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B'Midbar/Numbers 1:4 And with you there shall be one man for each tribe, a man who is head of his father's house.
In the second year after leaving Egypt, while the people are still camped at Mt. Sinai,HaShem instructs Moshe to take a census of all the men of Israel who are age twenty or older and are capable of bearing arms. This is an incredibly detailed census, "of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head" (B'Midbar 1:2, NJPS). Moshe and Aharon are to record the name of every fighting man - in those days, the name didn't mean just an individual's given name, but their family lineage: so and so, the son of so and so, the son of ..., etc. - producing a tally that, in the following verses, is enumerated for each tribe in turn. But Moshe and Aharon are not to do this on their own; with them - , 'with' plus the 2mp pronoun suffix - is a man from each and every tribe. They are to have twelve assistants; the tribe of Levi is not counted in this operation, but Ephraim and Manasseh - the two sons of Yosef - are, so making the number back up to twelve.
These men, however, are not just any men; not the first man from each tribe that Moshe or Aharon happened to meet as they were out doing their early morning jogging round the camp. The text uses the word , head, in our text and - later on in verse 16 - "chieftains of the tribes".Rashi puts these words in HaShem's mouth: "When you will count them, there shall be with you the prince of each tribe." The Baal HaTurim notices a Masoretic note ', 3' at the beginning of the verse and explains that "the word appears three times in the Tanakh: (i) here and (ii) twice in the verse 'And with you are your master's sons, and with you are the chariot force and the horses' (2 Kings 10:2). This indicates," he says, "that these twelve men were the most prominent members of their respective tribes, as it is written, 'and with you are your master's sons,' i.e., they were 'masters.' Moreover, all of them were 'leaders of thousands,' as it is written, 'and with you are the chariot force and the horses.'" Moreover, as the next verse on from our text relates - "These are the names of the men who shall assist you ..." (B'Midbar 1:5, NJPS) - the men were named and selected by HaShem.
Why, then, were men of this calibre being involved in taking a census? Was is just to be, as Gunther Plaut suggests, "a representative" of each tribe, someone to make sure things were done according to the rules? TheSforno senses that they had a very practical role: "The reason that they should be with you is because each one is the head of his father's house and will (therefore) be knowledgeable regarding the lineage of each individual." The chieftains offer inside knowledge of their own tribes, perhaps a surer knowledge or memory of ancestral descent, to make sure the family lines are correctly identified. Rabbi Hirsch offers a wider brief: "It seems that at the whole proceeding, the heads of all the tribes assisted and not just each one at the counting of his own tribe." They are there to stamp their authority on the whole proceedings, take an active role in the counting; perhaps they had several counting lines, so that Moshe and Aharon only oversaw the process, while the chieftains did the actual work?
Critics of the whole process use the round numbers produced by the counting - all the figures are either whole numbers of hundred or fifties - and other features of the narrative to protest that this an inserted block, written many centuries later for political or historical engineering purposes. The word in our text, the noun meaning 'tribe' from the root with a prefix pronoun, suggests that this claim is unfounded. Jacob Milgrom reports that, "like , this term is absent from any biblical source that can be dated with certainty after the ninth century BCE, another indication that Numbers chapter one reflects the socio-political life of Israel before the rise of the monarchy. Later literature, unless copying an earlier source, uses the synonyms and exclusively." This, then, appears to be a genuinely early text offering a high degree of reliability. Whilst symbolic numbers may be present in the resulting head-count, they are likely to be the result of simple rounding and so close to the actual numbers of men counted.
Noticing that the text goes on to list all twelve of the men chosen by HaShem with their names, their tribal and parental lineage, it is interesting to compare this event with the choosing of the disciples by Yeshua: "And He appointed twelve (whom He also named apostles) so that they might be with Him and He might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom He gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him" (Mark 3:14-19, ESV). Like the list in B'Midbar, there is deliberate attention given to parental or geographical identification. This validates both the people and the narrative, bringing strength and authenticity to an otherwise bare list of names. Yeshua emphasises the (future) role of the disciples when He tell them, "you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matthew 19:28, ESV). This is a link back, an echo if you will, to the tribal chieftains working with Moshe on the census.
In the same way that the chieftains are described as "the elected of the assembly, the chieftains of their ancestral tribes: they are the heads of the contingents of Israel" (B'Midbar 1:16, NJPS), the gospel takes the time to identify the disciples by anchoring them in their trades or home towns: Peter and Andrew, James and John are fishermen because they were "casting a net into the sea" (Matthew 4:18, ESV) and "mending their nets" (v. 21, ESV); Matthew is "the tax collector" (Matthew 10:3, ESV); the other Simon is "the zealous one", whether for Torah or revolution is not known; Judas Iscariot is a transliteration of Y'hudah iysh K'riyot, Judah the man from the K'riyot - either a little cluster of towns just north of Haifa today, or a town in southern Judea, about ten miles south of Hebron mentioned in Jeremiah 48:21. Craig Keener suggests that "of the roughly half His disciples whose occupations we know, all were drawn from middle-income professions ... perhaps to give emphasis to more socially prominent individuals ... who would be respected by most people."1
Rank and status make a way for eye-witness testimony to be heard and believed. If you are respectable, then there must be some truth in what you say. People are prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt. A man in a suit (I never wear them) is more credible than the same man in jeans and a t-shirt. A witness in court is more likely to be believed if he turns up smartly dressed with his hair and beard neatly trimmed, than one who looks obviously shabby and unkempt and not too concerned about personal hygiene. We may not all be princes, whether in Israel or elsewhere, or members of that elusive middle-income social bracket, but as witnesses - sharing the testimony of Yeshua "before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities" (Luke 12:11, ESV) - it does behove us to pay attention to our appearance and delivery. We can all appear credible witnesses, relating the facts of Yeshua's life and teaching, His death and resurrection, and the invitation to be a part of the kingdom of G-d, in a clear way, using easily understandable words and vocabulary.
Does this require effort and preparation? Certainly. Speaking naturally, at a steady pace and tone, despite stress or excitement needs work to develop. Avoiding jargon phrases in favour of simpler every day language calls for thought and practice. Some attention to appearance, posture and social etiquette definitely stems from repeated intention. None of these things depend on money, education, colour or class - we can all take a decision to improve our delivery and presentation so that the message of the kingdom gets a better hearing. But we do need to take that decision and then be consistent about acting and speaking in line with that decision so that when we called upon to "to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15, ESV), we are helping and not hindering the Spirit as He speaks through us. Moshe and Aharon were told to gather credible witnesses to take part in the census; Yeshua is looking for credible witnesses today to take part in the harvest of the ages. Are you qualified for the job?
Further Study: Colossians 4:6; 2 Timothy 2:24-26
Application: Could your kingdom credentials and credibility do with a little sprucing up to meet the demands of today's hostile society? Why not take a little time on the bench with The Head Coach today to see what parts of your routine He thinks need some improvement?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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