Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Bamidbar

Numbers 1:1-4:20.Haftarah:Hosea 2:1-22

A couple of months ago, all citizens of England and Wales were required to complete a census form. Among the FAQs on the census website is the question: “Why do we have a census?” The census information collected, according to the website, “is used to help government and local authorities plan the services and resources people need, such as transport, housing, healthcare and education.”

The census of Israelites taken in the wilderness of Sinai was to determine the number of fighting men. A separate census of priests and Levites was taken for a different purpose. The first census of men was to number all the men from twenty years old who were available to fight in the army of Israel. The Levites were numbered from the age of one month in order to determine how many Levites could serve as substitutes for the firstborn of the rest of the nation.

In Shemot (Exodus), Israel is a redeemed people; in Vayikra (Leviticus), they are a holy people; in Bamidbar (“In the Wilderness”, Numbers), they are an army.

Although Numbers seems at first sight like a literary dog’s breakfast, with no structure to it, it is in fact an important document with much to reach us. Though each of the five books of Moses can be read as volumes in their own right, together they form a cohesive whole and none of them can be understood in isolation from the others.

In Genesis, God created a very good world that was quickly ruined by man’s rebellion and disobedience. God immediately set in place a plan for Tikkun Olam (the restoration of creation), and that momentous event would come about through the “seed” (zerah) of a woman.

The calling of Abram in Genesis 12 was a major step in the Tikkun Olam. Israel was to be a new humanity, God’s firstborn (Exodus 4:22f), the firstfruits of his harvest of the nations (Jeremiah 2:3). By obeying God’s mitzvot (commands), they would reflect the image of the Creator and be a light to the nations. And they would function as a light in a land prepared for them by God, in the same way Adam had lived as God’s firstborn in Gan Eden.

However, although the calling of Israel was a major step in God’s repair of the cosmos, it is clear from the start of the book of Numbers that there was a long way to go before creation was completely restored. The universe will not be repaired until everyone knows God at least to the same degree Adam knew him when God walked with him in the Garden of Eden.

In Numbers, the tabernacle is the centre around which the book revolves. Though God lives in the midst of Israel in a tent, that tent is guarded by the priests and Levites, foremost of whom are Aaron and Moses. Approach to Yahweh is limited and guarded. The penalty for an unauthorised Israelite approaching God’s tent was death; and if a Levite approached the tabernacle in an unauthorised manner, the result was the same.

Israel was a holy people but some Israelites were more holy than others. Israel’s camp was holy but there was one place in the camp that was infinitely more holy. Even within the tabernacle, there was a “most holy place”, the holy of holies, the sanctuary beyond the inner veil. Israel’s God is “a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24).

The priests and Levites acted as a kind of human firewall between God and the rest of the people. They guarded the tabernacle and the holy things. But even among this favoured tribe there were degrees of holiness. All the priests were Levites but not all the Levites were priests (an issue that will raise its head later in the book). The priests ministered in the sanctuary, and Levites were porters of the tabernacle, its furnishings, its fittings and its utensils. The priests alone were responsible for constructing and dismantling the tabernacle during the wilderness travels, but even they were forbidden to look on the Ark of the Covenant. They had to unhook the inner veil of the sanctuary and place it over the ark, without gazing on it.  

With great privilege comes great responsibility; it was a dangerous business being a priest.

Israel was the people of God and their God was in the midst of them, and the arrangement of the tribes of Israel around the tabernacle is instructive. They are arranged with three tribes to the east, three tribes to the south, three tribes to the west and three tribes to the north with the tribe of Levi forming a buffer between the rest of the tribes and the tabernacle in the midst of the camp. There are no tribes camped, for example, to the north-east or the south-west. The directions are specific: east, south, north and west. Seen from the air, the tribes of Israel formed a gigantic cross. And within the tabernacle itself, the furniture on the way to the presence of the Holy of holies was laid out in the form of a cross.

A cross is the way to God and a cross is the only way in which God can dwell in the midst of his people. However, all this is, at this stage in the history of Israel and the nations, merely symbolic. The reality will come later.


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