In the ancient world, people truly believed in the separation between the human and divine realms. In Hittite texts, for example, specific rules about temple encroachment and the severe penalties for it are spelled out (see Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary). The Torah also commands death for intrusions by unauthorized persons into the tabernacle.
A priest could enter the sanctuary without fear. A Levite could perform his duties with respect the tabernacle without fear, but as Korah would learn (Numbers 16), intruding upon priestly roles (offering incense) was fatal. An Israelite could stand by the altar of burnt offering near the entrance of the tabernacle (as could an immigrant, Numbers 15:14) without fear. But any Israelite who intruded upon the holy place inside the tent was to be executed by the Levitical guards.
Encroaching on divine space was considered the ultimate disrespect for God. The death penalty seems severe, but the act of the violator in sacred space is a deliberate affront to the rule and power of God over the people.
This extreme devotion to sacredness of the sanctuary is seen in the ceremony for consecrating the Levites who handled and transported the articles of the shrine. They were initiated with purification rituals, with the elders laying hands on them (signaling that they were donated to God for service), and were considered to be “sacrificed” to God (an “elevation offering”). Instead of the Levites themselves being slain, animals were offered in their place.
All of this sanctification ritual was necessary to explain, in ancient logic, how these Israelites could handle the articles of the shrine whereas all other Israelites would be executed if they did the same. Why all this concern for the sanctity of the holy areas of the sanctuary? The answer has to do with culture. Kings were treated with respect in the ancient world. If there were no rules for protecting the dignity of God as Israel’s king and the sanctity of his palace in Israel’s midst, this would diminish their view of his majesty. In other words, the severity of punishment for encroachment likely had more to do with ancient culture than with God’s own attitude about people coming into close proximity with him.
Instructions for mounting menorah lamps (1-4), cleansing for active-duty Levites (5-14).
The menorah (lampstand) required tending twice daily (Exodus 30:7-8) and the light had to burn perpetually (Leviticus 24:2-4). The detachable lamps were mounted forward, casting light from the south wall to the north (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary). In this way, they would cast light toward the holy place (altar of incense and table of bread). Milgrom notes that these instructions about the placement of the lights on the menorah occur here because of Numbers 7:89, the note that God began speaking to Moses from the inner shrine. That is, only now, after the tabernacle has been inaugurated, can Moses enter and receive more instructions from God.
Carol Meyers (The Tabernacle Menorah) makes an extended case that the description of the menorah is of a kind of metalwork known from the Bronze Age. In other words, the menorah described in the Torah is not a later retrojection into the past, but a legitimate remembrance from the Mosaic period. Made completely of gold, the metalwork of the menorah was an artistic depiction of a blossoming almond tree. The elements described are typical of Egyptian metalwork from the time.
Levites, though they have a lower sanctity than priests, must be initially purified. They do not enter the holy place or handle blood at the altar. Yet some of them did transport sacred furniture after the priests have dismantled it (in the days when the tabernacle was a movable sanctuary). Milgrom makes the case that this purification was needed only for the males who would be transporting sancta. Purification is not required for those with mere guard duty. The most unusual provision is “going over” the whole body with a razor (not a close shave, as in the case of a scaled-diseased person [“leper”] or Nazirite).
Given that God’s Presence was in the tent, and in light of ancient culture’s view of kingship and the deference required before rulers, the tabernacle was a place of danger in one sense. Everything about it was supposed to represent the divine ideal of a world without human death, a place separated from the moral deeds which put this present world in the shadow of death. But given human nature, it was only a matter of time before people, for various reasons, would show disrespect for the divine Presence. The stories of Torah’s Levite rebellion (Numbers 16) and Nathan and Abiram’s accusations against the prophetic authority of Moses (also in Numbers 16) are two cases in point.
Whether someone might want to catch a glimpse of the divine Glory out of curiosity or might deliberately wish to challenge the authority of the priests, God, and the shrine out of defiance, the Levites were given as a protection to Israel. They were tasked with preventing people from making foolish mistakes in approaching it carelessly and also with carrying out swift punishment on deliberate violaters (as will be seen when Phinehas slays Cozbi for engaging in blasphemy within sight of the shrine in Numbers 25). The Levites are metaphorically a sacrifice belonging to God and benefitting the people. The ritual for their initiation indicated that they were given to God on behalf of the people as an elevation offering. Their service prevents a disaster from happening in the holy place and brings peace of mind to Israel about having the divine Presence so near.
Levites as gifts to the priesthood (15-19), performance of Levitical purification (20-22), retirement of Levites (23-26).
The Levites who will handle the parts of the tabernacle are to be designated as a tenufah תְּנוּפָה (sometimes rendered wave offering or elevation offering). Normally an elevation offering involves placing something in the hands of the offerer and lifting it to God, probably with the priest’s hands underneath the offerer’s hands. This was to indicate that the item is transferred to God’s ownership (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary).
Yet how could this ceremony be performed with Levites as the thing being transferred? Milgrom states that the ceremony must be symbolic, not actual. Rashi compares it to the case of the guilt offering for a person healed of scale-disease. From that case he argues that each Levite was to make an offering, and it was priestly portion of those offerings which were waved instead of the Levites themselves. In any case, the meaning is that the service of these Levites no longer belongs to themselves, but to God.
Vs. 19 is remarkable. The Levites and their life of service atone on behalf of Israel (לְכַפֵּר עַל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל l’kapper al bnei Yisrael) in advance of violations involving encroachment on the holy things (Milgrom). When the sons of Israel lay hands on the Levites in vs. 10, they are symbolically offering Levites as their sacrifice of atonement. The service of the Levites prevents an outbreak of divine wrath by guarding the holy places.
No other holiday is like Passover. It’s meaning and message are at the core of Israelite identity. Some could argue that other occasions are more important, such as Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). But Yom Kippur, significant as it is for the ongoing function of the temple, is neither as elaborate in terms of required observances nor as close to the heart of the distinctiveness of Israel’s identity.
While Sukkot (Tabernacles) shares with Passover a duration of seven days (plus Sukkot adds an eighth day), still the observances of Sukkot are not as crucial for an Israelite as those of Passover. Failure to eat unleavened bread daily and keep the home free from leaven carries the penalty of being cut off by God from Israel (Exodus 12:15, 19). Failure to bring a lamb or goat for an offering at Passover has the same penalty (Numbers 9:13).
And Passover, and Passover alone, has a “make-up” plan in place. Those who are unable to participate in the sacrificial aspect of the holiday (eating the meat of a ritually sacrificed lamb or goat) because they are ritually impure during the proper month, get a second chance a month later.
The message of all this intricate legislation for Israel’s formative holiday is simple: keeping Passover is the essence of Jewishness. Passover is where Israel comes from and it illustrates how Israel must live. As those who were in bondage, Israel became obligated to serve God forever by virtue of being rescued out of Egypt. Likewise, Israel will treat foreigners and immigrants with love, having been in that position themselves. “There will be one law for you,” God said, “whether immigrant or native-born” (Numbers 9:14). In other words, equal justice is one of the implications of the Passover experience that defines Israel.
The first Passover outside of Egypt (1-5), those who cannot celebrate due to impurity (6-8), Passover sheni [Second Passover] (9-13), same law for the resident alien (14).
There is a principle that Torah is not in chronological order and this passage is an example. The topic being Passover, the narrative flashes back to the first month of the second year. The Tabernacle was erected on the first day of year two (Exodus 40:17) and Israel celebrated its inauguration eight days (from the first to eighth day of year two). The first Passover offering in the Tabernacle occurred shortly after on the fourteenth. The census was taken on day one of the second month (Numbers 1:1), clearly happening after Passover. Yet now in Numbers 9, the story goes back in time again to the first month of the second year.
The reason for it’s inclusion here is nonetheless chronological. The census having just been completed in the second month of year two, it is time for Second Passover (Passover sheni), which occurs in the timeline of Numbers right after the census. Therefore, vss. 1-5 flash back to Passover prior to the census to introduce Second Passover. Held a month after Passover, Passover sheni gives an opportunity for all who were ritually impure during the first occasion to have a second chance to celebrate.
The ritually impure may not touch the meat of the Passover offering (though they must refrain from leaven during Unleavened Bread during Passover week). Vs. 12 probably means that those observing Passover sheni must rid their houses of leaven for seven days just as had been done at Passover. Vs. 14 refers to the resident alien who is circumcised (and only the one who is circumcised, Exodus 12:48). Passover is the strictest of all the observances in the sense that failure to keep the leaven restrictions (Exodus 12:15, 19) or offer the Passover (Numbers 9:13) will result in being cut off. No other festival requires so many observances as Passover and makes their observance as mandatory as Passover.
There is a sweet picture in Torah of a time like no other in history, when the people were led directly by the Shechinah (the divine Presence which appeared to them as a pillar of cloud with fire hidden inside).
“Shechinah” is a word coined by the rabbis and not used in the biblical text. It is one of many feminine images of God. It derives from the same root (שׁכן) as “tabernacle” (מִשְׁכָן mishchan, literally “dwelling”). Shechinah is a meaningful term because it describes a complex situation simply and elegantly. God’s being cannot be contained in any one place. He is the Omnipresent. However, he can choose to show himself in a form we can perceive and to some degree understand, in any place and at any time. The pillar of cloud is called by the rabbis Shechinah because it describes an instance of God appearing in a place, a dwelling or manifestation in one place of something much larger, which cannot be contained.
The repetitive description of the Shechinah signaling Israel when to move and when to stop, so that they even fashioned silver trumpets to muster the people when the signal came, has a simple message: God wishes to lead his people directly. This is the opposite of the normal situation in which the divine Presence is hidden. God hides his face. But for a short period of time he gave us a glimpse of something better, something we hope will be in the days to come when the Presence returns to this world. To have God as our shepherd, to be led by him in beautiful places, to go with him from beauty to greater beauty, being led to rest and peace, this is a reality we greatly desire if we perceive it.
Israel’s journey resumes and the Presence goes with them (9:15-23), the silver trumpets (10:1-10).
From Exodus 18 until now in Numbers 9, Israel has not moved from the foot of Sinai. Now the journey is about to resume and so we read about the visible manifestation of God that was with them in their journeys. Now that the journey is resuming, the Presence, that as soon as the tabernacle was set up, it was covered with the cloud-encased fire (vs. 15). This visible manifestation was continually present (כֵּן יִהְיֶה תָמִיד הֶעָנָן יְכַסֶּנּוּ ken yihyeh tamid he’anan yechasennu, “thus it was continually, the cloud covered it,” vs. 16). When the Presence would ascend from over the tabernacle, they disassembled it and marched. When the cloud would stop, the Levites and priests would re-assemble the tabernacle under the cloud. The repetitive description of the cloud’s ascending, moving, and stopping, has one simple message: they were led directly by the divine Presence.
The text then turns to the topic of the silver trumpets, which were made as part of the need for Israel to be able to muster and depart on the leading of the Presence. The silver trumpets became part of the ritual of Israel’s movements and are blown only by the priests (vs. 8). Based on Egyptian images and also some found on Judean coins they were short, approximately twelve inches (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary). In function they overlap in some respects with the shofar, with the primary difference being that only the priests blew the silver trumpets whereas anyone could blow the shofar. Milgrom lists all the occasions for blowing the shofar with scripture references: to gather troops, frighten the enemy, proclaim victory, announce the end of battle, in a crisis such as a rebellion, to warn of an enemy approaching, at key moments of worship such as the installation of the Ark, and to announce the anointing of a king.
The identity of Hobab in this story is a puzzle. Likewise, the tradition that Moses needed Hobab to scout out their path through the desert is a conundrum given that the Shechinah (the pillar of cloud with the divine Presence inside) led them. Who was Hobab and who led the Israelites in their path, God or a man?
As for Hobab, vs. 29 may be saying he is the son of Reuel or that he belongs to the clan of Reuel among the Midianites. The Hebrew is ambiguous concerning whether Hobab is Moses’ father-in-law or Reuel is. We see in Judges 1:16 and 4:11 that the Kenites, descendants of Hobab, remained in close association with Israel, settling in the land. Meanwhile, the identity of Moses’ father-in-law is also ambiguous, since Exodus 2:18 states that Reuel is the father-in-law while Exodus 18 calls him Jethro. Exodus 2:18 is from the J source and chapter 18 is from the E source of the Torah. Numbers 10:29-36 is also from the J source, so it is not surprising that we see the name Reuel here.
Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) lists the usual theories. (1) Hobab is another name for Jethro and Reuel is Hobab/Jethro’s father. (2) Hobab/Jethro is Moses’ brother-in-law, not father-in-law. (3) The vowel points are wrong on the word חֹתֵן chōten (read חָתַן chatan instead, “son-in-law”), and Hobab is actually Moses’ son-in-law (how he came to be related to Moses is not explained).
Whoever Hobab is, the story of Moses urging him to stay with Israel and scout their path through the desert for them is intriguing. Isn’t the pillar of cloud, the visible manifestation of God’s Presence, leading them? Are we to understand that the pillar would ascend and remain above Israel, but that Israel had to scout their way toward the goal of arriving in Canaan?
If so, then the manner of God’s leading the people is quite interesting indeed. In this theory, God showed the people when to move and then sheltered them. But it was up to the people to find the way. It is a statement about life and divine guidance, suggesting that God reveals only the goal and leaves the steps for us to figure out.
The cloud Presence lifts and Israel journeys at last (11-13), the tribes travel in a column in order (14-28), Moses persuades Hobab/Jethro to accompany them (29-32), summary of journey (33-34).
Though Israel is in the desert forty years, the story in Numbers covers the first few months (10:11-14:45) and the last few (20:1-22:1). Led by the cloud, the Israelites at last leave Horeb (Sinai) and journey to Paran. The camp, arranged as a square, marches as a column in the order of tribes with the tabernacle furnishings in the middle carried by the Levites.
The pillar of cloud moves Israel in the direction of the wilderness of Paran, which seems to mean the region near Kadesh-Barnea (northeast Sinai, almost in Israel). Israel moves from southern Sinai northeast toward the boundary of the promised land, with the pillar leading the way.
Yet Moses also relies for guidance in the journey on Hobab (Numbers 10:29; Judges 4:11), perhaps another name for Jethro (Exodus 3:1; 4:18; 18:1; etc.). Reuel (Exodus 2:18) is probably Jethro/Hobab’s father. Hobab (Jethro) is a Kenite (Judges 1:16; 4:11), a tribe of the confederation of peoples known as the Midianites. We read later of a Hobab living with Israel (Judges 1:16; 4:11). It is an interesting picture, with Israel following divine guidance (the Pillar) and human knowledge as well (Jethro-Hobab).
EXCURSUS, The Midianite Theory: There is a theory that the Midianites knew Adonai before the Exodus and that Hobab/Jethro taught Moses about him. The best known advocate for this theory is Frank Moore Cross. According to the Midianite theory, Mount Sinai was in Midian (Arabia) and not in what is known today as Sinai. Supporting evidence for the Midianite theory includes a Nubian inscription that speaks of the “Shasu of YHW” in the land of Seir (but see below) and various scriptures like Deuteronomy 33:2 which speak of Hashem coming from Seir (which some say is in Edom, not far from Midian). Yet James Hoffmeier argues against the Midianite theory (Ancient Israel in Sinai). He points out that Hobab/Jethro is never called a priest of Adonai, that Jethro seems to have learned of Adonai from Moses, and that Mount Sinai could only be in the Sinai region.
NUMBERS 10:35 – 11:29
Is it ever acceptable to complain against God and express doubts about his care and concern for us?
We would have to answer yes, since lament and complaint is a major theme in the Hebrew Bible. “How long, O Adonai, while you hide your self forever?” asks the Psalmist (89:46). “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” cried a man who could not understand his suffering (Psalm 22:1). “A man cannot win a lawsuit against God; if he insisted on being heard in court against him, he could not answer one in a thousand charges,” complained Job (9:2-3). “May it never befall you, all who pass along the road,” says the poet in Lamentations, “… is there any agony like mine … when Adonai afflicted me?” (1:12).
We also see that prior to Mount Sinai, God was very understanding about Israel’s complaint. The complained about lack of water (Exodus 15:22-26), food (Exodus 16), and water again (Exodus 17:1-7). God’s response was compassion and rescue.
But when Israel marched again after the long encampment at Sinai, God’s attitude toward their complaint changed. He heard and his anger kindled like a fire, וַתִּבְעַר־בָּם אֵשׁ יְהוָה vativ’ar-bam aish Adonai, “and the fire of Adonai burned against them” (Numbers 11:1). So they named the place תַּבְעֵרָה tav’eirah (a play on the verb for burning).
God has no patience with the people’s complaint now. What has changed?
In the first place, they have no legitimate basis for a grievance with God. Even if their march is hard work, it is a march to paradise. Even if they miss the cuisine of Egypt, they are eating manna which tastes like rich cream. Even if their lives have been turned upside down, it is to take them from bondage to freedom.
In the second place, they have been enlightened at Sinai but are not following what they learned. God is among them. He has promised them a supernatural relationship. If they corporately will cling to God, obeying him and loving him, he will act toward them as a father to his children. They will have otherworldly power and blessing in all they do as a people.
But the lessons of Torah are not easy to learn in our present condition. We study and meditate and memorize and the message barely manifests itself in our lives. There is some potential for greatness in human beings, but it seems to be waiting for a greater enlightenment from God to be revealed. Even if God supernaturally blessed us for obedience, we still could not consistently as a group of human beings maintain it. Therefore, since the time of Israel’s wilderness experience, God has hidden his face. Now we have reason to complain, to desire, to pray and hope he will reveal his face again. This is exactly how the prophet’s of Israel responded and it is the hope they passed on to us. We will see God again.
Liturgy for the Ark of the Covenant (10:35-36), the anger of God burns against the camp (11:1-3), the riffraff complain about food (4-9), Moses’ complaint (10-15), seventy elders to get Spirit (16-25), Eldad and Medad prophesy (26-29).
The Israelites marched with the Ark in front (vs. 33), perhaps as a sign of God’s Presence to reassure them when attack from enemies was a real danger. The Ark is the footstool of Hashem (1 Sam 4:4; 1 Chron 28:2) and when the Presence was in the Holy of Holies his throne was understood to be invisibly above it. Perhaps on the march, with the Ark covered with three coverings (Numb 4:5-6), they were reminded that the cloud above them was God’s protection (10:34).
Now that the people have left Sinai, their relationship with God has changed. They no longer will get away with faithlessness and grumbling. In Exodus, God was compassionate in the complaint about water (Exodus 15:22-26), about food (Exodus 16), and about water again (Exodus 17:1-7, so Dennis T. Olson, Numbers: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). But now, possessing greater revelation, and with the hard-won negotiation of Moses which obtained the promise of God dwelling in the camp of Israel, the people are in great danger.
God’s nature is antithetical to faithlessness and to anything less than complete attainment of goodness. There has been a thread in the story up till now warning of the danger of death: outsiders encroaching on the Tabernacle will be killed (1:51; 3:10, 38), the Levites guard holy things to keep people from dying (1:53), even Levites from Kohath must be careful or die (4:15, 18-19), and there is a danger of a plague at all times (8:19). When the people complain at Taberah (11:1-3) it is the first of many such scenes which follow a pattern: complaint, punishment, and the naming of the place to memorialize the incident. Taberah contains the root letters for “burn.”
The “riffraff” or “rabble” of 11:4 are typically identified as the mixed multitude that went out with Israel (Exod 12:38), because in the grammar of the verse, they seem to be a different group than the Israelites.
The complaint narratives typify the problem of human relations to God: do we want what God offers or will we insist on momentary and passing pleasures of the appetite? After Moses’ complaint, God sends him help in leading by putting the same Spirit on seventy of Israel’s elders. Are these the same seventy elders from Exodus 24:1 who went up on Sinai with Moses? The tradition of seventy elders is part of the background of the Sanhedrin in later Judaism. The manifestation of divine Spirit on the elders is God’s way of affirming that he has chosen them (compare Acts 2).
Eldad and Medad were among the seventy elders, yet did not appear at the Tent. Nonetheless they prophesied, and since they did so in the camp they caused a stir among the people. Yet Moses expresses the desire that many in Israel would prophesy and have the Spirit upon them, a sign that there will be other prophets like Moses.
NUMBERS 11:30 – 12:16
“They called the place Kibroth-hattaavah, for there were buried the ones who craved.”
Whatever we may think about this story, whether it was a real event or if this is a morality tale, whether God would slay people over a food craving, it nonetheless makes a profound point about human nature. Some of the people demeaned God over a foolish desire for rich food. Miraculous manna was boring.
Here is an accurate criticism of our human nature. We settle for fulfilling an appetite and delay the pursuit of enlightenment and everlasting desire. The two are not exclusive and the Bible commends enjoyment of food, drink, and sex. But when appetites usurp knowledge, when momentary desires obscure deeper meaning, we are settling and not truly living.
The plague of quail (11:30-35), Miriam and Aaron jealous of Moses (12:1-2), the humility of Moses (3), God speaks for his servant Moses (4-8), Miriam stricken with scale disease (9-14), Miriam healed after seven days (15-16).
The story of the quail is unusual and has a legendary quality about it. Would God slay people for complaining about food? What is the plague that fell on them? Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) explains that migrations of quail to the Sinai peninsula are normal. Perhaps this story is describing an unusually large migration of exhausted birds which are easy prey for the Israelites. Could the plague be food poisoning?
Whether this story is about a real event or not, it seems to be a morality tale. Those who preferred immediate satisfaction to the promises of God had their wish, but a plague from God struck while they were eating. Resisting God makes all satisfaction null and void.
In the next section, Aaron and Miriam begin questioning the leadership of Moses. Their complaint involves his choice of a non-Israelite wife but really is about his exclusive role as God’s messenger. They both feel equally qualified, Aaron as the priest and Miriam as the musician.
The identity of the “Cushite” wife is a mystery and many theories have been proposed. There is no evidence that Moses had a wife other than Zipporah, so perhaps in some way this is a reference to her. A “Cushite” could be from Cushan (see Habakkuk 3:7) and not Cush (the land of Nubia, south of Egypt). Habakkuk uses Midian and Cushan in parallel.
How is this complaint about Moses’ wife just now being raised given that he has been married to her for a long time? Zipporah had been absent in the redemption from Egypt and joined them at Mount Sinai (Exodus 18:5-6). Moses’ family and the people of Israel had not seen her until then. Miriam and Aaron’s complaint was that Moses had married a non-Israelite, but their real issue was jealousy over power and the prophetic role.
According to the story, God spoke to Miriam and Aaron from the pillar of cloud and said that words of prophecy were his alone to give. Moses, he said, was his unique servant, with a higher level of access, speaking face to face with God. As for God smiting Miriam and not Aaron, this is almost certainly because Aaron had to officiate in the Tabernacle. Miriam’s “leprosy” was of the type not requiring banishment (because she was healed immediately), but she is put out of camp as part of the shame process (Milgrom).