BAMIDMAR "IN THE DESERT"
Parashat: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftorah Hoshea 2:1-22
In the Sinai Desert, Yahweh says to Moshe, conduct a census of the twelve tribes of Yisrael. Moshe counts 603,550 men of draft able age (20 to 60 years); the tribe of Levi, numbering 22,300 males age one month and older, is counted separately. The Levites are to serve in the Sanctuary, replacing the firstborn, whose number they approximated. The 273 firstborn who lacked a Levite to replace them had to pay a five-shekel “ransom” to be redeemed.
When the people broke camp, the three Levite clans dismantled and transported the Sanctuary, and reassembled it at the center of the next encampment. They then erected their own tents around it: the Kohathites, who carried the Sanctuary’s vessels (the Ark, menorah, etc.) in their specially designed coverings on their shoulders, camped to its south; the Gershonites, in charge of its tapestries and roof coverings, to its west; and the families of Merrari, who transported its wall panels and pillars, to its north. Before the Sanctuary’s entranceway, to its east, were the tents of Moshe, Aharon, and Aharon’s sons.
Beyond the Levite circle, the twelve tribes camped in four groups of three tribes each. To the east were Judah (pop. 74,600), Issachar (54,400) and Zebulon (57,400); to the south, Reuben (46,500), Simeon (59,300) and Gad (45,650); to the west, Ephraim (40,500), Manasseh (32,200) and Benjamin (35,400); and to the north, Dan (62,700), Asher (41,500) and Naphtali (53,400). This formation was kept also while traveling. Each tribe had its own nassi (prince or leader), and its own flag with its tribal color and emblem.
In the desert ("Bamidbar") of Sinai, on the 1st of the month of Iyar, one year and two weeks after the Exodus from Egypt, Yahweh speaks to Moshe. The leader of Yisrael is instructed to conduct a census of his people:
Raise the head of all the congregation of the Bnei Yisrael, by families following their fathers' houses; a headcount of every male according to the number of their names. After their families, by the houses of their fathers, by the number of names, every male by their polls.
From twenty years old and upwards, all that are fit to go out to the army in Yisrael, you shall count them by their legions you and Aharon.
Assisting Moshe and Aharon are the leaders of the twelve tribes of Yisrael. The people assemble and "declare their pedigrees after their families, after the house of their fathers." The results of the census are:
The tribe of Reuben--46,500; Simeon--59,300; Gad--45,650; Judah--74,600; Issachar--54,400; Zebulon--57,400; Ephraim--40,500; Manasseh--32,200; Benjamin--35,400; Dan--62,700; Asher--41,500; Naphtali--53,400.
And all those that were counted of the Bnei Yisrael... Six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty.
The tribe of Levi, however, was not included in this count, for they are to be "set aside," consecrated to serve in the Sanctuary. As Yahweh instructs Moshe:
Only you shall not count the tribe of Levi, nor take the sum of them among the Bnei Yisrael.
Appoint the Levites over the Tabernacle of Testimony, and over all its vessels, and over all things that belong to it. They shall carry the Tabernacle and all its vessels, they shall minister to it, and round about the Tabernacle shall they camp.
And when the Tabernacle journeys forward, the Levites shall take it down, and when the Tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up.
"Every man by his flag, shall the Bnei Yisrael camp." Each of the twelve tribes had its nassi ("prince"), a flag representing its color and emblem, and its own section in the Yisraelite camp.
The Sanctuary stood in the center of the camp, surrounded by the tents of the Levites. Beyond the Levite camp were the camps of the twelve tribes. To the east were the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulon, together comprising the greater "Camp of Judah." To the south was the "Camp of Reuben," encompassing the camps of Reuben, Simeon and Gad. To the west, Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin made up the "Camp of Ephraim." To the north was the "Camp of Dan" with Dan, Asher and Naphtali.
This formation was preserved as the people journeyed through the desert, with the Camp of Judah at the head of the procession and the Camp of Dan bringing up the rear.
Again the Torah lists the adult male population for each tribe, also tallying the total for each camp: 186,400 for the Camp of Judah, 151,450 for the Camp of Reuben, 108,100 in the Camp of Ephraim, and 157,600 for the three tribes comprising the Camp of Dan. Total: 603,550.
"And the Levites were not counted together with the Bnei Yisrael, as Yahweh had commanded to Moshe."
The Levite Census
Originally, the service in the Sanctuary was to have been performed by the firstborn, since "on the day that I smote all firstborn in Egypt, I have consecrated to Me all firstborn in Yisrael." But this privilege was taken from them when the firstborn joined in the making of the Golden Calf, and only the tribe of Levi remained loyal to Yahwehi (cf. Exodus 32:26).
Yahweh now commands Moshe to count the Levites, in order to appoint them to their specific tasks in the service of the Sanctuary. It was also necessary to know their exact number so that a transfer of the "consecration" could be made from each of the firstborn to the individual Levite who would replace him. Unlike the other tribes, the census of the Levites included children as well, beginning from the age of one month.
First to be enumerated is Aharon's family, who constituted a distinct class within the Levite tribe: they were the Kohanim ("priests"), who conducted the service in the Sanctuary.
These are the generations of Aharon and Moshe in the day that Yahweh spoke with Moshe on Mount Sinai. And these are the names of the sons of Aharon: the firstborn Nadab, Abihu, Elazar and Itamar...
And Nadab and Abihu died before Yahweh, when they offered strange fire before Yahweh, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children; and Elazar and Itamar ministered in the priest's office in the sight of Aharon their father.
The rest of the tribe of Levi served as assistants to the Kohanim and caretakers of the Sanctuary, and were divided into three clans, descendants of Levi's three sons: Gershon, Kohath and Merrari.
The Gershonites numbered 7,500 and camped on the west side of the Sanctuary. When the Sanctuary was transported, the families of Gershon were in charge of "the tabernacle roof-covering, and the tent roof-covering, the upper roof-covering, and the screen for the entrance to the Tent of Meeting; the hangings of the courtyard, the screen at the entrance to the courtyard ... its ropes, as well as all the work involved."
The families of Kohath, numbering 8,600 and pitching their tents to the Sanctuary's south, carried the Sanctuary's "vessels": "The ark, the table, the menorah, the altars and the holy vessels with which the service is performed; and the [inner] screen and all its implements."
The Merari family totaled 6,200 and camped to the Sanctuary's north. "And under the custody and charge of the sons of Merari shall be the wall-panels of the Tabernacle, its bars, its pillars, its foundation sockets, and all their implements and all that belongs to them. And the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, pegs and cords."
And camping before the Tabernacle toward the east, before the Tent of Meeting eastward, shall be Moshe and Aharon and his sons, keeping the charge of the sanctuary for the charge of the Bnei Yisrael.
Yahweh now commands Moshe to count all male firstborn in Yisrael from the age of one month and older and "take the Levite to Me--I am Yahweh--in the place of all the firstborn of Yisrael."
There were 22,273 firstborns, but only 22,000 Levites to replace them. The remaining 273 each contributed a sum of five shekels to Aharon and his sons as a "ransom." (All subsequently first-born Yisraelite male are likewise redeemed).
Covering the Vessels
When the Levites transported the Sanctuary, the most prestigious task fell to the Kohathites: on their shoulders, they carried the Sanctuary's holy vessels. But first the vessels had to be covered by the priests with special wool and leather coverings made for this purpose.
When the camp is about to travel, Aharon and his sons shall come and take down the dividing screen; with it, they shall cover the Ark of Testimony. They shall place upon it a covering of tachash skin and on top of that they shall spread a cloth of pure blue wool. Then they shall put its poles in place.
Similar coverings were made for the Table, Menorah and the two Altars, to "swallow the holies" and conceal them from non-priestly eyes.