Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Bemidbar
Choosing the Levites
When and why was the tribe of Levi chosen to be the priests and Levites? Was the selection merit-based? If so, for what actions? Why were the firstborns replaced?
- Jubilees claims that the tribe was chosen already in the time of the Patriarchs, as a reward for Levi's avenging of Dinah's honor in Shekhem. In contrast, Rashi points to the Levites' loyalty to Hashem during the Sin of the Golden Calf. Which approach do you find more compelling? How would Rashi explain why Aharon merited the priesthood despite being involved in making the Calf?
- In contrast to the above commentators, R"Y Bekhor Shor suggests that the choice was practical in nature. Though originally all firstborns had been designated to serve, Hashem decided that it was better that the sacrificial service be hereditary and confined to a single family line. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each model (having a single tribe serve vs. one individual from each family serve)? For elaboration, see Selection of the Priests and Levites.
Tanakh and Ancient Near Eastern Studies
U. CassutoSefer Bemidbar opens with a census of the nation, taken a mere few months after an earlier census described in Shemot 38, when the nation had been counted via their half shekel donations to the Mishkan. But why was it necessary to count the people twice in such a short period? In addition, surprisingly, the tallies of the two censuses are identical. How is this possible? Were there no deaths or births in the intervening months?
- U. Cassuto uses knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern censuses to suggest that the two events were were both part of a single extended process which started when the Tabernacle was being constructed and continued through the second month of the second year. Can you think of other instances where knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern norms might shed light on a Biblical narrative or law? For a few examples, see The Mabbul and Mesopotamian Myths, The Torah and Ancient Near Eastern Law Codes, Rachel's Stealing of the Terafim, and R. D"Z Hoffmann's understanding of Yitro's Visit
- How else can both the identical tallies and the need for two censuses be explained? See Censuses in the Wilderness.
Is the Torah Chronological?
When recording any story, an author must balance the competing demands of chronological and thematic order. The Torah is no exception, and though chronological order appears to be its default setting, at times this is sacrificed to achieve other objectives.
- In the early chapters of Sefer Bemidbar, explicit dates appear to make explicit that the narrative is not recounted in chronological order. Why might this have been the preferred method of relaying the laws and stories of this section? Is there any other way of reading the chapters? See Chronology of Bemidbar 1 – 10 for details.
- When passages are undated, what textual clues might nonetheless exist which would provide evidence for an achronological order?
- Regarding each of the following stories, some commentators have suggested that the text is not chronological. See Avraham's Aliyah for a discussion of when and how many times Avraham moved to Israel, Chronology – Shemot 18 regarding Yitro's arrival and Matan Torah, The Births and Relative Ages of Yaakov's Children and its implications for understanding the Slaughter of Shekhem, and Chronology of Shemuel I 16 – 17 regarding David's killing of Golyat and rise to power in Shaul's court. Are the achronology proposals persuasive? What are the larger ramifications of these suggestions?
For more, see: Parashat Bemidbar Topics.