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B'Midbar/Numbers 10:21 And the Kohathites travelled, carrying the sanctuary; and they erected the Tabernacle before their arrival.
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Is the Torah giving us a glimpse into science-fiction here? How could the Kohathites leave one place and erect the Tabernacle at its new site before they got there? Following the normal rules of grammar, the antecedent of both 'they' and 'their' should be the Kohathites; it seems obvious that the 'their' does match, but who does 'they' refer to? Let's have a quick look at the verbs in the verse, to see if they give us any clues. is the Qal affix 3ms form of the root , "to break camp, to remove or depart, to travel or journey" (Davidson). Its subject immediately follows: , the Kohathites. is the mp construct Qal participle from the root , "to carry, lift, raise" (Davidson), acting as an adjective to qualify the Kohathites - it is what they were doing: they were the carriers of the holiness or, asRashi suggests, "bearers of the consecrated things." Ibn Ezra goes a little further, naming the Ark specifically: "they were carrying the Ark."
The last verb, , is the Qal infinitive of the root , "to come or enter" with a 3mp passive suffix, meaning literally "their-to-come", which would often be translated using a participle in English as "their coming", but here is more appropriate rendered "their arrival". That leaves just , the Hif'il affix 3mp form of the root , "to rise, rise up or arise", which in the Hif'il causative stem - to cause to rise - is translated by such English verbs as establish, kindle (for flames) or, as here, erect. That doesn't, however, move us forward. The problem was known or ignored in antiquity; theSeptuagint translates the Hebrew literally - - using a 3mp future verb form, "and they will erect the tent", while the Vulgate opts to hide the issue by using a verb in the passive voice, with the Tabernacle as its subject: . Most modern English translations follow the Vulgate's lead, for example, "by the time they [i.e. the Kohathites] arrived, the Tabernacle would be set up again." (NJPS). We are thrown back on the context and the ancient commentators.
Rashi's short-form explanation helps us to see that there are different groups of people involved - "those who erect the Tabernacle would erect it before the arrival of the sons of K'hat" - so there was no time-travelling involved, but doesn't actually tell us who the other party is.Nachmanides explains the larger context of the whole moving of the camp to work out who 'they' were: "When Judah set forth, the Kohathites would enter the Tabernacle and cover the Ark and the holy things. The Gershonites and Merarites would then dismantle the Tabernacle around them and load it onto the wagons and set out after the division of Judah. The Ark and the holy things would remain, covered, on their carrying poles, until the division of Reuben had set out, then the Kohathites would carry the 'sanctuary'. The Gershonites and Merarites travelled ahead so that when the signal to stop was given, they would erect the Tabernacle before the Kohathites arrived, so that the Ark and the holy things could be carried straight into the Tabernacle." Drazin and Wagner add, "Thus the Kohathites could bring the Ark into the Tabernacle without delay." Strictly speaking, of course, the Kohathites en masse were Levites, so were not allowed to see the holy things in their uncovered state, so it was the priests - who were, in fact, Kohathites by clan - who placed the covers on the holy things ready to be carried by the wider Kohathite family.
Notwithstanding the rabbinic dictum that "there is no chronological order in the Torah" (b. Pesachim 6b), it would seem from our reading that certain things have to happen in a particular order and that that order is preset by HaShem. More, the Hebrew Scriptures make quite a thing about the right or appropriate time for things to happen. The well known passage in Qohelet - "There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven ... He has made everything appropriate in its time" (Ecclesiastes 3:1,11, NASB) - not only makes the timing of everything deliberate, but also revealsHaShem's explicit design of this world on that basis: that time matters and has significance. Try not wearing a wrist-watch for a few days; you'll soon see how often we look at the time or check the time to see how we are doing, when we need to move onto our next task or appointment - our world is ruled by time. HaShem interacts with us on the same basis - when He speaks through the prophet Hosea against the northern kingdom, Israel, He warns them, "Therefore, I will take back My grain at harvest time and My new wine in its season" (Hosea 2:9, NASB). The sequences of life - spring time and harvest, summer and winter - are precisely arranged and orchestrated one after the other; if it were not so, plants for food would not grow and even our human bio-rhythm mechanisms go out of kilter. He also has specific dates and times in the future when things are going to happen; these are not an arbitrary calendar date, but a time when He will move to make something happen, for His own good purposes and for His glory. Isaiah, for example, says that at a certain specific point in (his, then) future: "All your people will be righteous; they will possess the land forever, the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, that I may be glorified. The smallest one will become a clan, and the least one a mighty nation. I, the L-RD, will hasten it in its time" (Isaiah 60:21-22, NASB). When the time comes, HaShem will very deliberately make sure that it happens.
Luke the gospel writer is very deliberate to tell us when things happened in his narratives of the life of Yeshua and the early church. The birth of Yeshua is anchored in history by a set of explicit time-markers: "Around this time, Emperor Augustus issued an order for a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This registration, the first of its kind, took place when Quirinius was governing in Syria" (Luke 2:1-2, CJB). We know from archaeology that the Emperor Augustus instituted tax censii to be held every fourteen years, the first in 23-22 BCE, the second at 9-8 BCE. A coin and and inscription have been found in Antioch showing that a man called Quirinius was indeed governor of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BCE until the death of Herod the Great. The intersection of these two events gives us a firm date for the birth of Yeshua. In the same way, Luke tells us that a prophet, "named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius)" (Acts 11:28, ESV). This is confirmed by both Josephus and Roman historians and is dated to the year 45 CE, the fourth year of Claudius' reign. While Luke gives us historical data, Rav Sha'ul makes sure we know that whatever the calendar date might be, it was the right time for G-d to act: "For while we were still helpless, at the right time Messiah died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6, NASB) and "but when the appointed time arrived, G-d sent forth his Son" (Galatians 4:4, CJB).
The Hebrew prophets use the phrase, "in that day" as a frequent referent to a point in future time when the L-rd is going to act: "In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: We have a strong city; He sets up walls and ramparts for security" (Isaiah 26:1, NASB). Amos speaks of a coming time of famine - "In that day the beautiful virgins And the young men will faint from thirst" (Amos 8:13, NASB) - while Zechariah says, "In that day I will make the clans of Judah like a firepot among pieces of wood and a flaming torch among sheaves, so they will consume on the right hand and on the left all the surrounding peoples, while the inhabitants of Jerusalem again dwell on their own sites in Jerusalem" (Zechariah 12:6, NASB).
We live in time; our days are marked by a beginning and an end of this physical life that happen on specific dates so that our days are explicitly numbered. We must be aware of the times and the seasons. Yeshua told the disciples: "Learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near" (Mark 13:28, NASB). When we see the things of which He spoke happening, we can "recognize that He is near" (v. 29, NASB). Rav Sha'ul urged Timothy "I solemnly charge you in the presence of G-d and of Messiah Yeshua, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction" (2 Timothy 4:1-2, NASB). Every season is open season for us to share the Good News about the times in which we live - that G-d's timing is perfect, that everything happens in its order and season by G-d's design, and that He has prepared both a day of reckoning and a way to be right with Him. He has already put up the tent, ready for us when we arrive.
Further Study: Habakkuk 2:2-3; Revelation 3:20-22
Application: We all know in our hearts that our days are numbered and that the time will come when we will have to give account for our lives. Where do you stand with G-d? Are you in relationship with Him, or are you hiding your head in the sand, just hoping that everything will come out in the end?
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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