Friday, June 14
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 references: “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 their departure from 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 of 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. Josephus recognized the military purpose of this survey: “Now when the things pertaining to legislation seemed to [Moses] to be in good order, he undertook a survey of the army, with a view to preparing for battles” (The Antiquities of the Jews 3.12.4, 287).
In addition to 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?
Saturday, June 15
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. 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, and around it all the tribes were gathered in a sort 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. 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 assumed 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).
Sunday, June 16
Numbers 3: This march of the People of God through the desert indicates the structure of their pilgrimage in all ages:
First, with respect to the Church as a whole, all her aspects are centered on the presence of the Lord in her midst. This presence of God is the Church’s core and center, the protected concentration of her being. This living center is made up of the Divine Mysteries: the confessed and unaltered faith once given to the Saints, the integrity of her Sacraments, the Canon of her Scriptures, the inviolable purity of the Tradition by which she is defined. The Church lives from that precious nucleus, which is to be safeguarded at all costs.
If that living and life-giving center does not “hold,” we are no longer the People of God. It may appear, for a while, that we are more “successful’ in some respects. If we abandon, for instance, certain components of our inherited worship in order to make the worship more accessible to our contemporaries, it is possible that our membership will initially grow, because we make better contact with the religious aspirations of the world around us.
This experience of success, however, is deceptive, and even dangerous. In due course we will learn that we have betrayed our identity in the Lord, by permitting the world to change the Church, whereas it is the vocation of the Church to transform the world. It is impossible for the People of God to transform the world by giving up its own form.
The Church, it is true, may move more slowly and deliberately if she is cautious not to lose her identifying center. This is a small price to pay for integrity, however, and the maintenance of identity.
It has been remarked that apologetics is the most dangerous part of Christian thought, and the reason for this is simple. Apologetics is the discipline of making the Gospel accessible to the world’s assent. This discipline is a necessary and important aspect of evangelism. There remains the ongoing danger, however, that our efforts to make the Gospel more accessible to unbelievers may, if only by inadvertence, alter some important and essential dimension of the Gospel.
The modern world, for instance, taking its cue from the expectations of the physical sciences, is fond of logical coherence and symmetry. Christians should reflect, however, that this preference represents nothing more than a bias. The most significant “forms” in this world, after all, are not symmetric. A sonnet, for instance, is generally compounded from an octet and a sestet, not two sets of 7 lines each. The vitality of the sonnet depends, in some measure, on the tension between an octet and a sestet. That is to say, the vitality of the sonnet is related to the asymmetry of its composition. The vitality we enjoy in sonnets we also hope to find symphonies and sunsets.
The coherence of the more significant forms tends toward vitality more than logic. If the Gospel is truly the “key” that opens up the lock of the human mystery, it is pointless to demand that it be symmetric. The only thing reasonably expected of a key is that it should fit the lock.
Virtually every major heresy condemned by the early Church took its rise in the effort to render the Gospel accessible to unbelievers. To return to the imagery of our metaphor, this activity directed to the world outside the Church runs the constant danger of putting the core of the Divine Mysteries in peril.
Second, what is true for the People of God as a whole is also true of each believer. He, too, must keep inviolate his center, that core of his being where he is in communion with God. He must permit no outside influence to deflect his attention from that center. It is imperative that he should engage in no activity, even intellectual and imaginative activity, which would endanger that spiritual center. The believer must maintain the flame that burns before God in the tabernacle of the heart. He must see that an inner core of Levites stands vigilant over that living center of his being.
Monday, June 17
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 being 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, June 18
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 referring 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 the statutes 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 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).
Wednesday, June 19
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).
Thursday, June 20
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).
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.
Friday, June 21
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).