If, like me, you’re ready to wrap up all the lists and requirements and duties that the Israelites are supposed to have and do and perform, we’re almost there. Not today, but soon. I am quite ready to return to some narrative, thanks very much. I understand why all the details are presented in the Old Testament – mostly for documentation and history, and to show exactly what the Israelites were instructed, but unless one is studying to be a Jewish priest or a Rabbi or a historian, it makes for repetitive reading.
In Numbers 7, it’s still a LOT of listing, this time of the final needs and details of the new Tabernacle. The tribal heads present at the Tabernacle twelve oxen (one each) and six carts (one for each two tribes), and God tells Moses to divide them among the Levites, the Gershonites and the Merarites for their use when moving the Tabernacle across the desert. The Kohathites are to carry their things on their shoulders, no carts or oxen for them.
Then Moses tells all the tribes that God wants each to bring worthy offerings for the Tabernacle’s dedication. I will not list all the things here, frankly because I’m tired of listing all the items listed in both Leviticus and now Numbers. Suffice it to say that the tribes all give silver or gold plates, dishes and bowls filled with fine flour and oil for grain offerings, and a number of perfect livestock – goats, bulls, rams, oxen, lambs – for burnt and sin offerings. After the Tabernacle is anointed, these things were all offered as dedication. From then on, when Moses enters the Tabernacle, he hears the voice of God speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant.
Again, it’s worth pointing out that, if we modern Bible readers picture these Israelites as a poor, lonely community trudging across the hot desert with only their meagerest possessions on their backs – that image is way false. Firstly, there were hundreds of thousands of them. Secondly, all of these tribes had fine ornamental dishes made from valuable metals and were able to sacrifice 24 oxen, 72 rams, 72 male goats, 12 bulls, 12 rams, 72 male lambs (they counted them all) – and these were a drop in the bucket, able to be burnt away for the purification of the tent of meeting.
In Chapter 8, God instructs Moses on how that lampstands in the Tabernacle are to be set up, and I imagine it’s hard to tell God that he’s really being a micromanager at this point so they follow his directions.
Then God tells Moses that He’s going to set the Levites apart from the rest of the Israelites. They are to be ceremonially cleaned, and then Aaron is to present them as a wave offering so they can start doing the Lord’s work. God explains in verses 16 – 18: “They are the Israelites who are to be given wholly to me. I have taken them as my own in place of the firstborn, the first male offspring from every Israelite woman. Every firstborn male in Israel, whether human or animal, is mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set them apart for myself. And I have taken the Levites in place of all the firstborn sons in Israel.” In this way, the Levites become God’s Chosen People of God’s Chosen People.
Going Further: today, Levites in Orthodox Judaism sects continue to have additional duties rights. One of those involves being called to to the Torah first, when it is unrolled to be read out loud in a synagogue service. In addition, Orthodox Jews believe that the Temple in Jerusalem will eventually be rebuilt. There are a number of schools in Israel that even today train Levites as priests for their future respective Temple roles, so they’ll be ready for when it happens.
In Chapter 9, God tells Moses that it’s time for a Passover, and Moses tells the Israelites it’s time for a Passover. Some of the Israelites have a problem, in that they’ve recently touched a dead body and become unclean, so they don’t know what to do. Moses asks God what to do, and God tells him that if a Jew is unclean or on a journey or not able to celebrate a Passover with the community for whatever reason, they still have to do it but by themselves, following all the regulations. For those who are clean and with the community, there is no excuse not to celebrate a Passover.
Then, when the Tabernacle is finally set up and all furnishings are in their proper places, and everything is consecrated and ready to go, a cloud settles on it. It looks like a cloud by day, and like fire at night. The Israelites are to follow the cloud: if it lifts from the tent, they are to immediately pack everything up and follow it. Wherever the cloud settles, there they set up camp and settle. The verses say that sometimes the cloud settled for a long time and the community was stable, and sometimes the cloud was constantly on the go. There was no questioning, the cloud’s movement was to be followed.
Things They Don’t Talk About in Sunday School: so, in God: A Biography, a Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction book by American Biblical scholar Jack Miles, it is suggested that all the cloud and fire imagery, combined with a general focus on mountaintops throughout the Old Testament, that ancient Israelites at some point way back when might have worshiped a volcano. Make of that what you will.