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B'Midbar/Numbers 31:49 Your servants have lifted the head of the men of battle that [were] in our hand, and not a man was counted [away] from us.
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HaShem has called the Israelites to "Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites" (B'Midbar 31:2, NJPS) and just a thousand men from each tribe (except Levi, of course) are sent out with "Pinchas son of Eleazar serving as a priest on the campaign, equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts" (v. 6, NJPS) to destroy the Midianite people because of their action in inducing Israel to sin at Ba'al Pe'or. However uncomfortable we might feel today about the concept of "holy war", authorised by HaShem, the narrative nevertheless tells us that the Israelites "took the field against Midian, as the L-RD had commanded Moshe, and slew every male ... They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword. The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth. And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments" (vv. 7-10, NJPS).
The words of our text are spoken by the field commanders when they have returned to Moshe and Eleazar at the main camp, to report on the campaign against a not inconsiderable foe, described by Gordon Wenham as "a large confederation of tribes" who "roamed through the arid lands of Sinai, the Negev and Transjordan."1 Dennis Cole comments that, despite the numerical odds, "not one of the twelve thousand who were dispatched for combat had been killed or were missing in action. This wondrous indication of Yahweh's providence and protection would provide the armies of Israel with assurance and confidence for the coming campaigns in the land of Canaan."2 Dennis Olson compares this to the previous generation, the generation who has actually come out of Egypt: "In contrast to the first generation whose members all died in the wilderness, there are no deaths recounted in the second generation throughout B'Midbar chapters 26-36. This note in 31:49 simply underscores the life and hope that this second generation represents as it stands ready to enter the land of Canaan."3
The statement of the commanders contains three idioms that we need to understand in order to see the points that the Torah's narrator is trying to make. The first idiom is the words - literally, "they lifted the head". Jacob Milgrom suggests the modern vernacular translation, "we took a head count." This idiom, "lifting the head", is employed elsewhere by the Torah for counting or conducting a census. Moshe, for example, is told by HaShem, "Take a census of the whole Israelite community" (1:2, NJPS). More than simply counting bodies, it conveys the idea of each individual being known - their head is lifted and they are looked squarely in the face - and valued as a part of the whole. The officers (of thousands and hundreds) knew the men under their command; there was a degree of mutual accountability: the officers trusted the men to fight, to the best of their ability, the men trusted to officers to look after them and not to put them unnecessarily at risk.
This leads to the second idiom, the single word , literally "in our hand" and variously translated by the English translations as "under our command" (CJB, ESV, NIV, NRSV), "in our charge" (NASB, NJPS).Ibn Ezra comments that "this is, of course, not to be taken literally." Interestingly, although 'our' is plural, 'hand' is singular - the officers saw themselves as a collective whole; although the overall force was comprised of 12,000 individual fighting men, the officers fought the campaign and commanded the troops as one command structure, with a single task and mission. The officers also recognised the responsibility they had for each man in their command - he was "in their hand" - and they were accountable for each life, not to be wasted or risked in a careless or negligent way. They understood that they would need to give an account for each and every life that was lost to the family whose husband, son or father did not return to them alive.
The third idiom is the closing words of the verse: . The root has a range of meanings - visit, muster, count, punish, appoint (Davidson) - and as used here in the Nif'al stem, as well as the expected passive meanings (be counted, be punished, etc.), it can express something being looked for or missed as David told Nabal of his shepherds during the time they were with David's men: "nothing of theirs was missing all the time they were in Carmel" (1 Samuel 25:7, NJPS).4Rashi therefore explains the idiom to mean "not a man is missing." Jacob Milgrom supplies another reference, "When the king took his usual place ... David's place remained vacant" (20:25, NJPS), which connects well with out context: when the troops returned from the campaign, no-one's place was vacant in their homes or families. The Ramban comments, "Not one was even wounded, let alone killed. The L-rd has given us a great victory."
TheRashbam points to another potential hazard in his comment, that no-one was missing "as a result of plague." This refers to the mitzvah earlier in the Torah that "When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the L-RD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled" (Shemot 30:12, NJPS). The "head count" undertaken by the officers was not commanded by HaShem and there is no mention of the half-shekel being collected from each man - yet there was no plague. Although the verse following our text (B'Midbar 31:50) does use the word 'ransom' for the gold booty that all the soldiers gave up to the sanctuary, the amounts don't match and Thomas Dozeman suggests that "given the priestly teaching on war as an act of defilement, it may be that ransom is required from soldiers because of their participation in war, even though it was sanctioned by G-d."5
Jeremiah is sent down to the potter's house for another example of the "in the hand" idiom. After watching the potter making and remaking the clay until the pot came out right, he hears the L-rd speak to him: "House of Isra'el, can't I deal with you as the potter deals with his clay? - says ADONAI. Look! You, house of Isra'el, are the same in My hand as the clay in the potter's hand" (Jeremiah 18:6, CJB). The phrase "the same as" tells us that this is not to be taken literally, as if G-d has a physical hand with which He squashes and remakes Israel until they come out right. Instead "in My hand" is being used in the same way as the officers talked of their men. Israel is under G-d's command and there is - or should be - a mutuality in the relationship: G-d expects the people to obey His laws, while the people are supposed to trust G-d for leadership, guidance and provenance. "Because you are My people and I am responsible for you," G-d says, "I am about to reduce and re-work you in the same way as a potter reworks the clay on his wheel."
Yeshua also uses the "in the hand" idiom when He talks to the crowd in the Temple in Jerusalem one year during the festival of Hanukkah. He is challenged to reveal Himself - "How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly" (John 10:24, ESV). As part of His reply, He tells the crowd, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand" (vv. 27-28, ESV). I think many folk read that as being about eternal security, particularly at an individual level; they think that this is about people not losing their faith - and are then disappointed when someone they know or care about appears to do just that. Then they (or other well-meaning but unhelpful people) go through various contortions about never really having been saved, leaving them alone so they can come back to it, not really having lost it at all, or this is what different expressions of faith look like. Or there is the really unhelpful one that says that although no-one can snatch them away, there's nothing to stop them walking away on their own account. This is all arrant nonsense; there is nothing contingent in Yeshua's words. They have eternal life, they will never perish and no-one will snatch them out of His hand. In case there were any doubt, He immediately follows His first statement with a second: "My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand" (v. 29, ESV). Even if you had any doubts about Yeshua, the Father trumps everyone, everywhere, every time. No-one, no-thing and no power or authority can snatch anyone out of the Father's hand.
Let's re-examine what Yeshua is saying in the light of the three idioms we have already considered. First of all, Yeshua knows each of His people individually, personally and by name. He has counted them, lifted their head and looked them straight in the eye; He knows them. Secondly, Yeshua knows that His people are in his command; they are His and He is responsible for them - He will have to give an account for them both to the Father and to those who know them, trust them and are dependent on them. Thirdly, none of them are missing; there are none killed, no MIAs - after the battle, everyone is alive, well and accounted for. If we say we don't believe this then we are really saying that we don't think that G-d is G-d at all since we don't think He can do what He said He could.
The next perspective to consider is that of Jeremiah at the potter's house. At any given time, each of us is like a lump of clay on the wheel. We may have been shaped and drawn out into a beautiful vessel, we may be a highly functional but somewhat utilitarian vessel, or we may be a shapeless lump of sticky clay about to be worked by the Master's fingers. The potter's fingers constantly feel the clay as it is drawn upwards and if he feels a lump of impurity or a bubble of air - that could explode and crack the pot during firing - then he pushes the clay back down onto the wheel to work it round again until the clay runs smooth. So it is with us - we do not know even our own design criteria, so cannot know how far along we are in our own process or how much of a fight we are giving the Potter in His efforts to reach the perfect vessel He is making. How much more so others, about whom we know even less and can see only through the distorted lens of self as we spin on the wheel!
Lastly, however, the most important point is that while the building is made up of many myriads of stones or bricks, without any of which there would be a hole and that hole would be noticeable, G-d's primary objective is not building bricks. He loves each one of us, has rescued and redeemed us, knows each of us by name, but He is building a temple, a dwelling place where He can live among His people. He is creating the bride for Yeshua. Each stone has a precise and unique function, its own particular and special place - it is critically important and would be missed if it were not there. That is why He has given His people officers of thousands and hundreds, to work among us and build up the Body of Messiah, "until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of G-d, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Messiah" (Ephesians 4:13, ESV). Then no-one will be missing or injured; we will all be present and correct, bearing our weight and our part in the building. Just as the bride will be "without spot or wrinkle ... holy and without blemish" (5:27, ESV), there will be no holes. We will all be able to say that "there is no-one missing from among us!"
1. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 233.
2. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 503.
3. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 179.
4. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 363.
5. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 833.
Further Study: John 18:7-9; Romans 9:20-21
Application: Are you sometimes so involved with your own little area of the kingdom that you lose sight of the larger work that G-d is building right here and right now, right under our noses and including us though we can't see it? Ask the Master Architect to let you take a few steps back from the plan so that you can see more than your own square inch and marvel at just how much G-d is doing!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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