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B'Midbar/Numbers 26:10 And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and Korah in the death of the group ... and they were a sign.
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This is not, as might be expected, part of the narrative of the Korah-led rebellion. That was in parashat Korah, a few weeks ago, and the matching verse is B'Midbar 16:32. Instead, this text is inserted as a note explaining the absence from the tribe of Reuben of Dathan, Abiram and their families in the census thatHaShem has ordered Moshe to conduct. The second census in the book known in English as 'Numbers', this takes place thirty eight years after the first, on the plains of Moab, after the defeat of Sihon and Og the Amorite kings and shortly before Moshe's own death. The commentators make much of the differences in the numbers of men counted in each tribe between the first and second census, and the slight drop in the total: 601,730 down from 603,550.
Census lists are nearly always interesting because those who compile them are unable to resist the temptation to embroider the bare bones of names and numbers. Whether little biographical details such as "Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons, only daughters. The names of Zelophehad's daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah" (B'Midbar 26:33, NJPS), which is a cue for legislation in the next chapter about the female right to inherit in the absence of male heirs, or the (apparently otherwise unused) observation that "the name of Asher's daughter was Serah" (v. 46, NJPS), the scribes find these inspired and G-d-breathed extra stitches on the census canvas a delightful and almost inexhaustible source for discussion and debate as they search to find meaning for every word.
In this particular case, it is the last word in the verse that attracts the most attention. is a compound of the prefix pronoun , "to or for", and the noun , from the geminate rootFoorNoteRef(1) , "to glitter, shine" (Davidson). The noun has meanings that range from "a standard, banner, flag, ensign", "the sail [of a ship]" to "a sign, warning".2 The word also appears as the first word in the list of Hebrew letters found on a dreidel, a four-sided spinning top used for a gentle childrens' game that is played at Hanukkah. The letters nun, gimel, hay and shin stand for the words nes gadol hayah sham (or po if you are in Israel, for 'here' rather than 'there') and translate the phrase "a great miracle happened there" referring to the miracle of the single vial of oil burning for eight days. Although 'sign' would be an adequate translation, 'miracle' has become the accepted meaning in the Hanukkah context. TheGur Aryeh demurs from that for this verse, explaining that "This cannot mean 'and they became a miracle' because although a miracle was done to them, it cannot be said that they themselves became a miracle."
Rashi suggests that "they became a sign" is an indication and a reminder, "a reminder to the Israelites, so that no outsider -- one not of Aaron's offspring -- should presume to offer incense before the L-RD" (17:5, NJPS), while Ibn Ezra - applying the words spoken of the firepans to Korah's people - says that is is "as G-d told Moshe, 'let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel' (v. 3, NJPS). Rabbi Hirsch reports that " is an emblem raised on high to direct those who are to follow a certain direction to a certain goal. The downfall of Dathan and Abiram was such a conspicuous act of G-d to be a direction for the teaching of the way of life to be followed or avoided to those who require such direction. In the Hebrew of a later period, the term is very much used for all prominent Acts of G-d which have occurred to teach us lessons." We can perhaps hear a foreshadow of Rav Sha'ul's words: "These things happened to them as prefigurative historical events, and they were written down as a warning to us who are living in the acharit-hayamim" (1 Corinthians 10:11, CJB). Jacob Milgrom confirms this meaning of the word: ", literally 'standard', equivalent to which can also mean 'standard' (see B'Midbar 2:2) or 'example, warning' (17:2)."
Expanding the horizon, theBaal HaTurim follows the masoretic note that this word appears three times in the Tanakh, pointing us at the verse, "the root of Jesse who stands as an ensign for the peoples" (Isaiah 11:10). Here the word 'ensign' (standard, or sign) is significant because it links us to Yeshua, the sign above all signs. Dennis Cole explains that "the term employed for 'sign', typically is used to denote an ensign or banner around which people rally or soldiers muster for battle (Jeremiah 50:2). In Isaiah 11:10 the root of Jesse stands as a banner for the nations to seek."3 Let's take the whole verse to see what Isaiah sees: "In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples -- of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious" (ESV). Isaiah's original audience were under the threat of Assyrian domination and heard these words as a reminder of the Davidic covenant that would offer them hope and assurance that "in that day" a Davidic king would triumph over the nations. Alec Motyer sees "The Root of Jesse as the banner which draws all peoples and nations to himself." He points to the Servant who will establish "justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law" (42:4, ESV), and suggests that "the Gentile world is represented as 'waiting' for him." The ESV's 'inquire' is the verb , "to seek out, inquire, question", from where Motyer sees the Gentiles "gladly and determinedly coming to where they know he is to be found."4 We might here hear the echo of the Greeks in John's gospel, who came to "Philip, the one from Beit-Tzaidah in the Galil, with a request. 'Sir,' they said, 'we would like to see Yeshua'" (John 12:21, CJB).
But how do we know that Isaiah's sign is Yeshua? The clue here is found in Luke's gospel. Remember Yeshua's parents take Him up to the Temple in Jerusalem for the pid'yon ha'ben ceremony and to offer the purification sacrifice for Miryam? There in the Temple they meet Simeon; but listen carefully as Luke takes up the story: "Shim'on blessed them and said to the child's mother, Miryam, 'This child will cause many in Isra'el to fall and to rise, he will become a sign whom people will speak against; moreover, a sword will pierce your own heart too. All this will happen in order to reveal many people's inmost thoughts'" (Luke 2:34-35, CJB). Did you hear the word? Yeshua is to be a sign, a banner, a standard; He will be a rallying point. As He told the crowds, "As for Me, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to Myself" (John 12:32, CJB).
Earlier on, when He was talking with Nicodemus, Yeshua connected with another symbol from the wilderness narrative when He said, "Just as Moshe lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that everyone who trusts in Him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15, CJB). The people had become impatient with the journey and were grumbling about food and water, so HaShem sent "fiery serpents among the people" (B'Midbar 21:6, ESV), so that many people died. The people repented and asked Moshe to pray for them and HaShem told Moshe to make an image of the serpents and put it up high on a pole so that anyone who was bitten could look at and live. In the same way, people could repent of their sin and look at Yeshua - lifted up on the cross - and live; they will gladly come to Him and will know where to come because He is like a standard, a large flag on a flagpole.
Now it comes down to us. What is our part in this? In this age, we are the ones who have to wave the flag, to lift Yeshua up so that the world can see. We stir interest so that the Gentile world will recognise that it is Him for whom they are waiting: that He is the missing piece of the puzzle that they need. We point individuals or groups to Yeshua when we proclaim Him as the Messiah and the king of Israel. If Dathan, Abiram and the other rebels were swallowed by the earth and were yet a sign that has been remembered over three thousand years, how much more so Yeshua who - though He was swallowed by death - rose in triumph from the grave. Truly, a great miracle happened there! Blessed are You, O L-rd our G-d, who did wonders for our fathers, in that time and in that place!
Further Study: Matthew 12:39-40; John 8:28-29; Romans 15:8-12
1. - A geminate verb is one in which the second and third letters of the root are the same. They behave irregularly, sometimes as if hollow, sometimes as if first yod.
2. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 275.
3. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 452.
4. - J. Alex Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), page 125.
Application: How could you make Yeshua more visible in your life in a way that focuses on Him rather than drawing attention to yourself? We all need a hand from the Divine Marketing Consultant to get the right balance here, so book a call today and see what you can do to make sure that the sign is clearly seen!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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