Friday, July 12

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, 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 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, returned 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.

Saturday, July 13

Numbers 6: 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 among some Christians—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.

Sunday, 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 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.

Monday, July 15

Numbers 8: 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.

Tuesday, July 16

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 the 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 applies, 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 the need to reaffirm the requirement of ritual purity.

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.

Wednesday, July 17

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, covering the year that Israel encamped in the valley below Mount Sinai. The 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).

Thursday, July 18

Numbers 11: 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 contains 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, is 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, every day, 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.

Friday, July 19

Numbers 12: This chapter concludes the first travel narrative in Numbers. It also continues, from the previous chapter, the theme of challenges against Israel’s established leadership, this time portraying Aaron and Miriam as conspirators against Moses.

The material breaks in half, distributing two subjects: first, the challenge of Aaron and Miriam (verses 1-8); second, the Lord’s response to that challenge (verses 9-16).

First, the challenge: Supported by her brother, Miriam conceives a dislike for their Ethiopian (Aithiopissa in the LXX) sister-in-law, Zipporah (Midian=Cushan in Habakkuk 3:7). The two of them vent their displeasure on Moses himself.

It is interesting to speculate on the source of the problem. For example, we know that Moses was very much under the counsel of Reul (or Hobab), his father-in-law and the father of Zipporah, and perhaps jealousies arose in that respect. Whatever the initial point of contention, however, it is clear that the grievance of Aaron and Miriam was directed at Moses.

Specifically the two began to wonder our loud whether they weren’t at least as important as Moses himself (verse 2). Aaron, after all, not Moses, was the high priest, and Miriam was a recognized prophetess (Exodus 20:15), so why should Moses have all the authority?

Moses, being a meek man (verse 3; Exodus 3:11; 4:10-13), was disposed to overlook the affront, but the Lord was not. For the pair of complainers He had a thing or two to say relative to the special position and authority of Moses as the chosen intimate of the divine counsels (verses 6-8).

In addition to being reprimanded, Miriam was struck with leprosy, which perhaps suggests that she had been the original instigator of the problem (verse 10). From this affliction she was delivered through the intercession of Moses (verses 13-15).

We may observe two points of irony here: First, the skin of Miriam, who complained about her dark-skinned sister-in-law, becomes as white as snow! Second, there is Aaron’s plea with Moses to intercede for their sister, Miriam. He thereby acknowledges the special ministry and service of Moses.