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B'Midbar/Numbers 7:47 and for the sacrifice of peace-offering: two oxen, five rams, five male goats and five male lambs one year old
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Our text comes from record of the offerings brought by the twelve tribal chieftains for the initiation of the altar in the Tabernacle. This is day six (of twelve) and the offering is brought by Eliasaph the son of Deuel, the leader of the tribe of Gad. Over the twelve days, each tribal leader - twelve excluding the Levites and listing the tribe of Joseph as the two half tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh - brings an identical offering so that no one tribe is different from or elevated above the others. Dennis Olson reminds us that "every tribe is equidistant from the tabernacle in the centre of the camp. Every tribe contributes exactly the same offering to the tabernacle. No tribe has any more claim to the divine centre of power than any other."1 While the Torah could have just listed the make-up of the offering once (for the first chieftain) and then told us that each leader brought exactly the same offering, that would appear to make the first seem the most important, with the others simply copying him (Judah) or following his lead, so the whole identical offering is listed in full for each chieftain. This takes up most of chapter seven and three aliyot!
The Midrash, on the other hand, not worried about the word-count in the same way that the Torah usually is, proposes twelve delightful sets of meanings and significance for each component in the set of offerings, for each leader in turn, with proof-texts to match! It is here, for example, that we learn that the first component of the peace offerings - the two oxen - allude to "Ya'akov and Yoseph by virtue of whose merit Israel was redeemed from Egypt, as it says, 'By Your arm You redeemed Your people, the children of Ya'akov and Yoseph' (Psalm 77:16, NJPS). Alternatively, to Moshe and Aharon who performed all the wonders and through whose instrumentality they came out of Egypt; as it says, 'Moshe and Aharon had performed all these marvels before Pharaoh' (Shemot 11:10, NJPS)" (B'Midbar Rabbah 13:20).Rashi finds another suggestion for the same component: "corresponding to Moshe and Aharon, who made peace between Israel and their Father in heaven".
Rashi also tells us that three sets of five "correspond to the Torah, Prophets and Writings", while the Midrash proposes that they "symbolise the priests, Levites, and Israelites. An alternative exposition: In allusion to the three titles of distinction which the Holy One, blessed be He, conferred upon them as a reward for their having accepted the Torah. They are: a special treasure, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation; as it says, 'you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Shemot 19:5-6, NJPS). The three kinds were each of five animals and their total amounted to fifteen. This was symbolical of the Torah which consists of five books, and the Ten Commandments which they had accepted and which were written upon two tablets, five on one and five on the other" ( B'Midbar Rabbah 14:10).
Several commentators suggest that the livestock brought each day were simply too much to be offered on an immediate daily basis, but were instead 'banked' or deposited in the care of the Levites against the regular daily and Shabbat offerings that would be needed in the future; they would then still be shared between the donor tribes, the altar, the priests and the people. In antiquity,Targum Onkelos supports this idea by changing the Hebrew phrase , peace offerings - which would have to be offered on the day they were brought - to the Aramaic , "holy sacrifices" thirteen times in this chapter. In modern scholarship, Jacob Milgrom notes, "the fact that each variety of sacrificial animal is represented in the burnt offering and peace offering is further evidence that the animals were contributed to the sacrificial store and not offered at once."
Another of the great debates over these twelve gifts by the tribal chieftains concerns whether they were brought on twelve contiguous calendar days or whether the process was interrupted by the weekly Shabbat.Ibn Ezra argues that "the seventh day must mean the seventh day of twelve days of offerings, pausing for Shabbat, since peace offerings may not be offered on Shabbat. No indeed, Chizkuni insists, essentially suggesting that this procedure was a one-off event with a special dispensation that was not to create any precedent, "contrary to usual practice, they also brought their sacrifices on Shabbat and even in they were in a state of ritual impurity." Either way, the Torah is emphasising the importance of the ritual and continuity of worship at all levels throughout the people, here given by the tribal leaders as an exemplar that Israel as a whole should maintain.
We may smile at the sheer inventiveness of the rabbis in providing so many allusions and explanations - with many proof-texts too - of the otherwise unusually repetitive account of the twelve tribal donations, but we need to consider what their work achieved. Even in modern Judaism today, so much is communicated and shared on an oral basis - by talking, and anchored by repetition. Over meals, around drinks, during work, at leisure - even on the golf course - truth is discussed, faith is encouraged and stories are shared by word of mouth. Our social memory as a people, our engagement with the texts of Scripture, are carried and reinforced through the medium of story. The connections that we make to obscure and apparently random verses are what keep that memory alive and remind us that G-d is always with us and engaged in our lives even if unexpected and unanticipated. The Midrash turns a potentially boring piece of narrative into an opportunity to marvel at "whatever will they come up with next?" and so keep us engaged with the text and its message.
All well and good, but how should we as Jewish and Gentile followers of Yeshua relate to what looks like an arcane and one-off event that happened over three thousand years ago? Are we to expect the resumption of a sacrificial cult and look for the opportunity to participate in that by bring animals to a central sanctuary for ritual slaughter as a means of expressing thanksgiving or peace? No, not at all. That would also miss the underlying message of the text and its surrounding narrative. But does that mean that we can simply pass over this text, dismissing it as irrelevant to life in Yeshua?
Gordon Wenham points out that "this chapter's insistence that sacrifice and ministry are essential to the life of the people of G-d is taken up in the Apostolic Writings." Of course, our expression of that sacrifice has now changed because of Yeshua. Rav Sha'ul's consistent refrain of "in Messiah" makes our status as believers is in Yeshua's sacrifice for us. As Wenham explains, "Calvary has now replaced the bronze altar as the place of sacrifice (Hebrews 9-10), but believers are still expected to respond to G-d's grace by giving themselves to Him and their money to maintaining the gospel ministry."2 He points to "I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of G-d, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to G-d, which is your spiritual service of worship" (Romans 12:1, NASB) and "Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share with the altar? So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel" (1 Corinthians 9:13-14, NASB) to make the point firm. In this way, we too bring our offerings and 'bank' funds for the work of the kingdom.
We can see Yeshua putting this priority to work during His life and ministry. We know that He spent time alone with the Father in prayer, confirming not only His ministry strategy and direction but submitting Himself anew to the will and purpose of the Father. Less obviously - or perhaps less appreciated - the gospels tell us that He was a regular participant in synagogue worship and obeyed the Torah mandate to go up to Jerusalem for the festivals. In the account of the reading from the Isaiah scroll in Nazareth, Luke reports that "He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read" (Luke 4:16, NASB). This meant that He was a regular synagogue attender, was well acquainted with the liturgy, was practiced in reading and chanting and was familiar with the reading cycles for the Torah and Haftarah. Yeshua has been doing this all His life so far and, from the number of encounters that the gospels record taking place in synagogue and on Shabbat, continued to do throughout His ministry years. He also contributed to the Temple expenses by paying the half-shekel tax each year. As disciples of the Master, we should do no less.
1. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), pages 45-46.
2. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 106.
Further Study: Matthew 17:24-27; Acts 13:14-16; Hebrews 13:14-16
Application: Do you offer an appropriate sacrifice of your life to G-d and participate in funding the work of His kingdom? Look around you and see where you can fit into what He is doing and play your part to keep all the wheels turning today.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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