NUMBERS 25:10 – 26:4
“Behold, I appoint for him my covenant of peace.” These words were spoken by God over Phinehas, son of Aaron. And yet it was Phinehas who impaled two lovers while they were in the act because they were desecrating the holy place.
Was Phinehas’s act of violence normative? Should religious people be zealots killing grave offenders to keep a nation holy? The Torah and the rabbis say no, except rarely, once in a lifetime, in dire circumstances.
How does Torah hint that this is the case? After Phinehas’s act of violence, God says, “I appoint for him my covenant of peace.” The role of the priests and Levites was to bring shalom, not punitive justice. They kept the people from encroaching on God’s holy things. They maintained separation between the holy and profane. They guarded the people from rushing in where only those divinely permitted may tread.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “The zealot who takes the law into his own hands is embarking on a course of action fraught with moral danger. Only the most holy may do so, only once in a lifetime, and only in the most dire circumstances” (Covenant and Conversation, Volume 4). God prefers peace and mercy. God’s heart recoils within him at the necessity of dealing with evil harshly (Hosea 11:8). Dealing out wrath is something God calls “alien work” (Isa 28:21). Shalom is his aim and where we will certainly end up.
God’s covenant with the line of Phinehas (10-13), the slain as leaders of their clans (14-15), God calls for war with the Midianites (25:16-19), a new census is ordered after the plague (26:1-4).
When God says of Phinehas that he “turned back my wrath,” this could be a key for understanding the whole story. In 25:1-5 there is a tension in the story depending on how 25:4 is translated. God had instructed Moses to execute all the chiefs of the people. Yet Moses ordered only the deaths of those guilty of consorting with Moabite gods. Furthermore, it seems even that order to execute the guilty was never carried out. Instead, Phinehas slew Zimri and Cozbi, turning back Adonai’s wrath (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary).
Therefore, one way to read this story is that God’s initial order to kill all the chiefs was not his true desire. Instead he was pleased when Moses reduced the order and even more so when Phinehas “turned back” his wrath.
The question is: why is God’s wrath at first uncontrolled and yet his greater desire seems to be to have mercy? What is this story saying about the wrath and mercy of God? It seems to be saying that his mercy triumphs over his judgment. Yet that leaves us wondering why his wrath must break out at all. Perhaps human evil and the pain it causes evokes a reaction in God, a conflicted desire to stamp out the evil mixed with a desire to save the people involved.
There is more to understand about Phinehas. We find out in 1 Chronicles 9:20 that Phinehas was in charge of the Tabernacle guards. One function of the priests and Levites was to protect the sanctuary from defilement and the actions of brazen rebels (Numb 8:19). Phinehas was doing his job when he slew Zimri and Cozbi. Part of the stated rationale for the temple guard was to protect the lives of Israelites who might be slain in an outbreak of divine wrath.
On the other hand, the later rabbis were bothered by Phinehas’ action, in that he executed people without any trial and that he impaled rather than stoning them (Milgrom). Yet they discuss the fact that this was based on a direct command from God and impaling was specified, so Phinehas’s action was legitimate. In the future, Phinehas’ line of priestly descendants would be the Zadokites. In later Israelite history, the line of Abiathar would be barred from priesthood (by Solomon) and the Zadokites would continue as the only priestly line. So God’s promise to Phinehas has future consequences.
“This is the census of the children of Israel.” Another census? Whereas earlier counts of the children of Israel were about the Exodus generation, this census is of the second generation which will inherit the land. The Exodus generation saw disappointment and lacked faith. The census of the new generation signifies hope after a period of judgment.
These children of those who came out of Egypt had been through a period of waiting, a whole generation living in a tiny region of desert being fed and watered by miracles. The nation seemed like a perpetual failure and hope seemed far off. This is the condition of humanity in any time period. We are in some ways a sorry race, a species prone to extreme competition and the potential for a few to dominate all others. Brutality and oppression have characterized human history. Will the human race ever leave the desert?
God says, “I will not contend forever, nor will I always be angry” (Isa 57:16). After the desert comes new life, the prospect of a different kind of day, one holding promise and leaving disappointment behind. This is a pattern we can count on in life. When the sun is not shining we can know that it will return. For all the bad in the world, there is beauty too — every single day. Death never encompasses everything, even in the darkest of times.
What do we learn from Israel’s wilderness story? Even the undeserving are led toward redemption. What can we conclude about God’s ways with humanity? Hope is real because God’s nature is to redeem, to wring the good from the seemingly dry and barren landscape. Even the desert has morning dew and God makes manna wherever he chooses.
A census of Israelite clans preparing for entry into the land (5-51).
The first census in Numbers was by tribe since the Israelites would camp in a tribal arrangement in the wilderness. This second census is by clan, since they are preparing to enter the land and it will be allotted by clans (see 26:52-56).
The total number of clans, counting the Levites in 26:57-62, is seventy, the same as the number of individuals who entered Egypt in Genesis and the traditional number of nations from Genesis 10. This census gives signs of being very old and connects Israelite clans to various mountains and geographical regions (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary).
The genealogical catalogue is enhanced in a few places by extra information, such as a note in vs. 46 that Asher’s daughter was named Serah. Concerning the clan of Pallu, we read about Dathan, Abiram, and Korah, and their rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. There are extra notes about the daughters of Zelophehad as well, no doubt because their story was well-known and is told in Numbers 26, 27, and 31. In general, the extra notes concern persons whose stories are told elsewhere, such as Er and Onan, in vs. 19. This raises intriguing questions about extra information about people which we know nothing about, such as Asher’s daughter Serah (also mentioned in Genesis 46:17). We have to imagine there are stories not told in Torah but which were known to the authors.
NUMBERS 26:52 – 27:5
“And not one of them remained except Caleb, son of Yephunneh, and Joshua, son of Nun.”
Why didn’t the first generation, those who had been slaves, make it into the land of Canaan? They were conditioned to accept a lesser reality, to be satisfied with security and avoid striving for something better. Unable to visualize the blessings of a land dripping sweet wine from the hills and providing shade under fig trees, they preferred the days when their Egyptian overlords provided a work-for-land arrangement. The economy they had known lacked freedom, but it worked. What would this land of blessing be like?
They could not see it. This problem is, of course, true to human nature. The known is comfortable and the unknown is all but impossible to consider real. What we can see and touch is the only reality we really believe in. Our journey toward things God promises us is a hazy dream, one that seems real only on lightning flashes of insight when we cast aside trifles and desire substance. To perceive the blessed existence possible for us in God’s economy may seem like daydreaming and wish fulfillment.
Some people are able to focus more, to visualize future hope and keep it strongly in mind. Some are able to see things to come in things as they are, the potential already hidden in the universe for radical beauty.
Is it better to be comfortable but constrained or to dream dangerously?
Apportioning the land by clans (52-56), census of the Levitical clans (57-62), only Joshua and Caleb remained from first census (26:63-65), the case of Zelophehad’s daughters (27:1-5).
The land is apportioned through the use of lots (to determine location for each clan) and by size of the tribe (to determine size of portion). Levitical clans are listed separately because no land is apportioned to them.
One of the two problems in this passage is that the Levitical clans here do not match exactly the list earlier in Numbers 3. In Numbers 3 they are listed as three clans and eight sub-clans: Gershon (Libni, Shimei), Kohath (Amram, Izhar, Hebron, Uzziel), Merari (Mahli, Mushi). Here some are omitted and they are not organized but given in two lists: (Gershon, Kohath, Merari), (Libni, Hebron, Mahli, Mushi, Korah). What is the relationship between these two lists of clans? Both are from the P source, so the discrepancy does not seem to be about differences in authorship.
A second problem is the genealogy of Moses and Aaron. Were there only four generations from Levi to Moses (Levi, Levi’s son Kohath, Kohath’s sister Jochebed marries Kohath’s son Amram, they bear Aaron and Miriam and Moses)? This makes four generations (Levi, Kohath, Amram, Aaron) and agrees with Exodus 6:18-20. It also matches Genesis 15:16 (“in the fourth generation they shall come back here”). But it makes for a very short period of slavery, not even close to the 430 years of Exodus 12:40 or the 400 years of Genesis 15:13.
The case of Zelophehad’s daughters concerns a clan with no male heir. Would God provide land for a clan without male headship? This is one of four cases in Torah which required a divine oracle for clarification over and above the written Torah (the blasphemer in Lev 24:10-22, those impure for Pesach in Num 9:6-14, and the Sabbath violator in Num 15:32-36 — Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary).
“One who will go out before them and come in before them.” This idiom for leadership says something about the way ancient people viewed leaders.
This view of the role of a leader is of one who participates with them, not directing from the sidelines. A good leader went first and returned first, always directing by example and not with mere words. The idiom itself (“to go out before, to come in before”) is cultural, but God adds depth to it when he makes it part of his instruction to Moses.
Moses should find someone who influenced others by participating rather than someone who used force or persuasion as primary tools. How was Joshua qualified for this role? He had been one of the spies, risking his life, and was one of only two who spoke up bravely against the group consensus to urge a path of trust in God’s promise.
We may or may not see ourselves as leaders — often because we think the term means “someone with power and position” — but if we make a habit of choosing friendliness, kindness, hospitality, courage, commitment, loyalty, generosity, etc., then others will be inspired to act similarly. What we do matters more than what we say. We can make it a goal not to hesitate, but to be the kind of person who goes before others and comes in before them, leading by personal example.
God decides the case of Zelophehad’s daughters (6-11), Moses sees the land from the mountains (12-14), Moses asks for a divinely endowed replacement (15-16), Moses’ authority is placed on Joshua (17-23).
God hears the case of Zelophehad’s daughters (a clan with no male heir) and decides that in such a case a man’s daughters inherit. There is a concern in Torah that land remain forever with the clans. If land is purchased, it is only leased until the Jubilee year and reverts to clans. The issue here is the possibility of women inheriting land, a case that stretched their thinking in a time of patriarchy.
This account of a new legal case is followed by a story about Moses and his coming death. God allows him to see the land he will not be able to enter. He sees it from the Abarim range (vs. 12) and later the peak is specified as Nebo (Deuteronomy 32:49). The height is 2,740 feet and there is a substantial view of Israel on clear days (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary).
Moses, considering his impending death, asks for a successor who will be a good shepherd for Israel. In asking for a leader to follow him, Moses calls God the “source of the breath of all flesh.” The emphasis is on God’s spiritual knowledge of people. Moses asks for a divinely appointed successor who will be a military leader, which is the meaning of the verbal phrases “go before” and “come in before” (Milgrom). Moses transfers authority to Joshua much as Elijah later transfers to Elisha, by placing his hands on him in an act of transference.
“The second [burnt offering] you will make between the evenings.”
Every morning and evening the priests brought the tamid (perpetual offering). This offering was a set of bookends around the daily worship of Israel centered at the temple. Jewish life is cyclical in time.
Throughout the day, the week, the month, the year, and even cycles of years life with God moves as a rhythm. As Abraham Joshua Heschel has said, Torah teaches us to sanctify time whereas the world tempts us to sanctify space. People strive to conquer territory, to possess things. God teaches us to live in the stream of time.
The unusual phrase instructing the people when to offer the final sacrifice of the day, the evening tamid, says to do it “between the evenings.” The phrase is mysterious and intriguing. Besides wondering what it literally means (between sunset and dark? between the bottom of the sun touching the horizon and it’s final disappearance?) the words help us see that there can be hours of the day that are sublime. If we give in to the rhythm, choosing to sanctify morning and evening, filling them with little rituals of worship, they become more than ordinary hours. The more these practices of hallowing time become a habit, the closer we get to life in God’s dimension.
Grain offering to accompany sacrifices (1-2), the daily perpetual (tamid) offering (3-8), the additional (musaf) offering for Shabbat (9-10), the additional offerings for the new moon (11-15).
The laws of the offerings are placed here because the Israelites are at the point in the story where they are about to enter the land. The grain, oil, and wine offerings will be possible only when Israel is in Canaan and growing crops. By placing a catalogue of sacrifices and sacred times here, the Torah communicates the blessedness of being in the land in a covenant relationship with God.
One intriguing detail is the way this passage refers to the time of the afternoon offering. In vs. 4, this time is said to be “between the evenings” (בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם bein ha’arbayim). One likely interpretation is that this refers to the interval between sunset and dark. But the rabbis decided it should be late afternoon (Milgrom comments on the disparity, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary). They retained a knowledge of the customary practices at the Second Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE), so their interpretation is likely based on how things actually were practiced.
Based on this daily schedule, Jewish tradition locates the three daily prayer times. The morning and evening tamid (daily burnt offering, 28:3-8) has become the morning and evening prayer time. The hour when the temple would close for the night has become the time for the evening prayer (ma’ariv).
The new moon (rosh chodesh), described in vss. 11 and following, was very important in ancient Israel (Isaiah 1:12-13; Hosea 2:13; Amos 8:5). It was a day for rest and, when possible, visiting the Temple. In modern Judaism, rosh chodesh involves a change in the synagogue service: reciting hallel, reading Torah, a special prayer for the new month, and in some traditions it is encouraged as a recreational day.
NUMBERS 28:16 – 29:11
“On the fourteenth day of the month is a pesach (פֶּסַח, Passover sacrifice) to Adonai.” The unusual wording here should clue us in that “pesach” is not only the name of a holiday (Passover) but also of the sacrifice that occurs on the eve of it.
Similarly Exodus 12:43, “This is the statute of the pesach, no foreigner may eat of it.” What does Torah mean by this? What foods of Passover may not be eaten by a foreigner?
It is the sacrifice itself, which is a form of thanksgiving offering, that should be eaten only by Jewish people. This does not prevent Jewish families from having non-Jewish guests for Passover, since there is no sacrifice anymore to be consumed.
Numbers 28-29 is a schedule of the public offerings for special occasions. That is, most of the offerings mentioned here are not brought by individuals, but by the priests, provided for out of the common treasury of the people. The pesach is an exception, being a lamb or kid (baby goat) brought the afternoon before the Passover meal by a representative of every household.
Josephus records that Jerusalem was extremely crowded for the Passover and that the offerings made the temple courts quite overcrowded. Modern people have difficulty understanding animal sacrifices and how they fit into a society of people attached to God. It’s simple: the Passover was nationwide barbecue, a massive lamb roast for all the people. If we, here in America, cook our turkeys on thanksgiving, we should be able to understand a festival like Passover. The lamb (or kid) was a thanksgiving offering and eating it was part of remembering how God brought a nation of slaves out to freedom.
Offerings for Passover (16-25), offerings for Shavuot (28:26-31), offerings for the seventh month’s new moon (29:1-6), offerings for Yom Kippur (7-11).
This catalogue of offerings for the people of Israel is artfully arranged with numerical patterns. There are thirty occasions besides Sabbaths calling for additional offerings (twelve new moons, seven days of Unleavened Bread, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and eight days of Sukkot). The number of lambs to be offered on these thirty occasions is always seven or fourteen. This is yet one more feature of the Israelite tabernacle symbolizing creation and cosmos.
The offering on Passover (Nisan 14) is only mentioned in passing in vs. 16 (as it is an offering by individuals whereas these others are brought by the priests for the whole nation). Note that some translations obscure the fact in vs. 16 that the reference is to a sacrifice (“Passover” is both the name of the day and the name of the sacrifice itself).
NUMBERS 29:12 – 30:1(29:40)
“You shall make festive the festival for seven days.” Religion has to be boring, right? But Torah says “make festive the festival.” The Torah and other parts of the Bible contain many commands about rejoicing, celebrating, feasting, pursuing your heart’s desires, enjoying beer and wine, and more.
In Numbers 29:12, the Hebrew uses the root chagag חגג as a verb. This root is related to the noun chag חָג “festival.” The passage could be translated: “you shall party at the party for seven days.”
Leviticus 23:40 says “you must rejoice before your God for seven days” (similar commands are found in Deuteronomy 12, 14, and 16). Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) says, “Let your garments be always white,” (i.e., festival clothing, 9:8). Even better we read, “eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do” (Ecclesiastes 9:7).
Perhaps the crowning party verse in Torah is Deuteronomy 14:26, “Spend the money [your tithe money] for whatever you want — beef, lamb, wine, or beer.” The Torah is not against the enjoyments of this world, but places them in a hierarchy of what it appropriate for each season and time. There is a time to work, a time to worship, a time to love, and a time to be festive — so says the Bible!
Offerings for Sukkot (12-34), offerings for Shemini Atzeret (8th day, 35-38), summary of section (29:39 – 30:1).
A calendar of offerings of animals, grain, wine, and oil in the Israelite sanctuary may seem like a pedestrian matter to modern readers, but the issue in the minds of ancient people was harmony between the people and deity. The sacrificial system of Israel was part of the covenant relationship and as Jacob Milgrom observes (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary), the Hebrew Bible repeatedly ties the regular, consistent practice of offerings with having peace in the land. The festival calendar in Leviticus 23 begins with “when you enter the land.” The Torah in a number of places makes the same connection between establishing regular offerings and entering the land (Numbers 15). Ezekiel, when he saw the vision of the temple restored, connected the sacrificial system to possessing the land (45:1). And Chronicles, written after the exile, lists failure to faithfully perform the sacrificial dues at the temple as one of the reasons for the collapse of Judah (2 Chronicles 29:5-8).
Within this schedule of offerings, Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths) is unique. It has a Yom Tov (a special Sabbath) on the first and eighth day, which is similar to Passover (with its Yom Tovs on days one and seven). Yet Sukkot is said to be a seven day festival. How can the eighth day be a holiday Sabbath when the festival is only seven days? It seems the eighth day, now referred to as Shemini Atzeret, is connected to and yet also separate from Sukkot. The careful reader, used to the numerical patterns that are common in Torah and which a repeatedly found in Numbers 28-29, will notice that seventy bulls are offered during the days of Sukkot. The number seventy is significant in Torah for two reasons: the number of Israelites who entered Egypt in Jacob’s time and the number of nations of the world listed in Genesis 10. For this reason and others (such as Zechariah’s vision in chapter 14), Sukkot has always been considered a festival to which Gentile nations were invited to participate with Israel.