Friday, July 8
Numbers 1: Here begins the first census in the Book of Numbers (chapters 1 through 4). These opening verses (1-16) provide the list of leaders, from each tribe, who will supervise the first census.
Like the Bible's various prophetic books, Numbers begins with a precise chronological reference that contains no fewer than three ordinal numbers: “Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai in the tabernacle of testimony, on the first day of the second month in the second year after they came out of the land of Egypt” (verse 1).
The book begins, then, with a date, indicating that thirteen months have elapsed since the first Passover.
The second verse, in turn, requires a census, a counting “according to the number of their names” (bemispar shemoth). Verse 3 then specifies the ages by the computation of the years, “from twenty years old and above.” Thus, there are three different uses of numbers in the first three verses of this book, and a sustained interest in calculation sets its tone.
After these introductory verses, the rest of the chapter has three parts: first, a list of the tribal leaders who will conduct the survey of the tribes (verses 5-19; second, the results of the survey itself (verses 20-46); third, an explanation why the Levites are not included in this census (verses 47-54).
The large and central part of this chapter is the first census, which is a clearly made for military purposes, since it concentrates on the males eligible for warfare.
Besides the practical function served by this census, it is legitimate to inquire about the theological significance of the book’s beginning with four whole chapters dedicated to this theme. Why does the Word of God go to the trouble of providing a list of the totals of each of Israel’s tribes? If, as the Apostle says, all these things were written for our instruction, what lesson did the Holy Spirit intend when He caused these lists to be recorded three millennia ago?
We may consider three points in this respect:
First, this opening census confirms a truth about the biblical God—namely, that He accounts for all things. If not a sparrow falls to the ground without His notice, certainly He knows each Israelite that faltered in the wilderness. This census, accordingly, is a record of His judgments, and as such it symbolizes and prefigures the inspection to be made at the end of time, when the thrones are set and the books are opened.
Second, these numbers of the various tribes serve to memorialize those who perished in the Wilderness. The God who numbers the very hairs of our heads did not permit to be obliterated from memory those who had witnessed His wonders in Egypt and Sinai. They were, after all, the eye-witnesses of the great deeds of Redemption, the magnalia Dei: the plagues visited on Egypt, the deliverance at the Red Sea, the giving of the Law, the falling of the Manna, and all the rest. This was the people that saw the Nile turned to blood, and whose nostrils were offended by the rotting carcasses of a million frogs. These were the people—recorded by their fathers’ houses—that observed the first Passover in the land of their captivity.
Although these six hundred thousand were counted unworthy to enter the Promised Land, the Lord in His mercy deigned to enter them into the Sacred Scriptures.
Third, these lists serve to replace the tombstones of those who died in the desert. Though they all lay in myriad unmarked tombs, their memory is enshrined here in letters more lasting than stone. During the more than three thousand years that have elapsed since the last of them succumbed to the heat and fatigue of the wilderness, their memory has survived through the patient labor of Jewish and Christian copyists.
Thus, the reader of the Book of Numbers enters this story, as it were, through the arched gateway of a cemetery, to stroll among the tombs and observe this vast company at rest in their serried ranks. If he reads the text closely, he may hear the voice of the recording angel, who reports to the Almighty, “All present and accounted for, Sir.”
In the final part of the chapter (verses 47-54) Moses is instructed not to calculate the house of Levi with the rest of the tribes, because they are not to fight within the army. The Levites will have a census of their own in chapter 3.
It is traditional to see in these verses the origin of the custom of clerical exemption from military service, an exemption naturally giving rise to moral reflections on the incompatibility of the military and clerical professions. To assess the value and pertinence of such reflections, it will be useful to look at certain features of this exemption:
First, the reason given for releasing the ministers of the altar from military service is the fact that they are already occupied with carrying the tabernacle and its appurtenances, chiefly the Ark of the Covenant. As the soldiers march with their weapons in hand, the priestly tribe is busy handling the instruments of worship and sacrifice.
As we shall see in the next chapter, the tabernacle of testimony is to be borne in the very center of the marching troop, and the Levites are to surround it as a sort of cordon of protection. They are not armed, but they are charged with protecting this very center of Israel’s life and identity.
This “clerical exemption” from military service is, therefore, a symbolic provision, indicating the correct structure and order of Israel’s existence. It is literally hieratic in nature, expressing less an ethical principle than a sacramental intuition.
Second, because of its sacramental symbolism, the clerical exemption from combat is far from absolute in practice. Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this limitation comes during the period of the Maccabees, when a priestly family actually leads the forces of Israel against its oppressors.
Third, although the Levites were not charged to fight against Israel’s enemies, they certainly do, on occasion, fight against the Israelites! Indeed, the Book of Exodus already told how, in the incident of the golden calf, the Levites slaughtered a large number of their fellow citizens in order to preserve the moral integrity of the people (32:26-29), and in chapter 25 of the present book Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, will lead a similar bloody assault for the same purpose. Indeed, the second census will not be conducted until after that purging. Thus, the biblical exemption of the Levites from military service in no way suggests some affinity between the clerical ministry and pacifism.
Indeed, the memory of Levi himself would render such an affinity improbable. We recall that he was a patriarch overly disposed to spill blood (Genesis 34:25-31). At the very end of his life, Jacob lamented the bellicose disposition of Levi and Simeon (Genesis 49:5-7). In sum, there is scant biblical evidence for the suggestion that “priests don’t fight.”
Saturday, July 9
Numbers 2: As the Israelite tribes journeyed through the wilderness, they really marched. Which is to say, they walked in martial ranks, both of these words derived from the name Mars, the Roman god of war. We speak of that era as a period of “wandering” in the desert, but this wandering was marked by an internal structure of great cohesion and purpose. The wandering Israelites were—as God's people must ever be—a company of warriors.
Consequently, the organization of Israel in the desert was arranged along martial lines, an arrangement that should not surprise us, in light of the military interest of the census in the preceding chapter. As in any military expedition, it was imperative to know just where the various forces were stationed and where it was feasible, if need be, to deploy them. We find this imperative at play in the present chapter.
Indeed, it seems to have been the major determining factor of Israel's physical organization. Whereas the previous chapter had recorded the troop strength of each tribe, the present chapter strategically distributes that strength. In addition, each tribe was answerable to a single commander, identified in every instance (verses 3,5,7,10,12,14,18,20,22,25,27,29). No good military leader would be satisfied with less organization.
The military formation was elaborate: The Tabernacle of God's presence, Israel's theological hearth, was placed in the center (verse 2), and around it all the tribes were gathered in assort of square, for its protection (Compare Ezekiel 48:30-35). The priests and Levites, naturally, were positioned nearest to the Tabernacle, the care of the latter being their chief charge.
In fact, the strategic position of each large unit was made visible by its corresponding ensign, which served as a symbol of every soldier's position and direction on the field (verses 2,3,10,17,18,25,31,34; cf. 1:52). Later rabbinic sources suggested attractive features of these flags. Thus, Ibn Ezra pictured each flag as bearing an image symbolic of a particular tribe, much as we find in Jacob’s prophecies in Genesis 49: a lion for Judah, a serpent for Dan, a ship for Zebulon, and so forth. Equally attractive was Rashi’s suggestion that the colors of the flags corresponded to the twelve precious stones on the pectoral mounting worn by the high priest. He also cited older Jewish sources, according to whom the twelve tribes took the same formation around the Tabernacle as their corresponding Twelve Patriarchs assumed when they carried the funeral bier of Jacob.
As the people marched eastward, with the entrance of the Tabernacle facing forward, the foremost troop was formed by the largest of the tribes, Judah, flanked by Zebulon and Issachar (verses 3-9). Directly behind this large formation marched Aaron and the other priests, forming the immediate front guard of the Tabernacle (3:38).
To the south of the Tabernacle, forming the right flank of Israel’s total force, were placed the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Simeon (verses 10-16). To their immediate left, forming the southern guard of the Tabernacle, marched the Koathite Levites (3:29).
We should particularly note that the Reubenites (including Dathan and Abiram) marched and camped adjacent to the Koathites (including Korah), on the south side of the army (verses 10-11). This arrangement would, in due course, provide opportunity for the two groups to share the grievances they had respecting the leadership of Moses and Aaron. In due course these groups of Reubenites and Levites would join forces in rebellion against Moses and Aaron in chapter 16.
To the west, directly behind the Tabernacle, were the Gershomite Levites (3:23), behind whom marched, as the rear guard of the whole force, the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin (verses 18-24).
On the north side, forming the left flank of Israel’s force, were the tribes of Dan, Naphtali, and Asher (verses 25-31), directly south of whom, guarding the north side of the Tabernacle, marched the Merarite Levites (3:35).
If the overall arrangement of Israel served a military purpose, this arrangement did not exclude further theological considerations. Among the tribes, such a consideration is arguably clearest in the case of Judah, destined to be the royal tribe (Genesis 49:8-12), from which, in due course, the Messiah would come. Judah, accordingly, is placed to the east (verse 3), the direction of the rising sun, blessed with its myriad attendant symbolisms.
Sunday, July 10
Numbers 3: We may distinguish four parts in the present chapter: First, there is a small listing of the Aaronic family itself, the priestly household, to whose service the rest of the Levitical tribe is assigned (verses 1-4). Second, there is a general description of the duties of the Levites (verses 5-13). Third comes an initial and large census of the tribe of Levi verses 14-39). Fourth, there is given an outline for the financial provision for the Levites (verses 40-51).
In this chapter too, of course, the preoccupation is with “numbers” (verses 15,16,22,28,34,39,40,42), a preoccupation carried over, at the end, to financial considerations (verses 47-50).
First, this chapter speaks of Aaron’s sons (verses 1-4), a discourse that must include, and even start with, the tragedy attendant on the unfaithful ministry of the two oldest of those sons, Nadab and Abihu (verse 4), whose sin is recounted in Leviticus 10:1-2 and Numbers 26:61. This tragedy was a very sobering experience for Israel and served to brace the spirits of the remaining priests. For instance, when we consider the later zeal of Phineas, the nephew of Nadab and Abihu, it is reasonable to think that zeal to come, in part at least, from his fearful reaction to the tragedy of his uncles. In any case, Nadab and Abihu died without offspring, leaving only Eleazaar and Ithamar to carry on the Aaronic line.
We recall that Nadab and Abihu perished for their failure to observe the correct ritual. They had done a thing “unauthorized” (zara). Their punishment stands as a perpetual warning with respect to the Lord’s views on private liturgical innovation. The Levites’ custody of the instruments of worship (verse 10) was intended to guarantee that that sort of thing did not happen again.
An important aspect of this ministry is that of custodianship (shamar mishmeret, “guard duty”) over the precincts of the sanctuary. Indeed, this component of the ordained ministry remains perpetually valid for the People of God, those charged to stand guard over the gifts of God. These gifts include, first of all, the Gospel itself, which must be protected against heresy, but also included the Sacraments and the actual texts of Holy Scripture. During times of persecution the Christian Church sees a special malice in the sin of the traditores, those who “hand over” the Sacred Scriptures, the liturgical books, or the sacred vessels of the altar to the enemies of God.
Just as the first fruits of all products pertained by right to the service of God, the sons of Levi were thought of as being the first born sons of Israel and therefore pertained entirely to God's service (verses 11-12,41,45-46). This analogy indicates that there was a sacrificial quality to the lives of those who served in the sanctuary, which was the place of sacrifice.
The Levites, the non-Aaronic members of the Levitical tribe, were “given” to assist Aaron and his sons in the ministry. This term “given,” netunim, became the name of certain ministers within the Levitical order at the time of the restoration of the Temple after the Babylonian Captivity (Ezra 2:43,58,70; 7:7,24; 8:17,20; Nehemiah 3:26,31; 7:46,60,73; 10:28; 11:3,21), but here the term appears to refer to all the Levites, who are also said to be “given” to the Lord (8:16).
The early Christians thought of their own order of deacons (diakonoi = ”servants”) as the New Testament's correspondence to the Old Testament order of Levites (cf. Clement of Rome 40.1-5).
Third, there is the census of Levi (verses 14-39), the clerical family that marched closest to the Tabernacle of the divine presence. The census of the Levites is twofold: First, there is a counting of all the males of at least one month in age (verses 14-39), and, second, a census of those Levites, who, having reached the age of thirty, are qualified to participate in the Levitical ministry (4:1-49).
There are two reasons children are included in this initial census: First, unlike the census in the previous chapter, this census has nothing to do with military service. Second, because the tribe of Levi did not defect when all the other adults in Israel did, in the incident of the golden calf, the Levites did not fall under the “death curse” imposed on the rest of Israel’s adults. Hence, when they are counted, the children are counted too.
This initial census of the Levites divides their three groups (verse 17), assigning specific duties to each. Unlike chapter 4, which stresses the “labor” (‘aboda) of the Levites, the present census concentrates on their “guard duty” (mishmeret). Of these two censuses, the present one is the larger, since in principle all Levites stood guard. Contrast the totals of these two censuses by comparing 3:39 with 4:48.
Each division of the tribe of Levi was assigned to carry and care for specified instruments for the worship in the Tabernacle (verses 25-26,31,36-37). Like the other tribes, which were divided into four groups to form a square around the Tabernacle, the sons of Levi were divided into four to form a small square inside the larger one (verses 23,29,35,38). This arrangement itself is symmetric and related to the theme of numbers.
In this last reference (verse 38) we observe that among the sons of Levi, Moses and Aaron and his sons occupied the position of honor, to the east, nearest the tribe of Judah. This arrangement would eventually be expressed by the establishment of the Temple in the tribe of Judah, so that this latter tribe, especially its king, would become the chosen protectors of the priesthood. This will become a large theme in the Book of Chronicles.
This census reminds us that the Old Testament priesthood was one of biological inheritance, in which sons succeeded and were trained by their fathers. This ministry was one of trust and duty and included the safeguarding of the instruments and appointments for the maintenance of Israel's sacrificial cult (verse 8).
The fourth part of this chapter (verses 40-51) provides for the physical maintenance of the Levites and their families. Although this provision is set in the context of the Desert, it references to money indicates that a later setting is presumed, perhaps the period of the Judges, Saul, and David—after the Conquest but before the Temple. This is one of several places in the Pentateuch where the subject matter presupposes a social context later that Moses.
In this arrangement, the Levites are portrayed as replacing—substituting for—the firstborn sons among the other tribes. The established ransom of the firstborn sons (cf. Exodus 13:2; 22:29-30; 34:19-20; Leviticus 27:26-27) is applied to these Levites who “stand in for” them in the service of God (verses 11-13,40-43).
When the calculations are made, it is found that the sum of Israel’s firstborn sons is 273 higher that the sum of the Levites (compare verses 39 and 43). This surplus number is taken to represent the Aaronic household (verses 44-51).
When the lives of these firstborn are “redeemed,” that redemption is calculated in terms of a tax of five shekels per head in support of the Levitical families (cf. 18:15-18). The actual value of these shekels at the time is wholly a matter of speculation; nor is there any indication how the tax was collected.
Beyond these details, the principle involved is very clear: Because the Levites ministered on behalf of Israel, Israel as a whole assumed their support as a duty. This is a highly specialized instance of what sociologists call “the division of labor”: Because the labor of the Levites, which is the detailed subject of the next chapter, removed them from the opportunity to support their families in other ways, the whole congregation of Israel was obliged to see to their sustenance.
Obviously this principle is also maintained in the New Testament ministries of the Apostles and their missionary teams (1 Corinthians 9:1-14).
Monday, July 11
Leviticus 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 is—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.
Tuesday, July 12
The present chapter has three parts: First, statutes about exclusion (verses 1-4); second, rules for confession and restitution (verses 5-10); third, provisions for trial by ordeal (verses 11-31).
First, then, there are statutes about exclusion. In accordance 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 pastoral 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 confession (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 who 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 prescriptions of the present text lie 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.
Wednesday, July 13
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 a 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.
A 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 the 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 was 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.
Thursday, July 14
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 completed (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 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 the 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.
Friday, July 15
Numbers 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 given 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 priests 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 changes 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.