This is the 4th book of the Torah, and whereas Vayikra was mostly ordinances and regulations, this book is more historical, although we do have the laws about wearing tzitzit, the regulations regarding jealousy, the Red Heifer, the menorah and Nazarite vows.
The name “Numbers” comes from the Septuagint and is (probably) based on the beginning of this book recounting the counting, so to speak, of the Israelites that are old enough for war, and also of the Levites old enough to serve with the maintenance and moving of the Tent of Meeting.
It is interesting to me that there are census takings that are commanded by God and there are census takings that are forbidden by God. The census in the desert (there were two of them) were at God’s command, but when David took a census (2nd Samuel 24) it resulted in severe punishment. Why? What was the difference? I think it is because when God commanded it He did it to establish something that served His purposes, but when David took it the purpose was selfish, and centered in confirming his own power and rulership instead of trusting to God to win the battle.
I also find it interesting that these numbers, from the leaving of Egypt , in the desert and when coming to the Land, are so very close to each other. It’s like God knew just how many people could be supported, and even though He could have supported any number of people He wanted to, the number of the Children of Israel seems to remain stable throughout the 40 years they travel.
This Parashah tells us the number of members in each tribe, their positioning when encamped and their order of travel when they are moving. It also shows us how God positions the Levites between Himself (the Tabernacle) and the people, which was to protect the people from themselves, since we already saw Abihu and Nadab destroyed by acting unrighteously before God. God knew the foolishness of the people and so to prevent them from coming into the holy area and dying, He positioned the Levites to keep the people away. Just as the commandments separate the holy from the unholy, the Levites kept the unholy people separate from the holy God.
I would like to think that this can also represent the opposite for us, today: we who worship the Lord are to between God and the world, not as a blockade but as a bridge to bring them together.
God reminds Moses (in Chapter 3) that the firstborn belong to him, and here the Levites serve another purpose: they are not just to serve God but to represent the people as their firstborn. There is a census of the firstborn of the Levites, which is substitutionary for the entire nation’s first born sons.
The idea that the firstborn belong to God goes against the familial system at that time. Back then, the firstborn inherited a double share, and usually was the leader of the family. If the firstborn belongs to God, then the next in line ends up leading and inheriting. And we see this a lot: Jacob was second born, Ephraim was second born, and David was way down the line. The cultural norms mean nothing to God, so we should remember this when we are torn between what the world says is right and what God says is right.
The beginning of this book is a little boring, what with all the numbers and such. This tribe has this many, that tribe has that many, but these numbers and the fact that they are given here means something. What, I don’t know, but it means something. There isn’t anything in the bible that doesn’t have a meaning for us; after all, it is the Word of God and we are told that His Word never returns void. Just because we don’t understand or see the meaning of something doesn’t mean it isn’t important to read and know. One day the Ruach may lead us to an understanding that we never had before. I know that I have read the bible many times, front to back, and each time I do I get a new meaning from things I never even saw before.
Reading the bible is like digging for gold: at first, you see nothing but rock, but you keep digging. Soon you hit some gold, which you can now recognize because you have seen so much rock you now can easily see the difference when gold is present. And as you keep digging, you start to recognize other things in the rock, which before you only saw as rock. You can see fossils, specks of nickel and iron, and the more you dig the more you uncover what has always been there for you to see but, until you saw it often enough, couldn’t recognize it for what it is.
The more we read the bible, and the more we allow the Ruach (Spirit) to lead our understanding, the more we will see that which God has for us to learn.