Numbers 17-19

Good morning! Our sojourn in the wilderness with the Israelite people continues today in Numbers 17-19, where we read several stories that emphasize the importance of Aaron and the other priests, as well as other ritual observances and statutes.

Numbers 17 builds on yesterday’s narrative of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. God intends to settle this bickering about leadership in a positive way, by showing a miracle of a budding wooden staff. The count of twelve “ancestral tribes” includes Levi (on which staff Aaron’s name was written), which would actually make the number of tribes thirteen if they were counted as usual. Is this a time when the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh are combined and considered the tribe of Joseph? This is not the first time where the descendants of Levi are or are not considered an independent tribe. The ongoing difference in the ways that tribes are counted is one indication of different sources for material in the Torah. Aaron’s miraculously budding staff underscores the divinely-favored leadership of Aaron and the tribe of Levi. The staff is placed in the tabernacle, and the people react with dread (likely a delayed response to God’s barely-contained holocaustic vengeance after the previous chapter’s rebellion).

Chapter 18 goes to great lengths to articulate the relationship between the priests and the rest of the Levites. The priests have authority over Levites, certain sacred actions are forbidden for Levites serving the tabernacle, and each group has the responsibility to do its work dutifully. The Levites are indentured servants for the priests. They pack, schlep and set up the whole tabernacle, but are forbidden to approach the altar or holy of holies. Special portions of many offerings also go to the priests and their families, while only some of these are shared with the Levites. The one thing that other tribes get that priests and Levites don’t get is land once they enter into Canaan. The priests receive the best of the best from all the offerings, and the Levites live off the rest of those offerings from other tribes. Throughout, this is a system that favors priests, though it also asks them to take life-or-death risks in their service to God on behalf of the rest of Israel at the tabernacle. In this theocracy, Moses, Aaron and the other priests exercise supreme authority and are backed up by divine power, which readily makes an example of those who challenge the hierarchy. I wonder how secular America would respond to this system if it existed now? Is this ancient Hebrew arrangement much different from the theocracies in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vatican City, or elsewhere?

Numbers 19 describes the “red heifer ceremony” and gives its purpose. This feels quite different from other sacrificial customs and is reported separately, so I wonder about its origin. Was it perhaps a popular cultural practice among the ancient peoples, and this is a way to include it under the oversight of the priests rather than banish it as an idolatrous practice? Pure speculation on my part. The ashes of this red heifer are mixed with flowing water to make a cleansing brew that is sprinkled on those who are unclean. Here’s another way that priestly service was required and reinforced: without this holy sprinkling, people who were unclean risked exile forever from the community. Happy reading!

Read Numbers 17-19.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Numbers 20-21. Thanks for reading!

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