Torah Study Notes 5-26-12

May 26, 2012
p. 907
GT: Why are we forbidden to count Israelites? PG: It’s a superstition but there are exceptions such as in times of war when you are marshaling troops. Life is full of dialectics like the white lie. In many languages there is a reference to one, two and many. Counting suggests a lack of faith. What then is the benefit of counting? For comparative purposes or for achieving a certain objective. This highlights the dialectic of becoming free and autonomous versus rote obedience to God. That is the process of wandering in the wilderness. What about when you need a minion? There are number of ploys to avoid counting Jews. Putting out ten prayer books is used. For another view see:
3:14 “Record the descendents of Levi by ancestral house and by clan…” This is counting for a different reason. But why the reference to one month before a child is counted? PG: This may be a reference to the taking of the first born. Prior to one month you may not have a viable human being with a chance of living to adulthood. See footnote re no funeral or mourning practices being followed. The “counting” here is really an identification of names; an accumulation of information rather than merely a number. We need to know who the individuals are who will be carrying out certain sacred functions.
3:21 The specific assignments of the Levite clans. AF: How were the Levites supported and sustained since they were not herders or farmers? PG: They were dependant in part on the daily offerings of the people but in Deuteronomy we have a sense of Levitical cities that were self-sustaining. Each of the tribes was to carve out an area for the Levites to occupy. What is the import of the number 7,500? The double zero ending indicates an approximation. Also, this could include several generations. There is a potential problem with the translation of the Hebrew word “eleph” here. It is usually translated at “one thousand” but that translation leads to very suspect totals that cannot possibly accord with the demographics of ancient Israel. See discussion at:
At the heart of the issue is the meaning of the Hebrew word eleph. It is usually translated “thousand,” but has a complex semantic history. The word is etymologically connected with “head of cattle,” like the letter aleph, implying that the term was originally applied to the village or population unit in a pastoral-agricultural society. From that it came to mean the quota supplied by one village or “clan” (Hebrew Mišpāḥā ) for the military muster (Malamat 1967: 135). Originally the contingent was quite small, five to fourteen men in the quota lists of Numbers 1 and 26, as shown by Mendenhall (1958). Finally the word became a technical term for a military unit of considerable size, which together with the use of the same word for the number 1,000 has tended to obscure its broader semantic range.
3:27 Now we have a group of 8,600 but we are again dependent on translation here. This could also be descriptive of military units. In Leviticus there is a very clear sense of a particular priestly class – that you are born into. The Deuteronomist notion is far less family based and more function based. One can become a keeper of the sacred by opting to do so and being trained. The difference is between egalitarianism – which is far less socially stable – and anti-egalitarianism. But in the long run the establishment of a hereditary priesthood can prove disastrous for a society. (LL: As it eventually did for the Jewis.) For an understanding of some of the problems associated with translating numbers see: And God Said by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman at pages 87-89.
3:38 “…any outsider who encroached was to be put to death.” This is a great cone of protection around the tabernacle.
3:40 -44 Record every first born male. The concept of redemption money. But note that a shekel is a weight and could be in grain – there is no specific reference to coins here. LL: It is interesting here that the word “redemption’ here seems to mean simply to “buy back” rather than the more fraught sense of the word used elsewhere as atoning for sins.

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1 Comment

  1. Point to 3:38 …”any outsider who encroached was to be put to death.” That’s one heck of a “no trespassing” law! Granted it’s the tabernacle, but you wonder when rules are so harsh.


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