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B'Midbar/Numbers 15:2 When you come to the land of your settlements that I am giving to you ...
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In this parasha, the narrator tells the story of the spies sent on a reconnaissance mission into the Land from Kadesh Barnea, their faithless report and the consequent revolt of the people that resulted in the entire Exodus generation - those who came out of Egypt as adults - dying in the wilderness. What should have been a two-year journey, despite the fervent pleas of Joshua and Caleb that the Israelites should trust HaShem and obey His leadership, became a wilderness exile of forty years trudging endlessly through the heat and dry sand. The last chapter of the parasha, following immediately on the heels of the Israelites' ignominious defeat by the the Canaanites and Amalekites living in the hill country when they try to go into the Land after all but againstHaShem's orders, drops back into legislative mode and issues a batch of assorted cultic commands concerning grain and wine offerings to accompany burnt offerings, the tithing of risen dough, and the accidental omission of commandments. The chapter closes with the capital punishment of a man found gathering sticks on shabbat and the instructions for tzitzit, tassels, to be worn on the corners of all four-cornered garments. Since the next parasha immediately switches back to narrative mode again, commentators have long been puzzled by why this chapter is here and what it is intended to accomplish at this point.
Ibn Ezra starts the conventional Jewish understanding by explaining that "after the events of the previous chapter, the Israelites were dispirited and in mourning. This chapter, then, comes to comfort them, and to reassure the children that they, at least, would indeed enter the Land." The Ramban is slightly less positive, but essentially agrees: "Perhaps HaShem meant to comfort them. For they would have been wondering, 'Forty years is a long time! Who knows what will happen? Perhaps the children will sin as well!' So the Holy One thought it best to comfort them by giving them commandments that could only be carried out inside the land." Writing in Jerusalem in the early 1800s, Rabbi Meir Danon confirms this opinion: "This serves to reassure the Children of Israel that despite all that had passed, they would ultimately enter the Land."1
The ritual instructions themselves - adding a meal offering of fine flour with oil mixed in and a drink offering of wine to many of the burnt offerings and freewill or vow offerings - do seem to require being settled in the Land. Although RabbiHirsch tells us that Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva disagreed as to whether these instructions applied immediately or were to be delayed until after complete conquest and settlement of the Land, when the Tabernacle received a permanent home at Shilo. Gordon Wenham is very clear that "these laws reassert very emphatically that the L-rd will bring His people into Canaan. They both explicitly look forward to this time and implicitly, by specifying that large amounts of flour, oil and wine must accompany animal sacrifice, guarantee Israel's entry into the Land. If G-d insists that these things be offered, it is a pledge that Israel will eventually reach the land where they are freely available."2Jacob Milgrom offers an alternative, suggesting that "it is also possible that during the long sojourn at Kadesh the people began to engage in agriculture and in other phases of settled life, thus requiring new legal and cultic provisions."
Our text opens with words - "when you come to the land" - that are often associated with laws that assume a settled agricultural context. We can see this in the instructions for Yom HaBikkurim, the Day of Early Firstfruits, "When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest" (Vayikra 23:10, NJPS) and the sabbatical year: "When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the L-RD" (25:2, NJPS). The text uses the word - from the root , to dwell - meaning 'settlement' rather that 'tents' in which people sojourn or stay, on a temporary basis, rather than settle down permanently. We can also note that the last four words of the text - - match the phrase used in the instructions given to Moshe at the start of the parasha to send scouts into the Land, with here rather than there: "Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people" (B'Midbar 13:2, NJPS). This shows us that HaShem's overall intentions for His people to occupy, live in and farm the Land have not changed in spite of the current generation's doubts, fears and intransigence. A little later in our text's chapter, Moshe is told to repeat this resolution - "Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set some aside as a gift to the L-RD" (15:18-19, NJPS) - to make sure that it has been heard.
We have to see the question of covenant promise at work. Thomas Dozeman proposes that the emphasis on Israel's future life in the land is also an emphasis on "G-d's commitment to fulfill the promise of salvation."3 The Land belongs to HaShem, Dennis Cole points out, "and He would grant it to Israel as an inheritance according to His unconditional promise to Abram 'The L-RD appeared to Abram and said, "I will assign this land to your heirs"' (B'resheet 12:7, NJPS)."4 There is is a matter of principle at stake here that is more important than the foolish behaviour of even a whole generation of Isralites. They won't get to enter the Land because they refused G-d and doubted His word, but their children - the next generation - will. As Dennis Olson writes, "The reaffirmation of G-d's relationship and the implicit promise that G-d will bring Israel into the land is reassurance to the new generation that G-d will be faithful to the promises made to them 'Your children who, you said, would be carried off -- these will I allow to enter; they shall know the land that you have rejected' (B'Midbar 14:31, NJPS)."FootNoterfe(5)
Two different things are happening here. Firstly, because G-d is G-d, it is impossible for human action or inaction to frustrate the will, promises or purpose of G-d. He has decided that the Israelites will enter the Land and enter it they will. One generation baulked at the challenge and so lost their individual opportunity to experience the fullness of His blessing, but that didn't mean that they stopped being His people or that He stopped providing for them. Just before the next generation actually does enter the Land, Moshe tells them, "I led you through the wilderness forty years; the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet" (D'varim 29:4, NJPS); the manna kept arriving each morning and the pillar of cloud and fire did not leave the Tabernacle - the presence of G-d remained in the camp, "in the midst of them". G-d simply waited and, when the whole generation had died in the wilderness, tells Moshe to take the next generation into the Land.
Secondly, G-d has promised and G-d keeps His promises: "God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind. Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not fulfill it?" (B'Midbar 23:19, ESV). We remind Him each day in theAmidah: "You recall the loving kindness of the fathers and bring a redeemer to their children for Your Name's sake, in love", adding that He is the one who "supports the fallen, heals the sick, releases the captives and establishes His faithfulness for those who sleep in the dust." G-d never forgets a promise and, even if we don't always understand in advance exactly how and when He does keep His promises, He always does keep His word. This is a fundamental attribute of His character.
We depend on G-d's faithfulness for our assurance today. He can be trusted today because He could be trusted yesterday and He never changes. We read in the Scriptures of the many occasions when G-d kept His word, both for good and for bad: He brought our people into the Land as He had promised; He sent our people out of the Land into exile just as He had promised; He then brought those who would return back from exile seventy years later as He had promised. Then we look at the life of Yeshua, fulfilling promise after promise - the promised redeemer, who came to redeem Israel as G-d had promised and to redeem those from the nations as He had also promised. Now we look at Yeshua's promises - of eternal life, of being raised on the last day - and we see His resurrection as G-d's own testimony that these too will be kept, in every detail. That's a cast-iron promise!
1. - Rabbi Meir Danon, Be'er BaSadeh(Well in the Field), (Jerusalem, I. Bak, 1846).
2. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 142.
3. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 748.
4. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 245.
5. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 97.
Further Study: Acts 2:38-39; 1 Corinthians 15:20-25; Ephesians 3:4-6; 2 Peter 3:9-13
Application: Are you confident trusting G-d to keep His promises? Are you holding onto a promise and waiting for its fulfillment? Then cry out to G-d today and remind Him of His promise and ask Him to bring it about, soon and in our days.
Comment - 01:45 30May21 CB: So very grateful for Yeshua's promise to come and get us, so that "where He is, there we may be also!" (John 14) I love that verse in Numbers 23:19, also. Wonderful! I think too, of David, when he was dying ... his household was torn apart, it was so sad! And yet he declared that God had made with him an "everlasting covenant ordered in all things and sure." I love that!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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