Introduction to Numbers:
The common Hebrew name for this book is “bemidbar” (in the wilderness). It seems to collect everything relevant relating to the wilderness travel of the Jews. Schocken Bible editors see it as a narrative about “the death of the old and the birth of the new.” It starts with life in the camp, goes on to stories of rebellion and challenge, both from within and later from without. It ends with preparations to enter the Holy Land. The book is bracketed by two censuses—the first when they start, the second as they prepare to enter Canaan—hence the name “Numbers” (647-648).
The first ten chapters cover the camp life of the Israelites. It is centered on the ark and primarily a military ordering, based on a head count of men over twenty. An Egyptian mustering would have been around the king’s throne Schocken says (653). Much discussion has gone on with respect to the numbers of men given—600,000. This would put the entire population in the millions. It may also have represented a number system we are not aware of, a purposeful exaggeration. We don’t know.
Numbers 1 - Today’s reading concerns Moses’ preparations for his departure from the encampment at Sinai where the Israelites stayed for the first two years after their deliverance. It shows how the many tribes and households of the Israelites were organized. The main principal behind the system of organization was military. Each of the twelve tribes was counted according to the number of males. Leaders are named for each tribe: Reuben – 46,500; Simeon – 59,300; Gad – 45,650; Judah – 74,600; Issachar – 54,400; Zebulun – 57,400; Joseph (Ephraim) – 40,500 and (Manasseh) 32,200; Benjamin – 35,400; Dan – 62,700; Asher – 41,500; Naphtali – 53,400.
Levites are not counted. They attend to the Tent of Dwelling. Omitting the Levites, the family from which Moses and Aaron came and the least numerous of the tribes, there were 603,550 men.
Numbers 2 - The camp is ordered physically around the meeting tent. The companies of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun are arrayed to the east of the tent (the place of pride); the companies of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad are situated to the south; the companies of Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin are on the west and the companies of Dan, Asher and Naphtali are on the north. Looking at a map of how the various tribes of the Israelites were later arrayed in the Promised Land, one sees a very rough correspondence to this desert arrangement.
Their organization includes an “order of march” when they break camp beginning with the companies in the east, then south, then west and finally north. This order of march is set in motion with prescribed trumpet alarms and is fully described in chapter 10.
Numbers 3 – The sons of Aaron are set aside—but the sons Nadab and Abihu were killed for offering “profane (outside) fire” (3:4).
Eleazar and Ithamar inherit their responsibilities. The Levites under them care for the tent of the Dwelling, but there is an order of service within among the clans of the Levites.
The Gershonites are housed behind the Dwelling to the west and have responsibility for the Dwelling tent, its covering and the curtains and hangings.
The Kohathite clans camp to the south of the Dwelling and have charge of the ark, the table the lampstand, the altars, utensils and the veil.
The Clans of Merari, camped to the north of the Dwelling take care of the boards of the Dwelling, its bars, columns, pedestals and fittings; and to the east of the Dwelling, east of it (towards the sunrise) lived the families of Moses and Aaron and they were priest of the sanctuary. One can see that nothing in the ordering and placement of the clans and tribes was left to chance. Everything was ordered around the holy sanctuary of the Lord’s presence and religious and military order governed it entirely.
It is interesting that the Levites were considered to take the place of the first-born among all the other tribes. Because they were saved from death during the Passover, they were considered to be the Lord’s and dedicated to him. But the establishment of the priesthood was thought to be a redemption of these first born who were properly thought to belong to the Lord. As the number of Levites was less than the total number of first-born sons among the Israelites to be redeemed, the ransom for the surplus of first-borns was a payment of five shekels silver to be given to Aaron and his sons.
Numbers 4 – Kohathites aged thirty to fifty have charge of the most sacred objects. Aaron and his sons have charge of taking down the veil and covering the ark with it. Over the veil they shall put a cover of tahash skin (tanned leather in Schocken) and an all violet cloth. (blue-violet in Schocken, made from a mollusk) A violet cloth shall be spread of the table of the presence, a scarlet cloth and tahash skin. Violet cloths shall also be spread over plates and cups, etc., over the lampstand and containers of oil, over the cleaned altar. Only after all the sacred objects have been covered as prescribed shall the Kohathites enter to carry them off on a litter. They cannot touch any of them or they will die.
The Gershonites have other tasks and things to carry. So also the Merarites—either the boards or the sheets, etc.
Numbers 5 – The “unclean” are to be expelled from the camp. If people wrong others, it is God they have broken faith with. They must restore ill-gotten goods and pay a penalty of 1/5th their value back as well or to the priest if there is no next of kin.
If a man becomes suspicious of his wife’s faithfulness, he can bring her to a priest with an offering of cereal. The priest performs a ceremony intended to uncover any guilt in her conscience—she is to hold the cereal offering in her hands while the priest holds bitter water that brings a curse and he says to her, if she has been unfaithful, “May this water,. . .that brings a curse, enter your body to make your belly swell and your thighs waste away!” (5:22). Then he puts the imprecations into writing, washes them off into the bitter water and has her drink it. If she is guilty she will suffer the swelling and become infertile.
Irenaeus of Lyons (c.180 AD)
Selections from the Work Against Heresies
Book III – The Faith in Scripture and Tradition
Preface – Irenaeus says he is called to bring the teachings of the Gnostics into the open and to show how they are linked to Simon, whom he calls “the father of all heretics.” He believes he can refute all of them.
He will use arguments from Scripture, and he hopes he will demonstrate to others how these heresies can be dealt with. We “will be able to resist them faithfully and boldly on behalf of the one true and life-giving faith, which the Church has received from the apostles and imparts to her children. For the Lord of all gave to his apostles the power of the gospel, and by them we also have learned the truth, that is, the teaching of the Son of God—as the Lord said to them, ‘He who hears you hears me, and he who despises you despises me, and him who sent me.’”
The Traditions of the Gospels – “[W]e earned the plan of our salvation from no others than from those through whom the gospel came to us. They first preached It abroad, and then later by the will of God handed it down to us in Writings, to be the foundation and pillar of our faith.”
Some of the Gnostics try to convince us “that they preached before they has come to perfect knowledge” and that THEY “are the correctors of the apostles.”
We believe that after the Lord has risen from the dead, “they were clothed with the power from on high when the Holy Spirit cam upon them, [and] they were filled with all things and had perfect knowledge.”
Matthew went to the Hebrews and wrote a gospel in their tongue, while “Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel at Rome and founding the Church.” Mark handed down what Peter had preached and then Luke, a follower of Paul, recorded everything in his gospel. “Finally John, the disciple of the Lord, who had also lain on his breast, published [his] Gospel while he was residing at Ephesus in Asia.”
“All of these handed down to us that there is one God, maker of heaven and earth, proclaimed by the Law and the Prophets, and one Christ the Son of God.” People who do not accept this gospel are “resisting and refusing his own salvation.”