NUMBERS 17:16-24 (1-9 in Chr Bibles)
The priests in Judah told a story about a miracle in the days of Aaron, when his staff blossomed with almond flowers. This event was a kind of resolution following a period of power-based conflict. It took a miracle to overcome the human traits of jealousy and the struggle for power.
Something corrupt within us continually undermines our progress, filling us with a desire to outdo others, to get more recognition, to dominate. True leadership is not about winning or dominating, but serving a higher goal. Neither is it strictly about being at the top of an organization or community of people. When we each take our natural place in the matrix of human relationships, there is potential to lead from that place. A clear example in the Torah narrative is Caleb, who inspired confidence and urged trust from his place within the community.
Humility, a key quality of good leadership, is about not taking up more space than is needed. It is assuming the right role and not overreaching. To be humbly grateful for one’s place in life is a gift, and is as much a miracle as the sprouting staff of Aaron. There is a tradition, perhaps related in some way to this story, that Aaron was a peacemaker. In Pirkei Avot (the Sayings of the Fathers, a collection of wisdom attached to the Mishnah, c. 200 C.E.) we read, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving human beings and drawing them to the Torah.”
The test of the tribal staffs (16-22), the staff of Aaron blossoms (23-24).
Jealousy and a struggle for power in the wilderness has led to death and suffering. The relationship between the people and God is strained. The camp is in a crisis.
The story continues with a theme of power struggle, this time with a test devised by God to resolve the matter. Every tribe (מַטֶּה matteh) wanted to dominate so God had each tribe bring a staff (with the word for “staff” also being מַטֶּה matteh). Because of the potential confusion if the author used the word מַטֶּה matteh for both “tribe” and “staff,” the text incorporates a different phrase here for the tribe: בֵּית אָב (beit av, house of the father, ancestral house). While this term usually refers to a clan (there are many more clans than tribes) it seems here to be used for the entire tribe (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary).
Each tribe brought a staff. The test was simply a divine miracle to reveal which tribe was selected to lead in ritual matters and teaching the Torah. Aaron’s staff blossomed as a way of helping the people believe in the institution of priesthood. The story, of course, comes from the P source (a priestly writer, writing from Judah, before the exile). As a justification for the priesthood, the story would not have much power though, unless it was known already among the oral tales from the past. The human desire for dominance leads to chaos, but divinely chosen leaders bring order and help a people have clear direction.
NUMBERS 17:25 – 18:20 (17:10 – 18:20 in Chr Bibles)
“Are we completely marked for death?” the people asked in the aftermath of the power struggles and all the divinely caused deaths that ensued.
It’s a fair question for human beings living in a world of death. If God is ostensibly for life, why is our existence continually hovering near the threat of death?
In the historical situation reflected in this story from the book of Numbers, God provided a solution to protect from death (at least from death caused by the fatal holiness of the divine Presence). The people believed God’s actions were concerning. They expressed their concern. God did not disagree.
Two truths seem equally true but stand in tension. Present existence must include death. God has an ideal existence in mind for us that is free from death.
Answering how these two truths relate to one another is philosophical (or theological) speculation. What is more clear than the answer to the conundrum of mortality is the attitude God endorses concerning our mortality: we should not accept it. Believing, we should know that God does not accept it either and death reigns only temporarily.
Aaron’s staff preserved in the Ark (17:25-26), the Israelites despair of the fatal holiness of the Tabernacle (27-28), priests and Levites given responsibility and risk for the fatal holiness (18:1-7), compensation for the priests and Levites from the offerings of the people (8-20).
Two themes central to the book of Numbers come to the fore in this passage: the danger of nearness to the divine Presence, the role and importance of the priests and Levites.
In the struggles for power that have ensued, the people have suffered death and loss. Their unwillingness to accept God’s instructions concerning priestly laws has been fatal. But the people had no need to fear the tabernacle if they had only let the priests and Levites do their jobs as revealed to Moses. However, the lesson of all these experiences hasn’t been clear to the people, so this passage spells it out. The priests and Levites will take on the danger and prevent the common people from encountering divine wrath by violating sacred space.
The priests and the Kohathites will be liable for Israelite violation of sacred space (18:1a), the priests for any violations connected with performing rituals in the sanctuary (18:1b), priests and Levites for any encroachments into prohibited areas (18:3), and Levites for trespasses into the tent itself (8:22-23). For their dangerous work and in exchange for not having a share in the land, the priests and Levites receive compensation from the various kinds of offerings in Israel. The chapter lists eleven sources of compensation and the rabbis further specified the list into twenty-four elements (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary).
The tithe laws are one of the clearest examples showing that the Torah is a document put together over many centuries and not a document written in one generation (e.g., Moses’ generation). This is not a denial that Moses could have been the source of some of the content in Torah. But clearly over time, laws changed.
As discussed in the notes below, the tithe passages in Torah come from three sources: P, H, and D. In the time of P and H, the temple system was very much operative in the land of Judah and Levites and priests needed income. By the time of D (beginning of the exile), it was possible to envision something else, an ideal system in which the priests and Levites did not need tithes for income. The temple, should it someday be rebuilt, would be a place of rejoicing. The tithe was for sharing in a great feast.
The tithe for the Levites (21), the danger and inheritance of the Levites (22-24), the tithe of the tithe and all gifts to the priests (25-32).
There are three sets of texts in Torah concerning the tithe. Counting the Deuteronomy passages as one group, we find them in Leviticus 27:30-32 (by the H author), Numbers 18:21-32 (by the P author), and Deuteronomy 12:17-18; 14:22-29; 26:12-15 (by the D author).
The differences in these tithe commandments are not reconcilable. Those who read the Torah as a unified document originating entirely from the Mosaic period are forced to assume multiple tithe requirements in effect at the same time.
P’s tithe (Leviticus 27:30-32) is from crops, fruit trees, and flocks and herds. A one-fifth penalty is applied if the tithe is redeemed (exchanged for money). Every tenth animal is a tithe.
H’s tithe (Numbers 18:21-32) does not specify what items are donated (animals? crops? fruit?) but only that the Levites must give the best tenth of the tithe to the priests. Mention of the grain, wine, and oil relates to first fruits offerings and is not necessarily the full extent of the tithe (in other words, fruit and animals could be understood to be included). H’s tithe passage assumes knowledge of the P commandment and is compatible with it.
In the D passages, however, it is assumed the tithe is eaten by the congregation at the festivals at the sanctuary. This is a major change from P and H. Leftovers are shared with the Levites as well as all the needy who are there to partake with the congregation at the festival.
The rabbinic method of harmonizing these tithe laws was to assume that there were two tithes (ma’aser rishon and ma’aser sheni). The first tithe was completely donated to the Levites, the second was shared at the feasts in the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of every seven-year cycle. In third and sixth years, the second tithe was set aside in Israel’s towns for the Levites and the poor and in seventh years there was no produce because the land was to rest.
An additional complication of the tithe law is that Numbers calls for it to be given to Levites who, in turn, gave a tithe to the smaller group of priests. But by the Second Temple period, there were many priests but not many Levites. At that time tithes were given to the priests rather than the Levites, overturning the procedure legislated in this passage. The Torah must change when the circumstances surrounding its observance change. The Levites were the guards keeping the people out of the sacred areas as well as the laborers, serving the priests in the work of the sanctuary. They kept Israel away from the fatal holiness and risked their own lives. Thus the gifts of Israel to the sanctuary as well as the tithes were for the Levites, who in turn tithed to the priests (until the Second Temple period).