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Exposition of the Book of Numbers, Part 2

May 28, 2014

(Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6)

To keep this simple, I will explain the course of the book by analyzing the story of each tribe, its leaders, and its armies as recorded in this book.

1. Reuben: The oldest of Jacob’s sons, he had his birthright taken away from him by his father, and it was divided among three of his younger brothers. Thus, the tribe was upset over its lost prominence. National leadership resided among the Levites, Judahites, and Josephites, and the priesthood was taken from the firstborns. As a result, the tribe of Reuben, which at the first count was already below average size at 46,500, or more accurately, 46 thousands and 5 hundreds, produced the ringleaders of the Korah rebellion, Dathan, On, and Abiram, and their spy was among those opposed to going through with conquering Canaan. At the end of the journey, 38 years later, not only did the tribe not produce any new thousands (i.e. fewer showed up for enlistment), they decided as a whole that they would rather remain settled outside of Canaan. In the future, Moses would pray “let Reuben live and not die, and his people should be a significant number,” because the tribe was already dwindling, and would be the first to disappear in the exile.

2. Simon: Reuben’s neighbor on the southern side of the Israelite camp, their forebear had also been denounced by the father, but had not suffered as great a loss in honorific titles and hereditary dues as Reuben, and originally was not as disenfranchised. Thus, they initially numbered at 59 thousands and 3 hundreds, indicating their enthusiasm. However this tribe’s spy also did not endorse the Canaan campaign, and the second leader of the Simeonites, Zimri, was the main antagonist in the straying after Baal P’or in Shittim. Rashi posits that the 24,000 killed in the ensuing plague were from this tribe; it is reasonable to assume that even more would have left the people at this time considering Moses’s own nephew killed Zimri. Simon’s tribe’s army was thus the smallest: 22 thousands and 2 hundreds.

3. Levi: The tribe that did not have to put up a fighting force to conquer Canaan because it was not to receive a share in the land, its most prominent members comprised the national leadership and priesthood, but as indicated by the Korah rebellion, many Levites did not accept their new status as landless clerics. They either wanted the actual priesthood, or they wanted their land. While the loyal and religiously-strong took on their new roles with zeal, many would have not gone along with the program, and dropped out. As they had shown during the aftermath of the Golden Calf, they were capable fighters, but they may have felt robbed of the chance to fight the bad guys. Thus, Jacob’s rebuke/blessing to Simon and Levi played out with the tribes having similar populations and similar tenant status in the Holy Land, but Simon, having not fully overcome his previous failings, was isolated form the rest of the nation in his scattered state, but the loyal Levites had the chance to influence the rest of the people. The Levites left because they were not to receive a real portion; the Simeoneites did not receive a real portion because so many left. This is my own novel idea to explain why the Levites were so few without having to resort to supernatural explanations. Note that when mentioned concerning the other tribes, the word tzava is usually used to refer to a military force, whereas with regards to the Levites, the word tzava is then modified with, “to serve in the Tent of Meeting,” i.e., the Levite hosts were specifically meant for a different purpose altogether.

4. Judah: The tribe that would dominate the rest of Jewish history sported the largest army, and marched first. Eventually, this would be the only tribe to fully conquer its section of Canaan, drive out the indigenous peoples, and settle the land, thus ensuring their ability to remain faithful to God and therefore remain the longest in the land. Their first leader, Nahshon, was Aaron’s brother in law, and the tribe camped closest to Moses and Aaron; their spy and eventual second leader, Caleb, was Miriam’s husband and the number one advocate for the Canaan campaign, against the rest of the spies. It is therefore no surprise that they grew even larger by the second census.

5. Issachar and Zebulun: Tag alongs with their closest relations, the tribe of Judah, they benefited from being on the eastern side of the camp, adjacent to Moses and Aaron, and their relatively larger tribes also grew by the end of the journey, although as indicated by their spies’ defection, they were not as enthusiastic as Judah.

6. Gad: In the southern camp along with Reuben and Simon, this tribe started off with 45 thousands, below the tribal average, and ended with only 40 thousands. Like their neighbors, they eventually saw fit to want to stay out of the promised land, just like their spy had recommended, and they were also among the first to eventually disappear from history.

7. The united tribe of Joseph: The tribe that stood to benefit the most from the conquest of Canaan had been guaranteed a double portion. Although they were slightly less in number than the tribe of Judah at the beginning, and one of their spies was against the conquest, their spy and eventual national leader’s (Joshua) influence led to them being the most enthusiastic and therefore most numerous warriors at the end of the book. (Note that according to Chronicles, Elishama b. Ammihud, the leader of Efraim, was Joshua’s grandfather.) Joseph’s portion was eventually the largest and most centrally located, and Moses saw fit to join part of the tribe to the tribes of Gad and Reuben in the Transjordan to serve as a good influence.

8. Benjamin: This small tribe grew mostly due to the good and enthusiastic influence of the neighboring tribe of Joseph despite its initial lack of enthusiasm.

9. Dan, Asher, Naftali: The northern flank seems to have also been the quietest politically, neither producing vocal leaders nor rebels, and thus had the least net change of all the combined armies. Although their spies initially opposed the conquest, the fact that they were kept farthest from the south, where most sedition developed, could have kept them out of trouble. I wonder if there are those who claim that the figures for Naftali and Asher were accidentally switched by scribal error; Asher goes from 41 thousands to 53 thousands, while Naftali went from 53 to 45.

To be continued…


From → original, parasha

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