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(Num 4:21 - 7:89)

B'Midbar/Numbers 7:5   Take from them and they shall be to work the work of the Tent of Meeting; and you shall give them to the Levites, each according to his work.


View whole verse and interlinear translation ...

What's going on here? There aren't many obvious clues from the text alone, so let's set this verse in its context. The immediate back-story is that Moshe has just finished setting up, anointing and consecrating the Tabernacle. On that very day, the chieftains of the twelve tribes - that is, thirteen less Levi - bring a non-intuitive offering to HaShem: "six draught carts and twelve oxen" (B'Midbar 7:3, NJPS). There's a little uncertainty about what 'draught' is meant to mean here; other versions offer 'covered', 'baggage' or omit the word altogether. Either way, Moshe - who has been offered the gift as The Name ...

HaShem: literally, Hebrew for 'The Name' - an allusion used to avoid pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, the so-called 'ineffable' name of G–d
HaShem's representative - is uncertain exactly what to do. Is this a cart like the one that, in centuries to come, brought the Ark back from the Philistines? If so, then the oxen should be slaughtered and offered as a burn offering to HaShem, using the wood of the carts as fuel (1 Samuel 6:10-14). That doesn't seem very likely, so HaShem - who is the speaker in our text - steps in to tell Moshe what to do with the offering.

We have enough now to take a first pass at the verse. Moshe is being told by HaShem to accept them, the carts and oxen, from them, the tribal chiefs, so that they - the carts and oxen can assist in the 'work' of the Tabernacle; and to give them - the carts and oxen again - to the Levites, according to their work. There is still some confusion, however, because of the root which is used three times in the verse. The first time, - the Qal infinitive form - it has its expected meaning: to work, labour or serve. The second, - a feminine noun, construct - usually means "the work" or "the service", and the third use - , the same feminine noun with a 3ms possessive pronoun - should produce "his work" or "his service", referring back to , 'man', but here translated 'each'. What sense does this make of carts and oxen? Jacob Milgrom says that "here, has a restricted use, referring to the transport work of the Tabernacle", so that the verse is talking about the work of transporting the Tabernacle, and suggests the translation, "to do the transport of the Tent of Meeting ... each according to his jobs."

Why then would Moshe be puzzled when presented with the carts and the oxen? The Who Is ...

Sforno: Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550 CE), Italian rabbi, philosopher and physician; born in Cesena, he went to Rome to study medicine; left in 1525 and after some years of travel, settled in Bologna where he founded a yeshiva which he conducted until his death
Sforno explains that "Moshe thought that the burden of all the Levites was to be carried on their shoulders, as was the case of the Kohathites and their burden." What need would there then be for carts? But HaShem knew better - He knew that carts would be needed due to the weight and bulk of the Tabernacle infrastructure. In the previous parasha, we have been told that the Gershonites carried the various curtains and coverings for the Tabernacle (4:21-28); the Merarites had to transport the planks, poles, bases, crossbars, ropes, pegs and other structural items (4:29-33). Only the Kohathites, who carried the holy items, carried their burdens by hand on their shoulders. Why hasn't Moshe seen this already? Stephen Sherwood reminds us that "the mention of the wagons looks forward to the key moment of departure from Sinai coming up in 10:11-12."1 All this is happening at Sinai; no-one has thought just how much work is involved in carrying all these fixtures, fittings and furniture and how heavy they all are.

Nearly there! We have just the last three words to sort out, literally: each [man] as the mouth of his work. if we look forward a few verses, we see that Moshe gave "two carts and four oxen to the Gershonites, as required for their service, and four carts and eight oxen he gave to the Merarites, as required for their service" (vv. 7-8). Who Is ...

Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 CE), French rabbi who wrote commentaries on the Torah, the Prophets and the Talmud, lived in Troyes where he founded a yeshiva in 1067; focuses on the plain meaning (p'shat) of the text, although sometimes quite cryptic in his brevity
Rashi adds that, "the burden of the sons of Gershon was lighter than that of Merari, who would carry the beams, the pillars and the sockets." Summing up, Dennis Olson records that "each group is given in proportion to its needs and tasks."2 Now we have everything: Moshe was to accept the carts and oxen from the chieftains to service the transport needs of the Tabernacle, split in proportion to the weight of the burdens they carried, between the clans of Gershon and Merari, but not the Kohathites, because they carried the holy articles by hand. Normalparagraphroman In Matthew's gospel, Yeshua tells the story known as the Parable of the Talents. A wealthy man is going on a journey and entrusts his property to his servants: "To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one," Yeshua says, "to each according to his ability" (Matthew 25:15, ESV). Knowing their strengths and capabilities, the master gives different amounts to each servant, balancing risk against skill. On the other side of the coin, we find the first believers in Jerusalem sharing their assets - "All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:44-45, ESV) - on a communal basis to meet each person's needs. These texts were developed by the early socialist movement, many of whom were devout Christians, and popularised by Karl Marx in the phrase, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."3

In his teaching on the gifts of the Spirit, Rav Sha'ul tells us that "all these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as He wills" (1 Corinthians 12:11, ESV), making it clear that the distribution of the supernatural gifts is a matter for the Ruach. He gives the most appropriate gift to each person in a way that will encourage and empower His people in each place: "to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (v. 7, ESV). This is what we would expect from Sha'ul's letter to the Ephesians in his description of the five-fold ministry gifts, which are given "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Messiah, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of G-d, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Messiah" (Ephesians 4:12-13, ESV). These are not individual gifts or trophies, for personal aggrandisement, but quite specifically given for the benefit of local fellowships, congregations and gatherings - expressions of the Body of Messiah - so that everyone in those groups matures and grows in their discipleship and commitment to Yeshua.

Turning to a more conventional set of giftings, whether given supernaturally by the Ruach or developed over time by study and experience, Sha'ul makes it clear that we are all to participate in the life and growth of the Body of Messiah by using our gifts and skills to benefit everyone: "Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness" (Romans 12:6-8, ESV). Whatever the gift, it is still a gift from and dependent for its exercise upon G-d. It is still to be used carefully, diligently and joyfully for the benefit of our local expression of faith in Yeshua and for fellow disciples of Yeshua travelling on the same road. That is the purpose for which they have been given and that is the way that G-d is glorified.

Moshe is instructed to accept the gift from the tribal chiefs and to set it to work according to HaShem's command. Yeshua takes the gift of the Holy Spirit from the Father and deploys it among His disciples. The Spirit Himself takes the spiritual and natural gifts and gives to each believer according to his need and ability for the needs of each congregation and assembly. We in turn, like Moshe, are to receive the gift or gifts that we are given and employ them according to HaShem's command to bless those around us and to play our part, working alongside the Master, to help bring the whole Body of Messiah to maturity. In this, we too are blessed as we take our place to serve and bless G-d and others.

1. - Stephen Sherwood, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry - Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), page 148.

2. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 45.

3. - Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme May 1875.

Further Study: Hebrews 5:11-14; 1 Peter 4:7-11

Application: What are you doing with your gift today? Have you fully received it from the Spirit and are you deploying it among your fellow disciples to bless them and bring glory to the name of Yeshua? Check in with the Giver of Good Gifts that you have everything He wants you to have right now and that you know what you are supposed to do with it today. Make sure that you are working to work at your work!

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© Jonathan Allen, 2022



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