Light from the Sidra

Bamidbar ('In the wilderness')

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

Happy ever after?

Marriage is an institution that should be labelled, ‘Handle With Care’ and it’s strange, when you stop and think about it, that at a time when marriage as an institution is going through something of a crisis that Prime Minister David Cameron should be championing the cause of same-sex marriage. I’m perfectly certain that no couples enter marriage with the intention of splitting up after a period of time. The hope, if not the expectation, of both parties is that the marriage will be euphorically joyful, there will be no fights, the sex will always be great, the children with be beautiful and intelligent. In a nutshell, the hope is that the married couple will live happily ever after. The tragedy is that many couples who start out deliriously happy end up hating each others’ guts, and the marriage that was so promising ends with both parties being utterly miserable.

Every married couple eventually discovers that living with and loving another person for life is the hardest thing in the world. Even God’s marriage to Israel foundered, as the Haftarah reveals. The book of Hosea is the sort of story you read about in the gossip magazines: ‘Creator and Israel split up after 700 years’; ‘“My wife is a whore,” says Yahweh’.

I’ve heard of some couples going back to where they spent their honeymoon in order to start all over again. In the Haftarah, Hos. 2:14, God tells Israel he will ‘bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.’

God did not bring Israel out of Sinai simply to place them in the Promised Land. He wanted to enter into an intimate relationship with his people. At Sinai, God took Israel as his bride. He brought her out of Egypt to marry her and entered into a marriage covenant with the nation in the shadow of Sinai. The tablets in which were written the Ten Commandments were Israel’s ketubah, the marriage contract that sets out the obligations between a husband and wife. And we see in Hos. 2 a huge contrast between Israel in the wilderness and Israel in the land seven centuries after the Exodus. At the end of each of the first four chapters of Bamidbar, the book of Numbers, it is recorded that Moses and the people did everything the Lord told them to do.

To understand how Hos. 2 relates to the first four chapters of Numbers, it is helpful to understand the chronology of Numbers. The first verse says ‘the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt.’ Israel arrived at Sinai in Ex. 19, and remained there for a year until Num. 10, when the glory cloud representing Israel’s divine Husband moved on and Israel, as an obedient wife, followed.

The events recorded and the laws given to Israel between Ex. 19 to Num. 10 take place in the space of the year when Israel was at Sinai. Most of the biblical account of the time at Sinai is about laws. Some were laws about morality but the vast majority of the precepts and commandments found in Ex. 20 to the end of Leviticus are about the priests, the tabernacle and sacrifices. God was teaching the people about intimacy with himself (holiness) and how they could make up if the relationship went wrong (sacrifice and repentance).

When we return to the narrative, one year after Ex. 19 in Num. 1, we see the text is about the numbering of the men capable of going to war. We might find all the numbers in Bamidbar boring but the book shows God’s faithfulness to his bride. He had promised to make Abraham a great nation and in the book of Numbers we learn that he kept his promise. God had also promised Abraham and his descendants a land and in Numbers we clearly see Israel on her way to that land.

The census in Num 1 is of men 20 years old and upward who were fit to go to war but there were exceptions. Dt. 20:7 allowed betrothed men to be excused military duties, while Dt. 24:5 excused newly married men from military service for the first year of marriage: ‘When a man takes a new wife, he is not to go out to the armed-forces, he is not to cross over to them for any matter; (free-and-)clear let him remain in his house for one year, and let him give-joy to the wife he has taken’ (Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes).

For the first year of Israel’s marriage to their God, they experienced no warfare. Although there were serious failings on the part of Israel (notably the incident of the golden calf when God’s bride was unfaithful to her husband on their wedding night, as it were), after intense pleading on the part of Moses the incident was forgiven and God set about making Israel joyful by being present in the tabernacle at the heart of the Israelite camp. And those of us living thousands of years later can learn from the year Israel spent at Sinai. The tribes of Israel camped around God’s house, the tabernacle with the Priests and Levites closest to the tabernacle, acting as a spiritual firewall. From the air, the camp of Israel would have appeared as a gigantic cross formation with God at the centre.

In Israel there was a hierarchy of holiness moving from holy to less. The holiest place in Israel was the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle. The Tent was the holy place, with the courtyard being less holy and the camp being least holy. Israel was God’s holy people but the High Priest was the holiest person, followed by the priests and Levites who camped between the people and the tabernacle, after which came the ordinary Israelites. As the one who represented the people to God, Aaron was the holiest man in the nation. His garments of glory were made of the same materials as the tabernacle itself because he was like a walking Holy of Holies, which was why he alone was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.

In chapter 3:11-12, the Levites in their service to God in the tabernacle represent the ordinary Israelites: ‘Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the people of Israel. The Levites shall be mine, for all the firstborn are mine. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine: I am the LORD.’

In the Bible, the firstborn represents the entire family so in the tenth plague on Egypt, although God could have struck down all the Egyptians, he redeemed Israel by striking the firstborn of Egypt, while sparing the firstborn of Israel. The first firstborn of Israel, therefore, had been bought with a price and were God’s. He owned them and they were to serve him but the Levites took their place: ‘I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine.’

The firstborn of each family represented the family but because the Levites took the place of the firstborn, they represented all the families of Israel. Therefore every family had a stake in the ministry at the tabernacle. Just as we have books, seminars and counsellors to day that attempt to reconcile married couples, the laws, priests and rituals of Leviticus and Numbers were given to enable them to be faithful to their heavenly Spouse and to maintain the relationship when things went wrong. Since the temple was destroyed almost two millennia ago, what can Jewish people today do to be reconciled to their God? Annual repentance is insufficient. Israel (and everyone else for that matter) needs redemption, redemption in which someone takes their place in order to bring them to God.

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