Thoughts on Parashat Bamidbar

Bamidbar, (in the Wilderness) is the fourth book of the Torah. This week’s parasha, also called Bamidbar (Numbers 1.1 – 4.20), [i] begins with Hashem requiring Moshe to take a census of Bnei Israel by tribal lineage and father’s house of all males over the age of twenty (1.1-46). The total count of the twelve tribes was 603,550 men eligible to go to war. This was a natural occurrence, as “Censuses in the ancient world were used as a means of conscripting men for either military service or government building projects.”[ii] It has been suggested that this census was in preparation to enter into the Promised Land. However, as we will see later in the book that plan got derailed.

Yet there is something interesting in this census that included twelve tribes because two tribes were unique. First, the tribe of Levi was not included in the men who would go to war. The tribe of Levi was identified and counted (3.1-39) as those who would serve the LORD in the Tabernacle, performing duties as priests, guards, and custodians. The tribe of Levi was set apart specifically for Hashem, in remembrance of the of the death of all the firstborn in Egypt (3.11-13). The other unique tribe was that of Joseph, who seems to have received a double portion. Second, instead of counting the tribe of Joseph once, both of Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh were counted (1.10 & 32-35). We find a partial answer to this in Vayechi, when before Yaacov blesses Joseph’s son’s he announces

“So now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, they are mine. Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just like Reuben and Simeon.” (Genesis 48.5)

What this does not explain, is why was Joseph not counted among the tribes? Any ideas?

Following on the idea that the census was to muster men for war, the parasha also includes the arrangement of the camp, the distribution of the tribes on the north, south, east and west for protection, then concluding with the setting in place of the Levite clans for the service of the Tabernacle.

The Haftarah is found in Hosea 2.1-22 which begins

Yet the number of Bnei-Yisrael will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted. Instead of “You are not My people” being said to them, they will be called “Children of the living God.” (2.1)

While this affirmation sounds wonderful, it should be understood that it is pronounced as a future event; Israel is in the midst of being judged just before going into exile for the first time. The bulk of this passage (2.4-15) speaks of Israel as an adulteress, in a backslidden condition, which they did not enter into by accident. But, as has been said before, as sure as there is discipline for transgression, there is restoration due to the everlasting covenant that Hashem made with the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Ya’acov. The LORD will once more brings Israel through the wilderness and draws her back to Himself (2.16). Finally, the passage ends with one of the most graphic expressions of love in the Tanakh. The LORD speaking to Israel states

Then I will betroth you to Me forever—yes, I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, justice, covenant loyalty and compassion. I will betroth you to Me with faithfulness, and you will know Adonai. (2.21-22)

This passage is recited daily as Jews around the world wrap their tefillin in obedience to the command in Exodus 13.9, “So it will be like a sign on your hand and a reminder between your eyes, so that the Torah of Adonai may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand Adonai has brought you out of Egypt.” According to the Sages, wrapping the tefillin, is equivalent to binding oneself to the entire Torah (Kiddushin 35a). In observing the mitzvah of tefillin, Israel individually and corporately, is reminded that they are betrothed to Hashem, by His choosing and prompting, because of His love and commitment to His people. Considering the phrase, “I will betroth you to Me with faithfulness” Malbim[iii] understands Hashem as saying, “In exchange for your faith in Me and My Torah, upon which is based your commitment to following My statutes, I will reveal My Presence to you in a manner that will allow you to actually know Me, with absolute certainty, so that you will no longer require blind faith in order to serve Me.”[iv]

As believers in Yeshua, we understand that it is Yeshua, the living Word which is the full revelation of the Father to mankind (John 1.14). With that understanding, Rav Shaul proclaims, “For Messiah is the goal of the Torah as a means to righteousness for everyone who keeps trusting.” (Romans 10.4)

The LORD has always desired a relationship with His people, one exemplified by lives filled with righteousness, justice, faithfulness and mercy. When we acknowledge His betrothal, through faith in Messiah Yeshua, we will see the reality of the Psalmist’s words,

Surely His salvation is near those who fear Him, so that glory may dwell in our land. Lovingkindness and truth meet together. Righteousness and shalom kiss each other. Truth will spring up from the earth, and justice will look down from heaven. (Psalm 85.10-12)

Shabbat Shalom

[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

[ii] IVP OT Background Commentary © 2000 by John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas Electronic text hyper-texted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.1

[iii] Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, better known as The Malbim, (1809-1879) was a Ukrainian rabbi, master of Hebrew grammar, and Bible commentator.

[iv] Rabbi Menachem Davis, ed., The Later Prophets: The Twelve Prophets, Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2014, 23.

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Michael Hillel with his wife Vered and their three children, made aliyah from the US in late 80s, and in biblical fashion has, for the last 27 years, done whatever his hands have found to do. In 2013 Michael began working on a MA degree in Messianic Jewish Theology. Using the tools learned from his studies, he has been writing teaching and devotional materials from both the Tanakh and Apostolic Writings. Since Messianic Judaism shares a communal context with both Judaism and Christianity, he incorporates material from both traditionally Jewish and Christian perspectives.