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B'Midbar/Numbers 1:53 And the Levites: they shall camp around the Tabernacle of the Testimony ... and the Levites shall guard the custody of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.
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These words come at the close of the census of the Children of Israel, organised by Moshe atHaShem's command, "On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt" (B'Midbar 1:1, NJPS). The census is to be of "the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses ... by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms" (vv. 2-3, NJPS), or as the CJB puts it: "who are subject to military service in Isra'el". This census is about armies, fighting men and therefore military capability. All the men who are counted are able to fight. By implication, the count would exclude those who were ineligible for military service: those who are ill, disabled (blind, deaf, lame, crippled), have learning difficulties or suffer from mental illness. They cannot fight.
Explicitly excluded from the military census, by HaShem's command, are the Levites: "Do not on any account enroll the tribe of Levi or take a census of them with the Israelites" (v. 49, NJPS). Since we know that the Levites are in fact counted later on, although on a slightly different basis - "by ancestral house and by clan ... every male among them from the age of one month up" (3:15, NJPS) - and for a very different purpose, this exclusion implies that the Levites cannot or do not fight. But is that true? Let's look at the text and the commentators in a little more detail and see what emerges.
The second half our our text, after the Levites are told to make their camp around the Tabernacle, uses two words from the same root - , "to keep, guard, watch over, preserve, protect, observe"1 - to explain why the Levite camp is to be placed there, to designate the function that the Levites are to carry out around the Tabernacle. The first word in the clause is the verb - the Qal affix 3mp form of the root with a vav-reversive, "and they shall keep/guard/observe" - used ten times in the legal sections of the Torah (Even-Shoshan) such as, "The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath" (Shemot 31:16, NJPS) or "and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching" (D'varim 31:12, NJPS), to describe a group or collective responsibility that needs careful and repeated action of a precautionary nature. The second word, - a feminine noun meaning literally "something that is to be kept/guarded/observed" - has a wide range of connected meanings: watch, vigil, guard, (religious) observance; duty, guard duty, shift; guardianship, custody.2
Richard Elliott Friedman says that "the Levites are to form a protective barrier to prevent anyone from violating the Tabernacle, its equipment and its functions." Dennis Olson agrees - "the Levites are to camp around the Tabernacle, forming a protective buffer zone between the tabernacle and the rest of the Israelite tribes"3 - but Thomas Dozeman sees two readings in the phrase: "One reading emphasises the cultic and religious work required of the Levites. In performing these duties, they contain the rage of G-d. Levitical service stops the divine wrath, which might otherwise destroy the camp like a fire burning out of control. Thus they encircle the Tabernacle in the camp, they carry the holy artifacts, and they care for both. Another reading emphasises the relationship of the Levites to the congregational of Israel, rather than their service to G-d. This interpretation emphasises more the role of the Levites as protectors of the sanctuary. In this case, the service of the Levites is to keep Israel from coming too near to the divine. The Levitical encampment represents a border, and their service is both border guard and customs duty."4 The border operated in both directions and protected both parties. As Jacob Milgrom puts it: "Effective guard duty will prevent the outbreak of G-d's wrath."
How was this guard duty to be done? TheRamban points out that "although this verse was said specifically about the Tabernacle set up between the standards in the desert, it constitutes a commandment for all times, including the Temple in Jerusalem. This means that they should keep guard of and patrol the Tabernacle at night." In the days of the Temple, Sifrei records that "the priests are to keep watch within [the walls] and the Levites outside," while the Mishnah adds the details that "In three places do the priests keep watch [inside] and the Levites in twenty-one places [outside] and the man in charge of the Temple Mount would go around to every watch, and lighted torches were before him" (m. Middot 1:1-2).
So do the Levites fight? Looked at in a different way, although the Levites did not fight physically in the same way as the men of the other tribes, they fight both physically and spiritually to guard/protect the tabernacle. Their guard duty would have involved warding off any intruders to the holy spaces, asIbn Ezra explains, "so that none of the Israelite community could approach the Tabernacle and die," including fighting them to the ground and killing them if necessary. They also fight on behalf of Israel to ensure that God's wrath does not flare up because of infraction of the rules about who may approach G-d and when. Although this may appear to be directed against individual Israelites, their actions are on Israel's behalf by ensuring that G-d's anger is not aroused. Gordon Wenham points out that the New Covenant Scriptures also insist upon "men approaching G-d with reverent fear" and cites Matthew 5:23-26, Acts 5:1-5, 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 and Hebrews 12:18-29 to support his argument.5
The New Covenant Scriptures can use language that sounds quite military at times, using commonplace idioms and metaphors of the day to illustrate their exhortations. Rav Sha'ul, for example, tells Timothy to "Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses" (1 Timothy 6:12, ESV), clearly showing that he consider himself and Timothy to be in some kind of battle, engaged in fighting - if nothing else - to protect and retain what has been given him. In his next letter, Sha'ul repeats the idiom, applying it to himself: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7, ESV). Writing to the Corinthian communities, Sha'ul lists the ways in which G-d is to be served, including, "by truthful speech, and the power of G-d; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left" (2 Corinthians 6:7, ESV). Followers of Yeshua carry spiritual weapons - the weapons of righteousness - to fight with both hands. Sha'ul does make it clear that, unlike the Levites, this is not physical fighting - "For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of G-d, and take every thought captive to obey Messiah" (10:3-5, ESV).
Perhaps the most well-known passage today is Rav Sha'ul's "spiritual life as warfare" metaphor in his letter to the communities in Ephesus. He instructs the followers of Yeshua to "Put on the whole armor of G-d, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:11-12, ESV). What is our purpose? Are we being offensive or defensive? Sha'ul is clear: "Therefore take up the whole armor of G-d, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm" (v. 13, ESV) Our role is to stand, to hold our place and the ground where we stand. We are called to endure and see the battle out while it rages around us, secure in the knowledge that no matter how hot the fighting becomes, our Captain - Yeshua - has already won the battle.
Like the Levites, believers are set apart from the normal fighting between men - we are told, "so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men" (Romans 12:18, NASB) - yet we are called to be active in the spiritual realm, protecting the holy things that have been entrusted to us and protecting other people from the wrath of G-d by acting as a barrier or a shield. This calls for much prayer and boldness, but G-d gives us everything we need in and through His Spirit in Messiah Yeshua.
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 470.
2. - Ibid. page 252.
3. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 17.
4. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), pages 685-686.
5. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 68.
Further Study: Romans 13:11-14; 2 Corinthians 4:2
Application: How could you actively serve as a guard and shield around the presence of G-d to protect your family, co-workers and even strangers from the wrath of God? How can you fight in the spiritual world to hold ground and, having done all, to stand and help others to stand firm in the kingdom of G-d?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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