Parashat B’Midbar – Num. 1:1 – 4:20

And the charge of Elazar son of Aharon the priest [is]: the oil of the light, the incense of sweet spices, the continual grain offering and the oil of anointing. – B’Midbar/Numbers 4:16

HaShem is dividing up the tasks and responsibilities for packing down, moving and re-erecting the Tabernacle. Elazar is Aharon’s oldest (remaining) son and as well as overseeing the porterage work of the Kohathites – who were the Levite clan appointed to carry the ark, the altars and all the furniture and vessels of the Tabernacle itself. As well as general oversight for the whole operation, Elazar is given this particular responsibility: for the oil to go in the menorah, the incense to be burned on the incense altar, the continual grain offering and the anointing oil. Targum Onkelos clarifies what “the charge” means by changing u-phekudat – a construct fs noun from the ubiquitous root pakad, to visit, muster, punish, appoint, charge (Davidson) – here probably: “charge, office or duty” with the Aramaic ve-di mesir from the root masar, to hand over, deliver, transmit (Sokoloff). Onkelos interprets Scripture’s ambiguous “and the charge of” as “and that which was given [to]”.

What was Elazar given? Rashi says that “he is appointed over them, to carry them: the oil and the incense, and the anointing oil and the continual meal offering. It is put upon him to issue orders and to rouse those he is over and to offer the offerings at the time of their encampment.” Rashi seems to see three things: to carry the materials, to be in charge of the Kohathite porters and to make the offerings once the journey is over. Ramban is skeptical, however: “He could not personally carry these things, since they would be far too heavy for him. But they are his special responsibility. He would personally hand them to the Kohathites for them to carry; and they would individually hand the back into his charge when they arrived.” Sforno agrees, suggesting that Elazar was given the right “to command which articles of the Sanctuary each one should carry.”

Hirsch takes a step back from the detail and tries to see it as a token of the larger picture: “Although the physical porterage of these items was entrusted to the Kohathites, Elazar is symbolically charged with the whole mission and purpose of the whole sanctuary. He was really entrusted with the whole and final content and meaning of the whole of the Sanctuary and its holy objects.” At this point, of course, Aharon his father is still the High Priest, but Elazar the son has a significant divinely appointed position of trust and authority in the function and management of the cult. Jacob Milgrom explains that “as the overseer of the Kohathites, he is personally in charge of the sacred ingredients used with the sancta carried by the Kohathites: the oil for lighting the menorah, the incense for the incense altar, the regular meal offering of the High Priest and the anointing oil used in consecrating both the sancta and the priests (Shemot 30:22-30). Elazar is not to carry these ingredients personally but is to supervise scrupulously their porterage by reliable Kohathites.” The regular priestly meal offering is offered twice each day on behalf of the High Priest and his sons “a tenth of an ephah of choice flour as a regular meal offering, half of it in the morning and half of it in the evening” (Vayikra 6:13, JPS) and “the priest, anointed from among his sons to succeed him, [shall] prepare it” (6:15, JPS). This latter being Elazar.

Ibn Ezra raises an interesting possibility: “Some say that Elazar himself would carry one night’s worth of anointing oil – along with the grain for the next morning’s regular daily offering. But I think that it means he was responsible for giving the anointing oil and the incense to the Kohathites so that they could carry them. ‘Anointing oil’ and ‘incense’ are metonymies, of course; he would give them the containers holding the oil and the incense.” If the first idea were so, then Elazar is exercising due diligence – he has on his person, or in his own personal baggage, enough sacred ingredients for the immediate operation of the cult upon its arrival at the next camping place, thus lowering the risk of the larger containers being dropped, misplaced or damaged in transit. The daily service of the Tabernacle could continue even if the porters – selected for their reliability – made a mistake.

When the first church started to grow in Jerusalem, complaints were made that some of the widows had been missed out of the daily food or charitable distributions (Acts 6). The apostles felt that they should continue to teach the people, and so told the people to “pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (v. 3, ESV). These men were to be given the responsibility of making sure that the distributions were fair and equitable across the whole community and were carried out regularly and properly. The people chose “Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch” (v. 5, ESV). We should notice the qualities of these men, both in the job specifications and those who were appointed: full of the Spirit and of wisdom; full of faith and the Holy Spirit. The seven were then “set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them” (v. 6, ). They were carefully selected, divinely accredited, personally appointed and given the responsibility of carrying out a relatively mundane function – “waiting on tables” (v. 2) – on behalf of the community: to be reliable, consistent, fair and honest.

We find Rav Sha’ul giving similar lists of qualifications for elders – “above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” (Titus 1:6, ESV) – and overseers (bishops): “above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (vv. 7-9, ESV). These are exacting requirements, but critical for those in leadership. What about the rest of us, ordinary believers in Yeshua and followers of the G-d of Israel? What responsibilities have been given to us? Sha’ul goes on: “Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness” (2:2, ESV). This sets a tone and a role model in families and the community. Are you an older man – then Sha’ul is talking to you. “Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of G-d may not be reviled” (vv. 3-5, ESV). Older women too have responsibilities, not only for themselves, but teaching the younger women to behave in an appropriate way. Notice how that responsibility is framed: so that G-d’s word may not be brought into disrepute. We all have a responsibility to hold and show G-d’s word in a good light, obeying it and teaching it faithfully and well. Lastly, because everyone has a responsibility, Sha’ul tells Titus to, “urge the younger men to be self-controlled” (v. 6, ESV). No-one is excluded. If we belong to Yeshua, then we must live for Him and be a light for Him, not causing people to think badly of Him, to laugh at or to mock His word.

The world is full of people who do not know G-d, who do not want to know G-d and do not consider His word from one moment to the next. But there are also people who call themselves believers who do not carry out their responsibilities. Sha’ul warns that, “there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers … They profess to know G-d, but they deny Him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (1:10,16, ESV). Heaven forbid that he should be talking about any of us! Just Elazar may have carried the sacred ingredients so that the service of the Tabernacle would not be interrupted, so we need to carry G-d’s word with us at all times, making sure that it governs out conduct, and is available in the service of the kingdom. We who carry the anointing, not of oil, but of the Spirit, must listen to the voice of the Spirit and share His words with others; we who offer incense – our prayers – must be ready to pray for others, directly or indirectly, at any time; we who have received the bread of life must generously give our lives in His service to and for others; we who need no oil because the light of Yeshua burns within us must be His lights in this present darkness, shining the glory of the kingdom into the dark and hurting places in this world. This is our responsibility in these days!

Further Study: 1 Timothy 6:1-2; 1 Peter 3:8-12

Application: For what have you been made responsible and how are you fulfilling that obligation? Are you being reliable and consistent, or does your service style need a little work? Why not speak to the One who came to serve and ask Him to help you get your act together!