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B'Midbar/Numbers 20:1 And the Children of Israel - the whole assembly - came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month and the people dwelt in Kadesh.
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This text contains three different ways of referencing the Israelites and so naturally arouses the attention of the commentators who ask why the Torah should bring all three together. The first is perhaps the most common in the Torah: , the Children of Israel, here starting with a soft 'v' sound as the previous word ends with an open vowel. The second follows immediately: , the whole assembly, which uses one of the two words meaning 'assembly' from the root , "to appoint (a time), to designate (a wife)",1 expressing the idea of a group who agree to meet at a particular place and time, by appointment.2 Gordon Wenham helps here by proposing that "it seems likely that the tribes re-assembled in Kadesh after their period of wandering."3 The third comes in the second phrase of the text, , to be in common (Davidson)) and is a more generic term meaning simply "the people". We should notice that is a collective noun and is used with the verb , which is singular, telling us that the people dwelt together, as one, at Kadesh.
The first expression is so ubiquitous in the Hebrew Scriptures that, by itself, it sparks no comment at all. It is the combination of the first and second expressions in this particular order that causes a dispute between the traditional Jewish commentators. Thomas Dozeman reports that "the combination of these terms occurs only in this itinerary notice and the following itinerary notice in verse 22. 'The whole congregation' is one of the central phrases used by the priestly writers."4
The minority opinion, although proposed by a scholar of no less stature than theRamban, is that "the unusual phrase 'the whole congregation' is used whenever the Israelites are grumbling - to indicate that they are unified in their complaint." He points to Shemot 16:1, 17:1 and B'Midbar 17:6 to support his view. However, we should note that although the same combination of words is used, the order is different - either , or more simply - and is usually translated by the NJPS (and others) as "the whole Israelite community". Dennis Cole seems to agree, commenting that, "[The first month is] the month in which they should have been celebrating the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread in the Promised Land. Instead they found themselves back at Kadesh after some forty years of wilderness nomadic shepherding, and again they grumbled about their water supply as that first generation had done soon after they had crossed the Red Sea."5
The majority opinion, which we are going to follow, takes a much more active position, claiming that the second phrase is much more than simply a qualifying adjective, describing the Children of Israel. It first appears in the midrash, where the sages ask, "What is implied by the expression: 'even the whole congregation'? It means that they were then a complete congregation, a congregation that was to enter the Land, those who had come out of Egypt having died, and these belonging to the people about whom it is written, 'You ... are all alive today' (D'varim 4:4, NJPS)" (B'Midbar Rabbah 19:16).Ibn Ezra echoes this, saying, "'the whole congregation' because all of the wilderness generation had now died; those who arrived here were those who would enter the land of Canaan." Rashi takes this a step further, commenting, "'the entire assembly' - the whole assembly, for those who were to die in the wilderness had already died, and these were set apart, for life." The older generation, those who came out of Egypt, he seems to be saying, are separate from the younger generation because while the former have almost all died,6 the latter have been set apart or chosen for life - to have life by living in the Land. Rabbi Hirsch extends this further by using the idea of destiny: "The Children of Israel who entered the Wilderness of Tzin were 'the whole congregation'. They were now united in the same common destiny - for that is the concept of the term . The fate to which some had been destined had already been fulfilled. All those who entered the Wilderness of Tzin were the who now were to enter the new future."
How did the commentators reach this conclusion? Avigdor Bonchek explains: "There are superfluous words here. If it already says "the Children of Israel", why the need for the additional words, "the entire assembly"? These words tell us that the Children of Israel comprised a complete assembly. Those now living formed a complete indivisible group, one that would not be decimated even by natural death. This was an assembly that would remain in its entirety until its entrance to the Land of Israel."7 We should notice that the phrase "the Children of Israel" is the more inclusive term - it is unbounded - whereas the phrase "the entire assembly" is the less inclusive term, because it is bounded by 'whole' or 'entire'. By following a more inclusive term with a less inclusive term, the writers of the Torah force us to pay attention to the idea that, "thirty eight years later" (Plaut), the cohesion and quality of the people has changed.
Seeing, then, this picture of a group of people who might at one point have been scattered and wandering, but have now assembled deliberately in one place, united in their common purpose and calling of entering the Promised Land, so bonded that they can be covered by a singular (rather than plural) verb, we must ask how much more this should be said of and evidenced by the people of G-d in Messiah. Complain though the Israelites are about to, gone at this moment are the shouts of "We are the Reubenites; we are the Gadites"; they are simply the Children of Israel, moving forward with their common destiny - to fulfill the plan and purposes of G-d - as one. How are we getting on with being the indivisible body of believers who will endure until the L-rd returns?
Although there must be room for the traditionalists and the charismatics, for those who use the siddur and those who don't, for "hymns, psalms and spiritual songs" (Colossians 3:16), the unity and love between individuals and groups within the Body of Messiah should be a determinative marker. Rav Sha'ul tells the early believers in Rome that "For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Messiah, and individually members one of another" (Romans 12:4-5, ESV). We don't all have to look the same, sound the same and do the same things, he says, but we do have to recognise that we are all part of the same story, the same people, serving the same Yeshua. Later, perhaps echoing a fragment of early liturgy, he writes to the Ephesians, saying, "There is one body and one Spirit -- just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call -- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one G-d and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:4-6, ESV). We can hear the Sh'ma - "Hear, O Israel! The L-RD is our G-d, the L-RD is one" (D'varim 6:4) - behind this, declaring the unity of G-d, as well as the Jewish habit of reciting the Sh'ma several times each day as a way of reinforcing that truth. Despite their wide ethnicity range - perhaps much more so than today - the early communities of disciples were very aware of their unity, of what they had in common and Yeshua's own emphatic instructions: "By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35, ESV).
In these days of universality, where the word 'diversity' has been rampantly hijacked and abused by manifestly non-kingdom agendas, we must not lose site of the fact that just as Israel was one nation under G-d in spite of being made up of twelve distinct tribes (and many clans within those tribes), so the Body of Messiah is a composite made from many distinct and identifiable parts. G-d is into particularity: Yeshua was a Jew, so were all the first disciples. G-d still calls and chooses people "from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Revelation 5:9, ESV), who are still recognisable as such in heaven! He is making them into "a kingdom and priests to our God" (v. 10, ESV), "a dwelling place for G-d by the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22, ESV).
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 157.
2. - The other word also translated 'assembly' comes from the root , to gather or assemble (Davidson) and conveys the idea of a group that been summoned or called together for a specific purpose.
3. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 167-168.
4. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 769.
5. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 323.
6. - Except - at this point - for five people: Miryam, Aharon, Moshe, Joshua and Caleb.
7. - Avigdor Bonchek, What's Bothering Rashi - Bamidbar (Jerusalem, Feldheim, 2001), pages 139-140.
Further Study: 1 Corinthians 1:12-13; Revelation 14:6-7
Application: Do you have trouble seeing yourself as, or being part of, "the whole assembly", or do you long to see a greater meaningful unity among the followers of Yeshua? Why not speak to the Master Architect about it and see what you can do to remedy the situation today.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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