Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Shabbat Bemidbar

Posted on: May 13, 2013

This is the opening sidra of the book of Numbers. The reason why Numbers is so called is that, at the beginning of the book, Moses numbers the multitude of Israelites in the Wilderness of Sinai, a census, yielding a result of 603,550. This excludes Levites, women
and children, since the point of the census is to ascertain the numbers of men eligible for military conscription.

Whereas the Greek and Latin names of this book, Arithmoi and Numeri, also refer to the numbers counted, the Hebrew name Bemidbar means ‘In the wilderness.’ The words Bemidbar Sinai, in the wilderness of Sinai, occur in the first sentence, and Numbers does indeed relate the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness, their battles and rebellions and Moses’ continuing struggle to control and satisfy the mixed multitude of whom he is the reluctant leader.

Tribe by tribe, the Israelite men are counted, Levites excepted, as their role is to maintain the Tabernacle. A chieftain of each tribe is designated to assist Moses and Aaron in the census.

The Israelites camp in tribes, each tribe under their own banner, like the regiment of an army. The disposition of the tribes as they journey forth from their camp has every appearance of being strategic; essentially they are a fighting force.

Censuses in the bible tend to be discouraged. In Mesopotamian and Israelite cultures, they were considered unlucky, and a verse in Exodus prescribes that, when a census is taken of the people of Israel, each person counted has to pay a half shekel tax to avert plague and, as it happens, the number of half shekels contributed by Israelite men over twenty years of age amounted to 603,550 half shekels.

As you’ll see from the haftarah (1 Samuel 2) David’s unauthorised census resulted in a plague. Why was his census unauthorised? Nachmanides, following a midrashic tradition, said it was because David didn’t count to assess his military force but simply to know the size of the nation he ruled.

When Moses counts the number of potential warriors, he counts them l’gulglotam which means by their heads, or by their skulls, a term used elsewhere in connection with polling, or counting persons, for tax or census purposes.

Our English word polling, used in connection with voting in elections, is similarly based on the original meaning of the word poll, as the top of the head. When it comes to the polling booth, where the anonymous individual casts his vote in secret ballot, we have the same
delicacy about naming the voters as persons. The names are on the electoral register – that is how you get to vote – but the vote has a dynamic life of its own, not traceable to the person who voted.

The Israelite warriors, when counted, also become something other than persons. Their individuality is sunk in the collective noun of the fighting force the zva b’Yisroel, the host of Israel, just as the Israeli Defence Force today is called Zva Haganah L’Yisrael. As the
Israelites cross the wilderness, in danger of attack from many hostile tribes, the counting of the heads seems to be a regrettable necessity. By contrast with Moses, David takes a census, in the security of his kingdom and the plague follows. Numbering the population is adangerous activity, not to be embarked on lightly, perhaps because there is a humanitarian risk when one reduces a person to a number.

Moses and Aaron count the Israelites in units according to their tribe and their fathers’ houses. This creates a record of the relative size of the tribes in the second year after the Exodus. The largest tribe is Judah, being more than twice as populous as the smallest tribe,
Manasseh. In fact the three smallest tribes at that time were Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh, all Rachel’s tribes rather than Leah’s. This seems to indicate a lower fertility rate in those tribes, unless, even in the wilderness, they had recourse to what Mark Twain called lies, damned lies and statistics.


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