Monday, February 26, 2007

The Ten Thousand Thousands (Numbers 1-10)


The book of Numbers opens with a census of the fighting men of Israel at the time of their encampment at Sinai. We are told that there were 603,550 warriors in all, not including the Levites. Adding elderly men, women, and children into the mix would imply about 2.5 million Israelites. More than a ten-thousand-fold increase above the original seventy – Jacob’s children have had a busy 400 years.

Many scholars would be quick to remind us that ancient censuses were, as a rule, grossly exaggerated. Yet even if the numbers are off by a factor of ten or more, we would hardly notice. Standing at the base of Mount Sinai, we look out on a sea of tents, cattle, fires, and people stretching to the horizon in every direction. Israel’s tiny band has become a nation, as promised.

It is here at Sinai that the consequences of the tenth plague are formalized. The Lord consecrated for himself all the firstborn in Egypt – including those of the people of Israel. He chose to kill those of the Egyptians and to spare those of Israel, but they remain consecrated nonetheless. However, he agrees to take the entire tribe of Levi in their stead – they are to work exclusively as priests and caretakers of the house of God.

Why Levi, I wonder? The original man Levi is fairly unremarkable – his one claim to fame being the treacherous massacre he and Simeon dealt to a neighboring tribe that earned a rebuke from their father. But perhaps Moses and Aaron are reason enough. They are the chosen leaders for the chosen people, and their tribe is now chosen to be “attached” to God through their vocation.

The great cloud that once towered over the mountain now permeates the tabernacle where the Levites serve. We are reminded over and over again just how absurdly precarious a position the people are in. They are like the wife of a jealous husband calling a curse upon herself if she has been unfaithful. They are like a Nazarite taking a vow so strict that even a slight infraction cancels years of careful behavior. And yet here they are, living side by side with the roaring fury that is their God.

The people have camped at Sinai for over a year when, all of a sudden, the cloud that rises from the tabernacle. The Lord is on the move, and so the sacred silver trumpets announce to the multitude that the march has begun. Moses calls in a loud voice,
Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you.
And so the tribes roll forward: Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun – Reuben, Simeon, and Gad – Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin – Dan, Asher, and Naphtali – with Levi in their midst carrying the sacred instruments of worship. The sons of Jacob are returning to Canaan. Only a small stretch of wilderness lies in their way.

Comments:
I was just ruminating the other day about how one man's family became a tribe, a nation. I guess that happens all the time - or would, if we didn't intersperse as we do - but its amazing to actually follow our friends from One Couple to Grains of Sand proportions...
 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link



<< Home