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B'Midbar/Numbers 4:49 By the mouth of the L-rd He appointed them, by the hand of Moshe: each man concerning his service and concerning his carrying
This text comes at the end of two chapters numbering and assigning duties to the three clans making up the tribe of Levi: Gershon, Kohath and Merari. They were not counted in the main census of Israel, of those who were fit for military service. The Levites are first numbered so that they may serve as an atonement for the firstborn sons of all the other tribes; then their males between thirty and fifty are numbered and are assigned the roles of assisting - under priestly authority - the priests in the performance of the ritual of the Tabernacle and taking charge of and carrying all the fabric and furniture of the Tabernacle. The closing four verses of chapter 4 (46-49) provide one of the Torah's frequent summaries of the results and a report of successful obedience. As usual, it pays to read this closely as there is often a key concept embedded in quite normal sounding words.
Our point of entry is the verb , the Qal 3ms affix form of the root. This verb has one of the largest ranges of meaning in biblical Hebrew verbs, from counting, visiting, observing, registering, punishing, appointing, mustering and even depositing.1 Used, as it is here, with the preposition , it has the sense of assigning a task or an object to someone, or putting someone in charge of or over something. The NJPS translation takes this into account, "Each one was given responsibility for his service and porterage at the command of the L-rd through Moshe", while Dennis Cole's translation is short and direct: "each was assigned his work and told what to carry."2Ibn Ezra agrees, commenting that "each was assigned to his task of service or porterage."
Earlier in the chapter (and partly in last week's parasha, B'Midbar) the tribe of Kohath is assigned to carry the holy things - the furniture of the Tabernacle, all the altars and their vessels and implements. The clan of Gershon is given the coverings and furnishings of the Tabernacle, while the clan of Merari is responsible for the structure of the Tabernacle and the courtyard. The Ramban reports that, "Moshe assigned the general tasks to each of the three clans and made specific assignments to individuals. In fact, no Levite was permitted to do another's task or even help him." The ancient rabbis argued over whether doing someone else's job was a capital offence, or simply a serious transgression and related a story from Second Temple times: "Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah tried to help Rabbi Yohanan ben Gudgada lock up the doors of the Temple. Rabbi Yohanan told him, "Turn back, my son! I am one of the gatekeepers and you are one of the singers!" (b. Arachin 11b).
OvadiaSforno explains how this worked: "He appointed every one of them to the service that he was to do at the time of encampment and to his porterage at the time of journeying, so that each would know the weight of his burden; and he would also know his appointment, i.e. he shall know the names of all the vessels (and implements) which he will carry, for these were designated by name as it says 'you shall list by name the objects that are their porterage tasks' (B'Midbar 4:32, NJPS)." Whether serving in the work of the Tabernacle in the camp or carrying their particular item of porterage while the Tabernacle was on the move, everyone knew exactly what they were to do, where they did it and how that fitted into the overall function and movement of the Tabernacle. Everyone had their unique role to play, all being essential to the correct operation and appearance of the Tabernacle. Since all the roles were divinely appointed, although Moshe was the mouthpiece through whom HaShem made these dispositions, there could be no room or excuse for jockeying for position or rivalry between the different members of each clan, between the members of different clans, or between the clans themselves. As Benjamin Franklin and Mrs Isabella Beeton were both supposed to have said:3 a place for everything and everything in its place.
We see the principle of divine appointment throughout the Tanakh. Samuel receives instructions to "Fill your horn with oil and set out; I am sending you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have decided on one of his sons to be king" (1 Samuel 16:1, NJPS); Elijah is told to "anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to succeed you as prophet" (1 Kings 19:16, NJPS). A human agent announces the divine choice and carries out any anointing or appointment ceremonies, but the initiative and the choice come from G-d. He is the one who appoints prophets, raises up kings and disposes of peoples.
Not surprisingly, Yeshua followed the same pattern in His ministry. When it became time to select His core group of disciples, Luke tells us that, "It was around that time that Yeshua went out to the hill country to pray, and all night He continued in prayer to G-d. When day came, He called His talmidim and chose from among them twelve to be known as emissaries" (Luke 6:12-13, CJB). The phrase "when day came" links the two verses tightly to make it clear that the calling and choosing of the inner circle of twelve was a divine choice, following a night of prayer. Judas, for example, might not have been an obvious candidate if his habit of pilfering from the money bag was already evident, but G-d knew that he had to be there to give the other eleven a choice in their behaviour and conduct, and to carry out the betrayal in Jerusalem.
Later, when the mother of two of the disciples came to ask Yeshua to "promise that when you become king, these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right and the other on your left" (Matthew 20:21, CJB), He was very clear that this privilege was not within His gift: "to sit on My right and on My left is not Mine to give, it is for those for whom My Father has prepared it" (v. 23, CJB). The disciples (and their mother) might well not have understood for what they were asking and its implications, but the divine prerogative took precedence over their ambition. G-d had already chosen those who would have those place of honour and authority in the kingdom; it was His choice. We need to hear Yeshua's words to all His disciples, some of whom were outraged at the chutzpah of James and John: "whoever among you wants to be a leader must become your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave!" (vv. 26-27, CJB).
Today's communities of Yeshua's disciples - that's us! - are also supposed to follow the same rules. Writing to the Ephesians, Rav Sha'ul tells them that, "He gave some people as emissaries, some as prophets, some as proclaimers of the Good News, and some as shepherds and teachers" (Ephesians 4:11, CJB). Notice the choice of words here: Yeshua - to whom the 'he' refers back - has given some people in each of these roles in leadership, "to equip G-d's people for the work of service that builds the body of the Messiah" (v. 12, CJB). They haven't appointed themselves; they have been chosen, given and set in place. Those who feel called to serve in those ways may study, take intern positions or even apply for posts, but the choice of leaders to carry out these key functions belongs to G-d.
Coming down to an individual level, Sha'ul tells the Corinthians that G-d has given gifts to each person. While spiritual gifts are listed in 1 Corinthians 12, gifts of a more practical nature - still very much gifts given by G-d - are listed in Romans 12 and implied elsewhere. These gifts are not given for the benefit of the individual, but for the communities and people among whom they live and serve: "to each person is given the particular manifestation of the Spirit that will be for the common good" (1 Corinthians 12:7, CJB). Sha'ul explains that "there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit gives them" (v. 4, CJB) - all the gifts come from the same G-d by the same Spirit; "there are different ways of serving, but it is the same Lord being served" (v. 5, CJB) - the gifts may look different but are all to employed in serving, G-d first and then community around us; "there are different modes of working, but it is the same God working them all in everyone" (v. 6, CJB) - the gifts may do or accomplish different things, but it is G-d working and doing all those things in and among His people.
Thomas Dozeman comments that "the diversity of the entire community is always stronger than any one person or group for both the priestly writers and Paul."4 Whether the Levites, each working in their place, or modern-day followers of Yeshua, each person has been given gifts, abilities and a calling to share with the wider body. The body will be the poorer for not welcoming and including that person; the person will have no opportunity to share and deploy their gift without the body - they belong together in mutual service for the advancement of all.
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 363.
2. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 107.
3. - Although it is unclear whether either of them originated the saying.
4. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 697.
Further Study: Isaiah 49:1-8; Romans 12:4-8
Application: Knowing that you belong and are meant to be serving and being served in the place that G-d has placed you is a source of peace. Do you know that peace or are you always on the edge and feeling discontent? Why not ask the Great Counsellor what He thinks about it today?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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