I. Read 4:34-35. Who conducts the census, and why?
(It’s Moses, Aaron, and the chieftains. This seems so certainly because God instructed them to. Their doing it themselves instead of delegating the work testifies also to the importance of the counting, and getting it right.)
II. Read 5:5-8. Several questions:
A. Why do we go straight from the census of the Levites to this instruction about how to handle wrongdoing by one to another?
(Recall we’re talking broadly about organization of the community as we begin our experience in the wilderness and our transition to the land of promise. The next item up is and should be that we not do wrong to each other and that we have consequences if we do. We see, too, that God is involved in both this instruction and having a stake in protecting the position of the innocent.
We count, in order to live as God expects!)
B. Why cast wrongdoing specifically in terms of theft, and why the need for consequences to get right after wrongdoing?
(One idea is that whenever we do wrong to others we’re stealing from them in a way that requires getting right through confession and seeking forgiveness, providing restitution plus. Whether we’ve taken property or reputation or caused other harm, this always causes harm to relationships grounded in faith and the order of right living set out by our God in whom we place this faith.
C. What’s the purpose of the payment of the extra 1/5?
(Is this a sort of punitive payment? Does the damage to the wronged party in terms of emotional loss, etc., merit extra compensation? Does this extra payment serve a deterrent effect? Is it a sort of God’s share? Do note that since this penalty is far less than the four or five times formula we see elsewhere this may have been for a lesser offense.)
D. Why the offering to God?
(Wronging another wrongs God. As the text says, “it breaks faith with God,” too. It violates our covenant with God. And the text emphasizes the point that God is the “Third Partner” in our relations with another, and after we get right with the “second party,” one must get right with the Third.)
E. Note before we leave these verses the Hebrew for confessing is the reflexive verb, hitvadu, suggesting the confession is to ourselves for the wrong we’ve done. Why would that be so?
(Until we know and admit to ourselves that we’ve done wrong, seeking forgiveness, making, restitution, and making an offering to God, while having certain positive effects, would not be enough with respect to the genuineness of our remorse and change. Truly turning back to God’s way is ultimately the most crucial result in that it puts us on the right course for the future both with God and others.)
III. Let’s talk about this unusual institution of naziritism. Let’s read 6:1-3, 5, 13-15.
A. Any ideas about what being a nazirite involves?
(This text deals with a person who makes a temporary commitment, or vow of an extraordinary sort, as opposed to some, such as Samson, who were a nazirite for life. John the Baptist? Paul, temporarily? Several outward conditions: no drinking, no cutting of hair, no touching death, and various procedures for coming back to ordinary life, including special offerings. There may have been limitations on sex as well elsewhere in the text. Some scholars thought that this may have involved a very negative reaction to the urban way of life.
This involves a special vow, an unusual limitation imposed on oneself in the direction of holiness, a significant separation from the ordinary to offer special service. Some saw it as unnatural, too much of a closing off from the community (Rambam). For them, it was sort of extreme, as if the regular regime wasn’t demanding enough! A real suspicion about a person who “goes too far.”
Some saw it as a wonder, as a special path of holiness, of an extremely meritorious curbing of appetites (Ramban). For the advocates, this was a blessing to others to have just a few in their midst who commit to such a rigorous and worthy regime.
Indeed Ramban sees the offering that is made at the end of the vow period as an acknowledgement that the nazirite is being defiled in a way by coming back to normal life with its inevitable worldly passions.)
B. Would we be inclined to see this sort of enthusiast, a modern day nazirite, as extreme or fanatical. Or would we admire such a person who abstains greatly from ordinary pleasures in this kind of religious seriousness? Depends? What makes you go one way or the other?
(Why and how might we make and live out such a vow today? Would our motive be an exuberance to serve? A sense of needing to make up for falling short in some way or having fallen short or having been empty or unfulfilled, maybe spiritually, in some way? Other factors?
Would we meditate for an extended period? Do deep study in a more isolated fashion? Or make another sort of special and different dedication, or a gift, to God? Is sobriety a must, as opposed to “spirits?” In what way? Or not cutting the hair? Is this to say that much grooming doesn’t fit with this sort of service? Or is longer hair to be associated with separation, holiness? Other?
IV. Read 6:22-27. This is the well-known Priestly blessing. There actually is evidence of certain language of this blessing with ancient origins going back to the First Temple period, before 800 BCE, though the details are uncertain. Its use becomes multi-functional in exilic and post-exilic times.
A. When and where do you hear this blessing? What does it mean in the context of when you hear it?
(We tend to hear it in the liturgy, especially near the end of a service, sometimes in special blessings, such as b’nei mitzvah, or for a bride and groom, or parents’ blessing of children on Shabbat. Again there’s evidence of the use of this blessing in the Temples and later evidence of use in synagogues and all the way to our time. Interestingly, there’s some evidence of its use early on as a blessing at death upon the departure of the soul to the afterlife.)
B. Let’s go through each of the three components of this blessing and see what each speaks to you. (Have each read singly.)
(Here’s an interesting translation of the blessing as found in the Qumran materials: May God bless you - with every good thing. May he protect you - from every evil thing. May he enlighten your thoughts - with intelligence for living. May he favor you - with everlasting knowledge. May he show concern for you through his acts of kindness, for ever-lasting well-being. (Licht).)
C. But what do you think it means in the trajectory of the biblical narrative we’ve been reading, going back at least through Vayikra?
(I think it’s a lovely follow-on the blessings and curses discussion we had at the end of Vayikra. I think this is a powerful exploration and revelation of how God blesses us.
We live with God, in covenant, and we draw near with our offerings. And God blesses us and keeps/safeguards us, illuminates our way, is gracious to us, keeps turning to us, and establishes peace - contentment/wholeness. These are the elements of blessing that come from God, from living in the direction of holiness that represents God’s attributes and God’s expectations of us.
This is a lovely coda really to Vayikra.)
V. A. Read 7:1-3. Note the first gifts of the chieftains. 6 wagons and 12 oxen. What does it mean that one wagon is brought by each duo of chieftains?
(They have to cooperate - two each, presumably in acquiring and bringing it. A motif for needed cooperation.)
B. Read 12-17. Look quickly at, for example, 18-23. The gifts appear to be the same for each tribe! You’ll note this pattern continues. What do you make of this?
Before you answer that, a quick question: do you recall what we learned about Nachson that likely explains why he gets the honor of coming first?
(The midrash we discussed at the edge of the sea has it that Nachson was the first to go in, based on faith in God.)
(In a way each brings the same, which places each in an equal position. The needs are many, of animal, plant, and mineral, and all equally help meet them. But isn’t the text telling us that each is different, in that the intention, the acquisition, the spirit behind each offering must have been individual and personal to each? Isn’t this a beautiful way of understanding the individual and collective nature of Numbers - the needs of the community and its vital institutions as well as those of individuals in the wilderness, and the ways in which each serves the other.)