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(Num 4:21 - 7:89)

B'Midbar/Numbers 4:47   ... everyone who comes to perform the service of worship and the service of carrying in the Tent of Meeting.


The verb root appears no less that four times in this text, in four consecutive words. Throughout the Hebrew Bible it is translated variously "to work", "to serve" and "to worship". When used of the ground, "The L-RD G-d took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it" (B'resheet 2:15, JPS) it means "to till or cultivate"; of vineyards, "You shall plant vineyards and dress them" (D'varim 28:39, NRSV) it speaks of dressing. When used of people, the verb "he shall serve you six years" (D'varim 15:12, JPS) and generates the noun , which can be translated "slave" or "servant". When used in connection with G-d (or idols) it connotes "to serve" or "to worship": "You shall fear the L-RD your G-d and serve Him, and shall take oaths in His name" (D'varim 6:13, NKJV) or "when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship G-d at this mountain" (Shemot 3:12, NASB).

In the text above and using the simple meaning "to work", the first instance - - is an infinitive verb, "to work", the second instance - is a feminine noun in construct form, which together with the third - , avodah - the same feminine noun in absolute form, means "the work of work". The fourth instance - - is the same as the second, with a 'and' prefix, which combines with the following word - - "carrying or porterage". In that simplest sense, the verse would read "to work the work of work and the work of carrying". The commentators therefore explore the wider range of meanings to discover exactly what the text as a whole means.

Richard Elliott Friedman translates the phrase as: "to do the service of work and the service of carrying". This makes the role of the Levite clearly subservient to the priests, who are the ones who actually perform the ritual of bringing the offering and splashing the blood on the altar. This view is confirmed by 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 who defines "work" as "setting up the Tabernacle, making the bread, slaughtering and guarding"; all very mechanical, manual labour-intensive tasks and clearly distinct from the sanctuary. The Bekhor Shor adds, "The 'service of service' refers to ritual activities performed for the sake of another ritual: singing, slaughtering, flaying and cutting up the carcass, all of which were done by those between the ages of 25 and 30".

Other commentators, on the other hand, see the office of the Levites in a worship context. Remembering that King David established the Levites - once the sanctuary became static in the Jerusalem Temple - as a key part of the worship of G-d: singers, musicians, door-keepers, Who Is ...

Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 CE), French rabbi who wrote commentaries on the Torah, the Prophets and the Talmud, lived in Troyes where he founded a yeshiva in 1067; focuses on the plain meaning (p'shat) of the text, although sometimes quite cryptic in his brevity
Rashi comments that the "service" being performed is "the song, with cymbals and harps". Rabbi Meir maintained that "the omission of the song invalidates the offering", while Rabbi Judah taught that the Torah gave multiple proofs that "the song was obligatory" to the Temple service (b. Arachin 11 a). Who Is ...

Hirsch: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888 CE), German rabbi, author and educator; staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Germany and one of the fathers of Orthodox Judaism
Hirsch writes that "positively submitting to the will and service of G-d is the highest meaning of avodah" and that since "the human brain can conceive no higher beatitude that the thought of a life lived faithfully in the service of G-d", "the Temple songs - the songs of worship - flow out. They clothe in words the thoughts and feelings which the offering procedure - avodah, service, worship - symbolises in actions."

When the rabbis talk of "the Temple Service" and pray for its restoration three times each day in the synagogue prayer services, in one sense they are thinking of the "continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the doorway of the tent of meeting before the L-RD" (Shemot 29:42, NASB). This is the ritual performance of the cult, the daily morning and evening sacrifices, on all seven days of each and every week, throughout each and every year, "throughout your generations". In another sense, however, they mean more than the simple mechanics of bringing burnt offerings twice a day; they are looking to the worship that is expressed by the ritual, worship that is carried out by carefully and intentionally following G-d's instructions with a heart and mind set on pleasing G-d by doing what He said. Even to those most addicted to spontaneity, the rewards are explicitly spelled out as the verse continues; the sacrifices are to be offered at the doorway to the Tent of Meeting, "where I will meet with you, to speak to you there" (NASB). The presence of G-d is encountered, the voice of G-d is heard, the mind of God is felt, right there - at the point of regular and consistent sacrifice and worship.

The blend of meaning here is both deliberate and essential. The overlap between the idea of work or service and that of worship tells us something important. When directed towards G-d, work is service, service is worship, work is worship and worship is service. We see a clear distinction between work that is work for work's own sake - while as believers we should do it well and in full measure as a witness to G-d - and work that is directly offered in service to G-d and so becomes worship. The former is done as a means of putting bread on the table, of keeping a roof over one's head; the latter in joyful submission to G-d and in knowing obedience to Him. Putting out the chairs, putting them away again afterwards and sweeping the floor after meetings is an excellent example of work/worship to G-d: the quiet service of enabling the body of Messiah to come together to worship is itself an act of worship that is pleasing to G-d. Fulfilling G-d's commands, for example: "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12), "be holy in everything you do or say" (1 Peter 1:15), is hard work and requires consistent application and intentionality. Nevertheless, it is in our steady and persistent work to obey G-d, guided and directed by the Spirit, that we meet G-d's presence and hear His heart for both ourselves and others.

Another phrase that the rabbis discuss is the "service of the heart". Given that we are called "to love ADONAI your G-d and serve Him with all your heart and all your being" (D'varim 11:13, CJB), how is this to be done? Is it simply in the things that we do? The sages of the Talmud explain that prayer is the service of the heart (b. Taanit 2a). Prayer is an activity of the heart, with the heart and in the heart; we open our hearts like the windows of a room to G-d to allow His Ruach to blow through us, to fan the flames of our relationship with and passion for Him, and to sweep us into His presence. In spite of Darius' decree that for thirty days prayer or petition should only be made to the king, "when Daniel learned that it had been put in writing, he went to his house, in whose upper chamber he had had windows made facing Jerusalem, and three times a day he knelt down, prayed, and made confession to his G-d, as he had always done" (Daniel 6:11, JPS). Yeshua confirms this when He says, "when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:6, ESV).

Faithfully praying, both on our own and together with other believers, opens a channel of communication between us and G-d, between heaven and earth. When we worship with others, we are not only bringing our own service or sacrifice of praise to G-d, but we are also doing the work of lifting: bringing others into the presence of G-d. This prayer, this worship, requires that we engage with G-d, that we concentrate on Him, that we not become distracted by such things as mobile 'phones or laptop computers, that we focus on pleasing Him: speaking to Him, listening to His voice, making ourselves available and vulnerable before Him. In short: this is hard work and will need all our effort. Nevertheless, just as G-d gave a promise of His presence to the Israelites who gathered at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting twice each day, Yeshua promises that "where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them" (Matthew 18:20, ESV). We too have a guarantee of G-d's ear when we call on Him and invest our heart in serving Him.

Further Study: 2Kings 23:24-25; Matthew 22:37-38; Psalm 100:1-5

Application: Are you a worshiper of G-d? Whether in word, song or work, worship is always noticed by G-d and touches His heart. He guarantees to respond in like measure, so why not try Him and open your heart to Him today.

© Jonathan Allen, 2012



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