B'Midbar/Numbers 31:21 And Elazar the priest said ... "This is the statute of the Torah that the L-rd commanded Moshe.
The armies of Israel have just fought against and defeated the Midianites. They have gathered all the plunder and spoil and brought them to the camp on the plains of Moab. Moshe is angry with the army commanders because they have not fully complied withHaShem's instructions. At this point, after Moshe has told the commanders how they must act to rectify the situation, Elazar steps forward and explains to the men of the army that all the inanimate spoil must be purified by fire or water before it and they may enter the camp, and that they themselves must wash their clothes before entering the camp even after waiting the seven days that Moshe has specified (v. 19).
Why does Elazar - the son of Moshe's brother, Aharon, the first high priest of Israel - speak at this point? Why didn't Moshe himself teach these specific but new rules for purification of the spoil and the men of the army? Is this a slur upon Moshe, or is Elazar stepping forward to clarify the fine detail of an already outlined policy?
Rashi explains that Elazar had to speak because Moshe was angry. Quoting two previous examples of Moshe being angry - "And [Moshe] was angry with Elazar and Itamar, the surviving sons of Aharon" (Vayikra 10:16), because they and their father had not eaten the sin offering in the sanctuary, and "Then Moshe and Aharon gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, 'Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?'" (B'Midbar 20:10, ESV), when Moshe struck the rock rather then speaking to it - Rashi cites the Sifre commentary to say that "Moshe erred because of anger" (Sifre B'Midbar 157). Jacob Milgrom confirms the early rabbinic commentary but also adds that an alternative rabbinic opinion is that this incident revealed Moshe's virtue: already, while he (Moshe) was still alive, he wished the right of making ritual decisions to be conferred upon Elazar, so that it could not be challenged after his death.
The phrase - the statute of the Torah - only appears twice in the Hebrew Scriptures, here and some chapters earlier in B'Mibdar 19:2, where the whole of the six word block "This is the statute of the Torah that the L-RD commanded" is repeated at the start of the enigmatic ritual of the Red Heifer. In that passage, HaShem is speaking to Moshe and Aharon and goes on to cover the rules for ritual purity and impurity after contact with corpses. Elazar's words above concern the purity of people and things after battle, when essentially contact with corpses is again the issue, so that his speech on this occasion could be interpreted as simply an application or detailed exposition of the earlier rules rather than new regulations given directly through Elazar, effectively by-passing Moshe. The Samaritan Pentateuch even adds some words at this point to avoid any implied slight to Moshe.
Elazar is, in fact, simply fulfilling an important role that HaShem has appointed for the priests: that of observing and teaching the rules of ritual purity. Immediately after two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu, have died when bringing "strange fire" before the L-rd, Aharon is instructed "You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the L-RD has spoken to them by Moshe" (Vayikra 10:10-11, ESV). This function is confirmed by the prophet Ezekiel: "They shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean" (Ezekiel 44:23, ESV). This role of the priests appears in the rules for dealing with people afflicted with tzara'at, where only the priest has the authority to pronounce clean or unclean. Moshe also places the priests in the position of arbitrators for the whole nation in difficult cases that cannot be decided by local magistrates sitting in the city gates: "you shall promptly repair to the place that the L-RD your G-d will have chosen, and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem. When they have announced to you the verdict in the case, you shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place that the LORD chose, observing scrupulously all their instructions to you" (D'varim 17:8-10, JPS).
Within the Body of Messiah there is a need for similar roles. To enable the Body to function, Yeshua "gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers" (Ephesians 4:11, NASB) so that we may grow up and be conformed to the image of Yeshua (vv. 14, 15). Similarly, Rav Sha'ul urged the Corinthian community to take responsibility for their own legal affairs inside the community: "Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?" (1 Corinthians 6:1, NASB). Decisions and disputes within the community must be handled internally: "Is it possible that there isn't one levelheaded person among you who can make fair decisions when disagreements and disputes come up? I don't believe it. And here you are taking each other to court before people who don't even believe in G-d!" (v. 5, The Message). The teachers teach the people the standards and rules that believers are called to obey so as to be holy as G-d is and has called His people to be; the elders and leaders of the church, if necessary, constitute a bench or court to arbitrate between sincerely held opinions in love. But, Sha'ul insists, having court cases at all still misses the point: "These court cases are an ugly blot upon your community. Wouldn't it be far better to just take it, to let yourselves be wronged and forget it? All you're doing is providing fuel for more wrong, more injustice, bringing more hurt to the people of your own spiritual family" (vv. 7-8, The Message).
The dispute procedure that Yeshua outlined for the disciples has a private discussion between the two affected parties as its first step: "If your brother commits a sin against you, go and show him his fault - but privately, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother" (Matthew 18:15, CJB). The emphasis is on teaching: the offended is to teach the offender what the offence has been; in private so that no-one else will see or hear and cause embarrassment or reputation to become a factor in the matter. Yeshua's words are not far from a restatement of the Torah - "Do not hate your brother in your heart, but rebuke your neighbor frankly, so that you won't carry sin because of him" (Vayikra 19:17, Bibel(CJB)) - with the aim of bringing not just dispute resolution, but relationship restoration; not winning the argument against your enemy, but winning back a brother. When a brother sees that you love him enough to confront and teach him without causing him any loss of face, then you will win through the offence to be truly united: "Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!" (Psalm 133:1, ESV). It is only in the case of persisting disagreement or recalcitrance that the next step is needed: "If he doesn't listen, take one or two others with you so that every accusation can be supported by the testimony of two or three witnesses" (Matthew 18:16, CJB), with the emphasis on witnesses coming directly from the Torah: "A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established" (D'varim 19:15, ESV). Why does this matter? Because it protects both parties in the dispute! Not only do the witnesses have to agree that the offence is substantive, but that you have made every effort to resolve it and that the offender's side of the argument is also heard and considered. Rav Sha'ul confirms this for the churches: "Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses" (2 Corinthians 13:1, ESV); the Greek verb 'establish' is also 'uphold', 'cause to stand' and has the same distinctive as the Hebrew verb in the Torah.
As we love our neighbours as ourselves, we are called to challenge and correct one another in love, explaining and declaring the word between ourselves to encourage one another and build each other up. Teachers provide, on the basis of tradition and under the anointing of the Spirit, a solid foundation and expert assistance when required. Disputes will happen, but we are called to settle them by bringing everyone together around the clear truth of G-d's word and in His Spirit.
Further Study: Numbers 35:30; Matthew 5:39-40
When you become involved in a dispute, are you adversarial or conciliatory
with the other people involved? Are you trying to win the argument or your
© Jonathan Allen, 2012
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© Jonathan Allen, 2012
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