Exclusively published to the Touchstone website each week, these Daily Reflections are brief commentaries on the lectionary readings contained in the St. James Daily Devotional Guide. The reflections are penned by Patrick Henry Reardon, editor of the Daily Devotional Guide and a senior editor of Touchstone. Father Reardon provides here a very brief directional clue for one of the texts each day. Long-time readers of the Daily Devotional Guide will find these reflections an additional help to their reading of Holy Scripture which they can print and keep with their Guide.
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Sunday, July 3
Numbers 3: We come now to the tribe of Levi, the priestly family that marched closest to the Tabernacle of the divine presence. Each division of this tribe was assigned to carry and care for specified instruments for the worship in the Tabernacle (verses 25-26,31,36-37). Like the other tribes, which were divided into four groups to form a square around the Tabernacle, the sons of Levi were divided into four to form a small square inside the larger one (verses 23,29,35,38). This arrangement itself is symmetric and related to the theme of numbers.
In this last reference (verse 38) we observe that among the sons of Levi, Moses and Aaron and his sons occupied the position of honor, to the east, nearest the tribe of Judah. This arrangement would eventually be expressed by the establishment of the Temple in the tribe of Judah, so that this latter tribe, but especially its king, would become the chosen protectors of the priesthood. This will become a large theme in the Book of Chronicles.
In this chapter too the preoccupation is with “numbers” (verses 15,16,22,28,34,39,40,42), a preoccupation carried over, at the end, to financial considerations (verses 47-50).
Discourse about Aaron's sons must include, and even start with, the tragedy attendant on the unfaithful ministry of the two oldest of those sons, Nadab and Abihu (verse 4), whose sin is recounted in Leviticus 10:1-2 and Numbers 26:61. This tragedy was a very sobering experience for Israel and served to brace the spirits of the remaining priests. For instance, when we consider the later zeal of Phineas the nephew of Nadab and Abihu, it is reasonable to think that zeal to come, in part at least, from his fearful reaction to the tragedy of his uncles. In any case, Nadab and Abihu died without offspring, leaving only Eliezar and Ithamar to carry on the Aaronic line.
This chapter reminds us that the Old Testament priesthood was one of biological inheritance, in which sons succeeded and were trained by their fathers. This ministry was one of trust and duty and included the safeguarding of the instruments and appointments for the maintenance of Israel's sacrificial cult (verse 8).
The themes in this chapter will appear in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which will contrast the inherited Aaronic priesthood and the unique, eternal priesthood of Jesus, and the earthly Tabernacle with the heavenly Sanctuary made without hands.
The Levites, the non-Aaronic members of the Levitical tribe, were “given” to assist Aaron and his sons in the ministry. This term “given,” netunim, became the name of certain ministers within the Levitical order at the time of the restoration of the Temple after the Babylonian Captivity (Ezra 2:43,58,70; 7:7,24; 8:17,20; Nehemiah 3:26,31; 7:46,60,73; 10:28; 11:3,21), but here the term appears to refer to all the Levites, who were “given” to the Lord (8:16).
Just as the first fruits of all products pertained by right to the service of God, the sons of Levi were thought of as being the first born sons of Israel and therefore pertained entirely to God's service (verses 11-12,41,45-46). This analogy suggests that there was a sacrificial quality to the lives of those who served in the sanctuary, which was the place of sacrifice.
The early Christians thought of their own order of deacons (dikonoi=”servants”) as the New Testament's correspondence to the Old Testament order of Levites (cf. Clement of Rome 40.1-5).
Monday, July 4
Numbers 4: The duties of the Levitical ministry were apportioned among their three clans. The tasks in this chapter all had to do with carrying the Tabernacle and its myriad instruments and appointment from place to place. Each time the Israelites moved away, the Tabernacle had to be disassembled and packed up, and each time Israel arrived at a new place, it was necessary to reassemble everything again.
There is an ordering among these tasks, the first place being given to the Kohathites, the descendents of Levi's second son (Exodus 6:16). The primacy of this clan was surely determined by the fact that Amram, the father of Moses and Aaron, belonged to it (Exodus 6:18,20), so it was more closely related to the priestly family itself (verses 2-4).
The task of the Kohathites was to carry the sacred vessels associated immediately with the ritual of the Tabernacle. Even this, however, they were unable to do until everything had been properly wrapped and prepared by the priests themselves, according to a very detailed prescription (verses 5-14). Only under the careful supervision of Eliezar, the older of Aaron's two remaining sons, could the Kohathites presume to carry this great burden (verse 15).
The next place in the order was held by the Gershonites, the descendants of Levi's eldest son, who were charged with carrying the various drapes, veils, and hangings of the Tabernacle (24-26). All this work was supervised by the priests (verse 27), particularly Ithamar, Aaron's younger son.
The clan of Merari, Levi's youngest son, was to carry the more solid parts of the Tabernacle, the sections made of wood and metal (verses 31-32). This task was also to be supervised by Ithamar (verse 33).
The sense of order in this chapter is consistent with the interest in numbers and proportion that we find throughout this book. As in the previous chapters, the verb “to number” or “to count” appears repeatedly. This is a book of transcribed calculations. Everything is prescribed. Everything is proportioned.
Tuesday, June 5
Numbers 5: These next two chapters give various prescriptions partly repetitious of the Holiness Code in Leviticus 17-26.
In accord with this book's concern with proportion and due order, this section begins with the “cleanliness” of the camp, the marked term referent to both hygienic and religious considerations (verses 2-4). These prescribed expulsions from the camp did not involve a removal of citizenship; those affected by it did not cease to be members of the congregation. Their condition, nonetheless, and a solicitude for the welfare of the congregation required that they be treated in a special way that involved a measure of exclusion.
The holiness and wellbeing of God's People in this world has ever required exclusionary canons of this sort, analogous to the laws of quarantine by which other societies are protected from harm. The notion of “infection” covers a wide application of pathologies, whether moral, psychological, intellectual, or physical (Cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7-13; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18; Revelation 21:27). As long as we are in this world, healthy societies will necessarily resort to censure and exclusion from time to time.
Concerns about proportion and due order also inspire the rules for repentance and restoration that follow those of exclusion (verses 5-10). We observe that such repentance and restoration also involve an open, audible confession of the offense, a confession explicit enough to determine the size of the restitution and nature of the sacrifice offered for its atonement. This confession is official, in the sense that it is received by the established priesthood. Even in the Old Testament, therefore, the priest served as a Father Confessor.
A certain affinity of symbolism may be the line between those rules of restitution and the ensuing regulations for trial by ordeal (verses 11-31). Once again the nature of the alleged offense is made known to the priest (verse 15). Indeed, the ritual itself required the use of “holy water” (mayim qedoshim-verse 17), which was mixed with the very dust from the floor of the sanctuary. The, as is clear, sanctified everything that it contained.
The woman that failed this test was punished by God Himself, evidently by the curse of barrenness (verses 27-28). There is no indication that she was stoned to death, the usual punishment for adultery proven in court (Leviticus 20:10). With respect to the elaborate ritual described here, it may be said that the narrative parts of Holy Scripture do not seem to indicate frequent recourse to it.
We may add that even this ritual was not without its interest in quantity and proportion. There is mention of a measuring device, the ephah (verse 15), which seems to have contained about seven pints.
Wednesday, July 6
Numbers 6: This chapter, the second of two containing regulations pertinent to holiness, is made up of two parts of unequal length. The first part is a collection of laws pertaining to a special consecratory vow (verses 1-21), and the second contains a prayer of priestly blessing (verses 22-27).
This chapter's consecratory vow created what Israel called a nazir, a person of either sex who was dedicated to the service of God in special way for a specified length of time. The present chapter is the only place in the Torah where this consecration is mentioned.
The nazir was “consecrated [hazir to the Lord,” in the sense that he was set apart from the normal life of men, a separation that meant holiness (qadosh-verses 5,8) and was an illustration of Israel's own consecrtion to the Lord as a special People set apart.
Characteristic of the nazir's discipline is that, like the priest in the time of his own service at the altar, the nazir refrained from drinking fermented beverages and from handling dead bodies. That is to say, during the period covered by the vow, the nazir lived a life analogous to the priesthood (verses 34,6-7).
As a sign of his consecration, the nazir's hair was not trimmed during this time covered by the vow (verse 5), a regulation that may have prompted some candidates, prior to the vow, to shave their heads (cf. Acts 21:24).
When the determined time of the nazir's vow was finished, the event was marked by appropriate and specified sacrifices (verses 13-17), follow by the shaving of the head, the hair being burned with one of the sacrifices (verse 18).
In one instance of which we know, Samson, the nazir's consecration was for life (Judges 13:2-7), a tragic instance that may suggest why it is our only biblical example, never again followed.
The priestly prayer of benediction that follows these rubrics are a general blessing, not related to the nazir (verses 25-26). It is a good and devout thing to seek the blessing of a priest. When priests bless God's people, God also blesses His people (verse 27).
Thursday, July 7
Numbers 7: This chapter, one of the longest in Holy Scripture (89 verses), covers the offerings made on behalf of Issrael’s “princes, meaning the tribal leaders” (nasi’im, the very word translated as “captains” in chapter 2). This word, an ancient and generic name for any leader of a tribal people, especially has reference to the kind of leadership exercised in the setting of the desert. Thus we find it used to designate the leaders of those who lived in the Negev Desert, such as the Midianites (Numbers 25:; Joshua 13:21) and the Arabs (Genesis 17:20 [where the number is also twelve!]). The title corresponds rather exactly to the later Arabic sheik.
These nasi’im brought the first offerings to be sacrificed after the construction of the Tabernacle was complete (verse 1), and their number, twelve, shows that the nasi’im served as representatives of the respected tribes (verses 2-3). It is instructive that the theological (and now, since Moses, political) unity of God’s People does not destroy their tribal character. Indeed, the preservation of a “tribal” identity is in some sense eternal (cf. Revelation 5:9).
These tribal offerings, made over twelve consecutive days, began with the tribe of Judah (verse 12), which, as we have had occasion to remark, already enjoyed the primacy prophesied and promised by Jacob (Genesis 49:8-12; cf. Our remarks Numbers 2:3).
The names of the nasi’im in this chapter correspond exactly to those in chapters 1 and 2. The order here, however, corresponds to the martial list in chapter 2 rather than the patriarchal ranking in chapter 1. Thus, Issachar follows Judah, and so on.
Once again, we observe in this chapter’s list of the offerings the same care for numerical precision that we have seen all along in this book. We note especially its sustained recourse to the shekel, the standard unit of weight for metals (passim, but see especially verses 84-86).
Since the offering of every tribe was identical to the others, it is reasonable to inquire why the Sacred Text goes into such repeated detail when each offering is listed. Three ideas suggest themselves in this respect. First, this is an official record, much like the list of gifts recorded in the archives of a parish church. It required exactness. Second, this attention to detail is a way emphasizing the integrity (and, apparently, equality, for all the gifts are equal) of every tribe. Third, it gives the reader the leisure to enjoy the procession as each unit, with considerable solemnity, presents itself. The literary style follows a liturgical and military manner, actually giving the reader the impression of being present. The style resembles a military muster, in the course of which each unit leader says exactly the same words as the others (“All present or accounted for, sir!”). The author is obviously not in a hurry, nor should the reader be.
At this end of this long an dimpressive procession, oses goes before the Lord in the Tabernacle to listen to His voice (qol) proceeding from the “mercy seat” (kaphorethÝcf. Exodus 25:17-22) over the Ark of the Covenant (89). As the place where the Lord gave instruction to Moses, the kaphoreth replaced the Burning Bush and Mount Sinai.
Friday, July 8
Numbers 8: The present chapter, concerned with miscellaneous regulations about the worship, begins with the subject of ritual lamps in the sanctuary (verses 2-3; Exodus 25:31-40; Leviticus 24:2-4).
The original and primary purpose of such lamps was simple illumination in enclosed areas, such as temples, not readily open to sunlight. As these lamps, nonetheless, were actually fires burning within sacred precincts, it was inevitable that a sacred significance would be attached to them.
It was inevitable, because it was perfectly human. Following the hint give by Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 3.6.7), more than one religious philosopher has remarked that a lamp or candle is simply the human substitute for a sunrise. Consequently, such a flame would naturally assume, in the human imagination, the mystic symbolisms associated with the sun itself. There are probably few religions in the world that forego the use of sacred lamps, and the Christian religion is emphatically not among them (cf. Acts 20:8).
Nor is the religion of heaven itself. Indeed, for a correct understanding of the Old Testament’s Tabernacle, it is imperative to remember that it was crafted on the heavenly model that Moses, in mystic vision, beheld when he was on the mountain (Exodus 25:40; Hebrews 8:5; 9:23). And the heavenly sanctuary, which Moses beheld on the mountain, most certainly contained (and still contains!) sacred lamps (verse 4).
These heavenly lamps, moreover, were among the first things that the Apostle John looked upon when, like Moses, he was privileged to gaze into the heavenly sanctuary (Revelation 1:12; 4:5). Furthermore, the author of Hebrews (9:2) in his description of Moses Tabernacle, spoke of these lamps before anything else.
The purifying of the Levites (verses 6-14,21) is comparable to the purification of the priests in Leviticus 8, though perhaps with less note of consecration, which was reserved for the priests. Nonetheless the Levites, like the priests, took the place of Israel’s firstborn sons (verses 14,16-18).
The age limits given here for Levitical services, 25-50 (verse 24), are discrepant with the ages given in Numbers 4:3, a discrepancy perhaps best explained as interpreting the latter text as referent to the age for military service, as distinct from sanctuary service.
Saturday, July 9
Numbers 9: We come now to Israel’s second annual celebration of the Passover (verses 1-5), a narrative corresponding to the first such celebration in Exodus 12. These two accounts differ in two ways. First, the present account is much less detailed, the details having been given already in Exodus 12.
Second, the two accounts differ in context. Whereas the prescriptions in Exodus 12 were placed in the tension of Israel’s imminent departure from Egypt (and, indeed, they even form a break in the dynamic movement of the narrative), here the treatment is set in the more ample context of the Law received on Mount Sinai. That is to say, in Exodus 12 the Passover was centralized in its historical setting. Here in Numbers 9, it is colored by its inclusion in the general preoccupation with worship.
Those whose contact with dead bodies precluded their participation in the Passover Seder were accorded permission to celebrate that feast a month later. This concession was extended to those on a journey as well (verses 6-12).
Resident aliens were permitted to observe this and other liturgical feasts of Israel, since they were also obliged to observe Israel’s weekly day of rest, the Sabbath, and Israel’s annual day of fasting, the Day of Atonement (verse 14).
During all its time in the desert Israel was guided by the pillar of cloud and fire, which was now settled over the Tabernacle (verses 15-19). Thus, God’s People was led, not only by the fixed, firm, unchanging strictures of the Torah, but also by the immediate, mysterious, and applied guidance of the God who was beyond all discernible law. Both forms of guidance were integral to the life of Israel. Both pertained to the divine “commandment,” nor did Israel recognize any possibility of conflict between them.
The divine guidance in the lives of the faithful is ever thus. At no point is God’s revealed will in conflict with the fixed and determined order by which men are ever to be governed, but also at no time is a man justified simply by observing those fixed and permanent norms of the Law. God always guides His people in these two ways.
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