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B'Midbar/Numbers 4:32 And by names you shall shall appoint the paraphernalia they are to guard in transit.
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This is a more complex piece of Hebrew text, consequently enjoying a number of different English translations. The verb, - the Qal prefix 2mp form of the root , "to visit, examine, punish, review, muster, number, look after, take care of, appoint, put in charge of, deposit" (Davidson) - comes second in the phrase, following its qualifier , "and by names", to add emphasis. It, in turn, is followed by the direct object marker, , and a group of nouns that describe what is to be appointed by Moshe as he conducts a census of the clan of Merari. The size and variation in the list of possible verb meanings, essentially reverse-engineered from all the places where the verb is used in the Tanakh, shows how careful we sometimes have to be when assigning meaning to less than immediately transparent Hebrew text. Which one (or more) is most appropriate here and why?
The most complicated question is who or what is being assigned names, the Merarites or the objects for whose porterage they will be responsible when the Tabernacle moves. Naturally, as there are two options, the Jewish commentators are divided. Don IsaacAbravanel says that, "It is the men who are listed by name, to avoid confusion and disruption in the work. Each of the planks and posts had written on it the name of the man who was to carry it." This assigns one or more objects to the charge of specific, named men. The Ramban agrees, telling us that, "The names belong not to the objects, but to the men who would carry them. Each man would be specifically assigned a number or group of items: 'So-and-so will carry these (or this number of) planks, sockets, pegs, etc.'" Jacob Milgrom, on the other hand, reports that, "It was essential to label the numerous objects under Merarite charge, such as sockets, pegs, bars and cords. Four wagons were needed to transport them all."
Perhaps these commentators are looking at the wrong things. RabbiHirsch offers two ideas to help us understand what is going on. His first comment concerns the Merarites themselves: "Everything which they receive to carry, they are not to accept as mere mechanical porters but a demand is made to their intelligence and their consciousness; it is an office which is to be carried out with the conscious care of a warden." This tells us that each person, each carrier, is important as an individual and is not being considered as simply one of the Merarites who are collectively assigned a particular block of the Tabernacle's components to carry. They are each to take ownership of their part of the porterage operation, to take personal responsibility for what they are carrying. For each man, his load is entrusted to his care. Now Hirsch's second comment becomes relevant: "The objects entrusted to the Merarites were also of symbolic meaning, things which had to be kept with consciousness of their meaning. They therefore were to be handed over 'by name' (explicitly mentioning what they were)." In other words, for an individual to be able to take that ownership, to step up to that responsibility, he had to know exactly what he was carrying and its significance in the Tabernacle. Hirsch implies that if you simply hand out anonymous sackfulls of stuff, with comment such as "you take this, you take this ... oh, alright, take this one instead", you are essentially telling the carriers that nothing is really very important, that no individual person or load actually matters. Naturally, the level of care will be proportional to the importance each man perceives his charge to be; accidents will happen, bundles will be dropped or stacked carelessly and damage will ensue.
So we can see that both naming processes are work. Named (and therefore known) individuals are entrusted to carry particular known and named items; whether the same individual always carries the same items is unclear and perhaps less important. Each man has a named and appointed job; this increases ownership and care of duty - each man has a special and unique role to play that cannot be substituted or delegated: he must be there and must do his job. One of the other meanings of the verb is to muster; when a muster is called, this is more than simply a quick head-count - names are called from a register to see exactly who is present. The text is therefore hinting that the carriers are called together and known by name, remembering that in those days a name was more than an individual name, but can include a father's name, a clan name, an occupation or appearance, or a residential or birth location. For the years of his service, "from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty" (B'Midbar 4:30, NJPS), each Levite, even though there were three clans - the Kohathites, Gershonites and the Merarites - numbering in the order of eight and a half thousand, all had an important part to play in the physical enabling of the cult, even if they did not actually serve as priests in the Tabernacle.
We can see a similar enabling role in the book of Esther. Hadassah was strategically placed byHaShem (even though He is not explicitly mentioned in the book) at the pinnacle of Persian society so that, although she cannot formally engage in government or even enter the king's presence without permission, she could act to enable the rescue of the Jewish people from the attempted genocide of Haman. As Mordechai tells his reluctant cousin, "Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14, ESV). Esther was the only person with access to the king who could effect this rescue and expose Haman's plot; she had a very specific function to perform and no substitution was possible. After asking Mordechai to "gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day" (v. 16, ESV), Esther girded up her loins, put on her royal glad-rags and taking her life in her hands, "stood in the inner court of the king's palace, in front of the king's quarters, while the king was sitting on his royal throne inside the throne room opposite the entrance to the palace" (5:1, ESV). She had accepted full ownership of the role, being prepared to answer for it in death if the king chose not to acknowledge her.
As followers of Yeshua, wild or natural branches grafted into "the nourishing root of the olive tree" (Romans 11:17), we are also each called to our individual positions and responsibilities in the kingdom of G-d. Yeshua knows each of us by name and has assigned a particular role and function within the world and the Body of Messiah to us to fulfil, "All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as He wills" (1 Corinthiand 12:11, ESV). We too are called "for such a time as this" with a particular job to do that is ours alone. When the moment (or moments) come, we need to answer to our name, step forward and carry out our assigned task. It may be sharing the gospel with someone, telling them about Yeshua; it may be speaking out against injustice or oppression; it may be straightening the chairs so that someone doesn't trip and fall; it may simply be turning up at some event and being seen anonymously as part of the crowd. We may be called once or many times, to the same or different tasks - it is up to G-d how He wishes to deploy us in His plans - but, just like the Levites of old, we need to take ownership and responsibility for seeing that the task is done and carried out to the best of our ability. We may not substitute or ask someone else to go in our stead. If "the L-RD became angry with Moshe" (Shemot 4:13, NJPS) because Moshe said, "Please, O L-rd, make someone else Your agent>" (ibid.), when told for the fourth time to return to Egypt to lead our people as G-d brought us out of bondage "with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements" (6:6, NJPS), how much more must we respond when our tasks - like the individual Levites - are likely to be so much less.
When Peter asked Yeshua about one of the other disciples, the Master replied, perhaps a little tartly, "If it is My will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!" (John 21:22, ESV). Even the disciples may have had some continuing vestigial competition between themselves and Yeshua challenges it by reminding Peter that John's life isn't his responsibility. As Craig Keener comments, Yeshua "was not telling Peter that the beloved disciple would live until [His] return but that it was not Peter's business to know the beloved disciple's fate."1 We may encourage and support one another, but we cannot take another's place or exchange our calling with anyone else. Neither may others criticise our obedience to our own calling; they have not been called in exactly the same way as we have, so it isn't their responsibility. What is that to them? Rav Sha'ul asks the same question: "Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of G-d" (Romans 14:10, ESV). Let us each do the task that has been assigned to us and let the kingdom move forward!
1. - Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary Baker 2003, page 1239.
Further Study: 1 Corinthians 3:10-13; Galatians 6:4-5
Application: Are you prepared to stand up and take ownership of your named responsibility for service in the kingdom of G-d today? Ask the L-rd to confirm what load you are to carry and how it is to be handled so that you can play your part in the safe arrival of G-d's dwelling place with man.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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