Friday, June 26
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.
There is an ordering among these tasks, the first place being 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 Eliezar, the older of Aaron’s two remaining sons, could the Kohathites presume to carry this great burden (verse 15).
The next place in the order was held by the Gershonites, the descendants of Levi’s eldest son, who were charged with carrying the various drapes, veils, and hangings of the Tabernacle (24-26). All this work was supervised by the priests (verse 27), particularly Ithamar, Aaron’s younger son.
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 31-32). This task was also to be supervised by Ithamar (verse 33).
The sense of order in this chapter is consistent with the interest in numbers and proportion that we find throughout this book. As in the previous chapters, the verb “to number” or “to count” appears repeatedly. This is a book of transcribed calculations. Everything is prescribed. Everything is proportioned.
Saturday, June 27
Numbers 5: These next two chapters give various prescriptions partly repetitious of the Holiness Code in Leviticus 17—26.
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 be treated in a special way that involved a measure of exclusion.
The holiness and wellbeing of God’s People in this world has 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.
Concerns about proportion and due order also inspire 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, 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.
A certain affinity of symbolism may be the line between those rules of restitution and the ensuing regulations for trial by ordeal (verses 11-31). 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, as is clear, sanctified everything that it contained.
The woman that failed this test was punished by God Himself, 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). With respect to the elaborate ritual described here, it may be said that the narrative parts of Holy Scripture do not seem to indicate frequent recourse to it.
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, June 28
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 [hazir 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 consecrtion 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, the nazir 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), follow 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 that may suggest why it is our only biblical example, never again followed.
The priestly prayer of benediction that follows these rubrics are a general blessing, not related to the nazir (verses 25-26). It is a good and devout thing to seek the blessing of a priest. When priests bless God’s people, God also blesses His people (verse 27).
Monday, June 29
Numbers 7: This chapter, one of the longest in Holy Scripture (89 verses), covers the offerings made on behalf of Issrael’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/I>.
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; cf. Our remarks Numbers 2:3).
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 of the offerings 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 emphasizing the integrity (and, apparently, equality, for all the gifts are equal) of every tribe. Third, it 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, actually giving the reader the impression of being present. 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, nor should the reader be.
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, June 30
Numbers 8: The present chapter, concerned with miscellaneous regulations about the worship, begins with the subject of ritual lamps in the sanctuary (verses 2-3; Exodus 25:31-40; Leviticus 24:2-4).
The original and primary purpose of such lamps was simple illumination in enclosed areas, such as temples, not readily open to sunlight. As these lamps, nonetheless, were actually fires burning within sacred precincts, it was inevitable that a sacred significance would be attached to them.
It was inevitable, because it was perfectly human. 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 a sunrise. Consequently, such a flame would naturally assume, in the human imagination, the mystic symbolisms associated with the sun itself. 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. 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 (9:2) in his description of Moses Tabernacle, spoke of these lamps before anything else.
The purifying of the Levites (verses 6-14,21) is comparable to the purification of the priests in Leviticus 8, though perhaps with less note of consecration, which was reserved for the priests. Nonetheless the Levites, like the priests, took the place of Israel’s firstborn sons (verses 14,16-18).
The age limits given here for Levitical services, 25-50 (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.
Wednesday, July 1
Numbers 9: We come now to Israel’s second annual celebration of the Passover (verses 1-5), a narrative corresponding to the first such celebration in Exodus 12. These two accounts differ in two ways. First, the present account is much less detailed, the details having been given already in Exodus 12.
Second, the two accounts differ in context. Whereas the prescriptions in Exodus 12 were placed in the tension of Israel’s imminent departure from Egypt (and, indeed, they even form a break in the dynamic movement of the narrative), here the treatment is set in the more ample context of the Law received on Mount Sinai. That is to say, in Exodus 12 the Passover was centralized in its historical setting. Here in Numbers 9, it is colored by its inclusion in the general preoccupation with worship.
Those whose contact with dead bodies precluded their participation in the Passover Seder were accorded permission to celebrate that feast a month later. This concession was extended to those on a journey as well (verses 6-12).
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).
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 15-19). Thus, God’s People was 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 divine “commandment,” nor did Israel recognize any possibility of conflict between them.
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.
Thursday, July 2
Numbers 10: After celebrating its second Passover there, and having received guidance by the movement of the pillar of cloud and fire, Israel prepared to leave Mount Sinai. Before making its departure, nonetheless, the Chosen People received one more directive—to fashion two silver trumpets, to be sounded whenever the whole camp was to receive specific instructions relative to its march (verses 1-2).
These two trumpets were also 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 trumpet. These included military directions (verse 9) and liturgical use (verse 10).
The trumpeters were the priests (verse 8).
In its march, Israel began with the tribe of Judah, situated on the east side of the camp (verses 5,14), and so on.
Thus signaled to leave, Israel departed from Mount Sinai nearly a year after arriving there (verses 11-12). The Chosen People moved to Paran, a desert region south and southeast of Kadesh, and there movement thereto (verses 13-28) generally followed the pattern outlined in Numbers 2.
Since the Midianite in-laws of Moses were more familiar with the desert, Moses pleaded with them to remain in the company of Israel (verses 29-32). From the reference in Judges 1:16, it appears that they acceded to Moses’ request.
This chapter closes with the acclamations of Moses whenever the Ark was lifted for the march and set down again at the end of it (verses 33-36). These acclamations were later adapted and modified for Israel’s liturgical processions (cf. Psalms 68 (69):1; 132 (131):8).
Friday, July 3
Numbers 11: 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 bleaker 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 provides the context for 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 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.
Thus, murmuring is the most distressing of sounds. Even God cannot endure it (verse 1), and His burning wrath, earlier experienced by the Egyptians, is now 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).
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).
The Lord’s response was twofold.
First, this crisis made it clear that Moses needed extra help in the governance of Israel. He was beginning to feel burnout. As the people complained to Moses, Moses complained to God, asking if the Lord had somehow made him the father of all these people. Translated more literally, verse 12 should read, “Was it I that . . .? (he’anoki).” It is instructive that Moses refers to the Israelites here as children, because murmuring is, in fact, an immature response to a problem.
In response to Moses’ complaint, the Lord instructs him to choose seventy mature men to help him deal with the immature Israelites (verses 16-17). These men would receive the special gift of prophetic leadership by the grace of the Holy Spirit (verses 24-25), thus joining that group of charismatic leaders that will, in due course, be called the “Judges.” We observe that the grace of their calling was conferred even on two chosen men who had failed to be present as directed (verses 26-30).
Second, in response to Israel’s complaint about their excessively bland diet, the Lord sent another flock of quail, enough to feed them for a month. The phenomenon portrayed in verse 31 is not unknown even today, when thousands of quail, flying south from Europe to the warmer climate of Africa, fall exhausted in the desert, wearied from their crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.