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B'Midbar/Numbers 3:16 And Moshe counted them according to the mouth of the L-rd, just as he had been commanded.
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Moshe and Aharon have been told to take a census of the Israelites and assign the layout of the tribes as they camp around the Tabernacle. The Torah tells us that, "the Levites, however, were not recorded among the Israelites, as the L-RD had commanded Moses" (B'Midbar 2:33, NJPS). In the next chapter, though,HaShem then commands that the Levites should be counted after all, but by different criteria. The Israelites were counted "from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms" (1:3, NJPS), whereas the Levites are to be counted "by ancestral house and by clan; ... every male among them from the age of one month up" (3:15, NJPS). Many of the latter would, of course, still be nursing infants. How is Moshe to count them and still respect the modesty of their mothers? Rashi shares a midrashic story to address this question: "Moshe said before the Holy One, Blessed is He, 'How can I enter into their tents to ascertain the number of nursing infants?' The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to him, 'You do that which is yours and I will do that which is mine.' Moshe would go and stand at the entrance of the tent and the Divine Presence would precede him and a Heavenly Voice would come from the tent and say, 'There is such and such number of babies in this tent.' This is why it says, 'According to the word of HaShem.'"
Looking at the text in more detail, we have two verbs, starting and ending the verse. The first - , the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root with a vav-conversive - offers a number of possibilities. has one of the largest ranges of variant meanings in the biblical Hebrew vocabulary, ranging from 'visit' to 'muster', via 'punish', 'appoint', 'number' and 'deposit'. It seems that 'count' is probably the best option in this context, nuanced by 'visit' to cover the families with infants and children, and 'muster' to gather together the adults. Since HaShem is taking "the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the first-born" (v. 12, NJPS), it is important that no-one is missed.
Closing the verse is the second verb: , the Pu'al 3ms affix form of the root , to command or instruct. A note in the margin of the Masoretic text tells us that the word occurs in this exact form only twice in the Tanakh; Michael Carasik gives its second use in the verse "and my lord was commanded by HaShem to assign the share of our kinsman Zelophehad to his daughters" (36:2), part of the second arbitration about female inheritance that concludes with HaShem saying, "no inheritance shall pass over from one tribe to another" (v. 9, NJPS). This connects the different processes for counting the Israelites and Levites with the rules about land inheritance: in both, Moshe was commanded by and worked with or alongside HaShem. Distinctions are important, whether processes and procedures, names and identities, or land ownership and tribal boundaries - they are all commanded by HaShem.
Israel Drazin and Stanley Wagner report that Moshe is instructed no less than three times (verses 16, 39 and 51) in B'Midbar chapter 3, , by the mouth of HaShem: twice about recording the census and once concerning redemption money. They point out that this is "a physical portrayal of the deity with a human mouth", an anthropomorphism. But Jacob Milgrom uses this to explain that the census of the Levites is actually taken by HaShem: "Moshe is merely to record the totals (3.16) and the work assignments (4.49). The supposition that the Levitical censii are conducted with divine assistance is further supported by the absence of any mention of the procedure of writing down names as is indicated for the Israelite census (1:2,18) and that of the Israelite first-born (3:40,43)." Thomas Dozeman agrees, commenting that "the phrase 'as he was commanded' is the expected language for indicating fulfillment of a divine command. The additional phrase, 'according to the word of HaShem' is new and it appears to create an unnecessary repetition ... In this case, the role of Moshe in the process is to record the divine count, rather than to undertake it himself."1
It seems that even Moshe, the man set in place by HaShem to bring our people out of Egypt, the mediator of the Sinai covenant, the leader who regularly prays to avert HaShem's judgement on the Israelites, is sometimes given an assignment that he cannot do by himself and is dependent on HaShem to complete. This should not surprise us as Scripture frequently records the dual execution of tasks. Noah, for example, is told to "Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood" (B'resheet 6:14) and to take two of every living creature into the ark so as to preserve them through the flood. Noah does indeed build the ark - although the Jewish tradition claims that it took him 120 years - but HaShem has to bring the living creatures to him; Noah cannot do that himself. Finally, once everybody and everything is loaded in and packed away and it starts to rain, the narrator tells us that "HaShem shut the door behind him" (7:16). Even though Noah had built it, the door was too heavy for him to close so HaShem had to work with him.
During the plagues in Egypt, Moshe or Aharon was told to raise his staff over the land of Egypt and each time HaShem brought a plague upon the Egyptians. When HaShem chose Gideon to lead the Israelites against the Midianites who were oppressing them, we read that "The spirit of the L-RD enveloped Gideon; he sounded the horn" (Judges 6:34, NJPS) and was able to raise an army of over 30,000 men. But after whittling Gideon's army down to just three hundred men, HaShem told them to "attack the camp, for I have delivered it into your hands" (7:9, NJPS). Armed only with a horn and an empty jar with a blazing torch in it for each man, they surrounded the Midianite camp, blew their horns, smashed the jars and shouted. "When the three hundred horns were sounded, the L-RD turned every man's sword against his fellow, throughout the camp, and the entire host fled" (v. 22). A joint operation: Gideon and his men blew the horns and then did all the clearing up; HaShem routed the camp.
When Rav Sha'ul writes the famous passage to the Corinthians to explain how we - that is, Yeshua's disciples and followers - have been appointed ambassadors by G-d to share His message of reconciliation, he ends with the line that "working together with Him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of G-d in vain" (2 Corinthians 6:1, ESV), which sounds very like another joint operation. Sha'ul and his companions - the Antioch Ministry and Outreach Team - went out and spoke, sharing the message about Yeshua; working with them, G-d opened people's ears and spoke to their hearts, calling them to accept His invitation. In his first letter to Corinth, Sha'ul explained how it worked: "I planted, Apollos watered, but G-d gave the growth" (1 Corinthians 3:6, ESV), adding that "we are God's fellow workers. You are G-d's field, G-d's building" (v. 9). There is a sharing in the workload here: Sha'ul and his team do what they can do, while G-d does what only He can do. The writer to the Hebrews explains that the same thing happened in their context too: the gospel "was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while G-d also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will" (Hebrews 2:3-4, ESV).
Yeshua Himself is very clear. He invited the crowd to serve alongside Him in the work of the kingdom of G-d; they would find rest when they worked with Him. Using the agricultural metaphor of a pair of animals harnessed together in a yoke to carry out a piece of work, He says, "Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matthew 11:29, ESV). Be yoked with Me, He offers; be yoked with Me in the work of the kingdom and you will find rest. How so? Does it mean not working while He does everything? Not at all, otherwise no work would get done; our active participation is required. Yeshua's yoke is not lighter because He demands less - on the contrary, He taught that "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (5:20, ESV) - but because He bears most of the load. He can say, "My yoke is easy, and My burden is light" (11:30, ESV) because He is the lead in the work and we join Him in that work We work with Him and alongside Him to serve the will of the Father: "for this is the love of G-d, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3, ESV).
Yeshua's words brings us back to our text. Moshe counted the Levites "according to the mouth of the L-rd, as he was commanded." When we submit to Yeshua's yoke, submitting to His authority and obeying His commands, we are obeying the Father who sent Him. More, when we hear Yeshua's words, we hear according to the mouth of HaShem, because "the Son can do nothing of His own accord, but only what He sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise" (John 5:19, ESV). Then we are working with Him to do the work of the kingdom.
1. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 695.
Further Study: Acts 15:3-4; Ephesians 2:20-22
Application: Do you live your life "according to the mouth of HaShem" as you have been commanded, or are you following some other principle and ploughing your own furrow in the field of life? It's hard going without the Master - without His strength and His guidance - and no guarantee that you are even going in the right direction. Come under His yoke today and find rest for your soul.
Comment - 13:54 29May22 Joshua VanTine: Thank you for this drash - it has me more excited for Shavout as we count the Omer. Having just finished celebrating the Ascension of Messiah Yeshua this past week remembering His words, according to the mouth of HaShem, the anticipation of the Ruach, Comforter, ever transforming the yoke and burden of working with the living Messiah Yeshua is so very divinely palatable!
Comment - 07:10 30May22 David Wright: Intriguing! It is amazing the depth of information that is in the Hebrew, but lost in the English of our translations.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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