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Exposition of the Book of Numbers, Part 6

July 11, 2014

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)

Earlier, I suggested that the tribe of Levi’s small size as mentioned in Numbers 26 was due to many of the Levites’ dissatisfaction with their impending landless status. As the fiercest of Israel’s warriors and the most loyal to the traditions of their fathers, they must have felt disappointed with the news that with the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the subsequent sin of the Golden Calf, they would be made into a clerical class. The basis for this claim is found in Ha’amek Davar by the Netziv, Numbers 26:3:

And Moses spoke: as in leading [them], as [the Israelites] were scattered throughout the cities of the Transjordan, and only the [main] camp and the Tent of Meeting were in one place, and when they were commanded to be counted, Moses and Elazar anounced that anyone from 20 years of age [and up] should come to the designated place, and they gathered in the Plains of Moab.

Some background: it says in 21:25-31:

And Israel took all these cities; and Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all the towns thereof…. Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites.

Thus, the deficient numbers within any tribe can be attributed to the simple fact that any tribe’s members did not all show up. It is more than coincidental that the leading tribes, like Judah and the rest of those that camped to the east of the Tabernacle, grew, while the disenfranchised tribes of the south, Reuven, Gad, and Simeon, shrank. So much so, that the tribe of Simeon was a only a third of the size it should have been, and Reuven and Gad had the audacity/faithlessness to explicitly suggest that they not enter the land at all. Next, is a most strange word found both in Numbers 1:46 and 26:62 concerning the Levites’ not being included in the general count.

  וְהַלְוִיִּם, לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָם–לֹא הָתְפָּקְדוּ, בְּתוֹכָם.

But the Levites after the tribe of their fathers were not numbered among them.

The word hoth-pa-q’dhu sounds strange to any one familiar with the Hebrew language because, as the Ibn Ezra points out in his commentary to the above verse, it is spelled as though it is in the hithpa’el, reflexive, conjugation, yet it is vowelized as though in the hof’al, passive (from the causative), conjugation. The word, if vowelized as a proper hithpa’el word, should have been hith-paq-q’dhu, and if in the hofal, hof-q’dhu. The S’forno to that verse explains that during the first count

the Levites were not counted (hof-q’dhu, in the hofal) by the counters and they did not get themselves counted (hith-paq-q’dhu), as they did not prepare themselves [for the matter] like the rest of the people by gathering and registering their lineages, and this was before God told Moses “but do not count the children of Levi,” for in truth, they waited to see what God would command concerning them because the tribe of Levi was not mentioned among the rest of the tribes when He said “and with you shall be one man from each tribe.” (above, 1:4)

That is, the words lo hoth-pa-q’dhu do not just mean “were not counted.” The proper words for that would be lo nif-q’dhu. Instead, they mean that they were both “not counted” and “they did not get themselves counted,” for whatever reason. Later, in 26:62, we read about the Levite numbers before entering the land:

וַיִּהְיוּ פְקֻדֵיהֶם, שְׁלֹשָׁה וְעֶשְׂרִים אֶלֶף–כָּל-זָכָר, מִבֶּן-חֹדֶשׁ וָמָעְלָה:  כִּי לֹא הָתְפָּקְדוּ, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, כִּי לֹא-נִתַּן לָהֶם נַחֲלָה, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

And they that were numbered of them were twenty and three thousand, every male from a month old and upward; for they were not numbered (hoth-pa-q’dhu) among the children of Israel, because there was no inheritance given them among the children of Israel.

Once again, we have that word, hoth-pa’qdhu, describing the Levites. This verse is saying that the Levites numbered far less than the small tribe of Simeon (considering that even the Levite boys were counted, inflating their numbers) because they were neither counted by those in charge, nor did they “prepare themselves [for the matter] like the rest of the people by gathering and registering their lineages,” and that was now because they were not to receive a portion in the land like the rest of the tribes. That is, in the final census, many Levites did not bother to show up in the camp in the Plains of Moab and have themselves included because they knew that they were not to receive any land. In the first census, the Levites did not have themselves counted right away because they were confused about their status; in the second census the Levites did not have themselves counted because they were not to receive land like everyone else.

Rashi and others note how the Levite familial divisions in this the latter count are considerably different from the ones mentioned at the first count. In Numbers 3 we read how the Levites were divided among the three sons of Levi: Gershon, Kehath, and Merari. From Gershon, there were the Livnite and Shim’ite families, from Kehath there were the Amramite, Izharite, Hebronite, and Uzzielite families, and from Merari there were the Mahlite and Mushite families, for a total of eight subfamilies. In Numbers 26, the three primary families are still there, but only the subfamilies of the Livnite, Mahlite, Hebronite, and Mushite reappear, and there is also a new group, the Korahites, significant because they are named for someone two generations after all the others. The Midrash attempts to deal with this discrepancy. According to what we have seen above, we can offer that the first count represents the Levites as they were shortly after the Exodus, when they were assigned their roles in the service of the Tabernacle, whereas in the latter count they needed to be redivided based on who showed up for the count, and some of the earlier subfamilies were therefore underrepresented, and needed to be counted as per part of the larger groups. This would also explain why it is not recorded how many men exactly were in each family and subfamily.


From → original, parasha

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