end of liturgical services (cf. Leviticus 9:22).
According to these verses, it is the duty of the priest to pronounce God’s benediction over God’s people. The work of the priest is to bless. When priests bless God's people, God also blesses His people (verse 27).
The wording of the blessing itself is theologically rich. It is significant that the Torah, which strictly insists that no one can see God’s face and live, nonetheless asks that the light of the divine face should shine on His servants. At the end of every liturgical service the Old Testament, over the span of many centuries, it was the responsibility of the priest to beseech over Israel the light of God’s countenance.
This was, in fact, a prayer for the Incarnation, in which “the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness . . . has shone in our hearts unto the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). This was the blessing that accompanied every sacrifice offered by the hands of the Aaronic priesthood.
Thus, the entire priestly ministry of the Old Testament—every oblation, every holocaust, every peace offering, every prayer, every hymn—was pointed to the light of the Incarnation, in which the divine glory is revealed in the face of Christ. Every time that benediction was pronounced over Israel, it was a pleading for the Word to become flesh and dwell among us, that we might see His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Monday, July 6
Numbers 7: This chapter returns to the narrative sequence broken off at the end of the Book of Exodus. The reader finds himself at the scene of the dedication of the Tabernacle, described in Exodus 40:1-32. The Tabernacle, with its altar, has been consecrated by the outpouring of God’s presence and is ready to receive Israel’s first offerings.
One of the longest in Holy Scripture (89 verses), this chapter covers the offerings made on behalf of Israel’s “princes, meaning the tribal leaders” (nasi’im, the very word translated as “captains” in chapter 2). This word, an ancient and generic name for any leader of a tribal people, especially has reference to the kind of leadership exercised in the setting of the desert. Thus we find it used to designate the leaders of those who lived in the Negev Desert, such as the Midianites (Numbers 25; Joshua 13:21) and the Arabs (Genesis 17:20 [where the number is also twelve!]). The title corresponds rather exactly to the later Arabic sheik.
These nasi’im brought the first offerings to be sacrificed after the construction of the Tabernacle was complete (verse 1), and their number–
-twelve—shows that the nasi’im served as representatives of the respected tribes (verses 2-3). It is instructive that the theological (and now—since Moses—political) unity of God’s People does not destroy their tribal character. Indeed, the preservation of a “tribal” identity is in some sense eternal (cf. Revelation 5:9).
These tribal offerings, made over twelve consecutive days, began with the tribe of Judah (verse 12), which, as we have had occasion to remark, already enjoyed the primacy prophesied and promised by Jacob (Genesis 49:8-12).
The names of the nasi’im in this chapter correspond exactly to those in chapters 1 and 2. The order here, however, corresponds to the martial list in chapter 2 rather than the patriarchal ranking in chapter 1. Thus, Issachar follows Judah, and so on.
Once again, we observe in this chapter’s list the same care for numerical precision that we have seen all along in this book. We note especially its sustained recourse to the shekel, the standard unit of weight for metals (passim, but see especially verses 84-86).
Since the offering of every tribe was identical to the others, it is reasonable to inquire why the Sacred Text goes into such repeated detail when each offering is listed. Three ideas suggest themselves in this respect. First, this is an official record, much like the list of gifts recorded in the archives of a parish church. It required exactness. Second, this attention to detail is a way of emphasizing the integrity (and, apparently, equality, for all the gifts are equal) of every tribe.
Third, this detailed listing gives the reader the leisure to enjoy the procession as each unit, with considerable solemnity, presents itself. The literary style follows a liturgical and military manner, as it were, giving the reader the impression of being present at the event. The style resembles a military muster, in the course of which each unit leader says exactly the same words as the others (“All present or accounted for, sir!”). The author is obviously not in a hurry to get through this list, nor should the reader be.
Much the same sense of a liturgical procession is conveyed in the Book of Revelation, which contains a detailed accounting of the twelve tribes in the scene where they are all sealed on their foreheads. Exactly the same refrain appears for each of the tribes, so the effect is a kind of litany (Revelation 7:1-8). In both passages—Numbers and Revelation—there is the pronounced feeling of a liturgical procession.
The gifts of Israel’s tribal leaders are borne two-by-two on six wagons, each of which is drawn by two oxen (verse 3). Pairings of this sort are not surprising if we bear in mind, once again, the image of a liturgical procession, in which it has long been common to march two-by-two. Memory reverts to the picture of the animals walking by pairs into Noah’s Ark. One thinks also of the sending forth of the Apostles two-by-two.
The people of God, we are reminded, do not waltz into heaven. On the contrary, the saints go marching in.
At this end of this long and impressive procession, Moses goes before the Lord in the Tabernacle to listen to His voice (qol) proceeding from the “mercy seat” (kaphoreth—cf. Exodus 25:17-22) over the Ark of the Covenant (89). As the place where the Lord gave instruction to Moses, the kaphoreth replaced the Burning Bush and Mount Sinai.
Tuesday, July 7
July 8: The present chapter, concerned with miscellaneous regulations regarding the Levites, begins with the subject of ritual lamps in the sanctuary (verses 1-4; Exodus 25:31-40; Leviticus 24:2-4), which were maintained by the Levites.
The lampstand—Hebrew menorah—described here (verse 4) has already been mentioned in this book (3:31; 4:9). It had seven lamps and was constructed so as to suggest a sort of tree, with the flames themselves portrayed as fruits springing from flowers.
The original and primary purpose of such lamps was simple illumination in enclosed areas, such as temples, places not readily open to sunlight. As these lamps, nonetheless, were actual fires burning within sacred precincts, it was inevitable that a sacred significance would be attached to them. Shining in the darkness of the Sanctuary, for example, the flames on the menorah came to be likened to the seven eyes—the omniscience—of God (Zechariah 4:1-4; Revelation 1:14; 5:6).
Following the hint give by Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 3.6.7), more than one religious philosopher has remarked that a lamp or candle is simply the human substitute for the sun. To light a candle is to imitate the sunrise. Consequently, such a flame would naturally assume in the human imagination the mystic symbolisms associated with the sun itself. For this reason, there are probably few religions in the world that forego the use of sacred lamps, and the Christian religion is emphatically not among them (cf. Acts 20:8).
Nor is the religion of heaven itself deprived of this blessing. Indeed, for a correct understanding of the Old Testament’s Tabernacle, it is imperative to remember that it was crafted on the heavenly model that Moses, in mystic vision, beheld when he was on the mountain (Exodus 25:40; Hebrews 8:5; 9:23). And the heavenly sanctuary, which Moses beheld on the mountain, most certainly contained (and still contains!) sacred lamps (verse 4).
These heavenly lamps, moreover, were among the first things that the Apostle John looked upon when, like Moses, he was privileged to gaze into the heavenly sanctuary (Revelation 1:12; 4:5). Furthermore, the author of Hebrews in his description of Moses’ Tabernacle, spoke of these lamps before anything else (9:2).
Following the treatment of the menorah come lengthy instructions for the consecration of the Levites (verses 5-22). Four points seem especially worthy of note in this section:
First, the Levites are chosen “from among the children of Israel” (verse 6), meaning that they represent Israel in their special ministry to the worship. The Levites are lifted up as a dedicatory offering (verse 11). This is the reason “the children of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites” (verse 10), just as the Levites lay their hands on the animals sacrificed on their behalf. In both cases there is a substitution: As the offering of the bulls makes atonement for the Levites, so the offering of the Levites makes atonement for Israel.
Second, the dedication of the first-born sons, which figured so prominently in the theology of the paschal lambs, is extended by metaphor to pertain to the Levites. They take the place of Israel’s first-born sons, a substitution indicating the sacrificial nature of their ministry (verses 14-19).
Third, the material of this section invites comparison with the ceremonies of dedication for the priests in Leviticus 8. The two rites are obviously similar—a feature to be expected—but they are also different. A notable point of difference is found in the end results of the dedications themselves: Whereas the priest are initiated into the realm of holiness (qodesh—Leviticus 8:10,11,12,15,30), the Levites are initiated only in the category of the “purification” or “clean-ness” (tihar—verses 7-8). Thus, the Levites are qualified to stand and minister in the holy place, but they may not directly touch those objects that render the place holy.
Fourth, the age limits given here for the service of the Levites—between twenty-five and fifty (verse 24)—are discrepant with the ages given in Numbers 4:3, a discrepancy perhaps best explained as interpreting the latter text as referent to the age for military service, as distinct from sanctuary service. The significance of this difference is clear if we bear in mind that the Levites were especially charged with two tasks: the guarding of the holy place and the bearing of burdens pertaining to the holy place. This latter responsibility was assumed only by those Levites in their prime, whereas those Levites on either side of that prime age shared the duty of guarding the holy place.
It is worth remarking that the Sacred Text itself varies somewhat on the proper limits of that prime age, whether (as in the present text) as beginning at age twenty-five or thirty or even twenty (cf. 1 Chronicles 23:24; 2 Chronicles 31:17; Ezra 3:8). These differences probably reflect different historical periods and the variety of ministerial needs at various periods.
From the perspective of the sociology of religion, the very existence of the Levites indicates a special development in Israel’s “division of labor.” Holy Scripture does not regard a special class of consecrated men to care for the physical aspects of the worship as something at odds with the principle that all of Israel was a consecrated, priestly people. On the contrary, the particular needs of the worship required that certain individuals should be consecrated in special ways.
This special consecration is found among the People of God at all times. For instance, Clement of Rome, writing near the end of the first century, saw the ministry of the Levites expressed in the Church in the ministry of the deacons. Others in the Church, over the centuries, have been set aside for worship by special rites of consecration. One thinks of the tonsuring of monks and nuns as examples of such consecrations.
Wednesday, July 8
Numbers 9: There are two parts to this chapter: First, there is an auxiliary ordinance answering a specific problem that arose in connection with Israel’s second annual celebration of the Passover (verses 1-14). Second, there is an account of the fiery cloud that accompanied Israel’s journey through the desert (verses 15-23).
Israel now celebrates its second Passover. A whole year has elapsed since their escape from Egypt. As in the case of the first Passover, this text conveys certain concerns of ritual. This material, however, is by way of supplement to the ritual material already prescribed in Exodus 12 and Leviticus 23.
The situation described in verses 6-8 introduces a good example of case law. This law, too, is not ascribed to the jurisprudence of Moses, but to divine revelation. This is true case law, because it applied, not only to the immediate context, but to all analogous situations in the future (verse 10). Those whose contact with dead bodies precluded their participation in the Passover Seder are accorded permission to celebrate that feast a month later.
This particular case law addresses two concerns: the need for a compassionate flexibility for the Israelite who was ritually contaminated, and a reaffirmation of the requirement of ritual purity.
The concession made for such persons is extended to those on a journey among unbelievers (verse 10). One recalls the reluctance of Jesus’ enemies to enter the house of Pilate and so defile themselves from sharing the Passover (John 18:28).
Failure to observe these rules meant that a person was “cut off” from the community of Israel. Whether or not this expression meant capital punishment, it certainly meant excommunication, so that the offender was no longer part of the congregation of the saved. To be separated from the congregation of the saved is, after all, far worse than simply to be killed. The person “cut off” from Israel was on his own; he was no longer part of salvation history.
Especially, such a one had to “bear his own sin”—nishsha’ ‘avon. He is no longer part of the covenant, in which is found the remission of sins. He is like Cain, who must wander the earth as a stranger. This teaching remains a point of principle throughout the Bible: Remission of sins is provided within the covenant community. One finds salvation by his incorporation into that covenant communion. Otherwise, he is really on his own and must bear his own sins.
Resident aliens were permitted to observe this and other liturgical feasts of Israel, since they were also obliged to observe Israel’s weekly day of rest, the Sabbath, and Israel’s annual day of fasting, the Day of Atonement (verse 14).
In the second part of this chapter (verses 15-23), there is a description of the cloud and pillar of fire.
During all its time in the desert Israel was guided by the pillar of cloud and fire, which was now settled over the Tabernacle (verses 15-16). These two verses evoke the imagery of Exodus 40:2,34-38, emphasizing God’s presence in Israel. The Hebrew verbs here are in the imperfect tense, denoting continued or repeated action. They convey the sense that the cloud/pillar presence became normal for Israel. Now, however, that image is associated with the Tabernacle, not the mountain. Indeed, God is soon to move His people away from the mountain.
In verses 17-23 the message shifts to a concern about complete obedience to God’s guidance. The Lord’s People were led, not only by the fixed, firm, unchanging strictures of the Torah, but also by the immediate, mysterious, and applied guidance of the God who was beyond all discernible law. Both forms of guidance were integral to the life of Israel. Both pertained to the “command of the Lord” (‘al pi Adonai—five times in verses 18,20,23).
Israel recognized no possibility of conflict between God’s will fixed in the Torah and the more fluid guidance He provided in the cloud and pillar. The divine guidance in
the lives of the faithful is ever thus. At no point is God’s revealed will in conflict with the fixed and determined order by which men are ever to be governed, but also at no time is a man justified simply by observing those fixed and permanent norms of the Law. God always guides His people in these two ways.
God’s governance of His people is both horizontal and vertical. His horizontal governance means the written Law transmitted down through time. His vertical guidance is the immediate direction given by His Spirit, symbolized in the cloud and pillar. We may think of these two realities as Word and Spirit.
Thursday, July 9
Numbers 10: After celebrating its second Passover at the base of Mount Sinai, and having received guidance by the movement of the fiery cloud, Israel prepared to leave for the long trek through the desert. Before making its departure, nonetheless, the Chosen People received one more directive—to fashion two silver trumpets, these to be sounded whenever the whole camp was to receive specific instructions relative to the variations in its march.
The first part of this chapter (verses 1-10) prescribes how the trumpets will be used during the march through the wilderness. They were to be sounded for general assemblies (verse 3), as well as special meetings of the elders (verse 4). In short, all manner of directions could be conveyed by the various blasts and blowing of the trumpets. These included military directions (verse 9), even liturgical use (verse 10). The trumpeters were the priests (verse 8).
According to Josephus (The Antiquities of the Jews 3.12.6), the trumpets were less than a cubit in length—perhaps twenty inches. Crafted of beaten silver, they are not to be confused with the ram’s horn, or shophar.
Two further considerations pertain to these silver trumpets:
First, employed to direct the movement of Israel through the desert, the trumpets assisted and supplemented the general guidance provided by the fiery cloud (9:15-23). Thus, Israel benefited from two complementary forms of guidance: the fiery cloud, which came directly from God, and the trumpets, which came through human mediation. The Bible perceives no conflict between the two. Perhaps the fiery cloud can be called “charismatic,” inasmuch at its guidance is immediately divine, and the trumpets may be thought of as “institutional,” because their construction is fixed, permanent, and subject to human decision.
Second, these trumpets, which will play such significant roles in the future life of Israel long after the wandering through the wilderness—even being assumed into the liturgical rites of the Temple—were derived from a technology not originally intended for God’s service. Originally crafted by a descendant of Cain (cf. Genesis 4:21), musical instruments did not look very promising when first we learned of them.
Moreover, there has often been something a bit problematic about such music, morally considered. When King Nebuchadnezzar employed “the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music” (Daniel 3:5) for his idolatrous purposes, it was not the last instance when instrumental music served to deflect men from the worship of the true God.
Yet, in fact, God rather early designated musical instruments as appropriate to His own worship in the Tabernacle and the Temple. And, once again, in the final book of the Bible we find heaven to be a place resonating with the sounds of trumpet and harp.
As an added irony, furthermore, instrumental music is limited so exclusively to heaven that the damned are forever deprived of it! The sinful descendants of Cain, the very inventors of harp and flute, will never hear them again, inasmuch as the “sound of harpists, musicians, flutists, and trumpeters shall not be heard in you anymore” (Revelation 18:22). These things are now reserved for the blessed.
The regulations regarding the trumpets (verses 1-10) bring to a close the first major section of Numbers, coving the year that Israel encamped in the valley below Mount Sinai. This second part of this chapter (verses 11-28) begins the next large section of Numbers: the journey to Kadesh-barnea (10:11—12:16). This section covers two subjects: the departure from Sinai (verses 11-28) and a story concerning Moses’ in-laws (verses 29-36).
Instructed by the cloud, the Israelites depart from Mount Sinai eleven months after their arrival there and almost fourteen months after the crossing of the Red Sea. Nineteen days have elapsed since the census with which this book began.
The Chosen People move to Paran, to the north of Sinai, a desert region somewhat south of Kadesh. The cloud, we are told, settles at Paran (verse 2), but the journey to Paran is not described until the following two chapters.
One-by-one, the various tribal standards of the Israelites are lifted, signaling each tribe to break camp and fall in place in the march (verses 14-28).
We have observed the care taken in this book to portray the Israelites—even as they wandered through a trackless wilderness—as a tightly organized group. The entire populace, marched as one, tribe by tribe, everyone aware if his responsibilities and his place in the formation. It was like a military expedition. Israel, that is to say, thought of itself as an “organized religion.”
Indeed, this picture indicates an important point of ecclesiology: the Almighty does not favor a haphazard, disorganized style for His people. In both the Old Testament and the New, the Church is described as a living organism, not a shapeless mass of individuals.
From the perspective of its immediate context, we recognize that such discipline was necessary to the people’s survival in the desert. As we shall see in the ensuing chapters, this organization was crucial, because the Israelites tended to be scofflaws. Through the next two chapters we will find no fewer than three crises of authority, each connected with a site along the way. Rebellious Israel, we may well believe, might not have survived in the wilderness without the sustained discipline of its organized life.
The third part of this chapter (verses 29-32) tells of the Midianite in-laws of Moses. Since they were more familiar with the desert, Moses pleaded with them to remain in the company of Israel. From the reference in Judges 1:16, it appears that they acceded to Moses’ request.
With respect to this incident, we observe that Moses wanted to benefit from his in-laws’ greater familiarity with the geography of the region. This is significant: Since Israel, as we know, was to be guided by the fiery cloud, one might have concluded that recourse to human guidance through the desert would be superfluous. Indeed, even some of the Israelites may have thought so. In every age, after all, there have been those who regarded human knowledge and guidance with suspicion when divine knowledge and guidance were at hand.
It is instructive, therefore, to observe that Moses did not share that view. Even as Israel was to be led by the divine cloud, Moses did not disregard the merely human guidance derived of an advanced knowledge of geography. He did not regard recourse to such knowledge as a challenge to—or rival of—divine help.
In this respect we recall an incident in which Reuel (Jethro), the father of Hobab, provided Moses an important practical lesson in delegation and time-management (Exodus 18).
These two examples indicate a more general principle—namely, that the legitimacy of human knowledge is not vitiated by the availability of divine knowledge. Just as Moses learned geography and time management from his wife’s family, the people of God should not hesitate to benefit from merely human knowledge. It is legitimate to mention such human resources as medicine and astronomy. Just as prayer for the sick does not preclude recourse to the modern arts of healing, so the liturgical calendar of the Church should take advantage of the moder
n world’s more accurate knowledge of astronomy.
In this chapter’s final section (verses 33-36), the fiery cloud is said to be “over” (‘al) the people, as distinct from going “before” (lifne) them. This change of expression indicates that the cloud is not only a guide but also a protection for Israel. His presence with the people shelters them as well as leads them. According to psalmist, God is “in the midst of Israel” and also guides Israel (Psalm 47 ;9,14; cf. 22 :2-4). Therefore, he says to the Lord, “I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. You will guide me with Your counsel” (72 :23-24). Both guidance and protection are included in the Lord’s pledge to His Church: “lo, I am with you always, to the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).
The chapter closes with the acclamations of Moses whenever the Ark was lifted for the march and set down again at the end of it . These acclamations, which frame the journey, were later adapted, modified, and assumed into the Psalter, to be sung during Israel’s liturgical processions (cf. Psalms 68 : 1; 132 :8).
Friday, July 10
Numbers 11: Although it is tightly crafted as a coherent and complex narrative, this chapter is usefully broken into four parts: The first (verses 1-9) describes the people’s discontent as they wander in the desert. The object of the complaint, once again (cf. Exodus 16), is the food available in the desert. The second part (verses 10-23) tells of Moses’ complaint and the Lord’s response. The third part (verses 24-30) gives an account of the Spirit poured out on the appointed elders, and the fourth (verses 31-35) narrates how the Lord dealt with the people’s discontent in the beginning of the chapter.
Throughout this chapter, the reader senses—beyond the incidents themselves—that something more radical is amiss with the Israelites in the desert, as though the author were preparing him for worse developments yet to come. As soon as the people start out on their journey, a kind of rebellion sets in, the first of several, which will test the divine patience over the next forty years.
It would appear that some of the Israelites, having spent the previous eleven months encamped in the desert at the foot of Mount Sinai, were ready for a change of scenery when the time came to move. When, at the end of the previous chapter, they found themselves at Paran, a place arguably worse than where they had been before, these hopes were dashed. The ensuing “murmuring” that forced itself on the ears of both the Lord and Moses introduces the narrative in the present chapter.
This English word “murmur,” the mere pronunciation of which forces the mouth and throat to imitate the very sound of the thing, signifies a hopeless, powerless discontent that we correctly associate with the selfishness of childhood. It is an extension of a baby’s indistinct cry for the relief of its undefined needs, but in the present case it does contain one further element beyond the cry of the infant. It conveys a general note of blame. The murmurer is not only complaining; he is implicitly blaming somebody for his discontent. Worse still, the act of murmuring does not quite find its way to explicit words, much less clear ideas. As the sound itself indicates, there is something frustratingly inarticulate about murmuring. It is extremely difficult to get a “handle” on the thing.
Thus, murmuring is the most distressing of sounds. Even God cannot endure it (verse 1), and His burning wrath, earlier experienced by the Egyptians, will soon be felt by Israel. Only the prayer of Moses, once again acting as Israel’s intercessor, was able to spare the Chosen People (verses 2-3).
Whereas the people’s first complaint about food, in Exodus 16, brought them the blessing of the manna, in the present case the manna itself is the occasion for the murmuring! In other words, the people show themselves ungrateful for the divine (and miraculous!) provision. Hence, the present chapter will end badly for the Israelites.
The people’s complaint, which brings forth the two responses that hold our chapter together, had to do with their unvarying diet of manna, the miraculous food that had sustained them at every meal, everyday, for a full eleven months. Some of the folks hankered after a more varied fare (verse 5).
When the people complain to Moses, Moses complains to God (verses 11-15). His prayer is truly desperate: He would rather die than continue to carry the burden of 600,000 souls! Moses feels squeezed from all directions, because everything seems to depend on him. No matter what goes wrong, it immediately becomes his problem. Using an ironical metaphor he speaks of nursing the people, as though he were responsible for feeding 600,000 screaming infants.
There are two problems in this chapter: the people’s problem and Moses’ problem. The Lord will deal with Moses’ problem first, by instituting the ministry of the Judges (verses 16-17). These seventy are drawn from the recognized elders of Israel and will participate in the same Spirit that fills Moses.
This new ministry is not identical with the administrative service found in Exodus 18:25-26. It is true charismatic leadership, pertaining to spiritual matters. Bearing the people’s burdens with Moses, these men become the antecedents of those charismatic Judges who will appear in the book called by that name.
Once Moses’ problem is addressed, the Lord turns to the people’s problem (verses 18-23). They will eat fresh meat everyday for a whole month, until it starts come out of their noses (verses 19-20). They will begin to hate this diet! Moses can hardly believe his ears at this prediction (verses 21-22), but the Lord warns him, “You’ll see!” (verse 23)
The third section of this chapter (verses 24-30) describes the outpouring of the Spirit on the seventy appointed elders. The presence of the Spirit on these men is apparently discerned in their ecstatic behavior, designated here as “prophesying.” It is difficult to identify this behavior more accurately, nor does this matter form a concern for the author. It suffices to say that the Israelites were able to perceive in these men some quality that enabled them to speak for God. The qualifying phenomenon is described as temporary (verse 25), but the status of the chosen elders is permanent.
The outpouring of the Spirit was not limited to the men actually assembled at the Tabernacle. Two others, though designated to be included in that group, failed to appear in the assembly as appointed. It happened, however, that this failure made no difference to their participation in the Spirit (verse 26).
This extended participation in the Spirit to young Joshua, the understudy of Moses (verse 28), who perhaps feared that things were rather getting out of hand—individuals were off somewhere else in the camp, engaged in ecstatic phenomena.
Throughout the Bible’s treatment of him, Joshua is invariably portrayed as a man of consummate devotion, earnestness, and zeal. It may be the case that some perceived lack of attention to proper “form” in the present context—the failure of Eldad and Medad to be where they were supposed to be—represented for Joshua a kind of structural failure, the sort of thing that suggests disorder and chaos. He expected the Spirit to be conferred in the proper contextual setting, not haphazardly, as it were, and outside of divinely established protocol. He was uncomfortable in a situation not governed by recognizable form.
We note that the Bible does not criticize Joshua for this concern, inasmuch as it represented a godly caution and proper respect for appointed structures.
Moses, however, took Joshua’s reaction as overly cautious in the present case. In the view of Moses, there simply could not be an excess in God’s gift of the Spirit (verse 29). He wished that all God’s people were so richly endowed.
Christian theology regards this wish of Moses as fulfilled on Pentecost morning, when all those gathered in the upper room were filled with the Holy Spirit.
This response of Moses to the concern of Joshua should be understood as an insistence that no leader of God’s people must be jealous of those with whom the Lord deigns to share the Holy Spirit.
The fourth and closing part of this chapter (verses 31-35) describes the miraculous catch of quail, the Lord’s answer to the people’s complaint about their excessively bland diet.
Several points should be made about these five verses.
First, the recurrence of the word ruah, translated here as “wind.” When this chapter began, there were two problems, we recall: a problem about food and a problem about leadership. Now we see that the Lord has dealt with both problems the same way—namely, through the ruah. In the first case, the problem of leadership, the Lord sent the ruah on the seventy elders (verses 17,25,26,29). Now the ruah brings in the birds to satisfy the people’s craving (verse 31). Because we are obliged to translate the word ruah very differently in the two places, it would be easy not to notice that the same word is used in each instance. Indeed, in both cases, the ruah is ascribed to “the Lord.”
This is the second time that the people have been fed in the desert from a large flock of quail (cf. Exodus 16:13).
This quail is apparently the coturnix vulgaris known to ornithology. This bird migrates from eastern Europe and western Asia to north Africa for the warmer climate, but against a southerly wind it quickly grows weary and is blown off-course to fall in the desert.
This phenomenon, known even today, was described by Aristotle. He observed that some birds “migrate in August, some in September. They are always fatter when they migrate from cold countries, as the quail [ortychs] is fatter in the autumn than in the spring . . . The quails, when the begin their flight, if the weather is fine and the wind from the north, go in pairs and have a successful flight. If the wind is from the south, it goes very hard with them, and their flight is slow, for this wind is very moist and heavy. . . . They fly badly, on account of their weight, for their body is large. They therefore make a noise as they fly, because it is laborious for them” (Aristotle, De Historia Animalium 8.14.4-5).
This is what we find here in Numbers. The very exhausted quails, who have flown south from Greece and Asia Minor, are described as flying at an altitude of only two cubits, between six and seven feet off the ground. They are easily caught in nets or even by hand.
A single person is said to catch 10 homers of them—about 38 bushels—in just two days. That is a lot of meat, enough to satisfy the Lord’s prediction that they would eat meat for a whole month.
The Israelites spread the carcasses of the birds on the sand, to be dried out by the sun. The birds were eaten raw, not cooked—a sort of quail jerky. Herodotus describes this practice in Egypt: “Quails and ducks and small birds are salted and eaten raw” (Herodotus 2.77).
As it happened, however, many Israelites became sick. The reference to a “plague” may indicate food poisoning. Whatever the cause, many of the people died, so that they named the place Kibroth Hattaavah, “graves of craving.” As is the case so often in the desert, the place has never been identified by archeologists.
The very name of the place, however, indicates Israel’s interpretation of the event: They saw this plague as punishment for their own cravings and the murmuring with which they complained to God. God gave them, in fact, exactly what they asked for. It was yet another example of those “answered prayers,” as they were called by St. Teresa of Avila and Truman Capote: Prayers we should not have made, because they were made without regard to doing God’s will. Such are prayers made in selfishness and the impulse to use God for our own ends, without regard to His will. It is no blessing when God answers such prayers.