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B'Midbar/Numbers 34:6 And the western border: the Great Sea and region shall be for you; this shall be the western border for you.
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In this section (B'Midbar 34:1-12),HaShem is giving Moshe instructions to pass on to the Israelites concerning the external borders of the land that they are shortly to enter in order to possess it. This is the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, , promised and confirmed to each of the patriarchs in turn and affirmed by Yosef before he died: " I am about to die. G-d will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Avraham, to Yitz'khak, and to Ya'akov" (B'resheet 50:24, NJPS). The following verses go on to talk about dividing the land internally by lot to the nine and a half tribes and their families, appointing a leader from each tribe to oversee the process, and then allocating the cities of refuge throughout the Land. But first of all, boundaries.
While our verse appears to have twelve words in it, there are actually only six words: the rest are repeats or variations of those six. appears three times; this is a noun with meanings such as "bound, limit, border, territory, margin, edge" (Davidson) and we can see two of those meanings in use here. also appears three times; this too is a noun, with two meanings "sea, the west" (Davidson) and both meanings are used in this verse. Coupled with the adjective , great, always means the Mediterranean Sea - the Great Sea. Drazin and Wagner explain that "the Bible generally uses a place to designate a direction; the 'sea' indicates the west since the Mediterranean was to the west of Israel; and Negev, located in the south, designates this direction." Other duplicated words are the verb , to be, and , to you.
Ibn Ezra tells us simply that "the Great Sea is the Mediterranean." Rashi tells us two things. Firstly, he tells us that the Great Sea is intended to be "a boundary" - that is, it is intended both to be a barrier preventing incursion from outside and to inhibit outwards expansion across the sea. We do know that in early Israelite times, while the sea was used for local fishing, there is little evidence of longer distance journeys - the sea was an object of some fear and distrust. Dennis Cole reports that "these coastal plain regions were occupied by the Philistines (south of the Yarkon river) and various Sea Peoples and Phoenicians during the Iron I and Iron II periods and they were under Israelite control only briefly during the reigns of David and Solomon. These peoples, along with the Canaanites, would be a continual source of temptation to the Israelites to abandon their sole allegiance to Yahweh and the stipulations of their covenant relationship to Him and such would be the eventual cause of the nation's downfall and deportation."1 The second thing that Rashi tells us is that "the islands that are in the sea, they too are of the region", so the boundary includes the coastlands: islands and islets that are immediately adjacent to the main shore line. This uses the word in a more territorial way than simply a hard line drawn on the map. This is supported by Jacob Milgrom who suggests that it means "literally 'the coast' and the boundary ... the expression signifies the shore or land's edge."
Boundaries are an important biblical concept. HaShem Himself is seen as setting boundaries for the elements of creation. In His conversation with Job, He asks, "Who closed the sea behind doors when it gushed forth out of the womb, when I clothed it in clouds, swaddled it in dense clouds, when I made breakers My limit for it, and set up its bar and doors, and said, 'You may come so far and no farther; Here your surging waves will stop'?" (Job 38:8-11, NJPS). The character of Wisdom recounts that "When He established the heavens, I was there; when He drew a circle on the face of the deep, when He made firm the skies above, when He established the fountains of the deep, when He assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress His command, when He marked out the foundations of the earth" (Proverbs 8:27-29, ESV), setting the sea's boundaries in the context of the wider creation. The prophet Jeremiah uses the physical boundaries as a reason for the Israelites to stand in awe of God: "Do you not fear Me? declares the L-RD. Do you not tremble before Me? I placed the sand as the boundary for the sea, a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail; though they roar, they cannot pass over it" (Jeremiah 5:22, ESV).
Yeshua instructed His disciples to observe the boundaries that He set for them in the work of the kingdom. When He sent them out to share the good news, He told them, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:5-6, ESV). The boundaries included how they were to live when out on the mission field: "Remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house" (Luke 10:7, ESV). Later, just as He was (physically) leaving them for the last time, He altered their borders: "you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8, ESV), emphasising in Mark's gospel, "Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15, ESV). We know from the narrative in Acts that the disciples were quite slow to push their borders out to that extent; they were very good in Jerusalem, but it needed the secular authorities to step in - some years later - to nudge the gospel into Samaria, then the Gentile world at Joppa and beyond. It wasn't until after Rav Sha'ul joined the team that the mission moved outside the Levant.
Sha'ul himself talked about boundaries and the way that G-d had instituted them and was using them, when he was reasoning with the Greek philosophers in Athens: "He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek G-d, in the hope that they might feel their way toward Him and find Him" (Acts 17:26-27, ESV). Having borders and boundaries, limits and regions, is one of the ways in which the sons and daughters of Adam discover G-d - Who put this here? Why doesn't this work? What does this mean? As mankind develops technologies and political solutions to these questions, they consistently find that although some limits can be overcome, there are other boundaries that just cannot be moved: life and death for example. As the ancient Israelite philosopher Qohelet wrote: "[G-d] has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end" (Ecclesiastes 3:11, ESV). We stretch and struggle; we grasp and grip; but there are some things - always will be some things - that we cannot reach or change. They just are; and - despite our annoyance or in some cases denial - they are and will remain, beyond us.
Sha'ul knew that he operated within limits, within the boundaries G-d had set for him. On his second missionary journey, he and Timothy "went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Yeshua did not allow them" (Acts 16:6-7, ESV), and he later wrote to the Corinthians, "we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence G-d assigned to us, to reach even to you" (2 Corinthians 10:13, ESV). However compelling the work of the gospel might seem to be, G-d sets the order, the pace and the timing. Sha'ul also recognised that each person has limits or boundaries for their lives: "By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that G-d has assigned" (Romans 12:3, ESV). Don't step outside your own boundaries, he urges, measure yourselves by the faith that G-d has given you.
We all have boundaries that define who we are. Are you Jewish or Gentile? Sha'ul says, "Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called" (1 Corinthians 7:20, ESV). Are you married or single, male or female? Sha'ul again: "Only let each person lead the life that the L-rd has assigned to him, and to which G-d has called him. This is my rule in all the churches" (v. 17, ESV). It is clear that these boundaries are created or given by G-d and that we should not try to change them. We tear, twist or break them at our peril and our souls will never be at rest until we have returned to the place G-d created for us. No matter our desire for independence or autonomy, some fundamentals have been set by G-d; they are and will remain, beyond us.
Other boundaries are humanly set and enforced, such as the ban on women being members of the Marylebone Cricket Club from its foundation in 1787 until March 16th, 1999. Others are simply common assumptions or stereotypes, forced upon unwilling sufferers; for example, the idea that all blondes are ditzy or that everyone with dyslexia is educationally challenged. Neither is remotely true, but they have as much power to limit and oppress people as formally set and enforced boundaries. Many adults have gone through their whole lives without reaching their G-d-given potential because of a careless remark by a relative or teacher that they were stupid. These sorts of boundaries have to be challenged and set aside, either by groups or individuals. They have not been given by G-d and are definitely within our grasp.
1. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), pages 536-537.
Further Study: Psalm 104:5-9; Matthew 15:22-28; Ephesians 4:4-7
Application: What are the boundaries within which you live and operate? Are you being held back by human rules or common assumptions that prevent you reaching the call of G-d on your life? Check this out with Him today and work with Him to find freedom to reach for and grasp His boundaries.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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