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B'Midbar/Numbers 8:25 And from fifty years old he shall return from the host of the work and he shall not work any longer.
After a few chapters spent on the regulations for the sotah, the woman suspected of adultery and the Nazirite vow, the Torah has recorded the offerings brought at the setting up of the Tabernacle over a nearly two week period by the leaders of each tribe of Israel in turn. This week's parasha returns to the instructions for the way the Levites are to serveHaShem, "in place of all those who come first out of the womb, that is, the first-born males of the people of Isra'el" (B'Midbar 8:16, CJB). Our text sets the retirement age for the Levites: fifty years old, when the Levites are to stop work, although the next verse - "They may assist their brother Levites at the Tent of Meeting" (v. 26, NJPS) - suggests that complete retirement is not necessarily in view. Although they may no longer have a formal place in the work teams, they may still help with lighter duties. This sounds like a case of: once a Levite, always a Levite!
What exactly might the lighter duties be? Gordon Wenham explains that, "Avodah means the heavy work of erecting, dismantling and transporting the Tabernacle, a job suited to men in the prime of life. However, even after retirement, older Levites may still help the younger men by doing guard duty."1Rashi (based on Sifrei) says that the older Levites are forbidden "the work of carrying with his shoulder, but he does return for locking the gates of the Temple and to sing and to load the wagons; to camp around the Tent of Meeting, to set it up and dismantle it at the time of journeys." Noticing a hand-written note in the side margins of the traditional Torah scrolls, pointing out that the word is used only twice in the Tanakh - here and in the phrase "a human being who fades like grass" (Isaiah 51:12, NRSV), The Baal HaTurim says, "This implies that once a Levite reaches the age of fifty, he no longer has adequate strength to perform the Levitic service and will become [weak] like grass."
We have previously talked (here) about the way in which the Levites (including the priests, the Cohanim) are different from all the other tribes because they are specifically excluded from the count of "all those in Israel who are able to bear arms" (B'Midbar 1:3, NJPS), but it is interesting to notice the terminology being used. In the verse before our text, when the Levites start work at twenty five years old, the Torah says, " he shall go to join the host", while here it says, " he shall return from the host". The noun , from a root meaning "to go forth to war, to carry on war" (Davidson), is most frequently translated "army, host, warfare" and appears in the phrases , "the L-rd of Hosts" and , "the host of heaven" sometimes meaning the angels and sometimes referring to the sun, moon and stars. This is quite a militaristic word, part of the vocabulary of war; these phrases "go out to war" and "return from war" are used in the language of the census as well as throughout the narrative and historical parts of the Tanakh.
In our text (above), is held in a construct with , the work or service, the latter referring to the service of the cult, thus emphasising that this host is the army of Levites that assist the priests in the service of the Tabernacle. Like every army, the Levites have assigned duties and responsibilities, there is a clearly defined chain of command with Itamar, Aharon's son, in command of the work force. Discipline, practice and precision are needed to make sure that everything happens on time, in the correct way and according to the sometimes minutely detailed instructions that HaShem has given Moshe and Aharon for the daily operation of the Tabernacle. Anyone who has been involved in ministry knows how much like warfare it can be serving G-d and His people, and how much effort and discipline can be needed to maintain that over time. What might seem to be simply the normal routine of running services, preaching sermons and proclaiming the gospel, is often fraught with the enemy trying to interrupt the proceedings, foul the technology and harass the people involved. Truly, as believers in Yeshua, we live and serve in a war zone!
Our text speaks about full-time workers in the kingdom retiring, stepping back from the full load of work - be that physical, intellectual or spiritual - when they reach a certain age. In modern times, society has come to expect that everyone will 'retire' at some commonly agreed age from full-time paid work. It has also been observed that many folk who simply stop work at retirement age - from full-time to no-time, as it were, over-night - die within a short space of time (in some cases, in days or weeks, up to a few years), without enjoying their years of retirement. So much so, that health professionals now recommend a gradual transition, if possible - from full-time to several decreasing stages of part-time before stopping work altogether - as a way of easing the change. We can see how the Torah anticipates this modern wisdom by taking the Levites off the heaviest manual parts of their work at the age of fifty, while encouraging them to continue to remain a part of the working community and to engage with the less physically arduous parts of the work. Recently retired clergy are often in demand to help cover holidays and sickness for their still working colleagues, or may take a part-time and possibly unpaid position while drawing their pension in order to stay "in ministry."
But there is a larger question for G-d's people: do the servants of the King ever retire? Does there ever come a moment when we may honourably decline to help someone in need, avoid praying for someone who asks, or walk away from an opportunity to share the good news of Yeshua? Do we reach the point where it become someone else's job because we are retired? I don't think the Bible recognises the status "fit, healthy and capable, but excused on the grounds of age." In fact, given the testimonies I have heard of people sharing their faith on their deathbeds or other moments of extremity, I am sure the Bible takes exactly the opposite view: if you are capable however uncomfortable, then do it. There must, of course, be adjustment and allowance for ability, which does change with age; men in their seventies are not usually capable of as much physical labour as men in their thirties. Conversely, men in their thirties may not have the time to sit and listen to people in the way that men in their seventies may have. Neither may they have the life experience and accumulated wisdom for every situation!
It is noticeable that Peter's exhortation to the early believers, "always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15, NASB) is not only not time limited, but clearly uses the word 'always' (ever, unceasingly, continually, constantly) to make the point that this applies to all believers, at all times and in all places. Similarly, Rav Sha'ul's encouragement to Timothy to "preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (2 Timothy 4:2, ESV) carries the need to be able to respond when it is convenient and when it is not, whether it is raining or the sun is shining, if we feel up to it or feel like death warmed up. Does this take effort and preparation? Yes, of course it does. What about practice and precision? Yes, that too, given the opportunity. But as Yeshua told His disciples, "It will go well with that servant if he is found doing his job when his master comes" (Luke 12:43, CJB). Being ready implies effort and intent. It requires that we keep our hand in, that we participate in whatever training the L-rd gives us.
The Levites who were too old for the heavy lifting and carrying could still sing; they could still open and close the doors; they could still load the wagons and participate in the day-to-day life of their community of service to the L-rd. They could still encourage and facilitate their younger colleagues by taking care of the less arduous - and perhaps less glamorous - tasks so that the next generation could focus clearly on the big items and tasks that they had to do. No less is true for us today - let us not shirk from helping and enabling those whose calling it is to do the heavy lifting in the kingdom, while we sing and make merry in our hearts to our G-d who gives us life and strength for each day.
1. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 110.
Further Study: Luke 12:46-47; 1 Timothy 4:13-15
Application: So are you just taking it easy, aiming just to coast home without any more work, or are you ready to pitch in to whatever the Spirit sends your way, trusting Him for the strength and the wherewithal to do that assignment to the best of your ability? Age is no barrier in the kingdom of G-d. Make sure it is no barrier to you either!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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