Now the Levites are registered, and divided into three different clans: Kohath, Gershon and Merari. All males are counted, and adding up the numbers from each clan gives 22,300. Then the text puzzlingly declares the total to be exactly 22,000.
This is not a matter of rounding off the last three hundred, because that number is then used to calculate how many more firstborn males there are among the other tribes, than there are males in total among the Levites. (All firstborn males, including livestock, belong to God, and they have to pay five shekel each to redeem themselves. But since the Levites already belong to God, they work as substitutes for the firstborn of the other tribes.) The total number of firstborn in all the twelve tribes turns out to be 22,273. Which, in a population of more than 600,000 males, would mean that each firstborn would have to have an average of at least 30 living brothers, and presumably an equal number of sisters. I’m not sure that’s even biologically possible, unless a lot of them are twins. It would help explain, however, how the Israelites could number 600,000 males only four generations after Jacob.
The total enrollment, all the firstborn males from a month old and upward, counting the number of names, was twenty-two thousand two hundred seventy-three.
The Levites will camp around the tabernacle, with the other twelve tribes around them; one group of three tribes for each cardinal direction. Each tribe-group is lead by one of the four most powerful tribes: The east side is led by Judah’s tribe, the south by Reuben’s tribe, the west by Ephraim’s tribe (who lead the tribe of Ephraim’s younger brother Manasseh, just as Jacob predicted), and the north by Dan.
Those to camp on the east side toward the sunrise shall be of the regimental encampment of Judah by companies. The leader of the people of Judah shall be Nahshon son of Amminadab, with a company as enrolled of seventy-four thousand six hundred.
You know, I thought that the “Jews wandering through the desert” part of the Bible was over with Exodus, and that they were now just going to rush through Canaan, kill all of its inhabitants and settle there. Turns out that only a couple of years has passed since leaving Egypt, and that the real wilderness adventure starts after they set off from mount Sinai. But first they are going to sit around some more and receive instructions from God.
The English name “Numbers” comes from the census lists that God now asks Moses to create. All men of fighting age register under their ancestral tribe, each of which originates from one of the twelve sons of Jacob. The Levites don’t have to register since they are on a special, constant tabernacle duty; but Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh count as separate tribes, so twelve tribes are registered.
So the whole number of the Israelites, by their ancestral houses, from twenty years old and upward, everyone able to go to war in Israel—their whole number was six hundred three thousand five hundred fifty.
And that was basically the end of Leviticus; this chapter is probably a later addition. It concerns how much money you have to pay the priests to avoid various things being sacrificed, including firstborn animals and children. (Children, of course, wouldn’t actually be sacrificed either way, but you were still supposed to pay up.) Working-age males are most expensive, while infant females are only about one-seventh as much worth.
And if the person is sixty years or over, then the equivalent for a male is fifteen shekels, and for a female ten shekels.
In the first paragraph, God promises the Israelites abundant harvests and “peace in the land” as long as they keep their promises to God (in other words, follow all the incredibly intricate and at times contradictory rules God has laid out at length in Exodus and Leviticus).
The rest of the chapter is spent describing what will happen if the Israelites do not keep their promises. In great detail. The essence is that he will destroy their crops, make their enemies stronger, give them all sorts of weird psychological illusions (“you shall flee though no one pursues you”, “though you eat, you shall not be satisfied”, “They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though no one pursues”), and somehow force them to eat their children. Finally, he will completely destroy their land, and scatter them “among the nations”.
I would love to call this last part an eerily accurate prediction; but a more likely explanation is that this part of Leviticus (chapters 17-26) was written after the Babylonian conquest of Judeah and subsequent exile of many Jews (so sometime after 586 BC). The writer likely blamed their expulsion from God’s promised land on the Jewish people’s insolence towards God. Still, this exile only lasted for about 50 years; and yet being scattered among nations has been a pretty persistent aspect of being a Jew for the last two thousand years, since they were largely expelled from their lands by the Roman Empire in the first few centuries AD.
For these post-Roman exile Jews, God’s promise to Jews who confess and make amends for their treachery must have been something to look forward to. He promises that he will “remember the covenant”, presumably meaning they can return to their lands. This promise was eventually fulfilled last century by a different power (the UN). Too bad the “peace in the land” part hasn’t been fulfilled yet.
You shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall devour you.
Every seventh year is a “sabbath of complete rest for the land”, and everyone has to live on the previous year’s harvest until the next year.
Then, for every fiftieth year, there is a tradition I’ve never heard of: the jubilee. The jubilee basically resets Israelite society: Everyone returns to their ancestral lands, all land returns to their original owners, and all Israelite servants are freed from their contracts (as opposed to every seventh year, which was actually ordered in Exodus 21). In effect, you can only lease land (or slaves) for maximum 50 years. I thought this was a really nifty innovation. It should be a stabilizing and equalizing force in society and though it probably has lots of pitfalls, I would love to see how it turned out in practice. Unfortunately, the Oxford Bible notes inform me that there is no historical evidence of the jubilee actually having been practiced.
Everyone are also strongly encouraged not to sell (or in effect, rent out) land except in desperate circumstances, and to take it back at the first possible opportunity without waiting for the jubilee; and to help any relatives with the same.
Unfortunately, foreign slaves are not part of this jubilee tradition.
You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.
Aaron is instructed to keep a light burning in the tabernacle every night, and bread is to be brought to the priests in the tabernacle to eat.
Two guys in the crowd start a fight, ending with one of the guys cursing using God’s name. This has been prohibited several times, however the punishment for it hasn’t been spelled out yet. But considering stoning is the penalty for cursing your parents, the punishment for cursing God can hardly be any less strict, and the blasphemer is quickly stoned to death by the crowd on God’s orders.
God also uses the occasion to remind everyone of the “tooth for a tooth” rules; anyone who kills a human must die, and anyone who kills someone else’s animal must pay the victim an animal.
The Lord said to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him.