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B'Midbar/Numbers 1:51 And when the Tabernacle breaks camp, the Levites shall take it down; and when the Tabernacles encamps, the Levites shall put it up. A stranger who approaches shall be put to death.
This verse comes after the second census of Israel has been taken by Moshe, Aharon and their twelve assistants, one from each tribe. By the specific command ofHaShem, this census only counts those of twenty years and older who are liable for military service (B'Midbar 1:3) and does not include the tribe of Levi (vv. 47-49). Those working with Moshe and Aharon are clan-leaders in their tribes and instead of a leader from the tribe of Levi, both Manasseh and Ephraim are represented in the group. The paragraph following the census results details two of the ways in which the Levites were different from the other tribes: carrying the ark and its contents while in transit, camping closely as a ring around the tabernacle - things that made them set apart; part of the Israelite people and yet set apart in their midst. This particular verse lists two of the functions assigned to the Levites that were forbidden under pain of death to Israelites of other tribes: the dismantling and the re-assembly of the tabernacle before and after each and every step in the journey through the desert.
The text is arranged as two action clauses - using a formula, with repeated words and structure - followed by a short phrase containing both a prohibition and the penalty for ignoring it. The formula starts with a Qal infinitive prefaced by a - "and" - and a preposition, usually translated 'in' or 'on' but with an infinitive rendered as 'when'; this is followed by the verb's subject: the tabernacle. Then follows a second verb, a Hif'il prefix 3mp form - "they shall cause to ..." - the object "him" refererring back to the tabernacle and the subject of the second verb, "the Levites". The first clause uses the verb - "to pull, pluck up or out", here "to break camp" - and - "to go down", in Hif'il "to bring down" - so reading literally, "And-when-breaking-camp, the-tabernacle, they-shall-bring-down, him, the-Levites".Targum Onkelos replaces with the more explicit Aramaic - "they-will-dismantle". The second uses the verb - "to let oneself down, encamp, pitch one's tent" - and - "to rise, arise", in Hif'il "to put up, assemble, establish" - so reading literally, "And-when-encamping, the-tabernacle, they-shall-put-up, him, the-Levites". Both clauses contain five words and fifteen syllables, repeating the second, fourth and fifth words verbatim. Both clauses also vary the normal verb-subject-object word order for the second verb to emphasise that while the first verb - breaking or making camp - is a decision taken by the tabernacle (because the pillar of cloud or fire has moved off or stopped), the subsequent action is performed by the Levites on or to the tabernacle.
The third (prohibition) clause uses a noun-participle combination: "the stranger" - one who is not supposed to be in this role, rather than an alien or foreigner - and "the one approaching", to produce the sense of "a stranger who approaches or comes near". This is followed by the verb - Hof'al prefix 3ms from the root , to die; literally, he shall be caused to die. This is replaced in Targum Onkelos by the Aramaic verb , an It'p'il prefix 3ms , "to kill", possibly with the jussive sense, "let him be killed". Notice that this leaves open the question as to whether this is a judicial execution to be performed by the people (Ibn Ezra) or a divine sentence carried out by G-d ( Rashi). The commentators discuss who the stranger might be. Rashi suggests that is a non-Levite or even non-Israelites who tries to take part in the work of the Levites; Chizkuni claims that it even applies to a Levite who tries to perform a different function to that which he has been assigned. Perhaps the most well-known example of these instructions is the man who died when King David was bringing the Ark up to Jerusalem: "And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of G-d and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the L-RD was kindled against Uzzah, and G-d struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of G-d" (2 Samuel 6:6-7, ESV).
RabbiHirsch says that "everybody who was not bound by duty to approach the Tabernacle with duties they had been explicitly assigned by Moshe from HaShem was considered to be unauthorised to do so." He cites the Sages of the Talmud where "Abaye said: We have it on tradition that a singing Levite who did his colleague's work at the gate incurs the penalty of death ... It happened that Rabbi Joshua ben Hananyia went to assist Rabbi Johanan ben Gudgeda in the fastening of the Temple doors, whereupon he [the latter] said to him: My son, turn back, for you are of the choristers, not of the door-keepers" (b. Arachin 11b). Hirsch maintains that the strict assignment of roles and duties emphasised the G-d-ordained nature of the Tabernacle and its service.
The New Covenant Scriptures clearly show a continuance of proper authority. After He had healed a man from tzara'at, Yeshua told him, "See that you tell no one; but as a testimony to the people, go and let the cohen examine you, and offer the sacrifice that Moshe commanded" (Matthew 8:4, CJB), so maintaining the authority of the priests to formally pronounce someone clean or unclean as prescribed by the Torah. When a man in the crowd sought Yeshua's help in resolving an inheritance dispute, Yeshua declined saying, "My friend, who appointed Me judge or arbitrator over you?" (Luke 12:14, CJB(, refusing to abrogate to Himself the authority of the judicial system in the Land. Similarly, Rav Sha'ul told the community in Rome, "Everyone is to obey the governing authorities. For there is no authority that is not from G-d, and the existing authorities have been placed where they are by G-d. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities is resisting what G-d has instituted; and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves" (Romans 13:1-2, CJB), while he encourages Titus in his ministry to "Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed" (Titus 3:1, NASB). These are examples of secular authorities or perhaps church hierarchical structures, but the same principles, based around the idea that "G-d is not a G-d of confusion but of peace" (1 Corinthians 14:33, ESV), extends into spiritual realms as well. Sha'ul writes, "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged" (vv. 29-31, ESV), while the writer to the Hebrews adds, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account" (Hebrews 13:17, ESV).
How then are we as believers in Messiah any different from the average Israelite in the desert or on the street before Messiah came? Simply that we have access to G-d at any and all times, without let or hindrance, without regard to age, race, colour or gender: "Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16, NASB). G-d Himself, in Messiah Yeshua, allows us to talk with Him, to worship Him, to study and learn before Him and from Him, just to spend time with Him, at any moment of the day or night, seven days a week, twelve months of the year, year in and year out. Guaranteed. No-one needs to dismantle or set up a structure, we do not need to camp at a distance, and there is no question of us being "the stranger", somehow usurping someone else's role or relationship. We each have our own relationship with our Heavenly Father that is unique to us and cannot be broken, interrupted or stolen by anyone else.
Further Study: 1 Samuel 6:19; Ephesians 3:12; Hebrews 10:19
Do you feel that your relationship with G-d is second-hand or needs someone
else to be involved for you to really connect with G-d? If so, then today
is the time to make your connection with Him directly in Messiah: "Draw
near to G-d, and He will draw near to you" (James 4:8, ESV).
© Jonathan Allen, 2012
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© Jonathan Allen, 2012
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