“From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company.” (Num.1:3)
In Rabbi Sacks’ award-winning commentary on the book of Numbers, from which I will be culling nuggets over the coming weeks, he reiterates the concept of the Torah being written with a chiastic structure, which is a literary form that follows a pyramid pattern, such as A,B,C,B,A, with the apex, or climax, being in the middle.
This would suggest, according to that model, that Leviticus (as the central book) is the climax of the Torah.
The breakdown is suggested as follows: Genesis: Prologue/pre-history (A), Exodus: Journey from Egypt to Sinai (B), Leviticus: Mount Sinai (C), Numbers: Journey from Sinai to the Promised Land (B), Deuteronomy: Epilogue, or future of Israel (A)
Sacks suggests that the middle, or climax of the Torah’s story is found in the final chapters of Exodus (detailing the building of the Tabernacle), the entirety of Leviticus, and the first ten chapters of Numbers. During this period, Israel is encamped at Sinai. Before and after this central portion, Israel is on the move.
“In both books (Exodus and Numbers), the people romanticize the past, thinking of Egypt not as a land of oppression but as a place of safety where they had food and security. In both there is a major sin that threatens the entire future of the people: in Exodus, the Golden Calf, in Numbers, the episode of the spies. In both, Moses suffers under the burdens of leadership and is told to delegate…Yet there are also clear differences between the books…(such as) the nature of the journey itself. In Exodus it is a journey-from: from Egypt and slavery. It is the story of an escape. In Numbers, it is a journey-to: to the land, to conquest, to settlement. It is a story of approach and preparation…” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Numbers: The Wilderness Years”, Maggid Press, pg.7-9)
The division of the books in this way invites some somewhat startling insights. In this reading, the Laws of the Priesthood and the Temple service represents the ideal point of relationship with God, or perhaps (at least) the ideal function of the nation before Him, whereas the journey which both precedes and follows this narrative form important, overlapping, and yet distinct contexts to the climax of intimacy found in the Temple service. What can we learn from the static nature of this central narrative of the Torah, before Israel begins anew their journey to their destination? Sacks continues…
“Exodus and Numbers represent two different kinds of liberty…Exodus is about negative freedom…Numbers is about positive freedom…Negative freedom is what a slave acquires when he or she is liberated…Individually, you are free to do what you choose. But a society in which everyone is free to do what they choose is not a free society. It is anarchy. A free society requires codes and disciplines of self-restraint so that my freedom is not bought at the cost of yours. It is a society of law-governed liberty…What matters in Exodus is how the people escape from Pharaoh. What matters in Numbers is how they rise to the challenge of self-rule and responsibility.” (IBID)
In between all of this, is the Temple and its service; a divinely-orchestrated ritual, or dance majeure, which transcends the ups and downs of the nation’s experience.
It is quite fascinating to me, the concept of this period of pause from the journey. After the delivery of the people from the clutches of Pharaoh, and the crossing of the Sea, Israel found itself encamped at the Mount. As Moses enjoined the Divine Presence and received the Torah, the mixed multitude (according to the sages) led a rebellion into idolatry and sexual immorality before a Golden Calf. As part of his response, Moses intercedes for the people, and God forgives and renews the covenant with Moses, in his merit. One of the responses of the people to this forgiveness is the bringing forth of an abundance of voluntary offerings towards the building of the Mishkan; an exuberant act of teshuvah and restoration. (In rabbinic teaching, the timeline does not follow the linear narrative of the Torah itself). The people are, unlike during most of Israel’s history, of one mind.
“All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” (Ex.24:3)
This state of national and religious unity is short-lived, however. Soon, the trouble resumes. But this should not surprise us. First, let’s look at the scene as Numbers begins.
In this opening parsha of the book, we see the array of the encampment, and the positioning of the tribes around the Mishkan. It is significant that Judah, the ruling tribe, faces east, towards the nation’s destiny. This is not what we will focus on today, however. Rather, consider the unity of the people in their diversity. They are prepared to march together towards what lie before them, whatever that may be, and are together in this effort, even though they each have a different perspective on it as well as different prophetic and practical considerations that are in play for each.
The census and the encampment represent two things: The marking of time and anticipation of a mission not-yet-completed.
The question is: ‘If the ideal is represented in the unity of the people in worship together, and this is accomplished in the middle of the Torah, what, then, is the meaning of the parralel narratives which sandwiches the middle portion? Why is the period after redemption marked by such troublesome events and harsh trials?’ Again, Sacks weighs in:
“(It is) the idea of liminal space, the place that is neither here nor there, neither starting point nor destination, but the space between. That is what the wilderness was. It was not Egypt, not Israel, but the no-man’s-land between them. Liminal space…is the place of transformation…The desert is the place that makes transition and transformation possible.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Numbers: The Wilderness Years”, Maggid, pg.42-43)
In other words, the people could not be transformed by being given the Torah while in Egypt. They needed to be first delivered from slavery in order to receive the covenant. But once received, it cannot be either appreciated or lived out in the exact state in which the people are found. They must be tried, tested, disciplined.
They must learn what it’s like to hold fast to the ideal even while things break down in the real.
This is the part that is not understood in the Christian world. Everyone wants to celebrate their rescue from the pit; their deliverance. The Evangelical Church is plagued by what Dr. Scott McKnight calls a “salvation culture”, in which everything is measured by whether or not one has “professed faith to salvation”. Teaching, discipleship, community…all of these are given lip-service, but are considered secondary to the aforementioned consideration.
A chief problem with addressing these concerns is two-fold:
1) The Church mistakenly thinks that the solutions to it’s problems are prescriptive. In other words, the theology is not in question, merely the approach. The focus is placed upon the outer accoutrements of the experience. A more inviting sanctuary, a better worship band, shorter sermons, more member services. Rarely does the actual message itself suffer a challenge.
2) The confirmation bias associated with this viewpoint blinds the Church to what God is actually after with His people, which is not a confession, but a life.
The kingdom of God is not merely about believing the right information, but is about doing the right things.
In a mystical sense, time does not exist. After all, God invented time. We live in a marking system for our lives that is unforgiving, inexorable, wearing. As we pause to contemplate, it continues to move forward.
We can grow weary of the journey. It seems, at times, that trying to serve God and build the kingdom of heaven is a fool’s errand. Others around us, who are seemingly unconcerned with such issues, flit along happily, satisfying their desires and living for themselves, generally, and (it would appear to us) without sacrifice. It makes us feel that God is unjust, heaven forbid. We must remember,
“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Pet.3:9)
This verse is so familiar to many in regards to “getting saved”, but have we considered it’s relevance to us in regards to working towards salvation? We should.
When we understand the concept of time, from a Jewish perspective, we realize that even though time marches on, and is marked by appointed times and life events, it also does not really exist. Therefore, with this in view, every Jew must stand at the foot of Sinai with every other Jew in history, and make a choice of allegiance. Will I accept the Torah?
The answer is given, but is not known, really, until the artificial construct that we call time passes and the verdict can be rendered.
The unity of the people at the foot of Sinai at the beginning of Numbers is challenged by the census, not validated. God says, in effect, ‘Mark yourselves this day, and number your days, because where I’m taking you will require a form of unity that will not be duplicated here today. On this day, you march to war against your enemies. Tomorrow, you will be at war amongst yourselves. How will you maintain?‘
It is not enough for us to profess allegiance, to confess faith. We have a journey which awaits. A journey through a wilderness, which is designed as a crucible to purify and sanctify us, to strengthen us, to empower us, and it does all these things by breaking us down to the end of our own purity, strength, power and sanctity.
We will only make it to the destination, when we commit to the process of growing up. This is the perseverance that we are called to.
“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope…” (Rom.5:3-4)
As Rabbi Sacks has shown us, it is in the wilderness where our faith is really born.
We may want to stay at Sinai, like Israel did. We may want to create a bubble for ourselves in which we can insulate our hearts and minds from the noise and rabble outside. But understand, if you are part of this world, and the sun is still coming up and descending again, the marking of time means you have not yet reached your journey’s destination, and your mission is incomplete.
Time is not your enemy. It is the tool that God uses to prepare you for where you are going. And the struggle is just as valid a part of that journey as the rest.