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Bamidbar (In the Wilderness): The Elite Service of the Levites

Bamidbar (In the Wilderness)
Numbers 1:1–4:20; Hosea 2:1– 2:22 (1:10–2:20); Romans 16:1–7

“Adonai spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert [Bamidbar].”  (Numbers 1:1)

Last week, we finished studying the Book of Leema.m633@hotmail.comviticus.

This week’s Torah study begins the fourth of the five books of Moses, Bamidbar, which means in the desert or wilderness.  While this name is taken from the fifth Hebrew word in verse one, it reflects one of the themes of this book. 

In this Parasha, Adonai makes it a priority to create an Israelite military force before they set out on their journey through the wilderness to the Holy Land.

In this Parasha, Adonai makes it a priority to create an Israelite military force before they set out on their journey through the wilderness to the Holy Land.

The Counting of the Army

Bamidbar is called “Numbers” in English because the first four chapters mention censuses of Israelites, the first of which number the men who are able to bear arms.   An older Hebrew name for Bamidbar—Sefer Hapikudim (Book of the Countings)—also reflects this theme of counting.

In chapter one of Bamidbar, the Israelites are still camped at Mount Sinai after having received the law, built the Tabernacle, and having been instructed in worship.  Now, before they move forward to the Promised Land, they must be prepared for the threats that await on the journey.

The Lord commands Moses to take a census of all Israelite males able to bear arms from ages twenty and up.

“And so he counted them in the Desert of Sinai.”  (Numbers 1:19)

The census results reveal that the Israelites are mighty in number.  The men capable of battle are listed by tribe, totaling 603,550 men:

  • Reuben: 46,500
  • Simeon: 59,300
  • Gad: 45,650
  • Judah: 74,600
  • Issachar: 54,400
  • Zebulun: 57,400
  • Ephraim: 40,500
  • Manasseh: 32,200
  • Benjamin: 35,400
  • Dan: 62,700
  • Asher: 41,500
  • Naphtali: 53,400
Torah scroll

Torah scroll

The Elite Service of the Levites

The Levites are not counted in the census since they are not to be conscripted into the military.

The Levites, who are descendants of Aaron, are anointed as priests and given priestly duties (Exodus 28:1, 29:9).

Those Levites who do not descend from Aaron function in subordinate roles to the Aaronite priests, as their servants.  These Levites replace the firstborn sons of Israel who were originally given this task, but they lost that privilege due to their worship of the Golden Calf.  The Levites, however, remained faithful during that time and earned God’s favor.  (Exodus 13:2, 13:11–13, 32:25–26; Numbers 3:12–13)

As servants to the priests, the Levites are placed in charge of the furnishings and structure of the Tabernacle—taking it down, carrying it, and setting it back up as the Israelites moved through the wilderness.

This is such a holy assignment that only the Levites are allowed to approach the Tabernacle.  Any unauthorized person coming near would be punished with death.  (Numbers 1:47–51)

A depiction of the Jewish priests

A depiction of the Jewish priests

The Levites are also required to set up their tents around the Tabernacle (not in one location as the other tribes).  They form a barrier to prevent the Israelites from coming too close to the Tabernacle, which would cause the wrath of God to fall upon the Israelite camp.  (Numbers 1:53)

All Israelites are to camp at a specified distance from the Tent of Meeting—far enough away to protect the holiness of the Tabernacle and yet close enough for the Israelites to walk to the meetings.

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: ‘The Israelites are to camp around the Tent of Meeting some distance from it, each of them under their standard and holding the banners of their family.’”  (Numbers 2:1–2) 

According to Divine placement, the 12 tribes of Israel camped beyond the Levite circle in four groups of three tribes each:

  • Judah, Issachar and Zebulun to the East
  • Reuben, Simeon and Gad to the South;
  • Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin to the West; and
  • Dan, Asher and Naphtali to the North.

Because light comes from the East, that is where Moses, Aaron and his sons camped, since they are great, holy men responsible for carrying the light of God to the nation.


The 12 tribes encamped around the Tabernacle

Each tribe had its own prince or leader (nasi—Numbers 2:3), and distinctive flag or banner (degelNumbers 2:2) with its own particular tribal emblem and color.  The colors are thought to correspond to the precious stones on the breastplate of the High Priest (Cohen HaGadol).

These symbols are considered a sign of God’s great love for each tribe of Israel, as it says in the Song of Songs: “His banner [degel] over me is love.”   (Numbers 2:4)

Even while traveling, the Israelites kept to their particular formation around the Tabernacle. According to Rabbinic commentary (Midrash), that formation allowed Korah (a Levite) to conspire with Datan, Abiram, and On (Reubenites) mutiny against the leadership of Moses (Numbers 16:1).

Since they lived in close proximity on the south side of the Tabernacle, they used the opportunity to foment a rebellion.

Of course, this is a perfect illustration of the importance of carefully choosing our companions.  The Bible teaches us that bad company corrupts good character (1 Corinthians 15:33).

A Jerusalem mosaic with emblems of the 12 Tribes of Israel

A Jerusalem mosaic with emblems of the 12 Tribes of Israel.

Haftarah Prophetic Portion: United Under One Authority

“Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered.”  (Hosea 1:10 [2:1 in the Hebrew Bible])

Usually there is a common theme between the Parasha and the corresponding Haftarah (prophetic portion).  We see this connection in today’s study from the Book of Hosea (Hosea 1:10–2:20 [2:1–22]), which mentions the wilderness and the numbering of the people of Israel.

Hosea, in fact, prophesies that Israel’s numbers will grow in number like the sand of the sea.  (Hosea 1:10 [2:1]) 

An Israeli boy makes sandcastles on the Mediterranean Sea.

An Israeli boy makes sandcastles on the Mediterranean Sea.

Additionally, Hosea prophesies that the two houses of Judah and Israel will eventually be re-unified in the Messianic Era under a single leader, as also foreseen by Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, among other prophets and writers.  (Daniel 7:13–14; Isaiah 9:6–7, 11:1–16; Ezekiel 37:15–28; Zechariah 14)

This leader is Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah).

“And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head.  And they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel.”  (Hosea 1:11 [2:2], also 3:3–5)

Because of this theme of assembling together in unity under one head, this portion is read before Shavuot, when it is traditionally believed that all the children came as one people to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Likewise, at Shavuot (Pentecost), the disciples of Yeshua waited in unity of mind, heart, and purpose for the coming of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit).  (Acts 1:14)

There is an anointing and blessing when we gather together in unity with those who Love God.

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!  It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.  It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.  For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.”  (Psalm 133) 

An Israeli soldier wearing tefillin (phylacteries) recites the morning prayers.

An Israeli soldier wearing tefillin (phylacteries) recites the morning prayers.

Redemption and Marriage

In this prophetic book, which is the first of the Trei Asar (Twelve Prophets), God uses Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute as a real-life parable to reveal His great love for Israel.

After Hosea’s wife bears him children, the Lord tells Hosea to send his wife and children away.

Hosea obeys, but declares his loves for them, despite his wife’s straying.

Through this dispersion of his family, Hosea comes to understand God’s absolute love for and commitment to Israel despite her straying.

With this insight, Hosea rebukes Israel for engaging in adulterous affairs with pagan deities and being an unfaithful spouse to the Lord.

And yet, just as Hosea takes back his wife who played the harlot, God promises to take back His unfaithful wife, Israel.  He promises that the Jewish People will repent and be betrothed to Him forever.

“I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion.  I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD.”  (Hosea 1:19–20 [2:21–22])

This concluding passage of the Haftarah is a wonderful prophecy of redemption, which is recited by Orthodox Jewish men each morning as they put on the tefillin (phylacteries).  This traditional wrapping of the leather straps around the man’s fingers, is similar to a groom placing the wedding ring upon his bride; it is meant to be symbolic of the betrothal of God and Israel.

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