Bamidbar (In the Wilderness)

This Torah portion that will be read in synagogues around the world this Shabbat.

BAMIDBAR (In the Wilderness)
Numbers 1:1–4:20; Hosea 1:10– 2:20 [2:1–2:22]; Romans 15:1–7
“Adonai spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert [Bamidbar].”  (Numbers 1:1)
After the Book of Leviticus with Parasha Bechukotai, the Jews start studying 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.
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.
The Tabernacle that the Israelites Built (illu...

The Tabernacle that the Israelites Built (illustration from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In chapter one of Bamidbar, the Israelites still camp at Mount Sinai after having received the law, built the Tabernacle, and been instructed in worship.  Now before they move forward to the Promised Land, they must be prepared for the threats that lie ahead 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
The Elite Service of the Levites
“In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to Him, and His resting place will be glorious.”  (Isaiah 11:10)
The Levites are not counted in the census since they are not to be conscripted into the military.
The Levites who descend from 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 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)
Only Levites allowed to approach the Tabernacle
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 in order to prevent the wrath of God from falling 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 come for the meetings on foot.
“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 camp 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 camp, since they are great, holy men responsible for carrying the light of God to the nation.
The 12 tribes encamped around the Tabernacle
The 12 tribes encamped around the Tabernacle
Each tribe has its own prince or leader (nasi / Numbers 2:3) and distinctive flag or banner (degel / Numbers 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.” (v. 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) to 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
– Messianic Bible
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