As Israel moves from Sinai toward the land of Canaan, they form a military camp in the shape of a square. Part of the process for military organization is a census and a systematic division into units.
Although the stories of ancient Israel include miracles and direct aid from God, they also feature a seemingly paradoxical reliance on military strategy. Couldn’t God simply annihilate any enemies in their path?
The source document for this section of Numbers is P, a priestly author from Judah prior to the exile (see Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?). P does not see a conflict between human responsibility such as military organization and divine aid through occasional miracles.
God speaks one month after Tabernacle completed (1), organizing a census of the military (2-16), Moses gathers clan heads and carries out census (17-19).
The book of Numbers covers forty years of time, but the stories mostly occur right at the beginning and end of that time. Numbers 1:1 – 10:11 is about events occurring in a nineteen-day period at the beginning of the forty years. Numbers 21:10 – 36:13 is about a five month period at the end of that forty years. Very little is included for the thirty nine years in the middle (Jacob Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary). Fittingly, the story begins on the first day of the second month of year two, exactly one month after the Tabernacle was completed (Exod 40:17).
Examining the names in this first portion, we find evidence that Numbers is using ancient sources. There is an observable trend in the development of names in Israel. Earlier sources show that most people did not have elements of the Divine name in their personal names, such a the Yeho- prefix or -yahu suffix. The name Joshua, for example, is an exception, and is actually Yehoshua (Adonai saves) with the Yeho- prefix. Isaiah is another example, whose Hebrew name is Yeshayahu (Adonai saves) using the -yahu suffix.
The names in this ancient list generally do not contain the Divine prefixes or suffixes (Milgrom). Some of the names do contain the suffix -el, which refers to “God” (and which was also used by the Canaanites). Two contain Shed- or -shaddai, a very ancient reference to the deity related to breasts and the hills of the land, also known to be used in names outside of Israel (in the Mari texts).
Israel has not begun to know God primarily by his name, but Israelite names will start to change after the conquest. Israel at this point is organized as a congregation (edah) with chiefs (nasi), tribes (matteh), and clans (elef). They are at this point a loosely organized tribal, clan-led congregation of people. The beginning of Numbers is a historical glimpse of early Israel, before there were kings and before the people started taking names based on God’s name.
The Levites are not part of the military census, but they have another role in the military camp of Israel. The tribes are encamped very near to the Divine Presence, which can be fatal to any who fail to respect boundaries. It is common for all cultures of the time to post guards to keep people from desecrating or encroaching on sacred areas. Israel is no exception.
One biblical story that illustrates the severity of encroachment is the account of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6:6-7. He touched the Ark of the Covenant and God took his life. Earlier in Israel’s history, the men of Beth Shemesh looked at the Ark and came down with a disease (1 Sam 6:19). Even the Levites who are not priests are warned not to look at the most sacred objects lest they die (Numbers 4:20).
The Levites camp in a perimeter around the tabernacle, protecting the children of Israel in some ways from themselves and in others from God’s wrath. In Numbers we see human nature at work, people acting out of fear (the spies), jealous ambition (Korah’s rebellion), and ingratitude mixed with a sense of entitlement (the people grumbling). Some of these sins lead to an outbreak of divine wrath, especially when people bring them near to the place where God’s Presence dwells in the tabernacle.
Levite guards are armed and must immediately put to death any encroacher: וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת (vehazzar haqqarev yumat, “and the unauthorized person who comes near must be killed,” vs. 51). Furthermore, the Levites take upon themselves all of the risk. God will not smite the whole camp of Israel, but only kill the guards themselves if they fail in their duty (vs. 53, velō yihyeh qetzer al adat b’nei Yisra’el, וְלֹא־יִהְיֶה קֶצֶף עַל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “that there will not be wrath against the congregation of the children of Israel”).
The numbers in the census by tribe: Reuben (20-21), Simeon (22-23), Gad (24-25), Judah (26-27), Issachar (28-29), Zebulun (30-31), Ephraim (32-33), Manasseh (34-35), Benjamin (36-37), Dan (38-39), Asher (40-41), Naphtali (42-43), Total (44-46), Levites exempted and role defined (47-54).
The census numbers are impossibly large. If there were 603,550 Israelite males aged twenty and over, they were by far the largest fighting force in the entire Near East! Rather than cowering from the Egyptians or being uneasy about entering the land of Canaan, a fighting force this size could have conquered Egypt handily or marched right into Canaan, taking over immediately. Yet in Numbers 13:28, the Israelites see themselves as a small people compared to the Canaanites.
Although over the years interpreters have offered possible solutions, such as understanding the Hebrew word elef (אֶלֶף) to mean “clan” or “troop” instead of “thousand,” this does not work either. For a fuller explanation, see James Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai, p. 153 and following, “How Many Israelites?”
In addition to the census figures, this portion begins to describe a certain order and arrangement of the tribes and the idea of the tabernacle as dangerous. The arrangement of the tribes into a military camp, with three tribes to a side forming a square around the tabernacle, will be detailed in Numbers 2.
The Levites surround the tabernacle to prevent any curious Israelites from entering and provoking God’s wrath. The Levites must learn the procedures to handle the holy things at the risk of their lives. The tabernacle is both glorious and dangerous, a piece of heaven on earth, but possessing the risk of nearness to the Divine Presence, which can be fatal since God’s nature is antithetical to evil. The priests were tasked with guarding to prevent encroachments by people that would result in humanity clashing with the nature of God and experiencing death.
The Israelite military camp was a square, which Jacob Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) notes is different from the later situation in which Israel’s military camp is round (1 Sam 17:20; 26:5-7). This is one of several pieces of realistic representation of the time period, since Egyptian records indicate that the military camp of Rameses II was also formed as a square. Instead of God’s Presence being at the center of the Egyptian camp, Pharaoh’s tent was there: a tent very similar to the tabernacle of Israel.
The Israelites were camped “each according to his standard, by the banners belonging to their ancestral house.” This chapter gives an occasion for the writer to show something of the tribal history of Israel. Judah’s dominance, Ephraim’s greatness, Dan’s place as the oldest son from Jacob’s concubines, and Reuben’s demotion are all part of Israel’s story about itself.
Also part of Israel’s formation story is the idea that God’s Presence was visible to all above the tabernacle and that the people were close to it, cordoned around the cloud-encased fire. In later times, the glory of God was said to be inside the temple, visible only to the high priest when he entered the inner shrine. If modern readers feel somewhat bored by reading lists of tribal arrangements of the camp, one way we can understand why this material seemed worth passing down as Torah is that it exemplified the glory days of Israel’s infancy. There was a potential for God’s power and presence to be openly displayed which was lost to later generations. The Bible reveals to us, in its own manner of relaying the history of God and Israel, that God’s manifestation diminished, became more hidden. God withdrew and the greatness subsided, as human potential was found wanting. But much of the hope of the priests behind these accounts (as well as the prophets with their messages of doom and hope) is that someday the glory will increase again.
Command to camp around the Tabernacle (1-2); Judah, Issachar, and Zebulon on the east (3-9); Reuben, Simeon, and Gad on the south (10-16); Levites in the central perimeter (17); Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin on the west (18-24); Dan, Asher, and Naphtali on the north (25-31); summary (32-34).
The tribes of Israel camp around the Tabernacle, guarding it while en route to the Promised Land. To some degree the wilderness march is a military action and the tabernacle, being holy, must be guarded. One of the factors in the order of the encampment is tribal relationships. Four of the tribes head up groups of three: Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan.
1 Chronicles 5:1-2 explains some of the tribal leadership issues. Judah became the dominant brother and his descendants one of the largest and most dominant tribe early. Ephraim, as the son of Joseph, had the birthright in place of Reuben because Reuben slept with Jacob’s concubine. Dan has his place as the oldest of the children of Jacob’s concubines. The Torah affirms that God’s own power protects the holy things, as we saw, for example, in the deaths of Nadab and Abihu. Yet it was not deemed a contradiction to station armed camps around the Tabernacle, as God gives the responsibility to his people to keep the sacred.
Those who are not Levites and priests are not authorized to come into the holy precincts. If any unauthorized person encroaches on the places where the priests perform their duties, they will be killed (by the Levitical guards). וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת vehazar haqarav yumat, “and the unauthorized person who comes near will be put to death.”
This is what happened in Korah’s rebellion, when Levites who were not authorized to offer incense, took it upon themselves to do so, God struck them dead. The Presence of God on earth is dangerous. Humanity is not yet ready for God. God’s Presence in the tabernacle and later the temple is a descent of God among us, bringing the Perfect near to the imperfect and unprepared.
The priests are trained to handle holiness with care. The Levites are a second layer of protection. The Israelites are the third layer, serving as priests to the other nations. Inside this holy priesthood within a holy nation, the fiery Presence of God has descended to earth. How seriously will the holy nation, Israel, and its priests take this advanced nearness to God? How ready are human beings in general for the future possibility of dwelling with the divine?
Nearness to God can only be granted by him and it is not our natural right nor something humans are capable of attaining to apart from God’s choosing. In texts describing a future where human beings live in a different, closer relationship to God’s Presence, we always read about a transformation in human nature. The heart will be changed. The spirit of a man or woman will be renewed, transformed. There will be a different kind of knowledge of God. Death will be abolished and, since human death is the main thing which cannot enter God’s Presence in the Torah, human beings will be nearer to God in those days.
Aaron, Moses, and the priestly line (1-4), Levites as guardians and workers in the sanctuary (5-9), only priests may handle sancta (10), Levites as replacements for the firstborn (11-13).
Aaron is mentioned first and only Aaron’s sons are listed even though the section begins, “This is the line of Aaron and Moses.” Fifty nine times in Torah we read about “Moses and Aaron,” but only four times do we see “Aaron and Moses.” In three of the four times Aaron is mentioned first, the text is about genealogy. Aaron is the eldest and is thus mentioned before Moses. But why are Moses’ descendants not listed here?
We do know, from 3:27, that Moses’ family is understood to be part of the Amramites within the division of Kohath. Aaron’s descendants are not counted among the Levites in general, but are separated from them, while Moses’ descendants apparently are regarded as regular Levites. As for Moses’ descendants not being listed specifically, one theory is that this is because they brought dishonor to the memory of Moses. False priests mentioned in Judges 18:30, including “Jonathan son of Gershom, son of Moses,” served the golden calf at Dan.
From vss. 11-13 we see that prior to the appointment of the Levites, the firstborn in Israel were the priestly class (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary). In the system of organization followed by the P author, the priests are the descendants of Aaron while the rest of the Levites are sanctuary attendants serving under the priests. Deuteronomy (the D author) seems to understand the role of Levites differently.
The function of Levites as guards is a service to Israel. They give up the normal lives they could have lived, forsake the owning of land and having a role as the other tribes will in the promised land. Sacrificially they redeem the other families of Israel from the obligation of giving up their firstborn as temple servants, an obligation explained as the due of Israel for the saving of the firstborn in Egypt. They guard the holy things to prevent the people from coming into contact with the danger of the divine holiness.
Likewise, the very narrow priestly line guards the duties of priesthood from being performed by any other Israelites, as Korah will learn the hard way (Numb 16) as will king Uzziah (a.k.a. Azariah, 2 Kgs 15; 2 Chr 26). The people of Israel, like the tabernacle, are organized into holy and holier parts, from ordinary Israelites to Levites to the priests within the Levites. The priests to Israelites are as the holy of holies to the Tabernacle courtyard and the Israelites are to the nations as the Tabernacle courtyard to the rest of the world outside of the Tabernacle. Any ordinary Israelite or any other person who encroaches on the holy things will be killed.
During Israel’s long encampment in Sinai, which could involve deconstructing, carrying, and reconstructing the tabernacle and its courts, the Levites were assigned all “work” pertaining to the tabernacle: לְכֹל עֲבֹדָתוֹ, lechōl avōdatō, “everything pertaining to its service.”
The word for service here, avōdah עַבֹדָה, eventually came to mean “worship.” Used also in vss. 31 and 36, avōdah refers to the work the Levites performed that enabled Israel to draw near to God at the tabernacle. Their “work” enabled the “worship” of the people. And later, beginning in the time of David, their role changed from carriers, to musicians and functionaries at the sanctuary of God. Literally, “work” turned into “worship”.
It takes effort, work and preparation, to see God in this world. We work to worship and we work at worship. With no effort at all we miss God and see nothing. What is worthwhile requires exertion and the reward is hope.
Numbering the three houses of Levi (14-20), number and duties of Gershon (21-26), number and duties of Kohath (27-32), number and duties of Merari (33-37), Moses and the Aaronides (38), total number of Levites (39).
The number of Levites a month old and over is recorded and the duties of the three clans of Levites are summarized. Interestingly there is an indication that God took the count of the Levites rather than the people holding a census. Also, the duties described here fit the situation of Israel traveling with the tabernacle, but do not describe a situation once the people would be settled in the land. The Gershonites oversaw the packing, porting, and setting up of all tent skins, tapestries, and cords as well as the altar. The Kohathites were over the holiest work: the sacred furniture and the curtain to the inner shrine. The Merarites took care of all the posts, sockets, pegs, and cords related to these.
The duty to guard the sanctuary against encroachment (vs. 38) was a rare case in which the death penalty was to be carried out by the people and not by God. Josephus says that in the Second Temple, two-hundred Levitical guards closed the gates at night and stayed on vigil. He records a story about a time the Samaritans managed to defile the courts by depositing human bones (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary).
Vs. 16 says, “So Moses listed them by the mouth of Adonai just as he was commanded” (the key phrase being עַל־פִּי יְהוָה ‘al-pi Adonai, “by the mouth of Adonai”). Milgrom considers whether “by the mouth of Adonai” could mean “by his command” or something else. It cannot mean “by his command,” Milgrom argues, because the sentence would be redundant (“Moses listed them by the command of Adonai, as he was commanded”). Therefore, “by the mouth of Adonai” must mean something else: “by the declaration of Adonai” (i.e., God himself counted them). While censuses could sometimes be dangerous, since the motive was often to conscript men for a war, there was a negative association attached to them. Lest the Levites be tainted by association with any normal census-taking, their census is divinely conducted.
Is it possible for history to keep resonating in the lives of people for hundreds of generations? Could events in the late Bronze Age still have an effect on Jewish people in the twenty-first century?
Judaism has a custom, still alive today among those who are Torah observant, of paying a person descended from the priestly line a token silver coin determined to be worth five shekels by ancient measure. Paying redemption money in cases where a male child is the first issue from a mother’s womb is a lesson that Israel for all generations owes God for salvation from bondage.
But our sense of Western individualism, freedom, and even privilege resists any notion of owing gratitude for, much less obligation for, historical emancipations. The Bible, having been written in times when people more strongly felt part of a collective in addition to being individuals, asks us to keep gratitude for the past alive.
God is a deliverer and a benefactor, not only for Israel, but for all of his children. Expressing our belonging to God, by feeling a debt of appreciation for his acts of redemption in human history and his promise of ultimate liberation for all people, helps us focus on what matters in this confusing universe. All is not darkness. Though he hides his face, we believe from past experience and future promises that he will show up again and set us all free.
Numbering the firstborn of the tribes (40-43), Levites in place of firstborn due to God (44-45), five shekels redemption for each left over firstborn (46-51).
Numbers 3:11-13 spoke of replacing the firstborn males of Israel with Levites. This is part of a chain of evidence that early in Israel’s history, firstborn males were regarded as a semi-priestly class. Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) points to three verbs used in Exodus concerning firstborn males: dedicate (נָתַן natan), sanctify (קִדֵּשׁ kiddesh), transfer (הֶעֱבִיר he’evir). That is, firstborn males were dedicated to service of Adonai, sanctified for his purpose, and transferred from ordinary status to a level of holiness. But while firstborn males do retain a status as belonging to Adonai (see below) much of this early sanctification was transferred to the Levites.
Israel owed God all the firstborn for all time after they were rescued from the tenth plague in Egypt (Exodus 13:2,11-15). Israel did not sacrifice people to God, but the firstborn were owed to him from the Passover, so they would be redeemed with money (Exodus 13:13; 34:20; Numbers 18:15). The redemption price was a weight of five shekels in silver (Numbers 18:16).
This procedure in Numbers 3, then, is strange. Normally, every firstborn male would have to be redeemed. Yet here, only the excess number of firstborn males beyond the number of Levites had to be redeemed. It makes sense that this would only happen at the very first census, whereas the laws of Exodus 13 and Numbers 18 would apply in all future births of firstborn.
Furthermore, those who do the math with these numbers will see that things do not really add up. In 3:22 Gershon numbers 7,500; in 3:28 Kohath numbers 8,600; and in 3:34 Merari numbers 6,200 = 22,300. But 3:43 says the number of firstborn was 22,273, which is actually less than the number of Levites. But vs. 39 flatly contradicts the earlier totals of Levites, numbering them at 22,000, and thus counting 273 Levites less than the number of firstborn. This inaccuracy in census count numbers gives further evidence that population figures in the Torah are inaccurate (perhaps errors in transmission by scribes account for some of the inaccuracies).
The people of Israel were elevated by God above other people of the world as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Within Israel, the Levites were regarded as a step higher, charged with guarding and maintaining the precincts of the sanctuary. Within the tribe of Levi, the priests were yet another level higher, given the sole responsibility for the most holy things inside the shrine.
The Kohathite clan of the tribe of Levi was in charge of carrying the most holy things when the camp of Israel moved on the march. But they were not allowed to see them uncovered.
The “work” (עַבֹֹֹדָה avōdah, later came to mean “worship”) of the Kohathites is the “most holy things” (קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים qōdesh qōdashim), according to vs. 4. So then it comes as a surprise when we find that only the priests may enter the tabernacle to prepare the most holy articles to be removed and transported. The procedure is very thorough. The priests dis-assemble the tent of the structure, using the veil before the Holy of Holies to cover the Ark. They then cover it with two more cloths, one of the tabernacle skins and a blue cloth (the famous color techelet תְּכֵלֶת). Only then, when the tabernacle has been dis-assembled and returned from being a holy precinct back to a status of ordinary ground, may the Levites enter and carry the Ark.
Similar procedures are carried out to cover the table of the presence-bread and all implements such as bowls and jugs, the menorah (lamp stand), and the incense altar.
The seriousness of these tasks is highlighted in vs. 15, the priests must pre-cover everything before the Levites see them: וְלֹא־יִגְּעוּ אֶל־הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵתוּ velō-yigge’u ‘el-haqōdesh, “so that they might not come into contact with the holy things and die.” Vs. 20 says they also die if they even “witness the dismantling” (יָבֹאוּ לִרְאוֹת כְּבַלַּע yavō’u lir’ōt kevalla’, “enter to see the dismantling”).
We are confronted with two facts. On the one hand, it is possible for human beings to stand before a manifestation of God and live. The priests did it. On the other hand, if anyone God has not given the right and responsibility to stand before him tries to do it, they will die. The requirements for the few, the priests, who are given access to the most sacred areas and articles, include increased restrictions (priests are separated from death and also certain categories of marriage). Only people who strictly observe the purification laws may enter and touch the holiest areas and items.
So then, humanness is not antithetical to divinity, but the taint of death and evil is very much contrary to coexistence with divine power and energy. We, as God’s children, are currently in a state of unreadiness, unable to enter the presence of our creator, until he changes our condition and status. He will “circumcise” hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6), put his teaching in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33), give us new hearts filled with a new spirit (Ezekiel 36:26), and he will swallow up death itself (Isaiah 25:8) so that we may ascend his mountain for the feast in his Presence. The way back into Paradise is blocked by cherubim (Genesis 3:24), but it will be opened up again and God will walk among us (Leviticus 26:11-12).
Numbering the Levitical clan of Kohath (1-4), priests must cover Ark to transport (5-6), priests must cover table (7-8), priests must cover menorah (9-10), priests must cover incense altar (11-12), priests must cover ashes from altar (13-14), Kohathites to carry the covered holy things (15), Eleazar and other holy things (16), priests must keep Kohathites from dying (17-20).
The articles of the tabernacle were vessels indued with the holiness of the divine presence. Even the Kohathite clan of Levites could not look upon them without dying.
According to vs. 5, the sons of Aaron (the priests among the Levites) must first dis-assemble the Tabernacle, covering the ark with the veil that separates the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. They would then wrap it in a skin covering and a blue cloth before the Levites could handle it. The ark was so holy, only the priests could look at it uncovered. Even the Kohathites, charged with transporting it, were ineligible to look on it.
The table of the presence-bread, the menorah, and the incense-altar were similarly covered by the priests before handling by the Levites. The Kohathites had to carry that which they could not see uncovered or even touch directly. In case this was all not clear already, vs. 20 reiterates the warning and clarifies: they are not to see it until it “is swallowed” by the covering (vs. 20 should be rendered “they shall not go in to see the holy as it is swallowed/covered”). As Ramban (Nachmanides) said of the covered articles, “Then the Glory is seen in the hiding of his power (Hab 3:4), and it returns to its former place (Hos 5:15) in the Holy of Holies.”