Messianic Education Trust
(Num 16:1 - 18:23)

B'Midbar/Numbers 18:22   And the Children of Israel shall not approach the Tent of Meeting again to bear sin and die.

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This text comes in one of the relatively few occasions when The Name ...

HaShem: literally, Hebrew for 'The Name' - an allusion used to avoid pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, the so-called 'ineffable' name of G–d
HaShem speaks directly to Aharon, starting at the beginning of chapter eighteen. Following the affair of Korah and his group who aspired to bring their own sacrifices and offer their own incense, HaShem makes it clear to Aharon that the priests and the Levites are to be the only ones who can minister in the Sanctuary. They will be paid for their service by being allowed to keep much of the tithes and ceremonial portions, but have to accept full responsibility for the conduct of the cult including any mistakes in procedure, states of purity or trespass by themselves or any of the wider Children of Israel. Recognising the change this statement introduces, Who Is ...

Abraham Ibn Ezra: (1089-1167 CE), born in Tudela, Spain; died in the South of France after wandering all around the shores of the Mediterranean and England; a philosopher, astronomer, doctor, poet and linguist; wrote a Hebrew grammar and a commentary on the Bible
Ibn Ezra explains the word 'henceforth' in the NJPS translation - "Henceforth, Israelites shall not trespass" - by pointing out that it was necessary precisely because Korah's band has just done so!

Rabbi Hirsch suggests that the Levites are to offer the Israelites an indemnity policy: "by their understanding to do the service of the Sanctuary in place of the rest of the nation, the Levites protect the children of Israel against committing the error of doing such works/services which are prohibited to the stranger on pain of death - 'any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death' (B'Midbar 18:7, JPS)". According to Jacob Milgrom, that is the key phrase and occurs only four times in the Torah, all in the book of B'Midbar (1:51; 3:10,38; 18:7, here). Milgrom says that "The offender must be cut down - that is, killed - before his encroachment brings the wrath of G-d down on the whole people." The responsibility for this falls to the Levites, who are to guard the Sanctuary and kill any intruder before he can violate the sanctity of the holy places. "This is not a matter of justice," Milgrom adds, where there needs to be evidence brought before a court in an appropriate trial setting with lawyers to argue the case before a panel of judges; it is a simple matter of existence.

The word , translated 'sin' above, but also possibly 'guilt', comes from the root , whose basic meaning is "to miss one's step, to stumble, to sin" (Davidson). Like its parallel , "iniquity or sin", can mean either sin or its consequence. Together with the verb , most commonly "to lift, raise, bear", it means the latter: to incur punishment - in this case, of being put to death. The verb , the 3ms Qal prefix form of the root , "to draw or come near, to approach" and in Hif'il, "to bring an offering" (Davidson) is here taken to mean 'trespass' or 'encroach'. Unauthorised access to the Sanctuary, its rituals and its accoutrements - by the wrong people, at the wrong time or in the wrong way - is a violation of the cult boundaries, an incursion into holy space, and is subject to the death penalty, either at the hands of the Sanctuary's guardians (as in our text) or directly from HaShem (as in the case of Korah). The three most obvious examples of this in the Tanakh are Nadav and Abihu, the two elder sons of Aharon, Korah's rebellion and Uzza, a man guiding the cart bringing the Ark back its capture by the Philistines: "when they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzza put out his hand to hold the Ark of G-d because the oxen had stumbled. The L-RD was incensed at Uzza, and struck him down, because he laid a hand on the Ark; and so he died there before G-d" (1 Chronicles 13:9-10, JPS).

The effect of this is to confirm the intermediary layer inserted between most of the Israelites and their G-d. Only the priests may minister directly to G-d: bringing sacrifices, burning incense, lighting the lamps, officiating at the altars; they alone may enter, assemble and disassemble the Sanctuary. Only the Levites may carry the fabric and the accoutrements of the Sanctuary; even they may not see them without their coverings or touch them - they must be carried on carrying poles. The people may worship from afar, although at this stage forms of worship apart from sacrifice are not defined. An individual may bring his sacrificial animal into the courtyard, lay his hands on it and then slaughter it, but the priest then takes over and performs all the remaining functions: splashing the blood on the altar; the cutting and washing; arranging on the altar or offering the fat portion. As for the daily offices of the menorah and the incense altar and the shewbread, none see these except the priests - the people simply provide the raw ingredients. The Tanakh reports that Elkanah, the father of Samuel the prophet, "used to go up from his town every year to worship and to offer sacrifice to the L-RD of Hosts at Shiloh" (1 Samuel 1:3, JPS); when it was time to return home, "they bowed low before the L-RD, and they went back home to Ramah" (v. 19, JPS). That seems very distant and remote; a distinctly hands-off process in which it must have been difficult to emotionally engage.

By the time of David, music had been introduced into worship; David appointed singers and musicians from among the Levites, to lead the worship and encourage the people. Dancing too, the waving of banners and musical instruments accompanied the blowing of trumpets, shouts of praise, the banging of drums and clashing of cymbals. The people could rejoice and worship G-d in sign and sound; the Hebrew word for a feast, , comes from the root , "to dance, celebrate a feast; to reel, be giddy" (Davidson), suggesting how the festivals were celebrated: with much joy and rejoicing before the L-rd. After the Exile, when the Temple and the walls were rebuilt under Nehemiah, "At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites, wherever they lived, were sought out and brought to Jerusalem to celebrate a joyful dedication with thanksgiving and with song, accompanied by cymbals, harps, and lyres" (Nehemiah 12:27, JPS); there were two thanksgiving choirs marching in opposite directions around the walls, led by young priests blowing trumpets - "on that day, they offered great sacrifices and rejoiced, for G-d made them rejoice greatly; the women and children also rejoiced, and the rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard from afar" (v. 43, JPS). But still the people remained distant from the presence of G-d and the operation of the cult; the priests and the Levites still formed a barrier preventing the ordinary people approaching G-d.

So how do we approach G-d today? Are we aware of His holiness - might our approach incur sin or guilt and, if so, what might happen? The Psalmist suggests a humble attitude - "Come, let us bow down and kneel, bend the knee before the L-RD our maker" (Psalm 95:6, JPS) - while urging us to "Sing to the L-RD a new song, sing to the L-RD, all the earth. Sing to the L-RD, bless His name, proclaim His victory day after day" (Psalm 96:1-2, JPS). Both positions can be found in contemporary churches and congregations, though not usually both in the same assembly! Yeshua told the disciples a parable about a Pharisee and a tax-collector who went to the Temple to pray: "The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'G-d, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'G-d, be merciful to me, the sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted" (Luke 18:11-14, NASB). So our attitude is important. At the same time, I think we have lost a lot in many churches where there is no real rejoicing, no enthusiasm in worship. Where is the dancing - not posed or performed sacred dancing, but spinning, whirling and giddy dancing - and enthusiasm which marked the ancient celebrations of feasts, festivals and holy days before the L-rd? I think G-d is often grieved by our over-sombre and joyless worship; we defraud Him of the heart-praise which is His right and deprive ourselves of joy and blessing in His presence. We are often too po-faced for our own good!

We have our intermediary - "For G-d is one; and there is but one Mediator between G-d and humanity, Yeshua the Messiah, Himself human" (1 Timothy 2:5, CJB) - and are guaranteed access to G-d Himself in and through Yeshua. Yeshua is our High Priest, who makes intercession for us always and presents Himself for us. "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16, ESV). The prophet challenged the people of his time, "Sing to the L-RD a new song, Sing His praise from the end of the earth!" (Isaiah 42:10, JPS). We must find a song to sing to our G-d with which our hearts, minds and mouths can agree. What might that song be? The prophet offers a suggestion: "Behold, G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; For the L-RD G-d is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation" (Isaiah 12:2, NASB). If we really believe this, then why would we not sing? It is, on the contrary, half-hearted, mumbled words by rote (and every denomination has them) that risk acquiring sin and guilt as we fail to recognise G-d and worship Him with all our hearts.

Further Study: 2 Chronicles 26:16-21; Psalm 118:14-17; 1 Corinthians 14:26

Application: How can you contribute to the worship in your congregation? How can you participate for yourself and encourage or inspire others to engage joyfully in the worship of our G-d? G-d longs to welcome us into His presence when we praise Him, so let's not keep Him waiting any longer!

Comment - '16:49 21Jun17' JP: The comments about joy in our worship remind me of Piper's idea of Christian "hedonism" -- the pursuit of pleasure in G-d. Not pleasure in the many blessings G-d has given us, but in G-d Himself. Our giddiness becomes the fuel for our praise of Him. How blessed we are in Yeshua that the veil of the temple no longer separates us!

© Jonathan Allen, 2017

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