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B'Midbar/Numbers 4:3 ... from the age of thirty years old and upwards until fifty years old, anyone coming to the workforce ...
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The first thing to note in this text is that the numbers three and five are plural; this is a standard Hebrew technique: used in the singular, the numbers two to nine are exactly that, two to nine; when plural they represent the decades twenty to ninety, hence thirty and fifty. At the same time, the noun is singular; this is another standard construction: obviously if there is only one of an item, it is represented by a singular noun; as expected, if there are two to ten of an item, then the noun is usually plural; if, however, there are more than ten items then the noun is usually singular.
A second point of interest is that the lower age is not the same in theSeptuagint translation of this verse. There the text reads - from five and twenty years. Scholars think that this was probably done by a scribe or translator who wanted to harmonise this text - specifically given for the descendants of Kohath, one of the three non-priestly clans of the Levites - with the general rule given for all the Levites a few chapters later: "This is the rule for the Levites. From twenty-five years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more" (B'Midbar 8:24-25, JPS). The Sages comment in the Midrash (B'Midbar Rabbah 6:7) that this verse can be used to confirm the statement made in the Mishnah "a thirty-year-old attains full strength" (m. Pirkei Avot 5:25). Rashi adds that "one who is less than thirty, his strength has not become fully developed ... and one who is more than the age of fifty, his strength diminishes from then on."
Thirdly, Jacob Milgrom makes a comment about the particular choice of language used at the end of our text: implies non-military service, as opposed to which has the sense "go to war" as found at the start of this parasha: "Take a census of all the congregation ... whoever is able to go out to war in Israel" (B'Midbar 1:2-3, NASB). Milgrom suggests that the verb - from the root , to come or enter - bears the technical meaning of "qualify", so that the phrase could mean "all those who are qualified". This implies that the work to be done is skilled labour rather than physical labour; that the Kohathites would require more skill in carrying the holy - and lethal if mishandled - items from the sanctuary than their colleagues in the other clans who carried the physical structures of the tabernacle (boards, sockets, curtains and coverings) and so might account for the later age for starting service.
The Sage's comment about the age of thirty seems also to be borne out also in the case of Yosef, the favourite son of Ya'acov, who was sold by his brothers, as a rather brash youth at around the age of 17 or 18, into slavery in Egypt. After twelve years - first serving Potiphar, followed by some years in prison - he became the Prime Minister of Egypt. How old was he? "Yosef was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt" (B'resheet 41:46, ESV). The years of service and servitude were necessary to prepare him for the position of leadership. Through those years, G-d was teaching him wisdom, tact, diplomacy, strength of character, endurance and the other essential skills that he would need in such a high place of authority and ministry. At thirty, he came into his full strength of manhood and was ready to take on the job to which he had been called.
David was the youngest of eight brothers and was chosen as a youth to be King Saul's musician and armour-bearer. After defeating the Philistine champion Goliath, he became very popular among the people and was perceived as a threat to the king. He then spent perhaps as long as ten years leading a raggle-taggle band through the desert, including a period of sojourning among Israel's enemies the Philistines and one incident of feigning madness, before Saul died. "David was thirty years old when he became king" (2 Samuel 5:4, NASB). In the meantime, as we know from both the narrative and many of the psalms which David wrote during that time, David's leadership skills and abilities were refined and honed in a furnace of real affliction so that when time came, he would be ready to step up and be G-d's anointed king over the people of Israel and Judah.
A thousand years later, a descendant of David also spent years preparing for a crucial public ministry. Born into an artisan household, He was known as "the carpenter's son" (Matthew 13:55, CJB) and "the carpenter, the son of Mary" (Mark 6:3, CJB). The word translated "carpenter" is , with a range of meanings from "builder" to "woodworker", so probably also included working with stone, masonry and mortars as well as in wood. Living in a small town in the Galil, He and His father Yosef would probably have been employed in one of the larger building projects of the time as Herod Antipas built his capital at Zippori/Sepphoris, around an hour's walk from Nazareth. Working on a busy construction site would have given plenty of opportunities to learn not only physical but also interpersonal and leadership/management skills as well as precision and judgement. As a child, He "became strong and filled with wisdom - G-d's favour was upon him" (Luke 2:40, CJB); as He moved through his teenage years, He "grew both in wisdom and in stature, gaining favour both with other people and with G-d" (v. 52, CJB). Tradition tells us that His father died, leaving Him to support the family on His own, possibly teaching His brothers the building trade and to earn money for the family. A tough call by today's standards: long, hard and potentially dangerous physical work, walking to and from work, supporting a mother and a large family of siblings, constantly exercising skill and judgement to stay well and safe, running and discipling a family. G-d was preparing Him for a life of destiny and challenge where He would need those skills and experience.
Then, when He reached the fullness of His strength, He answered the call that G-d had placed upon His life. Stepping out of the village of Nazareth, He began preaching and proclaiming the Kingdom of G-d throughout the Galil. Luke's gospel tells us that "Yeshua was about thirty years old when he began his public ministry" (Luke 3:23, CJB). From there, He chose a small group of close disciples, developed a level of financial support and amassed crowds of eager followers as He travelled the roads of Judea and the Galil to visit towns, cities and individual homes. A number of years of teaching and ministry culminated in the master pivot point of history - His victory over death - through His crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem. The hours of on-the-job discipleship, the miracles of healing and supernatural provision, the fervour of the last prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, the silent submission to false arrest and execution, were all made possible by the years of preparation "and being made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him" (Hebrew 5:9, ESV).
G-d still prepares people for His service today. Rav Sha'ul spent some years in Arabia after becoming a believer before he visited the apostles in Jerusalem; Timothy travelled with Sha'ul to "learn the ropes" before being sent off on his own missions. We can and should expect G-d to continue to work in the same way. As Sha'ul wrote, "For whom He fore-knew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified" (Romans 8:29-30, NASB), describing the process that takes place in each believer's life - being transformed into the image of Yeshua.
Further Study: 2 Corinthians 9:8; Ephesians 3:20-21
Application: Where is G-d working in your life? What is He doing today to prepare you for tomorrow? Are you answering that call, working with Him, no matter what that may entail, knowing that His plan and purpose are bigger than anything you can image, "both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13, NASB)? If not, why not?
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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