Although the verse concerns a rather small matter (a census of the clans of Levi), the saying עַל־פִּי יְהוָה בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁה al-pi Adonai b’yad-Moshe, “by the mouth of Adonai, by the hand of Moses,” has come to have great meaning in Judaism. It is also a clue for us as Bible readers about the nature of the sacred text.
Some people, if they were to use their imagination and assume that God made himself known to human beings, would guess that God would deliver a message directly. This is what is claimed, for example, to be true of the Koran. The words were dictated to Mohammed over a period of twenty three years by the angel Gabriel. Mohammed’s companions wrote down the words, without error.
But the Bible was passed down differently. The words are “by the hand of Moses.” Moses is more than a mere scribe. God’s truths are interpreted by and carried out by human beings. There is no direct revelation, but only indirect.
The words and ideas burn in those who wrote them down. But they speak and write them in their own words. There is a process of transmission. It comes from the divine through the human and is preserved for us. How imperfect was their vision? We see on close examination that the different authors did not always agree with each other. All are seeing a similar vision, but with different emphases and sometimes different conclusions.
“The hand of Moses” is human. Much of the Bible is human. Realizing that is one of the keys to reading it.
Numbering the Levitical clan of Gershon (21-23), Gershonites responsible for all curtains of the Tabernacle (24-28), numbering the Levitical clan of Merari (29-30), Merarites responsible for Tabernacle structure (31-33), a second census of Kohath (34-37).
The second list of the duties of Gershon and Merari are slightly more detailed than the first ones (3:25-26 and 3:36-37). Ithamar, son of Aaron, is to supervise the Gershonite clan of Levites in their work of transporting the curtains and coverings. Ithamar also supervises the Merarites in their work of transporting the structural pieces of the Tabernacle.
The word for “work” here is עַבֹדָה avodah, which later comes to mean worship. The ability of the people to worship depends on those who work to make it happen.
The second census of the Levites is not of the whole tribe, but only the men eligible for service between the ages of 30 and 50. There is a progression in holiness in the three divisions of Levites, from Kohath in charge of the most holy things to Gershon in charge of the tent coverings and the altar to Merari with the least holy charge over the bars and bases. The level of holiness is directly proportional to the danger of being near the Presence.
The Tabernacle is a little bit of heaven on earth, and things in the true world have no mixture of evil with them. Inhabitants of this present, imperfect world can’t endure such perfection. It is fatal to humans unless God protects them. Concentric circles of holiness (the tribes, the Levites, the priests, the tabernacle) demonstrate the divisions between this present world and the true one.
The last words of vs. 37 are recited after the Torah service each week: עַל־פִּי יְהוָה בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁה al-pi Adonai b’yad-Moshe (“by the mouth of Adonai, by the hand of Moses”). The saying in the liturgy is reinterpreted to be about the Torah in general. It is by God’s mouth but written by Moses’ hand, it is divine and human at once. Note that this theory of the Torah does not require us to believe Moses is the final editor, only the main source of the traditions. The saying is also found in Numbers 4:45; 9:23; 10:13; Joshua 22:9.
The role of the Levites in Numbers, which is spelled out in such detail and with two censuses, was only temporary. Why is so much time spent on something which occupied such a short span of time in Israel’s history?
The interest of the author here is obviously not about defining roles of Levites for is own time. But two other objectives underlie these texts about Levites working and porting the shrine of Adonai in the desert: history as remembrance and history as theology.
What sources did the author have for these genealogies and work lists? We can only guess. No doubt the era of the tabernacle in the wilderness stirred the imagination of the priests, being a time when God appeared much more openly to the people than when these texts were written. The wilderness period in which God’s Presence was visible as a cloud-encased pillar of fire, as well as being inside the inner shrine, was a sort of golden age, worth remembering historically in some detail.
But this was all important theology, not just history, to the priests. The details of the tent shrine and the care with which all its parts were disassembled, reassembled, and carried is testimony to the importance of the Presence of God to the people of Israel. “I will establish my abode in your midst,” God had said in Leviticus 26. And so every aspect of the carrying of the tent was ordered by Moses who heard from God. One of the conditions of God establishing his abode had been stated quite clearly: “You shall venerate my sanctuary” (Leviticus 26:2). In later times, when God hid his face from Israel more and more, it must have been something the priests very much longed to have back.
A second census of Gershon (38-41), a second census of Merari (42-45), summary (46-49).
A great deal of time is devoted in the first part of Numbers to two censuses and the arrangement of the camp. In the next chapter, attention will be on the purity of the camp. The holiness of the people as a gathered community bearing the Presence with them through the desert is paramount.
The duties of the Levites are, according to vs. 47, about “bearing the burdens” of the holy dwelling of Adonai. This was necessary only for a short period in Israel’s history, when they were traveling through the wilderness to enter the land. They disassembled, loaded on oxcarts, and reassembled the tabernacle, except for Kohath, whose charge was carrying the holiest things, which only the priests could assemble and disassemble. All of this would change. The sanctuary would become fixed in one place and beginning with David, the role of the Levites changed to music and guarding the sanctuary (esp. 1 Chron 15, 23-25; 2 Sam 6).
Two general principles in Torah seem to be in conflict with each other, both coming from the priestly laws. On the one hand, deliberate sin is not atonable by sacrifice. The sacrificial procedures repeatedly say that the blood of offerings cleanses the contamination of inadvertent wrongdoing from the altar (violations of commandments in Torah caused impurity to travel like air pollution and contaminated the altar and sometimes even the inner parts of the sanctuary).
But on the other hand, we have Numbers 5:7 (as well as a few other hints in Torah) that the priests believed in repentance. In a section which is about keeping the vicinity of the tabernacle free from contamination by ritual impurity (Numbers 5:1-4) and wrongdoing (5:5-8), we read surprisingly about repentance. “When . . . that person realizes their guilt, they must confess their wrongdoing” (וְאָשְׁמָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא׃ וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת־חַטָּאתָם ve’ashemah hanefesh hahi vehitvadu et-chatatam).
Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) reconciles the two competing principles with a teaching passed down through rabbinic tradition: repentance converts blatant sin into inadvertent wrongdoing. That is, God makes a way even for deliberate transgression so that people may remain in the community and be able to draw near to the Presence at the sanctuary.
The priestly teaching about repentance also shows up in Leviticus 26, a key chapter in the theology of holiness. After describing the exile and suffering that will result from Israel not adhering to the covenant, Leviticus 26:40 says, “But if they confess their wrongdoing and the wrongdoing of their ancestors . . . they shall atone for their iniquity.”
Severe impurities removed from camp (1-4), reparation (guilt) offering for fraud/false oaths (5-8), portions donated to individual priests (9-10).
The material in chapters 5 and 6 is legal in nature and the common element in all the topics raised in these chapters is simple: the role and duties of the priest.
Severe ritual impurities (already introduced in Leviticus 12-15 and with more coming in Numbers 19) were a problem given that Israel was camped tightly around the tabernacle where God made himself present in a visible way. The priests were crucial in enforcing impurity laws, as those for example who diagnosed scale disease (wrongly translated leprosy). Three categories of impurity required that persons be quarantined outside the camp: scale disease, gonorrhea, and persons who had been in contact with corpses. Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) notes that menstruation and childbirth, although they too involved long periods of impurity, did not require quarantining. Thus, within the laws for purification we see that some kinds of ritual impurity were considered more severe than others and found to be more problematic near the divine Presence. The purpose of keeping the wilderness encampment free of these impurities is simple: God does not want human death near his sanctuary — and all kinds of impurity are about death, resemblance to death, and loss of life.
The second concern in this section is offenses against God or others which require reparations to be made (vss.5-10). For these, the reparation (guilt) offering was prescribed in Leviticus 5:20-26 (6:1-7, Christian Bibles). These are the most severe types of sins, just as the ritual impurities singled out in vss. 1-4 are the most severe of their kind. Vs. 7 shows that confession and restitution converts even brazen sins into atoneable offenses, a truth without which there could be no forgiveness from heaven (Milgrom).
NUMBERS 5:11 – 6:27
“May Adonai bless you.” So begins the priestly blessing (birkat kohanim) of Torah. The relationship of God and Israel is a covenant. If the people in the land, as a collective, will keep the teachings of God, the land will have rain, security, and blessing. Now in this priestly blessing the idea of covenant blessings for the people is expressed as a personal wish for the individual. Not only is it desired that God should do good to Israel, but may it be so for you personally as well.
“And keep you.” The promise in the covenant of security for the land includes freedom from war. Now, for individuals there is a similarly expressed wish. May God protect you, keep you from harm.
“May Adonai make his face shine upon you.” This is the opposite of God hiding his face (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary). It is an idiom deriving from the shining appearance of teeth when someone smiles. May God smile at you and be favorably disposed to you.
“And show favor to you.” (Alternatively, “be gracious to you”). Receiving favor from someone is being treated by them as special, as deserving help and kindness.
“May Adonai lift his face toward you.” That is, may he look up, keeping his eyes on you to do you good and not harm.
“And grant you shalom.” May he give you wholeness, well-being, and peace.
The simple fact is, we do not see people experiencing these blessings consistently in this life. Time and chance happen to us all, no matter how scrupulous someone my be regarding religious duties and matters of faith. The wishes expressed in this blessing point to an ideal that is as yet unrealized in this present world. It is a matter of faith to keep praying for them and to believe that God wishes to bestow them. In limited ways we can and do experience them in this life, but ultimately they point to a kind of existence God wants us to have but which does not yet exist for us. The priestly blessing is yet another Torah custom pointing us to the world to come.
The adultery test (5:11-31), Nazirite vow (6:1-21), priestly benediction (6:22-27).
Of the adultery test, Ramban says, “This is the only judgment in the Bible where the outcome depends on a miracle.” Unlike the witch trials of later history, in this test the woman is only guilty if the miracle happens. The overall subject of Numbers 5 and 6 is keeping the area around the tabernacle free from human death and symbolic signs of it. The adultery test is referred to by the Hebrew word Sotah in Judaism, from the verb in vs. 12, “to go astray”. Perhaps the jealousy problem in a patriarchal society could lead to violence and the adultery test is designed to provide a non-violent outlet for husbands. The whole passage assumes that a jealous man might become violent, but there is no concern here about a woman wronged by adultery. The Torah in many cases involves legislation conditioned on the culture of that time, which as this case illustrates was completely patriarchal (male-dominated). If the objective of this strange law was to prevent some forms of domestic violence, its assumption is that males would be the perpetrators of that violence and the reverse was considered unlikely.
The test itself involves some sacrificial offerings and the preparation of a bizarre drink of water using elements of sympathetic magic. Water is taken from the bronze basin of the tabernacle, a little dirt from the sanctuary floor is sprinkled in, a curse is written (perhaps on leather or papyrus) and the ink rubbed off into the water. Curses were believed to have actual power. Why is there sympathetic magic (using objects and actions symbolizing the person or the desired effect) in the Torah? Like some other customs in Torah, it seems God accommodates the psychological needs of the people. For the husband to believe in the effectiveness of the adultery test, in which guilt would be proven by a miracle, there needed to be a ritual helping him believe the miracle could actually happen. This is an example of a Torah law that is a mismatch for changing times, since the majority of people no longer share the magical worldview that was common when Torah was written.
The section on the Nazirite seems to have behind it a lot of unwritten assumptions. Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) offers a compelling guess about what lies behind this mysterious text and its equally strange customs. There were lifelong Nazirites (Samson, Samuel), but this text views it as only a temporary status during a period of a vow. This, says Milgrom, is probably the priests reigning in a custom that could in some ways threaten their domain as the sanctified class in Israel. This was a way for a layperson to be holy in a manner analogous to priesthood.
The provisions of the Nazirite vow especially involved three prohibitions: drinking or eating the product of the grape, cutting the hair, and having any contact at all with a human corpse. The prohibition of the grape probably represents Israel’s background as nomadic herders, and wine-making culture may have been looked down upon as a source of corruption in settled agricultural life (consider the story of Noah’s drunkenness). The uncut hair of the Nazirite was the most obvious visible sign of his identity and perhaps originated in wartime vows men would make not to cut their hair until an enemy was defeated. The prohibitions concerning a Nazirite and human corpses were even stricter than that of the priests. By making Naziritism a temporary vow, the priests prevented the rise of a whole class of sanctified males who would be a sort of competition for them. But the temporary vow, which became popular in Second Temple Judaism (consider Paul in the New Testament), offered a way for males to draw especially near to God for a period of time.
Finally, the section closes with the blessing the priests would utter over the people. Since the area around the tabernacle was holy and endued with the Glory of God, this blessing is a fitting way to express the power of nearness to God.
It’s hard to imagine the tabernacle being real. In the ancient world, priests cared for temple property and performed rituals daily to various deities. Acts of ritual sanctification are carried out with careful attention to this day in all of the world’s major religions. Designating certain places and objects as “sacred,” regarding them as liminal, as being between two worlds divine and human, supernatural and natural, is common to religion. In Western culture, some branches of religion such as Protestantism, have minimized or eliminated “the holy.” Ritual sanctification of places and things seems a relic of the past.
The author of this section, known simply as P, used an ancient catalog of donated materials for the operation of the tabernacle. We read paragraph after paragraph about the details of the tabernacle’s care and provision made for it. Once we understand the diminishing Presence of God, we begin to see why P had such a great concern to preserve this seemingly endless list of trivialities.
According to the stories, God was visible outside the tabernacle as well as being present inside the shrine. P’s generation had no experience of anything like that. God’s face, shining so visibly in the formative days of the nation of Israel, was hidden after Israel entered the land in Joshua’s time. The Presence withdrew to the inner shrine. Seeing God was a matter of faith, believing his Presence was inside the shrine, where only the high priest would ever see it.
Richard Elliott Friedman, in his book The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery, examines how God was said to initially be visible to all of the people and quickly disappeared in stages. He surmises that God’s initial willingness to show himself was the exception, not the rule. Obviously, we could theorize that the alleged appearances of God in the early stories are pious fictions.
But maybe not. Maybe there is a pattern. In formative periods such as the primeval origins of humanity, the days of the patriarchs, and the Exodus and settlement of the nation of Israel, there were brief periods of divine openness and undisguised manifestation. These were followed by rapid disappearances. God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but never to Joseph. God was visible outside the tabernacle in the wilderness, but was quite invisible once Joshua brought the people into the land.
Thus, the wilderness tabernacle represents the glory days of Israel’s birth. Any ancient accounts or records related to the wilderness tabernacle, as boring as they might be to modern readers, were utterly fascinating the priests. Who wouldn’t long to look more closely into divine appearances? Who wouldn’t want to know, what did their generation have which we are lacking? The memory of the glory points to something else as well: the belief that in the future the Glory will return.
Moses anoints the Tabernacle and its furnishings (1), leaders of clans make an offering for the Tabernacle service (2-5), carts and oxen divided between Merari and Gershon (6-10), list of the offerings of clan leaders by tribes (11-41).
Chapters 7 and 8 complete the institution of the Tabernacle. Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) cites the work of Baruch Levine, comparing this list of donations from the clans to other ancient Near Eastern catalogs of offerings. The list is ancient, a source which the author used which was from much earlier than the time of the P author (the “priestly” source of the Torah, writing from Jerusalem in the 7th century).
Why is this list here? Milgrom surmises that P was following up on the duties of the three Levitical divisions in porting the tabernacle in the wilderness march and that, oddly enough, included an ancient catalog of gifts to show the origin of the carts on which the sacred items were carried.
The account of these donations indicates that chieftains from each tribe brought donations on successive days. Thus, for twelve consecutive days, a tribe was honored and a designated chieftain of one of the clans brought forward their offering. Rather than assuming they slaughtered all of the animals on the day they were brought, Milgrom discusses at length a more realistic theory. The animals were donated to the tabernacle as an initial supply for the types of offerings that would be needed throughout the first year. Other elements, such as incense, were brought to be stored and used as the sanctuary’s initial supply. The meaning of this ancient list is that the people fully supported the work of the Tabernacle and devoted their possessions to God.