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B'Midbar/Numbers 3:9 And you shall give the Levites to Aharon and to his sons; they are given - given - to him from the sons of Israel.
The root appears three times in this verse. Such close repetition draws the attention of the commentators and warrants our attention. The first occurrence is the first word of the verse - , the Qal33s affix 2ms form with a vav-reversive construct to make it future - "and you shall give". Jacob Milgrom suggests that here departs from its common meaning 'give' and should be translated 'dedicate'. He also points out that while the priests are sanctified (root , to sanctify, separate, consecrate), the Levites are dedicated (, to give, appoint, dedicate); "a distinction that is consistently maintained in the priestly sources, thus emphasising that only the priests - but never the Levites - are authorised to have access to the most sacred santa." The second and third occurrence of the root come in the repeated word - a Qal passive participle, mp - literally, "the ones being given"; with the following 3mp pronoun, , this makes a present tense verb. The repetition would normally intensify the meaning into something like, "they are definitely given" or "they are surely given".Rashbam suggests "they are formally assigned to him - the repetition serves for emphasis." Ibn Ezra goes further: "Perhaps it is used to indicate that both they and the sons who will take their places are "given to him."
The three-fold use of the same root bothers the translator of Targum Onkelos. He therefore changes "given, given" to two different verbs , "assigned, given". According to Drazin and Wagner, this turns the verbs into two separate stages in the gift process. More than that, however; being reluctant for any repetition within a verse, Onkelos actually selects a different Aramaic verb for each usage: is retained for the first, but - to hand over, deliver, transmit - is substituted for the second place and - to give, place, hit, invest - for the third1. The Targum ends up with a translation something like "And you shall give the Levites to Aharon and to his sons; they are delivered to - invested with - him from the sons of Israel".
A number of the commentators point out that the service of the Levites is strictly for the work of the cult. The Gur Aryeh2 says, "for assistance in the Temple service, not for his personal needs", while Mizrachi3 adds, "for the courtyard". RabbiHirsch explains that the Levites are not under the command of the priests or any officials of the community in any other way, save for performing their cultic service in the name of both the priests and the people. "The obligations which lie on the community, and on the priests on behalf of the community, to guard and look after the sanctuary are to be transferred to, and taken over by, the Levites." Rashi observes that "out of the rest of the assembly," the Levites have been "separated for this by decree of the Omnipresent." It is as if, Milgrom comments, "the Israelites actually donate the Levites to God". This is why, the Sforno explains, the Children of Israel "who are obligated to give them the first tithe in exchange for their (participation in the Divine) service." Chizkuni notes that "since the Israelites would be busy with planting, reaping and similar tasks, the Levites took their place."
Hirsch makes another interesting point in his comments: that the dedication of the Levites has been directly "ordained through Moshe". He says that it is "a Divine command to be carried out through Moshe"; Moshe is to 'give' the Levites from the people to the priests. According to this, Moshe is announcing and executing the command; he is the mediator. The Levites are carrying out their role "in Moshe", charged to carry out G-d's purposes among the people, dedicated to the service of G-d, acting as an intermediary between the people and the priests.
One of the most frequently repeated phrases in the New Covenant Scriptures is "in Messiah". This occurs some 90 times in 87 different verses in most of the books from Acts to 1 Peter. As believers in Yeshua, our status is "in Christ" and we can see the same structure that Hirsch has identified being worked out. Yeshua was set apart - that is, without sin (Hebrews 4:15) - and dedicated to carrying out G-d's plan and purposes for the world (Mark 14:36); He both announced (Matthew 4:13-17) and executed G-d's command (John 19:28) and He is the mediator (1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 8:6). He acts as our intermediary, interceding for us before G-d (Hebrew 7:25). As those who are "in Christ", we too are commanded to carry our His obligations in His world, in His name, as if He were doing them, as indeed He is, though us. We are included in His work of salvation (Ephesians 3:6) and reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19-20), acting as agents, spokespersons and witnesses.
Although they lived in six walled cities throughout Israel, owned houses, kept cattle and flocks on the common land outside their cities, the Levites were given over entirely to the service of G-d. They served at the Temple in various roles: singers, musicians, gate-keepers, accountants, wood and water stewards; everything needed to support the central cultic function of the priests. Have we also given ourselves over entirely to the service of G-d? Yeshua is our great High Priest; do we sing, play, open and close, count, fetch and carry; everything needed to support Yeshua's finished yet ongoing work of reaching the world with the good news that "the kingdom of G-d is at hand" (Mark 1:15), challenging people to engage with Him, to "repent and be baptised ... and receive the gift of the Ruach" (Acts 2:38). Yeshua cautioned his talmidim about the cost of discipleship, of following Him; He told them, "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of G-d" (Luke 9:62, ESV). He also made it plain that "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other" (Matthew 6:24, ESV). Being a disciple of Yeshua requires dedication; a persistent and committed determination to follow and obey no matter the cost. It must not be undertaken lightly or half-heartedly, but joyfully pressing on towards "the goal in order to win the prize offered by God's upward calling in the Messiah Yeshua" (Philippians 3:14, CJB).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Yeshua taught about investment strategy. He told the assembled crowds, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19-21, ESV). Where is our investment today? Are we invested in the kingdom of G-d, where our investment - albeit it perhaps invisible at the current time - is guaranteed, or are we invested in the world where our investment - often only too visible at the most inconvenient times - is subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the media, popular opinion and the devil?
The Levites were part of but set apart from the rest of Israel. They lived among the people, yet served G-d. They were called to live and teach G-d's standard of holiness. Without ancestral land-holdings, they were dependent on G-d to provide for them. They were given over to - dedicated to, delivered to, invested in - G-d. This is a picture of our calling in Messiah Yeshua, serving the purposes of G-d in our day in Yeshua's name. Rav Sha'ul described it this way to the Thessalonians: "May the G-d of shalom make you completely holy - may your entire spirit, soul and body be kept blameless for the coming of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah" (1 Thessalonians 5:23, CJB).
1. - Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Bar Ilan & John Hopkins University Presses, 965-226-101-7, 2002
2. - The Gur Aryeh (lit. 'Young Lion') is a super-commentary on Rashi's Torah Commentary, written by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1520-1609), widely known as the Maharal of Prague.
3. - A super-commentary on Rashi's Torah Commentary, by Elijah Mizrachi of Constantinople (1455-1526), the Grand Rabbi of the Ottoman empire.
Further Study: D'varim 7:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:3-5
Application: Are you a "pushing onwards, holding nothing back" person, or do you hesitate to put everything on the table, uncertain of where things are going or what might happen? Know that "G-d is trustworthy: it was he who called you into fellowship with his Son, Yeshua the Messiah, our Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:9, CJB) and having called us He will not let us go or change His mind.
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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