Light from the Sidra

Bamidbar ('In the Wilderness')

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

Count the skulls

Since time immemorial, every dignitary has had a bodyguard or body guards. It’s interesting to note that the more despotic a ruler is, the greater the number of people who guard him. Show me a king or queen or president or prime minister who has no bodyguards and I’ll show you a great and good leader. There are always going to be nutters – harmless or otherwise – who want to get close to a ruler so that even the Queen of England has a network of protection.

Right at the heart of the Israelite camp in the wilderness was the Mishkan, the dwelling place of God and between God’s tent and the tribes of Israel – arranged in the form of a gigantic cross – were the tents of the Levites. The Levites not only protected the house of God from strangers but also acted as a firewall (almost literally when you consider what happened to Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10) between the people and God (we will see what happens when the people upset God as we make our way through Bamidbar). God does not need to be protected from us; we need to be protected from him. When unholy people come in contact with pure, naked holiness, it’s like matter coming in contact with anti-matter. The two can’t coexist.

And yet, Bamidbar is a very encouraging book. It demonstrates the faithfulness of Israel’s God. Through an unconditional covenant, in Genesis 15 Yahweh promised Abraham he would have seed as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand of the sea, and when we open the Book of Numbers we see that God had been as good as his word. The Haftarah (Hosea 2) starts with the words: ‘The number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea [shore], which can be neither measured nor counted.’

Israel is the chosen people but with privilege comes responsibility. Israel is a holy people, a set-apart people, an ‘other’ people and as God is ‘other’ so must the Israelites be ‘other’. God’s purposes for Israel and the nations will come to fruition but it will involve suffering for the people if they don’t cooperate.

The census in Bamidbar was the second to take place in a matter of weeks. The first is recorded in Exodus 30 when every man over 20 had to be redeemed with an atonement offering of a half shekel of silver. The silver itself did not atone but it was put toward the service of the sanctuary where the atonement sacrifices were offered. In Bamidbar, a census was taken to determine who was eligible to serve in the military.

These men have already been redeemed by the half shekel but in Numbers 1:2, in order to be enrolled in the military service of God, Moses is told: ‘Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls…’ (JPS translation).

‘By their polls is an unusual translation of the Hebrew l’gul’ g’lotam (literally, ‘by their skulls’).

When Yeshua/Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for his people, he dies at Golgotha, ‘the place of a skull’. The Messiah combined the various redemptive symbols and rituals of Exodus and Numbers and fulfilled them all in his death.

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