Having seen the first Christmas commercial on TV last week my wife despairingly tooted: “You Anglos have a serious lack of public celebrations in the build up to Christmas, do you open your Christmas presents in England whilst we’re carving pumpkins in the US?” In England we may have become a culture craving the Christmas pudding before “the roast”. Accordingly, to the modern reader, “the roast” in Numbers, chapter seven, includes: mushy peas and soggy vegetables, scorched veggie meat, smoldering Yorkshire puddings, utensil-retardant nut loaf, and not enough gravy. There is seemingly (by modern standards) no appetite for dynamic narrative in chapter seven. Instead the reader has to endure the identical repetitive lists of tribal offerings for the sanctuary. Upon closer inspection however, our inspired text becomes a little more palatable.
Chapters seven and eight describe a continuation of Israel’s preparations at Sinai before leaving for the Promised Land. In expansion from earlier chapters the author/editor’s agenda seems to focus on the sitz en leben of the sanctuary at the heart of the community, the purpose it serves, and the function of the Levites within Israelite society. The Sanctuary was now at the heart of the community, instead of being: “far off from the camp” (see Exodus 33.7-11).
Although not explicit to Numbers, one can draw the idea that the people were in some part, as described in Exodus 12.38: "a mixed crowd". This "band of survivors" still seem a little way from becoming a united people. Perhaps the tribal offerings of chapter seven encouraged greater social congruity through common action. Yet Israel’s setting: bemindba or “in the wilderness”, in their cultural understanding seems tied to the idea of chaos, which is precisely the state, God is seemingly leading them out of.
The first gift to be brought, the six: ‘עֶגְלֹת צָב’ `eglah tsab, which is quite literally a turtle wagon, meaning a “covered wagon” was a gift of necessity for a journey with a mobile sanctuary. The preceding narrative follows seventy-seven verses of identical accounts of each tribe’s gifts for ritual. Despite the sapless account of identical offerings, this section was probably intended for public reading, expressing the generosity, but also the parity of the tribes in their giving, thus engendering a spirit of equality. This is matched by the ceremonial order which is not by age or importance, but by the regimental order set out in chapter two. The gifts themselves are certainly generous by ancient standards, and this is not the only account of temple offerings in the Torah. The silver alone amounted to 2400 Shekels, (and if a Temple Shekel weighed 10 grams) is equivalent to 24 Kilograms of Silver or 52 lb 91 oz, which is roughly a third the weight of an average man in the UK. The gold amounting to 120 Shekels is equivalent to 1.2 Kilograms or 2 lb 65 oz. The livestock numbering 312 animals in total also pointed to a considerable contribution, important in light of the lust for meat in Numbers 11.4. The Israelites made a significant sacrifice. Thus the inauguration of the sanctuary was characterized by considerable, coordinated lay support.
Offering is followed by encounter in this passage of Scripture; Moses hears the voice of God from above the mercy seat, between the cherubim as promised in Exodus 25.22. This hidden and guarded manifestation of God’s presence in the sanctuary parallels the idea of the universe as a sanctuary. As John H. Walton posits in his book The Lost World of Genesis One: “In the biblical text the descriptions of the tabernacle and temple contain many transparent connections to the cosmos. This connection was explicitly recognized as early as the second century A.D. in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, who says of the tabernacle: ‘every one of these objects is intended to recall and represent the universe.’”… a little further Walton continues: “the courtyard represented the cosmic spheres outside of the organized cosmos (sea and pillars). The antechamber held the representations of lights and food (provided by God). The veil separated the heavens and earth – the place of God’s presence from the place of human habitation.” (pp. 81-82)
God’s presence was to be guarded by the Levites (see Numbers 3.10, 3.28, 8.19). Apart from Moses, and the high priest during the Day of Atonement, (with the exception of 2 Chronicles 5.7) the most holy place was inaccessible to anyone else, although God’s presence was observable in the cloud and fire, and his advice could be sought on occasions for enquiry (see Numbers 5.16, 27.21). This is amplified by the Israelites question in Exodus 17.7: “Is the Lord among us or not”.
The Levites were not only to be a safety measure (as their cities became in the subsequent narrative Numbers 35.6), but to function as curators of the sanctuary. This further definition of social roles parallels the Genesis creation account where God delineates between light and darkness, water from water, land from water, day from night, male from female, common from Holy time, for the function or purpose it was to serve in the new order God had created. Thus the Genesis creation antecedes the new social, ethical and vocational order God wished to bring in the chaotic desert, for the Israelites, on their journey to the Promised Land. Thus the Inauguration of the Sanctuary is characterized not only by lay support, but by Levite ordination.
So how is the content of Numbers used in the New Testament? The New Testament picks up on the significance of the priestly role and applies it to Jesus in a number of ways: The practice of ceremonial washing, the starting age of a priest, the blood of the sacrifice, the role of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, and the ability of the High Priest to pass into the most Holy place.
So how does this seemingly monotonous selection of Scripture speak to us today, culturally separated by thousands of years of history? As symbolized in the sanctuary veil, and the role of the Levites in protecting it, God’s presence seems hidden from us, and we may well cry out like the Israelites: “Is the Lord with us or not”? God’s domain seems unreachable. We crave the ‘Christmas pudding’, whilst having to put up with the “Christmas roast”. Like the Israelites in the wilderness sometimes our emotional, physical, mental and spiritual lives seem dried up. Yet, even in the wilderness God seeks to bring order to our chaotic lives. Despite not having physical access to the most Holy Place, we are given instruction and guidance from God, and we can see the results of God’s leadership in our lives and in the lives of others. The ordering of Israelite society, the coordinated offerings of chapter seven, help in drawing the community together through a common purpose, as does our church when it seeks to serve God and its community. Thus we have a responsibility to be faithful to the function God gives us in our family, church, community, and vocation.
While we as Christians are caught between fulfillment and consummation we can have confidence that there is one who stands on our behalf in the presence of God, like Moses or the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. And if Christ, possessing human attributes can stand in the presence of God, can we not hope that one day we will experience the same?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1901