Image from The Book of Numbers by Francysk Skarynaб, printed in 1519, currently in the Library of Vilnius, Lithuania

In Chapter 4, God asks Moses and Aaron to go to the Levites and within them, identify all the men ages 30-50 of the Kohathite, Gershonite and Merarite clans. These men now comprise a sort of ‘holy moving men’ brigade, with each clan’s members responsible for handling different parts of the Tabernacle when they travel. When God tells the Israelites they’re to start walking to the Promised Land, Aaron and his priestly sons are to cover all the furnishings and the ark of the covenant with special cloths, so that none of the others will be able to touch anything with their hands.

The Kohathite men are to handle and carry the interior furnishings – but not look directly at them or touch them without their being covered with cloths, or they’ll die. They have the hardest job. The Gershonite men are to carry the Tabernacle’s curtains and outer leather covering, along with all the ropes. The Merarite men are to handle and carry the framework, the crossbars, poles, pegs, what have you.

Moses and Aaron count the required men from these clans, and determine that there are 2,750 Kohathites, 2,630 Gershonites and 3,200 Merarites able to serve as the Tabernacle moving brigade, which seems like a lot. I mean, the Tabernacle’s big, but not so big it would require 8,000+ men to carry all the parts. If they spread all the items out, one by one, some men carrying one peg each, well, maybe.

Moving on to Chapter 5. God returns to some rules and regulations, as in Leviticus. He reminds everyone that those with defiling skin diseases or discharges or who are ceremonially unclean because they’ve touched dead bodies must be sent outside of the camp. He reminds everyone that those who wrong others must confess their sins and make full restitution, and if there’s no one to whom restitution can be made, they must make it to the priest.

Then God tells Moses the procedure to use to test and see if a woman has been unfaithful to her husband. It’s fascinating, for those who forget that Judaism and later Christians often had ‘mystical’ yet torturous ordeals as trials. First the husband, suspecting his wife to be unfaithful, must take the woman and a jealousy offering of barley flour to the priest. The priest then is to stand before the woman with a jar of holy water, which he then will add some dust from the Tabernacle floor. The priest will then loosen the woman’s hair and have her hold the jealousy grain offering, and they are to swear an oath. The priest requires the woman to swear that, if she has not been unfaithful she will drink the ‘bitter water’ and nothing will happen to her. BUT, if she has indeed been unfaithful, she will drink the ‘bitter water’ and it will curse her with a swollen abdomen and miscarriage if she is carrying another man’s child. Seriously. They’ll only know if the woman was unfaithful if she soon suffers a sort of abortion, which would confirm the adultery.

Things They Don’t Talk About in Sunday School: This is a trial by ordeal, called both the Ordeal of the Bitter Water or the Ordeal of Jealousy. According to additional details in the Mishnah, or collection of oral traditions explaining the Torah more fully, the woman stands in front of the priests (in later centuries, the Sanhedrin) with loosened hair as well as bare chested to symbolize the fact that she has been accused. The drink is to be holy water and dust, and there are also consequences for the man with whom the wife has been cheating, if that indeed is the case. The Rabbinical scholar Maimonides writes that if the woman dies or suffers the ‘rupture of the thigh’ [miscarriage], the adulterer will also die, wherever he is located and will also suffer the thigh rupture, although it doesn’t say if God will cause this to happen, or men will make it happen as punishment. If a woman is falsely accused, the Mishnah here says the husband will be free from blame for his jealousy, although later in Deuteronomy it says false accusations of infidelity should be punished with a fine and a whipping. Finally, the Mishnah reveals that the final cue of a woman’s innocence is that she will now conceive and give birth to a boy. Mazel Tov, I guess. The ordeal stopped being a regular function of the church when the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and hasn’t been observed since.

Taking This Further: Apparently, many modern day Jews are bothered by the idea of the seeming cruelty of the Ordeal of the Bitter Water, as there are LOTS of articles and questions about it throughout the interwebs. On Chabad.org‘s popular ‘Ask the Rabbi’ column (I do LOVE this column), Rabbi Eli Popack answers that while it sounds terrible, he can’t think of any reason why this trial would have worked against a woman, as drinking dirt water mostly likely wouldn’t cause an abortion. Rabbi Adam Mintz relates that in reality, few women would have had to go through the Ordeal, as witness testimony would have been required against the woman before it got this far, and usually if there were witnesses the woman would eventually just confess. If the woman actually went so far as to drink the ‘bitter waters,’ it was probably a very clear sign that she was innocent. Neither of these answers works for me in explaining why God would order this sort of trial when most other judicial processes seemed to be much more logical, but then again I’m not a rabbi.

In Chapter 6, God creates a special voluntary job for some Israelites. To become what is called a Nazirite, a man or woman must take a vow requiring them for a certain amount of time to 1) abstain from all alcohol made from grapes (other types of alcohol were fine), 2) not cut their hair, and 3) not to become unclean by coming in contact with corpses or graves. When the time is up, the person makes three offerings at the Tabernacle (later the Temple): 1) a lamb for a burnt offering, 2) a ewe as a sin offering, and 3) a ram as a peace offering. They would also give a basket of unleavened bread, grains and beverages with the peace offering, which sounds nice. Then they would shave their head and place the cut hair on the same fire as the peace offering ram.

Wait, What? Unanswered Questions of the Bible. So, Chapter 6 talks a lot about how to become a Nazirite, but it never actually states why one would want to become one. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, there could be a number of reasons. One might take the vow while asking God for a wish or favor, as a way to show devotion to God while making the request, for example, if a woman or man wished for the birth of a child. Another reason involved wanting to make atonement for previous bad behavior, for example, if a woman were found guilty of the bitter water test, she could become a Nazirite for a while. Some just became Nazirites because they want to demonstrate their piety. So, could someone become a Nazirite today? Ohr Somayach’s Ask the Rabbi page (yet another one!) says no, because it involves making a sacrifice at the Tabernacle or Temple, and there isn’t either any more.

Fun Facts! So, a couple of historic Old Testament figures were Nazirites. Both Samson (from Judges) and Samuel (from 1 Samuel) were proclaimed to be Nazirites before birth, as they were both born to previously-barren mothers and went on to receive amazing gifts because of their lifelong devotion. Samson gained amazing strength (remember the long hair?), and Samuel became a prophet.

Finally, Chapter 6 ends with a rather abrupt, but pleasant, turn of topic. God suddenly turns from Nazirites to how priests should bless the Israelites: God says in verses 24 – 27:

“‘The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.’ So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”

What a lovely and to-the-point blessing. It’s no wonder it’s been used as a common benediction among Jews and Christians alike for millennia.

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