An Hundred Thousand and Fourscore Thousand and Six Thousand and Four Hundred
Reading the Fourth Book of Moses, called Numbers, chapters 1-13
In this newsletter, I am reading the approx. 850 authors and works of Harold Bloom's Western canon, from cover to cover, from the Epic of Gilgamesh of ca. 1200 B.C. to Tony Kushner's 1991 play Angels in America. For today I’ve continued the third item on Bloom’s list, the Holy Bible.
Numbers, of the fourth book of the Christian Pentateuch and the Jewish Torah, begins by treating some of the political organization, and a little bit of political intrigue, resulting from the laws handed down by God to Moses in the latter part of Exodus and in Leviticus.
Reading the Western Canon is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
It must be remembered that the Israelites are, at this point in their history, a nomadic people, having fled Egypt and encamped in the wilderness of Sinai for a year. This insecure position the Israelites are in, besides leaving them without a reliable source of food other than the manna that God is causing to fall from the sky six days a week, makes them vulnerable to attack by foreign peoples, who could easily overrun the Israelites while they’re sitting in an unfortified camp. Furthermore, the Israelites, sooner or later, are to conduct from this decidedly precarious position their own war of conquest of the land promised by the LORD to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which is already occupied by heathens. Therefore it’s fitting that, after God’s house is erected and basic criminal, civil, and ceremonial legislation is handed down, the first political act is to conduct a census of Israelite men over the age of twenty, that is, the Israelites who would be able to fight in battle:
And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying, Take ye he sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls; From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: thou and Aaron shall number them by their armies. And with you here shall be a man of every tribe; every one head of the house of his fathers.
And these are the names of the men that shall stand with you: of the tribe of Reuben; Elizur the son of Shedeur. Of Simeon; Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai. Of Judah; Nahshon the son of Aminadab. Of Issachar; Nethaneel he son of Zuar. Of Zebulun; Eliab the son of Helon. Of the children of Joseph: of Ephraim; Elishama the son of Ammihud: of Manasseh; Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur. Of Benjamin; Adiban the son of Gideoni. Of Dan; Ahiezer he son of Ammishaddai. Of Asher; Pagiel he son of Ocran. Of Gad; Eliasaph the son of Deuel. Of Naphtali; Ahira the son of Enan. These were the renowned of the congregation, princes of the tribes of their fathers, heads of thousands in Israel.
And Moses and Aaron took these men which are expressed by their names: And they assembled all the congregation together on the first day of the second month, and they declared their pedigrees after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, by their polls.
When the census is carried out, 603,550 military-aged Israelite men will be counted, and this survey will form the basis for organizing the camp:
And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of their father’s house: far off about the tabernacle of the congregation shall they pitch. And on the east side toward the rising of the sun shall they of the standard of the camp of Judah pitch throughout their armies: and Nahshon the son of Amminadab shall be captain of the children of Judah. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were threescore and fourteen thousand and six hundred. And those that do pitch unto him shall be the tribe of Issachar: and Nethaneel the son of Zuar shall be captain of the children of Issachar. And his host, and those that were numbered thereof, were fifty and four thousand and four hundred. Then the tribe of Zebulun: and Eliab the son of Helon shall be captain of the children of Zebulun. And his host, and those that were numbered thereof, were fifty and seven thousand and four hundred. All that were numbered in the camp of Judah were an hundred thousand and fourscore thousand and six thousand and four hundred, throughout their armies. These shall first set forth.
On the south side shall be the standard of the camp of Reuben according to their armies: and the captain of the children of Reuben shall be Elizur the son of Shedeur. And his host, and those that were numbered thereof, were forty and six thousand and five hundred. And those which pitch by him shall be the tribe of Simeon: and the captain of the children of Simeon shall be Shelumiel he son of Zurishaddai. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were fifty and nine thousand and and three hundred. Then the tribe of Gad: and the captain of the sons of Gad shall be Eliasaph the son of Reuel. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were forty and five thousand and six hundred and fifty. All hat were numbered in the camp of Reuben were an hundred thousand and fifty and once thousand and four hundred and fifty, throughout their armies. And they shall set forth in the second rank.
Then the tabernacle of the congregation shall set forward with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camp: as they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards.
On the west side shall be the standard of the camp of Ephraim according to their armies: and the captain of the sons of Ephraim shall be Elishama the son of Ammihud. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were forty thousand and five hundred. And by him shall be the tribe of Manasseh: and the captain of the children of Manasseh shall be Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were thirty and two thousand and two hundred. Then the tribe of Benjamin: and the captain of the sons of Benjamin shall be Abidan the son of Gideoni. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were thirty and five thousand and four hundred. All that were numbered of the camp of Ephraim were an hundred thousand and eight thousand and an hundred, throughout their armies. And they shall go forward in the third rank.
The standard of the camp of Dan shall be on the north side by their armies: and the captain of the children of Dan shall be Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were threescore and two thousand and seven hundred. And those that encamp by him shall be the tribe of Asher: and the captain of the children of Asher shall be Pagiel the son of Ocran. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were forty and one thousand and five hundred.
Then the tribe of Naphtali: and the captain of the children of Naphtali shall be Ahira the son of Enan. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were fifty and three thousand and four hundred. All they that were numbered in the camp of Dan were an hundred thousand and fifty and seven thousand and six hundred. They shall go hindmost with their standards.
The language of this passage (mentions of armies, standards, ranks, and captains), makes it clear that Israelite society, during their time in the wilderness, was organized around war. The children of Israel lived and moved in formation, with captains at their hands and organized by regiments. The very tribes of Israel were structured into a chain of command, with some tribes taking precedence over others, at least in respect to which tribes had camps named after them: thus the camp of Judah also includes the tribes of Issachar and Zebulun, the camp of Reuben the tribes of Simeon and Gad, the camp of Ephraim the tribes of Gamaliel and Benjamin, and the camp of Dan the tribes of Asher and Naphtali. The movements of the tribes will even be directed by trumpet:
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Make thee two trumpets of silver; of a whole piece shalt thou make them: that thou mayest use them for the calling of the assembly, and for the journeying of the camps. And when they shall blow with them, all the assembly shall assemble themselves to thee at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And if they blow but with one trumpet, then the princes, which are heads of the thousands of Israel, shall gather themselves unto thee. When ye blow an alarm, then the camps that lie on the east parts shall go forward. When ye blow an alarm the second time, then the camps that lie on the south side shall take their journey: they shall blow an alarm for their journeys. But when the congregation is to be gathered together, ye shall blow, but ye shall not sound an alarm.
It will have been noticed that the Levi tribe was not included in the survey of military-aged men; that’s because the Levites have been assigned the job of ministering to God in the tabernacle and moving the ark, the tent, the furniture, the altar, and the parts of the courtyard from place to place as the LORD, in the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, moves about the wilderness and the Israelites follow him. Male Levites aged one month and older are counted in a separate census, with the total coming to 22,000, and it is commanded by God that the duties of the Levities shall be assigned according to clan, each clan being made up of the descendants of one of the sons of Levi, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. The Kohathite males aged thirty to fifty are tasked with transporting the ark of testimony, the table, the candlestick, the golden altar, the bronze altar and all the accessories of this furniture, even the ashes from the altars where incense or offerings were burned, but not without Aaron and his sons’ first covering these objects with badgers’ skins and cloths and blue, crimson, or purple, for touching any of these sacred objects directly would be fatal for the children of Kohath. Gershonite males aged thirty to fifty have the burden of carrying the curtains of the tabernacle, the tabernacle’s badger-skin covering, the tabernacle’s door, the courtyard’s hangings, and the courtyard’s gate. The sons of Merari must carry the boards, bars, and pillars of the tabernacle, as well as the pillars of the courtyard and everything used to hang to hang up the textiles that form the courtyard and tent of meeting. Only Aaron and his descendants1 are tasked with actually performing the sacrifices and ministering to the LORD; the rest of the Levites merely assist the priests by schlepping God’s house and his furniture around the wilderness, but this job is so important it exempts all Levies from military service. After all, if God is not properly attended to, he will curse the Israelites and military defeat will be all but assured.
When the census of the Levite males is taken, there is an interesting passage where the law stating that all firstborn males are dedicated to God is repealed, or at least modified, by having the Levites and their livestock take the place of the firstborn Israelites and animals in the other tribes:
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Take the Levites from among the children of Israel, and cleanse them. And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purifying upon them, and let them shave all their flesh, and let them wash their clothes, and so make themselves clean. Then let them take a young bullock with his meat offering, even fine flour mingled with oil, and another young bullock shalt thou take for a sin offering. And thou shalt bring the Levites before the tabernacle of the congregation: and thou shalt gather the whole assembly of the children of Israel together: and thou shalt bring the Levites before the LORD: and the children of Israel shall put their hands upon the Levites: and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the LORD for an offering of the children of Israel, that they may execute the service of the LORD. And the Levites shall lay their hands upon the heads of the bullocks: and thou shalt offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering, unto the LORD, to make an atonement for the Levites. And thou shalt set the Levites before Aaron, and before his sons, and offer them for an offering unto the LORD. Thus shalt thou separate the Levites from among the children of Israel: and the Levites shall be mine. And after that shall the Levites go in to do the service of the tabernacle of the congregation: and thou shalt cleanse them, and offer them for an offering. For they are wholly given unto me from among the children of Israel; instead of such as open every womb, even instead of the firstborn of all the children of Israel, have I taken them unto me. For all the firstborn of the children of Israel are mine, both man and beast: on the day that I smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them for myself. And I have taken the Levites for all the firstborn of the children of Israel. And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and to his sons from among the children of Israel, to do the service of the children of Israel in the tabernacle of the congregation, and to make an atonement for the children of Israel: that there be no plague among the children of Israel, when the children of Israel come nigh unto the sanctuary.
Alongside the legislation, promulgated at about the same time, regarding real sacrifice of animals to God outside the tabernacle, we have this figurative “offering” of the Levites by the Israelites that symbolically fulfils the God’s demand for the firstborn of every Israelite and of every animal living among them. In the history of the Israelites as given in the Pentateuch, it’s striking how quickly the ceremonies that the LORD institutes for the children of Israel to practice become sublimated: in addition to this symbolic sacrifice of the Levites, consider the requirement at the end of Leviticus that the Israelites who have been cursed and exiled by God for their disobedience confess and repent of their sins. We have to keep in mind that the Pentateuch is probably not a contemporaneous account of Moses and the founding generations of the Israelite nation2, so these sublimations are to some extent the results of Israelites of future generations writing their own religious innovations into the story of their religion’s founding, but this stacking of more and less literal interpretations of the same ceremonial laws in the documents chronicling the founding of the Israelite religion would give pretext for even more radical reinterpretation of the same material in future centuries.
When God and Moses are organizing Israelite society, the people are generally described as doing exactly what God had commanded to be done, but later in Numbers we begin to see dissatisfaction with the leadership of the LORD and his servant Moses. Chapter 11 tells of the Israelites’ tiring of eating nothing but manna3 every day, reminiscing about the fish and the “cucumbers, and the melons and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick” that they used to eat in Egypt, and demanding meat. I’m a little puzzled by the demand for meat, because the Israelites clearly have enough oxen, sheep, and goats to perform all the ceremonies the LORD has instituted, including daily burnt offerings, and plenty of grain on top of that, not to mention the pigeons and turtledoves that the poor are to offer in the stead of larger animals, but I guess the children of Israel aren’t so flush with livestock that they can afford to slaughter and eat an animal whenever they please. At any rate, Moses is exasperated by the Israelites’ complaining and even longs for death:
And Moses said unto the LORD, Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they weep unto me, saying, Give us flesh, that we may eat. I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.
God once harassed the Egyptians by sending them multiple waves of pests that overwhelmed their home, and now God sends the Israelites a plague of quails:
And there went forth a wind from the LORD, and brought them quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, as it were a day’s journey on this side, and as it were a day’s journey on the other side, round about the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth. And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails: he that gather least gathered ten homers4: and they spread them all aboard for themselves round about the camp.
God has supplied the Israelites all the meat they could ask for, but the children of Israel will very soon regret their insolent dissatisfaction with God’s manna:
And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague.
Even Moses’ inner circle is not entirely satisfied: Aaron and Moses’ own sister Miriam5 take issue with Moses’ wife:
And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian6 whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman. And they said, Hath the LOD indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the LORD heard it. (Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.) And the LORD spake suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam, Come out ye three unto the tabernacle out of he congregation. And they three came out. And the LORD came down in the pillar of the cloud, and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam: and they both came forth. And he said, Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?
Moses is in a category above mere prophets: while men like Jacob and Joseph received visions and dreams from God, by which they were shown truths hidden to everyone else, God talks to Moses directly, using plain language when others might receive riddles, and, while perhaps not beholding God in his person, at least see the “similitude” or the “form” of the LORD. For questioning Moses’ unique status among men, Miriam is punished with leprosy and is forced to live outside the camp for seven days. For whatever reason, Aaron is not punished.
Discontent also surfaces when Moses sends spies, one man from each of the twelve tribes, chiefly Caleb of the tribe of Judah and Jehoshua of the tribe of Ephraim, to do reconnaissance on Canaan and determine whether it can be conquered. When the spies return, they give this report:
We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and his is the fruit of it. Nevertheless the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak there. The Amalekites swell in the land of the south: and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, dwell in the mountains: and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and by the coast of Jordan.
Caleb is confident the Israelites can conquer Canaan and urges them to immediately invade the land, but the other spies are less sure:
But the men that went up with him said, We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land hat eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. And there we saw the giants, he sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sigh as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.
The Israelites are dismayed by the majority report of the spies, and the fear it strikes in them will have life-changing consequences for Moses and many of the children of Israel currently encamped in the wilderness. These consequences will be seen in the latter part of Numbers, which I will read next week.
Aaron, and Moses, happen to be sons of Kohath but for the purposes of this division of labor Aaron and Moses are treated as a separate clan.
The traditional dating of Moses’ departure from Egypt is, I think, 1300 B.C., but the editors of my Oxford Annotated Bible, with some reason, given the clear allusions to future exile, date much of the Pentateuch to shortly after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 597 B.C.
“The manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium” - 11:7
The editors of my Oxford Annotated Bible note that ten homers is equivalent to 230 liters!
Or possibly Aaron’s sister as in Exodus 15:20.
The New Revised Standard Version has “Kushite,” and the editors of my Oxford Annotated Bible note that a Kushite could be either an Ethiopian or a Midianite, so this “Ethiopian woman” could really be Moses’ wife Zipporah whom he met while a fugitive in Midian, but the Israelites were not required to be monogamous and Moses’ controversial wife could easily be another woman entirely.