Well - we have a title problem again! This book is generally called Numbers because of the counts that take place due to the practice of a census. Indeed in some rabbinic texts, it’s called the book of the census. And there’s abundant support in ancient Jewish and Greek sources for this title.
But, the Hebrew name of the first portion and the book is B’Midbar, In the Wilderness. As was the case in the last book, our “official documents” will follow the convention of reference to the commonly used title. But I will try my best to use, and encourage you to use, the Hebrew name. This is because, as we pick back up the narrative, it crucially takes place in the wilderness. And the meaning of the story is fundamentally grounded in what the wilderness is, and what we’ll discover at bottom it to be. It is in and through the wilderness that the people make the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, and it will be the life, activity, and decisions in the wilderness on that journey that will be the focus of our study of this book.
Let me ask you before we begin: what comes to your mind as we approach the wilderness in our story? Why would this journey be through the wilderness? Your answer can be based on past study of this book or any experience or imagination that informs your views.
(Outside of the cultivated, yet open and accessible. Wanderings. Naked, in various ways. Unprotected by culture and regular patterns or ways. Places of being tested or challenged. Searching. Likely places where we are tempted and may, at least some, get into trouble, which will pose burdens for others, including the leaders. It’s not easy in the wilderness. Yet, it was in the wilderness where we received Torah. Meaning?
We anticipate from problems we saw in Exodus that this generation that had lived in slavery and still lives with its touch will not generally, easily or well handle the test of the wilderness. A cleaning out of the remnant of slavery. Yet, we get a gift of God’s direction in the midst of all this, which prepares us to help others in desolation. They are both, very different truths.
We’ll see life in ordinary and trying times. We’ll see transitions in leadership. We’ll see challenges, some met and some unmet. We’ll see a lot of what is, as opposed to what ought to be. We’ll see the very difficult - real and human - process through which the people must go to make it to and enter the land. A necessary but real stage between redemption and the land of promise.We’ll consider these trials and tribulations as well as steps forward, and we’ll think about them as they affect the people of the Bible and as they affect us.
Time and space to reflect on and sharpen our understanding of covenant and its requirements and work through the change that’s needed to fully make transition. Probably the needed pain that accompanies such change, too.)
I. Read 1:1-4
A. Why would God want a census to be taken? By clans? By each? By groups? By those over 20 years up, presumably by those able to bear arms? Or, is it for broader community needs? Why is a person associated with each tribe designated to help, as the head of a ancestral house?
(Isn’t it interesting to encounter the many times we’re numbered on the way to being numberless as God promised Abraham?
This time seems principally about being ready militarily and as a community. It’s as if we are to go into “basic training.” It has that feel. It’s as if we need to organize ourselves militarily, socially, to get ready for the tasks at hand. We must build the strength to travel, to carry ourselves, our holy treasures, and our community. Importantly, we must be physically secure to survive, and God expects us, indeed instructs us on the priority of this and how to do it.
But, it’s about individuals, too. Social cohesion requires the proper place of the individual, too. If
we take the gender problem out, which would be an issue to most moderns, there is the idea that each person counts, that none should go missing, that each is loved by God!. Everyone counts for God, and leaders need to account for each and all. And we need to know we count.
This is important for building community, one which is made up of individuals whom are counted. It’s also important for the spiritual and emotional and physical well being of its individuals. (The Hebrew, by the way, means “lift” the heads, as if to say we look up to each other and to God.)
Organizationally, there is a cohesive whole with individuals, but one with sub-groups of the historic tribes, whose identity can’t and mustn’t be lost. Surely, the challenge of bringing together the tribes of the very different sons of different mothers, of different backgrounds and orientations had to be daunting to say the least, but necessary.)
We need to know the ones who are bold enough to lead in various ways, perhaps as priests and Levites. We’ll talk about them in a moment. And we need to know who can bear arms, which, again, appears to be the main aim here at the start.
And it’s important - in all respects, including politically and militarily - that Moses and Aaron have leaders with them representing each group.)
B. Note verses 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 31, 33, 35, 37, 39, 41, 43, and concluding in 46.
These verses have always impressed me. Do they you? How?
(Historians and indeed many serious readers of the Text who try to square all the numbers of the people at this time of the story think the numbers must be seriously bloated. Nevertheless, we are impressed at a deeper level of their purport to be real numbers! There’s something tangible, something significant that is manifested from real numbers, no? It gets beyond the conceptual, by the recording of the actual numbers. A real person is the 653,550th person! (It gives it, too, a very historical, indeed ancient, but immediate feel.))
C. Read 50-53.
What impression do you draw from these verses? And what is its surface and deeper meanings?
(We remember Levi, don’t we? We reflect on the restoration that has been achieved by his descendants after that awful “blessing” from Jacob. Here we see the significant role they play, as God’s select, as those who redeem the first born of the community, in protecting and caring for the Tabernacle and its components. We’ll talk more about the Levites in a bit.
But, let’s focus on the importance of organization and order in the way the tribes and the community are structured? Think about what might have this meant to them, and what might it mean to us.)
II. We see more of the nature of organization in the verses that follow in chapter 2.
A. Take a look. What does it mean to have the Ark and the tabernacle central?
(We see it in the middle. It is at the core of the community, in location and meaning and in importance. We see it on coming and going and know it’s in the middle. So, the basis of our covenant with God is given greatest significance. The role of keeping and protecting the holy objects is crucial and falls to the Levites as their role and function. Yet, it is around the Ark and holy objects and, even more, what they stand for that we build and organize our lives.)
B. Let’s look at certain organizational features. Thoughts on groupings by 3?
(It was an ancient pattern, including in Roman triumvirate, with one as to politics, money, and government. There are multiple explanations of these groupings. Let me illustrate:
1. Here, for example, we see Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun - a leader, with a commercial figure, and a student of Torah!
2. Gad, Ruben, and Simeon - reliable Gad to keep Ruben on track, after repentance, and Simeon disciplined.
3. Asher, Naftali, and Dan - powerful trio of military, speed, and mobility.
What do we learn from these sorts of combinations?
(Diversity is good. Having certain expertise and skill spread throughout is important to survival and growth. Perhaps the strengths of each type are enhanced, and the weaknesses shored up. It’s certainly significant to have leadership in all key areas available and present throughout.)
Note: There already seems a preference for Judah, in the location on the east side with Issachar and Zebulun, as well as the location on the south side of Reuben and Simeon, in that all, like Judah, are sons of Leah.
Note: military leaders cover areas of vulnerability. Also, the flags generate their own stories as to vivid colors, etc. In my study of them, I fondly brought back to mind the colors of the various communities in Siena in Italy. Have you been there and seen that?)
(If not fully covered) Now reflecting on all of our discussion, how do these precise aspects of organization inform our own lives?
(Set goals as to destination. Place the most important and treasured objects in the center. Pay attention to meeting the various key objectives we as individuals and a community have, such as economic, spiritual, security, and deploy those talented at each in a position to best assure meeting the objectives.)
III. Read 3:1. Why does it say these are the sons of Aaron AND Moses? Aren’t they Aaron’s sons?
(They’ve been fundamentally taught and led by Moses. This is an important proof text for the credit and respect given adults who teach and raise and lift up the young. It’s as if they parent in important ways.
IV. A. Read 3:6-8, 14-16. Here’s a distinct role for, and census among, the Levites. Three questions:
1. Why the emphasis in these two chapters on the Levites and their tasks?
(The organization of the spiritual life of the community is essential to a people whose mission is to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We’ve discussed sacred space in some detail. Now we’re into the real world of its care, its operation, its mobility, and its preservation. This matters, and that it’s done right matters.)
2. What does this teach us for our own lives? Spend time here!
(Physical security and spiritual security are central tasks in our lives, and we must be well organized for both. We must be physically secure, but in a life of faith, it’s all to the end of the spiritual, that is, service of God.)
3. Why is the census for all above one month in age?
(To understand from the beginning of real viability how many and who will be available for service. To begin early to prepare. Spiritual preparation should begin close to the beginning. This, too, was a hereditary function.)
Note divisions of labor among the three subgroups within the tribe of Levi with respect to the Tabernacle and its furnishings. We won’t spend time on each - the differences, the exact functions, etc. But know it’s a rich source of study - one day.
B. Read 4:1-4.
Why a focus in this census on ages from 30-50 in age for this subgroup of Levites?
(This is the prime of their service, and the commentators reflect on the various duties that are prominent at each age: vigorous activity, including heavy lifting, at a younger age, singing throughout, perhaps more wisdom and mentoring toward the end, with the idea of retirement in older age. It’s as if service here requires more years, perhaps more spiritual maturing than that needed for the military at 20.
Note that the word for army throughout the chapter is tzava, which also suggests service more generally, including service in the tabernacle.)
V. Read 4:19-20.
A. Why the specific mention of the assignment of discreet and separate roles?
(To avoid a problem such as that caused with the earlier sons? To make sure all of this sacred work is done correctly? To ease anxiety of those who had fears and doubts in approaching the work, or subdue the excitement of those who were eager? Maybe all. The idea of proper structure and organization is made manifest again here.)
B. What does this forewarning of death upon looking at these holy objects mean? Something deeper perhaps?
(Lots of commentary on this. Some say they’ll fall into a trance if they gaze on them and lose their focus and mission. Maybe it was like looking at God. I think Hirsch has a better idea: if we look on the sacred too much, especially in the workaday attitude we tend to carry with us we may begin to take a casual or ordinary view of what is sacred, which tends to have the effect of hurting us, even “killing” us spiritually.)