Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 17

In this chapter, the LORD reaffirms his appointment of Aaron and the house of Levi with a miracle.

This is a relatively short chapter.  In it, we can see the LORD wishes to finally put an end to the rebellions against Moses and Aaron, and he chooses to perform a sign before the people to reaffirm and prove Aaron's election as high priest.  Honestly, it baffles me why the Israelites have not been convinced by everything they have already seen.  Virtually everything that happened in Exodus centered around Moses in some fashion, and he continues to work miracles in their midst, such as bringing water from the rock.  Why they continue to rebel is difficult for me to understand.  And then in this chapter, simply by sprouting a staff, the people suddenly go from wanting to kill Moses to panicking that the LORD will slay all of them for their indiscretion (vv. 12-13).

Given the many rebellions, I think this reaction is totally understandable, I just don't get why it happens here rather than much earlier.  I think there are a couple answers.  The most significant we have to keep in mind is the public visibility (or lack thereof) for each miracle.  That is, we are being given a full record of events by Numbers, but this information might not have been available to the ancient Israelites of Moses's time.  Any miracle that went unwitnessed by the Israelites might as well have not happened for them.  However, there have been many "global" miracles that should have been observed by nearly everyone.  The plagues of Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, the manna from heaven, the thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai, the cloud by day and fire by night: all of these things are observable for the entire nation, and I believe this is intentional.

The LORD is trying to establish a relationship with the whole nation just like he did with Abraham.  From this viewpoint, it is necessary for the LORD to use larger miracles to reveal himself to all the people because only larger miracles would be visible to everyone in a large geographic locale. Even so, a tremendous volume of the past couple books have been recountings of "the LORD told Moses", followed by "and then Moses told the people", which contributes to this problem that most people are disconnected from their god, and these many rebellions are the result of that disconnection.  Since nearly everything is being told to the people indirectly through Moses, it's possible they question Moses's truthfulness when he reports his own promotion to leader and president of the entire nation.  The miracles might be real miracles, but the only people saying "Moses is the leader" is Moses and his lieutenants.  Also, don't forget the continual undercurrent of tribal politics: I'm sure many tribes are not happy to have a Levite, Moses, ruling over them and appointing other Levites into key religious positions.

The next point is that, while the people might have observed many miracles, it is possible they questioned whether those miracles affirmed Moses and Aaron as leaders of the people.  I'm skeptical of this considering Moses's triumphal prominence over everything related to the LORD and the tabernacle, which strongly implies that the LORD favors Moses, but we should still keep in mind that this is really the first miracle that specifically and undeniably refers to Aaron and Levi.

The last point I will bring up is the potential weight of accumulated miracles.  Maybe crossing through the Red Sea wasn't convincing enough, but now that they have a sprouted staff and some almonds, that is enough evidence for them to finally submit to Aaron's authority as priest.

And the Israelites' response is actually pretty funny.  They must really be freaking out, since these two verses contain three different words for death: "gava", meaning to breathe out (your last) or expire, "abad", meaning to wander away, to be lost or perish, and "muth", meaning to die, to kill, to be destroyed.  I would have expected something like this to show up during the plague for instance, when many thousands of people actually died.  Only now do the people seem to expect that they will die, and this amuses me.

And that's the end of the story.  After this we move back to a priestly legal section.  While the story continues in chapter 20, this chapter concludes the current story arc, the rebellion arc.  After this, the people generally stop challenging Moses's leadership, which suggests that they are truly afraid of the LORD killing them, and hence change their behavior for the better.  Not to say that they stop sinning, but at least they stop questioning Moses and Aaron.

Bible Commentary - Numbers 16

In this chapter, several rebellions occur against Moses and Aaron.

It is with some irony that a former rebel, Aaron, is now himself subject to a challenge.  Back in Num 12, Aaron (with Miriam) challenged Moses's leadership.  At the time, I said that Aaron himself already held a position of substantial authority.  Now we see, among other things, the Levites seeking to challenge Aaron's rights as the priest.

The exact nature of the protest is not entirely clear, but what we can see in v. 3 is that the challengers (Korah and other Levites, plus Dathan and Abiram who are sons of Reuben) want to "level the playing field" so that all the people may offer sacrifices and function as priests.    The reason why I say it's not clear is because at first, it is a mixed group of Korah, Dathan and Eliab together with some "leaders of the congregation", but when Moses starts to address them, he is primarily referring to "you sons of Levi" who appear to be seeking the priesthood.  So from the Levites, they seem to be seeking to overthrow Aaron, who is the priest.  However, it says that they also rose up against Moses, who is not a priest but who instituted the priesthood.  So there appear to be a couple things going on here, but the main thing is senior leaders of Israel and the Levites challenging Aaron and Moses (who appointed Aaron).

I am not without sympathy for their criticism, that all of the people "are holy" and "the LORD is in their midst".  Ex 19:6, in particular, is a verse I have cited over and over as evidence that the LORD wishes to make the entire nation holy priests, which is precisely the criticism of Korah.  The problem though is Korah's intent, which is to attain power.  If his interest were in seeking the LORD, then that would be one thing, but I think this chapter makes it pretty clear that Korah is simply interested in removing Aaron and Moses from their positions of authority.

I do believe the LORD wishes to establish all the people as a sort of priesthood, but in the short term only a small number are allowed into the tabernacle.  It's difficult for me to explain why the LORD would do it like this, but it's pretty clear that the Korahites do not have the authority to challenge the LORD's policy.

Dathan and Abiram, while lumped together with Korah, seem more focused on how they were denied access to the promised land.  They primarily blame Moses, who is responsible for them as their leader.  This is bitterly ironic since it was the rebellion of the people (including these leaders) that resulted in their condemnation to the wilderness.  As with the Korahites, Dathan and Abiram think Moses is abusing his position and "lord it over us" (v. 13), as the NASB says.  And as with the Korahites, their biggest issue is jealousy.

In the end, the LORD reaffirms Moses and Aaron by killing their enemies, swallowing them whole into the earth.  Continuing with the bitter irony, the people blame Moses and Aaron for killing those leaders.  Implicitly this shows us that the leaders must have been popular, and their accusations against Moses and Aaron were also probably popular.  The LORD sends another plague to punish the people for gathering against Moses, and then Aaron is given an opportunity to exercise his priestly role.  I think this is clearly intended to help establish Aaron's legitimacy, by giving him an opportunity to "atone" for the people in a very public way.  The normal priestly obligations usually keep Aaron inside the tabernacle, which is largely concealed from the rest of the people.  It's possible this is one reason why the people disrespect Aaron, because they are unaware of how he ministers on their behalf.  I think that's one factor, but the bigger factor is clearly jealousy and ambition for the power that Aaron holds as the chief priest.

Briefly, I also an intrigued by this chapter's usage of censers.  Censers had been only briefly mentioned before, almost casually stipulated in e.g. Ex 25:38 and 27:3.  The first (and basically only) ritual use of censers is described in Lev 16, part of the Day of Atonement rituals.  The casual side references of Exodus suggest that the usage of censers is either unimportant or very well-known to the author and his presumptive readers.  I would bet more on the latter than the former, because surprisingly this chapter shows that many leaders have censers and not just the ones constructed for the tabernacle.  In the end, those people were slain for offering impermissible incense, just like Nadab and Abihu in Lev 10.  So it's interesting that all these people have censers, but using them is unregulated, possibly resulting in death if they do so improperly.  Why do they all have censers?  I can only imagine that there is some sort of customary or ritual use of censers that would have been more widely understood to ancient Israelites, but the rules for this have not been given to us.  Instead, we only see them use censers as a sign of their piety, which is not accepted by the LORD and they are killed for it.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 15

In this chapter, the LORD briefly interjects with some addenda and clarifications of the covenantal law.

This chapter does not particularly fit in with the last one, once again showing the author's disregard for contiguous storytelling.  Most of this chapter seems concerned with Levitical law, first by stating the requirement that every burnt offering must be accompanied by a small offering of grain, oil and wine.  This was commanded in a very similar fashion in Ex 29:40 and Lev 23:13, except that both of those offerings were very special cases (the first case, the daily offerings, the second, one of the harvest festivals).  In this case, the command is very broad, extending to all burnt, freewill and peace offerings.  We can possibly interpolate it intends to cover all offerings of these animals.

Symbolically, I'm not sure what to say about this part.  We have already seen regulations concerning grain offerings and (implicitly) oil, back in Lev 2, and that section probably also covers the grain offerings described here.  Wine was discussed many times in Genesis (starting in Gen 9 with Noah), but it has not been part of the sacrificial system except in Ex 29 and Lev 23 as above.  In fact, we haven't even been told what a "drink offering" is.  We can infer it is similar to the grain offering, possibly with some poured out and possibly some given to the priest (in whatever proportion).  As before, these components of the offering match the three traditional elements of Israeli agriculture: olive groves, vineyards and (various kinds of) grain. They are all offered so that a person might offer some of everything they grow.

As we are told many times before, the law for foreigners is the same as the law for Israelites.

Verses 17-21 discuss some sort of firstfruits offering of grain.  It's not clear to me if this is supposed to be the same as the festival of firstfruits (i.e. feast of weeks).  The text isn't clear, but it certainly appears as if it were so.

Next, beginning in v. 22 we are given a rough restatement of the sin offering from Lev 4.  The biggest difference is that if the congregation sins, it must offering a male goat in addition to the bull prescribed in Lev 4.  There have been several times we have seen a solitary male goat offered as a sin offering, so this appears to be a new principle of sorts that is being added on top of the already-established Levitical law.*  I couldn't possibly tell you why these regulations are stated twice.  Another addition is that anyone who commits a crime willfully has no sin offering: that person must be "cut off".  I previously argued that this was implied in Lev 4, which states that the offerings are only for unintentional sin.  I believe this chapter reinforces that argument and is consistent with Lev 4.

We have our second (noted) episode of Sabbath-breaking.  Remember that back when the Sabbath was instituted in Ex 16, it was directly related to gathering manna (something that the people would still have to do in Num 15).  On the seventh day, the people were to not gather any manna, because the Sabbath is a day of rest.  The Sabbath principle is extended in Ex 20:10 to specifically state that the people should do no work.  Now in Ex 16, some of the people went out to gather manna anyway, and the LORD rebukes them for "[refusing] to keep my commandments and my instructions".  However, the people were not punished at that time, possibly because Ex 16 predates the covenant (formed in Ex 19-24).

Here, however, we have a solitary offender who ends up as an example to the rest of the people.  I see this as another exemplary vignette along the lines of Lev 10, when Nadab and Abihu were slain for abusing their privilege as priests.  Here, the purpose of the story is to reinforce the sanctity of the Sabbath, which must be obeyed by all the people at the pain of death.

Lastly, we are told that the people must wear these peculiar tassels and blue cord to signify the commandments.  I don't see any particular significance in this, except that it reinforces the importance of the LORD's commands.  Not like we needed a reminder.

*References: Ex 12:5, the Passover lamb must be a male goat.  Each family offers one, and the Passover is a type of sin offering.  Lev 9:3, a male goat sin offering for the priest.  Lev 16:5, two male goats for the day of atonement.  However, they are sacrificed in different ways so you could pretend that it's a "two single goat offerings".  Lev 23:19, a single male goat is offered during the feast of weeks.  Num 7 offers twelve male goats for sin offerings, one for each tribe.

Bible Commentary - Numbers 14

In this chapter, the people choose to return to Egypt and are sentenced to die in the wilderness, wandering for forty years.

I already covered the background for this chapter pretty extensively in my commentary on Num 13, so read that if you want to see what I think about the promised land and the Abrahamic covenant.

This chapter directly continues with the prior chapter, with the people essentially freaking out again, this time over a prospective war against the intimidating Anakites.  As before, their reaction is to complain, but this time they decide to actually return to Egypt.  When verse 4 sasys "appoint a leader", they obviously mean that Moses's days are over.  Later, they decide to kill Moses and Aaron, the central figures in their new religion, and at that point the LORD intervenes.

As I established before, the promised land is a significant part of the Abrahamic covenant, so in rejecting the one, they are also rejecting the other.  Since the promised land (and the Abrahamic covenant at large) represent a reversal of the curse of Adam, turning away from the promised land is a symbolic acceptance of death.  Egypt is symbolic of "the world", i.e. life under sin, in a couple of ways.  First, the Hebrews are born under slavery just like all people are born under sin.  Second, Pharaoh is a symbol of the devil who tricked Adam and Eve into sinning against the LORD.  And perhaps most significantly, Egypt is positioned as the opposite of the promised land, because of the way that the Israelites are playing between one and the other.  I.e. the LORD takes the Israelites from Egypt to bring them to the promised land, but now the people are turning away from the promised land to return to Egypt.

As a result of all this, it should not surprise my readers when the LORD declares that all the men who turned away from the promised land shall die.  The promised land represents the garden of Eden, which contained the tree of life.  Turning away from the LORD and eternal life (symbolically) must result in death.

That's the core of this chapter, and the rest is mostly just details.  We see Caleb and Joshua express their faith in the LORD, because it is the LORD who brought them through all of their trials and will establish them in the promised land.  The LORD says he will destroy the people, and Moses talks him out of it.  This is basically a repeat of Ex 32 when the LORD threatened the same thing and Moses's response was basically the same.  Unlike the prior instance, the LORD nevertheless declares he will kill all of the men over 20, which is what I talked about above.  The spies, who spread the "bad report" are killed instantly for their unfaithfulness.

We see the symbolic number 40 again (like the 40 days of the great flood, Moses's 40 days on Mount Sinai, etc).

When the LORD commands the people to go to the wilderness by the Red Sea, that would take them south and away from Canaan.

Lastly, we are told that the people, in their grief, attempt to storm the promised land without the ark of the covenant (symbolizing the LORD's leadership) and Moses, the LORD's representative.  It should come to us as no surprise when they are defeated, but it's still interesting that they would refuse to go up when commanded to go up, and they refused to depart when commanded to depart.  It seems like the people just do the opposite of whatever the LORD says at any given time, like rebellious children.

And with that, this generation is condemned to die in the wilderness because of their unbelief.  They refused to follow the LORD and would have killed Moses and turned back if they were not stopped.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 13

In this chapter, the Israelites send a team of spies to the promised land, and those spies return with a deeply discouraging report.

I don't think this is one of the best known stories of the bible, but I do think it is extremely significant.  In some respects, I see this as a parallel to the fall from grace by Adam and Eve in Gen 3.  In that case, Adam and Eve sinned and so they were forced out of the perfection of the garden and into a sinful world.  The ultimate curse of Adam was death, the destruction of his very life.  In this case, God's plan to bring Israel into the promised land was in many respects a redemption from the sinful state.  We see many aspects of the curse of Adam reversed by the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.

Consider this: the promised land, Canaan, is called the "land flowing with milk and honey" (Ex 3:8).  The garden of Eden, the original dwelling of humanity, was a land flowing with four rivers and rich with gold and other minerals, all signs of abundant wealth and prosperity.  So by bringing the Israelites to the promised land, the LORD is metaphorically bringing humanity back to the pre-fall garden.  Granted, only a small fraction of humanity, and only to a small "garden", but I see this as what would have been a first step in a longer process.

Next, consider the many promises of abundant prosperity, beginning at least in Gen 12:2, "I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you...", continuing on through Gen 17:5, "For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations".  The promises become even more significant and glamorous in e.g. Lev 26:3-13, which categorically promises them military victory, peace, farming success and abundance, wealth, multiplied children, and ultimately the abiding and presence of God, that he would "walk among you and be your God".  In terms of the economic side of things, it is effectively re-establishing the original command to mankind in Gen 1:28 to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it.  God is promising them that he will empower and enable them to fulfill that command through the moral structure of the covenant.

Next, consider the divine protection from judgment and the negative effects of the curse.  This is a subject I have discussed before, in e.g. Ex 11 (and probably earlier).  The general principle is that the plagues of Egypt (and possibly earlier events like the floods of Gen 7 and the destruction of Sodom in Gen 19) were a manifestation that represented the curse of Adam by destroying parts of the natural world.  Adam was cursed in Gen 3:17-19 that the ground would be cursed and bring up thorns and thistles (a common biblical trope for barrenness or famine/poverty).  This part of the curse is the antithesis of the luxury and prosperity of the garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve were cast, and that is reversed by the many guarantees of prosperity in the promised land.

The next part of the curse is death, manifested by the death of the firstborn of Egypt, the destruction of the great flood, the destruction of Sodom, etc.  The sins of those later generations (the sins of Sodom, Gen 18:20, the sins of mankind, Gen 6:5) is a parallel to the sin of Adam.  So just as Adam was cursed with death for his actions, the later generations were punished with death for their sins.  The Israelites, however, were spared from death in Egypt because they were protected by atoning blood of lambs and more strongly, by their covenant with the LORD through Abraham, renewed with Isaac and Jacob (e.g. Ex 2:24).  Death is antithetical to the tree of life, and so protecting them from death is like metaphorically returning the Hebrews to the tree of life.

The last parallel I want to address is the divine presence of the LORD.  We are told (very ironically, given the context) in Gen 3:8 that the LORD was in the habit of walking through the garden, the residence of humanity.  This gives us a picture of the LORD abiding with his people, being their God, and dwelling with them.  With the sin of Adam, the LORD cast them from his presence and forced the people to live in a place where he did not dwell (as far as we are told).  At some point it became "normal" to not dwell with God, and though we are not precisely told when, it is probably when mankind was forced out of the garden.  And so by the time of Moses, one of the most significant promises of the covenant is that the LORD would dwell with his people and be their God, dramatically exemplified by the construction of the tabernacle (i.e. residence), ark of the covenant, and statements like Lev 26:11-13: "...I will also walk among you and be your God".

This is a long introduction, but I think it's important for my readers to understand that the significance of the promised land goes way beyond an arbitrary promise to Abraham that just happens to pass down to his children.  It is part of the broader redemption of Israel and their redemption from the curse that is destroying all of mankind.  It literally represents their material prosperity and national inheritance and symbolically represents the abiding presence of the LORD and the covenant itself (since the covenant is the Promise that gives the Promised Land its name).  All of these factors tie together into a consistent story, and now my readers should understand the tremendous significance to the Israelites' coming invasion of this promised land: claiming their inheritance, but also bringing themselves (and by extension, all of humanity) closer to redemption from the curse of Gen 3.

This chapter should therefore be rather alarming to my readers.  It begins with a purely military action, sending spies into the land of Canaan so as to scout out good avenues of attack, where to focus their resources and to inform any planning.  Like many of their military actions, this one was commanded by the LORD.

They send one man from each tribe, similar to how there was one man from each tribe over the census.  The twelve men, while still leaders, are a completely new set of people.  This probably reflects the more dangerous mission they are sent on, so these are probably younger figures.  One of them, Joshua (who we are told is also known as Hoshea), was leading Israel's military when they fought against the Amalekites in Ex 17.  This suggests that the twelve spies are more likely military commanders, while the twelve men over the census were the supreme heads of the family, elders.  Not that there's a big distinction (there isn't), but as we can see, there is at least some difference.

Of the twelve names here, only two are worth noting: Joshua, who we have met before, and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who we have not.  As we see towards the end of this chapter, these are the only two spies who suggest that the nation can successfully invade Canaan.

The use of twelve men, one leader from each tribe, is very similar to the organization of the census.  However, it's hard for me to believe that there is any fear of bias or misreporting by the spies.  I would guess that in this case, they use one man from each tribe as a statement of unity.  Since each tribe is expected (indeed, required) to invade the promised land, it makes sense that each one would equally spy out the land. Remember that every time you see a statement of unity, it's probably because the various groups don't actually think of themselves as unified.

When Moses commands the spies, we can see two distinct focuses: the first is the military strength of the local peoples (how many are they, how strong are they, and do they live in fortified cities) and the second is the natural richness of the land (is the land good or bad, how about trees, how about food).  Of course, the natural richness also plays into military strategy because if you can successfully forage in the land, it makes besieging walled towns much more viable.  To those unfamiliar with siege warfare, it can often turn into a race between attackers, who pillage the countryside to gather food, and defenders who have stockpiled as much as they can to survive.  When the curses of disobedience in Lev 26 threatened starvation in v. 26 and 29, those are probably related to the siege of v. 25, when the people are "[gathered] together into your cities", which is itself a result of the "sword" of v. 25, i.e. invading armies.

Moses inquires about trees because wood would be used for manufacturing siegecraft, the various weapons of war they would use to attack walled towns.

The economic questions have a military purpose, but they also have a dual purpose of validating the promises of the LORD.  As the spies note in their report, the land "certainly does flow with milk and honey", confirming the LORD's promise of the richness of the land.

Some other notable things: it takes two men to carry back a single cluster of grapes?  I can see why they think the land is blessed if a cluster of grapes is so large that a single person can't handle it alone.

Also notable is the first mention of the sons of Anak (beginning in v. 22).  As we are told in v. 33, the Anakites are "part of the Nephilim" who in turn were first mentioned back in Gen 6 as the men of great renown, children of mortal women and the "sons of God", possibly angels.  This is very surprising because we would have presumed that the great flood wiped out all of the Nephilim.  There are many wild theories out there, but at the end of the day the bible never addresses this apparent inconsistency, probably because it is not important to the overall story of Israel.  Or possibly because the author thought all his readers would know about the Nephilim already.

Whatever the reason, the sons of Anak become a recurring motif in much of the OT, where they come to symbolize the strength of resistance against the Israelites.  As with here, the Anakites are a race of giants, both tall and extremely threatening in combat, who populate the promised land in small numbers but fiercely resist the invading Hebrews.  For whatever reason, there are very few Anakites and we are usually only told about them when they are being progressively exterminated.  I call them symbolic because the Anakites are always in resistance to the Israelites and by their exaggerated size and strength, they represent the great strength that stands against Israel in general.  The most famous Anakite of all is Goliath the giant, who faces off against the young King David in the book of Samuel, but even in this chapter we can already see that the Israelites are terrified of the Anakim, and it is primarily their fear of the Anakim that guides their thoughts.

The spies begin by noting the richness of the land and end by noting the extensive opposition they will definitely face when trying to take the land.  This provokes two responses: Caleb claims that the people can take possession of the land, while the rest of the spies emphasize the greatness of their foes and their own personal weakness.  These two approaches signify two ways of viewing their challenges: Caleb is primarily thinking about the LORD leading them to take the land, while the rest of the people are primarily thinking about their own weakness and the strength of those who stand against them.

Starting all the way back in Egypt, we have seen the impossibility of human action to produce any good result and the LORD stepping in to do the impossible, first by breaking the power of Pharaoh and second by sustaining Israel through the desert.  Now the impossibility they face is to defeat a people who are physically stronger than them, more numerous and lead by giants.

But we have to remember that this is the battle over the promised land.  Whether they take or fail to take this land is emblematic of the larger story of human redemption through the covenant of Abraham.  The reason why the Israelites have faced all of these impossibilities is because human redemption itself is impossible for humans to enact: it must be done by an act of God.  In some respects taking the promised land is the final stage in Israel's history, because it completes the process of bringing them back into the metaphorical "garden of Eden", which I discussed above.  That they would falter now is both alarming and grievous.

I will continue on this subject into the next chapter, which is closely associated with this one.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 12

In this chapter, Miriam and Aaron continue the assault upon Moses, challenging his role as the leader of Israel.

As I implied when discussing the last chapter, whenever Moses solves one complaint it only opens the door to a new complaint.  In this case, having given the people an excessively large supply of meat, we are now told that Miriam and Aaron are both "speaking against" Moses, ostensibly because of his Cushite (i.e. upper Egyptian) wife, but what they were challenging in v. 2 is whether Moses deserves a position of leadership over the nation given that the LORD has "spoken through us as well".

This is ironic for two reasons.  First, Aaron and Miriam both already hold positions of substantial leadership. Aaron is the high priest and has considerable authority.  Miriam is much less discussed, but we were told in Ex 15:20 that Miriam is a "n'biyah", derived from "naba", a prophetess.  This is probably the basis for why she says that the LORD has spoken through her.  Second, in just the last chapter Moses (with the LORD) put the spirit upon seventy of Israel's elders, so it very much seems that Moses is not intentionally holding onto power.  Aaron and Miriam choose now, after Moses shares power with others, to seek their own power grab.

I think there are two sides to this issue.  The first side views this as an affront.  Aaron and Miriam are already two of the most powerful people in the nation, so why are they seeking even more power?  You can view this as a case of raw arrogance.  The second side is viewing this from the perspective of Aaron and Miriam, who probably see Moses hording all of the power for himself.  The first question we have to address is whether that's true, and the second question is whether that is a reasonable perception given what we can guess they know.

The reality, as we are told it by the bible, is that the LORD was supporting Moses 100%.  There are many things we don't know about Moses, but if we can trust the biblical text, then we do know that the LORD was the real power behind Moses.  Why he chose Moses is something up for debate (which I have debated, back in Ex 4), but we can have no doubt that the LORD called Moses and gave him all of the authority that he now, in fact, holds.

Note that verse 3 is likely a later addition, since it doesn't really fit in the narrative.  Of course, there are many things in the Pentateuch that don't exactly fit in the narrative, but this one is more striking than usual.  I frequently hear pastors/teachers say with some irony that Moses is calling himself the most humble man on the earth, but with all due respect this verse probably is a later editorial.

To address the second question, in much of what we have read, the LORD is talking to Moses who then recounts these laws or commands to the rest of the people.  What does anyone know of the LORD except what Moses says?  This does leave something of an information gap between Moses (who speaks to the LORD "mouth to mouth", i.e. directly and intimately) and the rest of the people, who generally only have Moses's words.  How much could the people know about the LORD apart from Moses's instructions?  What have the people seen that validates Moses's position?  I don't want to go back and review everything we have read, but I think the answer is, "a lot".  Apart from many other incidents, Moses told the people the Passover ritual which protected them from the very real plague of the firstborn that struck the Egyptians.  Every time the LORD performs something in accordance with Moses's words, that is a validation that Moses does speak on behalf of the LORD.

I've already said the Israelites have a memory problem, but I don't think this is the case here.  Miriam and Aaron are challenging Moses precisely because they remember the many occasions where Moses has done something great, bringing back laws of the LORD or performing a miracle or entering the tabernacle to speak with the LORD (and where they are forbidden).

Regardless of their reasons or what they thought, this episode shows that the LORD supports Moses fully, as we might have suspected.

For some reason, only Miriam is punished.  Whether that's because she was the more energetic challenger or for some other reason is unclear.  Notably, verse 1 lists Miriam before Aaron, which is a standard formula to show that she was the leader of the two in this endeavor.

Anyway, Miriam is temporarily cursed with leprosy, which as we saw in Lev 13, makes her unclean and she must depart from the camp.  Similarly, in verse 14 when the LORD says "if her father had but spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days?"  I'm fairly sure that spit is one type of bodily fluid that results in ceremonial impurity, which creates a two-fold message.  The more obvious message is that having your father spit in your face is a mark of rebuke and disgrace, and that is the LORD's intent with giving her leprosy.  The less obvious (to us) message is that leprosy, as with saliva, makes her ceremonially unclean so that she must (by law) depart the camp for seven days.

This is a fairly short story, but it shows us that the people are rebelling against Moses even at the very top, while the prior chapter showed us that they were revolting en masse.  I think we should be able to see why Moses is having such a hard time with this people.

Bible Commentary - Numbers 11

In this chapter, several related events happen: the people continue complaining fiercely, the LORD starts punishing the people, Moses demands help, and the LORD agrees to gives Moses 70 elders who will share in his spirit.

Having departed from Sinai, the people resume their complaints.  It's not clear to me if the complaining in v. 1-3 is the same issue as v. 4+.  It's possible.  In the first instance, we are told they were complaining "of adversity", while later the focus is clearly around the quality of the food.

In the first instance, we are told that the anger of the LORD "was kindled" and it burned on the outskirts of the camp.  Fire is frequently used as a metaphor for anger, but in this case (almost humorously) the metaphor fire became a literal fire that burns some of the people to death as punishment for their complaining.

Their more serious grievance, beginning in verse 4, is a renewed desire to return to Egypt.  This is nothing new, and even the topic of food is nothing new.  For instance, see Ex 16:3.  Note that the bible terms these people an "asp'suph", a mixed assemblage.  This is the only use of this word in the entire OT.  They have lustful desires, weeping out of their longing for the meat of Egypt.  This is a stern rejection of the LORD's provision, that they would be weeping that they "only" have manna, which is provided for them supernaturally.  It also shows an escalation of their complaining, that at first they complained there was no food, so the LORD gave them food.  Then they complained they had no water, so the LORD gave them water.  Now they are complaining that, while they have food, they do not have meat.

At this point, it leaves me wondering if they will ever stop complaining.  One thing I have learned in my short life is that if a person is intent on complaining, he or she will always be able to find something to complain about, and I think that's the story here.  To be sure, wandering through the Egyptian desert is a pretty harsh place, but they're not complaining about the desert, really.  They are complaining about the manna, and by extension, God's treatment of them.

One other thing to keep in mind is the selective memory exhibited here; notice how swiftly the Israelites forget their oppression and how diligently they remember the few benefits of slavery.  Literally one year ago the Israelites departed from 400 years of oppression and "bitter... hard labor" (Ex 1:14).  The Israelites "sighed... cried out... because of their bondage...groaning" (Ex 2:23-24).  And now, literally one year later, they are longing, lusting after their desire for the food that they ate in Egypt.  It is stunning to think that they would willingly return to harsh slavery (and the mandatory murder of their sons, no less) in exchange for bread and meat, because they do not want to eat manna anymore.

There are a couple principles we can draw from this.  The first is above, that an intent complainer will always complain.  The second is that as people, we generally focus more on the bad things about the present.  To wit, the Israelites are acutely aware of all of the negative things happening to them (no meat!), but they are completely ignoring or even actively complaining about the good things happening to them, like the supernatural food and water, the cloud of the LORD's presence, the tabernacle that goes amongst them, etc.  They have an extremely unbalanced perspective on what is happening in their lives.

Lastly, this unbalanced perspective also applies to the past.  About Egypt, they are acutely aware of the good things then (we ate bread and meat!), but they completely ignore the negatives like how the Egyptians would kill their sons, they were whipped or beaten, forced into slavery, etc.  In particular they are focusing on the issue from which they are suffering now (namely, not having any meat) while ignoring the many other issues that have been alleviated by their redemption.  They aren't getting beaten or whipped anymore, so they promptly forget that they ever were, and instead focus on their newest problem, disliking manna.

As an aside, this isn't the first time they have desired meat.  Back in Ex 16, when they first complained about food and the LORD gave them both manna (for the rest of their journey) and meat (just on that occasion).  They are now complaining about meat again, and this time the LORD is much less forgiving.

Moses, for his part, is definitely feeling the pressure because these complaints are largely directed at him (for instance, note how frequently Moses redirects the peoples' criticisms at the LORD, the Hebrews' divine sovereign: Ex 14:11-13, Ex 15:24, Ex 16:7-8, Ex 17:2-4).  That's why Moses is complaining about not being able to "carry" the people, because all the people are basically expected Moses to take care of them and provide for them.  In response, the LORD says he will take "the spirit" that Moses has and put it on 70 elders of the people, who we can presume would then be expected to help lead the nation.

This implies that there is some particular "spirit" upon Moses.  Most bible translations will capitalize it, Spirit, to imply that it is the Holy Spirit.  The NASB goes even further and personifies it, "the Spirit who is upon you".  However, the Hebrew does not say that, it only says, "ruach", the typical word for spirit/breath/wind that we have seen many times before.  Biblical Hebrew does not have capitalization at all, so all capitalized terms in an English bible are inserted by the translator of that bible, not in the underlying text.  In this case, it's essentially a theological gloss where the translator is presuming the text refers to the Holy Spirit, and capitalizes accordingly.

So what is the spirit of Moses?  Is it just some esprit de corps, some elan, that guides him in his zeal for the LORD, or is it a proper noun Spirit, like the spirit of God that rested upon Joseph while he was in Egypt?  I think this question is answered later in this chapter, when the spirit is placed upon the 70 elders "and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied."  This is the first use of the word prophesied (Hebrew, "naba"). This opens a whole new can of worms: what is biblical prophecy, how is it formulated in the OT, and how does that relate to the spirit of Moses?  Each of these questions deserves its own answer.

I have already partially addressed the subject of biblical prophecy back in Gen 49, when discussing the prophecy of Jacob.  Now Jacob did not "naba", which is our first clue that what we are seeing here is a different kind of prophecy than Jacob's.  Jacob's prophecy is poetic and it's future-predictive, very similar to what many people think "prophecy" is.  "naba" is something very different.  To be brief, "naba" is "to speak or sing while under divine inspiration".  It is used specifically referring to a form of ecstatic worship or speech, although the precise nature of what is said is never revealed to us.  That's how we generally know that it's not meant to be predictive, because we are not told what the elders said.  It is more important for us to know that they "naba"ed than that they were prophesying anything in particular.  So the subject of "naba" is debatable, whatever they might be speaking or singing.  The critical element is that it is done under divine guidance, although not always the LORD.  Sometimes in the OT there are false prophets who "naba".  So the term is used of the form of speaking and prophesying, and not necessarily a validation that it is from the LORD.  In this case, however, it is very clear that the LORD is inspiring his elders to "naba", to prophesy, as proof that they have the spirit that was on Moses.

This is further evidence that the spirit upon Moses was the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, because genuine naba implies divine inspiration.  I see this episode as being another extension of the "royal priesthood, holy nation" statement from Ex 19:6 which I have talked about a lot before.  Most recently, I said that the semi-priesthood of the Levites was a move towards establishing the whole nation as a priesthood.  Now we can see there is a parallel (but separate) extension of the prophetic ministry from Moses to a group of the nation's leaders.  Most strikingly, when Joshua complains to Moses about Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp, Moses wishes "that all the LORD's people were prophets, that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!"

Therefore the priesthood is only one of several tracks that Moses (and the LORD) wish to expand over the entire nation of Israel.  Unlike the priesthood, the prophetic ministry remains much less tightly defined through the OT, as it never has a clear mandate and job description like the closely regulated sacrifice and festival system.  Still, if there's one thing made clear by this chapter it is that true prophecy comes from the spirit of the LORD, which is interesting because the spirit of the LORD was first imparted to man when the LORD breathed life into Adam.  So it's as if all of mankind, by the very act of creation, has some measure of the inspirational power and insight of the LORD.  What does it mean for the LORD to "put his spirit" upon people if the LORD's spirit is what empowers us to live in the first place?

I don't think we have a clear answer to that question, nor does this chapter seem intent on giving us one.  What we can deduce from this text would suggest there are different measures or different spirits which come from the LORD and are given to specific people at specific times.  Everyone on the earth has the measure of the spirit of God that gives life and vitality to us all, but there was some special spirit upon Joseph (which empowered him to interpret dreams) and another spirit upon Moses, which is here imparted to the elders of Israel and enables them to "naba", but only once.  We should understand that the spirit remained on the elders after prophesying, because the purpose of the spirit is to qualify them for leadership, taking on part of Moses's burden as the spiritual head of the nation.  It's the same spirit, but it seems to have multiple roles in this case, which should not be surprising if it is indeed the spirit of God.

In parallel to all this stuff happening with the elders, the LORD has a separate message for the revolting assemblage, each weeping at his tent: he will send them an excess of meat until they are sick of meat, which almost sounds sarcastic, but at the end of the chapter he actually does it.  With a certain degree of irony, the people immediately go out and gather all the quail they can and begin eating it now that it has been provided to them by the LORD whom they scorn, thanklessly.  This seems very presumptive to me, and the LORD responds by sending a plague amongst the people when they begin eating.  For more irony, note that after this the people stop complaining about meat, but begin complaining about other issues (which we will see in the next chapter).  So once again, the nation is a recipient of the LORD's provision, at which point they immediately forget what the LORD has done for them and move on to complain about whatever is next on their agenda.  Note that ten homers is a tremendous amount of meat, hence why it must be spread all around the camp (probably to be dried for storage?).

Something that fascinates me about this chapter while writing my commentary is how the sections describing the rebellion of the people are interleaved with the sections describing the spirit of God resting upon the elders of the nation.  First the LORD tells Moses he will put the spirit on the elders, then he tells Moses about sending quail to the nation for a whole month.  Then Moses goes out and tells the people the word of the LORD, and then he gathers the elders.  Then the elders come in and are filled with the spirit, and then the LORD sends the quail.  Reading the chapter in this way gives us a sense of the progressive development of the spirit resting on these elders, which in itself should be a joyful occasion and a blessing to the nation, but at the same time there is a brewing rebellion against Moses and the LORD.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 10

In this chapter, the LORD explains how to make various signals on two silver trumpets, and then the tribes leave Sinai using the formation from Numbers 2.

This chapter continues with the military theme of Numbers by explaining the system of trumpet signals and the meanings therein. There are a few takeaways from this. It is interesting to note that trumpets have been used to signal various maneuvers in the battle field up through at least the American Civil War, though trumpets as a military tool have dropped off substantially since the advent of modern warfare, radios, etc.

In this chapter, we can see that the trumpets are being used for both military and non-military purposes, including both signalling in battle, as a triumphal note over sacrifices, and to help organize the camp. We already saw that the aptly named feast of trumpets (on the seventh month, first day) involves the blowing of trumpets. The Jubilee also requires the blowing of trumpets. In both these cases, it is celebratory.

The mixed role of trumpets is quintessentially Pentateuchal. I have already demonstrated that the text of the Pentateuch is extremely heterogeneous and drifts from history to law to poetry, etc, with seeming abandon. It is only appropriate, then, that their use of trumpets should be similarly heterogeneous. As a further point, this also highlights the ambiguity of the Israelite nation's identity as a whole. Since the trumpets are used for both military and non-military purposes, this shows that the intended recipients (the people) are considered both, possibly even at the same time. This ambiguity is reinforced by the language of Num 2 which talks about the tribal camps as being the "armies of" whatever tribe is mentioned. The tribe is the army and the army is the tribe.

The overall effect is that the Israelites are embarking on a total war. While total warfare is frequently considered a modern concept, as we can see it's really not. This is the first step for understanding why (in their later invasion of Canaan) the Israelites generally slaughtered women and children in addition to the men.  I don't say this to justify the massacres, but so that my readers may understand the context of the decisions in the first place.  There are other significant factors, such as the importance of stamping out the Canaanite religions, but just keep in mind that this is about survival for the Israelites and the Canaanites alike.  More on this to come in Joshua.

Next we see the Israelites finally depart Sinai, when signaled by the cloud lifting off of the tabernacle. The departure of the tribes is virtually identical to the pattern laid out in Num 2, with two notable (but minor) exceptions. The first is that the Gershonites and Merarites carry the parts of the tabernacle after the first wave of tribes, while the Kohathites leave after the second wave (in the middle of the procession). Num 2 only said the Levites camp in the middle, and therefore would properly depart after the second wave. The explanation is pretty straightforward though: they wished to give the Levites time to set up the tabernacle before the holy things arrive into the camp.

The second exception is that the ark of the covenant traveled in the very front of the whole army (v. 33), which is the first time this has been mentioned. Of course we know from its position in the holy of holies that the ark of the covenant is extremely significant, but now we can see that it travels in the very front. Since the ark is considered like the LORD's throne (see e.g. Num 7:89), this positions the LORD at the front of the nation, like their king leading them into battle. This effect is deliberate, and this goes back to my long-running study of the various manifestations of God.  Even though this isn't precisely a manifestation, the ark is symbolic of the LORD's presence and is positioned as the leader of the Israelite people.  The cloud is a more direct manifestation and is also guiding the Israelites as they travel from campsite to campsite.

We also see the Israelites trying to talk Hobab (a relative of Moses) into traveling with them as their guide.  He is reluctant, but after offering him implied wealth, he agrees.  It is unclear what happens to Hobab after this, because he isn't mentioned again, except possibly in Judges 4:11 (which calls Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, but the father-in-law of Moses is Reuel AKA Jethro).  Judges 4:11 seems to suggest that Hobab's family arrived in the promised land with the Israelites and settled there.

The last part of this chapter is a record of what Moses would say when the ark (leading the people) would set out or come to rest.  Both of these phrases reinforce the association between the ark of the covenant and the LORD's presence.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 9

In this chapter, the people celebrate their first Passover outside of Egypt, and the cloud of the LORD's presence guides the people through the wilderness.

The first thing I noticed when reading this chapter is that the timeframe is one month earlier than the census from chapter 1. The Passover is celebrated on the fourteenth of the first month, while the census was taken on the first of the second month. This chapter doesn't tell us when the LORD spoke to Moses, except that it was during the first month and we can presume it was before the Passover began (on the fourteenth day).

What this shows us is that the author is not following a chronological story, which is consistent with much of what we have seen before. There are many small stories and vignettes in the Pentateuch that are undated, so in theory they could have occurred at nearly any time during the wilderness journey. What is pretty clear to me is that the author is more interested in grouping and organizing by topic than by chronology. When discussing Genesis 1, I said that the author is "clearly most interested in presenting the creation and coronation of man," and that Genesis "is written in a pre-modernist mindset."

Adherence to a strict chronology also seems like one of the principles of the modernist mindset, which emphasizes a progressive overlay of facts, eventually drawing conclusions from those facts.  The author of the Pentateuch seems more interested in a progressive overlay of topics, which he supports by inserting the relevant stories.  For instance, there is a brief reference to the Day of Atonement in Ex 30:10, while the Day of Atonement is only really defined in Lev 16.  This isn't an inconsistency per se, but it is definitely confusing if you are reading the Pentateuch expecting everything to be properly defined before it is referenced.

The author is adhering to a general chronology (from the patriarchs to the exodus to Mount Sinai...), but as with here, laying out a chronology doesn't seem like the overarching goal.  I don't want to push this point too aggressively, because it's a complicated subject that is only loosely related to this chapter, so I'll stop here.

Moving on, the core issue of this chapter is the reconciliation of the Passover with the ceremonial purity laws of Leviticus.  There is no provision that specifically states that one must be ceremonially pure to celebrate the Passover, it is implied by verses such as e.g. Lev 7:21.  Also, Num 5:2 would suggest that unclean people must dwell outside the camp, while we presume that the Passover is celebrated within the camp.

Anyway, I'm not sure why Passover is the only festival mentioned here.  Passover is the first Jewish feast and arguably the most important.  Also, verse 13 establishes that if any person is capable of celebrating the Passover but doesn't, that person is to be "cut off", meaning either killed or exiled.  This is consistent with the original purpose of the Passover, sparing the firstborn of Israel from death and protecting them from the plagues of God's judgment.  If the Hebrews cease to celebrate the Passover, it would be like departing from that divine protection.

One wonders why the only cause of defilement that is called out in this chapter is being near a dead body (being on a journey is not a source of impurity).  I've heard various theories, but it seems like the consensus is that if there is a source of defilement which can be avoided, then you are expected to avoid it and it's your own fault if you don't.  By this theory, the "dead bodies" would refer to people who suddenly die, such as with the Nazirite vow in Num 6, or alternatively it refers to Israelites who have to perform important burial rites.  But there are other sources of unavoidable defilement, such as skin diseases, giving childbirth or continuous bleeding.  I presume these would get rolled into the same provision, with the caveat that many people with such conditions would not be ceremonially pure even into the second month. I can't imagine these people would be punished for what are mostly unalterable conditions, so they would probably not celebrate the Passover at all but not be punished for it.

The second half of this chapter discusses the guiding presence of the LORD's cloud by day and fire by night. We had already seen this cloud guiding the people starting back in Ex 13:21 and again in Ex 40:34-38.  In particular, Ex 40:36-37 establishes very nearly the same content as this chapter, which is that the people would move out when the cloud arose, and by implication, the people would camp when the cloud would settle.

We see in both Exodus and here that the cloud is closely associated with the tabernacle, which ties it with the LORD's presence.  Here it is simply called "the cloud", but in Ex 40 it is called the "cloud of the LORD" and is closely associated with the glory filling the tabernacle whenever the cloud descended upon it.  So the cloud is a direct manifestation of the LORD's presence.

In Exodus, the main function of the cloud is to separate the Egyptians from the Israelites (and by extension, protect the Israelites from harm) and to further dampen the effects of the Sinaitic weather.  Namely, it is a cloud during the day to block out the harsh sunlight, and a fire at night to help keep the Israelites warm in the frigid cold desert air.  Deserts are a challenging environment to survive in, and the Israelites have spent several generations in the relatively stable Nile valley and delta, so they would have been largely unprepared for the journey ahead.  Traveling in such large numbers, they would almost instantly consume the scarce desert resources of water and food and be left totally at the LORD's mercy for their provision.

Here the cloud of the LORD is most strongly associated with the LORD's guidance and its movement is considered the "command of the LORD".  Not only does the lifting and settling of the cloud tell the people when they should travel, it also settles down in specific locations to tell the Israelites where they should camp.  This chapter further emphasizes the literal obedience of the people as they follow the "command of the LORD through Moses".  Since the LORD is now issuing commands to the people, to an extent I think this heightens the militaristic tone of Numbers. This, and the people's military obedience to the formation of the camp and marching order, is a great start but as we will see, the overall tenor of Numbers is generally the disobedience of the people.

Like other parts of the Pentateuch*, this section is remarkably verbose. It essentially repeats the same thing over and over for about 10 verses, repeatedly emphasizing the commanding presence of the LORD and the diligent obedience of the people to their King.

One last minor point is that verse 22 says that "whether it was two days or a month or a year that the cloud lingered over the tabernacle..." Unless this statement is hypothetical, it seems to imply that the Israelites would sometimes camp in the same place for a year. Otherwise there would be no basis for the author saying that they obeyed when the cloud stayed for that long. It could be a hypothetical (i.e. "if the cloud stayed for the same place in one year, then the people would have stayed too"), but from the phrasing it does not seem like it is hypothetical. If it is not, then this seems like an allusion for the 40 years of journeying in the wilderness that is to come. The Israelites possibly camped in the same place for a whole year during that journey, though we are never explicitly told so.

*Consider, for instance, the vast repetition between Ex 25-30 and Ex 35-39, which even individually were very generous in detail.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 8

In this chapter, the LORD institutes the ritual cleansing of the Levites.

This chapter begins with a divine command from the LORD, speaking to Moses, for Moses to share with Aaron. The bible is full of these games of telephone or relay messages, presumably because Aaron is not present with Moses in the Tent of Meeting at the time, which is a simple and reasonable explanation. Still, I always find it amusing whenever the bible has triple or quadruple nested quotations, like "The LORD told Moses, 'Tell Aaron to tell the people, "Say to one another, 'Blah.'"'". I have made it a bit of a game to try to find the most nested quotes in the bible, and I think my record is something like four, but I don't remember where.

Anyway, the actual meaning of the LORD's command is pretty hard to figure out. What the Hebrew is saying is approximately, "the seven lamps will shine toward the front face of the lampstand", which the NASB translates "in the front of the lampstand". From the construction of the lampstand (Hebrew, "menorah"), it would seem like it should cast light equally between the front and back, unless the lamps themselves had a sort of directionality? From the depiction we see of the gold lampstand in e.g. the Arch of Titus, it appears as if the lampstand should have cast light equally fore and aft. Perhaps the command in this chapter indicates some practice where the lamps would be partially veiled. Or perhaps it is not as much a specific command for the priest to do something as a statement of the purpose of the lampstand, which is to cast light into the tabernacle, where it is facing. If this is true, the LORD is not telling Aaron how to orient the lampstand, but rather stating the purpose of the lampstand and instructing Aaron in a general sense to arrange things in accordance with that purpose.

Anyway, the bulk of this chapter is a discussion of the ritual purification and "offering" of the Levites. This is a very interesting passage to me because it phrases the dedication of the Levites as being like a "wave offering", the term used for the breast of slaughtered peace offerings in e.g. Lev 7:30, but also for some of the animals slaughtered as part of the ordination process for Aaron in e.g. Ex 29:24. In the first case, the peace offering, the wave offering is given to the priest. In the second case, the ordination sacrifice, the wave offering is burned by fire.

So the wave offering doesn't seem like a tightly defined thing, since it's used in very different situations. Literally it just means that part of the offering is "waved" before the LORD. What kind of deeper significance that might have is pretty hard to discern. In this case, the term is used metaphorically since the Levites are only "offered" in the most allegorical of ways. Allegory is surprisingly rare in the Pentateuch, because much of the language is either historical (i.e. narrative) or technical/legal. Of course, later sources (and even later in the OT and NT) interpret or re-use symbolism from the Pentateuch in metaphorical ways, but as we have seen, it is unusual for the Pentateuch to do this to itself.

Nevertheless, that's exactly what we see here, and many of the same terms and rituals from the Levitical sacrifices are present here. The whole congregation (who are "offering" the Levites) are expected to gather and lay their hands on the heads of the "offering", the Levites, and then the Levites are presented before the LORD as a wave offering. At this point, the Levites are given to the LORD, in the same sense that an offering is given to the LORD, but obviously without slaying the Levites and shedding their blood, etc.

While I normally speaking of the "laying hands on their head" as a sign of transference of guilt, it's unlikely that's what it means in this case because the Levites are not slain and remain within the camp. In this case it's possibly a sign of dedication, that the people are laying their hands on the Levites to show that they are giving the Levites to the LORD. I don't have any particular reason for believing this other than a lack of alternatives (I mean, what else could it mean?).

This is all after the Levites are purified by washing and shaving their whole bodies, of course. The "offering" of the Levites also coincides with a burnt offering and sin offering. This whole process seems analogous to the consecration of the priests in Lev 8, except less elaborate. The priests didn't have to shave their bodies, but they do have to wash before putting on the holy garments and their consecration also involved several sacrifices. So, the details are clearly different which tells us (if nothing else) that the Levites are definitely not priests.

But at the same time, the Levites are clearly dedicated to the LORD and they "make atonement on behalf of the sons of Israel" (v. 19), so they are not laymen either. They are between the status of priests and laymen, a point I have made before (and yes, unlike the Nazirite vow, only men can enter the Levitical service).

The rest of this chapter just reiterates things we were told back in Num 3. Towards the end we are told the age of service for the Levites, which is nearly but not precisely the age range for the Levitical census in Num 4, which was 30 to 50. In this chapter we are told that Levites are to enter the service at 25 and retire at 50. I don't know why there is this discrepancy, since normally the OT is very precise and consistent in its numbers and calculations. I can think of many possible answers, whether from social conventions of the time, or maybe they wanted more people in the service than they found in the census, or whatever. It is unusual, but not very important.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 7

In this long, long chapter, the author recounts the dedication offerings for the "altar."

There are two altars related to the tabernacle, the bronze altar of burnt offerings that lies outside the tent and the golden altar of incense that is within the holy place.  The "altar" referred to in this chapter is almost certainly the bronze altar, because that is the larger and more prominent altar.  The altar of incense is relatively minor in comparison.

I thought we had already dedicated the altar back in Lev 8, and that is correct.  The first part of this chapter, verse 1, is essentially recapitulating what Moses did in Lev 8.  However, the dedication offerings of the twelve tribes were not discussed in Leviticus, so I believe v. 1 of this chapter is simply placed here to set the context for the rest of this chapter.  After the dedication offerings, in v. 89 at the end of this chapter, the LORD speaks to Moses and gives him instructions which are related to us in chapter 8, and possibly into chapter 9, though it's not clear if that's a separate event or part of this same narrative.

The offerings involve two portions, the carts with oxen and the daily offerings from each tribe which involve all of the major Levitical sacrifices: burnt offerings, a sin offering and peace offerings.  A grain offering is not specifically mentioned, but grain would be typically offered in conjunction with the other offering types.

The carts and oxen are given to the two Levitical families that are allowed to use them with twice the oxen given to the Merarites, probably because they carry the poles, bars and silver bases which weigh more than the curtains and skins.  The Gershonites are responsible for the curtains and skins and for that they are given two carts.  Carts and oxen are probably very expensive given how few are offered for each tribe.

Now to address some details of this chapter, the order of tribes when giving offerings is precisely identical to the order of tribes in the census and the order of the camp in Num 1 and 2 respectively.  The list of leaders for each tribe in this chapter is identical to the leaders in Num 1 and 2.  Also, each paragraph for a given tribe is precisely identical to the rest, with the exception of the name of the tribe, its leader and the day the offering is given.  Even though Judah is again given the honored first position, I think the overall effect is to emphasize the equality of the tribes because they each give the same gift.

It is funny that the author wrote out the full list of details for each offering, including the weight of the pans and bowls and everything.  This is one of the longest chapters in the bible and yet it really doesn't include that much unique content because so much of it is repeated.  The OT is funny, because it includes excessive, overbearing detail in some parts and it is inscrutably terse in other parts.  Clearly this is one of the chapters with excessive, overbearing detail, which leaves us wondering why it was important to the author.  I mean, he had to write all this stuff out by hand.  I've spent some time writing things out by hand, and after about 50 pages it starts getting brutally tedious.

So I do believe there was something important about this to the author, but like so many things from the OT, I think the importance is lost on us.  It makes me wonder, though.

Another minor point I'll bring up here is the imbalance between the burnt, sin and peace offerings.  Numerically, the smallest is the sin offering which involves a single animal per tribe.  Next is the burnt offering with 36 animals total, or 3 per tribe, and vast outnumbering either of these is the peace offering with a total of 204 animals.  This highlights the distinct nature of the different offerings.

To wit, with a sin offering, the idea is that a single offering is enough.  The purpose is to atone for sin, but for whatever reason, you only need kill a single animal to achieve this.  In a similar vein are the Yom Kippur offerings, which involves a few sacrifices, but the core offering is a single male goat for a sin offering, whose blood is sprinkled on the atonement piece above the ark of the covenant.

Burnt offerings do not have a single distinct purpose, so it's hard to categorize them.  In some cases the Israelites offer many burnt offerings, but in this case the number is relatively contained.  The peace offering is the sacrifice most associated with feasting, and so in celebrations we will see e.g. hundreds or even thousands of peace offerings at a single time (for instance, 1 Kings 8:63 involves the peace offering of 142,000 animals).  This is because the peace offering does not have a specific function like the sin offering, but can be offering simply as part of a celebration or feast.  The size of the offering is usually dictated by the wealth of the offerer more than anything else.

The last thing I want to point out is that Moses hears a voice speaking from above the atonement piece on the ark of the covenant, which shows it to be kind of like a divine throne for the LORD, seated between the two cherubim.  I talked about this before when discussing the construction of the ark in Ex 25, but verse 89 confirms this idea.

Bible Commentary - Numbers 6

In this chapter, the LORD tells us the laws of the Nazirite, concluding with the formula for the priestly benediction.

The Nazirite vow is very interesting. As we can see in this chapter, it is a voluntary vow to the LORD, possibly one of several kinds of vows, but the only one clearly defined in the OT. It is a vow over a certain time period, but we know from some biblical examples that the time frame does not have to be narrowly defined.

There are three well-known Nazirites in the bible, who all maintain the vow throughout their entire lives: Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist. In all three cases they were called to be Nazirites before they were born, so it's a bit different than the pattern in this chapter. This chapter seems to suggest that the Nazirite vow is something undertaken by a person for some period of time, which is symbolized by the growth of that person's hair over the duration of the vow. While the biblical examples are all men, verse 2 makes it clear that this vow is for both men and women.

There are three main clauses to the Nazirite vow: avoidance of wine, growing out one's hair and avoidance of dead bodies under any circumstances. This is a pretty strange list, and at first glance there is no apparent pattern to it. Avoiding dead bodies is perhaps related to the Levitical regulation, whereby approaching a dead body results in ceremonial impurity. Similarly, priests are prohibited from approaching dead bodies under any circumstances, except their close family. So perhaps we can see a connection there, where the Nazirite vow is like taking up a measure of the sanctity that is expected of the priests. The Nazirite vow is clearly harder than that of normal priests and is instead comparable with the restrictions on the high priest, who cannot approach any dead body, even that of his mother or father.

What's peculiar about this is that, just as with the priests, it is not a prohibition on ceremonial impurity, because there are many ways to become impure and approaching a dead body is just one of those ways. There is no similar restriction on e.g. touching an unclean person, being spit upon or touching other bodily fluid, or any of the other various sources of ritual impurity.

Additionally, the prohibitions on wine and shaving are both new and I don't believe there is any meaningful parallel in the Mosaic laws we have read so far. There was a restriction on shaving the corner's of one's beard (Lev 19:27, Lev 21:5), but that was part of the prohibition on adopting the religious customs of Canaan. In this case, the Nazirite is not shaving his or her head as an affirmative act, whereby the hair on the Nazirite's head is intended to be an outward sign of consecration and the vow itself. It is an externally visible action to mark the person as a Nazirite to anyone who encounters the Nazirite. Other than that, I don't know the significance of growing out one's hair.

The prohibition on drinking wine is unexpected, but I can think of two possible meanings for it. The first is that it's a sign of mourning, because drinking wine is usually associated with joy or celebration. The second is that the Nazirite is supposed to be sober and to avoid the intoxicating effects of the wine. This is probably related to the first meaning, because soberness is usually related to prayer or mourning. I.e. the Nazirite vow is intended to be sober and a dedication to prayer. Prayer itself is frequently associated with pleas for mercy or forgiveness of sin.

From these prohibitions we can see the Nazirite vow is exceedingly strict. The prohibition of wine specifically includes vinegar, grapes, grape juice, raisins and even the seeds and skins of grapes. It is obviously meant to be a very thorough restriction, and though it is not very broad (in the sense that it's only banning grape products), it is very deep (in that it bans literally all of them). Similarly, the prohibition on approaching dead bodies is extremely strict, such that it has a ritual in case someone unexpectedly dies near you. In that case you have to make an offering and then restart the vow from the very beginning. Clearly this vow is not meant to be taken lightly.  Even so, these restrictions do not seem like they would impede on normal life, in the sense that very few people have to drink wine or shave.

Also, the cost of the offerings when you complete the vow is relatively high, since it requires the normal course of a burnt offering, sin offering, grain offering and peace offering. Unlike many other rituals, this one does not have an scaling factor for economic hardship, probably because it is a voluntary offering so if you can't afford it, you can simply refrain from taking it.

To be honest, I don't think the details of the vow are as important as the bigger picture, which is that this vow makes a pattern for any person to consecrate him or herself to the LORD. After having spent so much time learning about the priesthood and the rituals of the tabernacle, it is natural to feel like the Levites and sons of Aaron are monopolizing access to the LORD. What's worse is that those roles are hereditary, so a person born into another tribe will never be allowed into the priesthood or Levitical service. However, the Nazirite vow is a pattern for any person to volunteer that same sort of consecration we see demanded of the priests. As I pointed out above, avoidance of dead bodies is one of the restrictions on both priests and the Nazirite.

This consecration comes with a great deal of restrictions. In Leviticus we saw Nadab and Abihu literally consumed by fire from the LORD's presence when they performed a "strange" (i.e. unknown or unauthorized) offering of fire, so there should be no doubt that the priesthood is a very narrow road to tread. In the same vein, the Nazirite vow is exceedingly strict because that is what holiness of God demands: holiness itself requires obedience, narrow obedience, and adherence to the commands of the LORD. The priests have both a blessing of nearness to the LORD's presence and a curse of death if they fail to keep any of the LORD's commands. The strictness of the law is not nearly as great for laypeople, but laypeople do not share in the commensurate blessings of entering the tabernacle and seeing or touching the holy things.

The vow of the Nazirite is therefore a path for anyone to enter into a similar form of consecration. The requirements (avoiding wine, shaving) are different, and Nazirites are not given access to the tabernacle or the other regulations of the priesthood, but they share the sense of consecration and devotion to the LORD. So that's why I really like the Nazirite vow: it is democratic in a way that the priesthood is not. The priests do not have any choice as to their role, but the Nazirites can volunteer their consecration.

This chapter concludes with the priestly blessing, which is short and simple but still meaningful. Among other things, it shows us what sorts of characteristics the Hebrews valued. The most significant blessing is peace, "shalom", which concludes the benediction. There is a three-fold repetition of the divine name, Yahweh, which is probably why v. 27 talks about "[invoking] my name on the sons of Israel". The priest is figuratively "calling upon the name of the LORD" to bring a blessing to the people.

The other significant part of the blessing is that it twice invokes the face of the LORD, first by referencing his face, "penim", shining upon them (like the sun, or a candle). The second is a reference to his face, "penim", being lifted up or raised towards them.

Structurally, there are three separate blessings that all begin with the divine name and have two expressed blessings. The first triplet is "bless you", "face shine upon you", "lift up his face towards you", the second triplet is "keep you" (i.e. hedge or guard), "give you grace" (i.e. favor or esteem), "give you peace".

Peace, or shalom, is probably the most complex of the blessings because the word is widely used and it has many subtle implications. A quick search of the OT finds 236 separate references to shalom starting in Gen 15:15 and ending in Malachi 2:6. The usage of shalom here is probably one of the most subtle, because it's not referring to peace with respect to some concrete event, circumstance or relationship. It is a general and deep tranquility, perhaps opposite of the kind of strife and labor that began in Gen 3:17, "in toil you will eat of [the ground]". Instead of the toil, sweat and sorrow of the curse of Adam, the priestly blessing brings protection, favor and inner tranquility and peace to the recipient. All of these blessings are strongly associated with the LORD and with his presence (panim).

Really though, I think the Aaronic blessing is really more easily learned by experience than by analysis. So I would encourage to simply pronounce the blessing over someone, whether another person or yourself. Try to feel the words as you speak them and meditate on the imagery these words evoke. Unlike many other parts of the OT, this is a part that anyone can utilize today, so I think it's an opportunity worth taking.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Bible Commentary - Numbers 5

In this chapter, the LORD establishes a ritual test for a wife's adultery.

I will begin by quickly addressing the first notes on defilement and restitution of sin and then discuss the "adultery test" from verse 11 and onward.

First is a quick note that everyone who is ceremonially impure must stay outside of the camp until they have become clean.  This is an extension of the Levitical regulations, because previously only people with a skin disease had to live outside the camp (cf. Lev 13:46), but people with other types of impurity were only required to avoid touching other people.  Now they are also required to dwell outside the camp, which is generally consistent with the theme of separating impurity away from the rest of the people.

The second is a fairly vague regulation that anyone who "commits any of the sins of mankind" (that seems pretty broad...) must make restitution "in full... and add to it one-fifth".  This seems to presume that there is some sort of monetary value or assessment of the "sin" committed, so this probably only refers to situations where there is an easily assessable damage.  Otherwise it makes no sense to say that a fine (for instance) should be increased by 20%: you could just as well make the fine 20% larger in the first place and then this regulation is moot.  So this probably only refers to situations where somebody causes a certain amount of damage to another person and the 20% extra is meant as a punitive award to the injured party.

As for the "ram of atonement", the closest reference to this is Lev 5:16, which is to atone whenever someone "sins unintentionally against the LORD's holy things".  Interestingly, that verse also mentions a 20% surcharge in addition to full restitution and the ram offering.  In that case, the "holy things" probably means either tithes or other expected offerings that the person was supposed to give the Levites or the priests, which is why restitution in that verse goes directly to the priest.  In this case, the restitution goes to "him whom he has wronged", which means that it generally refers to the population at large.  The ram of atonement is probably meant to be the same kind of ram offering as Lev 5:16 however, which is a guilt offering.  Lev 5:16 is specifically referring to unintentional sin, while this passage seems to include both intentional and unintentional, though it must not be a severe enough sin to warrant the much harsher penalties for e.g. theft (namely, Ex 22:1, 22:7, 22:9).

With that out of the way, I will now discuss the much longer and more substantive "adultery test".  The first few verses establish that this is the ritual to use if a man suspects his wife of adultery but there is no evidence that would support a criminal prosecution (witnesses, caught in the act).  However, the man has a "spirit of jealousy" (Hebrew, "ruach qinah") so that he suspects his wife of committing adultery.  In this case, there is a fairly elaborate ritual involving a small "grain offering of jealousy", which seems intended to recompense the priest more than anything else, and then there is a scroll with curses that is washed off into the "water of bitterness" and the woman must drink it.  This is a peculiar ritual, but the intent is pretty clear: it is meant as a ritual curse to cause infertility if the woman is guilty and nothing otherwise.

I have already discussed the importance of bearing children at great length, so I won't discuss it more here (see my commentary on Gen 14 for more discussion), but suffice to say it is still just as important to the women of Moses's day as it was in the time of Abraham.  This is strange because there are very few ritual curses in the law of Moses, other than the curses for disobedience to the LORD (in e.g. Ex 20:5, Lev 26).  I suppose we could view this as being a curse for disobedience in its own right, because the cultural expectation is that women would be obedience to their husbands (as the husband/father is the head of the household).  It's just strange that there would be a ritual to perform only if the husband felt jealous, rather than the LORD promising to invoke justice upon anyone who commits adultery (which we saw in e.g. Lev 20:20-21 for certain types of incest).

So the strange thing here in my view is not punishing adulterous women with infertility, but rather the fact that this only occurs if her husband becomes jealous and submits her to the priest.  Furthermore, even though the woman is brought to stand "before the LORD", the curse itself seems to be only vaguely related to the LORD and is more of an imprecation from the priest himself.  This "adultery test" seems unrelated to nearly everything else in the biblical regulations and almost seems inconsistent: so much of biblical law is based on either 1) human punishment based on witnessed crime or 2) divine punishment for another set of crimes.  In this case, it's not really divine punishment because it is initiated by the woman's husband and the priest, but it doesn't fit normal pattern for human punishment because there is no evidence or witnesses.

It seems to me as if this is an attempt to regulate or prevent men from harming their wives when they suspect marital infidelity.  Maybe the reason there is concrete action (a grain offering, the scroll, the bitter water) is to give the husband something practical that he can do if he becomes jealous, rather than e.g. killing his wife, which would be murder under the law and punishable by death, but who knows if that were normal at the time?

The truth is that I don't know, but I do not believe this ritual is ever mentioned again in the bible, so there is nothing that we can cross-reference against to learn more about it.

Now that I've discussed some of the details of the ritual, I would like to take a moment and talk about the bigger picture of what this says about male-female relations.

Obviously, what it says is that the husband has a great deal more power and control than the wife.  This chapter implies that men can have multiple wives (as we saw with Abraham and Jacob) and that women distinctly cannot have multiple husbands.  This is a ritual that can only be undertaken by the husband because by definition the husband is not guilty of infidelity if he sleeps with another woman, because he can always have more wives.  Of course, if he commits adultery by having sex with a married woman, then he would be guilty and punished by death, if he were caught.

The other imbalance of this chapter is that the husband can subject his wife to this ritual simply if he is jealous.  That seems to violate the woman's due process, since there is no evidence or anything.  Of course, this ritual is not exactly a punishment, but I can imagine the public embarrassment from even being accused would be pretty great, even if one were not guilty of the crime.  And in all of this, "the man will be free from guilt, but that woman shall bear her guilt" (v. 31).

So those are the major imbalances of this chapter, how this ritual stacks everything in favor of the husband and against the wife.  There is a small price to pay by the husband (having to make the grain offering), but there is otherwise no cost or penalty for a false accusation.

So the bible is pretty unfair towards women, yes?  Well, maybe it is, maybe it's not.  As with many of the regulations of slavery and other marital laws, we have to ask if the bible is instituting these injustices or containing and regulating even greater injustices that were common beforehand.  I think any student of ancient Mideast history would find that 1) slavery was widespread and universally accepted, 2) male dominance and maltreatment of women was widespread and universally accepted.  Both of these points are true generally outside of the bible, so it should be nearly self-evident that the bible is not the source of the cultural traditions that created these kinds of injustice.

Then we have to ask ourselves a question.  Is the bible encapsulating and authorizing these injustices or limiting and restraining them?  I think in some respects the answer is both, but I believe that the intent was the latter.  That is, at the time the Pentateuch was written, provisions governing the treatment of slaves (addressed earlier in Exodus) and wives (such as this chapter, but also in Exodus) were probably meant to limit abuse and give additional rights to slaves and women.  For instance, if a master injures his slave, the slave is given freedom as recompense for the injury (Ex 21:26-27): I think it's unrealistic to presume that absent such regulation that masters would have been even more kind to their slaves.

However, given the progression of history towards more equality between genders and the abolition of slavery, these historical provisions seem harsh and regressive.  Furthermore, it is fairly indisputable that many people have used passages such as these as proof that slavery is okay or that men should control their wives and have many rights over them, emboldening those who commit injustice.  But given what I said above, I don't believe that was the intent of these passages or of the "adultery test" here.  What could have been a containment of injustice in the past is an expansion of injustice in the present, simply because the bible, once written, cannot be revised.

That leads to another two, inter-related questions.  If the bible contains these regulations of injustice, then 1) is this evidence that the bible is not divinely inspired and 2) is this evidence that the bible is anachronistic and not relevant to our time?  Many people answer these questions, "yes", but I think a more nuanced approach is both justifiable and appropriate.

To address these two questions, the answer depends on a very specific assertion about God's intent when inspiring the bible.  That is, one must presume that the LORD is intending to only write laws (no matter the context) that are universally applicable across all time and cultural boundaries.  That assertion is simply untrue, for a variety of reasons that are too lengthy to enumerate here.  At the simplest level, this goes back to what I said about progressive revelation: God could, and does, reveal laws that are only true for some time and in some places before a proceeding revelation "overwrites" or obviates the prior revelation.  There are some laws which are permanent and some laws which are temporary, and we just have to find out which type this is.  Since the adultery test is specifically associated with the priesthood and the tabernacle offering system, this test must be temporary and a component of the Mosaic code that was fulfilled in Christ.

Another important point is that the Pentateuch was written as the national charter and constitution for the new Hebrew nation.  This means that virtually everything which was to be a national law had to be written down, especially if it differed from the cultural norms of the time.  If there was even going to be a law about women's rights, it would have to be written down in "The Law", because there is no separate royal constitution or law: the LORD is the king of the Hebrew nation, and this is his royal law.

Is the Law written for the Israelites, then, or for us?  This gets back to the question of intent: what was the intent of the LORD when he inspired the Mosaic Law?  Some people erroneously (and usually unconsciously) assume that the Law was only written for us, but that's not true.  It was written for both the present time and the Hebrews of the past.  When we read the Pentateuch, we see the text in the form it was given to the ancient Hebrews, as a legal and religious treatise to define their new nation, giving them a tradition they could rally around to unify the disparate and frequently quarreling tribes.  But in application to the modern times and modern culture, it must be viewed through the transformative power of the NT, because the Pentateuch is not the last word of the bible, it's actually the first word.  But just like a word is changed by its context, so is the meaning of the Pentateuch changed as it is placed in the larger story of the bible as a whole.

To summarize, we should view the Pentateuch (and by extension, this chapter) for what it is, a legal structure given to a small collection of nomadic tribes sometime in the first millennium BCE.  Its relevance to them is by giving them a faith and a law to guide their lives and interactions on a day-to-day basis and that is what defines its structure.  But we must also remember to view it as written to us, the first part of the greater biblical story, and that is what must define its meaning.

Bible Commentary - Numbers 4

In this chapter, the Levites are counted again, but this time for the purpose of their religious duties to the tabernacle.

The Levitical census of the last chapter is most related to the redemption of the firstborn sons, and hence why it counted from one month and up.  This chapter is specifically counting for the duties of the tabernacle, and hence why it only counts the males between 30 and 50, the years of service for the Levites.  This census also shows that only ~8,500 of the 22,000 Levite men are within the age of service for the tabernacle, which is something that I briefly mentioned in my commentary on Num 3.

The age restriction is another reason why I said the service of the Levites is semi-professional, because they don't even start tabernacle service until they are 30, so all those earlier years are freed up for herding and farming, and probably some measure of training and education.  Incidentally, this also gives us a rough idea for the life expectancy in this era, as we can presume that most Levites would normally live to at least 30, and often up to retirement at age 50.  Though it's hard to say how much they might have lived past 50, we can reasonably guess that many Levites did reach age 50.

This chapter gives us a much more detailed look at the role of the Levites and how to take down and carry the pieces of the tabernacle.  From it we can see that probably the most sensitive role is that of the Kohathites (the family of Aaron and Moses), because they are responsible for carrying the "most holy things" (v. 4), the furnishings of the tabernacle.  We can see that the priests are responsible for covering the furnishings with blue/purple/red cloth (to protect the surfaces from scratches and scrapes) and porpoise skin (to protect them from the elements and rain).  The Kohathites, then, have the ironic role of carrying a bunch of packages that they can never see in their whole lives, on pain of death.  They carry these things using the golden poles that were constructed back in Exodus, which I mentioned at the time foreshadowed the transient nature of the tabernacle, that everything seemed to be built with portage in mind.  One significant regulation that shows up later in the OT is that all of the holy objects must be carried on the shoulders of the Levites and not on a cart.  The holy objects are both lighter and more fragile than the tabernacle structure itself, so that renders it both possible and important to carry them on human shoulders.

The separation of duties between the priests and the Levites is why I call the Levites quasi-priests.  We see this separation very clearly in how the priests are assigned to go in and cover up the holy things before the Levites are allowed to enter and carry them out (though from the text it's not clear if the Levites enter the holy place to carry them out or if the priests carry them to outside the holy place for the Levites to pick them up).  The Levites are given an elevated status with respect to the tabernacle because they are authorized to camp near it and to carry pieces of the tabernacle.  However, they still have less sanctity than the priests who are authorized to enter the tabernacle and administrate offerings and the various rituals.

Generally, the priests are much fewer in number and handle more sensitive tasks, while the Levites are much greater in number and handle the brute force tasks of disassembling and carrying the tabernacle.  The high priest is a single man and he is chiefly responsible for the core festivals like the Day of Atonement, so he sits at the pinnacle of this religious hierarchy.

For the Gershonites and the Merarites, note that the priests do not need to cover the curtains and the boards of the tabernacle with porpoise skin because 1) the tabernacle is already covered with porpoise skin, 2) more significantly, these parts of the tabernacle are not as fragile or holy as the holy things that go within.  In fact, the screen of the courtyard and the outside curtains of the tabernacle are visible from outside all the time, so it doesn't make sense to cover them for transportation.

Similarly, the Gershonites and Merarites are not required to carry anything by hand, but rather they are allowed to use carts or wagons to move the pieces of the tabernacle.  Both families are under the direction of Ithamar, while the Kohathites are supervised by the elder brother and next high priest, Eleazar.

This chapter ends the first series of censuses (I really think this word should be censi).  There will be one more census later on, but for now we will progress to yet another priestly legal section.