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(Num 4:21 - 7:89)

B'Midbar/Numbers 7:48   On the seventh day, the prince of the sons of Ephraim, Elishama son of Amihud.


This text finds us in the middle of a highly stylised and repetitive list of offerings brought by the head of each tribe in turn for the dedication of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. So far, we have had Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Reuben, Simeon and Gad. On this day, the seventh day in the sequence, it was the turn of the tribe of Ephraim. But was it the seventh day of consecutive offerings, or was it the seventh day of offerings, skipping Shabbat? When the offerings start - "the one who presented his offering on the first day was Nahshon son of Amminadab of the tribe of Judah" (B'Midbar 7:12, JPS) - the ancient rabbis take it that the phrase "on the first day" must mean the first day of the week. The seventh day, then, must surely be Shabbat. But offerings from individuals are not permitted on Shabbat; only the designated Shabbat offerings themselves are permitted on that day. "Lest you should exclaim: 'How is it that he desecrated the Sabbath? Surely, the offering of an individual cannot override the Sabbath, and yet this man presented his offering on the Sabbath day?' the Holy One, blessed be He, tells you: 'He did not do it of his own accord, for I told Moshe: Let them present their offerings for the dedication of the altar, one chieftain each day (B'Midbar 7:11, JPS); they must present their offering one after the other without any break'" (B'Midbar Rabbah 14:1).

A similar circumstance occurred when the Israelites attacked and took the city of Jericho. 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 told Joshua, "Let all your troops march around the city and complete one circuit of the city. Do this six days, with seven priests carrying seven ram's horns preceding the Ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the horns" (Joshua 6:3-4, JPS). It is impossible to count for seven days, starting from any day of the week, without one of those days being Shabbat. Was there a break in the count for one day to allow for Shabbat, or was this too a specific dispensation for this time, explicitly commanded by HaShem? 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 argues that there must have been a break in both counts - that Shabbat was more important and that the day numbers are just days in the sequence rather than physically consecutive days. Pointing to the dedication of the First Temple by King Solomon, where the book of Kings records, "All the men of Israel gathered before King Solomon at the Feast in ... the seventh month ... So Solomon and all Israel with him ... observed the Feast at that time before the L-RD our G-d, seven days and again seven days, fourteen days in all" (1 Kings 8:2,65, JPS), he assumes that the feast started on the first day of the seventh month and says that Israel couldn't possibly have kept a feast for fourteen consecutive days because that would have meant feasting on Yom Kippur, the tenth day of the seventh month.

Notwithstanding, then, which day of the week this particular "seventh day" is, we need to ask why the Torah, which is usually so conservative with its use of words, devotes nearly three full columns of hand-written text - that's seventy two verses, almost all of a very long chapter - to twelve paragraphs that are nearly identical bar the name of the tribal chief. A number of reasons have been advanced. One is that the order in which the tribes are listed is not birth order, or grouped by their mothers, but the camping and marching sequence which has been laid out in the last parasha (B'Midbar chapter 2); they are therefore bringing their gifts in that order to affirm their acceptance of the desert and divine protocol. Another proposal is that all twelve tribes are explicitly listed with their gifts in detail to demonstrate that HaShem has no favourites: every tribe brought precisely the same thing, down to the last shekel of silver and handful of flour. Don Isaac Who Is ...

Abravanel: Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508 CE), Statesman and biblical commentator; born in Lisbon, died in Venice; wrote commentaries on the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures
Abravanel comments that this order preserves the precedence between Ephraim and Manasseh established by Ya'akov when he blessed Yosef's sons: "Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim's head... thus crossing his hands -- although Manasseh was the first-born" (B'resheet 48:14, JPS).

I propose that a third reason is that the Torah is trying to teach us that sometimes it's good and acceptable to do the same thing today as yesterday, and to do the same again tomorrow. Consistency, stability and even predictability in our relationship with G-d can be a good thing; in fact, it's the norm! At this point some people will jump up and down, quoting G-d saying, "Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare" (Isaiah 42:9, ESV), and the writer of Lamentations singing that God's "mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning" (Lamentations 3:22-23, ESV). G-d is a G-d of new things, always creating and bringing new things to pass; He is always fresh and creative, speaking disparagingly of worship "learned by rote" (Isaiah 29:13, ESV). But is that really so? Do we not find that the normative pattern throughout the Hebrew Scriptures is of worship conducted in relatively fixed patterns and at predictable times and places?

Moshe told the people, "Now this is what you shall offer upon the altar: two yearling lambs each day, regularly. You shall offer the one lamb in the morning, and you shall offer the other lamb at twilight. There shall be a tenth of a measure of choice flour with a quarter of a hin of beaten oil mixed in, and a libation of a quarter hin of wine for one lamb; and you shall offer the other lamb at twilight, repeating with it the meal offering of the morning with its libation -- an offering by fire for a pleasing odour to the L-RD" (Shemot 29:38-41, ESV). That's totally prescriptive; no variation at all, just additional - but prescribed - offerings on Shabbat and the festival days. This, Moshe commands, is to be "a regular burnt offering throughout the generations" (v. 42, ESV) and it is to be, "at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting before the L-RD" (ibid.). No room for manoeuvre there either, but it is precisely that predictability and consistency that allows G-d always to be found by His people: "for there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you" (ibid.). There is no difficulty knowing where G-d is when you want to ask something, know something, need something, or simply want to laugh or cry with Him; He is there - He has promised!

Set against that, of course, will be Yeshua's teachings about new and old wine: "No one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins" (Luke 5:37-38, ESV). Old wineskins cannot take the acidity of newly pressed grape juice, nor the pressure and activity of fermentation, without cracking and wasting both the new wine and the skins. New wine, Yeshua says, must be put into new wineskins. In just the same way, the reformers and progressives say, the new things that G-d is doing in the church cannot be confined to the old wineskins of tradition: ritual, liturgy and dogma. The church must move on, allowing new expressions and forms of worship to emerge as people are guided by the Spirit and released from the fetters and relatively rigid expectations of the past. This is not mocking - the movers and shakers have a lot going for them and much of the new ideas, styles, music and media being used in many forward looking churches is producing good fruit: engagement not only with youth - always a difficult and ephemeral group to reach - but with families and older people too, who are seeking freshness and life.

But that is not the end of the story. Yeshua's final sentence, often left off by those who quote the passage from its parallels in Matthew and Mark, gives us an important balance: "no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, 'The old is good'" (v. 39, ESV). Tradition also has something going for it: a stability and caution that can resist impulsive mistakes, a quality and depth that informs and undergirds modern ideas, a strength and wisdom that holds people together and stresses the value of covenant relationship. Tradition can act as a sea-anchor, not stopping progress and change, but taking some of the bump and jerk out of the process. Make no mistake: both tradition and freshness are needed, for tradition will die without the fresh sparkle and precociousness of the new wine to drive change and innovation.

How are the two to be reconciled? How can we do the same thing every day and yet move forward into the new things that G-d wants to do with and among His people. Matthew's version give us a clue: "But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved" (Matthew 9:17, ESV). To preserve both the old wine and the skins that hold it, and the new wine and its skins, people and contexts must be respected. You can't expect the 60+ generations to want to dance and rock with Matt Redman songs all the time - although some will - and neither can you expect the under 25s to be enthusiastic about a constant diet of classic hymns and choruses from the 1980s, even if they are in Mission Praise! But some things cross the generations and work well in many contexts and cross-fertilisation is imperative for the generations to learn from each other. And learn we must if we are going to follow G-d's heart and keep everybody on board. The days of gathering up a group of like-minded people, jumping into the ship's boat and rowing off to do your own thing, or of trying to corral the restless and keep them contained in a safe place where they can't hurt themselves, need to be long gone as we listen for what G-d is saying to us today.

Further Study: Job 32:18-21; Ezra 3:1-5; 1 John 2:7-10

Application: Where do you stand? Diehards of tradition or change do exactly that: die hard! Life in all its fullness and variety brings freshness, passion and the presence of G-d to every generation. Recognise and embrace both the tradition and the innovation in the place who G-d has put you!

© Jonathan Allen, 2016



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