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B'Midbar/Numbers 33:1 These [are] the journeys of the Children of Israel who came out from the land of Egypt by their hosts ...
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Please keep your seat-belt fastened while we taxi to the gate. After forty years of travelling, the Israelites have reached the penultimate destination on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Now encamped, somewhat to the chagrin of the king of Moab, on the Plains of Moab, on the east side of the Jordan, opposite Jericho, the Children of Israel are preparing to cross the Jordan and take possession of the land that was promised to their forefathers many generations ago. Although Avraham walked "the length and breadth of the land" (B'resheet 13:17), none of this generation - except Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who returned a good report - have seen this "land flowing with milk and honey" (Shemot 3:8) or have any idea about "a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper" (D'varim 8:7-9, NJPS).
On the other hand, the whole nation - from the oldest, who were just children when they left Egypt, to the youngest, who were born in the desert - have a very vivid experience of trackless sand, days of unbearable heat and dryness, and being dependent on the daily harvest of manna. They are only too well aware of the stops and starts in the wilderness journey: the overnight sleep-overs and the long-stay encampments. The list that Moshe will write contains forty two names, some of which are mentioned elsewhere in the story and yet omits some of the places the narrative implies should surely have been included. Fourteen of the stages took place in the first year after leaving Egypt; a further eight have taken place just recently, since Aharon died. That leave just twenty for the intervening time - an average stay of nearly two years - so actually a fairly relaxed schedule. Bar one or two snippets of human interest - for example, that "there were twelve springs in Elim and seventy palm trees" (B'Midbar 33:9, NJPS) - the list is almost entirely filled with desiccated and emotionless journeys in the form, "They set out from Rephidim and encamped in the wilderness of Sinai" (v. 15, NJPS). The itinerary is almost as devoid of life as the desert through which they travelled!
Rashi asks why these journeys needed to be written down and then answers his own question: "To make known the acts of kindness of the Omnipresent." The Sforno has a different answer: "G-d, blessed is He, wanted the journeys of the Israelites to be written (in order to) make known their merit in their following Him in the wilderness ... and in this manner they deserved to enter the Land." The ancient Sages suggested that "The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe, 'Write down the stages by which Israel journeyed in the wilderness, in order that they shall know the miracles I wrought for them'" (B'Midbar Rabbah 23:1). As to why the list is partial or incomplete, Chizkuni responds, "these and not necessarily anything that may have been recorded earlier; the other towns recorded in 32:3 were conquered but were not stages on the journey." Avigdor Bonchek writes that "historical recording is not sufficient justification for the Torah to mention an event. Historical events which the Torah does mention are recorded in order to teach us something, something other than history."1 So there must be something going in here that needs a little teasing out.
Ancient Near Eastern cultures often recorded the results of their military campaigns - if they were successful! Dennis Cole reports that this list "stands in the tradition of the lists of cities recounting the victorious campaigns on such pharaohs as Thutmose III, Seti I, Ramses II and Shishak. Their triumphant crusades of the Late Bronze Age extended from Egypt through Cisjordan and Transjordan into Lebanon and Syria, bringing numerous peoples under their imperial dominion."2 Surely, that is not what HaShem or Moshe had in mind for this list. Pointing to where it is used in B'resheet 36:15, 20, 31 and 40, Jacob Milgrom suggests that starting our text with the word , 'these', "is a sign of an archival document."
Recognising the difficulty that some readers may have, Richard Elliot Friedman comments that "many readers may find it uninteresting or unnecessary, but it is important. A connecting line of cause and effect runs through the stories in the book of Numbers ... This list of the Israelites' itinerary formally shows the sequence of the journey to be the theme and unifying line of the book."Nechama Leibowitz observes that: " Maimonides laid down a general rule for all such passages that appear superfluous, dry, technical and trivial." This appears in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:50), where he concludes, "In like manner there is good reason for every passage the object of which we cannot see. We must always apply the words of our Sages: 'It is not a vain things for you' (D'varim 32:47), and if it seem vain, it is your fault (y. Peah 1.1)."
Writing in the wake of the Expulsion of Jews from Spain (in 1492), DonAbravanel looks at) the words of the prophets - "I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you from the lands where you are scattered, and I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples; and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face" (Ezekiel 20:34-35, NJPS) - and deduces that "the future redemption will also involve a wilderness journey," adding that the verse "I will show him wondrous deeds as in the days when you sallied forth from the land of Egypt" (Micah 7:15, NJPS), "shows us that our passage is meant as an allusion to those future days." Certainly we can see that Isaiah's prophecy of "a voice cries out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of Adonai, make straight in the desert a highway for our G-d" (Isaiah 40:3, TLV) found its most significant fulfillment so far in the person of John the Baptist, who all four gospels describe as "the one Isaiah the prophet spoke about, saying,'The voice of one crying in the wilderness ...'" (Matthew 3:3, TLV). I venture to suggest, however, for both Jew and Gentile followers of Yeshua, that a second fulfillment is already under way in these days as no less a figure than Yeshua Himself is calling His people out of today's culture to meet with Him in the wilderness of exile to prepare in earnest for His return in glory.
Moshe is told to record the individual stages of the Israelites' journey from Egypt in writing so that it should not be forgotten once our people entered the Land. It does not matter that many of the places are no longer identifiable; this is part of the process of positive remembering: "take care lest you forget the L-RD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (D'varim 6:12, ESV). Even though you cannot find it, we know that we were there! We must remember where we have been so that we know who we are and why we are here now. More critically, a firm grasp of our past informs and guides us in discerning what we are supposed to do next. The prophets reminded the people time and again to remember the Exodus from Egypt, to "look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug>" (Isaiah 51:1, ESV), to recall the mighty works of G-d, stretching back to Avraham and Sarah, to creation itself. This builds our identity as a people, knowing that we have been called and chosen by G-d: a people set apart from the nations and a people called out from the nations. It gives purpose and perspective, enabling the Spirit to shape our community as a consistent expression of G-d in the world.
One last point. Why did Moshe have to write the itinerary then and there, in the Plains of Moab, before our people entered the Land? Wouldn't it have been more complete if Joshua had written it down a few years later, when it could could included Jericho, Ai and the cities that were taken as G-d's promises to give the Land to His people were being fulfilled? Then start to end it would have covered Egypt to Israel. I believe the answer to that question is essential for us to grasp and understand today. Moshe's itinerary, like Schubert's last symphony, is unfinished because our journey is unfinished. Until Yeshua returns, we are still on the journey. No matter how lush our circumstances may be, how comfortable we may be in retirement, how blessed we are in our current job or ministry position, we cannot put our feet up and take it easy. What matters is being on the journey.
Yeshua challenged his followers with the cost of discipleship - "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Luke 9:58, ESV) - not because He didn't have a home, because we know that in the early years of His ministry He did have a home in Capernaum, but because the life of the kingdom isn't about homes. Following Yeshua is precisely about that: following Him. It is about being on the journey - knowing that there was a starting point, that there have been many steps and stages along the way and that you haven't arrived yet - and being committed to travelling until you get there as Yeshua said: "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of G-d" (v. 62, ESV). This isn't about whether you own a house or not, it is about whether you are following Yeshua in the walk of the kingdom, whether you are actively participating in the work and call of the kingdom (whatever that means in your circumstances) and whether you are getting to know Yeshua better each day.
1. - Avigdor Bonchek, What's Bothering Rashi, Volume 4, Bamidbar (New York, Feldheim, 2001), page 212.
2. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 518.
Further Study: Matthew 8:19-22; Philippians 3:13-16
Application: Are you on the journey or are you sitting in a deck-chair watching the journey go past you while you just sip iced lemonade through a straw? It's time to pack your knapsack and set out on the trail, following the Master rather than just waving to Him as He passes. The views are amazing and the destination is simply out of this world but following Yeshua isn't a spectator sport. You have to get on your feet and go!
Comment - 01:17 04Jul21 KCB: Are we standing on The Promises, or sitting on the premises? :-)
Comment - 07:12 04Jul21 Judith Chesney: Very relevant in today's climate of shifting sand. We are very nearly at the end of our journey. He is calling each of us to stand only on the Rock of our foundation.
Comment - 19:11 04Jul21 Janet Gray: A big Ameyn, a whoop and a holler!! for your suggestion that Yeshua is calling us out of today's culture in preparation for His return.
Comment - 13:41 07Jul21 Joshua VanTine: Appreciated your drash, I particularly was struck by two points, things that can appear vain or dull, and that we are on an unfinished journey until the day of completion in Mashiach Yeshua. As we are ever journeying to the Kingdom in this life it is a comfort to know, a strength to be reckoned with to fully trust, that the Son of Man is ever interceding for us. Melech Mashiach is praying for our emunah to connect us to the Father so every stage/test/point along the journey we can choose His perfect Will and be satisfied in our souls.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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