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Exposition of the Book of Numbers, Part 1

May 25, 2014

(Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6)

Dear *****,

I thought it wise to summarize the points we addressed yesterday in answer to your questions. I am sorry if it is still too long.

When we start studying this Sefer, it is important to keep in mind a few points: 1. Hazal gave the book its name, Humash Hap’qudim, (The Fifth (of the Pentateuch) of the Numbers) because of the two censuses that figure so prominently in the book. Indeed, the two main mysteries of the book, how the official population did not change over the course of the months between the counting mentioned in Exodus and the census mentioned at the beginning of this book, and how the overall population decreased by the end of the sojourn in the desert, revolve around numbers. 2. This is the story of the tribes’ and their leaders’ becoming ready to take possession of the promised land, and the purpose of both counts, as stated numerous times, was to determine who the men of war were and among whom to divide the land. 3. The Israelites did not camp in a vacuum. They followed known trade routes and often stayed adjacent to populated areas. Thus, individual Israelites had the ability to leave the body of the nation, and conversely, foreigners could come and contact the Israelite camp. These points are obvious from numerous verses, which describe the fact that Israelites often traded with others, or were attacked. 4. The concept of a chosen people was new to the rest of human society as well as to the Israelites. Similarly, the fact that some among the chosen people could be more chosen was also something that did not gain immediate acceptance. 5. Most questions we have can be solved in light of the above points.

The number issues work like this: We must keep in mind that the Hebrew term Elef, literally “a thousand,” may actually be a military division that numbered at about a thousand, as has been the case throughout human history. For example, a modern American “battalion” could have anywhere between 300 to 1,300 men, and an “army” could have from almost 100,000 to 200,000. It is further obvious that if a division would lose 10 men or an army 200, both would still be considered complete. So too, an “elef” in the Jewish army could start with, for instance, 1,025 or 950 men, and still be considered an elef after gaining ten more or losing five. At the time of the Exodus, (Nisan, Year 1) the Israelites numbered “about six hundred thousand men on foot.” (Exodus 12:37). Some months later (Tishrei, Year 1), the men had each donated a silver half-sheqel towards the construction of the Tabernacle to the tune of 603,550 half-sheqels (28:26). This number was the actual Israelite male population aged 20 to 60, including Levites and excluding any one who had died or had been killed since the Exodus. Still later (Iyar, Year 2), this magic number was used to determine how many military divisions of “Alafim” and “Me’oth” the non-Levite tribes were to form in preparation for the march on Canaan. Thus, the tribe of Judah, for example, formed 74 “thousands” and six “hundreds,” although their actual numbers might have been much less (Numbers 1:26). The Tribes were to reach the magic number of 603 thousands no matter what. It is more than likely that the vast majority of these divisions were actually well less than the number that gave them their names. I would figure each “hundred” had well less than a hundred, and because each “thousand” was made of ten hundreds, it would not be farfetched to have an “elef” that actually consisted of about 800 men. This also explains how it was that all of the tribes had populations of nice, round numbers. This also fits with the opinion that even if done in an indirect manner, it is forbidden to count Jews.

The command that opens our Parasha is thus less of a command to count, and more of a command to organize. (The Hebrew root p-q-d has various meanings, including “counting,” like the way the Targum translates, “remembering,” and “commanding.” The Aramaic root p-q-d itself is more often used to translate the Hebrew s-w-y, commanding.) Thus, the tribe of Levi was smaller than the rest of the tribes partly because its actual population was counted. Unlike the rest of the tribes, they were not to be organized into a tzava, an army, a term used repeatedly to describe the formations created by the Alafim and Meoth of the other tribes. The other main factor accounting for their disproportionately small numbers will be elaborated upon in the next post.

By the time the second census was conducted, many members of the individual tribes had not reported back to the central camp where the census was conducted, “in the plains of Moab, on the Jordan opposite Jericho.” Some had left of their own volition over the previous 38 years, some had made failed attempts to enter the Holy Land, and others decided to stay in “the cities of Amorites” that had come into their possession after vanquishing Sihon and Og. (See Numbers 21:24-31 which says explicitly that the Jews settled those areas.) Eventually, two whole tribes announced their intentions to stay outside the Promised Land.

To be continued…


From → original, parasha

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