We are going to study some overall concepts found in the Book of Numbers. In a Hebrew Bible, this book is called “B’Midbar” which means “In the Wilderness.” This book is also called “Chumash Ha Pekudim” or the “Book of Counting.” It will pick up where Exodus left off. This book is full of lessons learned so that we do not repeat the same mistakes (1 Cor 10.4). We have the Torah given to the people of Israel and now God is establishing the government.
Again, we are not going to go verse by verse and get into massive detail, that will be for another time, but we are going to give some ways you can look at significant portions and then do a further study. We will bring out some basic concepts we feel are important to understand this book and all of the Scriptures for that matter. We will break this book down by Torah portions.
The first Torah portion is called “B’Midbar” meaning “In the Wilderness.” It goes from Num 1.1 to 4.20. Right off, we can see in verse 3 that the Lord wants to count his people like a good shepherd would after some traumatic experience. This will be the third census, and second one in a year. The first one was before they left for Egypt in Exo 1.5. The second one was before they left Egypt for the wilderness in Exo 12.37.
A “counting” tells us that each individual is unique but they are also a part of something bigger. There will be a contribution that they will need to make. Each of us are individuals, but we belong to a family unit, and a “tribe” also. Numbers are not meaningless to a shepherd.
Now, look at the title? What has happened over the last year or so? They have been delivered from Egypt and are now in the wilderness, they have actually heard the voice of God and lived, they have received the Torah, there has been the Golden Calf incident, the priesthood has been established and the Mishkan built, the services and the korbanot have begun. That is a big change compared to what they were used to. Now they are preparing to move into Canaan, and a workforce and an army is established. As a result, there are lessons we need to learn through this book.
First of all, who were these people? They had witnessed the out-right miracles of God in ways never before seen. They have seen the power of God, like no other generation. However, they were stiff-necked, complainers and obstinate and they opposed Moses and rebelled. In other words, they were like us. They were not unique or different than we are and their struggles are our struggles. They needed to recognize and accept their total dependence on the Lord, and this is our obligation, too. They needed to listen to God and his rules and regulations, so do we. What did they do sometimes? They invented creative ways to get around what he has said that allowed them to do what they wanted to do, rather than just obey him. Sound familiar? We do the same thing.
There will also be a prophetic application to this “in the wilderness” experience because it will happen again when Israel flees into the wilderness during the Birth-pains (Rev 12.1-17). Also, the Lord is numbering the people for an inheritance, war and work. Why does the Lord say he spoke to Moses “in the wilderness” in verse 1? We already know where they were.
There is something that prevents people from learning the Torah and it is called “kap’dan.” It is being fussy, rigid, unaccommodating and people like that cannot learn and study. They have to have everything right, like the temperature, mood, music, lights, seats and so on. A “kap’dan” is one who is easily offended. In order to learn and absorb Torah we must be the opposite of a kap’dan. We need to be adaptable, not rigid and accommodating, like a wilderness. We should not be thinking too highly of ourselves, able to drink in the waters of life.
We also begin to see a military structure being built in Chapter 1. We have leaders of the tribes (“Nasi Matot”) and we have divisions called “alphay” (thousands). Each tribe is a “mishmar” (division). Three tribes make up a “corps” and Israel had four corps, made up of twelve divisions. Each division was made up of “mishpocha” (families) and each family was made up of households (squads). They had to come together and carve out an existence in the wilderness.
One of the things the Torah teaches us is organization. We have the story of Noah and the Ark, Abraham ran a large household. When Joseph was in Egypt he was very organized. Just look at the story of Creation. The universe is very organized and we set our time according to it. The Mishkan and it construction was organized. The Avodah (services), the priesthood, the agricultural system with the Yovel and the Shemitah was organized, and the list goes on. So, this Torah portion is no exception. The nation had to be organized. They were not going to be in the wilderness forever, they were going into the land. Here is another concept associated with the word “wilderness.” In Hebrew, it is “midbar” and we know they received the Torah (the Word of God) in the wilderness. The word “midbar” has the same root in Hebrew as “m’dabehr” meaning “to speak.”
The leaders will be 20 to 50 years old and Levi was numbered from one month old and they will not be listed among the rest of the tribes (1.47). The people needed to be trained for battle. Just because God was leading them into the promised land doesn’t mean they didn’t have to fight for it. David believed he could defeat Goliath but he wasn’t being presumptuous. He had to go down to the Valley of Elah and meet him. He also picked up five stones to throw with his sling. Why five? That has been discussed over and over again and there are many interpretations like the five books of Torah, or the five giants killed (2 Sam 21.22). But it can be as simple as this, in case he missed.
The Lord is initiating his form of government called a “Theocracy.” This form of government has the Lord at the head and servants are delegated to perform certain functions, carrying out his will. The father is the head of the family. Other fathers who can take on added responsibility for other families takes on that position. This goes on until they are organized under one head. These “heads” don’t stand alone. They are the “sons” of another. Their honor always points up, and what they did reflected back on their fathers. We have “names” but we are the “sons of our father.” That is what a theocracy is. When we believed, we became the sons of Yehovah, and in the Father’s house (1.18). What we do reflects on him.
So, Israel has a law and now they have a government being organized here. We have a similar organization in Rev 7.4-8 with the 144,000. The Lord has a routine and duties that need to be assigned. There is a setting up and a setting down while in the wilderness. Why was Levi singled out? Because they defended Dinah (Gen 34.25) and stood with Moses at the Golden Calf incident. The Mishkan was very important. The kedusha that was on Mount Sinai could now travel with them into the land. The tribe of Levi was dedicated to defending it. We know it was an expensive building and expertly crafted, but that is not why nit was important. The Mishkan had the kedusha of God, the Shekinah, in their midst. They took care of the Mishkan because this connection between God and man should not be broken, it was that important.
Everyone has their place, their own “row to hoe.” Each tribe had their own flag. It was not like in America, a “melting pot” under one flag. This is because each individual is unique and each group is part of the whole. Everyone had something unique to offer. The Lord doesn’t want everyone to be the same. There were tribal connections, as we see here. These tribal connections were very important and we will see this later with King David as he organizes the kingdom. No special status was given for personal merits, abilities and scholarship. The purpose for this organization in our Torah portion is clear.
There are millions of people in this wilderness that needed get organized and they had to know “what flag” they were under (know their place). A change that is anticipated and planned for isn’t too bad, but imagine if everyone did what was right in their own eyes? God called the moves and how to do it. Every tribe had their own load to carry and their own role. No jealousy or striving for their own glory and status is seen here.
In Part 2 we will pick up here and begin to talk about the arrangement of the camp into four corps. This will also have an eschatological meaning.