Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Bamidbar ('In the wilderness'') 11th June 2016. 5th Sivan 5776

Torah: Numbers 1:1-40:20. Haftarah: Hosea 2:1(1:10)-22(20)*

Oughts and crosses

Six years 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?’ According to the website, ‘The census information collected 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 all the men from twenty years old who were available to fight in the army of Israel. A separate census of the priests and Levites was taken in order to determine how many Levites there were to 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 a military people.

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 teach us. Though each of the five books of Moses can be read as single volumes in its own right, together they form a cohesive whole and none can be understood in isolation from the others.

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

The calling of Abram in Genesis 12 was a major step in the restoration of the world. 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 Israel 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 that Adam lived as God’s firstborn in Gan Eden.

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 HASHEM lived in the midst of Israel in a tent, that tent was guarded by the priests and Levites, foremost of whom were Aaron and Moses. Approach to HASHEM was 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 then the rest of the camp. 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, a jealous God’ (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 the rest of the 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 to be a priest. Israel was the people of God and their God was in the midst of them.

I know someone who has devoted himself to proving to his wife that the Bible is completely unreliable. One issue he raises is how the tribes of Israel managed their toilet arrangements during their wilderness wanderings. If there were in excess of 2 million people camped around the Tabernacle, the camp must have been the size of a city. According to Deuteronomy 23, when you needed to go to the toilet you had to go outside the camp, dig a hole and then bury your poop. That meant the Levites and those closest to the tabernacle must have had to hike miles to go to the loo! That kind of criticism, however, fails to read the text closely or with the faculty of common sense.

The tribes were arranged in a cross formation 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 were no tribes camped to the north-east, the south east, the south west or the northwest. The directions were specific: east, south, north and west. Seen from the air, the tribes of Israel formed a gigantic cross.

Moses therefore had had plenty of space to set up public latrines to which Israelites needed to walk only a few yards in order to do what they had to do unseen from the rest of the camp. The cross form of the camp helped safeguard the holiness of the tent of God 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. A cross is the key to holiness. A cross is the only way by which God can dwell in the midst of his people. But at this stage in the history of Israel and the nations, the cross is a mere symbol. The reality will come later with the coming of Messiah.


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