When you set up
by Mark Huey
Once the dedication of the Tabernacle was completed by the twelve tribal offering sacrifices, as described in Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89) last week, the continuing narrative found in B’ha’alotkha now turns to a series of specific instructions, as the Israelite entourage was properly prepared for its desert sojourn. But before detailing a variety of specific commands, which each intensify how Ancient Israel was to function as an orderly and dignified society, the opening verses remind the reader of the seven-branched menorah or lampstand, and its function representing illumination from the Almighty:
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, the seven lamps will give light in the front of the lampstand.”’ Aaron therefore did so; he mounted its lamps at the front of the lampstand, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. Now this was the workmanship of the lampstand, hammered work of gold; from its base to its flowers it was hammered work; according to the pattern which the LORD had showed Moses, so he made the lampstand” (Numbers 8:1-4).
Here, before the Israelites embark on their trek, readers might take the light emanating from the menorah to be a reminder that it was ultimately the presence of the Lord, first described in Exodus 25:32-40, that would illumine and guide their path. In various ways, the seven-branched menorah can be pictured as a guiding light, which is more fully described by the Prophet Isaiah, who spoke about the coming Messiah, who would have all of the gifting required to justly guide and make rulings for people:
“Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And He will delight in the fear of the LORD, and He will not judge by what His eyes see, nor make a decision by what His ears hear; but with righteousness He will judge the poor, and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; and He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked. Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness the belt about His waist” (Isaiah 11:1-5).
Just as the menorah has seven branches, so too in Isaiah 11:1-5 do we see the Spirit of the Lord providing seven important characteristics: wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and fear. While these attributes are surely present in the ministry examples of Yeshua in the Gospels, they have surely also been required for God’s people in their service to Him since Ancient Israel’s journey in the wilderness. God’s instructions, given to Israel in the Torah, are to be a lamp to the feet and a light to the path (Psalms 119:105). Yet as we read the Torah and Tanakh, there is a definite challenge for Israel to function as a light to the nations at large (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6), helping to reveal God’s goodness and grace to others. The mission of the Messiah Yeshua was specific, in that He came to not only restore the tribes of Jacob, but also see His salvation spread to the entire world:
“He says, ‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
In order for God’s people to live forth this same calling—of helping to see Israel restored and salvation spread to the entire world—there are multiple challenges that must be overcome, both individually and corporately.
With some of this in mind, as we turn back to our Torah portion, let us consider how the Lord gave specific instructions to separate out the Levites, as a unique ministering segment of the population to handle the duties associated with the Tabernacle and its transport. Here, one finds an explanation for the Lord applying the principle of the firstborn being dedicated to Him, by employing all of the Levites in His service:
“Aaron then shall present the Levites before the LORD as a wave offering from the sons of Israel, that they may qualify to perform the service of the LORD. Now the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls; then offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the LORD, to make atonement for the Levites. You shall have the Levites stand before Aaron and before his sons so as to present them as a wave offering to the LORD. Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the sons of Israel, and the Levites shall be Mine. Then after that the Levites may go in to serve the tent of meeting. But you shall cleanse them and present them as a wave offering; for they are wholly given to Me from among the sons of Israel. I have taken them for Myself instead of every first issue of the womb, the firstborn of all the sons of Israel. For every firstborn among the sons of Israel is Mine, among the men and among the animals; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them for Myself. But I have taken the Levites instead of every firstborn among the sons of Israel. I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and to his sons from among the sons of Israel, to perform the service of the sons of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement on behalf of the sons of Israel, so that there will be no plague among the sons of Israel by their coming near to the sanctuary.’ Thus did Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the sons of Israel to the Levites; according to all that the LORD had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so the sons of Israel did to them. The Levites, too, purified themselves from sin and washed their clothes; and Aaron presented them as a wave offering before the LORD. Aaron also made atonement for them to cleanse them. Then after that the Levites went in to perform their service in the tent of meeting before Aaron and before his sons; just as the LORD had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so they did to them” (Numbers 8:11-22).
In many regards, the separation of the Levites in the Torah, for Ancient Israel—may be regarded as a foreshadowing of a similar distinction expected of all men and women who are called into the marvelous light of salvation in Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ). While born again Believers are not at all to be regarded as being Levitical priests, they nevertheless are to all function in the same sort of priestly service that the Ancient Israelites had, declaring God’s goodness and demonstrating His grace and mercy—obviously manifested in the atoning work of Yeshua—to the sinful world:
“Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Yeshua the Messiah. For this is contained in Scripture: ‘BEHOLD, I LAY IN ZION A CHOICE STONE, A PRECIOUS CORNER stone, AND HE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED’ [Isaiah 28:16]. This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve, ‘THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, THIS BECAME THE VERY CORNER stone’ [Psalm 118:22], and, ‘A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense’ [Isaiah 8:14]; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. But you are A CHOSEN RACE [Isaiah 43:20, LXX], A royal PRIESTHOOD [Exodus 19:6; Isaiah 61:6], A HOLY NATION [Exodus 19:6], A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION [Isaiah 43:21, LXX; Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 4:20; 7:6; 14:2], so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY [Hosea 2:23]. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God” (1 Peter 2:1-16).
As living stones which compose a spiritual house for the Most High, born again Believers are to be committed servants of God—in a similar manner to how the Levites were originally separated out to serve Him. (Obviously, we have to remember how the Levitical priesthood was established to be a very specific institution, and the Levites specific priestly calling is a bit different than the general priestly calling upon God’s people.) Perhaps each of us can take some direction from the author of Hebrews, who comments on how the people of God are to look beyond this temporal world, to the restored Kingdom of God and Heavenly realm:
“All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:13-16).
Returning to our Torah portion, it is asserted that the primary years, of physical service for the Levites, should be between the ages of twenty-five and fifty—although the senior years of wisdom from the older Levites can be offered in an assistant capacity:
“Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘This is what applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall enter to perform service in the work of the tent of meeting. But at the age of fifty years they shall retire from service in the work and not work any more. They may, however, assist their brothers in the tent of meeting, to keep an obligation, but they themselves shall do no work. Thus you shall deal with the Levites concerning their obligations” (Numbers 8:23-26).
Later in the Apostolic Scriptures, Paul would inform both Timothy and Titus something similar, as they were to respect the input and influence of the older men and women in the assembly (1 Timothy 5:1-2; Titus 2:2-8).
One of the most important principles seen in B’ha’alotkha is seen in the emphasis on how the Ancient Israelites were to follow the cloud that hovered over the Tabernacle. There was a definite need for dependence on the Divine guidance of the Holy One, and many people today surely take instruction from looking at how the people of Israel moved when the Lord directed them, and consequently how any of us should be discerning to know His will for our lives:
“Now on the day that the tabernacle was erected the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony, and in the evening it was like the appearance of fire over the tabernacle, until morning. So it was continuously; the cloud would cover it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. Whenever the cloud was lifted from over the tent, afterward the sons of Israel would then set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the sons of Israel would camp. At the command of the LORD the sons of Israel would set out, and at the command of the LORD they would camp; as long as the cloud settled over the tabernacle, they remained camped. Even when the cloud lingered over the tabernacle for many days, the sons of Israel would keep the LORD’s charge and not set out. If sometimes the cloud remained a few days over the tabernacle, according to the command of the LORD they remained camped. Then according to the command of the LORD they set out. If sometimes the cloud remained from evening until morning, when the cloud was lifted in the morning, they would move out; or if it remained in the daytime and at night, whenever the cloud was lifted, they would set out. Whether it was two days or a month or a year that the cloud lingered over the tabernacle, staying above it, the sons of Israel remained camped and did not set out; but when it was lifted, they did set out. At the command of the LORD they camped, and at the command of the LORD they set out; they kept the LORD’s charge, according to the command of the LORD through Moses” (Numbers 9:15-23).
In ancient times, the ability to communicate was not assisted by all of the technological devices now available to humanity, so the Lord established the use of the blowing of trumpets, to be employed in a variety of ways, to communicate to the population of Israel. (Do note that there is debate among Jewish examiners per the actual usage of silver trumpets, versus the shofar or ram’s horn, which will not be explored here.) The blowing of trumpets was to be employed for gatherings or movement, as well as warning signals and tools for advancements or retreats, when encountering enemies in battle:
“The LORD spoke further to Moses, saying, ‘Make yourself two trumpets of silver, of hammered work you shall make them; and you shall use them for summoning the congregation and for having the camps set out. When both are blown, all the congregation shall gather themselves to you at the doorway of the tent of meeting. Yet if only one is blown, then the leaders, the heads of the divisions of Israel, shall assemble before you. But when you blow an alarm, the camps that are pitched on the east side shall set out. When you blow an alarm the second time, the camps that are pitched on the south side shall set out; an alarm is to be blown for them to set out. When convening the assembly, however, you shall blow without sounding an alarm. The priestly sons of Aaron, moreover, shall blow the trumpets; and this shall be for you a perpetual statute throughout your generations. When you go to war in your land against the adversary who attacks you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the LORD your God, and be saved from your enemies. Also in the day of your gladness and in your appointed feasts, and on the first days of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; and they shall be as a reminder of you before your God. I am the LORD your God’” (Numbers 10:1-10).
The blowing of trumpets was to be used for a variety of important occasions, including during the appointed feasts and at the first of the month. In various ways, blowing trumpets was to function as a means to establish order within the community, as they could only be blown by designated leaders. The key for us reading today is to understand how the Lord has in the past, and will in the future, use the sound of the trumpet to warn His people on a variety of levels. Knowing this means of communication, especially in light of what is going to eventually come, is critical for us to acknowledge in view of the Second Coming (i.e., 1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16). A major Tanakh prophecy that details the future Day of the Lord is Joel 2:1-2:
“Blow a trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; surely it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness. As the dawn is spread over the mountains, so there is a great and mighty people; there has never been anything like it, nor will there be again after it to the years of many generations” (Joel 2:1-2).
Our Torah reading references a need for some local scouting knowledge, provided by the relatives of Moses’ father-in-law, so that the community of Israel could understand how they were to adequately transverse the territories they would encounter in their journey. It is here, that upon taking up the Ark of the Covenant to lead the procession, that a wonderful proclamation is made—one which is traditionally declared in the Shabbat service of the Jewish Synagogue, when the Torah scroll is brought forth to be canted to the congregation:
“This was the order of march of the sons of Israel by their armies as they set out. Then Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, ‘We are setting out to the place of which the LORD said, “I will give it to you”; come with us and we will do you good, for the LORD has promised good concerning Israel.’ But he said to him, ‘I will not come, but rather will go to my own land and relatives.’ Then he said, ‘Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will be as eyes for us. So it will be, if you go with us, that whatever good the LORD does for us, we will do for you. Thus they set out from the mount of the LORD three days’ journey, with the ark of the covenant of the LORD journeying in front of them for the three days, to seek out a resting place for them. The cloud of the LORD was over them by day when they set out from the camp. Then it came about when the ark set out that Moses said, ‘Rise up, O LORD! And let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You.’ When it came to rest, he said, ‘Return, O LORD, to the myriad thousands of Israel’” (Numbers 10:28-36).
Moses confidently requests the Lord to scatter the enemies of Israel, forcing them to flee simply by putting a primary emphasis on leading the march with the Word of God. Clearly, Moses’ priorities were in the right place.
But despite having the Levites doing their work properly, with adequate communication signals, with some scouts familiar with the territory and the Ark at the vanguard of the movement of the population—there was still a propensity for a number of grumblers to complain about their new circumstances. Upon hearing the complaints, the Lord was angered to the point of sending some consuming fires to the outskirts of the camp:
“Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the LORD; and when the LORD heard it, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. The people therefore cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the LORD and the fire died out. So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the LORD burned among them. The rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.’ Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. The people would go about and gather it and grind it between two millstones or beat it in the mortar, and boil it in the pot and make cakes with it; and its taste was as the taste of cakes baked with oil. When the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall with it. Now Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, each man at the doorway of his tent; and the anger of the LORD was kindled greatly, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the LORD, ‘Why have You been so hard on Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me? Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that You should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which You swore to their fathers”? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me, saying, ‘Give us meat that we may eat!’ I alone am not able to carry all this people, because it is too burdensome for me. So if You are going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once, if I have found favor in Your sight, and do not let me see my wretchedness” (Numbers 11:1-15).
Moses was so upset with the recalcitrant, complaining Israelites, that he pleaded with the Lord by rhetorically posing a series of questions about his relationship to them, and specifically how he was going to handle the burden of leadership. In a retort reminiscent of the advice given to Moses earlier from his father-in-law (Exodus 18:13-27), the Lord commanded Moses to gather seventy elders of Israel, in order to endow them with the same Spirit that was guiding Moses, in order to share the burden of leadership:
“The LORD therefore said to Moses, ‘Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not bear it all alone. Say to the people, “Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying, ‘Oh that someone would give us meat to eat! For we were well-off in Egypt.’ Therefore the LORD will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you; because you have rejected the LORD who is among you and have wept before Him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’”’ But Moses said, ‘The people, among whom I am, are 600,000 on foot; yet You have said, “I will give them meat, so that they may eat for a whole month.” Should flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to be sufficient for them? Or should all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to be sufficient for them?’ The LORD said to Moses, ‘Is the LORD’s power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not’” (Numbers 11:16-23).
With hundreds of thousands of Israelites, the need to spread the responsibilities of leadership was critical, but the gift of meat to eat to the complainants, became a subtle form of punishment when their over consumption resulted in the meat literally spewing forth from their nostrils. Nevertheless, the Lord placed His Spirit upon the seventy elders who began to prophesy and carry some of the workload:
“So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD. Also, he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and stationed them around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again. But two men had remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the other Medad. And the Spirit rested upon them (now they were among those who had been registered, but had not gone out to the tent), and they prophesied in the camp. So a young man ran and told Moses and said, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ Then Joshua the son of Nun, the attendant of Moses from his youth, said, ‘Moses, my lord, restrain them.’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them!’” (Numbers 11:24-29).
Interestingly, the narrative, in an aside, records that Moses’ faithful servant Joshua was concerned that two of the elders were not present at the moment the Spirit was placed upon the seventy elders. In a fit of loyalty to Moses, Joshua ran to him with the news of Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp, without what he may have perceived as legitimacy derived from being in the presence of Moses when the Spirit was conveyed to the other elders. Moses actually responded with a strong indication that he desired that all of the Lord’s people would be prophets, guided by His Spirit, thus connoting that God can endow His Spirit upon whomever He desires.
Our parashah concludes with a thorough description of the incident when Miriam and Aaron challenged the leadership of Moses. From this passage and others, the Jewish Sages connected many of the issues of leprosy and the problem of the evil tongue. There was to be a commensurate punishment for this, similar to the seven-day banishment of Miriam from the encampment of Israel:
“Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman); and they said, ‘Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?’ And the LORD heard it. (Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.) Suddenly the LORD said to Moses and Aaron and to Miriam, ‘You three come out to the tent of meeting.’ So the three of them came out. Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the doorway of the tent, and He called Aaron and Miriam. When they had both come forward, he said, ‘Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, shall make Myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream. Not so, with My servant Moses, He is faithful in all My household; with him I speak mouth to mouth, even openly, and not in dark sayings, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?’ So the anger of the LORD burned against them and He departed. But when the cloud had withdrawn from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow. As Aaron turned toward Miriam, behold, she was leprous. Then Aaron said to Moses, ‘Oh, my lord, I beg you, do not account this sin to us, in which we have acted foolishly and in which we have sinned. Oh, do not let her be like one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes from his mother’s womb!’ Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, ‘O God, heal her, I pray!’ But the LORD said to Moses, ‘If her father had but spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut up for seven days outside the camp, and afterward she may be received again.’ So Miriam was shut up outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on until Miriam was received again. Afterward, however, the people moved out from Hazeroth and camped in the wilderness of Paran” (Numbers 12:1-16).
Thankfully, Moses had a sincere love for his sister Miriam, and he interceded for her with the Lord in order to restore her to the camp after the affliction of leprosy abated, which He did. This is a tremendous example for how, despite the lamentable presence of many problems in assemblies of God’s people—it is critical that prayerful intercession for those in sin, can still be restored through God’s grace and mercy. Without going into all of the consequences of a sin like speaking ill of someone, suffice it to say, the wise admonition derived from these episodes can be summed up in the ancient adage, “If you do not have something good to say about someone else, do not say anything at all!” This can also include the use of sarcasm, when trying to more subtly put someone down, by expressing what is in the heart by trying to make it seem humorous. Sarcasm is not a fruit of the Holy Spirit!
This lengthy parashah of B’ha’alotkha contains considerable wisdom that each of us should take to heart, as we reflect upon the desert sojourn of the Ancient Israelites, and seek to be instructed by the Lord. Ultimately, we should each understand how Moses was depending on the Almighty for His Divine guidance, throughout each of the circumstances described. He modeled a sincere faith in the Lord, and turned to Him consistently for how to handle the difficulties of his leadership role. He had difficult tasks to face, and a service to perform that few in the history of God’s people since have had to accomplish. And so, in whatever capacity we serve the Lord and His Kingdom—let us appeal to Him and let Him direct us, so that we can bring honor and glory to Him and His purposes.
 For some adjacent thoughts, consult the author’s article “God’s ‘Mah Tovu’ Requirements,” appearing in the July 2009 issue of Outreach Israel News, as well as the exegesis paper, “The Torah Will Go Forth From Zion” on Micah 4:1-3 and Isaiah 2:2-4, by J.K. McKee.