Sunday, August 19, 2007

Numbers 1-4: Counting Off

[Today's entry has unusual formating, and no pictures. I'm on vacation, and writing from a pretty minimal interface. Bible study under field conditions.]


The Book of Numbers begins with God giving Moses some more instructions. We are given some time context: two years and two months have gone by since the Israelites fled Egypt. Presumably, they are still parked underneath Mt. Sinai in what has now become a fairly established encampment.

God's instructions in early Numbers are organizational in nature. First, he requires a census of the Israelites, according to their clan membership. The census results are presented in stultifying detail; in sum, the Israelites number 603,550. Oh wait, that doesn't include one of the twelve tribes, the Levites. Oh, and another little thing: that number is just males over twenty who are eligible for military service. That would make the actual number at least two million, making the Israelites (as I kept mentioning back in Exodus) much, much more numerous than they loom in the popular imagination. Or at least MY imagination.


What's up with the Levites? Well, they are counted differently (all males over a month old = 22,000; men 30-50, 8580) and assigned, en masse, to tending the Tabernacle. They become essentially an entire caste of priest's assistants, and are charged with the responsibility of guarding, assembling, disassembling, and transporting all of Israel's holy relics. Sub-clans within the Levites are all doled out specific areas of responsibility, so that pretty much every piece of the Tabernacle has an assigned caretaker. Very specific instructions regarding transportation of the most important relics are also enumerated here.

I have complained several times in these pages about references to all first-born males being "redeemed," or dedicated to God, and not having a clue what that means. Well, it turns out that it doesn't matter. The assignment of the Levites to Tabernacle duty is IN PLACE OF the first-born redemption (although a small amount of silver has to exchange hands to balance the books on this score).


Numbers 2 is all about camp layout. The Tabernacle goes in the center, with the Levites protecting its periphery. From it, various of the clans are assigned to sectors in the north, south, east, and west of the camp. Why is this important? Does the disposition of the various clans have some sort of symbolic weight? I dunno. Lacking this insight, I can't claim that Numbers 2, or for that matter any of tonight's four chapters, is a real gripping read.

Next Week: Applied Biblical Law!

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