Messianic Education Trust
    Mattot/Masa'ei  
(Num 30:2(1) - 36:13)

B'Midbar/Numbers 33:55   and it will be that those you allow to remain from them [will be] as thorns in your eyes and as pricks in your sides


This text, the start of a warning against allowing any of the previous residents of the Land to remain once the people of Israel move in to occupy it as their inheritance, contains unusual words so that from a 'strict' translation point of view, its meaning is unclear. The noun is a Explaining Terms ...

hapax legomenon: (pl. hapax legomena) a Greek phrase meaning "something said once"; a word that only occurs once either in a particular form or at all, in the Hebrew or Greek biblical texts, or in an author's work or a literary corpus
hapax legomenon, only used here, related to an What Is ...

Akkadian: A semitic language, spoken in ancient Mesopotamia, particularly by the Babylonians and Assyrians, named from the city of Akkad, a major city of Mesopotamian civilisation. Written in cuneiform; spoken for several millenia but probably exinct by 100CE
Akkadian word meaning 'nail, point'. The noun is only used twice in the Hebrew Scriptures, here and Joshua 23:13: ", and thorns in your eyes" (JPS). The Who Is ...

The Rashbam: Rabbi Samuel ben Asher (1085-1174 CE), a grandson of Rashi; lived in Northern France; worked from the plain meaning of the Hebrew text even when this contradicted established rabbinic interpretaton
Rashbam says, "the first means something prickly, like nettles, as in 'I will hedge up her roads with thorns' (Hosea 2:8, JPS). The second refers to a second kind of thorn." 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 offers: "The first could be brambles - 'I will remove its hedge' (Isaiah 5:5, JPS) - the second must be interpreted in context: blows."

Rabbi Who Is ...

Hirsch: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888 CE), German rabbi, author and educator; staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Germany and one of the fathers of Orthodox Judaism
Hirsch explains that the first phrase - - means "means a defence of thorns, a hedge of thorns." He adds in interpretations, "The idolaters that you leave in the land will become like a fence around their idolatry, so that you do not see them so ignore them and become tolerant to them, and so forfeit G-d's protection by your tolerance of idolatry in the land." Who Is ...

Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 CE), French rabbi who wrote commentaries on the Torah, the Prophets and the Talmud, lived in Troyes where he founded a yeshiva in 1067; focuses on the plain meaning (p'shat) of the text, although sometimes quite cryptic in his brevity
Rashi picks up on the same idea, saying, "'as thorn-hedges' - The interpreters interpret it as meaning an enclosure of thorns which covers you, to close off and confine you without any who can go out or come in." Who Is ...

Ramban: Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman of Gerona or Nachmanides (1194-1270 CE), Spanish rabbi, author and physician; defended Judaism in the Christian debates in Barcelona before making aliyah
Nachmanides connects this warning with the one that Joshua gives to the next generation as he is about to die - "they shall become a snare and a trap for you, a scourge to your sides and thorns in your eyes" (Joshua 23:13, JPS) - saying, "Joshua said 'a snare and a trap' referring to the errors into which they will lead you; 'thorns in your eyes' - they will lead you astray, so that you will not be able to see."

Another line of interpretation is started by the Who Is ...

Ba'al HaTurim: Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1269-1343 CE), born in Cologne, Germany; lived for 40 years in and around Toledo, Spain; died en route to Israel; his commentary to the Chumash is based upon an abridgement of the Ramban, including Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra; it includes many references to gematria and textual novelties
Baal HaTurim, who explains: " means 'and as sieges' - this word is related to , a besieging encampment, indicating that the nations will come against Israel with shield and siege." He is supported by What Is ...

Targum Onkelos: An early (1st-2nd Century CE) translation/paraphrase of the Torah into Aramaic; attributed to a Roman convert to Judaism, Onkelos; used in Babylonian synagogues during the Talmudic era
Targum Onkelos who, rather than offer a literal translation of the biblical text, provides a paraphrase in similar vein: "those who you allow to remain will be units that raise arms against you and camps that surround you." Jacob Milgrom reminds us that "The danger is explicitly stated by Moshe at Sinai: "They shall not remain in your land, lest they cause you to sin against Me; for you will serve their gods -- and it will prove a snare to you" (Shemot 23:33, JPS). At this point we can consider the verb - the Hif'il 2mp prefix form of the root , to remain, to be left. The Hif'il voice is normally causitive - to cause something - but here has the sense of allowing, allowing the previous residents to remain. If it as if the warning is connecting the action and consequences of allowing the Canaanites to remain, saying, "If you allow them to remain then you are also allowing them to be an ongoing issue for you." Whether by ignoring or tolerating their idolatrous practices, by being drawn into following their idolatry, or by allowing them to marry into and become part of Israelite society - possibly all three - the holiness that 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 calls the Israelites to will be compromised, Israel's witness to the nations will be damaged and HaShem's name will be linked with or compared to the false, pagan gods.

One of the common themes of these interpretations - either for the first or the second of the two phrases - is that of a hedge of thorns, an enclosure, a trap; something that restricts and closes in around. A shepherd with a flock of sheep out in the wilderness has a relatively easy job during the day; he can see them, they can see him and he is, of course, awake and able to spot predators and call the sheep around him as needs be. At night, on the other hand, it is necessary to confine the sheep so that they don't just wander off and fall prey to a passing bear or wolf. That way, the shepherd may even be able to snatch a few winks of sleep or, if he is working in a team, they can set watches and take turns to sleep and stay awake. Because the sheep are confined, they are safe and in one place. Historically, shepherds would look for a natural feature such as a cave or a hillside bluff that they could extend with rocks to build an enclosure in which to pen the sheep for the night. Once built, these enclosures might exist for many years, being used for several nights at a time by each flock passing through, or on one landowner's property. The shepherd would sleep or keep watch by the gate or door - an area that could be easily blocked off with stones to 'close' the door, then cleared to one side in the morning to 'open' the door and let the sheep out to go to pasture. Each morning, there would be a terrific hubbub inside, as the sheep awoke and wanted to get out for breakfast. When the shepherd pushed aside the rocks, the sheep would jump over the last few stones and stream out and away from the pen in their search for food and water.

The prophet Micah used this picture to describe the way that G-d would deal with His people Israel: "I will surely assemble all of you, Jacob, I will surely gather the remnant of Israel. I will put them together like sheep in the fold; like a flock in the midst of its pasture they will be noisy with men" (Micah 2:12, NASB). Here they are, having been gathered, being enclosed. They are bleating to be let out, noisy with the cries of men wanting to be out and about their business. Now Micah continues the picture: "The breaker goes up before them; they break out, pass through the gate, and go out by it. So their king goes on before them, and the L-RD at their head" (v. 13, NASB). This is what happens when they are released. The breaker is the one who starts pushing out the stones in the gateway; no sooner has he got two or three out of the way, then the sheep are leaping over him and the remaining stones - the flock is on the move, like water pouring out of a dam that has burst. But their king - who is this? Yeshua, the king of Israel, the Shepherd of G-d's flock, is leading the sheep out to find fresh pasture, to find water and to find peaceful grazing, as the Psalmist said: "The L-RD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters" (Psalm 23:1-2, NASB).

See that as a context or backdrop for Yeshua's teaching in John's gospel: "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out" (John 10:1-3, NASB). Substitute 'breaker' for 'doorkeeper' and you have Micah's overnight picture. The sheep are enclosed for the night. The doorkeeper sleeps by the door and will not open it - either to let in or out - save for the shepherd's voice. Anyone climbing over the wall is not a shepherd, is not authorised and is trying to steal sheep. When the shepherd's voice is heard, the doorkeeper pushed down the stones and the sheep, hearing the shepherd's voice, rush out and follow him. But, John tells us, the people didn't see the picture right away, so Yeshua tried again: "Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture" (vv. 7-9, NASB). Yeshua switches the picture slightly, portraying Himself as the door. He is the only legitimate way in and out of the sheepfold; He is safety and security for the sheep.

Yeshua then connects with the image of David, the shepherd boy who became the king of Israel, who spoke about his time as a shepherd in the wilderness with his father's sheep: "Your servant has been tending his father's sheep, and if a lion or a bear came and carried off an animal from the flock, I would go after it and fight it and rescue it from its mouth. And if it attacked me, I would seize it by the beard and strike it down and kill it" (1 Samuel 17:34-35, JPS). Yeshua says, "I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hireling, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, beholds the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep, and flees, and the wolf snatches them, and scatters them" (John 10:11-12, NASB). Yeshua owns the sheep; He is about to lay His life down for them, to rescue them.

Let's just fill in the last piece of the puzzle and connect this back to our text from the Torah portion. There we saw the Israelites being surrounded by thorns, hedged in and constrained by allowing sin to remain in the Land. When Yeshua looked at the multitudes who flocked to Him from the villages as He proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom and healed all their diseases, He "He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36, NASB). We are ensnared by sin (Proverbs 29:6) and the bad choices that we take, but Yeshua - in the same voice that he commanded Lazarus to "Come out!" (John 11:43) - breaks down the hedges of thorns and calls us to come out to Him. We in turn must purge our lives of sin and the idols that take us away from G-d and back into sin.

Further Study: Ezekiel 34:2-16; 1 Peter 2:21-25

Application: Whose sheep-pen are you in? Have you entered through the door or climbed over the wall? Are you surrounded by thorns or grazing in green pastures, following the Good Shepherd?

© Jonathan Allen, 2015



15:26 14Jul15 'Tom Hiney': I hadn't properly connected before the ideas in Micah, of David and of Jesus, as regarding the role of a shepherd.

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